Recently I was talking to a friend about her mother’s death. Losing a parent—especially the only parent you had left—sends the world spinning off its axis. It can feel like a free-fall into grief. “But it’s also liberating,” my friend said. “Is that an awful thing to say?” The answer is no, because it’s true. While parent/child relationships are often complicated (my God, what would we all write about if human relationships were straightforward and easy?), the death of a parent brings enormous loss. We lose the buffer between ourselves and our own mortality; we lose a generation and the values and events and memory that shaped them; we lose the individual who shaped us, for better or for worse.
But it’s also liberating. Suddenly we are free to be and do things completely apart from our parents’ expectations or rules or hopes or disappointments. We are different people without our parents, no matter how young or old we are when we lose them. We can serve tapas on Christmas eve instead of roast beef, move to a different house or different town or different job or different relationship, take up the hobby Dad thought was a waste of time and money, go on the trip Mom worried was too risky. Those are just the obvious, external examples. How a parent’s death frees us to BE someone different is yet another piece of the story.
And this proverbial two-edged sword—we lose, we gain—is at the heart of writing fiction. It’s the key to character, because every character is both good and bad. It’s the key to plot, because every obstacle offers an opportunity to conquer that obstacle, to face down a challenge or a fear. And it’s the key to story, because every compelling story involves a win and a loss.
As you write, think about the flip side of your character and your story. Maybe your character is a young woman who’s calm and emotionally balanced and poised under pressure, the rock of her family. But there’s a flip side to all that stability, too. Maybe she can’t empathize with her husband or brother or the child who feel things more intensely than she does, so her relationships are distant, a step removed from real intimacy. You can find this duality in Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel Less, featuring a mild-mannered, polite, not very successful middle-aged protagonist who seems to let life sweep him up in its currents and carry him along. He’s soft-spoken, innocuous, not memorable. Yet he has an innocence, a kindness, and a sweetness that make him unforgettable, and that lead those around him to act in remarkable ways.
The flip side is critical for antagonists, too. I play a game called “Monster Confessions” in the creative writing workshops I teach to kids, in which I ask kids to write a monologue from a bad guy’s point of view. I’ve had students write “confessions” by the big bad wolf, by Harry Potter’s Professor Quirrell, by Jugo, the bad guy in a Japanese Manga series. What I love about all of their essays is the way the students manage to find the common thread of humanity in every villain, the vulnerability or wound that is the flip side to all that evil.
Think about the flip side as you write your scenes. Maybe your character is facing an obstacle that you know he will surmount by doing XYZ. But what if you turn that around? How would it change your story or your character if he couldn’t overcome that particular obstacle? What would happen next?
Exploring the two sides that are part of every story can be unsettling, to readers as well as writers. One of the characters in my third novel was a mother (Rita) who was indifferent at best, and dangerously irresponsible at worst. Yet, she ended up providing some insight and perspective when her adult daughter became entangled in a mess of her own making. “I ended up liking Rita,” one of my friends said to me after reading the book. “Was I supposed to like Rita? I didn’t want to like her.” Exactly.
What’s your main character’s flip side? What’s your antagonist’s flip side? How do you deal with exploring both sides in your stories?
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