To paraphrase my high school drama teacher: “Nobody thinks they’re an a**hole.”
We were in rehearsal for the spring play, in which I was playing the part of the villain. Ms. Quinn was a standard issue Bitter Betty: middle-aged, single, sour and dour, and went out of her way to squash other people’s joy. As far as I was concerned, she was plain old mean for the sake of being mean.
I was not exactly thrilled to have been cast in this role, a fact which must have been clear to my drama teacher because he took me aside and told me that in his many years in the theater, he’d loved playing villains most of all. The trick, he explained, was to get to the heart of a character, to understand his or her motivations, to view the world from behind his or her eyes. “Nobody thinks they’re an a**hole,” he said. “Ms. Quinn feels completely justified in her behavior. And it’s your job to figure out why.”
His words stuck with me. Long after I’d decided that terrible heartbreak and betrayal in Ms. Quinn’s youth had turned her into a serious killjoy, I was eager to tip my psychoanalyst hat at friends and enemies alike. Why did that bitch Stacey pick fights with girls who were smaller than her? Perhaps she was bullied at home. Why did Joanna sleep around with so many loser guys? Clearly she wasn’t getting enough attention at home, and also her parents provided a terrible model for relationships. I was drunk with understanding for these people’s bad behavior! But it didn’t take long for me to realize that just because I understood (or thought I understood) their behavior, I still didn’t like it.
Two weeks ago at my last writers’ group meeting, one of the members made this comment on the chapter I had submitted: “I feel sorry for Alice and I’m glad she identified her problem, but I’m still not crazy about her. She’s fundamentally selfish and I don’t really expect her to change. At the same time, I don’t think I need to like Alice. She’s interesting, which is at least as important.”
I’ve never been so pleased to hear that someone dislikes one of my characters! While Alice is not a villain, she is a certainly a complicated person with a lot of character flaws. There are of course many legitimate reasons for these flaws, which is part of the reason why I love her so much*. But, as evidenced by that feedback, like her or not, Alice is interesting and genuine enough to evoke an emotional reaction. And isn’t that what we strive for in our writing? To create characters – a**hole or not – that are compelling and believable?
To this day, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out why people behave they way they do. Unfortunately, this includes a few real life a**holes, and one in particular who will remain unnamed. And I still don’t like them (him), even if I understand that his passive aggressive behavior and accusatory tone is rooted in profound insecurity. (Clears throat).
Perhaps the a**hole in question will turn up in one of my novels some day. In the meantime, I will strive to keep the a**holes in my life on the page.
*Also, I love her because I created her. So there’s that.