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Getting Ugly

You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

My freshman year in college, I lived in a large dormitory. It was a tough year, because I was bullied relentlessly by two other freshmen, one of whom was my roommate. While his assaults were verbal, the other guy, who lived down the hall, was far more threatening to me, with the hint of violence always looming behind his taunts. This guy – I’ll call him Jake – was a street-hardened bully from a rough part of northern Indiana, and I knew I didn’t stand a chance against him in a fight.

So I took the abuse. For months on end.

I found solace in my studies, attending what was then the largest music school in the world, so I could disappear into my musical world for most of the day. But eventually, I’d always have to go home.

One night I returned to my dorm to find Jake standing in front of my door, barring my entrance. He greeted me with the obscene nickname he and his buddy had come up with for me, which they found every possible occasion to use, often humiliating me in front of my friends and classmates. As I approached, he bobbed and lunged at me, daring me to try to get past him and open the door.

For some reason, on that particular day, I’d had enough.

Without thinking, I grabbed Jake’s head in both hands, and slammed his head against the door. Then we stood, staring at each other. Jake was speechless, his wide-eyed expression making me think he was probably feeling more surprise than pain. Whatever the combination, it did the trick. After a long moment, Jake walked away without a word.

But a weird thing happened once I got inside my room. In what should a been a triumphant Hollywood moment, I instead found myself feeling nauseated. While I’d been in the inevitable scrape or two as a teen, this was by far the most violent move I’d ever made against somebody. And now the thought of it was making me feel physically ill. And what was even weirder: I felt incredibly guilty. Even though that punk completely deserved what he got.

I’d never been a very aggressive or violent guy. By nature, I’m conflict-averse. (This is perhaps not a great trait for a fiction writer, since conflict is our stock-in-trade. But I digress…) Now I had learned in a visceral way that violence really just wasn’t in my nature. This was a surprising revelation to me, given how much I liked violent, action-packed movies and books. It was quite confounding: here was this bully who had tormented me for months, and now I found myself debating whether to go find the guy and apologize? Seriously, what the hell was going on?

It took a while, but I regained my composure, and realized that I’d just learned something important about myself, which has stayed with me to this day. I don’t like violence, but I know I’m capable of it. But I also know I will not find it satisfying, even when it’s the necessary step to take. This may not be a concept most women give much thought to, but for most men, violence is embedded somewhere deep in our DNA as a survival skill from our caveman days, and the ability to defend ourselves and our loved ones is a duty most of us feel some obligation to fulfill. We like to imagine we can be brave – and, with any luck – victorious. I had just learned that for me, even this brief moment of “conquering evil” didn’t feel at ALL like I thought it would. So I now knew more about what kind of man I was. I wasn’t necessarily happy about it, but there it was.

On the bright side, Jake never bothered me again. Oh, and no, I didn’t apologize. I might have a sensitive streak, but hey – I’m not stupid.

So what’s the point of all this introspection? For me, it’s that I learned a core truth about myself from a particularly ugly moment in my life. And recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how those ugly moments and sentiments can heighten the impact of our storytelling.

In which K.C. analyzes C.K.

Louis C.K. [1] is currently eclipsing many other comedians. In addition to having built a soaring stand-up career, he has been a successful writer for shows including the Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Dana Carvey Show, and The Chris Rock Show. And unlike many professional comedians, he is constantly refreshing his material – and purposely throwing away his best stuff – to force himself to write something better. To understand how unusual this is, watch this fascinating discussion [2] between several giants of stand-up, and you can sense their obvious admiration for Louis’ brutal self-imposed work ethic.

The thing that strikes me about Louis’ comedy is how completely willing he is to show the least noble, most embarrassing sides of himself. Even when you know he’s exaggerating, his jokes and stories have the ring of truth to them.

A powerful technique I learned from our own Donald Maass [3] is to have our characters be willing to say (and do) things that we would never have the nerve to say in real life. That’s Louis in a nutshell. If there’s a dark, embarrassing, awkward thought in his head, Louis freaking SAYS it, dammit. And the audience clearly relates to this kind of “emotional nudity,” suggesting that Louis is not alone in having such thoughts or experiences.

Bottom line, Louis’ success is no accident. He has figured out what gets the laugh, and he goes there fearlessly, totally willing to share his darkest thoughts, continuing to dig deeper and deeper into the emotional cesspool of his life and imagination – all in the name of making people laugh.

Another comedian who is absolutely unafraid of offending people is Bill Burr [4], with a ranting style that often shows the angry, combative, ugly side of himself. Yet Burr still finds ways to occasionally slip in a positive and/or thought-provoking message, punctuating his laugh-filled shows with sudden hushed moments of clarity. I’ll admit, I have a hard time sitting through an entire hour of his act, as he makes me alternatingly uncomfortable and hysterical with laughter. But I recognize good writing when I see or hear it, and I can tell that Burr has also figured out that the way to connect with people is to lay himself emotionally bare.

Most of my fiction has a humorous side to it, and when I first started, I thought that writing light, funny stuff would mean I never had to really expose myself emotionally. I’ve since learned how wrong I was. So it’s interesting and validating to see that many of the comic artists who are making the biggest impression on society today are the ones who are willing to share the most emotionally revealing – and often least flattering – aspects of their personalities. Call it a lesson from Louis.

Why is getting ugly so effective?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this. It’s a natural instinct that we all want the world to see our best selves (and our best selfies, for those so inclined). That tendency has been heightened over the past decade, as social media has radically changed the way many of us interact. We live in an age of “Instagram models” and “social media celebrities,” and the pressure to glorify and glamorize our own lives – at least the aspects that we share on social media – has become increasingly palpable. But deep down, I think we all know we are only seeing a fa├žade when looking at each other’s lives through the social media lens. Nobody’s life is perfect. To really get to know somebody, we need to become aware of their imperfections.

I submit that it’s the same with fictional characters. If you only show their noblest, most attractive qualities, your readers will know they’re not getting the full story. They may feel you are cheating them out of a true view of your characters, and there’s a good chance they will disengage – or never engage at all. But if you start to show the darker side of your characters, they become more real, more three-dimensional.

I’m not saying you need to reveal something dark or shocking about every single character. But as the author and creator of that character, you might find it helpful to come up with some ugly truth about them, just to better inform how you craft that character. Some writing methodologies call this the character’s “wound.” Author and WU all-star Lisa Cron [5] teaches it as a core “misbelief,” which may have allowed the character to survive some adversity early on, but later becomes self-deceptive or no longer correct, and starts to work against them.

While teaching at last year’s UnCon, Lisa delivered this great line, which to me goes a long way toward explaining our interest in the dark, the unseen, and the ugly:

“We come to story to understand what’s going on underneath the surface in the social world.”

A little ugly can go a long way

I do want to throw in a valuable insight I picked up from Donald Maass at a workshop I attended several years ago. Once you start exploring the flaws, wounds, and/or dark sides of your characters, it’s easy to go overboard. Donald suggests that we not dwell too heavily on what’s wrong with the character, pointing out that in real life, people who are nothing but darkness-and-problems-and-flaws (oh my!) are people we usually try to AVOID. The same can be true with our fictional characters. There’s a risk that if you get too caught up in developing a character who is basically one big hot mess, your readers might not want to spend too much time with that character. Food for thought…

It’s not easy being ugly

All of this may sound great in theory. But it’s not necessarily easy to explore our less noble or more disturbing thoughts – at least for me. Why?

One word: fear.

Despite ostensibly being a loud and outgoing person, I’m actually very private, and really REALLY do not like sharing deeply personal experiences or thoughts with anybody other than my most trusted family and friends. I mean, having these thoughts is one thing, but now you’re asking me to share them with the world? What if they don’t like it – and thus, don’t like me? What if they think I’m weird? What if they think I’m gross? What if they think I’m insane?

Welcome to writing, Keith. You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.

The reality is that some readers cannot mentally disconnect the writer from the story, and they assume everything we write about is something we have experienced. And they may express shock – or even revulsion – at some of the story ideas we come up with. (To this day I am still VERY uncomfortable writing sex scenes, because I cringe over the idea of somebody thinking that perhaps I fantasize about the acts I’m describing. I could never earn a living writing erotica, that’s for sure.)

The thing I have to remind myself is that the shock, revulsion, laughter, or whatever emotional reaction we elicit is the gold that we as authors are digging for. And the more we reveal, the greater the emotional impact. And that’s when we truly strike gold.

How about you?

Is it hard for you to explore the darker sides of your characters, or to share some thoughts and ideas that might not reflect well on you? If so, what are some ways you’ve tried to overcome the difficulty? Are there authors you think are particularly good at this? Are there characters who became unforgettable once you knew their ugly secrets? Any tips for being brave and writing through the fear? Please chime in, and as always, thanks for reading!

About Keith Cronin [6]

Author of the novels ME AGAIN [7], published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY [8] (published under his pen name Nick Rollins [9]), Keith Cronin [10] is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.