One of the things I really admire in literature is a writer who can make me care about a character who is, when all is said and done, a despicable human being. (This intro is going somewhere, I promise). On the television side of things, Michael Scott from “The Office” is that kind of a character; I’ve always credited Steve Carrell, the actor, as well as the show’s writers for giving me a soft spot for him, because really, he’s just selfish and insecure and maladjusted. He’s not a person other people would generally like, but watching that show, you can’t help but root for him and wish him well.
On the book front, the best example I can currently come up with—besides Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler in “Gone with the Wind” is Royce Melborn from Michael J. Sullivan’s series “The Riyria Revelations.”
As you know if you follow my blog regularly, I write fantasy, so I also read a lot of fantasy. I read Sullivan’s books this summer; they feature a duo of rogues named Royce and Hadrian. Hadrian is the more respectable of the two—he has a more developed code of morals, and he abides by them—and I liked Hadrian from the beginning. Royce I hated at first. He worked as an assassin and he’s utterly self-centered with the exception of caring about two other people, but somehow, I learned to feel for him. And I’m glad I did, because his journey is a spectacular one.
I ADMIRE WHAT I CAN’T DO
One of the reasons I admire writers who can make readers care about awful people is that I know that’s not my strong point. I’ve never even tried to do that, because I could never pull it off. I’m much better working with characters who are, at the core, decent human beings. They aren’t perfect, but they’re people I’d like to know and would love to hang out with. My heroes are narcissists, or remorseless thieves.
I’ve always held strong admiration for things I don’t have the talent for. In fact, one of the major reasons I don’t like modern art is because I always say, “If I can do it, it isn’t art. If I can do it, it shouldn’t be hanging in a museum.” That’s just the way I think (for the most part), so I enjoy reading and thinking about characters of the sort I could never write with success, at least not as protagonists. But this leads to one last observation, the focus of this post:
KNOW YOUR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES: “LEARNING BY DOING”
As a writer (and in most aspects of life) it’s always good to know what you do well, and play up to your strengths. It’s also good to recognize where you falter, so you can either work to develop those skills or (as I do with characters of the Scarlett O’Hara type) avoid a situation that sets you up for failure. When I go to develop a story, I don’t envision Rhett Butlers or Royce Melborns as protagonists. Where I do well is throwing well-meaning, good people in difficult situations, situations where the right thing to do maybe isn’t so clear-cut. I’ve had success with that set-up, and while the characters and their problems vary, my novels follow that basic structure because it works for me consistently.
The key for most writers, I think, is to spend some time figuring out what characteristics you need in your stories to keep you engaged and, also, what your best passages and characters have in common. Then make those strengths prominent in your short stories or novels. Looking back, my very first novel and stories—though not things I could sell—constituted that process of discovery for me. Maybe some people know off the bat what they’re meant to write and why, but that wasn’t the case for me. I had to figure it out, and I “learned by doing.” I can’t guarantee that path will be successful for everyone, but “learning by doing” worked for me.