I read Walter Mosley’s This Year You Write Your Novel a few years before I wrote mine. I knew who Mosley was because of a Denzel Washington film that’d been adapted from one of his novels. Figured his how-to book was worth a few dollars in fines from the VPL.
Early in it, he articulates a problem I had a devil of a time handling. That I still can’t figure out. If you’re an aspiring writer, here’s an extended quote worth pondering before writing another word:
Self-restraint is what makes it possible for society to exist. We refrain, most of the time, from expressing our rage and lust. Most of us do not steal or murder or rape. Many words come into our minds that we never utter – even when we’re alone. We imagine terrible deeds but push them out of our thoughts before they’ve had a chance to emerge fully.
Almost all adult human beings are emotionally restrained. Our closest friends, our coworkers, and our families never know the brutal and deviant urges and furies that reside in our breasts.
This restraint is a good thing. I know that my feelings are often quite antisocial. Sometimes I just see someone walking down the street and the devil in me wants to say things that would be awful to hear. No good would come from me expressing these asocial instincts – at least not usually.
The writer, however, must loosen the bonds that have held her back all these years. Sexual lust, hate for her own children, the desire to taste the blood of her enemy – all these things and many more must, at times, crowd the writer’s mind.
Your protagonist, for instance, may at a certain moment despise his mother. “She stinks of red wine and urine,” he thinks. “And she looks like a shriveled pitted prune.”
This is an unpleasant sentiment, to be sure. But does it bring your hero’s character into focus? This is the only question that’s important. And there’s no getting around it. Your characters will have ugly sides to them; they will be, at times, sexually deviant, bitter, racist, cruel.
“Sure,” you say, “the antagonists, the bad guys in my book, will be like that but not the heroes and heroines.”
The story you tell, the characters you present, will all have dark sides to them. If you want to write believable fiction, you will have to cross over the line of your self-restraint and revel in the words and ideas that you would never express in your everyday life.
Before beginning my novel, I couldn’t anticipate how much saturating myself in the dark side of my characters would affect me. The things Mosley says about restraint soon became less true of my social dealings. I’d say the unpleasant things I was thinking, let the brutal and deviant urges and furies that reside in my breast out of their cages, and so on.
At first I did it to better inhabit the flesh and bones of my characters. It’s in the honest writer’s job description. But then I started doing it in spite of myself. It turned out not to be so difficult to identify with the devil in me, to understand the impure motives of the people I was creating. I grew a little more depressed than normal, but nothing an extra half-dose of medication couldn’t prop up.
But what about people with less impure motives, or even, if such a thing is possible, more altruistic ones? I had such a character in an early iteration of my novel. A Mother Teresa type. The problem was, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what made her tick. Everything I tried ended up sounding syrupy and unrealistic. Eventually I decided I had to either write her out or kill her off.