Eons and ages ago, when I was in grade school, back when I had to walk to school–uphill both ways, in the snow and slush–wait, this was in the Brazos Valley of Texas. It rarely snowed, and no one would believe otherwise. But I did walk to school.
Not that it’s relevant.
Anyway, back in Crockett Elementary School, I had a friend, someone special to me, someone I did everything with when we were together and talked about incessantly when we weren’t. I was young and didn’t have a lot of experience with friendships, so, long before “BFF” became a popular acronym, I thought we’d be best friends forever.
For some reason I don’t remember, we couldn’t get together during the summer break, but when fall brought the school season back, I couldn’t wait to see her again. Recess came on that first day, and I ran out to find my friend. I caught sight of her in animated conversation with a few other girls, giggling and chatting over each other. Anxious to join the fun, I hurried toward them. And they shut up the minute they saw me coming.
I was bewildered and didn’t know how to break the ice that had suddenly grown into a four-inch-thick wall between them and me. My friend emerged from the chill and took me aside. “We can’t be friends anymore.”
She left with her new buddies, and I stood and watched them go, stunned, betrayed, heart-broken. I’d committed some sort of “friendship sin” I wasn’t even aware of, and lost my friend.
After that, I shied away from people because I figured, once they got to know me, they wouldn’t like me anymore.
To a certain extent, I outgrew it, or learned to live with it. The girl is so insignificant now, I can’t even remember her name. But the question stayed in my heart: Am I capable of maintaining a long-term friendship?
A few years ago, someone who’d been a vital part of my life for over thirty years decided she didn’t want to be friends anymore. I don’t know why she suddenly stopped accepting my calls, suddenly stopped calling me, suddenly began avoiding me, but I’m sure I did something that upset her. Wouldn’t surprise me at all. Like I say, I pretty much do go through life with a foot in my mouth.
All the pain from that first childhood rejection came flooding back, and the question of my heart pertaining to friendships was answered: No.
What brought these awful memories up? Tosca Lee’s class in making unsympathetic characters sympathetic.
She asked a series of questions pertaining to joy, pain, betrayal, love, and had us search our minds for the oldest memories and the most recent. Then she asked what heart questions were created or answered with each memory.
I wasn’t the only one who cried during class, though I didn’t see who else joined me on that river walk. Amid the sniffles heard throughout the room, Tosca’s voice was soothing: “It’s okay to cry. That’s the point. Dig deep. Remember how it felt.”
The point she was trying to make pertaining to characterization is that everybody has a backstory. A bad guy doesn’t just wake up one day and decide to be a thief or a murderer or the one person who makes someone else’s life unbearable. And the reason he does what he does can’t be superficial–it has to be deep, visceral, something even he is not conscious of.
And the best way to get to that gut level is to remember your own hurts.
I’ve never had a parent walk out on me as a child, but I know how rejection feels. From my own personal experiences, I know how different joys and pains feel. This is the one place where the adage “write what you know” makes sense. Sometime in your life, you’ve experienced something that would apply to your character, that would round him/her out, make the character more realistic. The reader doesn’t have to know the details, but you do, and you can dribble out as much or as little as you want.
This doesn’t apply only to unsympathetic characters. Every character has a backstory. The minute you’ve determined your character’s name, you’ve created a life, and you must fill in the blanks of that life. If you don’t, you’ve created nothing more than a gingerbread man.
In his book Riven, Jerry Jenkins presents Brady Darby’s entire backstory and his ultimate salvation. Watching what Jenkins did in his character development provides one of the best classes on making unsympathetic characters sympathetic. He shows Darby in his element, which isn’t a good one. He gives the boy a responsibility, his brother, who is the only person in his world that he loves. He shows Darby getting into trouble, receiving forgiveness and second chances, promising himself to turn his life around, then botching those chances. He shows Darby having a natural talent for acting and getting involved in a school play–and we start to hope the kid’s going to turn out right after all.
Jenkins presents the highs and lows of boy’s life and his emotions and thoughts, to the extent he seemed very real, and I was rooting for him to be okay. So when Darby shot and killed his girlfriend, the foremost emotion I felt was disappointment.
If Jenkins had presented Darby only as a bad seed, a kid who never intended to improve his life, who never showed any emotions beyond hate and anger, it would’ve been impossible to feel compassion for him.
Character development is an art, a challenge that continues throughout a writer’s career. As multi-faceted as real people are, that’s how multi-faceted our characters should be. The nuances of different personalities are difficult to capture on paper, but every time we try, we make ourselves better writers.