writer in progress: revenge is sweeter than i thought

Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. -- Flannery O'Connor

I like to write when I feel spiteful: it's like having a good sneeze. -- D.H. Lawrence

I've been drowning myself in writing advice these last few weeks. For some reason, pneumonia walks hand in hand with insomnia, so I've been reading into the wee hours, piles of books about writing.

I'm calling it "the late late night writer's conference." Most of the books I've been browsing are compilations of writing advice: a few dozen writers offering various and conflicting points of view on what they do and why.

It's been a real blast--all those writerly voices crowding my head! Grumpy, inspirational, practical, mysterious, prosaic. I love binging on writing advice.

Write what you know. Write what you don't know. End each day mid-sentence. Revise before you write. Write before you revise. Show don't tell. Draft before agents. Work at night. Work in the morning.

And here's one I've heard several times: Write for revenge.

That's one that I've certainly put to work. It's a combination, really, of "write what you know" and "write for revenge." Every protagonist needs an antagonist or two. Every person who has survived twenty-six years has faced her own share of personal antagonists, believe me! I've mined my own life repeatedly, scooping out the people who made me crazy and inserting them into my novels.

That is catharsis, let me tell you! Putting junior high misery to good use! Dragging out the people who have tormented me in their own private way, and giving my protagonist the exhilaration of the perfect retort.

It's half the reason why we should write! And few things have made me so happy.

It's a fabulous noveling technique, and I highly recommend it. The very same people who have blocked my way, who have made me writhe with embarrassment or frustration or helplessness, are just the sorts of people I want troubling my protagonist.

Bonus: I know exactly how she feels!

They're people who brought the very worst out of me--and, it would seem, vice versa. They also bring the worst out of my protagonists, who end up acting on angry impulse, saying the wrong thing, or doing something crazy with their frustration. (Another bonus: my characters exact the revenge that I could not.)

But along the way, something weird has happened, every time I build an antagonist on the foundation of a person who made me berserk.

I can't write about characters that I don't, on some level, like. I can't write about a one-dimensional person, someone whose motivation I don't understand. Even the terrible ones: they have to be real. They have to have a few good points.

And with all the care I've put into building these revenge characters, all the time I take sculpting the antagonists of my past into the antagonists of the novel present... they become more real to me than ever. I find that I'm forgiving the real people. I'm thinking of all the reasons why they acted as they did, why we conflicted so miserably.

They still put my character through her paces, they still make her crazy, or I wouldn't have a story. But somehow, strangely, the sting left in me by the real person slowly fades, until really, I'm not upset at them at all. I can let them go. And, too, I kind of want to apologize for my own bad behavior.

So, yes, this might be a kind of "warning: you could end up in my novel." But I doubt anyone will recognize them anyway--the real life inspiration is truly just a jumping off point. The final product is a far cry from the person I knew.

It turns out to be more about redemption than revenge, really. More about redeeming the frustrating--sometimes agonizing--experience. And along the way, redeeming the person who inflicted it.

I would whole-heartedly recommend this, even though now it sounds like a therapy exercise. Maybe it is. But I get a lot out of it: my character is up against a realistic antagonist, who gets a fitting comeuppance before the end. And by that end, I'm free.

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