Writers, we are not our characters

Does writing a ‘bad character’ make me a bad person?

Putting your writing out into the world is daunting at the best of times. You’ve spent time creating, shaping and polishing this insight into your creative mind; what will others think when you finally let it go?

This can be made even more nerve-racking when you have a problematic character/s. As writers, we are encouraged to explore the unknown, experiment when we can, and to not be afraid of harnessing our own, unique voice. Yet this advice seems to suddenly be forgotten when we have a character that isn’t ‘liked’.

At university, I was a shy writer. However when I wrote I found that, a lot of the time, my character was a male. He was cold, often sexist, and looked at women in a disgusted, belittling way. This troublesome character formed the basis of my final creative writing piece, and the first time I took it into a seminar, I was incredibly nervous.

“When published in 1991, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho caused outrage for its depictions of violence, especially towards women. That was its point, argues Irvine Welsh – it is a brilliant depiction of the savage society we’ve created”

How would people to react to this blonde, sweet-looking and quiet writer, creating something so completely opposite and unlike her? I wondered whether my peers would think I was secretly a nasty person myself. I thought maybe they’d think I had ‘daddy issues’ or a weird relationship to sex. I felt like I needed to justify my creation or write a disclaimer saying yes, my character is an asshole, but I’m not.

Thankfully, my piece was well received and (I hope) people didn’t think  I actually thought like that. So why did I  feel so vulnerable? This type of character was something that I’d been toying with for a while, but often when it came to submitting things, I’d write something more ‘tame’ – a woman travelling, a woman going shopping – because I thought that was what people expected from me. It made me look, and feel, like a ‘normal’ writer and person. But I didn’t really believe in what I was writing.

I’ve since learnt that this is something many writers have to debate with themselves. We through the struggle of putting something risky and hard-hitting out there, fearing what people will think of us as people, rather than as writers.

Even well established writers have had to endure this – people judging or often ignoring the strength of their writing because of the characters and/or plot. American Psycho is one of my favourite books. I can understand why many find it ‘too much’, and I actually do still feel a little embarrassed when I tell people how much I loved it, but the writing is too good to overlook. Yes, the character is horrible, the scenes are gruesome, but they are done so well and plotted so perfectly. Surely this is what good writing is about: being able to tap into and create a character that is so far-removed from ourselves, in a perfectly written way? To tackle a topic that isn’t central to us, and pull it off?

To me, this is a true skill. I think I actually respect books with problematic characters more, because I recognise the struggle that has gone into creating them. And while I do regularly write creative non-fiction too, I am still fascinated by the exploration of the unknown – the dark interactions between humans, and the topics that we shy away from (my dissertation was focused around F.G.M. in the modern day).

Lolita is another book whose narrator divides audiences

Being conscious of wanting to present myself ‘properly’ and ‘correctly’ as a shy, female writer definitely hindered my creative talents. Even now, I still get nervous when I think about my family and friends reading some of my writing; it’s easier for a stranger to critique my work. However, I take comfort that this is something nearly every writer has to face, and I am thankful that these thoughts now don’t stop me from creating what I really want to say with my words.

Because at the end of the day, just because I can follow the twisted logic of my bad characters, doesn’t mean I own it myself.

You may also like…

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Seven black womanist writers to add to your reading list 

Understanding the world through literature 

We could all learn more about the suffrage movement 

Do you get nervous when writing a problematic character? Are there any books you really like which have ‘bad’ characters? Let me know in the comments!

One thought on “Writers, we are not our characters

  1. This is a strange thing humans do Mariah; judge a person based on their creative fiction. Weird, right? I love American Psycho; both the movie and book. The mysogeny and murder are horrific but I dig the humor in other parts, and get what the author wanted to convey. These nasty characters aren’t biographies LOL.


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