Why We Don’t Write Real Characters

You know how to develop characters. They have a past, a desire, a fear, a quirk. They are thrown into the crucible, and they change. They grow.

I know all this, too. I’ve read the how-to’s, and I’ve read the books where authors got it right, and I’ve practiced in my own writing. I’ve completed five novellas and cast several others aside in the middle of a first draft.

I’m about to release my third novella, The Trade. As followers of my blog know, I’ve quit writing fiction, but I decided to publish The Trade because my critique group and beta readers already put in so much work. It seemed silly and ungrateful of me to let it sit in my computer forever. A proof copy is on its way to me now.

And I’m not happy with it.

But why?

Yesterday I asked my Facebook friends what they liked to read. My sister mentioned that she liked books that make her laugh or cry—feel something. In that moment I realized what was wrong with my books, and I realized why I had the problem I did. What was wrong was that my characters weren’t real, and the two reasons that they weren’t real are deep, dark secrets. But I’m willing to share my deep, dark secrets because I learned from Oprah that if one person has a deep, dark secret, many others have it, too. Maybe ruminating on my epiphany can pull you out of the cookie-cutter character pit.

Deep Dark Secret Number One 

I got scared when people analyzed me based on my characters.

When I finished the first draft of my first attempt at a novel, I let several friends and relatives read it. The main character was, like me, a musician. Her biggest flaw was that she didn’t think she needed to be forgiven for anything. (Side note: This was long before a certain president announced the same.) When my mother-in-law read Ocean Floor, she commented “She’s you, isn’t she.” I was taken aback. Did my mother-in-law think that I thought I was perfect?

I chalked this up to irritating mothers-in-law and wrote on. Much later, I wrote the first few chapters of a book about four friends, one of whom hated that she had to accept charity from the others and had a lazy, lie-about husband. I gave the chapters to my mom, who said “This made me so sad!” She wasn’t sad because my storytelling ability overwhelmed her but because she was sure I felt like the charity-case woman. In addition, my husband (who’s been employed full-time our entire 21 years together) asked if the lazy husband was based on him. I stopped writing that book.

When I wrote Anaheim Tales, the twenty characters were described shallowly by design, but in every other story I wrote, my characters became better-written and less real. My writing didn’t even need a line editor anymore, but no one cared about my characters. Including me. I care about the Jeba I envisioned before I began writing The Trade, but I don’t give a fig about the Jeba who ended up on the page. The Jeba on the page hides her most real parts so that I can hide mine, too. And she hides her most real parts so that I don’t have to hear my family wonder “Does she think that, too?”

In essence, one reason we don’t write real characters is that we’re afraid to.

Deep Dark Secret Number Two

I stopped thinking real was real. 

When my dad beta-read Littlefoot Part One, he made the most surprising comment I’ve yet heard from one of my beta readers. He said that he didn’t think the man who ends up with Littlefoot was good enough for her. Usually when my beta readers make a comment, I think, “Yeah, I was afraid of that.” But this time I was floored. This time was the one analyzing myself based on my characters. Did I not understand human relationships?

I added an endearing sentence about the man and put the book on Kindle.

And maybe I don’t understand human relationships. Around the time I quit writing fiction, I was discovering that people I thought I knew voted for someone indefensible. I was left questioning my judgement about people, aloof, and too pessimistic to write close relationships. I’ve always thought it was irresponsible to depress the hell out of your readers, so I didn’t write anything. No one can ever be understood. Why should a fictional character be understandable then, or even tolerable?

I loved the Jeba who lived before I began typing, but is she even possible? If I faced my fear of being judged by her grittiest inner thoughts and made her more real, would she be real even then?

A second reason we don’t write real characters is that “real” is still not real.

Maybe this is why my roommate in college only read nonfiction. I still cherish the novels I loved in my youth, but my quest to write a novel for someone else to cherish may be over. If your quest for the same isn’t over, I hope that something here knocked your thoughts onto a tangential and helpful track. Keep me posted.

 

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Other Half (a poem)

OTHER HALF

By Rae Messenger

 

We mingle with our glasses full

of wine from someone else’s shelves

Not big on wine, I haven’t drunk

And soon we’re standing by ourselves

Now you have swallowed half of yours

Don’t worry, I add half my cup

Now mine’s half gone, but it’s okay

I’m happy to see yours filled up

About the time the party’s at

its liveliest and in full swing

I notice with a sigh that you have

Gone and drunk the whole damn thing

I don’t know why I’m doing it

(And someday maybe I can laugh)

But I look in your hazel eyes

And I pour out my other half

Into your glass, then comes along

An older woman, Botoxed lips

She eyes my liquid in your glass

“Half empty or half full?” she quips

“Half full!” you say, and she replies

“I really like the way you think”

But I have noticed (she has not)

That you are scared to take a drink

Someone conjures up more wine

You smile and ask me “Shall I pour?”

I clutch my empty, fragile glass

And I’m not thirsty anymore

 

You Know What You Can Do With Your Blog About Male Feminists

The other day on Twitter I saw a guy’s article about calling himself a feminist instead of saying he was a “male feminist.” The guy had a special-person blue check by his name. The gist of what he’d written was that men should just join the fight instead of making themselves seem special because they were “male.”

Or something.

Anyway, I commented in agreement and mentioned the SNL skit with the men talking about how hard women have it and when their women friends try to say something about their experiences, the men cut them off. It is so on target.

The guy “liked” my comment. He also thanked people who had commented “Great article” and such. But then some other men came on and told me that I was not a feminist because my page had nothing about women protesting in Iran and that mansplaining is not a thing and that it’s a sexist word to use. In short, obnoxious trolling.

So here’s what the saintly feminist (not male feminist mind you, because he’s better than guys who call themselves male feminists) did when I was getting harassed.

ABSOLUTELY FUCKING NOTHING.

So guys, I don’t care if you are going to call yourselves feminists, or male feminists, or fighters for equality, or whatever, how about actually standing up for women who are taking all kinds of shit for being women. Otherwise I don’t care what the fuck you call yourself, you’re just like the rest of them.

2017: My Year of Confidence

One of my favorite people to follow on Twitter is @annedorko. Why? She asks her followers about themselves, and I like to talk about myself. This is also one reason that New Year’s is my favorite holiday. No shopping, people staying up late with me, AND the acceptability of blathering on about your resolutions? Count me in!

Last year, I saw Anne’s tweet about having a theme for the year instead of resolutions, and although I’ve always loved resolutions (and mostly kept them although they were never too ambitious) I decided to give it a try. I quickly chose the theme “The Year of Confidence.” I don’t even remember why. The idea seemed to fall from above. Having confidence as my focus was more powerful than I imagined it would be! I mean who knew what a crazy year it would be, what with evacuating for the Northern California fires, my dog dying, the Me Too movement, and freaking Donald Trump as president. Okay, it wasn’t too hard to predict that he’d bring some craziness. Here are just some of the ways I used and increased my confidence.

I Made My Own Choices

I realized this year that I have a history of believing people when they say they know what’s best for me. Really I could have called this section Setting Boundaries. I am more confident about deciding what to do with my time and my self. Things as small as reminding myself that I don’t care what someone thinks of my daily choices and things as extreme as deciding to go back to a dentist who insisted I get a crown instead of having a tooth pulled five years ago and telling him that not being able to bite for five years is unacceptable and please pull the tooth now. It. Is. My. Body. (I haven’t done that one yet. See 2018 theme below.)

I Stopped the Negative Self-Talk

I caught myself saying “I’m lazy” OUT LOUD at least three times this year. Here’s the thing. I’m not lazy. I sleep in because I usually stay up until two or three. I have been on mom duty 24/7 for sixteen years, and as one of my genius sisters pointed out, “That’s a full-length career’s worth of hours. You can retire now!” I’m not lazy. I’m freaking exhausted. I work 8 hours a week at a music store (and have worked more hours in previous years) and drive my kid all over creation and play gigs a couple times a month and clean the bathrooms and write articles and blogs and books. I’m. Not. Lazy.

I Realized That Sometimes I AM the Expert in the Room

In 44 years, I have learned a lot, and especially about jazz, trombone, and writing. In fact, I’d venture to say that I know more about those things than 99% of the general population. It’s okay if I speak confidently about them! I used to worry about being overconfident or bragging to the point that I would assume the person speaking to me knew more than I did. Youngest kid syndrome? I don’t know, but I changed my perspective this year, at least with regard to those subjects.

I Continued to Work on my Confidence in God

All Christians struggle to fully trust God. Here’s just one example for me this year. Early in the year I got invited to play in a very cool band. This gave me the opportunity to work on confidence in myself in a big way. I didn’t feel cool enough or good enough, but I kept saying yes, and I kept showing up. But no matter how much I practiced, there was no guarantee that I’d continue to get to play in the group or even that the group would keep existing. No amount of personal confidence could assure that. So this is one of the things about which I have to say to God, “I trust you with this. I trust that you’ll either make it last or help me with the loss and/or rejection if it ends.” It might sound like a silly thing to care so much about, but after so many years of focusing on parenting and after last year’s realization that most of my unpleasant feelings about the jazz world had to do solely with the fact that I’m a woman in a 95% male world, this felt like a big comeback. There were more issues that I needed to work on having confidence in God with, of course. Some are too personal to share.

So what about 2018?

The first theme that popped into my mind when I asked myself this was “bravery.” I have no idea why. Maybe someone else mentioned it, but if they did I didn’t appropriate the idea consciously. It just sprang to mind. I decided to brainstorm for a while and came up with “fun” and “rest,” but I decided to stick with my first inclination, “The Year of Bravery.” I still have that dentist to confront, after all, and I have three books just waiting for me to hit “publish,” and God only knows what will happen to our beloved America in the next 12 months. Bravery will be required. I wish you all a year of confidence and bravery and whatever else you desire.

 

 

Dear Time Magazine, About That 2017 Person of the Year Short List

Dear Time Magazine,

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the group who decides your Person of the Year short list doesn’t have as many women as men. Does it have any women at all, I wonder?

I wonder because your list of 10 includes 7 men, 2 movements, and 1 woman. You might argue that the #metoo movement is about women, but I would beg to differ. Yes it started with Tarana Burke’s group for underprivileged girls, but when the movement went viral this year, men who had been assaulted said “Can we be a part of this?” Women said, “Of course. We want every victim to speak out!” So the #metoo movement, like the Dreamer movement, is multi-gendered.

By the way, if you wanted to get another woman on your list, Tarana Burke would have been a great choice, since you didn’t have a single woman of color. Colin Kaepernick got to represent #TakeAKnee, after all.

Another easy choice would have been the Women’s March or its organizers. I don’t know about anyone else, but that march affected me a lot more than Kim Jong Un spouting his ridiculous threats again this year.

The woman you did include, Patty Jenkins, was a great choice. Wonder Woman got the female director it deserved, and women got more representation on screen and behind the camera. How ironic that this is what Patty Jenkins did for us and you, Time, wrote about it but didn’t learn anything from it. Representation matters. When a kid sees your list of who mattered this year, they will see that men mattered. It would only have taken a minute to look at your list, notice that it’s mostly men, and make a change. Mueller may be the person who changes everything soon, but this year it was Sally Yates.

Check yourselves.

M.L. Millard

 

Update: At LEAST Me Too and the “Silence Breakers” did end up the “Person” of the Year and Tarana Burke was pictured and given credit in the article. It was a powerful article, and I’d like to add my thanks to the women who came forward with their stories of abuse by Bill Cosby. While that was mostly before 2017, it was definitely the beginning of a culture of women coming forward about the likes of Harvey Weinstein.

I Kissed a Guy Without Consent

Lately I’ve been talking about consent a lot on social media. I shared that brilliant video about not forcing people to drink tea. When Angela Lansbury said attractive women have to bear some of the blame for assault sometimes, I responded with a meme of Donald Trump saying “Wrong.” When a friend of a friend said that nonverbal communication is tricky and some women get dressed up with one intention and some women with another, I said, “That’s why you use verbal communication before making a move. It’s not difficult.” My husband asked me if he could kiss me before our first kiss. At the time I thought it unnecessary for him to ask, but how was he to know that?

When the topic first blew up, part of me was thinking, “You know you did it once.”

I was a sixteen-year-old girl, and I’d never been kissed. I was at my first party without parents (and boy did I get in trouble for that later) and my super cute friend was on a couch all by himself. A couple years before, a group of us had been looking at each other’s tongues (don’t ask, it was a high school band bus ride before cell phone entertainment was available) and he’d said something about wanting to kiss me. But did that mean he wanted to kiss me a couple years later or even that he was serious at the time? No. Obviously.

I knew he’d be seeing all my social media posts, and I felt like a hypocrite. So I sent him a message apologizing. Was it terrifying? Yes. Did I put it off for a while telling myself that I knew I wasn’t a predator and was pretty sure he didn’t see me that way either and it would probably be okay if I never messaged him? Yes. But finally I made myself do it.

And he was totally nice.

There are a lot of people saying that consent is complicated or that women “asked for it” out there. I would imagine that most of those people feel guilty about a moment from their past just like I did, and that’s why they’re defending that behavior. It’s time for a change. Send the message! Admit that you’re learning! This is what it’s going to take. It’s NOT EASY. What’s easy is getting defensive. You’re seeing a lot of anger and deep down you know it’s also directed at you. Send the message. The person you kissed without permission or buttslapped has not forgotten. You’re not going to be admitting to something they’re not already thinking about as #metoo trends. Send the message and then join the fight. For your kids. For all our kids. It’s working.

Not All Women

As we women begin to wonder whether every man with a little political power has sexually assaulted someone, as we begin to wonder whether maybe men in congress should be replaced with women “until we get this thing figured out,” I am sure that many of you are thinking “not all men.”

I KNOW not all men are molesters. I know that. But the phrase “not all men” got me thinking about all the things I want to say “not all women” about.

Not all women fold under pressure.

Not all women are teases.

Not all women are frivolous spenders.

Not all women will stop having sex with you after marriage.

Not all women gossip.

Not all women are worried about their clock ticking.

Not all women are cranky before their periods. (I get forgetful, not cranky.)

Not all women are worse than you at math.

Not all women are on diets.

But ALL women DO know that not all men are molesters. The problem is that we never know which ones are, because sometimes it’s pretty surprising who turns out to be the one. I challenge you, before you say “NOT ALL MEN,” to ask yourself if there’s anything you’ve generalized about women before and ask yourself if, after some of the surprising perpetrators we’ve found out about recently, you can blame women for thinking “I know not all men, but I just don’t know which men, and so it feels like all men.”

It doesn’t feel good to be generalized down to a caricature of your gender, does it. So don’t do it to us.