I want to address, briefly, how we, as human beings, think. Not what we think, but how.
This is a huge area study, and as a writer, it’s important to know. For example, why do we make decisions, time and again, that have negative impacts on us, yet we never seem to learn our lessons?
Because when you write a character, you must know why they behave the way they do, so your reader will understand and know why they behave the way they do. To do that, you must understand human behavior, in its many permutations, and then—dig deeper than even that.
We’ve all watched horror movies. As we cling to the blanket, or shirt of our cinematic compatriot, we, the audience, find ourselves shouting warnings to the celluloid, digital, or HD character:
“Do not open that door! Do not—WHY is she opening that—no, no, no, no… arrgh!”
Well, wouldn’t be much of a horror movie if she didn’t open the door, right? And the movies that are the campiest, cheesiest variety of horror are ones we ride like a rickety-roller coaster. Within our own senses of actual, physical danger, as it creaks and groans with each rise and fall, there is a sense of recklessness. Yet we know the ride is safe, to a degree.
It’s why we love those B-movie tropes. We know just what to expect, but in the end, the hero or heroine will never die (not a hard and fast rule, mind you.)
So, behind that door…
Will it be the “jump-scare” technique? Or will the sharp-object wielding maniac be there, waiting?
Depends on whether the movie is almost over, yeah? The predictability factor is, for many who write or create stories across all media, one to which we must pay especially close attention, so we might avail ourselves of—or avoid—the devices or tropes, respectively.
And the traps. When the character is behaving in ways no sane human being would do in the face of true insanity or danger, we’re not totally invested in whether he or she walks into an empty room, comes face to face with another character and shares a startled scream, or the maniac. Why? Because as the audience, we would never do such a stupid thing.
So, what about the stories/movies where you not only know why the character must open the door, but you find yourself reeling from the fact that you can’t seem to find any other way they could or would proceed?
Those are the stuff of real nightmares, because they must open the door, and you know you would, too. This is because the writer has set up the character and story in such a way that they bridge that gap. The constant refrain, “suspension of disbelief,” takes tremendous skill if you want people to care deeply about your characters.
You write each line, each paragraph, each scene so the character has little or no choice BUT to open that door, and if you were in their shoes, you’d do the same thing.
Back to human behavior, social studies, and writing.
Besides the lack of relevant music, the pervasive “horror track” telling us we are about to open a very bad door in our lives, we know, on some level, when we’re about to do something incredibly stupid, don’t we. Yes, we do. Most of the time.
So why do we do it?
Human beings are riddled with biases, beliefs, paradigms, and implicit memories (a neuro-fancy way of saying how we view our pasts and the personal narrative surrounding those memories), that play a huge part in why we do what we do.
In fact, our subconscious mind is doing most of the “driving,” every day, while less than 15% of our prefrontal cortex (the most complex, conscious portion of our brains) is actually participating in our daily lives. That means that all day, every day, 85% of our actions are totally, inherently, unconscious. And we act before we think, even when we think we act because of what we decide to do.
No, don’t go run to the Bodhi Tree and wait for Enlightenment. It’s how we’re supposed to work.
Imagine if you had to concentrate with everything in your to do every, single thing you do, all day long.
“Okay, I hear the alarm. I’m going to open both eyes. Whew. Good job, guys. Now, I’m going to roll my body to the right: so, back, butt, neck, shoulder, leg, are you all ready? Okay, annnnd… roll! Now, left arm, please mobilize for movement. Great. Now, reach. Hand, are you paying attention? Open your fingers. Eyes, focus on the phone, please. Thank you, good. Now, index finger, please extend and touch the ‘x’ on the phone while swiping…”
Man. Gives a whole new meaning to, “Sorry I’m late. Had trouble getting out of bed this morning.”
So procedural memory is the automatic things our minds and bodies do together, no prefrontal cortex needed, thankyouverymuch.
But there are things we’ve shoved out of our prefrontal cortex that need to be brought back. And much of the time?
We don’t WANNA.
“Ugh… I don’t want to have to think about dinner tonight. Just pick something up at the drive-thru. Again.”
Hardly an example of procedural memory, but it is the abdication of using our prefrontal cortex and giving in to the very basic desires we all have for ease, comfort, and habit.
If you ask people whether or not they believe fast food is bad for them, they will undeniably tell you they know it is. Then, if you ask them how often they eat fast food, they will tell you, “Oh, hardly ever. Only on rare occasions. You know. On the go…”
But we all know that can’t be true, can it? Matter of fact, the average American eats “out” between 4-5 times per WEEK.
And despite their expanding waistlines, the lack of nutritional value in the food, the long-term risks of heart disease, and the expense of fast food or take out, they do it. All the time. They make a choice to put that in their bodies instead of planning ahead and having a healthy meal at home. With an average 3-4 meals per day, and approximately 4-5 times per week…
Holy shiitake mushrooms, Batman. And we’re wondering why we’re overweight, fatigued, and sick?
Someone said to me once: “It’s a trade-off, you know? If I pick up the drive-thru, it saves time so I can get to the gym after work.”
Yee-ah. The magical mind-contortions we’re capable of when we really, really, want to believe something, and we really want to stay in integrity with our personal values.
Now, this isn’t about judging yourself, or anyone else. I’m not judging, either. This is what you must know—a very tiny portion of what you, as a writer, must know—about human behavior, and how we think.
Which brings me to writing complex, three-dimensional characters.
THERE ARE HEROES AND VILLAINS (and… then there’s everyone else)
As a budding writer, and even as a more experienced writer, I’m always reading about writing (when I’m not reading or writing, of course). There are a lot of popular writers and writing books that tell you to create characters who are likable, but beware of making them “perfect,” because who can relate to that? That’s not me, over there…
And still another popular writing strategy is to begin your story with your “imperfect” character doing something “heroic,” right in the first chapter, thus ensuring that when you show (don’t tell!) how “human” and imperfect they really are, their flaws will be seen by the reader with a more compassionate, understanding eye.
So, perhaps we create a “hero with a haunted past,” (clichéd, but take a really good look at novels in the “thriller, suspense and mystery,” genres, specifically series-books, and you’ll note this trope is a trope within a trope.
One series I read, a wonderful “drive-thru mind-meal,” while I recovered from a long bout of mono, was a detective series written by Sue Grafton, her Alphabet Series, featuring the lovable, highly imperfect PI, Kinsey Millhone, a sassy, “I-don’t-give-a-shit-how-I-look-but-I’m-irresistible-for-some-reason,” woman with—you guessed it—a mysterious, slightly trauma-filled, haunted past, who survived on Quarter Pounders with Cheese®, fries, Coke, and coffee.
To add some quirk, Grafton had her character thrive on Kinsey’s famous peanut butter and pickle and hard-boiled egg sandwiches with gobs of real mayo. And yet, Ms. Millhone manages to stay size-6-fit with her three-mile-a-day run. Fiction, indeed!
Below, a young Sue Grafton, strangely close to the book’s description of the spitfire PI, Kinsey Millhone.
Image courtesy: https://www.ocregister.com/2017/12/29/mystery-writer-sue-grafton-creator-of-private-investigator-kinsey-millhone-and-the-alphabet-novels-dies-at-77/
But dammit, it was fun. RIP Sue Grafton. Hats off to you for giving me, and millions like me for over 30+ years, those of us who really “de-serve a break [some] days,” from the work of LIVING, and all the stress that comes with it.
Continuing on, you don’t want to fall for the stereotypes, so you decide to go a little wacky and write a female protag who’s a lovable food-a-holic with a penchant for rescuing stray kittens. Ah, but she’s constantly having to learn new ways to deal with her addiction as a pathological shoplifter, even though she only steals things for the rescued kittens, of course! And who wouldn’t do that? Well…
Or perhaps you write a classic anti-hero, like Batman or TV’s curmudgeonly (Dr.) House.
Bottom line? If you follow the guidelines of genre writers, and those who write books on writing who write genre fiction, you’ll get generic characters, no matter how many quirks they have. You must. Because no one wants to pick up a Kinsey Millhone novel and have her do something we cannot relate to.
That’s the point of genre fiction, and why it’s so wonderfully decadent to enjoy it. But if you aim to write stories that go deeper, and characters that people will never forget—not because you wrote 26 books featuring that character—but because they are so complex, you actually transform your reader’s world-view with an entirely new world-view as seen through that character’s eyes—then you’ll need to break the rules.
CREATING A HUMAN BEING, NOT A HUMAN “DOING”
In my last novel, Grind: A Novel, which was voted one of the top-5 literary novels from an Indie press in 2015 by IndieReader.com, I used several POVs, male and female, to create a world. Each main and secondary character had unique personalities, lives, personal histories, motivations, and personalities. Sure, there were quirks, peccadilloes, but they were not what made the characters stand out.
I’ve been told I have a knack for writing multifaceted male characters, specifically, something women writers struggle with at times. I’m especially deft at understanding and portraying, realistically, the psycho-sexual minds of men.
While most of my characters are extremely complex, even the minor ones, the one way I accomplish this is by doing the opposite of what most writing books, or genre writers tell you to do.
One specific thing I don’t do is show my character’s “hand” too soon. When you meet my characters, they will grab you. And I can’t guarantee where, or how you’ll even feel about that.
Two characters from Grind that jump out at me specifically, are named Jeremy and Wayne. These men are immediately unlikable, especially to women. Now…
Why would I do that?
I do it because they are not two-dimensionally “unlikable.” They are full-color, alive, and most importantly, compellingly unlikable characters. Sure, we don’t like them, but we want to know why. Why are they so compelling? Why are they the way they are? And honestly? Many female readers realize, well into the book, they don’t want to know.
They keep reading, believing these men will continue to incite their indignation, rage, and be the very stereotypes they, themselves, hold within their subconscious minds about “men like that,” and they keep reading, comforted and sure that certainly justice will prevail, and the men will get their “just desserts.”
The cliché above? An object lesson. Because the entire idea that this “justice” happens in real life is a flight of fancy. Shitty men, shitty women, shitty people, rarely “get what they deserve.”
Hell, some people make it into the highest offices, leaving a trail of slime behind them, don’t they? Yes, they do.
So, this is why literary fiction and genre fiction are different experiences. It’s why campy horror movies are what you watch when you wanna “Netflix & Chill,” not when you want to be kept awake for nights on end, an unseen terror crawling up your spine because you watched something that really, really got into your head, under those first few layers of skin.
And the thing is, as a writer, you’ve got to understand this difference. If someone reads a novel expecting things to go as planned, in other words, play out the opposite of real life, and then they realize not only is that not how life works, not how people ARE, they stop reading. They don’t stop reading when the characters are totally distasteful and true-to-form. They stop when I suddenly make them human.
Still not likable, still distasteful, yes. But human beings. Not villains. Not black or white, but as complex as every one of us is.
Again…why would I do this?
Confound everyone’s comfort zones…challenge when I could make it so easy…I mean, it’s cruel, isn’t it?
Well, it depends on what kind of literary experience you want to have. And let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with wanting a comfortable book to read. Not at all. But, like a balanced diet, too many Quarter Pounders® will leave your mind like a drive-thru side dish in a combo meal: fried and void of nutritional “mind-expansion” value.
THIS IS YOUR BRAIN. THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON A COUCH
Image courtesy of Men’s Health
As David Foster Wallace said/wrote:
“Good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
So, the reason I do what I do with my characters is that, as a literary novelist, it’s not my job to give the reader what they want, if what they want is a Literary QP w/C®.
Going back to fast food, people want easy, totally effortless reading sometimes, too. And we can go anywhere to get a QP w/C®—anywhere in the world. Even in Paris, QP w/C®? Same as the QP w/C® in Detroit.
So, if I write male characters as heroes or villains (or anti-heroes, who are both, depending on how the writers want the series to end) from the get-go, then flesh them out with flaws, or conversely, imbue them with a modicum of “relatable” qualities, or “appeal,” respectively, (think Showtime’s anti-hero Dexter, then I’ve made my bed, haven’t I? They must, in the end, BE what I made them out to be. Gun on the mantle.
But that’s not how human beings truly are. And a person’s actions or personalities are not the gestalt of who they are, and not even close to how they became who they are. We are beings, and our being is more accurate to who we are than what we do. That’s why we’re called “human beings,” not “human doings.” How your characters think and behave should be as complex and nuanced as how you think and behave. You and other real human beings.
And although their back stories might never make an appearance, save a few choice “showing” (not telling!) details, we, as writers, need to know every inch of their psyches—even the spaces the characters themselves might now yet be aware of.
Why we open those doors is not because it’s in our script, and not because it’s a convenient plot device.
We open them because of a thousand unconscious and subconscious things rippling within our psyches.
We have no real idea why we reach for that ill-fated knob.
CREATING WORLDS WITH THE WORD
The themes of Grind center around sex, power, money, and the role those dynamics play in the dance in which men and women have been engaged since the beginning of time.
Jeremy, a young, successful attractive man, who, for all intents and purposes, is every woman’s worst nightmare as a prospective husband, but we’ve all had a “Jeremy” in our lives, I’d wager: charming, handsome, charismatic, and slightly sexually dangerous.
Then we have my other character, an older man, Wayne, who is controlling, creepy, vindictive, and clearly an antagonist to the main female protag, along with her mother. And we hate him. We hate Wayne. But then, it’s a lot more complicated than that after we learn what makes him who he is, what motivates the things he does, and it changes…well.
It changes everything.
Like the birth of an actual human being—which happens every 4.2 times per second on this planet—that human being, while the same in many ways to every other human on the planet, he or she is utterly, completely unique.
And no matter how imperceptible or history-altering that individual turns out to be they change the world. Each of us impacts the world in millions of ways we never consider with our prefrontal cortex, or even our primitive amygdala.
The only choice we’ve got in the matter is in how big or small we want our ripples to be. Then, once we make our splashy entrance, every decision, every door, every unconscious, subconscious and conscious action and thought (in that order, mind you, more than the other way around) determines how wide those ripples go out.
As soon as my readers discover what makes Wayne tick, what made Jeremy the Jeremy, in and of my world—that discovery will impact every reader in totally unique, unexpected ways. And it changes the course of the world I created in Grind, irrevocably—not only objectively, but from and through the lenses of each reader, who comes to the table with all of that baggage, warping those mind-lenses. And I challenge them. All of them.
For those who want that kind of reading experience and are ready to force themselves out of their self-(cultural/societal/world)made zones of comfort, then read books that do just that: Disturb, challenge, expand, provoke, and ultimately, change everything in your worlds.
As a lover of both reading and writing literary fiction? Well… talk about power. Sexy power.
Because when my readers read my work, whether they hate it, love it, or somewhere in between…
They are forever changed. And in an oddly disturbing, yet comfortable sense of wonder…so am I.
(Cue music track)
Ah, but just what music ought to play? Up to you. Thank you for reading, and as always—
Je te vois—
Excerpt of Grind featuring “Jeremy.”