This last Thursday I posted the first third of a short story that starred a pretty deplorable character. Jake was either born without ethical restraints, or else he managed to sand them away over time. Also, he happens to be a jerk. Particularly vicious was the scene where he sees a stranger and proceeds to scathingly critique him as one of the lowest dregs of humanity.
And yet, I actually intended for that scene to ultimately make the audience feel more sympathetic to Jake. In time, as more of his character is revealed, it will become evident that that vicious mockery is more inwardly directed than outwards. Jake still has problems, and is still the story’s villain, but he is more of a victim of his actions than anyone else.
As I wrote the segment where Jake mocks a stranger I allowed myself to be crueler because of my knowledge that it was self-reflective for him. However I also knew that the reader wouldn’t have this information, and so might misread the moment. And that was intended.
It’s almost unavoidable at the beginning of a story for readers to make first impressions and take all that they are shown at face value. One of my favorite things is when an author is aware of these two facts, and structure their story so that it will support the readers’ in their initial perceptions upon a first reading, and then challenge them upon a second.
I could, of course, have opened the story by establishing how much Jake loathes himself, but then the audience would have been sympathetic to him from the outset. That would have limited their ability to despise him, so instead I let him introduce himself as he believes himself to be: creepy, unrepentant, and cruel. When at the end of my post he started applying these sorts of labels to himself, the readers only heard him echoing their own thoughts for him. Perhaps as they come to see how miserable he is they might feel bad for having made those initial judgments.
Or maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll feel he is only receiving his just desserts. Either way, the reader will be making a choice, thus be more actively engaged in the story, and thus be more affected by it.
A Christmas Carol)
In writing my story this way I’m actually paying homage to one of my most favorite tales of all time: A Christmas Carol. When we are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge we are not told first about his unhappy childhood, about how he was banished from his home by an unfeeling father. We don’t hear about his immense poverty and his drive to become something more. We don’t know the tragedy of how that misguided ambition ultimately lost him the love of his life.
No, we do not hear about those things until later, so that there can be nothing in the way of our reviling this bitter and cold man. All we know at the outset is that he is cruel, deservedly despised, and we very easily dismiss him.
But then, as these sadder elements of his life are unfolded, we find ourselves grieving for the lost child still within him and we are deeply relieved when his soul eventually finds its reclamation. From the first impressions we are able understand why the world is so disbelieving of his dramatic transformation, but by the end of our journey we are believing of it ourselves.
The fact is, if Charles Dickens had laid out the story to capture our sympathy for Scrooge first, then his reclamation would not have tasted nearly so sweet. To despise a character, and then pity him, and then joy for him is a far more moving arc than any other arrangement of those same sensations.
Another favorite example of this is from the film Citizen Kane. Charles Foster Kane is not a very pleasant person. He happens to be rich, powerful, and a genius, but also pompous, self-righteous, and manipulative. He possesses a constant hunger for more, and by his obsessive and overbearing nature he manages to sour his every relationship until all that remain in his household are the servants.
We’ve seen how he demands control of every situation. He tries to force love and friendship from those that would have given it willingly. He wants to own happiness, to buy it. He lavishes the woman he loves with gifts until she feels smothered and ends the relationship. It is almost pitiable, except for the fact that he is wholly responsible for his own suffering.
Then he dies with a single word on his lips: “Rosebud,” which is revealed to be the name of a sled he played with as a young boy at his parent’s home. There he was happy, and it was a simple and authentic happiness. Tragically that moment of bliss was taken from him suddenly, and he has never since found it again. Just like that we understand his enigma.
We realize that he has been made afraid of all good things being taken away. He wants to be in control so that he won’t be hurt again. And, ironically, it has been his avid pursuing that has lead to his constant losing, a vicious and never-ending cycle of loss and clutching.
In all of these cases the understanding that dawns on the reader is not meant to excuse the main character’s flaws. What they have done is still just as wrong, but now at least we see the motivations that led them to do those wrong things. Actions can be both wrong and understandable, after all. and the beginning of prejudice is when we forget that there is a humanity behind the mistakes people make.
I think we can all agree that the world needs more stories like these. I’m not going to get political on this forum, but it is clear that intolerance for opposing ideals is a depressing epidemic of our lives. It’s not wrong to want this world to be better, but society will never be improved via argument or insult. If someone doesn’t agree with your particular point-of-view then there is an understandable, even if misguided, reason for that. People don’t need to be forced into becoming better, they only need a sympathetic voice that truly hears, understands, and validates their concerns. When nurtured in this way people will naturally recognize their own faults and rise to their best.
When it comes to writing, though, this sort of sympathy for a negative character can be difficult to pull off. It’s difficult to do in real life, so of course it would be tricky in the written word, too. I don’t mind admitting that I’m nervous about tackling the subject with Jake. At the very least I do understand the template to follow: first introduce the character as they are perceived, then reveal them as they actually are.
Come back on Thursday to see how I iterate with that in the second entry of Phisherman.