Learning about my humanity while attempting to write complex fictional characters
Originally published September 19, 2020
While working on my long fiction project, I noticed that one of my characters read as a traditional villain, an antagonist who is "capable of cruel and criminal actions" (Source). This character, Sally, is the mother of my main character, Acacia. Yes, Sally has hurt Acacia, but she's another human, not an evil overlord.
Neither Acacia nor Sally are a person who gets one label. They do good and bad things, have good and bad thoughts. And exist in ways that are in between and around and above and below those two labels. Like us, Sally and Acacia look inside and know they are multitudes, and that can be terrifying and wonderful. They look out at each other and see what the other allows them to see. (The same could be said about looking inside; humans aren't always the most self-aware.)
I found this table "Main Characters by Power and Intent" (page 231) and immediately realized I want my characters to circle through the table's different quadrants. Acacia may think that Sally is firmly in the Malevolent/Strong quadrant, but what will we feel when we get a look into Sally's heart and mind?
I want to draw light on the complexity of family relationships, community, and life. So I'm writing a story where there isn't a primary hero or villain, but a cast of characters who contain light and dark elements. I don't want to judge them as a person, but let their actions be weighed throughout the story.
Many books and stories that I love paint their heroes and villains starkly, and it’s powerful. In this project, that's not what I'm trying to do. So why was I going against my intent?
Reason 1: It's easy, or at least easier. The first draft of this project follows the actions and insights of Acacia, not Sally. I'm focused on Acacia's wants, feelings, and hurts. Acacia places a lot of blame on Sally.
Reason 2: It's comforting. Would I derive personal pleasure from an 'evil' character being brought to reckoning? Yes, I would. But that's why I watch the Avengers movies, not why I write.
Reason 3: I'm new to writing fiction and learning how to make someone live on the page. In my head, they're multi-dimensional. On the page, they're all like, "You hurt me, I hate you."
When humans resonate with a story, our brains can change. "Understanding complex characters certainly seems to help train empathy: we already know that people who reported reading more fiction tend to have better developed social cognition (Tamir et al., 2015) … further strengthening the idea that storytelling can train the mind to see the world through different viewpoints (Kidd, et al., 2013)" (Source).
But not just any storytelling. The researcher Paul Zak writes, "Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain."
For a story to have a chance at building empathy, it must first do two things:
- Hold the reader's attention (through increasing tension)
- Transport the reader into the fictional world
Once our attention is held, and we're breathing the new world, we can emotionally resonate with the character to the point that our brain believes we're building a relationship. That's how fiction makes us empathetic. Outside of fiction, we build empathy the same way. We connect with people, learn about their many facets, and choose compassion.
When we're experiencing a story in this profound way, our brain releases oxytocin — the same hormone that releases when I nurse my 9-month-old, pray, or hug a loved one. We are bonding with the story.
If the story is confusing and we aren't sure what we're supposed to learn, our brains are confused and don't release oxytocin. As a writer who wants to help build empathy, it's my job to know (at some point, maybe not initially) why I'm writing this story, even if the "lesson" is more ambiguous than the traditional hero vs. villain fare.
To summarize something Alexander Chee said: Be willing to know much more about your characters than you end up explicitly sharing in the final piece. If I know a mountain-sized pile of information about Sally, she's going to be a much more complex character even if I only share half of it in the story. Isn't that more human? We each know so much more than we'll ever say or share. And our subconscious is full of hidden things, some even unknown to ourselves.
I read a review of the new novel Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, that made me shout. For the NYT, Leah Hager Cohen says: "He shows us lots of monstrous behavior, but not a single monster—only damage. If he has a sharp eye for brokenness, he is even keener on the inextinguishable flicker of love that remains . . ." YES.
I feel like I'm stating the obvious: of course, it isn't easy to write complex characters, and humans are a mix of everything. I didn't think it would be easy to write complex characters. I was surprised by how much I naturally started to paint Sally as a villain because that made understanding and justifying Acacia's actions easier. As I'm learning to write fiction, I'm also watching my humanity at play. I was avoiding giving Sally her humanity, hiding her heart under a sheaf of blame.
Writing the nuanced characters that I say I want to write is going to be gut-wrenching. As in any relationship, getting to know the full range of a person — not just a single dimension — brings in truth, and pain, causing us to rethink our concept of that person over and over again.