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Bad Characters - Guest Blog



In the novel I’m currently writing, which takes place in Manhattan of the 1970s, I have created a character, named Mike, who I hate. He’s a sexist, bigoted, antisemitic, bully. Yet I find it shockingly easy to empathize with him. I have no sympathy for him, but I understand him. He embodies ugly stereotypes about women, immigrants, and non-whites that permeated the culture of his day. And because he fails to reflect on his biases, he acts out in horrifying ways.


My previous novel, Singularity Heights, takes place in the same Manhattan neighborhoods, but many generations in the future. In that book, the toxic stereotypes have all shifted to new ones that don’t yet exist in our world. The MoMos hate the NoMos and vice-versa. While the targets of their hatred have changed dramatically from those in Mike’s day, a similar bigotry remains intact in their flawed human brains.


Empathy is one of the unexpected blessings of writing fiction. When writing antagonists, I am forced to plumb the parts of my psyche I would rather ignore. I think this helps me to understand myself and the world a little better.


Like everyone, the culture in which I have lived my life, has poured biases into me that I did not ask for or want. I can’t help but have them reside in my brain, even the ones I reject. I have found that speaking frankly about those biases causes friends, family, and acquaintances to reassure me I’m not like that. I appreciate their concern, but they misunderstand my point. I don’t feel like a monster because I have these biases lurking in my mind. I also have more positive biases, beliefs, and knowledge. I contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman said.


I think it’s important for us to acknowledge the negative cultural biases we have internalized. If we don’t, we’re more likely to manifest them in potentially harmful ways, like my character Mike does.  It’s very easy to assume the feelings generated by our biases represent some essential truth. We don’t usually have access to the source of our feeling. We just feel them. Our biases, right or wrong, provide an explanation. We can choose to uncritically believe them, and we likely will, unless we spend time and energy to examine them. That’s what novel writing affords me. I examine my own worst instincts so my characters can behave badly instead of me.

 

Jay Solomon is the author of two published novels. Singularity Heights is a science fiction novel for adults about life in a future, generations past the singularity, when no one can remember what it was like to work for a living. The Losers Club, a middle grade book, which he wrote for his three children back when they were the right age for it, is about a former bully who learns to the hard way how to be a good kid and a good friend in his new middle school.



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