Is Bad the New Good? No, but it’s Important in Writing Your Characters

They say a writer’s life is spent either “writing, or thinking about writing”

snoopy3

…and I can personally attest to the accuracy of this statement, both from my own experience and from the testimony of the dozens of writers I have the pleasure of knowing.

So it should come as no surprise that one of the most treasured commodities for the independent author is extra writing time. Most of us have to fit our writing time in between a day job and a host of other adult-like responsibilities. Logically, it is easy to understand how most indie authors will go into a tail-spin of depression when an opportunity to crank out a couple-thousand extra words is missed.

writer's clock

This happened to me this week.

When I left work last Friday my “big plans” for the weekend were to plow through the most recent set of editorial comments for my next bookEyewitness Blues”, which is scheduled for release in August, and to write a new short story for an anthology I’m working on called “Path of a Bullet.”

When I woke up Saturday morning with a sore throat and a stuffy nose I didn’t really think much of it, I turned on the computer and sat down ready to give it hell…

After an hour-and-a-half, and a word count of about twelve…I realized that the sore throat and stuffy nose were a little worse than I had given them credit for. I made the executive decision to write Saturday off (no pun intended), get some rest and be back at the keyboard bright and early Sunday morning “greased and ready to kick ass” (to quote Sha-Na-Na).

You know what they say about the best laid plans, right?

Sunday was worse than Saturday.

watching TV

I was pretty much confined to the couch going through the contents of my DVR. Not one word written, but I did think about writing, for whatever that’s worth. On the bright side, I now have lots of free space for the recording of future programs.

The score for the weekend stood at illness – 2 days…word count – 12.

Monday was no better. I called in sick and made my way back to the couch for another date with my television…but now there’s a problem…I’ve pretty much wiped out my DVR and I’m not in the mood for watching movies on DVD, as this would entail having to get up every 90 minutes or so to put in a new one. I’m sure as hell not going to watch daytime TV, as this would entail…watching daytime TV.

Then I remembered…

Somebody had “loaned” me the entire first season of a NetFlix program called Orange is the New Black.

orange

The thumb drive had been sitting on my desk for months, but I had never gotten around to watching it. I figured it was serendipity…

I plugged the thumb drive into my TV (it’s a very smart TV) and started my binge.

Thus went my Monday…twelve-plus hours of watching a show about a women’s federal prison.

The series is based on the real-life memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman. Kerman is a self-proclaimed WASP from a wealthy Boston family who spent a year in prison for money laundering and drug trafficking.

I’m not writing this post to give my opinion of the show, but I will say it’s pretty good. It succeeds in giving the viewer something to watch with a little more substance than The World’s Wildest Police Videos, Survivor or American Idol without resorting to the cliché images about women’s prisons…but it falls a bit short of some of my favorite shows…The Sons of Anarchy, Justified and Hell on Wheels.

That being said – one thing that impressed me about the show was the handling of the protagonist, inmate Piper Chapman (the fictionalized version of author Kerman). It must be quite a challenge to write a story where the good guy is a convicted felon, thus making them, by most standards, a bad guy.

Since the show revolves around her I, mistakenly, assumed that Piper would go through her trials and tribulations and come out on the other side a better person for it – and the rest of the characters would come to accept her and realize that they had misunderstood her the whole time.

I was pleasantly surprised when this didn’t happen.

In fact, by the end of season one, almost the exact opposite is true (no spoilers here). The writers did a great job of making it difficult to assign the good guy/bad guy labels to any particular character. The viewer will find themselves rooting both for and against almost every character at one point or another.

That’s good writing.

My point is this – I think we, the book-reading, movie-going, TV-watching public have been brainwashed into accepting, as fact, that our protagonists are “the good guys” and that they always help the old lady across the street, retrieve the kitten from the tree and restore order to the universe.

It’s a romantic notion, to be sure, but come on…we know better.

To use my favorite show, The Sons of Anarchy, as an example…the show’s protagonist, Jax Teller, is seriously flawed, but we root for him nonetheless.

jax

We see both sides of him. We can identify, on some level, with his inner turmoil, because it’s something we’ve all dealt with. We have all been in situations where it seemed like the only way to do the right thing was by doing the wrong thing.

It’s an inevitable element of the human condition – and therefore we shouldn’t ignore it in our writing.

As writers we naturally want readers to enjoy our stories. I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me that the level of enjoyment is greatly increased when the characters seem more like real people than some unattainably perfect androids.

I’m not saying bad is the new good…but you can add so much depth to your protagonist by sprinkling some flaws into his/her personality—that is to say, give them a dark side. Likewise, you can also make your antagonists ring truer if they exhibit a touch of humanity now and then, i.e. a light side. Don’t be afraid to let your characters be who they are…as opposed to who they’re supposed to be.

If you make the good guys too easy to like and the bad guys too easy to hate, you aren’t challenging your readers (or yourself), which will leave them unsatisfied, even if they don’t fully understand why.

Challenge them. Make them like your story, but make them work for it.

I think they’ll appreciate it.

I know I’m not preaching anything new, I just thought a friendly reminder never hurt.

So, I wasted three days of potential writing time and all I have to show for it is this blog post…it doesn’t make up for the words that should have been written, but hopefully the overall lesson will be a fair trade-off.

 

As always – thank you for reading

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Is Bad the New Good? No, but it’s Important in Writing Your Characters

  1. Perse Show

    Sorry to hear you spent three days without writing! I hate it when that happens. Well, I can assure you that the takeaway lesson from this post was *very* inspirational.

    I try to follow these guidelines when I make my characters. In most of my stories—”Dead in the Water” comes to mind—you end up rooting for both sides…and hating both sides, at the same time. In “Dead in the Water,” for instance, the protagonist is a murderer. The whole time you think that by the end of the story, he’ll either turn himself in or he’ll be discovered. But does that really happen? Well, I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say you won’t expect it.

    -Perse

  2. Perse Show

    Reblogged this on Perse Show and commented:
    Isn’t this good insight into creating and developing characters? I certainly thought so. I’ll make sure to implement this advice in my writing whenever I can and it seems fit.

  3. I don’t know if I could handle Ike being “too” bad! I like him just the way he is now … Hope you’re feeling better!! Thanks for the great blog post. And more than 12 words, too!

  4. Author Rebecca Heishman

    I missed you while you were gone. I just assumed that you were out-and-about with Sandra Bullock having a wonderful time. As usual, this was a blog post worth reading.

  5. Loved your post. May not have been the words you intended to write but they helped me. Only problem is, now I feel like I should go back and rewrite this manuscript I just finished. Wanna beta read?

    • If I had the time to read I would love to!!

      • I have a ton of insecurities with this, my first, crime novel. I have a few people lined up to read, and my husband reads two or three a week (he should be the writer). He is going to alpha read for me. Then I will have betas, two at a time, between edits. Would love to have a seasoned crime fiction author do a read though. But I certainly understand. I don’t work outside the home, and I can barely find time to read blogs.

        • Have you considered an appeal to your facebook friends/followers?

        • My last book was not crime fiction. Don’t know if those followers would be the right mix. I do have some close author friends who are more than willing to read, and some not author friends. I’m just looking for a couple who specifically write crime fiction. This is the first book in what hope will be a series. Do you know of a Facebook group that consists of crime fiction readers/writers? (You are going to see a link in a sec to an article I did, but I posted the wrong website on it, so I am making a correction.)

        • I don’t know of specific groups like that – but maybe it’s time we started one!

  6. Great post Tim! I love dirty, low down protagonists (Jax included, of course) who can’t seem to sort up from down. The bigger their demons, the farther the story can stretch…the deeper it can dive. Piper is an interesting character. I haven’t quite taken to her, which is probably why I’m not completely sold on the show….but she’s a lot like my current protagonist. Maybe I need to revisit Orange is the New Black.

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