Monday, 16 May 2016

4 Ways 'The Book of Human Skin' Changed How I Write Characters.

It's a well-used mantra, quoted by everyone from Stephen King to Chuck Wendig to Neil Gaiman - as well as writing a lot, writers must read a lot too. Stephen King even goes so far as to say that if you 'don't have time' to read other people's books, then you'll never have the skills to become a decent writer.

But have no fear if you think you 'don't read much.' I used to think that too. Whenever I heard the advice 'read widely and read lots,' I used to curl up inside and think "well that's me stuffed then - the last time I read a 'classic' was in an English Lit. class in sixth form." But then I looked at my bookshelf, crammed with books I'd collected over the years and covering all subjects imaginable - fiction and non-fiction. I remembered all the science and history magazines I like to buy on a regular basis. And then I realised my Kindle, which I got three years ago, currently has over 200 books stored on it...

Because the good news is that you're not confined to intellectual, classy or 'recommended' reading when it comes to broadening your horizons. All reading is good - and not just fiction in the genre you write in, but in the ones you don't and even the ones you couldn't in a million years. And sure, the Classics are named so for a reason, but the mass-market bodice-rippers, quirky chick-lits and rip-roaring thrillers are just as valuable for adding credits to your Experience Bank. Non-fiction is just as useful; books about science and history and nature and stuff are pretty much acorn factories for the research stash you'll rely on at some point in the future. So are books that cover the craft of writing.

But best of all, you don't have to be sniffy about the quality of the books you read either. A badly-written book can teach you just as much about good writing as a well-written one.

One book that taught me a lot about writing characters is The Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric. I enjoyed reading it and would recommend it to other writers and readers alike - as much for the things I didn't like about it as those I did.

Set in eighteenth century Venice and Peru, it tells the stories of Minguillo Fasan, collector of books bound in human skin and self-appointed torturer of younger sister Marcella, and a Peruvian nun called Sor Loreta who does for religion what the Ku Klux Klan does for race relations. The tale alternates between the POV of the aforementioned three main characters plus two supporting ones - Marcella and Minguillo's manservant Gianni and Doctor Santo - Marcella's 'love interest' (well, kind of. More on that later...) So you have five POV characters altogether - some of which were a joy to read, while others... not so much. Here are my top takeaways on writing characters, learned from reading this book...

1 - The greatest villains think they're heroes.

There were two villains in this story: Minguillo Fasan and Sor Loreta. They were without doubt the best characters in this book, even though they were, at least on the surface, very different from each other.

Of the two, the absolute, stand-out best was Sor Loreta. From the moment we first 'meet' her as a child, it's clear she's several beads short of a rosary, and as her story unfolds she just becomes more and more deranged. The only thing larger and more terrifying than her obsessional religious piety is her monstrous ego, believing as she does that she is quite literally the Bride of God, representing His will on earth. But what really kept me glued to her portions of the story - and longing for her next bit when the other characters got their turn - was the feeling that I, as a reader, was the only one seeing her for what she truly was. Everyone else in the story seemed to be either blind to her wickedness - totally taken in by her sob stories or a conveniently-timed 'miracle' she performed - or, if they did have suspicions, pretty much dead by the end of the scene (covertly by her hand, of course.) Even she believed she was a virtuous holy woman who was simply carrying out the will of her God - she did not, for one second, consider anything she did to be morally wrong. For example, she drowned a young nun in a bathtub of ice-cold water believing she was purging that nun of her sins (and therefore saving her soul.) So the question that burned in my head every time she made an appearance - and upped the ante on her evilness even when I thought she couldn't go any further down that path - was "Is anyone ever going to catch this psychotic woman out and stop her?" Because - and all credit to the author for achieving this - it never looked like anyone would, right up until the very end of her story.

In fairness, this was also true of Minguillo. But his attitude was different; he knew the things he did were considered evil by the rest of society, and he cared not a jot about that. In fact, he even taunts the readers about it, asking them directly to reflect on what it says about themselves that they are so interested in hearing about his evil exploits. This is a hard trick to pull off in a villain without making them look like a moustache-twirling pantomime character - "Oooh, I'm so eeeevil, muha ha ha haaa!" But for Minguillo it works because, while he might 'know' he does immoral things, he believes he has just reasons for doing them. Disliked and ostracised since babyhood because his debilitating skin disease has left him permanently scarred (and therefore physically unattractive,) he has decided he is an undeserving victim of a judgemental society, and all he is doing is exacting payback for wrongs done to him (whether real or imagined.) In that sense, he's as much of a 'hero' in his own mind as any morally-upright pillar of society.

And that's the key to making a really memorable villain. You actually can go into the shades of grey about whether a hero considers himself a 'good' or 'bad' person - as long as that villain is convinced he's entitled to be that way regardless of whether or not anyone else in the story universe agrees with him. If he believes that doing callous and immoral things to those who've behaved in a callous way to him somehow 'cancels out' the immorality of those acts, the reader will accept that he can be as bad as he likes while still believing he's on the side of 'right.' We may not agree with their mindset, but we can understand it, and - sort of - empathise with it. Even if we don't want to.

2 - Heroines with the patience of a saint just try your readers' patience.

Minguillo's little sis Marcella was the heroine of the story - although it has to be said, that really depends on what qualities you think a protagonist should possess to be considered 'heroic.'

If your idea of a strong female character is a woman so passive she practically floats through every injustice done to her like a leaf in a raging river, who sucks up her suffering so quietly and patiently her cheeks are permanently Velcroed to her tonsils and who never does one single, goddamn thing to stand up for herself ... well, you'll love Marcella. Yes, Marcella's superpowers were her jaw-dropping beauty and a saint-like disposition that would make Mother Theresa look like a mardy old battleaxe. 'Crippled for life now because Minguillo smashed my legbone into toothpicks? *Sigh* I do wish sometimes he wouldn't do things like that, but, y'know, I'm so blessed to be so pretty and have so many friends when he's so ugly and unloved I probably shouldn't complain...'

 Aaaarrrrggghhh! By the time I'd got halfway through the novel I bloody hated her - which made me feel oddly guilty considering the only people who seemed to hate her more were the two main villains in the story. I don't know how or where the author got the idea that making Marcella a simpering, uber-placid paragon of virtue would equate to being a tower of strength and resilience - if anything it had the opposite effect of making her look weak and, quite frankly, dumb. Thanks to her brother she was permanently crippled, then packed off to a lunatic asylum and finally banished to a convent - at some point in her miserable life she should've got at least a tiny bit cross about that. Not left it to everyone else around her to do on her behalf, while she just smiled inanely and carried on being Minguillo's human punchbag. In fact that was the other annoyance with Marcella; she never did a thing to help herself at any point. But then again she never had to, because all these legions of people who randomly fell in love with her for her pure, sweet passiveness were practically falling over themselves to fix every problem in her life, big or small. Everything that wasn't either a villain or an inanimate object not only decided Marcella was the most wonderful creation in the universe since time began, but often discussed the matter at great length with the other characters, while wringing their hands at what such an unworthy mortal like them could do to ease her suffering and fill her life with the ponies and rainbows she so richly deserved.... it's okay, you can have a quick break to throw up now if you want....

So yeah, Marcella will forever be my go-to example of a Mary Sue in fiction. If they ever invent a Glossary of Writers' Terms, they should probably just stick her name in as a catch-all reference. I will never, ever write a character like her in my stories, I promise. Unless of course I intend for her to die before the end in some horrible - ideally comical - way.

3 - Sometimes the colloquial accent DOES matter.

As I mentioned previously, one of the secondary POV characters was Gianni, loyal manservant of Minguillo and Marcella (although inevitably he was far more loyal to the latter than the former.) Let's note that his name was Gianni, and not, say, Wayne or Deano. This was because he was a rural Italian peasant living in eighteenth century Venice, and while it's fair to assume that his lack of formal education and general peasant status means he's not going to have a wide vocabulary and immaculate spelling, he's still going to sound - well, like he's lived in Italy all his life...

So why then, did he 'talk' like a Mitchell brother from EastEnders? I'm not much of a historian, but I'm pretty sure there weren't many Cockernee geezer-peasants around in eighteenth-century Venice.

I get what the author was trying to do. She wanted to leave the reader in no doubt that this guy came from a poor, unsophisticated background, where he would have gone into servitude as a child instead of learning the three R's like the rich folk. And yes, one of the best ways to highlight that is to have that character use bad grammar and spelling in his 'diary entries.' But there's a hidden danger with this technique, and it comes down to how readers pronounce those errors in their head as they read them. Everyone does it as they read - they hear what the character is saying as an actual voice talking. The problem is, anything where the words are being 'heard' differently because of the way they're written is going to translate to that reader as some sort of accent - and if that accent is geographically wrong for that character it jars. (That's also why characters in historical novels don't tend to say things like "Whatevs, babe, catch you later, okay?" Unless they're terrible historical novels, of course.)

The lesson I learned from that? If you really must use mis-spellings and shortening of words to convey a character's social status, read your dialogue out loud to hear what it actually sounds like as a voice coming out of a person. I don't know if the author actually did that for Gianni, but if she had I'm sure she couldn't have failed to notice he sounded more Essex Man than Italian Villager. In this case it may have been better to just go with the bad grammar rather than mis-spellings, which are after all phonetic errors (and how on earth do you translate an Italian peasant's phonetic errors in his native language into written English anyway?)

4 - He's called the Romantic LEAD - not the Romantic ON A LEAD.

Now we come to the other secondary POV character, the gentle and caring Doctor Santo (and the one guy given the actual job of being Marcella's Love Interest, even though God knows every other non-villainous human in the book probably tried out for it at the audition stage.) And I'll admit, the takeaway I got from him may well be a lot to do with personal preference. 

Not every romantic lead has to be a badass, I get that. They don't all prove their love by punching out the lights of every evil schmuck who so much as raises a hand to the love of their dreams, or by figuring out ways to protect said love from said schmuck - or even by alerting someone in authority who could do something that this evil schmuckery is going on. Instead, they - um, wring their hands and agonize from a safe distance, refusing to do anything that might jeopardize their position with the evil schmuck in case he blocks access to their lady-love? Especially since they haven't even revealed their true feelings to her yet, because oh my god, how could they ever be worthy of the love of one so perfect and beautiful..?

Mmmmyeah, sorry, but that's why Santo didn't exactly light my fire. If there was some sort of Saint-Off going on in this tale, Marcella and Santo were definitely going head-to-head for most of it. Santo starts off as Minguillo's doctor, treating him for his terrible skin condition, but ends up treating Marcella's smashed-up leg after Minguillo has a game of whack-a-limb with it, which is when Santo first falls hopelessly in love with her. So, his secret crush is permanently crippled by one of his own patients that he already knows is a horrible person - and how does he feel about that? Nope, not angry, that's not what he says. He tells the reader he feels 'sad.'


As in "Darn, that's really put a downer on my day?" Well, cheers for that moral support, hero! He also gets his knickers in a knot because, no matter how 'sad' he feels about his crush's appalling treatment, there's 'absolutely nothing he can do to help her' - and certainly if it involves harming so much as a hair on the head of Minguillo. Of course there bloody is you fool, you're a doctor. Here's how it goes: "I have this tincture for your skin condition, Mr Fasan. We've had some great results with it in other patients, but unfortunately the side-effects include stomach cramps and uncontrollable diarrhoea... you might as well just strap your arse to a toilet for the forseeable future. Sorry about that, but thems the breaks." (Hey, medicine wasn't that advanced back then - he could totally have got away with that...)

Even at the end, when he finally - finally! - starts doing stuff to free Marcella from her dreadful existence in the convent and get rid of Minguillo once and for all (like, after more than three-quarters of the way through the entire book) he beats his breast and agonizes about it as if it means he's turning into the Antichrist. Dude, I know the woman you've fallen for is more angelic than Gabriel, but let her win that contest and get this shizzle done, will you?  At least as a couple they're pretty much made for each other. Proof of that comes when they finally escape to a grotty little shack together, along with manservant Gianni, who asks what on earth they'll all live on now they have no money and Santo has no patients any more. Santo and Marcella's answer - spoken, of course, in unison? "Love!" Uuurrrghh, you bloody idiots..!

Like I said, maybe this is just me, but I like my romantic leads to have a bit more agency. To get more than 'sad' when the love of their life has the crap repeatedly kicked out of her, and to not feel the need to go off and have a cry after doing something that makes a really evil person die in a very long-distance, indirect way.  I mean, look at it this way - most of us wouldn't jump on a chance to actually kill an utter bar-steward in real life, for oh so many reasons. Which is why we like it when fictional characters do that stuff for us. It's cathartic, in a vicariously safe way - "You be the champion mate and we'll be... right over here in the corner, cheering you on every step of the way! Yaaay, go you!" No-one actually dies in real life, but we still get those feel-good vibes from Justice Being Served. 

That's your job, hero-characters. And if you can't handle it - well, maybe you'd be better suited to the plot equivalent of burger-flipper at McDonalds. 


I realise this may sound like I didn't enjoy reading The Book of Human Skin - but I did, and I would certainly recommend it to others. Its shortcomings were more than made up for by the gloriously-drawn villainous characters (along with many interesting minor characters) vividly-described settings and well-researched historical details that made the story feel real. If you like your historical novels on the dark and twisted side, this one certainly ticks the boxes.

Which novels have you read that have changed your writing in fundamental ways? Who are you favourite good guys and bad guys? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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