We’ve all experienced amazing friendships. You hang out, you talk not just about every day life but your inner secrets you only trust to them, and you share not just classes, interests but hardships, too. They get into a car accident? You’re right there on the scene to drive them home after their totaled car is towed away. You go through a severe breakup? They take you to dinner and pour you some wine while playing a Disney marathon. You depend on them, you feel they depend on you, too.
That’s what friends are for, right?
But then, somehow, sometimes, and always for a stupid reason, they leave.
It’s worse when you have no idea why your text messages go unanswered, they’re too busy to hang out, and you’re avoided at every turn. We hear the phrase “people grow apart” but unless one of you move hours away where hanging out and sharing lives becomes difficult and trivial, this is usually BS. No one grows “apart” overnight, and sometimes, hopefully only a few times in our lifetime, we have that one “friend” who changes into a different person and walks away so suddenly we question whether we really knew who they were in the first place. It can be worse than having a romantic interest fail; aren’t we usually expecting romance to dwindle? Friends are forever, so they say. Unfortunately, people love to prove these things wrong.
Writers and readers alike are emotional creatures. It’s hard to write narratives for that connection readers seek without being emotional. The most powerful prose exist because the author took their pen, stabbed themselves in the chest, and bled over the page. Of course, they edited to make sure these gory feelings are legible and cohesive, but you understand. The most memorable works are the ones that actually move us to tears, not figurative but literal ugly-crying sobs that we can’t hold in; can you say you’re a true and dedicated reader if you haven’t cried over the death of a character? (I will never forget Stephen King’s Wizard and Glass book from The Dark Tower series, I wept over its pages when a character was executed).
And what’s the most effective way to accomplish this? How can you write a scene that doesn’t just show rather than tell but orchestrate emotion to touch the heart of every reader who is drawn into the story?
The key to this challenge is the skeleton key to all writing:
To be an author of any piece, you need credibility, right? Remember those weeks in English class back in high school where every day was spent in a library, learning how to properly research papers, site sources, and dig up articles to “support our claim?” The same can be said for writing emotionally; we’ve all experienced pain, heartache, and fury, so why not justify our emotions by directing them to a greater cause?
What better way to get revenge on those responsible for said pain by immortalizing their selfishness, their spite, and their betrayal through the death of a hateful character?
Anne Lamott wrote in her how-to-write book Bird By Bird that the best way to write the characters with case when basing them on a real-life ex-friend-foe. Due to legal issues, which no one wants to face, you need to be creative and write the person of choice in a way they will not want to claim it is them; if fantasy is your choice of genre, write the face in mind as the ugliest gremlin to slither out of the foul smelling swamps with a stench that cannot wash clean if rinsed in bleach even. If you are into realistic fiction, perhaps give the character the most unwanted traits (Lamott’s memorable example would be, for instance, to describe the character’s penis, should you make them male, as a sight of a small robin’s egg peeking out of its bushy nest). Be as harsh as you’d enjoy, but do so with flourish and flare, masquerade your taunting with descriptive and crude detailing.
What did this careless soul do to you? Is your annoyance/betrayal justified? Make it so. Use care to not have your protagonist/s hate this character without good reason. If you have them attacking the other without cause, it’ll only look bad on the characters you need your audience to care about. You need to keep this in mind or your character will be defaced.
But don’t forget, too, that characters cannot be solely good or solely evil. Life is one giant gray area and this should reflect in your stories, too, be it fantasy or a realistic genre. The best characters (not just in books but in comics, TV series, movies, too) are dynamic and a spectrum of traits, good and bad. Even heroic characters make mistakes; bad characters may possess redeeming qualities, too.
Have I done this? Absolutely.
I plucked one ex-friend of mine and placed them in the story, yet I swapped the gender but kept their mannerisms (a high-raised nose, a priggish attitude, and a love for baking, a need to be the center of the party). Because I write fantasy, the possibilities of what to do with them were abundant, especially in my novel of a young girl discovering she is a descendant of mystical witches. I made my ex-friend my protagonist’s ex-friend, and when my character’s powers became uncontrollable, her anger unhinged, the magic lashes out and strikes the other, causing her eyes to liquidate in their sockets and her hair to shrivel and fall out in clumps, as if she disintegrates on the spot. Don’t worry, she survives; it was YA after all.
Perhaps I was still a bit sore, if you couldn’t tell, but it was relieving, a therapy that can soothe old wounds.
(Note: Yes, that’s the Burn Book, but no, don’t make an actual Burn Book with real names. Make it fiction so you can show it off without worry!)
Go for it, writers. Write them down, make them famous, and remind anyone they are vain if they think the character is about them. I’ve used details of people before and was given “Oh my god! You wrote about me? You’re so sweet!!!” I just smile and nod while thinking, “I used your hair color. Let’s not get too excited but whatever.”
Keep writing, friends! Write with purpose and flair!
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One thought on “You’re So Vain You Probably Think This Character Is You: Writing Enemies In Your Work”
I have moved away to a new state many times, so I don’t worry about friends I never hear from again. My characters who justify causing pain to others are emotional characters. All readers do not catch on to the revelation of a character who hides
an ultimate ego under emotions. Fictional characters must be simplified (like Stephen King makes his characters) so most people can comprehend them. I may use real people as a basis, but I know readers frequently don’t want to spend the time to understand realistically complex characters.