craft, fiction, inspiration, short story, Writing

On Unsympathetic Characters and The Golden Dragon

The Golden Dragon (which we published yesterday, and is available for free here) is one of the shorter stories we’ve written, clocking in at just under 4,000 words. It was a difficult story to write for a number of reasons (we’ve been tinkering with it for nearly a year), but our primary struggle was that the main character is pretty unsympathetic.

In fact, he’s not just unsympathetic: he’s broken and warped.

It’s easy enough to craft a cruel and detestable antagonist to act as a counterpoint to a hero. It’s a lot more difficult (at least for us) to have a character like that carry an entire story. How do you keep a reader engaged with a character that no one can root for?

We’re not sure we managed to accomplish it, but in writing the story we tried to find inspiration in authors who have. Specifically, we thought a lot about one of our favorite novels, Lolita, and the monster known as Humbert Humbert.

The first thing we determined was that first-person narration helps—at least a bit. In theory, it keeps any authorial bias out of the story, and helps to get the character’s thoughts (however mangled they might be) out into the open. Secondly, humor can help. Actually, humor can help almost anything. But particularly in stories with unsavory characters, humor can act as a release valve, can function as a balm over some of the character’s faults, whatever they might be. Finally, there has to be some connective strain, some yearning of the character’s, that a reader can latch on to, and then cringe when they realize they’re connecting with a repugnant human being. Because it’s a novel, Lolita has a much broader canvas to work with and deals with numerous things, but one of the primary concerns of Humbert (conceivably) is love—an emotion anyone can relate to. But it’s an awful and disgusting love, and in presenting us with this obsessive, perverse longing, Nabokov performs the ultimate trick: he gets the reader to question their own feelings and experiences with love—with a monster as our inspiration.

Our character isn’t nearly as wicked as Humbert, but he’s certainly no saint. The shortness of our story might be a direct result of the fact that we had a tough time dwelling on our character for too long. Whereas Humbert actively sought out and destroyed innocence, our character appears to us as someone who refuses to see innocence in anything. In a way, we suppose, someone could almost pity him for that, if nothing else. It was incredibly difficult to refrain from providing him with some sort of epiphanic moment, but at the end of the day, epiphanies are rare, and people have to be open to receiving them.

Our character didn’t strike us as the sort of person who was capable of it.

As a side note: yesterday was our best day yet for downloads on Amazon, and we’re pretty sure a lot of the traffic must have come from this blog, so if any of you reading this stopped by and downloaded any of our stories, we sincerely appreciate it! We even got a review on The Golden Dragon (and we doubly appreciate all reviews).

Thanks for stopping by, and we hope you have a great Tuesday,

W & W Sawday

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