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Terrible Tips Tuesday: It’s Good to Be Bad

February 15, 2011

Yesterday when I posted a scene from Changing Seasons (2005 edition), it reminded me of the problem with that story.  When the story begins, our narrator Harry is a cad and womanizer, like Dan Fielding on “Night Court” or Quagmire on “Family Guy” or Barney on “How I Met Your Mother.”  He really doesn’t have a problem with picking up a girl and then kicking her out of bed the next morning–if not sooner.

That’s not the problem with the story.  The problem is when I try to make him good.  He takes in the fiance his brother left at the altar and her baby (his niece).  Then as time goes by he begins to have regrets about a shy girl named Susie he dumped or she dumped him or I don’t really remember how it went down anymore.  By the end he’s a changed man and wanting to be friends with Susie, who somehow got crippled.

Even as I finished the story, I knew it stunk.  I didn’t waste time editing it or querying it.  I just left it in my virtual drawer to rot.

Randomly looking at it yesterday reminded me of it and brought to mind an important lesson:  sometimes it’s OK for someone to be bad.  Not every story has to be about redemption like “A Christmas Carol.”

The best example of where that worked was with American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis.  (Which incidentally inspired much of the 2005 version of Changing Seasons.)  At the beginning Pat Bateman is a spoiled, crazy, murdering sex pervert and at the end he’s still a spoiled, crazy, murdering sex pervert.  In his own words he’s learned nothing from everything that happens.  But that’s OK because the character doesn’t always need to learn from the experiences so long as the audience is learning from them.

So that was in my opinion the problem I had.  I shouldn’t have tried to have Harry learn something because it really came off as forced.  Even if he didn’t learn something, the reader could have learned something from his lack of change.  He could have been an example of what NOT to do.

By trying to make him learn a lesson I wound up selling out the character.  That’s why when I finished I just didn’t like what I’d done.  I’d forced Harry to become something he wasn’t and it was obvious that it was artificially contrived.

Another time I felt this way was when I watched “Up in the Air.”  I still really like the movie, but the last act where George Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham starts falling in love and wanting to settle down and winds up getting depressed and sad really didn’t work for me.  The movie was a lot better when he was a jerk preaching the benefits of being unattached.  Everything slowed down to a crawl in that last part.

In the same way, the narration in CS2005 was a lot more fun to write and read when Harry was a jerk.  Once he starts developing a conscience and loses his swagger the narration loses its zing.  Imagine what “American Idol” would have been like if Simon Cowell had started gushing over everyone like Paula Abdul.  You’d probably be at home thinking, “What the hell is that?”

The bottom line is that sometimes characters (or real people) are just good at being jerks.  If you come upon such a character, don’t try to make him or her into a good person.  Let him or her go on doing what he/she does best.  The story will probably be better for it.

Until next time…

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4 Comments
  1. Good post and I have to agree. Every “bad” character doesn’t need redeeming or needs to see the error of their ways. Makes it more real to me.

    Thanks for sharing…YBM

  2. The bad-to-good story arc is too easy, and very accepted, which is why it happens.

    I thought in Up In The Air that Clooney’s character wasn’t BAD so much as misunderstood: he liked being unattached and saw it as a good thing — freeing one to chase dreams that maybe couldn’t otherwise be chased. Having him fall in love and get it dashed would have worked for me had he then not regretted returning to his old ways– but then it wouldn’t have had a moral that audiences liked. Remember how they changed “Fatal Attraction” to make it more popular?

    And “American Psycho” has been panned by everyone I can think of, probably at least in part because Bateman doesn’t learn anything.

    Imagine, though, how great and shocking it would’ve been if Scrooge had thrown open the window and THIS exchange had occurred;

    “Boy, what day is it,” Scrooge asked, to which the boy responded,

    “Why, ’tis Christmas Day, sir!”

    Scrooge then whooped and threw up his hands. “Why, then, the spirits have failed, boy! I am returned to this life and free to proceed as I was — and through my riches and will I shall escape the fates that bound Marley! He forged his chains in life, while I will BREAK mine in life. Here, boy, here is a nickel. Go find the one called Bob Marley, and tell him he is fired…”

    And so on. I’d watch THAT.

    • I didn’t mean Clooney in “Up in the Air” was bad like evil, but he was “bad” in most people’s view for being cynical and a loner–with of course I empathized with. I’m sure many people would have really liked if he’d wound up with the girl and 2.3 kids and a house.

  3. A great point! I have a real “piece of work” antagonist in my WIP, who I’m being careful to make sure doesn’t change. I need to keep her exactly the way she is, or I think my WIP will suffer!

    Hugs,

    Rach

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