A gulf yawns between the stories I love to read and the stories I write. I see it every time I work on a draft. My fundamental problem: I want my fictional characters to be liked. I make them too nice. Decency is the scourge I must arm myself against.
What's wrong with overly nice characters? To begin with, they're boring. They do to plot what Round-Up would to a tomato plant. This is because they can't abide conflict, and smooth it over every chance they get. Compare that to Denis Johnson's characters, say, or Flannery O'Connor's, who can't step off the front porch without pissing somebody off. Conflict, as we know, is oxygen to fiction. Yet somehow I forget as a writer what I love as a reader, and, if I'm careless, end up with characters who get along with everyone, who start to seem like someone I'd want to marry. Would you want to marry a Flannery O'Connor character?
When I find myself surrounded by the saintly, here's one thing I try: I begin by sniffing out harmony. Any unalloyed pleasantness that passes between characters I give a good, long look.
Let me give you an example. When I was working on "The Orange Parka" (forthcoming in Glimmer Train), I finally reached the point where I believed I had the necessary elements in place, yet the draft bored me. It had all the bite of an old basset hound. Still, I trusted the set-up: the main character, Rakesh Dabydeen, lost his beloved wife to a swift illness, and now finds himself baffled by their teenaged daughter, Prithi. I began to suspect that the draft's heaviness stemmed from Rakesh being too upright.
The story really begins when Rakesh attends a conference at Prithi's school, and the teacher tells him that Prithi has not shown up that day. Rakesh worries, and wants to find out where she is, but must get to work on time or he will be fired. He rushes from the school to the subway. When he reaches the elevated train platform, he asks a stranger if he might borrow his cell phone. (He doesn't have his own.) Prithi answers his call; Rakesh hears her voice, but soon loses the connection. The man's train arrives. As Rakesh hands the phone back, the man confesses that he has been estranged from his own daughter for years.
The stranger's confession is the climax of the men's dialogue. The question of how Rakesh would react offered me a chance to make his character more complicated, to reveal some new facet that could sow conflict and help the story breathe. Nevertheless, I fell back on old habits: I wanted Rakesh to be a good guy. I wanted everyone to like him, including the man on the subway platform. I had him react with courtly sympathy, offering the man his hand just before the man boards the train.
Showing solidarity with a pained stranger is the nice thing to do; we would like to believe such moments of communion could be the rule, more than the exception. But who was I to expect Rakesh Dabydeen to be the answer to society's ills? Which brings me to another problem with overly nice characters: they are not just boring; they are fake. Take a moment to imagine if Hamlet, at the start of the play, were to forgive his mother for marrying his uncle: it would be the compassionate, mature thing to do, and as realistic as Donald Trump's hair. Instead, his anger verges on cruelty; he dithers; he whines. His many flaws madden us, temper our admiration of his capacious mind—and fascinate us, so much so we perform him centuries after his creation. If I hoped for "The Orange Parka" to sustain the reader's interest, I would have to be more honest about what we are capable of.
After a lot of teeth-gnashing, and trying out of possibilities, I struck on a revision that felt more true: the man's confession terrifies Rakesh. He has just lost his wife; losing his daughter would kill him; he sees it the moment the man speaks the words. As we sometimes do when we are scared, Rakesh turns tail. I don't mean literally; he spurns the man's effort to shake hands, fearful he might contract the man's sad disease.
Finally, I had an ending to the scene I could believe in. It passed the boring test because it surprised me. And it felt realistic. Acting out of fear never wins us friends; we end up lonelier than before. But what is more human than, in the heat of the moment, turning the gun on our own feet? Such analysis, though, occurs to me long after the fact. The revision just felt right. The gulf between what I love to read and what I write remained, but, for a moment, seemed to narrow. When I allowed my character to do what he wanted, instead of what was right, my story began to breathe.