Writing Your Best Characters

Today, I have a special guest, Taylor Larsen, author of starred STRANGER, FATHER, BELOVED. Taylor has woven excellent complicated men into her work and provides wonderful insight into creating complex characters.

I am fascinated with the idea of self-delusion. It’s hard to witness someone you love lying to him or herself. It seems to me it’s one of the more painful things a person can go through and can be unbearable to witness.

In my novel, Stranger, Father, Beloved, delusion abounds. The main character Michael convinces himself that he would be perfectly happy if he had only remained a college professor and had married a different woman, perhaps one of a higher class and education level, and so when he sees her talking to a stranger at a party, he feels he has stumbled onto the truth as well as a safe passage out of his reality. He will bring the stranger, John, into their lives as a new head of the household and then leave the family.

I’ve been asked why I chose to write from the perspective of such a complicated main character. I’ve asked myself why I am drawn to writing complicated men, unreliable narrators who are desperately fighting to understand themselves, particularly why they are so unhappy. Unfortunately, many people are unhappy and I’ve known many people who were quite complex. They seemed to feel there was something fundamentally wrong with them and this level of self-hatred often produced bizarre and unexpected behavior that shocked me. Further, there is nothing worse than seeing someone live his whole life in delusion and then die in that state.

For the people I knew who led these types of tragic lives, the source was a fundamental lack of self- acceptance. One lived with crippling mental illness, another was ashamed of his sexual preferences. Neither would openly admit this, and so the sadness and confusion hovered around them like a hopeless cloud. Witnessing this misery was painful, particularly since these people meant so much to me. I wondered: why did they feel the need to pretend everything was fine when it was obvious they were sad? Why wouldn’t they just speak the truth instead of dancing around it?

Why do people become deluded? And how do you break a delusion? People can have a host of delusions including those of grandeur or inferiority. Michael’s wife Nancy suffers from the latter, which stems from her weight and her lower-class background. She feels she is not good enough for her highly intelligent and well-educated husband. She never addresses this head on. Instead, her shame sits in the corners of the rooms of the book, always present but never expressed, like a dull sickness. There’s another frightening kind of delusion—people who refuse to accept the death of a loved one, leading them into deep mental illness at their refusal to accept reality. The great Gothic novels of our age show characters roaming the hallways in a state of madness, looking for their departed loved ones, frighteningly deranged.

As a writer, I’m interested in the impact shame has on people’s lives. Self-delusion is the bedmate of shame. People create fantastical delusions to get through the day, a phenomenon I try to reflect in my characters. Michael is so repressed that he does not even understand his own erections—he’s so disconnected from his own sexuality that he doesn’t understand why he gets turned on by what seems like nothing in particular. In Michael’s mind, once Nancy is with John, everything will be fixed. There will be no more pain or shame and he will be able to escape. He does not know what he will escape to, or what the real secret is that is driving his fixation on John. Michael’s daughter Ryan is a refreshing counterpoint to so many deluded characters—she is aware of her needs and is brave in seeking the life she wants for herself.

I have observed that characters suffering with delusion tend to project their desires and fears onto others. It is amazing just how intricate this web of lies can become, creating a jeweled net of botched thoughts and aching feelings. Lauren Groff’s excellent novel, Fates and Furies, immerses the reader in fantasies and seeming ideals then plunges us into the ugly and complex feelings that are often submerged in the heart. No stone remains unturned in that book.

I feel the job of good fiction is to show that delusion cannot last forever. There is something in the human heart and mind that wants to know the truth, and this impulse will not be denied. Michael cannot escape it, though he tries, and all his suffering and shenanigans fade once he sees them through a clear lens at the end of the book:

“He did not have the strength to claim what it was he so desperately wanted. His life had been woven into a tapestry of fear and desire that was unraveling, and he was not sure he had the energy to do it in this life.”

Pain is not erased, but it becomes bearable once one sees that living a lie is far worse than dealing with the truth.

— Taylor Larsen is a graduate of Columbia University's MFA program in fiction writing. Taylor taught fiction writing at Columbia University as part of the Columbia Artist/Teachers faculty and at The Sackett Street Writers Workshop, as well as literature courses for Pace University. Stranger, Father, Beloved is her first novel. Originally from Alexandria, Virginia, she currently resides in Brooklyn, New York with her husband.

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