Gotta Love ‘Em

Many years ago, I sang in a production of Murder in the Cathedral, which tells the story of the martyrdom of Thomas à Becket. Being one of those performers who cannot let a historical drama go unresearched, I read up on the incident. Not surprisingly, I was left with a less-than-flattering opinion of the four knights responsible for the killing.

Well, something interesting happened last weekend. My mother, who is researching our family’s genealogy, informed me that (remembering that there’s always doubt in such research) I’m most likely a direct descendent of one of those four knights. This prompted the involuntary re-evaluation in my mind of his actions with the “family” filter applied. While I still don’t condone what he did, my opinion of him changed dramatically.

And this got me thinking about how we view our characters who do despicable things. You’ve got to love them.

Now, as anyone with family will attest, it’s possible to love someone without approving of what they do. In fact, it’s possible to love someone without liking them very much. Love transcends all that. Love brings out our inherent empathy and understanding, allows us to see someone whose actions are repugnant as a person not unlike ourselves, and to seek to understand why they do what they do. Love makes us care what happens to a person, even when we feel that they deserve the bad things that are happening to them.

Well, we writers need to do the same thing with all our characters. We need to love them like family.

Obviously, this is easy with our heroes. These characters sprang from our imagination precisely because they’re the sort of people we adore and would want to be. Have you ever read a story where it felt like the writer didn’t care about the main character? Did you notice how hard it was for you to care about the main character? These stories rarely make their way into print as a result.

But you’ve got to love your other characters, too. Your minor characters are there to do more than service your main character. They’re people. Think of them as family, too. Do you want someone treating your grandmother as just a batty old lady, or your daughter as just a sex object? Don’t do that to your characters, either! Try to understand them — even if they’re just there to say, “Do you want fries with that?” — as if you were encountering them at a family reunion. Even if this is a distant cousin you’ll never see again, they’re important to someone who is important to you. Take the time to love them!

And, yes, this is also true of your villains and antagonists. We’ve all got someone we love whose actions drive us crazy. Every family has a convicted felon, or an unapologetic bigot, or someone with an abusive personality, or whatever. Even if you have no biological family, your life is full of such individuals who you’re not able to just dismiss and instead have to live with and even help care for. It’s possible to respond to such people with apathy or even outright hatred, but down that path lies not only misery but also bad storytelling. That uncomfortable place where you simultaneously care deeply about and want to throttle someone? That’s love. And that’s what your story needs.

The reason loving your characters is a shortcut to better stories is simply because that empathy you have for those you love comes through in your writing when you love the characters. You will unconsciously write more three-dimensional, motivated people when your imagination sees them with the same depth of compassion and understanding that you have for your loved ones. The reasons for their actions become clear, rather than being a story necessity or a garish caricature. When you love someone, you take the time to understand why they do what they do, and that translates to characters the reader can better understand as well.

Now, of course, this is easy in the abstract. But how do you put it into practice? Can you really just make yourself love someone?

Well, yes, in fact, you can. Maybe not “fall in love with,” but you can certainly decide that you’re going to care about and work to understand someone.

It’s not unlike when a loved one introduces you to their new finacé(e). You don’t get a say in whether or not this marriage happens. This new individual is becoming part of your family whether you like it or not. So what do you do? Well, if you’re like most of us, you start by getting to know them.

So, when you’ve got a new character who you don’t love (yet), do the same thing. Where did they come from? What was their childhood like? Who were the important people in their life, and how were those relationships? What sort of skills did they develop, and why? How did their life experiences color their perception of the world? By sitting down and “interviewing” your character along these lines, pretty soon you’ll come to see why the choices they made — even if they were horrible choices — were the only right choices for that character. The actions they took were the right actions based on how they understood the world.

And, no, just like you probably can’t get through to that family member who similarly has made appalling choices, you’re not going to change your characters by getting to know them better.

But you will write them far more compellingly.

Again, I want to end by throwing this back to you, the reader. How do you get to know your characters? What’s important for you to understand about them before you can write them? And, most importantly, the characters and stories you’ve written that really worked, did you you love them?

Would it change how you would write the killer of Thomas à Becket if you knew he was a member of your family?

6 thoughts on “Gotta Love ‘Em

  1. For me, I always build lots of character profiles and even try to sketch some of them, since how you look can really affect your personality too. It is hard to love my bad guys, but I love stories where I start out hating a character then slowly grow to sympathize with them. (Although it drives me crazy at the same time – For some reason Darth Vader comes to mind.) But what about villains that you love to hate? Does that count for the loving part? Cause some characters I love to hate, but I don’t love at all.

    • I guess there are two factors at play in the characters you love to hate. The first is what, specifically, you mean by that. A character you love to hate because they’re an offensive stereotype of a disfavored group you like to pick on is very different than the character you love to hate because she consistently does exactly what you wish someone would *not* do in the given situation. Knowing your work, I suspect you’re in the latter category, so I think that can work, because that still comes from a place of love (much like in my family we all love to hate one of our wacky relatives, but, when the chips are down, we do, in fact, love him even though he drives us crazy). It doesn’t feel like love in that situation, but it is.

      And, of course, the second factor is the style of story you’re writing. A broad comedy or a scary monster piece doesn’t require us to have any sympathy for the antagonist. A Greek tragedy, on the other hand, absolutely demands that the protagonist and the antagonist are equally noble and deserving characters. In the former case, letting the antagonist be someone we love to hate is very satisfying. In the latter case, the audience is going to feel like they’ve been subjected to melodrama.

  2. Characters in my novels or short stories are either real or fictional. I agree with your analogy that fictional characters usually are some part of our personality or a person we have known or observed. Still there are elements of fiction which involve pure creative fantasy. Personally I feel when fiction goes too far away from any form of reality that it often becomes a very selfish form of fiction and therefor not easy to understand or relate to.

    • Very, very few of my characters are based on real people, and when they are it’s usually an extremely minor character I’ve thrown in just for fun. But even real people, by the time we write them, are fictional. That’s because it’s always the real person as we imagine them, not as they really are.

      The real people I’ve based characters on rarely recognize themselves in the stories. However, I have people regularly accuse me of basing a character on them when, in fact, the character is solely the product of my imagination. I guess it goes to show that how we perceive ourselves is not always in line with how others perceive us.

  3. If I don’t love my villains, I at least love writing them. I don’t like a purely evil villain unless they have a Sauron-type removal from the story. I like a villain who is at least understandable, who maybe even thinks she’s acting for a good cause. No one can make speeches about how she’s acting for the greater good while eating a baby.