Thursday, June 30, 2016

Love to Hate: Unlikeable Characters

The other day, a friend and I were talking about Game of Thrones, and she throws out there that she loves Ramsay Bolton. You can imagine that this gave me a moment's pause. Ramsay Bolton is one of the most sadistic, horrible creatures to every grace the television (or movie) screen.

I got to thinking about two things: 1.) Why do people like characters who do terrible things? And, 2.) if you think about it, my characters are kind of horrible....

I guess I can only speak for myself as far as liking the bad guy. I have my limits. Unlike my friend, I don't like Ramsay Bolton. I kind of loved to hate him, but honestly I loved to hate Dolores Umbridge more. Why? Well, to quote George Washington in Hamilton, "Dying is easy, young man, living is harder." That, to me, is pretty close to, "Murdering and maiming people is easy, making them suffer in other ways is harder." To me, it verges on lazy to go the slice-and-dice route. Life and death is clearly the highest possible stakes, but not every moment of a person's life is that way. I want some variety in the way characters screw each other over. While the occasional physically ruthless character is nice, I want some psychological game-playing, too.

Let me give a few examples. Back to Dolores Umbridge. She's amazingly awful for a lot of reasons, but the big reason she's so particularly hateful in Harry's eyes is that she's destroying Hogwarts--the only real home he's ever known--right before his eyes. It's his safe place; she's demolishing that. Another example, this one from a historical novel I recently read (America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie): the narrator's father-in-law is a horrible old man: he marries another woman after the narrator's mother-in-law dies, disowns his eldest son (the narrator's husband), and then saddles that same son with all his debts (but none of the family wealth--so he just has to pay everyone else's debts!). How's that for sick? And no one died--well, the old man died of natural causes, but no one was murdered.

I'll give a related example from my own writing. One of my manuscripts, The Cotton Wars, features an old man who threatens to disown his twin sons (two of our main characters, who are a little twisted themselves) unless they marry women whom he deems acceptable. Because of this, the brothers end up embroiled in a feud. This hits the brothers right where it hurts, because they've always thought of themselves as inseparable, yet they learn that they're more than capable of hurting each other deeply. For me, that's also the fun of the story: the ways they find to hurt each other. They just can't help themselves, even though at heart they don't want to lose one another. Again, no one's being killed, but their minds are being royally messed with.

But why do people like terrible characters? Why do people like antiheroes and villains? A couple of obvious explanations come to mind. The villains are splashy; they don't play by the rules. Villains are a form of wish fulfillment. We can't kill and torture and maim without consequences, but that doesn't mean we don't have the urge to hurt other people. And we can come away thinking, they're splashy and cool, but I'm a better human being because I would never do that (in spite of that devil on my shoulder), and we also get the pleasure of watching those dastardly deeds. And antiheroes? Well, we can say to ourselves, Hey, if they can do all that bad stuff and still come away as the hero of the story, then maybe there's a chance for me yet.

So, when a beta reader for The Cotton Wars said, "My biggest concern is that I dislike both Charlie and Archie....Do you expect your reader to sympathize with them?", I gave a little cheer: "YES!" Because, no, I wouldn't expect readers to like them (though I love Archie to pieces). In fact, I don't want readers to like them, because they're morally questionable at best. I do want readers to enjoy reading about them. There's an important difference there: liking a character isn't the same as wanting to read about them.

I like getting into the morally gray areas. It's no fun if everyone's all rainbows and sunshine, but it's also no fun if everyone's just a murderous bastard. I want to see characters who are complex, who are doing interesting and creative things. What makes a good bad guy or a antihero is that mixture, that ability to jump back and forth. Because then you can really believe that they see themselves as the hero of their own story. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Bike Ride and a Bit of DC History

 It's a beautiful June day: the sun is shining, the humidity and temperature are low, and there's nothing to hold me back from a nice bike ride along the Potomac. If you don't know, the DC area is pretty bike-friendly. I live near the Custis Trail, which runs through Arlington, passes by the Key Bridge (into Georgetown in DC), then continues south along the river, past Memorial Bridge and Arlington Cemetery, and continuing on to Mount Vernon. I don't do it often, but I've been known to bike the 4.5 miles from home, down the Custis Trail, across Memorial Bridge, and around the Lincoln Memorial to work.
Today was less ambitious. I drove (avec bike) to the marina near the Navy-Merchant Marine Memorial. I hopped on my bike, went underneath the George Washington Parkway, came up, rode along beside the GW Parkway, and then went up onto the 14th Street Bridge.

Now, the 14th Street Bridge across the Potomac is actually a complex of bridges. There is the double-span bridge carrying cars across on I-395, there's a span carrying US Route 1, and there's a Metro and a railroad bridge, too. What a lot of people (consistently) forget is that DC really does have a long history. The site of the 14th Street Bridge today was the approximate site of the Long Bridge in the 19th century. That bridge was, well, a long bridge--about a mile long, linking Alexandria to Washington City. You had to pay a toll to get across, and during the war it was heavily guarded, as were the other bridges (further up the river, there was the Aqueduct Bridge near present day Key Bridge and the Chain Bridge, on the same site as today's Chain Bridge). Memorial Bridge, Roosevelt Bridge, and the two Beltway Bridges (the American Legion and Wilson Bridges) wouldn't exist for a long time.

[By the way, on the Virginia side, there's a Long Bridge Park with playing fields. It's right beside Reagan National Airport, so it's a great place to see the planes fly directly overhead at very low altitudes.]

After crossing the bridge, I passed by the George Mason Memorial. Poor Mason; his memorial was looking a little shabby today. I think they're doing some work. Most people who don't go to George Mason University aren't familiar with Mason, who was a Patriot from Virginia who was not a big fan of the Constitution when it was first written. In any case, just beyond that is the Jefferson Memorial. You know: the round, white, neo-classical temple right on the Tidal Basin, with a large black statue of Thomas Jefferson inside. It gets a lot exposure in cherry blossom photos, because it's absolutely stunning when the blossoms are at their peak.

Today, the Memorial was swarming with visitors. There's a broad plaza out front looking down to the water, and all along the Tidal Basin are pleasant, shady spots to spend a sunny June afternoon. There was a huge group of bikers in bow-ties, bowler hats, and pretty summer dresses--a wedding party, perhaps. A lot of paddle-boaters were out on the water, soaking up the sun.

A hundred and fifty years ago, of course, none of this was there. I don't just mean the Memorial wasn't there. That seems fairly obvious; it was built in the '30's. No, what I mean is that there wasn't even land there. This area, and the area north of it where the MLK Memorial and Lincoln Memorial now stand, was a tidal flat. In fact, the water went all the way up to the front yard of the White House, to what is now Constitution Avenue. Where the National Mall is now, there was a poorly drained creek called Tiber Creek. It wasn't until the late 19th century that the land was reclaimed. One little reminder of that is the old Lockkeeper's House on Constitution Ave. and 17th St. There was a canal there once upon a time, complete with locks, but now it's just landlocked (pun intended).
On my way back, I paused to look west and took a picture of the Pentagon (see below). Built during World War Two, it's a low-slung, unassuming building. I drove past it on the highway many times before realizing what it was.

There's history all over DC--about 225 years' worth of being the capital city, and an even longer history for Georgetown and nearby Alexandria. You just have to look. It's important to look around and recognize what a beautiful city this is, but also to recall how much it's changed along with this country. And it's absolutely worth the time to take a bike ride around the area and look not just at the monuments but at how they got to be there.

It's hard to tell, but that's the Pentagon.

Friday, June 10, 2016

What I Write

Since I kicked off this blog with a somewhat philosophical musing on why we (that is, I) write, I thought I would follow up with what I write.

I was asked the other day about what I write. I answered, "Historical fiction, set in the 1830's and 1850's." I was asked, "What sort of story is it--romance, mystery . . . ?" I said, "Well, the one is sort of romance-y, though a few people die at the end, so not so much. The other one, well, their basically they're all jerks to each other . . . then most of them die. Except for the biggest jerk, who lives." Great elevator pitch I've got there, huh?

The notebook I keep in my purse for
sudden inspirations.
As the above hints, my setting at the moment is antebellum America. It's largely set in the South, with all the baggage inherent in that, but I don't consider myself a Writer of The South or someone who writes all about Being Southern. I feel that only those who are truly, deeply Southern in their blood can do that. I can't quite call myself truly and deeply Southern in my blood. I'm from a border state (Maryland) after all. A little South, a little North. My parents, though, are from New Jersey and from Delaware by way of Kansas and Pennsylvania.

What I am is a hundred percent American, and I set out to show in my writing at least a little bit of the inter-connectedness of the North and South at this period. In the nineteenth century, there was no heavy, dark line between North and South. Not all slave states seceded. Not all Northern states were even so much as tolerant of blacks. Northerners invested in the slave economy. A few Southerners were vocal abolitionists (like the Grimke sisters). That's not to say that there wasn't one major difference between the southern and northern states: slavery. But it is to say that I didn't want to paint a simple picture or let anyone off the hook.

So my two completed manuscripts, currently with my agent, are set not just on the Sea Islands of Georgia, but also in Washington City and Philadelphia. Each place had its own, uh, idiosyncracies, shall we say. Washington City was backwards and half-built. The Sea Islands were a steamy, half-water-half-land place of swamps and rice.  And Philadelphia
Butler Island, GA
was the steady older brother to the other two, running with Yankee efficiency but still home to more than a few Southerners and "Doughfaces" (Southern sympathizers).

But of course, historical fiction writers aren't often content to stay in exactly the same place and time. I've written previously about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace (check out my blog all about it!), and I've been toying with the idea of a genre-mashup set during World War I. And of course, "Antebellum", strictly speaking, doesn't include the Civil War, and I fully intend to continue with the thread of my two Antebellum novels and take it into the war and beyond.

Speaking of the Civil War: I also have a novella under my belt set in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864. It's about a Confederate soldier who comes home from war with only one arm to find his farm has been destroyed and that there are some squatters in his house. I'm working on a companion novella, about a Southern lady and a Yankee soldier, set at about the same time in about the same place.

The future? Well, who knows. I've always been quite fond of the late 18th century and would love to write there again, this time in America instead of France. Who knows, maybe I'll stray to the Salem Witch Trials . . . only time will tell.