A while back I wrote the blog post Don’t Be Afraid to Tell Your Story. In it I discussed the way Roxane Gay plunges into a story without much, if any, background, and how that makes her work powerfully captivating.
Recently, I read “Homesick for Another World” a wonderful volume of short stories by Ottessa Moshfegh and had a similar thought. Moshfegh’s stories possess refreshing, off-kilter elements: a comfort with bodily functions, grotesque humor and an undercurrent of cruelty. But what also sets Moshfegh apart from many contemporaries is her willingness to write characters who are not the most endearing of people.
“My poor wife. I didn’t know how little I loved her until she was dead,” admits the narrator of “No Place for Good People.” He works at a home for developmentally disabled adults because he says he wants to be among people who “appreciate” him.
“Bettering Myself” begins “My classroom was on the first floor, next to the nuns’ lounge. I used their bathroom to vomit in…I was usually still drunk from the night before. Sometimes I had a drink at lunch.”
Or consider the loser-hero of “Dancing in the Moonlight.” Maddeningly clueless and self-aware at the same time, he falls in love with a young woman this way: “Her face was pinched, as though she’d just smelled someone farting. It was that look of revulsion that awoke something in me. She made me want to be a better man.” He promptly lies to her so she’ll think he’s more successful, wealthier and better educated than he really is. “I reasoned that as soon as she fell in love with me – perhaps she already had – the existence of furniture or lofts, any trite reality, would become laughingly irrelevant.”
In general, Moshfegh’s characters are difficult, deluded, and immune to the social mores that keep the rest of us in check. But instead of people you wouldn’t want to spend a few minutes with over the course of a story, they’re all the more interesting for their unpleasantness.
Some of that is morbid curiosity, the proverbial slowing down at the scene of a car crash. A bigger part is recognizing that these men and women strive for what everyone wants — connection, assurance that hopes and dreams are valid – but their behavior makes these things unreachable. They’re fellow sufferers, yes. However, where we (or characters inhabiting a different fictional universe) might seek to alleviate pain with soul searching and profoundly meaningful action, Moshfegh’s characters resort to anger, booze (among other substances) and acting out.
The word “self-sabotage” comes to mind.
In “Malibu” we get this assertion: “All he did was watch TV or talk on the phone or eat. He loved game shows and cooking shows. I’m not saying he was an idiot. He was just like me: anything good made him want to die. That’s a characteristic some smart people have.”
So, give your characters less than savory traits. Allow them to lie, steal, cheat. Let them be immature, self-indulgent, and vindictive. Don’t be afraid they won’t resonate with the reader.
This comes mostly as a self-admonishment. For example, if I were to write about a widower working in an assisted living facility, my instinct would be to make him immediately sympathetic. He’d miss his wife. He’d believe he had failed her as a husband. His work at the home would facilitate a process of closure. Mosfegh’s widower exhibits attitudes contrary to our expectations of a man in his station and he’s candid about that fact. Instead of sympathetic he’s interesting.
And isn’t that the goal of fiction? To present something in a new way so the reader takes note, makes them see the world a little bit differently, makes them want to keep reading?
I’m not saying all our characters should be singularly reprehensible, but occasionally pushing them into behavior that makes us squirm might improve our fiction.