Writing About People You Know
Acclaimed Poet and teacher Charles Coe’s recent books include his poetry collections “All my Sins Forgiven: Poems for My Parents,” and “Picnic on the Moor” and a novella “Spin Cycle.” A nationally distributed move “Peach Pie” was based upon his poem ” Fortress. Charles was recently named by the Association of the Boston Public Library a “Boston Leading Light” and is currently at Arts Fellow for the St. Botolph’s Club, which supports arts and the humanities of Great Boston. His many honors include a fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and in 2016 he was named Artist in Residence of Boston.
Years ago I was in a writing group with someone working on a novel that featured a Baptist minister as a main character. Her minister was a hateful person–a man who sermonized about the fires of Hell awaiting sinners while he cheated on his wife with paid escorts, siphoned money from church accounts, and sexually molested his daughter. I wasn’t surprised when my colleague told the group she grew up in a church with a pastor similar to the character in her novel. But when pressed, she acknowledged that he wasn’t guilty (as far as she knew) of some of the offenses he was committing in her book. She said she “wanted to make the story more interesting.”
Yet the more I read about this guy the less “interesting” he became. He was a pastiche of every stereotype some people hold about “corrupt ministers,” a cardboard cut-out, not a three-dimensional character. My colleague was so determined to “get back” at this hobgoblin of her youth that she couldn’t bring herself to picture him as an actual human being.
When working on memoir, or fiction featuring characters based on people who might have had a negative and impact on your life, it can be tempting to write a “hatchet job.” But there’s a problem with that approach. What actually makes a character interesting is complexity and nuance. Maybe the minister of her youth was especially caring when dealing with sick or elderly members of the congregation. Or he rode on a Freedom Bus as a young man.
It might seem like I’m saying she should have made him a “sympathetic” character, and in a way that’s true. But I don’t like the term “sympathetic.” That word implies that you should let your character off the hook for their terrible behavior. I prefer the term “fully dimensional,” which suggests that all aspects–bad and good–can be incorporated in a portrayal.
There might be times when someone you knew was so hurtful and destructive that you honestly can’t think of anything positive to write about her or him. But it’s not just including “positive qualities” that leads to more fully-dimensional characters. We can also write about their fears and weaknesses. What childhood traumas, what adult tragedies helped to create the people they became? And besides, many bad people see themselves as heroes of their story, or at least victims, and are excellent at rationalizing their actions, although one suspects that deep down they know the truth. Capturing some sense of those internal contradictions can go a long way toward creating characters that will engage your reader.
Now having said all this, let’s take a look from the other side of the room. Maybe you want to write about someone you admire greatly. But a hagiography–a fawning puff piece–is just as unsatisfying for the reader as a hatchet job. Maybe your beloved Aunt Tillie, a pillar of the community, had a proclivity for nasty gossip, or voted against letting Jews into her garden club. The challenge is to portray her as an essentially good person while acknowledging her flaws.
Readers are drawn to complex, flesh-and-blood characters–not “archetypes” and clichés. We writers would do well to remember as Walt Whitman said, that we all “contain multitudes.”