I Hate You! Please Hang Out with Me.

Hard truth here: I freaking HATE my characters.  And not just the current batch either.  I’m talking all of them.

Now before you get all judgmental, hear me out.  Your characters are not your friends.  They are lazy, needy little bitches who expect you to do all the heavy lifting.  I, for one, am tired of it.  So I’ve started fighting back.

When I’m setting up a scene, or even a story for that matter, I usually start with a goal.  What is the overall story question of the book?  In this particular scene, what is the protagonist trying to accomplish?  Does he or she get it done?  Regardless of the answer, what are the consequences of the outcome?

I put a lot of thought into the architecture of the story, and along those same lines, I have very specific ideas about what roles the characters will play in each of these scenes.  Ideally, you could add a face and a name to each of these roles, and then wind ‘em up and let ‘em go.  But ideally makes for a shitty read, and this is where characters really start to piss me off.

Every character that appears in your book needs at least a little backstory, and the more important the character is to your plot, the more you need to know about his or her history.  It’s not enough to put your characters in uncomfortable situations and watch them react.  You have to know why they do the things they do.  You need to understand your characters so their actions seem consistent and believable.

In a perfect world, you would have these character histories mapped out before you dive into a story.  But I do not live in this world, and I am impatient when I’ve got a story to tell.  I want to get the ball rolling as soon as possible so I can capitalize on that initial burst of creation energy, and I’m ready to write RIGHT NOW!  (At this point, it’s okay to envision me with crossed arms and a stomping foot.)

My characters though, they don’t help me out.  They refuse to be Athena and spring forth from my forehead fully formed and ready to kick some ass.  And so every chapter, every scene, is a struggle as I try to balance my eagerness to progress the story with the knowledge that I need each of these story people to be memorable.  I put a high premium on silly, so I try to think of off-the-wall ways to introduce characters or at least mention something about their past that makes you think, “What the hell?  Who are these people?”

I want my characters to make me giggle, and that can take a lot of work.  It can also be frustrating, which is why my characters take a lot of abuse.  (They have no one to blame but themselves.  If they were more forthcoming with information, I might be a more benevolent god, but they obviously want to do things the hard way, so buckle up.)

Just to give you an example of the kind of tough love you need to be prepared for if you take my let’s-not-plan-a-damned-thing approach to characterization, here’s how I might respond to a couple of characters from my current novel if they had the stones to question me.

Dip, you want to know why I broke your nose in chapter eight?  Because you wouldn’t just come right out and tell me what all the drama was between you and your mom.  You made me figure it out for myself.  Don’t get me wrong.  Your family is jacked up, and I totally understand the silence of shame, but dude, I’ve got to explain this to people, and you’re not helping.  Stop being such a plot-block.

And just so you know:  by the end of the novel, you’re probably going to end up locked in one of those deep freezes that rednecks keep in their garages, so you might want to go ahead and mentally prepare yourself.

Virgil, you remember when you took that shovel to the face?  You should have told me early on that you were such a funny asshole.  I love that your mouth lacks a filter and that you are unapologetic about your broken moral compass.  But now I have to go back to those early scenes and fill in the funny.  I’m not really angry, so much as disappointed, and yes, I will still serve you that drink that is at least three parts alcohol to one part kerosene.  I’m sorry, but you brought this on yourself.  It hurts me more than it hurts you.

So to sum it up, do I have a fictional anger problem?  Maybe.

Do I think it’s entirely my characters’ faults?

Probably not, but when you write as slowly as I do, you spend a lot of time with these people in your head, and believe you me, familiarity does breed contempt.  And not only are you stuck with these people, you’re not allowed to kill them, at least not the important ones, because that would be cheating.

On top of all the work that already goes into a story, your protagonist has to learn something.  He or she needs to experience some fundamental change by the end of the novel and emerge a different, if not better, person.  That’s a hard thing to do when they’re taking a dirt nap, so it’s up to you to figure out who they were and who they will be.

Needy mother[BLEEP]ers right up to the end.  I hate these people . . . but I hope they still hang out with me.  Because misery loves company, and I like it when they make me laugh.

Larry Jenkins is an aspiring Word Pimp. Has laptop, will travel. Let's make this happen, people.

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