Terrible Tips Tuesday: It’s Good to Be Bad
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…