The Perils of Settling Scores in Your Writing

by N. West Moss

Readers can feel when they’re being manipulated, and they don’t like it. Make a character too pure, and watch readers revolt. An example of this is the death of Little Nell in Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. As Oscar Wilde supposedly said, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing”—not what Dickens was going for, I suspect.

Sophisticated readers feel manipulated when an author is trying to force them to like or dislike a character, and they tend to push back. Dickens made Little Nell so utterly pure that her death became a symbol, not of innocence and childhood sacrifice in an uncaring industrial age (as I assume he intended) but of overly sentimental writing.

Characters who are all good or all evil don’t ring true, mostly because in real life, people aren’t all one thing or another. Even evil people might be kind to their dogs, and good people can break hearts, or worse. In order to create three-dimensional characters who readers care about, those characters have to be nuanced. Think of the monstrous Humbert Humbert from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The character was clearly a very bad man, an evil man, but still, he was erudite, and readers could see that he had his charms. The fact that Nabokov allowed us to understand the character’s allure made Humbert Humbert less of a generic, flat villain and more three-dimensional and human. That had the effect on me of making him more monstrous because he seemed so palpable.

So what does this mean for our own writing? Well, writers do well to not try to make readers hate or love their characters. Authors must care about all of their characters to some extent, otherwise how can we see what the world looks like through their eyes? To do this, we must, as George Saunders puts it, try to “intuit their expansiveness” as we do with the people we love. This goes for even the bad guys.

I work with writers of all levels, and in their early drafts, it is sometimes clear that they want readers to be on their side about something. One obvious example might be a memoir about a particularly acrimonious divorce. The author might make their ex-husband or wife look particularly awful in a bid for sympathy, but that writer might be more effective if she can remember that she was once in love with her ex. It might even be better for the story if readers can see both the good and bad of the character and make up their own minds about them, to some extent at least.

As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own about Charlotte Brontë, whom she considered to be a potentially better writer than Jane Austen, “She will write in rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely.” Trying to make our readers hate certain characters in order to make us feel better is writing foolishly, to borrow Woolf’s term.

I’ve attempted to make real people into villains in my writing, but when I do that, the writing tends to come out flat and needy, and readers can smell our neediness a mile away. Neediness on the author’s part can be repellant. As a reader myself, I find the best kind of writing is when the author respects my intelligence and gives me enough information to make up my own mind.

When I have a bone to pick, I rant in my journal or over a bottle of wine with a friend. We all have scores to settle, but their place is in our private writing, or in our earliest, secret drafts. Ranting and needing readers to take our side in an argument won’t make us look or feel better. Writing is art, and allowing even our most flawed characters to seem believable to readers is the goal. If your goal is to make readers like you, well then, I’d say that’s a different kind of score to settle, and I wouldn’t try for that in my writing, either. Tell a story. Make the key characters as three-dimensional as you’re able, and worry about being liked outside of the work.