Writing From The Dark Places

A writer friend and I were chatting one day last week about our respective exes. I wrote here long ago how my divorce, while painful and difficult, was quite amicable. We don’t communicate anymore, but we’ve also gotten on with our lives. My friend described a former fiancee who was, quite frankly, an asshole. He even found her father’s death an inconvenience.

We’ve all had someone like that in our lives, an emotional vampire who wants to be the center of everyone else’s universe. Sometimes, they’re even someone you think you’re helping out, but they simply want to be carried. And they try to assert an authority they don’t have to make sure they’re taken care of. The best thing you can do is to cut those people off and refuse to speak to them at all if possible. If it’s a spouse, and there are children involved, that’s not always possible. And if one spouse is irresponsible or worse, the unavoidable interactions become stressful at best. Maury Povic and Kirk Fox have made careers out of these situations.

At the same time, this gets into “Write what you know.” It’s a bit of writing advice that’s always made me cringe, because if we all wrote only what we knew, we’d be writing sitcoms about boring office or factory jobs, about sitting on the couch watching television or scrolling Facebook. Taken literally, “Write what you know” is some of the most vapid and useless advice any writer will ever hear. Taken as it was originally intended, it’s the most important thing a writer can ever learn. Mainly, if you don’t know something, go ask questions and Google and read. Plus, and let’s be honest here, if we write fiction, we are, at some point, supposed to start making up stuff. That’s what fiction is: Pages of made-up stuff, even when it’s thinly-disguised real life.

But how do those who hurt us, intentionally or unintentionally, play into this? Chances are, the abusive, rude, or parasitic people in your life came into your life because you had something in common with them or they stirred up sympathy or empathy or both. In other words, they didn’t start out as real-life villains in our personal drama. (For instance, my ex and I had a roommate who liked to say pretentious, flowery phrases like “real-life villains in our personal drama.”) They might have been friends, lovers, and quite often relatives. (Hopefully, not lovers and relatives. That’s a whole other topic I’d just as soon not get into, thank you very much.) So they evolved. Maybe what made them into the bad guy was always there, but looking at them over the entire time we knew them, it’s clear there’s more to the person than the mustache-twirling baddie we might make them out to be.

We always hear that no one really knows they’re evil, that Hitler thought he was doing the right thing. I don’t believe that’s entirely accurate. There are real-life Hannibal Lecters, maybe not as spectacularly brutal or dangerous as Messrs. Cox and Hopkins have portrayed Hannibal, but just as arrogant and self-important. Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man who held three women as sex slaves for a decade, is an example of someone who knew he was evil and did not care as long as his needs were satisfied. But most villains really don’t think they’re evil. The common criminal thinks he or she is being denied and sees stealing as both a means of survival and a form of revenge. Most murderers only kill once, even if they get away with it. I’ll leave out sex offenders because that’s a special kind of screwed-up from which there’s rarely any redemption.

Think of the most arrogant politician you can name. Do you really think he or she sits in Washington, rubbing hands together, going “How do I screw the voters over today? Mwahahaha.”? If you do, you’re woefully naive. Most get corrupted thinking, “Okay, if I give on this, I’ll have the means to do what I set out to do. Eventually, they either lose sight of why they went into public service or they get tangled up in their own schemes.

Likewise, the emotional vampires in our lives don’t deliberately go looking for someone to berate or sponge off of or even pound on if they’re violently inclined. But knowing what makes these people tick helps a writer make antagonists real people instead of some cardboard cutout or a clone of whatever the popular uber-villain of the day is. That is why, quite often, actors and writers think the villains are a lot more fun to play or write. When you get into that kind of a psyche, there are all kinds of character flaws to play with that often don’t make it into a hero’s mindset.