I workshopped a story with my writing group this week. It was about a suburban family (mom, dad, son, daughter) in minor crisis because of a snow storm.

My group liked it ok, made some helpful suggestions, flagged some questionable word choice, etc. Then the conversation drifted to character develpment.

“I was struck by the absolute villainy of the father character,” said one woman. “He is such a tyrant, oppressing his family with a single vision of the correct way to live. It’s like they’ve all been totally cowed and brainwashed.”

“Yeah, he’s a real piece of work,” said another woman. “Really controlling and stern. And the way he blatantly lies to his kids like that? It’s so awful.”

“I disagree,” said yet another woman. “I don’t think his oppression is out of malice, per se. I see him more as such a perfectionist and idealist he doesn’t realize he’s lying to himself.”

“Huhn,” I said.

For you see, the incident in the story was almost completely autobiographical. And although the rest of the family was invented and imagined, the dad was, well, my dad. A big softee. The same guy who had to take a day off work when he accidentally killed a deer that jumped in front of his car. Not exactly the scourge of the modern world.

(Later I would ask my sister, “Do you think dad tyrannically oppressed us?”

“Dude, *our* dad?” she’d say. “A tyrant?”

“Do you think he brainwashed us with his ideals about the correct way to live?”

“Uh, nooooo.”

“But if he had brainwashed us, we wouldn’t know, would we?”

She didn’t have a response to this.)

But back to my writing group. “That’s very interesting,” I said.

“I mean, he’s so evil I find some of his actions hard to believe,” someone said. “Like for me, you really pushed the villainy angle too far when you had him abandon his family in the power outage to walk to the sports bar to watch the UConn game. I hate to play the parent card here, but no real parent would actually do that to their children.”

“Huhn,” I said.

Another woman chimed in, “Yeah, that UConn game episode was a little over the top, to be honest. Maybe you could illustrate his abandonment in a more believable way, like he could go for a walk?”

“I’m curious what inspired you to write the UConn episode at all,” someone said. They were all staring at me expectantly. How to explain that not only was every detail of that escapade something my actual dad actually did, but in fact I had had to tone the story down because not all the details fit my plot?

Now, don’t get me wrong. My dad is not a villain, and I do not believe I was brainwashed, or at least not more so than other children are brainwashed by their parents (although what would I know, right?). However, I do think this is a very interesting conversation about how we depict people we love in writing, and why the tics we know so well and might be endearing to us are anathematic to people who don’t know our kooky loved ones.

I shared this (rather troubling) episode with a friend who is a memoirist, and she said her book had elicited similar comments. A main “character” in the book is an aunt who helped raise her. She has gotten responses like “God, what a bitch that woman was to you. You poor thing, I don’t know how you survived being raised by her.” She says such comments are hard for her to respond to, because she didn’t mean to depict her aunt as a bitch, and doesn’t see her as a bitch at all.

Part of this, I guess, is the textures of our lives and relationships, which vary so much from person to person. Another part must be what we select to include in our writing, consciously and subconsciously. The things that (to us) are worth relating won’t necessarily (or necessarily won’t) create a full picture of a person. And a third part must be what our readers are able to take from our depictions.

(For example, I actually included the detail about “the father” in the story being such a softee that he’d had to take a day off work when he accidentally hit an animal–but for some reason, in the context of the story I’d written, this detail was not absorbed by my readers, or incorporated successfully into the rest of the image I’d drawn for them. Oops.)

I thought I’d share this episode and see if anyone else has ever experienced something similar.

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11 Responses to villainy

  1. Karissa says:

    This is fascinating to me on a lot of levels… I need to think about this some more before I articulate my thoughts…

    • Karissa says:

      Well thought one was, This is why I write fiction.

      I remember in college when I was wrote a short story based on my own breakup experiences and the workshop was like “This doesn’t seem plausible” and also “This girl is really unsympathetic” and my first thought was, THIS REALLY HAPPENED! and then also I felt injured.

      That’s when I realized I had to put a lot of distance between myself and my writing. It was not enough to just fictionalize real events, because it became too personal. And also when I was too close to the truth, I wanted it to be the way it happened, and often fact doesn’t work so well for fiction.

      But your question was about how real life people are portrayed when we write. So I still have to think about that one.

      • Haha yes, it’s definitely true that some (impossible) distance is required. I don’t think I’ll ever master that. Every single story I have to tell is something that happened to me, or something I’ve stolen from the life of someone I know.

  2. Huh. Now that I think about it, I’d have a hard time writing my dad the way I see him, too.

    I guess a family’s interaction creates a sort of miniature culture. There are social factors other people might not understand because they didn’t grow up with that influence, and the difference can be hard to explain.

  3. JES says:

    Love this story.

    Among other things, it reminds me how difficult it is to find a good writing group. (And why I keep putting off looking for one.) (Er, not that I’ve been looking for a crappy one instead.) Inexperienced/Naive readers — in a writing group or otherwise — often make the mistake of seeing the writer in his or her fiction. The “If you have an aunt, then the aunt in this story must be your aunt” syndrome. But it cuts both ways, and maybe even more raggedly in the case of experienced readers: they can fail to read things into characters which the author knows to be true.

    Your example strikes me as a special case of something I often ran into when I was in a crit group: readers who say either, “Now, if I were writing this, this is what I’d do instead of what you want to do…” or, “I’ve never seen people [or some institution, or the world, or whatever] behave as you’ve described here; hence, I can’t accept that this is realistic.” (And this was a group of people I loved; we’d all been close friends before (and, maybe surprisingly, afterwards :)).

    Do you think you’ll change how your “fictional” character is depicted? I wonder which interpretation serves the story best… Is it “done” yet, and if so have they seen the whole thing?

    • No, I don’t think I will change it. Maybe what the others read wasn’t what I’d intended to write, but they dug a textual ambiguity out of the story I hadn’t realized I was creating–I’m going to run with that, instead, now that they’ve spotted it 😀

      I mean, who doesn’t love a good villain?

  4. JES says:

    I just realized that my earlier comment could be read as a slam on your own group. Uh-uh. Not at ALL what I meant!

  5. WendycinNYC says:

    Sorry I missed it! I think part of the reason is that, especially in short fiction, everything tends to *mean* something. If you told a story about your dad leaving you to watch a UConn game in a snowstorm verbally over beers, we’d all probably laugh and brush it off as “Oh, those DADS.” Whereas in literary fiction (and I only read your first submission, not the other), everything is so SYMBOLIC and MEANINGFUL and IMPORTANT, you know? Most definitely with a piece with such a dark tone.

    So I think that might color people’s reactions.

    And yes, I’ve had that happen. Worse — that horrid bitch character my group hated (years ago)? IT WAS ME.


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