The reason I don’t write much fiction is simple.
For fiction to be powerful, characters have to face challenges, have to be forced by conflict to make hard choices which reveal who they are under their everyday exterior.
They have to have some kind of revelation, which means they have to have some transformation between their facade and the next level down. They may be knowingly hiding who they are, or they may just have never been tested before, never had to dig deeper to find what is underneath.
Characters have to peel back like flowers, shedding something to reveal more about themselves. That’s the heroes journey, as we all know.
My problem is that I have real trouble creating characters who are making bad choices. Writing a character who doesn’t see a better way, who is stuck in the past, who is venal & manipulative, who is just dumb, is hard for me, even if I know that they have to be that way in order for them to reveal new through the arc of the story.
I get squeamish when I see characters in fiction doing stupid and embarrassing things. Many people may find their being clueless funny, a bit of schadenfreude, but I feel very bad for them. My compassion doesn’t want them to be humiliated or laughed at, even if that is a key to the story.
For most of the world, this isn’t a problem. They believe in fiction, believe in happy endings, knowing that in the end baddies get what they deserve and goodies find a way through. They can watch stories and feel confident that whatever shit happens, the outcome will be right, because that’s how normies approach their lives. Queers, on the other hand, know that often the cost comes down on those who are struggling the most anyway, ending up scapegoated, abused and bereft. For us, good and evil is never a simple binary.
When I watch stories, I am always seeing other choices that characters could make which would lead to better outcomes. Having been glued to the TV set for the first fifteen years of my life, though, I know that virtually every sitcom plot is about someone making a bad choice, usually trying to conceal something that is going to come out in the end anyway. Without that bad choice, no story, and without a story, nothing to hang the characters actions on.
Bad choices make easy writing, because bad choices almost always lead to squirming, which an audience who knows better than the character is going to enjoy. We want to see their vitality, not their virtue, because joie de vivre is infections while moral choices rarely are.
People do the best they can do in the moment, making the best choices that they can make right now. When they know better, they will do better, however many tries it takes them to learn.
Writing those people making shallow, unpleasant choices is just hard for me, even though I know that if they don’t have anything to learn, they don’t have much of a story to be told. Sure, maybe people would engage my writing more if their were simplified tales that engaged them daily and resolved over time, but trying to write those stories seems like having to spend too much time with people making bad choices.
This doesn’t mean I don’t have deep empathy with those who are making bad choices, those who have made bad choices in the past. Everyone gets stuck between rocks and hard places, forced to block-punch. There are never, ever any perfect choices to make, because every choice has a cost, a downside that can be very killing.
When I tell a little story about people looking into a magic mirror, say, using the glass to imagine something that they cannot yet embody in the world, I don’t just see vanity or stuckness, I see dreams that are dashed in a hard and challenging world. They need their affirmation to face the brutal choices that the world lays on us, between class, ethnicity, biology and history, for example.
I don’t, though, have the energy to get immersed in those stories enough to want to make them manifest, entering the pain and suffering just so I can take characters through crushing challenges that might just leave them better and stronger to claim a bit of happiness, or then again, might just kill them.
Authors can’t get too invested in their characters. If those characters don’t stumble and get hurt and be challenged, there is no story to tell. The only characters who can’t be disposable are the ones you need to keep around for the next installment, and they will be automagically healed in the interval anyway.
I know why fictional characters reveal who they are by making bad choices. I know why those bad choices set them up for challenge and revelation. I know that there are no stories without that kind of stress.
While I know that, it doesn’t mean that I like writing that. It gives me a bit of dyspepsia to make characters suffer in venality or stupidity just to give an audience a bit of a sensational thrill or to make them feel superior.
And that’s why I tend to avoid fiction, especially long form fiction, even if I do love the power of stories.
The real life stories, well, they do it for me.