Thursday, 3 March 2011

Ban Baddies from Your Writing

I'm re-reading Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist at the moment, and remembering why I love it so much. She's a terrific writer and I learn so much from her. One of the lessons from this book I've been trying hard to apply to my more recent novels is: no baddies.

Baddies are people who go around in black hats. We know they're baddies because everyone hisses and boos when they enter. Baddies are fine in panto, but they don't have a place in most novels because they're one dimensional. They are defined by their badness, but nobody in real life thinks they're bad. I expect even the most appalling murderers feel they have justification for their actions.

In fact, if we understand and sympathise with a character, we can cheerfully accept their justifications for doing dreadful things. In The Talented Mr Ripley, Tom Ripley murders Dickie Greenleaf, then Freddie, and we're happy because we've taken on Tom's world view that he really has no alternative but to bump them off.

But Anne Tyler doesn't have baddies at all. Instead she has ordinary people who are in conflict with each other. In The Accidental Tourist, Macon and Sarah are recovering from the death of their child. They are both grieving, in their own ways. The trouble is, those ways are in conflict with each other. Sarah is trying to cope by talking about Ethan, Macon is trying to cope by systematising his life and not talking. Neither of these approaches are wrong, they're just different and the difference leads to conflict.

When I started writing my opposing characters were a bit one dimensional: they were defined by their 'badness' alone. Now I try to make my opposing characters good people, just ones who want different things from my main character. There will still be conflict, but the characters will (I hope) be more real and understandable.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/


blog said...

Hi Sarah - a great blog and one with which I 'almost' totally agree. I do think that all people have facets of good and bad and the believable character comes from where that balance is. Also, people change when the situation changes. When faced with a bad choice and a worse choice (rather than good/bad) for example. But I think some characters are wrong to write as someone 'with Daddy issues' or as 'just a bit misunderstood'. Some characters can be so dark that the balance is almost all (at least at the point we meet the character) at the other end of the scale. It's a little too liberal to think that 'there are no really evil people' - because there are. Yes, they might like to paint watercolours, enjoy opera and so on, but some people do have dark hearts - they think the unthinkable and do the undoable. For such characters, creating empathy for how they became what they are can be a mistake - yes, create understanding, but it doesn't have to be empathy.

Jim Murdoch said...

I've only ever written one bad guy in my life and since it was a short story and he was the only character it wasn't too hard. I actually liken most of my opposing sets of characters to double acts. It's never as simple as one is the funny man and the other the straight but like the best double acts the roles blur a little.

Sarah Duncan said...

But even really bad people ie people we consider as evil don't think of themselves as bad surely. And if we're writing them surely we have to get into their heads. I don't know - it's not an area I have much desire to write about. I know I have in the past had a problem by making my 'bad' characters too one dimensional, so they're defined by their negativity.

I like the double act idea, Jim. Where would Eric have been without Ernie? Or vice versa. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and all that.

Raquel Byrnes said...

I love how you broke this down. Yeah, I tend to steer clear of the baddies...the complex almost justified behavior of a person in tough situation seems to come across better.
Edge of Your Seat Romance

Sarah Duncan said...

Glad you liked it Rachel.