Loving Even Our Darkest Characters

My mother and father weren’t huggers, nor were many of the other adults where I grew up. Reticent Midwesterners all, they rarely offered more than a firm handshake. As I went through my adult years, my world expanded to include people for whom hugging was natural, and increasingly I found myself in social and professional settings where such displays of affection were common. It took me a while to get used to accepting, and then even offering hugs of my own, but little by little I began enjoy the closeness. Now, in this time of social distancing, being able to hug friends may just be what I miss most of all. It’s only human for us to long for such affection. It’s one way we communicate with one another, and there’s plenty of scientific evidence that suggests the mental and physical benefits of hugs. To have that taken from us is no small thing.

This absence of hugging in our physical world, leads me to think about our fictional worlds and the affection we show, or don’t show, our characters. I don’t believe I’ve ever written a character whom I didn’t love, and, yes, that even includes the more despicable ones. Sometimes I have to work harder to muster a love for them, but in trying to understand the sources of their contemptible actions, I usually manage a degree of empathy that I choose to call love.

We know that we’re all imperfect, and we make mistakes all the time, some of them small and some of them large. Sometimes I see my characters about to go down the wrong path—about to make a choice that will cause either them or someone else heartache—and I cringe for what’s about to happen. I could stop them if I chose, but just like parents who have to let their children make their own mistakes, we writers have to let out characters find their own trouble. We may want to hug them to us to keep them from the grief they’re about to cause, but we have to let them go. We have to understand they have free will. No matter how much it may hurt us to see the people we’ve created do stupid things, we have to permit the chain of choice and consequence, no matter how damaging, no matter how dire.

A wrong act is a complicated thing, particularly for those of us who know the circumstances behind it. The sadness, the temper, the disgust, the yearning, the fear, the desire, the evil, the good—it all gets mixed up together, and if we’re paying close attention, we see that amalgam for what it truly is, a sign of our common vulnerability. We are all, at one time or another, people in need. Our characters are no different. Need is usually the impetus for action. If writers understand that, they’re well on their way to embracing the complicated truth that it’s possible to love someone at the same time you disapprove of what they choose to do. Only then can we create multidimensional characters who’ll be memorable.

The next time you’re creating a character, let them do something you wouldn’t condone—something that carries certain consequences. Then take the time to understand the source of that behavior. Pay even your darkest characters the respect of understanding their needs. Love them even as you recoil, even as you let them go.



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