How flawed are your characters? We want our characters to be real, flawed, and complex. So where do you draw the line between realistically human and just plain too disturbed to be likable? Author Diana Paul talks about her very real characters in Things Unsaid, a story of family drama and hope.
Loving the dark side
by Diana Y. Paul, author of Things Unsaid
Why are some readers drawn to anti-heroes as main characters? Maybe it’s because anti-heroes who can handle pressure with determination give readers hope. But with anti-heroes or disturbingly flawed characters, it’s easy to go too far… even to the dark side. But how I love the dark side! Characters, like people, are flawed for a reason and a good story is all about character.
The importance of creating realistic characters involves focusing on their shadow selves, what they do not want others to see. The moral compass of my novel, Things Unsaid, was the pure raw emotion of drawing complex characters who may make the reader feel uncomfortable but also be relieved that they are not like them. Things Unsaid opens the conversation of what family is, what are the effects of secrets and lies, and what moral obligations do children have towards the care of aging parents. The unspoken is sometimes far more powerful than what is said.
Characters, like people, are flawed for a reason. As an author, I want the reader to understand poor decisions, hostile behavior, sour relationships. And that is my biggest challenge.
Like real people, characters must have flaws to be credible and three-dimensional. Yet too much nastiness and the reader may shut down, disconnect, and become frustrated by the narrative. Even the villains–the most disturbed–must have some redeeming quality in order to avoid cartoonish evil and character clichés.
There has to be a balanced view, even of the antagonists, because they think they are doing the right thing, even when they aren’t. The more complex the character, the more freedom I have to reveal some trait that could have made them a better person, given the right circumstances. In Things Unsaid, my clueless and obtuse protagonist has more beneath the surface than what we first see, the “WHY” of who she is.
Without the WHY, a reader is unable to connect. So I imagine my characters’ past wounds: why they are who they are. In the case of Jules, the main character in Things Unsaid, her unbreakable sense of obligation to her parents jeopardizes her own family as well as herself. I had to ask myself why she was so blind-sided. What Jules initially thought were her virtues, were actually flaws. The story ultimately reveals the ill-fated deal she made with her dying parents, her husband and their daughter. Those flaws then needed to be transformed into her strengths.
She had to think she was doing the right thing even when she wasn’t. I want the reader to know the main character has to change even though the character does not yet realize this.
Most people want to believe that life teaches lessons and that conflicts can be resolved. We want a protagonist who takes charge of his or her life, and ends the narrative in a better place.
I write in the hope that my readers see a glimmer of light even in the antagonist and the dark side. Perhaps the antagonist could have been a more loving and kind individual, given different circumstances. The past is not an excuse for negative behavior, but it can be a portal to understanding why and how each character is the person he or she has become. No one is alone in having a dark side.
In the end, I am not afraid to take readers into the dark corners of the psyche, before there is light. I have found my voice and my niche: writing family drama with a healthy dose of darkness and secrets exposed. You don’t have to like this family to enjoy the story and the characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings–Things Unsaid.
Does anyone else remember reading The Glass Menagerie in high school? For those who don’t, it’s a play about a family that appears normal at first glance, but upon learning their stories, you soon realize the normalcy is just a facade. Much like The Glass Menagerie, Things Unsaid is about a family who puts a show of normalcy- the matriarch and patriarch (Aida and Bob) are entering retirement, and their three kids (Jules, Andrew, and Joanne) are all married with kids of their own. The conflict occurs when Aida and Bob, while experiencing the mental and physical decline typical of their age, decide to spend their family’s assets, which burdens all the children, most significantly their financially responsible daughter, Jules. However, it soon becomes evident that money is the least of this family’s problems.
To be clear, this is not a plot-driven story. There is no dramatic buildup or harrowing cliffhangers. Instead, the arc of the story comes from the foray into the lives of the three main characters. As the layers are peeled back, we see the experiences, interactions, and upbringing that made the main characters who they are. As with most character-driven stories, the power of the story lies in the detail. One of the most powerful threads in the story is the relationship between Jules and her daughter, Zoe. Although Jules lacked a strong mother figure, she still does everything she can to form and maintain a strong and loving bond with her daughter. There is one particular scene in which Zoe made a comment to Jules that in a book with a rapid escalating plot line and dramatic scenes may have gone unnoticed. Yet it is the simplicity of the writing that makes these relationships- and the story- so powerful. That being said, the plot does seem to drag along at times as the flashbacks become increasingly detailed, and I found it hard to keep up with who is who. Yet it is certainly worth it to stick around to the end, as more surprises are revealed. Even for those who prefer more action-packed stories, I strongly advise you to take a peek into the lives of these characters and give this story a try. The characters, including the subtle nuances and intricacies of their lives and experiences, are quite moving and memorable.
Diana Y. Paul was born in Akron, Ohio, and has a PhD in Buddhist Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has a BA in both psychology and philosophy from Northwestern University. Diana is a former Stanford professor in Buddhism with a focus on the role of women.
Diana Y. Paul is also the author of three books on Buddhism, one of which has been translated into Japanese and German. Her short stories have appeared in a number of literary journals. She lives in Carmel, CA with her husband and calico cat, Mao. Diana is currently completing a second novel, A Perfect Match, and when not writing creates mixed media art. Her art has been featured in museums and galleries in California, Hawaii, and Japan. Visit her blog on movies and art at: www.unhealedwound.com and her author website at: www.dianaypaul.com. Twitter: @DianaPaul10