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The Itchy Reader

15751113410_1e904354b6_m [1]My daughter had a terrible first grade year. From October through June she cried, every morning and night, about going to school. She had stomachaches. She told me she wanted stay in bed and never go to school again. She clung to me in the hallway when I tried to nudge her into the classroom. When the teacher and principal were not able to do much, we had my daughter see a therapist, and we limped along until the last day of school.

With a new teacher in second grade, my daughter became herself again. She donned her signature Rainbow Couture, she literally whistled while walking to class, she was excited for school every single day, she helped me bake cookies for her teacher, and she was delighted when he promised he’d come to her violin recital. She cried on the last day of school, labeling him her most favorite teacher ever. Through third and now fourth grade, she has popped into his class on many occasions just for a visit. Quite simply, he changed her life.

But this winter, we learned that this most favorite teacher ever had been charged with a gross misdemeanor: sexual misconduct with a minor for immoral purposes.

This teacher is forty, married with two young girls; the victim, a newly sixteen-year-old girl, was a volunteer in his class. Of course he is innocent until proven guilty, but I have read the police report. The numerous texts and emails he allegedly sent this girl are disturbing and disgusting and predatory. The one-sided correspondence reveals a facet of this man that I—or anyone in our school community—never suspected.

[pullquote] The ambivalence is itchy. I want to plant my feet firmly in the I Despise This Man camp, but I cannot. So, I continue to scratch at the itchiness. [/pullquote]

I feel betrayed. I feel fear, anger and disgust. The victim trusted this man. His colleagues and students trusted this man. Our family trusted this man. Once a beloved teacher, he is now someone who will (most likely) forever be a registered sex offender. What a fall. What a disaster. What a terrible lapse in judgment. What a sickening act. But I feel more than just anger and disgust. More than sadness. My feelings are a tangled mess.

My friends with children who also adored this teacher, who also socialized with him and his family, know exactly what they feel: rage and betrayal. One went to his sentencing to shoot eye-daggers at him. Another sent him a single, simple text: Fu*% You. So what is wrong with me, that my feelings are not so clear? I think I am afraid and ashamed to consider that this teacher is, possibly, more human than monster, fallible just as I am. But I don’t like wondering how I am supposed to feel about someone who has (yes, allegedly) done this. The ambivalence itches and irritates me. I want to plant my feet firmly in the I Despise This Man camp. Instead, I continue to scratch at the itchiness. 

[pullquote] To scratch that itch, readers will keep turning pages. [/pullquote]

How does this relate to fiction writing? I know we are to create characters that fascinate our reader, not paper-dolls, but real, warm-skinned, warts-and-all people. Characters (including their desires AND how they seek those desires) make a story. But before this event, I didn’t fully understand this fact: the best characters don’t just make a story. The best characters itch our readers. To scratch that itch, readers will keep turning pages.

Not knowing how we are supposed to feel about a real person, in real life, is not comfortable. But in fiction? It is delicious. When a reader doesn’t know whether to condemn or to root for a character, when a reader can’t decide whether a character is monster or human, the writer has succeeded in creating a real person, one who embodies the mix of good and not-so-good we all have inside us. We read fiction, in part, to explore, to figure out our own selves. If this character is a monster, then what am I? If this character cannot hide his darkness, will I be equally unable to conceal my own darkness? Will this character ultimately be destroyed as a result of her monsterishness, or will she survive in spite of it?

Good. So how do we create characters that make a reader itch? These ideas often help get me started:

Consider what interests us about real people: their secrets, their ability to change, their motivations. What secrets do our characters hide? What core desire motivates them? To what extent are they able to change? We have to look at the conflict that is born of a character’s needs and wants. What are the risks if a character cannot get what he wants? What are the ramifications if he can? How far is he willing to go? The answers to these questions often connect to morality, ethics, and sin. Sin! Now isn’t that an itchy word!

Our ambiguous, uncertain, confusing world (whatever the setting) can inspire and mirror our characters’ moral ambiguity. Lucky for us, our world, the stage for our fiction, is filled with ambiguity. Is it acceptable for Jordan to hang two prisoners after ISIS burns a Jordanian alive? Should parents be required to vaccinate their children? Should the US lift the embargo with Cuba? May I spank my child? When we submerge our characters in a vat of the world’s messiness, we can see how the characters’ innards, along with their choices, often reflect this worldly mess.

Our characters don’t develop and evolve in a vacuum but in relation to others. I have the opportunity to be more interesting (disturbing, awkward, judgmental, naughty, funny, flirty, sassy) when I am interacting with others. So do you. Hence the dearth of reality TV that depicts a single writer writing. But create a reality show where people are stuck in a house or on an island or on a date? Things get interesting. In relation to others, and in relationship with others (from whom we cannot escape) conflict arises; our needs, motivations and desires are threatened or modified by the presence of others. As a result, juiciness arises: tension and competition, envy and passion, insecurity and lust. It’s the primitive elements that make a character—and a story—fascinating. Why? Because we are all driven by basic needs and base emotions. We all understand how being in relationship with others creates conflict. And conflict (and the choices born out of conflict) fascinate a reader.

Give the reader a chance to empathize with your characters. Yes, it’s nice to create sympathetic characters. We want the reader to sympathize (to feel “with”) our characters. But we can do better. When we build characters with whom the reader can empathize (feel “into”), the reader cannot help but place herself inside the character. Stepping into the skin of another? That’s powerful stuff, man. That connection keeps a reader reading. Consider how you personally empathize with your characters. You’re not so weird; if you can empathize with your character, there’s a good chance your reader can too.

Those are a few of my ideas. Now will you share? How do you draw on real life ambiguity to create characters that make your reader itch? To what extent do you empathize with your WIP protagonist? In which books, films and plays do you find good examples of empathetic characters who create ambivalence in the reader or viewer?

Thank you, friends, for sharing!

Many-legged elephant photo courtesy of Flickr’s cecilia saint-pierre [2].

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About Sarah Callender [3]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.