The Benefits of Being Mean

Being mean isn’t something I’m naturally good at. I try to be a good person. Try to be thoughtful of others and unselfish. In my writing pursuits I expected this would always serve me well, but not so. It turns out that being mean is a core requirement of writing. Why? Because if you’re always nice to your characters, nothing interesting will ever happen.

If J.K.Rowling was nice to Harry Potter, Voldemort would never have been born, Harry’s parents would still be alive and Malfoy would have been a delightful young chap. If J.K was kind, when Harry was invited to a school of Wizardry it would have been one big, joyous adventure with no danger or teen angst or Trolls/Werewolves/Deatheaters/’insert scary thing here’. If J.K was a generous soul, Harry would have had a very pleasant time at school, graduated and lived Happily Ever After. Sound boring to you? I’m putting myself to sleep just contemplating it.

As writers, we need to drag our characters through hell and back before the story is through. We need to create tension, drama, action, tough choices – more so than tends to exist in real life. I think this is why I enjoy fantasy so much, as there is such potential to raise the stakes beyond anything we experience in our own world. But being mean is harder than it sounds. I get incredibly attached to my characters – even protective of them – so without realising it I often let them avoid the tough stuff.

I’ve been using the ‘three act structure’ to outline the urban fantasy I’m currently developing (something Robert McKee discusses in Story and Alexandra Sokoloff studies over on her blog). I had a number of scenes I knew would feature in the book, and had written them onto story cards. I was then working out how they would work across the three acts – where they would fit, what would work as each act’s turning point and how each event would interact with the others. In doing this I realised parts of the story were severely lacking. Know why? Because I was being too kind to my characters. I had to up the stakes, make their choices harder, create greater consequences. Would this character really adjust so well to this turning point? No! They’d rail against it and make things harder for my protagonist. Would this piece of information be so easy to track down? No! My protagonist should have to prove himself before he can discover that pearler.

With this done, my story has filled out significantly, and as you can see my storyboard is nearly complete. Although I’m not sure how I’ll sleep tonight. I’ve done enough mean things to these characters to earn a lifetime of damnation…


18 Responses to “The Benefits of Being Mean”

  1. 1 Karen Tyrrell April 20, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Hi Katherine,
    I agree with you totally. Put those characters through hell. Make them confront the worst possible experiences imaginable and see how they cope.
    …. By the way love your super Neat and organized wall chart.
    Cheers, Karen :))

  2. 2 Sybil April 20, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    You have the most beautiful mind charts ever… I would get lost in mine!

  3. 3 macdibble April 20, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    So organised! Sometimes, apparently, you can be too mean to your characters. You know what they say… “the difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to be believable”.

  4. 4 chrisbongers April 20, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    Kath, another great post. I could see you singing like Kermit ‘It’s not easy being mean…’ while you’re living your life vicariously and sticking it to those character – Hee-yahhh! (Sound effect courtesy of Miss Piggy).

  5. 5 Elaine Ouston April 21, 2010 at 9:24 am

    Great post Kath. As I read it I realised that I had no trouble putting the male characters in my novel in danger (impetuous boys do get into trouble) but I had been protecting my female characters. Must address that.

  6. 6 Katherine Battersby April 21, 2010 at 11:40 am

    Can anyone say Virgo? Yes, I may be just a little neat and structured. I like straight lines and order. I have been outed.

    Chris – I now have ‘it’s not easy being mean’ stuck in my head! I loved Kermit and Miss Piggy growing up. Ah, reminiscing…

    Elaine, that’s really interesting. I think I tend to be over protective of my protagonist, boy or girl, because I’m most inside their head.

  7. 7 Lynne Green April 21, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    I like the third photo on your cork board. All black! Now there’s a character concept. And i like the other photos – because that is something I do. I have characterfiles, and in them I always stick a photo for a visual reference.

    I am stealing the cork board idea. I used a white board for a while, but the family ended up using it for lists and dates-to-remember.

    I love you blog. Just so you know.

  8. 8 Tina C April 21, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    Hey Katherine

    I have to agree that you are one of the nice people in the world. I don’t think there is a mean streak in you at all – you’re all ‘sugar and spice and all things nice!’ So I can understand how you have come to this conclusion about your characters.

    While you have realised you need to give your characters, ”depth, and throw everything at them from hell and back,” never forget that the characters you create, are just that – characters and they are not a reflection of you as a person at all. And although we all ‘admit’ to having a little of us in some of our characters, they are fictional and not really part of us at all.

    I very much doubt that Stephen King would claim kinship to Annie from Misery at all, yet he created her. So be like the master – create characters that scream ‘remember me always’ on the paper, and in real life always remain just as precious and beautiful a person you are now.

    Bye 4 now

  9. 9 Katherine Battersby April 22, 2010 at 11:10 am

    Lynn, how rude of your family to steal your whiteboard! I love my cork board. I love being able to pin things up and move them around – visually interacting with my ideas always seems to unearth others. So glad you’re enjoying the blog :)

    Tina, thanks again for your kind words. You have such a lovely way of putting things. I remember I used to struggle with that concept – worrying that people would think my ideas or characters are me. And although they do have shades of me, some of them have strengths I can only wish I had, while others explore the things I most fear and loathe in people. To be really honest in our writing I think we have to make peace with what others may or may not think about it. Thanks, lovely.

  10. 10 Helen Ross April 23, 2010 at 10:38 am

    Hi Katherine. Thanks for a great post. And after looking at your neat storyboard my resolve this year is to be as organised as you. Also, hope you have settled in your new place.

  11. 11 Sherryl April 25, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Love your neat wall chart and notes. I’m teaching Story Structure again this semester and we’ve done 3 acts as well as hero’s journey and a few others. I think it really does help to plan it out like this. You start to see the holes and sags, and it works with the pacing as well.

  12. 12 marionmartineer April 26, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    OMG I can’t believe you have such a tidy and organised chart!!!
    Good to see your attitude toward being mean though, you have always seemed such a likeable person to me, I’m pleased to see you struggle with horrible things as much as I do…but gee I really have to tidy my work up now…I think..maybe I should get a corkboard instead of having dusty bits of paper sticky taped to my walls.

  13. 13 Katherine Battersby April 27, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Helen, glad I have managed to inspire you in some small way. And we have settled in beautifully to Adelaide – thanks! We are certainly starting to feel more like locals, especially at our favourite corner cafe and restaurants.

    Sherryl, I have learnt so much from your blog, especially when you talk about your process and what you teach your students. Like you mentioned, being more planned has really helped me focus on pacing and building the tension. I feel a lot more confident going into this first draft than I have yet.

    Marion – don’t let me shame you! I forget how obsessively neat I must look to others. It’s often a weakness of mine, as I am also incredibly structured and don’t cope very well with change…

  14. 14 pawhitehouse April 28, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    I’m very glad to find and follow this blog (newbie). I really loved this latest post(off to read all your previous ones shortly)

    Funny! I really should have read chronologically but who could go past that great title!

  15. 15 Katherine Battersby May 2, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    Thanks Penny! Hope you enjoy having a peek around the blog. I’m off to check yours out…

  16. 16 Jenny May 14, 2010 at 11:32 am

    What is the meaning of the photos at the bottom of the board? Is that what you imagine your characters to look like?

  17. 17 Katherine Battersby May 14, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Exactly, Jenny. They’re my main characters. It’s much easier to get into their heads while I’m writing if I can see their lovely faces :)

  1. 1 Terrific Post from the Well-read Rabbit on Being Mean « Angela Slatter Trackback on April 20, 2010 at 8:03 pm

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About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

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