[This post comes from an exchange I had last winter about writing characters—specifically why do I write mine the way I write them. It contains spoilers for my short story “The Foreigner’s Loneliness” (read for free here!) It also discusses What Boys Are Made Of, but does not contain spoilers.]
Why do I write about dark things that focus on what isn’t beautiful?
I don’t. At least, that’s not how I see it.
I have always written dark things. From the first true short story I wrote, I’ve tended towards the serious, the angry, the screwed-up.
The whys are a whole range of complicated, from the simple “I find it interesting” to “I am tired of the narrative of happy.” Remember, the grimdark plots that are popular now haven’t been around forever. Maybe when I began writing I was sick of the world telling me to smile. Maybe I was just trying to find real people on paper.
Whatever the reason, I like to make gray characters because I see most people as quite gray, and I think that’s a good thing. We are neither all good nor all bad–we’re human.
Take Brian from my short story, “The Foreigner’s Loneliness.” He’s not a bad person, just a lonely one, desperately wishing for a connection. He falls prey to–depending on your interpretation–either depression, psychosis, a bad relationship, or a demon who feeds off his life force. (If you have a different interpretation, feel free to mention it below, I love hearing them.)
There’s nothing inherently bad about Brian, just sad—literally, he’s depressed and isolated, and that’s a combo that can lead anyone down a bad road, anyone at all. If Brian, in his walking, had met someone who made him dinner every night, encouraged him in his job, and who lived a normal life, Brian probably would have been fine eventually.
But that’s not what happened. He met someone as obsessively lonely as he was, and it spiraled out of control. It could’ve happened to anyone, but it happened to him.
As Disney’s Frozen so aptly tells us, “People make bad choices when they’re mad or scared or stressed.” Hurting literally limits people’s options, and that’s something that gets glossed over both in books and real life. Someone outside, with a clear head, can see other options, but you can’t solve a problem from within a problem, and neither can my characters.
Brian couldn’t step back and say, “Hey, I’m not healthy right now.” Literally, he was incapable of it. And because no one around him was close enough to understand what was going on, the worst became an option, until eventually Brain, in his depressed and scared and isolated state, felt it was his best option.
To me, there is truth in that, and a sympathy we as readers can give to characters who face those problems. “There but for the grace of god go I.”
When I make characters, I try to see the best in them. Jumping to the Saint Flaherty series, I find Simon’s arc fascinating because like Brian he really is making the best choices in the first book, doing everything he can to survive, to be a good person. He’s fighting as hard as he can against a person with all the power.
But he’s also fighting himself. He killed someone by accident, and he feels guilty for killing them, helpless because he didn’t mean to do it, angry that his coach put him in that position, and afraid because he didn’t realize he could do something like that, but now that he knows how easy it is, the only thing holding him back is himself. And what if he’s not strong enough? So he’s having nightmares every night where he kills the people he loves, which means he’s not well-rested during the day, and he’s been taught all his life to solve problems with aggression and violence.
And meanwhile, there’s a little voice inside his head saying “Please just make it stop” because he’s barely sixteen and being treated like the full adult and he isn’t, expected to cope and utterly failing. He’s doing his best–and it’s not good enough. Add what’s going on outside of his head, and you get the perfect storm.
I dread to think what happened to his grades during my book. I’m pretty sure he went from C+’s to D-‘s. He’s dyslexic, and learning disabilities get far worse when whoever has them is having a bad day. He’s having a bad year.
That’s the sort of thing that’s important to remember, because that’s what’s going to be going through his head.
But not everyone’s head. As a writer, I also try very hard to make characters seem different through different eyes. Erin sees Simon as no longer a child and therefore as someone she can no longer understand, while Art treats him as an aggressive adult who’s out of control and being a jerk on purpose. Mick is very conflicted between whether Simon is an adult or child, but also sees him as immensely sympathetic—after all, Mick’s had to kill too. Grace thinks Simon’s sweet under the troubled surface. Taylor’s out and out scared of him, unable to see past what Simon’s physically capable of.
None of them see the whole picture because they can’t; we only shape ourselves inside our own minds. We do not get to choose how others perceive us nearly so much as certain dramas of manners would have us believe. Not characters, not us. Not anyone, because only one person knows everything that’s going on–you.
The other day on Twitter, a friend I was chatting with came up with the word I hadn’t known I was searching for, the style that defines what I like: Chiaroscuro. That is to say, a style which illuminates that which is bright by surrounding it with darkness, so that which is light becomes all the brighter. The picture above is a beautiful example.
Chiaroscuro is an art term, but I found it perfect for my writing. After all, when we experience small acts of kindness within the clotted murk a story submerges us, only then can we be moved by the true tenderness they show. Candles only light a dark night, and so I write about them because there are so many, many dark nights out there.
To me, that is worth writing about. It is real, and it is beautiful.
What do you believe is worth reading about the most? Do you prefer small candles in the dark, or bright days in your books? Do your preferences tend towards overall happy narratives, sad, angry? Or just have a different interpretation of what happened to Brian Sensei from what you saw above? Tell us in the comments below! (Oh, do tell us, I love those.)
Thanks for reading!