Friday, 6 December 2013

When You're That Kind of Writer - But Not That Kind of Person

One of the many roles of a writer is to be a grade one douchebag. And many, many writers are really, really good at it.


Not really. You see, part of what makes a good story is when horrible things happen to the characters in it. And that can only come about when writers take their precious, beloved characters that they've built and nurtured and developed like a loving parent... and then, in a literary (and in some cases literal) sense, punch them repeatedly in the face. And then wait patiently for those characters to stumble back to their feet, wiping the blood from their pulped nose - and punch them again, just for good measure. Writers do this because they love their story and they love those characters, goddammit!

It's the kind of 'cruel to be kind' ideology that would get you arrested in the real world, but in a fictional one is totally awesome and makes those poor saps' lives waaaay more interesting. That takes a special kind of sadism, if you sit down and analyse it. But of course most writers aren't sadists in the everyday, non-writing portions of their lives. Most writers spend those parts of their lives being completely balanced and lovely people who do all the ordinary things that everyone else does. There's something distinctly Jekyll-and-Hyde about the personality of a writer, and it's a necessary component of writing good fiction. But it's no exaggeration to say that, for non-writers, this split-personality thing often causes confusion and misunderstanding.

In his book 'On Writing,' Stephen King recalls the reaction he got to a scene he wrote for his novel 'The Dead Zone,' where he had the antagonist kick a dog to death. He says he received tons of letters from people accusing him of animal cruelty. Of course he explained to them - as patiently as he could - that both the dog and the dog-killer were imaginary entities in an imaginary world... but I suspect even that didn't pacify some of those outraged letter-writers - largely thanks to that good old 'no smoke without fire' philosophy. The one that insinuates "If that person can think it through enough to actually write about it, they're probably capable of doing it too..!"

No-one would think a daft thing like that, surely? That anything a fiction writer writes about is a direct window into secret evil corners of their soul? Okay then... how many people do you think believe writers of erotic fiction must be right raunchy slappers who are kinkier than a garden hose? Or that romantic novels are only written by women? Hmmm....

There's no getting away from it; writers will be judged by what they write. And if you're a writer, you'll need to be okay with that. Even if it means being quite horribly misjudged...

My current novel-in-progress, the Renegades, goes to some dark places in terms of story. Parts of it are set in seedy, crime-infested parts of town where the line between right and wrong no longer exists for its inhabitants; even the 'good guys' of the story have been forced to make less-than-moral choices just to survive. Choices I had to decide were the 'best' ones. And unsurprisingly, given their backgrounds and situations, these characters also swear. A lot. Which sort of means I do as well, since I'm the one writing their dialogue...

If my mother were to read The Renegades, she would struggle to believe it was written by her quiet, placid and sensitive eldest daughter (that's me, in case you weren't sure.) I'm rather hoping my mother-in-law won't read it, for the very same reason and the fact that her lovely son went and married the person who wrote it. If they do read it, one of the first things - if not the first thing - I can imagine them thinking is  "How did she hide this dreadful dark side of her personality from us for all this time? Who knew this is what's really going on inside her head?"

I won't be the Wendy they knew anymore - I'll be Sweary, Lairy and Morally Dubious Wendy. Even though, outside of my novel, I'm actually not. (Well... no more so than the average person, anyway...) It's certainly true to say I've drawn on some experiences in my life to add meat on the bones of fictional events in my story - but that still doesn't make it an autobiography. And just because I know all those naughty cuss-words my characters use doesn't mean that's how I talk whenever I'm not in polite company...

Fellow writers understand. They know that, in order to 'know' what kinds of awful things an evil character would do, writers have to push their imagination beyond the boundaries of what they themselves wouldn't do. They also know it's possible for writers to create incredibly real-seeming people that are completely opposite to themselves... precisely by knowing the ways in which they are opposite and using them accordingly. In either case, it doesn't mean they also have to approve of their behaviour to do it convincingly.

However, while even the most 'non' of non-writers will accept Stephen King is probably not a telekinetic, author-crippling, vampire-dog-killer in real life, there's plenty of people out there who wouldn't trust him alone with their kids - a prejudice based not on any evidence, but purely on the kind of novels he's written. Many more will happily state that he's 'creepy,' 'sick' or 'twisted,' for the same reason. I don't know the man personally, but from what he's said in interviews and the like I don't believe he is any of those things - although I would certainly agree his books are often about people and places that are.

So... what does this mean for writers hoping to get their work published? It means you have one of two choices when you consider what kind of stuff you want to write:

1) If you want to keep your reputation and social standing pristine and lovely, you must only write about the kind of people you want to be compared to, doing the things you feel are worthy of doing and achieving all the things you aspire to. Preferably in the neighbourhood, profession and social class you would prefer to be a part of. You may find this rather boring, if not soul-destroying - and so too, may your readers - but your work will advertise you as a perfect fit for whatever peer clique you're dying to gain membership to. You'll be luvved by them, luvvie!

2) You can write about the things you're passionate about - no matter how dark, controversial or elephant-in-the-roomish they are - and practice growing yourself a thick skin. (You're going to need one of those anyway - life as a writer isn't all cupcakes and fluffy kittens.) People will think you're as dark and subversive as your subject matter - and won't believe you aren't, probably not even after they've actually met you, in person. But writing will make you feel good. Heck, it might even do some good, out there in that mad, bad world.

The choice is yours. Take the money - or open the box...

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