Wednesday, March 16, 2011

LEARNING TO BE MEAN OR, NO MORE MRS. NICE GUY



I have a serious problem. I'm too nice.



You see, I was raised to "Be nice," and "Don't talk back," and "If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything," and "Don't get dirty." Also, I'm Canadian and frankly, we are very polite.



This attitude sucks when it comes to my stories. Because I don't want my characters to suffer. I don't want anything bad to happen to them. I want to take the roadblocks out of their way and kiss their booboos. And the thought of actually--perish the thought--hurting them makes my stomach clench.



This is not good. I mean, characters have to suffer. They have to overcome obstacles and hardships, the harder the better. Right? After all, who wants to read a story where everything goes well and then they live happily ever after?



Writing has become a constant struggle between my "nice" nature and my story's needs.



I've tried to change. When I turned 40, I decided it was time to fight back against the Mrs.-Nice-Guy Syndrome. Time I stood up for myself. Spoke out when I had an opinion. Stared down my adversaries, if I could find any.



I've been working at it for years but I still apologize to the server when I send a dish back.



Well, this nice thing is going to stop. It's time to get a little dirty. There won't be any more Mrs. Nice Guy here. Not for my characters. And if some of that meanness spills over into my life, well, just stay out of my way and no one will get hurt.



In my next post, I'll let you know how my efforts to become evil are going. I figure I have to be at least as bad as my bad guys to do what needs doing to my characters.



Stay tuned.

36 comments:

Wynter Daniels said...

Ha! I've had the same issues. I'm a peacemaker more than a Mrs. Niceguy, though. And my characters can't peacefully get along. Good luck with your evil transformation!

Toni Anderson said...

God, me too!

"I'm sorry you walked into me."
Must be my fault :)

I have trouble being mean to my characters too. Need to become EVIL like you, Marcelle. I am watching with anticpation for your 'EVIL' post :)

Marcelle Dubé said...

Thanks, Wynter. I think I'll need the luck.

Toni, we could start our own club! "Evil Doers 'R Us"! What do you say?

Cynthia Gael said...

There must be something wrong with me...I actually enjoy being Mrs. Meaniehead to my characters!

You see, I'm just like you in real life. I apologize for things that are not my fault. I take the blame for anything that goes wrong, even when nothing could be done to avoid it. Then, when all is said and done, I think of all the horrible things I could have said to make me feel better, but didn't.

This is where my writing comes in. It gives me an outlet to say those things I'd never say in person. It gives me an outlet to be mean. To create conflict. And, heaven forbid, hurt someone like I'd never do in real life.

Not to say I have an S and M bone, but my advice is to use your writing just as I do. Let it be your outlet. Let your characters come to represent all the meanieheads in your life, and strike back. With a venganence.

There can be no story without conflict, after all. And this is the best (and most legal!) way to let go of your frustrations!

=D Hope this helps!

karen abrahamson said...

Gosh you guys, you all sound like honorary Canadians! I always start from the point of 'what is the worst that could happen in the situation the character is in'. A long time ago I sat through a Donald Maass workshop and he talked about writing down the worst things that could happen to your character in terms of what would they never say or think or do, and then think about how you can make them say/do/ think those things in the manuscript. That has stuck with me through all my writing.

Barbara Longley said...

Writing is a little bit like acting, don't you think? You have to separate yourself from who you are, and become the antagonist. Take on that persona; be that person. Make that character three dimensional with depth, feelings and goals that have a solid motive. You can do it. Set the Canadian Nice aside, and become someone else.
I don't do real dark evil. I don't read it either, though.

Erastes said...

I'm like Cynthia in that I adore torturing (in one case, absolutely literally) my characters. In fact someone summed up my themes yesterday as ""EVERYTHING IS GOING WRONG. AND MORE WRONG. AND WRONGER THAN WRONG."

which made me laugh a lot.

But then...I'm not as nice as you in real life, perhaps I'm older and just not prepared to suffer bad service etc!! Goodluck with the toughening up!

Amanda said...

I have had a lot of different problems while writing, thankfully this hasn't been one of them. Though now that I think about it I'm not exactly sure why.

I guess it's because I don't "relate" to my characters that way. I've been asked a couple of times now which of my characters I have the most in common with - which one's I'm like. This always sort of baffles me because I don't think I'm much like any of them. When I draft characters I often start with a single trait I either really admire or really despise and draw the characters out from there as I establish the plot.

Perhaps there is something you can do to make this process easier when you are first generating characters. Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I'm a plotter so I go through lots of stages in character creation - coming up with strengths and weaknesses and then determining how I can exploit them within the plot is one of the most useful tools I used.

And I second Karen's suggestion about working out "worst case" scenarios and determining where your character's limits are and figuring out why those limits...

Marcelle Dubé said...

Cynthia, doing evil as therapy... hmmm... that has serious potential. Thanks!

Karen, I always imagine you sitting at your computer and cackling away as you put your poor characters through yet more angst!

Thea Hutcheson said...

I have the same problem. Then I created Sophia Weldon. Her entire purpose in my life is to let me practice being mean to her. I have done some terrible things to her. And yes, I use the idea of what is the worst thing I could to her. Just let it all go. It's not nicey nice you. It's a character. The impulses are there. You just are so could at shutting them off before they make it to your conscious level, that you aren't aware of them. Stream of consciousness journaling helps. Watching the news helps. Good luck. It's hard, but it pays off.

Robert said...

You have it all wrong: Canadians are not so much polite as passive aggressive. Sure you apologize when you send the dish back to the kitchen, but note that the underlying action here is that you are indeed complaining. Canadians say "excuse me" a lot, because we are butting into line and elbowing people out of our way. We have just learned to reduce the social friction by saying something polite as we're doing it.

And I reject the suggestion that characters always have to suffer in a story to make it work. Okay, that maybe true it you want to sell to American markets, but if you are primarily interested in writing good stories, the non-suffering bystander makes as good a POV character, especially if s/he can indulge in some politely pointed editorializing....

Embrace your niceness -- and the sneaky, passive aggressive behaviours it masks.....

Marcelle Dubé said...

Barbara, I'm a terrible actress. My face tells you everything I'm feeling, all the time. A terrible disadvantage. However, I'm willing to try anything.

Erastes, can I come over to your house and learn at your feet? :-)

Mark S. said...

It's funny, even though I have this problem in real life, I don't often have it in my fiction. Maybe that's where my darker side pops its head up. I'm sometimes a little taken aback myself by the stuff that comes out of my keyboard.

I'm not sure your problem is as much a good vs. evil thing as it is a common writing roadblock that rears its head in many different ways: Namely, the difficulty of turning off your internal editor (some people call it the "internal censor") while you are writing. The evil old int-ed is a millstone around your neck when you're trying to let your subconscious roam free.

Worrying about spelling, grammar, fonts, formatting, propriety, political correctness, non-political correctness or what your characters are feeling while you are composing your story is your internal editor trying to distract you and pull you out of the creative, "letting-go" state.

I don't have a magic solution for this, but I suggest simply the word "later!" You're not ignoring typos or impropriety or your characters' feelings, you're just putting them off till later.

Marcelle Dubé said...

Amanda, I'm pretty much a pantser, but I think you've got a good point there about working out at least some aspects of my characters on paper ahead of time. And much as I tease Karen, she also has a good point about asking, "What's the worst thing that could happen?"

Marcelle Dubé said...

Thea, you must have interesting dreams! I think you're onto something with the journaling idea. And I have to admit that getting angry has resulted in some pretty fine fiction. Disturbing, yes, but also some of the best stuff I've done.

Robert, you empower me! I will embrace my niceness as a cover for my evilness. So, if my characters don't have to suffer, can they at least have conflict?

Elise Warner said...

We now know the nice Marcelle--I look forward to meeting the meanie. And yes, Canadians are lovely. While on vacation, in Canada, we stood under a tree to avoid the rain and a perfect stranger offered to drive us to our hotel.

Marcelle Dubé said...

That's good advice, Mark. And I do have problems with my internal editor. The only way I've been able to deal with the bugger is to write as fast as I can, thus circumventing it. Unfortunately, I'm a pantser, which means lots of pauses as I try to figure out, "Okay, now what?" That's when the Evil Internal Editor works his mischief. (Yes, my internal editor is male.)

Marcelle Dubé said...

Elise, I'm glad our reputation is safe. :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi, Marcelle:

At a recent workshop I wrote a short story which has the most nasty jerk you'd never want to meet as the hero. The 4 editors who read it hated the character, but still wanted to buy the story. I did this to stop being so "Canadian".

Evil or bad characters do spice up a story and add depth. We all know people (yes, even Canadians) who we don't like. When I think of those people I exaggerate them in my writing and usually get a very unpleasant character the reader can dislike.

The opposite is true for the protagonist. You have to ensure the character is not too nice so much so they are perceived as stupid or naive.

It's always a challenge to determine when you've gone far enough with a character or too far.

Read a James Paterson novel some time to see how nasty a villain can be. I've winced more than once while reading his books.

Anyway have fun and beat up a few characters for me will ya!

Take care,

Russ

Marcelle Dubé said...

Hi Russ! Good advice, but I can't imagine I will ever write a Paterson villain. Ever. When I said I wanted to be more evil, I didn't mean more EVIL!

Betsy said...

I'm with you, Marcelle. Sometimes my characters are so sweet they just irritate the heck out of me. Which is kind of good because then I want to beat them up :)

Julie Moffett said...

I like when characters are more snarky than downright mean. I often add a bit of humor to it and soften it a bit. :)

Taryn Kincaid said...

Oh, I don't mind torturing them a little.

As long as I can heal them up, too, and give them a nice HEA!

Marcelle Dubé said...

Betsy, sounds like a bit of reverse psychology at work!

And I like a snarky character, too, Julie, only they usually end up being the good guys.

Taryn, you don't fool me. You're just a hopeless romantic!

MaureenAMiller said...

You've inspired me, Marcelle. I think in the next scene I write I'm going to have my heroine shoot spitballs at the bad guy. :)

Marcelle Dubé said...

I can see your villain trembling in his boots, Maureen...

Shirley Wells said...

You send a dish back? Wow. We Brits would risk food poisoning rather than send a dish back. :)

I love making my characters suffer so long as I can make everything right at the end.

Toni Anderson said...

LOL @ sending the dish back Shirley. I thought the same!!! She's already mean enough :D

Marcelle Dubé said...

Shirley & Toni -- I never realized. It's not that I'm not mean enough... I just live in the wrong place!

syrimne said...

I probably have a strange take on this, but it parallels what a lot of people have written already, especially in regards to the inner critic and the niceness factor being more of a social veneer. I am like you in real life, but in fiction I can embrace my inner serial killer. I guess I would agree it's a lot like acting, really, but I also view acting this way, too...everyone has the potential to be everything, if they're really being honest with themselves. I don't mean that in a cynical, "people are bad" way at all, I just truly believe that people are incredibly complex and are pulled and pushed by numerous drives and neuroses and issues, some biological and some purely social. Compound that with the fact that there are a lot of damaged people running around, in both minor and major ways.

I personally never believe people when they say they would never hurt someone...or even kill another person. I've been in situations where people were panicking and/or their lives were in danger and you wouldn't believe the crazy things "nice" people do at those times (and the incredibly heroic/brave things they do, too).

So yeah, as hokey as it might sound, I think it's about embracing all parts of who you are in your potentiality...legally, as someone said above. :) In that sense, writing can also bring you to understand yourself in a fuller sense, as a more multi-faceted human being who, "there but for luck, upbringing, etc..." walks you.

I actually think that's healthy...or healthier than repression anyway...in that it's more honest. We all have the tendency to be struggling, angry, mean, selfish, brutal people. We choose not to be for a number of different reasons, including compassion, empathy, social acceptance and so forth...but I can always imagine scenarios where I could turn into that (try going without food for a week...your whole view on what's "nice" might change pretty drastically). Or, conversely, try seeing someone you love with a gun to their head. It would make you view your capacity for violence differently, I would imagine. So my advice would be, go deeper, in terms of yourself.

So I have now supplied the "woo-woo" component to this discussion. :)

I would also say have fun with it, though - it's a blast playing with this stuff in writing. I think I really would be a repressed fruitcake if it wasn't for my writing anyway. It gives me permission to have as I've heard it said "an abundance of feeling" without worrying it will have negative consequences apart from the occasional squelchy factor for myself and/or readers.

julie

Marcelle Dubé said...

Julie, thank you for your thoughtful, thought-provoking post. You're right, of course. We do carry many possibilities within us.

I know that I have a capacity for violence if I need to protect someone I love. Or if I'm pushed too far. And I've had several instances in my life where the crocodile brain kicked in and I reacted completely instinctively, with no societal "veneer" involved.

But otherwise, I always play "nice."

I think good writers can access their inner multitudes more easily. It's something I'm working on.

Louisa said...

Hey, Marcelle!

Interesting discussion! To throw in another POV -- the reason I write "bad guys" in the first place is to help understand the "why." Writing from the evil insides of someone's dark mind is not something I enjoy when the storyline is a serious one. Part of being a writer, though, is being able to put yourself in your character's shoes, think their thoughts, act on their instincts and desires. Yes, we all have our "dark side." I'm thankful every day that I'm not like that and celebrate all the goodness that surrounds me when I come up out of that hole. That way I can continue to do research, to find out what motivates someone to dismember another human being or molest children in unspeakable ways and then carry that motivation into a character so that character comes across as authentic and not end up feeling like slime lives in my brain instead of a human.

I know you don't intend to become "evil" (and sometimes "Evil" can be fun, don't get me wrong :<). My point is you do not have to become someone you are not in order to write truly nasty characters. You've got the bones. From my perspective - all you need to do is give yourself permission to write from inside the bad guy's mind instead of your own.

Miss you!
Louisa

Marcelle Dubé said...

Hi Louisa! Lovely to "see" you. Thanks for adding to the discussion. I doubt I'll ever become truly evil (although, under the right circumstances...). I can't stand reading about serial killers, or child abusers, etc. If I can't do that, how can I explore the depths of human possibility?

Maybe the problem is that I fear going into that darkness. What if I can't find my way out?

Barb Galler-Smith said...

Marcelle--this is surely a perfect topic for a week-long writer's retreat! Or at least a workshop. Or a convention panel...if you're coming to Keycon, I'd be in the front row taking notes on how to not be nice.

Barb Galler-Smith said...

Marcelle--this is surely a perfect topic for a week-long writer's retreat! Or at least a workshop. Or a convention panel...if you're coming to Keycon, I'd be in the front row taking notes on how to not be nice.

Marcelle Dubé said...

Oh my, Barb... we could do role playing! I get to try out the "wicked" role!