This November, as I struggled my way through the second book of the Terminus Trilogy for National Novel Writing Month, I came to a difficult realization. One of my characters – the villain of the series – was infuriating to write. You’d think this is a good thing, but it’s a little more complex than it appears.
When I write my villains, they almost always have some kind of redeeming value, or at least recognize that they have done wrong in pursuit of their aims. Most writers agree that villains who are evil just because they “are” don’t work for their audiences. This guy is not an exception, but at his current place in the story, he’s not talking about his sins yet. They’re the last thing he wants to discuss, and with good reason. Instead, he is in full, megalomaniacal control of every nasty thing he does, and he feels 100% justified in doing those things, no matter who it hurts or what illegal, immoral behavior it promotes. Chief among his sins is a violent hatred toward anyone who believes in religion. Anyone foolish enough to believe in the existance of a deity is expendable; they are not intelligent enough to live.
I’m also writing a character that happens to be a prostitute. She is a complicated girl that has a great many secrets and hidden agendas that remain to be seen, but most of the time, on the surface, she is trying to get into somebody’s pants. That’s pretty much her goal in life. She wants what she wants, and she’ll get it. Men are toys for her to handle and mishandle; trash when she’s finished with them. She’s the kind of girl that most of us, with any kind of moral or ethical fortitude, would hate.
Many times, over the course of my writing, I’ve had people look askance at me when I write these kinds of characters. After all, I am not a prostitute, and I do not hate religion, barring the fact that I am not yet ready to commit to a church. (Different subject and not related to writing.) I don’t think people know what to do with that. It’s easy for the layman to assume that that there’s a secret, dark part of me that knows all about these things, or that I must know someone with these traits that I am using as a model.
When it comes to characters, the authorial advice of “write what you know” does not always work, regardless of whether you choose to write fiction or non-fiction. It is always going to be most comfortable for us to follow the “write what you know” advice and write characters that behave and think like us; we don’t have to think very hard about what we would do if we were them.
However, when we step outside our doors, we find that the world beyond our homes is full of people who are not like us. They have different morals, faiths, goals, fears, loves and likes than we do. We have murderers, thieves and crooks just as we have religious officials, schoolteachers and policemen. Not everyone in the world is good. We might avoid those people when we know who they are, but when we don’t, we’re forced to decide who is trustworthy and who isn’t. We like and dislike people based on the feelings and actions they bestow upon us. In any made-up world, this needs to be true as well. This is what makes the imaginary worlds that fantasy and sci-fi readers dream up so familiar to us; even if there’s magic flying and strange monsters attacking, people always behave like people.
The goal, then, of writers, is to figure out how they can write from the perspective of someone that they would never even associate with in real life. Having never been a prostitute or a pedagogue for atheism in my life, I don’t know what goes through the minds of those kinds of people. I lack those experiences in my life, and that’s quite all right with me. However, I know a great many people who believe things that I do not. I know how they behave, the choices they make and their motivations for doing so. When you are a writer, you learn to pay careful attention to people, and you often find yourself learning things about them that they may not even know. This is where that knowledge comes into play. The better you can understand those unlike yourself, the easier it becomes to put yourself in the shoes of someone strange.
That said, modeling characters off of people you know can only get you so far. It helps to cast your net wider. I’ve never met a prostitute, but I’ve read other books that feature them. I’ve seen films. I’ve read articles in the news about prostitution. I’ve read news articles from countries where prostitution is legal. I’ve read plenty of articles on sexual health, feminism and other things that relate to the subject. I’ve read comment threads and discussions on articles that are longer than the actual articles. I know the backs and forths of the subject and can make a reasonable attempt at guessing what my character would think of it. THIS is what writers mean when they say “write what you know.” The more you know, the more you can write.
Yes, knowing these things and having to research them may make you very uncomfortable sometimes. We writers don’t get to blind ourselves to the things and the people we don’t like. We need to be able to bear witness to the best and the worst that life has to offer. This is the only way to create believable characters that look and feel real to our readers. Anyone who cannot do this will have difficulty writing.
Knowing things does not mean we believe them or like them. It doesn’t mean we promote them. It means we have studied the subject and have formulated our own opinions about them, AND recognized how and why other people might choose differently than we did. It’s not our job to pass judgment. It’s our job to reflect what we have learned, even if the imaginary person we create turns out to be our own worst enemy. This cannot work, however, until the writer can get into the minds of people not like them. It takes empathy, creativity, a desire to know and understand people from all walks of life, and a lot of courage. It changes your life, not because you have become like those people, but because you know what motivates people to do what they do – both yourself and others. This kind of understanding is frightening and beautiful all at once.
My prostitute character is easier, by far, than my atheist. Prostitutes and “easy girls” are quite common in fiction, films and other forms of entertainment. Girls start learning this stuff in the real world by high school. It’s not hard to guess how such a girl would behave, even if I would never do it myself. She is not particularly unique until you bring her secrets and lies into the game. That is intentional; she’s using sex as a cover for the things that matter to her. This is quite common for young women, and though my prostitute is “of age,” her emotional and mental level are a bit younger than her chronological age.
I have never used sex as a cover – but I do know how it feels to hide true feelings under something else. That’s a human trait that almost all of us experience at one time or another. Whether sex is the thing being presented in place of feelings or not is irrelevant; I have what I need to understand her. It just happens to be sex this time around, because that’s who she is. She would be a completely different character without it. I know that people will be uncomfortable when they read the parts of the story written from her perspective. Heck, I’m uncomfortable writing them! I’d never do or say the things she does! But that doesn’t make it wrong to write it. It makes it part of the story and the world it takes place in. Anyone thinking that they need to insert me into the story in her place has things very, very wrong.
I see the prostitute as a sad person who is unaware of the consequences of her behavior; she’s more innocent than her profession would suggest. She destroys things just by being herself, and worse – she thinks that’s how it’s supposed to be. She’s irresponsible, reckless and foolish, but none of those things tend to provoke anger. Most people, when faced with such a person in the real world, would shake their heads and look away, not get mad. This is why I made her a prostitute, because most people do react this way to such things. For all her flaws and the fact that she is nothing like me, she’s interesting, thought-provoking and useful when it comes to telling my story. I could clean her up and change her job, but then you’d have a very different story indeed. I need someone abrasive enough to draw attention, and her profession encourages that for sure. If you are looking at her and squirming, that is exactly what I want.
When I write her, I have to be in a particular frame of mind – and no, it’s not the one you’re expecting! She has a certain apathy for what’s going on that requires consideration. Most of the characters in the story are desperately involved with what is happening; the entire fate of the world is in their hands. Her movements are more subtle and never shown in a manner that would expose her aims to the world. The sex is what she uses to distract people, don’t forget. What she’s actually plotting is the real question. When I write her, for the time that I’m writing, I have to pretend in my mind that I’m a gorgeous little minx that can do anything she wants to, take any risk, lie about anything and get away with it. The entire world becomes a bit of a joke. When I’m done, I shake my head and go back to being myself again. It really is that simple for me.
The atheist, by contrast, frustrates me. Unlike the prostitute, who is perhaps amoral but not actively harmful, he is another matter. This guy spends most of his life trying to incite people to murder anyone following a religion. He believes the world should give up superstition and put all their faith into humanity, science and technology. Atoms, bytes and his own two hands are the only God he needs. His speeches are powerful and proud; he’s a strong leader that many people follow just because of the sheer force of his will. In other words, he spends no time thinking about why others choose differently from his way of life. He’d rather just get rid of anyone who doesn’t agree. He’d become the next Hitler without too much work.
The prostitute just makes a bunch of sexual innuendos, flirts with people and goes back to scheming in her mind. It’s this guy that breaks out things that border on hate speech. He has no sympathy for anyone. If you’re not with him, you’re against him, and you might as well not even exist. He’s lied, cheated and stabbed people in the back for the sake of his agenda, and he’ll stop at nothing to succeed. As a Christian, he makes me furious. Keep in mind that the story takes place in a world where there is no religion outside of the one that has derived from Wicca in the real world. If you are a person of any faith at all, you would probably belong to this religious majority. This guy would see that faith as testament to your inability to function in the normal world. He not only thinks you’re a fool, he thinks you’re past saving; a lamb to be slaughtered.
I don’t know many atheists. Most of my friends and family claim at least some faith, be it traditional Christian churchgoer, those who keep Christianity in their hearts but do not attend church, or those that practice some other faith, such as Wicca or Mormonism. There was a time when I was too young to really understand what God was, but past that point, I’ve always believed in Him and tried to obey Him as I went through life. I don’t consider myself a very public Christian; while I will tell you about my faith if you ask, I respect other people’s right to choose what they believe as well. This includes atheists. I may think that other faiths are wrong, but that is not something I feel I must take away from others. It’s up to each of us to choose, and I have never in my life seen a choice made under pressure or influenced by someone else turn out to be smart or long-lived.
Because of this, the only thing that religious or atheistic folks can do to infuriate me is to start arguments about who is right, trying to force the issue down the throats of people who have no interest in learning or understanding anything about people who are different than they are. Painting anyone who doesn’t agree with you as a monster, the enemy or a fool is reprehensible to me. Whether it’s a Christian talking about saving the poor, misguided heathens who must not know God if they’re still refusing to come to church, or an atheist making a bunch of philosophical arguments trying to disprove the existence of God, I can’t stand it. I believe we should live and let live. Such hatred would never come from my mouth. To love someone, even when they are wrong, is far more an example of God’s love than any of that.
Enter Mr. Atheist, who is about as far from “understanding” as one can get. I’ve tried to make him the balled-up sum of every single angry old man I’ve ever met, which means that he’s violently religious about the religion he believes in – none. He has no love in his heart, period. The things he does are mechanical, brutish and human, if you believe that humans are evolutionary animals that have their entire evolutionary pattern in their own hands. He has no faith in anything outside of himself; he believes he’s going to save the world by making the world save itself – or die trying, if there aren’t enough “sane” people left to succeed. He is the prime example of what humanity without God would be, in my not-so-humble opinion.
When I have to make words come out of his mouth, I want to kill someone. Everything he says makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up and curl. I’ve always taken that to be a good thing, because if he’s that offensive to me, I’m hoping he’s that offensive to readers as well. While some would say he has good intentions for helping the world (you’ll have to read to understand why I say that, I’m afraid,) he ends up causing riots in the streets with every public broadcast he makes. If he can get people to “wake up” and become “productive” members of the human race again instead of wasting time with that faith nonsense, he’ll be happy, whatever it takes to accomplish that. Of course, he has his reasons, all of which will be explored and explained. Until that happens, he’s fire and brimstone, minus the Hell.
I know I don’t believe what he’s saying, and that’s the only reason I can tolerate writing it at all. It’s just that he is so opposed to my own personal character that I find it extremely difficult to get into his mind. I understand and accept a lot of things in life, but there are some things I don’t WANT to understand. That is a barrier I’m going to have to work through. As I said before, we writers don’t get to bury our heads in the sand when we’re confronted with people we don’t like. So far I have gotten through it by bringing to bear every scrap of information I’ve learned and seen over the years about great and powerful speakers. After that, I have to fight to form the words to denounce faith, when my own faith is very dear to me.
It doesn’t matter that he’s doing this to Wiccans and not to Christians – as mentioned, Christianity doesn’t exist anymore in that world. It’s a slightly modified Wicca, or nothing. If you believe in anything outside of the human spirit and indomitable free will, then you are a liability as far as this guy’s concerned. Perhaps it’s so scary because it might someday be true. I don’t think it will come down to Wicca vs. atheism this way, but is it so hard to imagine that the war between the faithful and the atheists could come to blows? Shots? Nukes? We’re already halfway there just between opposing faiths, folks. He’s terrifying. And he’s also believable. And I hate him. I’m not sure there’s much I could do to hate him more.
Am I wrong to write from the perspective of someone I hate so much? I don’t think so. It just requires a lot more strength and conviction on my part. My worst fear would be to become someone like him; he is what I pray never crosses my path every day. And yet, to get this novel complete, I will have to know him. I will have to stop judging him and start finding the places where he became what he is. I have to find the good in him, however deeply it lies buried. He is, after all, only human.
This is why you can’t assume that writers only write what they believe. Sometimes, you have to write the very things you DON’T believe before you can get to the things that you do. This challenge is one that I’m willing to take on, even though I’m surprised at myself how much I’ve reacted to this guy. I’ve written villains before that are wrong and need to be stopped, but this guy is the first person I’ve ever written who is just dangerous on many levels. I’m sure it doesn’t help that it’s sci-fi this time around, which means that the more believable it is, the scarier it is too. This is as much a story about learning to live and let live as it is about anything else. I’d be very sad if I lost sight of that now. The world needs that message, loud and clear.
I hope somewhere in this piece, I’ve convinced you that characters are far more than just mouthpieces for their authors to state their own viewpoints. Often, we must create viewpoints that are far different than our own. The more practice we have at creating people not like ourselves, the better your stories will be for it – but you have to understand that when we wear these masks and tell our stories, we’re not changing and becoming different people, nor are we showing you previously hidden aspects of our nature that you wish you’d never seen. We are trying to create real, honest, living people from our imagination, experience and study of the human race, and sometimes, what you see will be ugly. People are never perfect.