A few years ago, when speaking with a reporter about my then-just-released novel, Accidents of Marriage, she mentioned how surprised she was by her negative reactions to the main character—how the character ‘provoked’ her husband. The reporter sympathized with the husband’s anger. The next day, participating on a book panel, the moderator spoke of the husband in the book as a virtual out-of-control monster and his wife Maddy as a frightened woman battling emotional abuse.
These opposite reactions pleased me. Making characters nuanced is my priority. Plus, just as an author’s belief system colors their work, readers bring their own experiences judgment to our characters. (Like how each one of us found our favorite Beatle—mine was George—I’ve always been drawn to the quiet ones).
Nevertheless, there’s a troubling undertone I’ve noted in some reactions to novels about that examine whether a woman (or man) ‘deserves’ to live without verbal, emotional, or any other sort of abuse. In Accidents of Marriage, Maddy is married to Ben, a man with a trigger-temper; she never knows what will set it off. When he’s charming, he’s terrific: funny, smart, and capable. When he’s irate, he’s terrifying: raging, critical and blaming the world for his troubles.
Relationships are never static in life and shouldn’t be in novels. Sometimes Maddy placates, working hard to keep her children unaware of the problems she and Ben face; other times she gives in to her frustration and answers back, giving in to her edginess. Plus, she’s a bit messy, a working mother with three children, who’s rarely (if ever) on top of the unending chores facing the family. When life becomes too much, she’ll nibble a Xanax. But none of that is equivalent with ‘deserving’ to be screamed at, raged at, or to be driven at speeds that petrify her. She certainly doesn’t deserve to end up in an accident that changes her entire life.
For years, I worked with batterers, men ordered to a violence intervention program. The hardest nut to crack was convincing them that one’s violence, one’s temper, or one’s temperament, shouldn’t be contingent on another’s behavior. We control ourselves. To wit, we scream at our spouses and children—rarely do we verbally attack our bosses no matter how much they enrage us. Why? Because our bosses have power over us, and we, in fact, do have control—it’s all about whether we choose to use that skill or not. And yes, it takes work.
Which brings me to the likable character. There’s been a debate in literature as to whether a book should be judged on the likeability of a character, which flies in the face of what I want in a book: to be fascinated by the men and women populating it, to root for them to change, and for them to get through their crucibles as unburned as possible.
And with the ‘bad guys’? I want them to own up to their deeds and pay for them.
In my novel Accidents of Marriage, the only innocents are the children. (And they have their extremely unlikable moments; is there a child that doesn’t?)
Which brings me to Betty Crocker.
When I worked in domestic violence, we spoke about working against the Betty Crocker syndrome (Betty Crocker representing the impossible ‘perfect woman’,) and the overwhelming importance of teaching the public, the men we worked with, and those in the field, how we should never judge the behavior of a perpetrator by the personality of their victim. Nobody deserves to be abused. Nobody learns (not children, not adults) through terror.
Terror is the tool of the abuser. It’s how they off load their own defeat. It’s how they release their own negativity on those around them.
It’s never a tool for building family. Not in real life, not on the pages of a novel.
The very best way to comport oneself is too follow the moral code you’ve built for yourself and not allow it to be mutable based on other’s behavior.
It’s hard work to get there.
In real life.
And on the page. But that’s what I want in the novels I read and write: stories of imperfect men and flawed women taking the long hard journey.
So, I think I’m speaking on behalf of many authors: judge us on our lousy writing, our bad grammar, our lack of plot, our sloppy syntax, and our purple prose. But please don’t expect all us to feature Betty Crocker. Sometimes we really want to get inside the head of the Carmela Sopranos. The complicated women.