When I met my boyfriend, Scott, he never watched dramas because they always include upsetting scenarios, like characters he developed an attachment to would then die in some horrible, sad way. He has a visceral reaction to these scenes, making them very difficult to watch. I am sympathetic, but I love dramas. The dramatic moments, whether happy or tragic, are cathartic. I’ve got him watching some dramas, occasionally. (We saw Bright Star in the theatre and he raved about how beautiful it was, cinematically. The story was interesting, sure, but the visuals wowed him. Now I need to make sure I only pick visually beautiful dramas, and we’ll be set!)
But I don’t just love dramas, I write dramas. It is the stuff of human conflict that pushes us to make choices with real consequences and grow as a result that interests me. Sometimes, this means going deep into the dark.
I’m spending most of my time on Saving Annabelle these days. One of the characters is sexually abusive. He’s also the patriarch of the story. I have to write him relating to his wife, children, friends, and associates as any man would. I have to bring his personality, in all its complications, to life. Then I also have to write the man who would creep past his daughter’s door at night to molest someone in the next room.
This story is a first-person narrative, and he is not the point of view character. The reader will never have to get into his head. Despite that, I do have to get inside his head and understand him completely. Why? My narrator will no more be inside his head than I will be inside Scott’s. Because when writing a novel, every character action has to make sense in relation to every other character action. Events are meaningfully intertwined for hundreds of pages. One event becomes an echo of another, one detail significant because of another. It is the old stage actor’s question to the director: But what is my motivation? As the writer, I need to know his motivation. It is not enough that he act. He must act with purpose. And I do not believe I could write his actions convincingly if I did not understand him.
A long time ago, I wrote in his voice, as though he were journaling, trying to discover for himself why he does what he does and is incapable of controlling his urges. It was the ickiest writing I have ever done. Creepy. Dirty. Icky. Writing to understand his mind was worse than writing the scenes where he behaves abhorrently.
I am in the rewriting stages now, and as I approach the chapters where the abuse begins, I feel myself bracing for another encounter with the dark side. As the author, I cannot turn away from the drama and refuse to watch. I need to go in deep, far enough to understand his demons. It’s an unpleasant job, but I owe it to the story.
Every job has its unpleasantries, its occupational hazards. I take comfort in the fact that I am not alone; all writers have to face the dark side. I am reminded of the film Stranger Than Fiction. Karen Eiffel spend most of the film trying to decide how to kill a character. The scene in the ER always makes me laugh because, yes, sometimes we need to know where the dying people are kept.
Get Your FREE Guide to ReVision
Join hundreds of Word Essential writers to receive inspirational writing tips and advice.