This is from my blog vault, written way back on August 23, 2013. The part in green at the end is what I’ve added today, 5 1/2 years later. I always work from character as a writer–this is how I plot my books, this is what moves me as a reader. You can have all the twisty fun plot in the world, and luscious language to boot, but if you don’t give me a great character, I won’t care. This blog explores characterization, but it also gets in to why writing real people has, suddenly, become unfashionable.
Last week I was at the MET with my grandma, taking in as much as we could in the hour and a half we had before closing, which is to say, not a whole lot. We were sort of running through Impressionism, giving quick waves to Van Gough and Monet and the rest, when Picasso stopped us in our tracks (he’s pretty good at that). It was unlike any Picasso I’d ever seen, without all the pizzazz of cubism. I’ve seen things from his Blue Period before, but nothing hurt to look at so much as this one. It’s called “The Blind Man’s Meal,” and if you want to be geeky like me, you can read more about it here. The photo below doesn’t do it justice, but hopefully it’ll give you pause, too.
So what does Picasso and, more particularly, this painting, have to do with writing? In a word: character. Picasso didn’t just paint any blind man – he painted this blind man. He is absolutely singular, caught in a private moment of sorrow and longing. And yet there’s also something tranquil here, a sort of acceptance of his condition. What kills me is the way his hand seems to almost be stroking the jug of wine. I can almost feel the grainy texture under my own fingertips as I imagine him running his skin over it. Perhaps he’s wondering what color it is or wishes he could see how much is left. Or he wishes there were someone he could share it with – this blind man feels very much alone, no? This is a study in solitude.
And look at his face. He’s beautiful, but does he know it? The swooney girl in me wants to kiss those perfect, pouty lips, but does he have someone in his life to appreciate them? I don’t think so. He’s skinny and sitting alone and he only seems to have that one piece of bread. Picasso shows us his poverty here; I’m not exactly sure what “telling” looks like in a painting, but my guess is that the blind man is not a representation or a stand-in–it’s him in all his raw humanity. Picasso doesn’t need to beat us over the head with it, we get it from the way his shirt hangs a little loosely around him, the meager meal, the blue tones that immediately evoke sadness.
I wonder how Picasso got us there. It’s not just masterful technique or a great subject. It was something deeper. Pieces of himself that he mixed in with the pain and an awareness of the human condition so keen, so empathetic, that there is no doubt that Picasso, however briefly, went to this sightless place with the blind man in order to see him more clearly. When he painted this in the early nineteen-hundreds, Picasso himself was a poor artist. But he wasn’t blind. He, as editor Patricia Gauch says, “went to the mountain.” You look at this painting, you see this character in this deeply private moment, and you feel something. An ache, a hurt in the pit of your stomach that has nothing to do with pity. It’s beautiful because it’s real.
YA is full of unreal characters. Broody boys and pretty girls who don’t know they’re pretty and everyone sounds the same and has the same problems and BLEGH. Or, you get characters who seem to put the quirk in quirky, as though weird ticks and habits and hobbies slapped onto a teen prototype can somehow render them unique. You can see the author trying too hard. Give me the real deal, however messy it is. Give me Eleanor and Park, two characters who are so real to me that I swear I’m going to run into them on the street someday. Oh Lord, give me Sean Kendrick from The Scorpio Races, where author Maggie Stiefvater takes the broody boy to a whole new level. Or how about e. lockhart’s wonderfully conniving Frankie Landau-Banks and the heartbreakingly broken Lennie in The Sky is Everywhere? These are some of my favorite characters because they aren’t perfect. They’re messed up and make bad choices or they’ve got so many sides to themselves–hidden sides, beautiful sides–that they’re kaleidoscopic.
I was recently told that maybe my books are too “brainy,” too deep for YA. That the complexity of my characters, the subterranean levels of their desires and misbeliefs within them require readers to have to show up more than they want to. It’s not that my books are complicated, twisty, or cerebral. It’s that I don’t make it easy for you to put my characters into neat little boxes. You don’t get to say, Oh, he’s the bad guy, she’s the good girl, she’s the mean girl. You actually have to get in the trenches with my characters, to watch them fuck up, and know that when you close my book, they’ll probably fuck up again. Because they’re human. Nothing is ever really tied up in a bow. They’re still hurting, they still have mountains to climb. Lazy readers don’t like that. SO many readers just want junk food these days. Don’t get me wrong – I can be one them, too! There are days when I don’t want to really feel deeply–I just want to read a good kissing scene and call it a day. And there is absolutely a place for books like that. Fun, light fare–guilty pleasures: McDonald’s fries books.
We live in a time right now where it seems, more and more, that the color gray is not acceptable. A time when labels and boxes are the norm. You are THIS or you are THAT and there is no in-between. No real center. I find that to be so boring, so inauthentic, a farce of reality in which everyone is suddenly required to participate, and then become de-sensitized to what is happening because it becomes normalized.
I live in the gray. I work in the gray. It is the sweet spot of art.
We are all super complicated, complex beings. And that makes for great art. I recently watched a documentary about a politician that I had some major aversion to, and what I loved was that, because the filmmaker did his job, by the end of the documentary, I could no longer put this guy in the snug box I’d crafted for him. Oh, sure, his policies are, in many ways, against my ethics. I’m not going to vote for him. But I got to see little quirks that made me realize: This is a man. A human being with a complex series of wants and needs and fears. He is not all bad. Not all good. He fucks up. He also does beautiful, brave things. It felt so GOOD to feel conflicted. To want to dislike someone, but not be able to write them off completely because I was now finally seeing them. It doesn’t make me a bad person for seeing a supposed enemy’s humanity. It makes me a person. It makes me an artist. Because what we are called to do as writers is to LOOK. To SEE. To bear witness to what it means to be human and report back.
Our job is not to do what you want. It’s not say the “right” thing. It’s not to be didactic.
Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to report on our characters’ individual lives. I’m writing a character right now who is deeply saddened over the abortion she had. I’m Pro-Choice. So is she. But this singular girl is sad about what she had to do. And she felt she had to do it–most women in her circumstances would have made the choice she made. I would have, too. But that doesn’t mean she can’t be sad. And it doesn’t mean that writing ONE girl who is sad about her abortion is somehow a message that all women and girls are sad about their abortions and that abortion is wrong and we judge you. NO. THERE IS NO FUCKING MESSAGE. I am reporting back about this one girl’s experience. She did this thing. It hurt. It might not hurt you. That’s fine.
I guarantee you, there will be people who read this book and will make all kinds of assumptions about how I feel about abortion. They will forget that I am a vessel for my characters and that I also am a storyteller. Yes, parts of myself go in to all my books and characters. But I’ve written serial killer characters, too, and, I assure you, I am no serial killing maniac. I went to the dark place. Observed. Reported back. I’m seeing this character–my girl who got an abortion–as Picasso saw this particular, singular blind man in his painting. Maybe he painted other blind men while they were mid-laugh. This painting isn’t a commentary on blindness, a statement about all visually-impaired people. Picasso was reporting back about this man in this moment.
Art is a freeze frame. A moment.
If writing complex characters is too brainy for YA, then we are in a bad place, indeed. I don’t tell my readers what to think: but I give them stories that give them the opportunity to think. That’s the gift I give. And, if you’re a writer, I hope you can give it, too.
Writing a truly unique protagonist is hard work. It requires the writer to dig deep, to go further, to walk on hot, shifting sands and brave soul-sucking winds. Like an actor, you need to channel them, meditate on them, talk to them. And listen. Because they always talk back and they’ll let you know when you’re making a false move. Avoid the easy route. Cross out the cliches and find the characteristics and moments that are as unique as a fingerprint. The process is arduous but when it works…well, when it works, we call that art. Writing a Picasso is like closing your eyes and searching with your fingertips for that jug of wine, that hunk of bread, the hunger that nothing seems to fill.
It’s dancing in the dark.
Breathe. Write. Repeat.
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