I have not abandoned you! I lost the month of January thanks to a bout of the flu, bronchitis and an ear infection. February was full of both literal and figurative digging (snow and writing).
Since this has always been intended as a writing blog, I decided it was time to address some writing issues/observations. This post deals with the difference between being a therapist and being a writer. It’s pretty simple really — a therapist will find the quirks in a person and help fix them, making them more like everyone else, whereas a writer will expose those quirks, and still make that character more like everyone else (while also making them unique). In both ways, the therapist and writer make people/characters more human by either fixing their faults or highlighting them. It’s kind of strange, isn’t it?
There are many different ways to go about it. Writers can take something that seems peculiar only because no one mentions that everyone else does it — and write in such a way that most readers recognize themselves. Like real people, good characters in novels can make readers feel uncomfortable about them (the character) or about themselves (the reader). For example, in an impromptu short story that I am working on for a graphic novel course, I wrote about a female superhero who takes a vacation to get away from the low paying and unrewarding job of saving people, only to find herself alone and bored on a beach. She misses her work so much that she secretly hopes that a child will start to drown, just so she can save them.
After a reading — in which I got much laughter, people came up to me afterwards and said it was both “funny” and so “wrong.”
I’ll tell you why it was both. People can relate to wanting to abandon the chaos of their lives, only to find that when they do, they miss the very things they were trying to escape. That was an element of realism. Then I took it a step further by creating the worst possible scenario — an innocent child in danger — and one thing worse would be hoping that a child would find themselves in danger. As a parent, there is nothing worse. So why was it still funny? I think it worked because the reader was in the head of a character who wasn’t perfect. She had evil thoughts as most humans do and it catches the reader off guard to think that someone who is supposed to be on the side of good is so — well kind of not a nice person. How many of us are? Have you never wished that someone would fall down on a sidewalk? Or maybe laughed when they did? (Which by the way, you shouldn’t — please go read my post about Karma). But to take it one step further, it also makes the reader uncomfortable.
The point is, that real characters and authentic writing should in fact make us uncomfortable — I might even say whenever possible. These are the books we can’t put down. They should remind us that being human is so terribly and wonderfully flawed. And we shouldn’t fix that. Leave that to therapists to ruin humanity (I’m saying this figuratively — so no angry e-mails from you therapists trying to “fix” what I said).
Therapists and writers are more alike than different, in that we want people/characters to become vulnerable with us. It’s the only way we can really figure out what to do with them. Neither of us can understand our client/character until we figure out where the hell they got broken.
And isn’t writing about a character much like leading a therapy session? This week I followed my protagonist into the woods and watched her have a meltdown. Did I lead her there, or did she lead me? Together on this journey, we both discovered not only when she was broken, but I passively watched her attempt to put herself back together with glorious cracks and missing chunks — because as a writer, it’s not my job to fix her — not completely. My only job, was like that of a National Geographic camera crew — to follow and not interfere. To let her find her own way, even in the madness of circling the woods, when I might have known all along the trail that led out. To watch her and not judge. Most importantly, a good writer (in my opinion) will always let their characters get messy and maybe even stay a little messy.
So what am I really saying? Perhaps that writers are therapists for fictional characters? That therapists are useful for writers who are therapists of imaginary characters? It’s still the idea of fixing vs. exposing to me. Therapists tend to lead to moments of self discovery with the intention of correcting it, whereas writers simply follow the characters to it. Maybe the difference is slight. Maybe we flaw the characters we create in order to fix ourselves…