Loving Disturbed Characters
Author Diana Y. Paul contemplates why unappealing characters are often the most appealing. Everyone loves a villain!
How I love the dark side! Characters, like people, are flawed for a reason, and a good story is all about character.
Some readers are drawn to anti-heroes as main characters–disturbingly flawed characters. Anti-heroes who can handle pressure with determination give readers hope. But with anti-heroes, it’s easy to go too far… to the dark side.
The flawed character can be unappealing, though– like a joke taken too far. It’s hard to entice a reader back once this happens. It’s easy to cross a line: the fine line between believable and repulsive.
As an author, I want the reader to understand poor decisions, hostile behavior, and sour relationships in all my characters. And that is my biggest challenge.
The protagonist can be someone who makes you want to run away if he or she is an anti-hero. But anti-heroes are becoming increasingly popular (think: Olive Kitteridge, “August: Osage County”, Gone Girl, and the recent television shows How to Get Away with Murder, House of Cards, and Game of Thrones) Yet if the author delves into too much unlikeable territory, the reader may shut down and disconnect, becoming frustrated by the main character’s obtuseness. But how I love disturbed characters with redeeming qualities.
Most people want to believe that life teaches lessons. Conflicts can be resolved, because free will is all about making choices. We want a protagonist who takes charge of his or her life, and ends the narrative in a better place.
However, there has to be a balanced view. We all make mistakes. Flaws are a fundamental part of who we are. In my debut novel, Things Unsaid, my clueless and naive protagonist makes lots of mistakes but there is so much more beneath the surface than what we first see, the “why” of who she is. So, I imagine my characters’ past wounds: why they are who they are? However, without the why, a reader is unable to relate and understand the mind of each character.
In Things Unsaid the main character is blind-sided and I had to ask myself why. What wounds were inflicted to create her present behavior? What I initially developed as her virtues turned into her flaws. Her flaws then needed to be transformed into strengths. She had to think she was doing the right thing even when she wasn’t. I want the reader to know the main character has to change while the character does not yet realize this.
I write in the hope that my readers see a glimmer of light even in the antagonist– who could have been a more loving and kind individual, given different circumstances. The past is not an excuse for negative behavior, but it can be a portal to understanding why and how the main character is the person she has become. If flaws cannot be relatable, no matter what other positive traits the character has, the reader will simply turn away from the character.
In the end, I am not afraid to take readers into the dark corners of the psyche, before there is light. I have found my voice and my niche: writing family drama with a healthy dose of darkness and secrets exposed. You don’t have to like this family to enjoy the story.
Diana Y. Paul was born in Akron, Ohio and is a graduate of Northwestern University, with a degree in both psychology and philosophy, and of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, with a PhD in Buddhist studies. She is the author of three books on Buddhism, one of which has been translated into Japanese and German (Women in Buddhism, University of California Press), and her short stories have appeared in a number of literary journals. She lives in Carmel, CA with her husband and two cats, Neko and Mao. To learn more about Diane, visit her author website at http://www.dianaypaul.com and her blog on movies, art, and food at http://www.unhealedwound.com or follow her on Twitter: @DianaPaul10.
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