Monday, March 16, 2015

You Don't Have To Like Them and Other Truths About Characters and Storytelling

Just finished reading the very talented Julie Murphy's amazing debut YA novel, SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY. And here's the thing about her main character Alice: She is a mean girl. Getting cancer has not changed this; in fact dying has through much of the book, exacerbated her meanness. She is angry and cruel and her bucket list of revenge (it's not all revenge on the list, but a lot of it is) includes some very awful acts that she commits with pleasure. She loves a boy named Harvey but she fears--and rightfully so--that even though her disease is suddenly in remission, it will return, and so she pushes him away, cheats on his loving heart, uses him shamefully and with full knowledge of what she is doing and honestly has to think hard, once she tries to change her mindset, about what a non-mean person would do. The punishments she doles out to those who have wronged her (and let me say they've done some pretty crappy things) are as harsh if not harsher than the crimes they've committed.

I don't like her very much, not even at the end. I wouldn't be her friend. I have never understood the Regina Georges of the world. It rarely occurs to me to act in those ways and trust me when I say I'm no saint. I'm mouthy and snarky and sarcastic and I see the world through a sardonic lens most days and am happiest when surrounded by those who see it that way, too. But although I am myself a cancer survivor, I still don't relate to the way Alice acts, even if I can understand and analyze it. Almost dying--however close you get--changes you in ways you might never suspect it will. Trust me on this. Unless you've experienced it, you can't honestly say how you'd react. You really can't. It doesn't always make us noble. Even Gus and Hazel Grace in TFIOS--surely the prettiest, most articulate cancer-suffering duo in YA--have their awful moments. 

But I don't HAVE to like Alice for me to read and enjoy and savor this book. I don't HAVE to like her for me to think that Julie Murphy's written an awesome novel. I simply have to find her authentic and consistent within the fictional boundaries and character arc Murphy has created. And I do. (Okay, as someone who's spent a number of years in the classroom, I will say that my long term experience with high school is that there are fewer powerful student queen bee types in real life than there seem to be in fiction, but I'm okay with the trope. It's a decent stand in for the many nasty power mongers in the world. And interestingly, the place I see it most is the teacher's lounge, which is often a scary, angry, territorial den, a place where I was once told by someone in authority, "I don't care how smart you are as long as you're nice,"--implying that I wasn't-- but that's another story)

Still, I frequently read reviews of various books--including my own-- in which readers say, "I didn't like her/him." or "That was a terrible way to act." or "9th grade girls wouldn't swear like that." or "I would never do that to my sister. It made me hate her." And they down rate accordingly. 

Except my job as an author is NOT to make my characters all likeable. My job is to tell the authentic story of this character at this place and time in this particular set of experiences. My job is to ruminate on the nature of being human, which let's face it, is quite the journey. Some of us are awful. Some of us aren't. Some of us (even 9th grade girls!) swear like sailors. Some of us do terrible things and all of us have no idea how we would behave if our world was up-ended, or we were struggling or trapped in a life we didn't want but couldn't escape, one in which horrible things sometimes happened. If the truths we had to face felt, well, unfaceable. 

Writers are not obligated to tie it all up with a pretty pink bow, although I personally prefer a note of hope at the end, which Murphy has definitely supplied.

This means that my characters will frequently act or speak or think in ways I might not. And as a reader, I am thus privileged to safely experience worlds beyond my own limited personal experience.

 I'm hoping very hard that I have captured these things for my readers in the forthcoming FINDING PARIS (Balzer and Bray) and all its characters Leo and Paris and Max, as they struggle--not always in the best of ways-- to face their own choices and truths. 

Bravo, Julie Murphy, for being fearless enough to write a character that I don't like very much.
And if you haven't read SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY (Balzer and Bray), you need to do so.

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