I’ve been trying to write a new short story lately. I have a great title for it, but the story just isn’t coming. I know what I want to say with it, but therein the problem lies: the complexity of real life is incredibly difficult to achieve in fiction, especially short fiction. Life is so screwed up that if you actually try to create something real to life in literature it seems convoluted, contrived, and simply fake.
I suppose what I’m running into is the creation of multiple, flawed characters whose flaws are first and foremost not readily apparent, but which come into direct conflict.
Actually, when I put it like that it seems very easy. Here’s the quirk: the flaw is actually associated with a specific event. Either it’s amplified by the event (very likely), or it appears as a result of the event (unlikely) or it is embodied by some issue unrelated to the event, but which when the event occurs takes a different form of expression (which most mirrors real-life psychology).
So here’s a question for all the fiction authors out there: how do you handle this sort of interaction? How do you create characters with flaws which fall into the four standard categories [(a) flaws you know that no one knows, (b) flaws you know that everybody knows, (c) flaws others know that you don’t know, and (d) flaws that you don’t know that nobody knows]?
I’m going to venture a guess here and say that the answer to this depends on whether the persons are supposed to be protagonists, antagonists, or on opposite sides of the spectrum. In popular culture, the “bad” guys are usually those whose flaws have overtaken them, or do bad things due to their flaw, whereas the “good” guys are usually those whose flaws have been overcome. This can usually be seen in the way villains are humanized. (A perfect example of this is “Mr. Glass” in Unbreakable, where the audience is drawn in to pity the guy, believing that he’s turned all his misfortunes into positives (owning an art gallery) only to find out that they instead led him to be a monster in search for proof of his hypothesis.)
But what happens when there is no clear protagonist or antagonist in the story, where you know the character you’re cheering for is in at best an ambiguous “right”, and the character you’re not cheering for is in at best an ambiguous “wrong”? What happens then (other than a really good, heated book club discussion)? There are those stories in which the person who you’re cheering for the entire time turns out to be the bad guy. These stories are usually enjoyed better during the second reading when you as the reader realize that the author was pulling you in a certain direction all along in order to dash your hopes. Reminds me of the Futurama episode where Tinny Tim tells Bender, in his pathetically optimistic tone, “You raised my hopes and dashed them quite expertly. Bravo, sir!”
I’ll be thinking about this for a while while I put together a few short stories for which I’m currently scribbling ideas.