Role Models? My Characters? Not so much.

It sat there, staring at me. It was…a challenge, etched within a lousy review of my book. “And what is it with that Lola girl?” it said in letters made bigger and bolder by my irritated brain.  “She’s not a role model at all.

And I thought….a role model? My characters? Why do you want them to be role models? They’re characters in a STORY.

I stayed disgruntled for maybe an hour, my feathers ruffled completely. But then I remembered something. Something important.

That Lola girl? The battered, beaten, downtrodden third narrator of my zombie series? She was never meant to be a role model. Like at all. Because that Lola girl? She’s actually a cautionary tale.

See, Lola came about because I had this vision of a girl surviving the zombie apocalypse not because of her own wits, or even her own dumb luck, but simply because someone else made the choice for her. A mean someone. A someone who hurt people, but tried to protect his sister, his baby. His punching bag. I pictured a girl, small and skinny, from a poverty-stricken background, who doesn’t know how to take care of herself at all.  Who has no idea that people can be kind, that some can be trusted. Who winds up on the wrong side of good vs. evil after zombies have decimated our entire country, and who doesn’t even realize it.

I pictured a girl whose self-esteem has been so shattered by years and years of systemic abuse, she has no idea there’s better people out there. Nicer people. Non-violent people. And when she meets them, she has no idea how to be around them.

Becoming Lola is the last thing I’d ever want to do. I faced a scary dude once, a boy who I think would have hit me if I’d let him come to my house on a particular summer day, and it still haunts me. The what-if of it all. What if I’d let him come? What if I’d let him hit me? What if that became my life?

And seriously, haven’t we all been in bad relationships? Where we think it’s the best we’re going to get, the best we deserve? Where we look in the mirror and see something ugly staring back at us? Something we never wanted to become?

It happens, and it’s life, and I wrote Lola to reflect that side of things. She is not a role model, at least not in the first book of the series.

Writing Lola was hard. It’s hard to write someone you don’t admire, not even a little bit. For whom redemption seems, at times, impossible. But look at the world around us. It’s full of good people, sure, but it’s also full of sad ones. Beaten ones. Downtrodden ones. Real ones.

I feel like our responsibility as writers is to not shy away from characters such as Lola, to tell their stories, even if they’re hard to tell.  I don’t want to spend my time writing only happy tales with happy characters who always triumph.

That’s not how life is.  Some of the books I’ve most enjoyed in the past year have extremely flawed characters.  Miriam Black in Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds and Mockingbird is a disaster of a human being. She steals to survive, lives in seedy hotels and on the street, and when push comes to shove, she runs away…at first. Cat in Cassandra Rose Clare’s The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is selfish and self-centered. She uses people to get what she wants in life.

MadScientistsDaughter-144dpi (1) blackbirds

These women aren’t role models…but they are great, strong, dynamic characters.

So no. Of course Lola is not a role model. It’s not my job to write role models. It’s my job to write stories with characters that reflect reality, not a perfect world with perfect people. 

When Characters Take Over…

*Ominous music cues* Characters taking over, you ask? Whatever do you mean?

Well, there’s this assumption that writers always have a solid handle over their characters. That we know, at any given moment, who they are, what they’re doing, and how it will all turn out in the end. I am here to tell you, not so, my friends!

When I first began to write Enlightened (which will be out February 2013), my protagonist Nisha Moore was supposed to be a little bit flighty, funny, and someone you could gulp down in a couple of sips and really not worry about again. I was going for a humorous paranormal novella, about 20,000 words (70 pages) total. Clearly, that was not to be. Enlightened is now the first in a trilogy, and Nisha has turned out to be this multifaceted, dynamic character who has a very steep learning curve/character arc to contend with.

Since Enlightened was only my second attempt at writing a full-size novel, I learned a lot on Nisha (poor girl; it’s no wonder she has such issues). At first, I refused to listen to her when she banged on the inside of my forehead going, “Hey! I’m not flighty and fleeting! I’m here to stay! I want a longer story!” Then, I refused to listen when she insisted–rather huffily, I might add–that she wanted to tell the story from her perspective. None of this deep 3rd person nonsense. So I had to put the book away for a bit.

I came back to it months later, when I felt like I’d had enough breathing room. I decided to listen about the 1st person thing. It was liberating. Next, I did a character analysis. Who was Nisha, exactly? What does she want most from life? How will she change in this book? And that’s when I realized she wanted to come back over and over. The idea for a trilogy was born.

Nisha is one of my favorite characters of all the people I’ve written because she changed so much, and because I gave myself license to really listen to that internal voice that wouldn’t shut up about her. It was scary, uncharted territory because I wanted to write a funny-yet-deep story about this character who had a lot to contend with. And also, this character is nothing like me. In fact, I did a personality test on her for fun just to see what she was all about. It helped immensely.

If you’re a writer, or dream of writing something someday, I suggest you keep your ears wide open for any pearls of wisdom your characters may want to drop in there. Apparently, they really know what they’re doing. I’m learning to shrug and say, “Hey, I just work here.”

Have your characters ever pulled the rug out from under you? If you’re a reader, have there been characters in books who turned out to be different than you were expecting?