On Loving Your Characters, Especially the Ones You Don’t Like

Disclaimer: I could speak or write at length about successfully creating round characters and earning reader sympathy, but for some reason when I drafted this post Sunday night, this is the angle I took. Upon rereading it, I understand implicitly what I hope I’ve said but remain uncertain about whether or what it might communicate to readers. Ah well, it’s my turn to blog, and this is what came out. –Marisa

This past weekend, I watched the HBO movie Game Change, which covers the months between John McCain’s announcement of his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 Presidential election and his concession speech the night of Barack Obama’s victory. In order to do any justice to what I’m about to write, I have to out myself as a Democrat who pays increasingly close attention to politics as I age. Even though I felt certain that Obama would win the election, I feared for our country every time Sarah Palin made a public appearance. I don’t think there’s any way I can put this delicately: I don’t like her. I don’t agree with her ideologies, I don’t find her well-spoken or savvy, and I don’t appreciate the use of false folksiness to win votes.

It was clear that Game Change was made by people who shared my views. The movie was a compilation of Palin’s Greatest Hits – Greatest Flubs, that is – all drawn from interviews, speeches, and the debate. It claimed to offer a “balanced” characterization of Palin. It claimed veracity in the depiction of events. During her recent appearance on Anderson Cooper’s talk show, Julianne Moore (who played Palin) insisted that she would not have taken the role if every aspect of it hadn’t been “sourced.” In short, the filmmakers wanted the audience to accept the movie as fact, as the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Its reliance on Palin’s public appearances for source material gave credence to much of the film, but many scenes required artistic license: What were those behind-the-scenes meetings with Palin really like? When she stumbled through interviews with responses that were, at best, convoluted, and became fodder for Tina Fey and numerous Saturday Night Live skits, how did she react? The movie imagines those moments for us.

I suppose Game Change does offer something of a “balanced” characterization of Sarah Palin. It shows her toughness and her vulnerability, her ballsy self-confidence even when the pressure was at its most extreme. It shows her in loving interactions with her family and addresses her support of special needs children. But it also shows her in a semi-fetal pose after the debacle that was her interview with Katie Couric; Moore as Palin lies on the floor with a bevy of notecards scattered about her, the very notecards she’s been studying so that she doesn’t confuse the Queen of England with the Prime Minister or the war in Iraq with the war in Afghanistan. Excellent as Julianne Moore’s acting was (and she should start working on her Emmy acceptance speech now), I was thrown out of the movie: How was this scene “sourced”? Who was present to witness Palin slump back against her sofa as she watched herself caricatured by Tina Fey? Who decided to make Palin appear nearly catatonic for days upon days following the Katie Couric interview?

As a teacher and writer of creative nonfiction, I understand the agency of the author’s imagination as he or she reconstructs or invents scenes, dialogue, and so forth to convey the “greater truth” of a story. That is precisely the “creative” aspect of the craft. But as a viewer of this movie, I scoffed at the filmmakers’ claims of factuality in what was depicted. When I saw these obviously invented scenes of Palin’s private moments, I sympathized for Sarah Palin in ways the filmmakers didn’t intend to provoke. Perhaps theirs was a round characterization—they called it “humanizing” Palin!—but it reeked of fiction. And because I teach and write nonfiction, I was appalled at the filmmakers’ audacity in calling this portrayal “truth” or “fact.”

“Based on a true story”? Sure. Accurate? Who knows? I have a feeling there’s no reliable source for many of the movie’s events.

So I wanted to say something about the necessity of loving one’s characters, of constructing them with care – no matter whether they are the stuff of your fiction or your nonfiction. When you judge your characters, it diminishes the integrity of the writing and may throw the reader out of the story. You also run the risk of revealing more about yourself (and usually not in the best light) than about your other characters. Ideally, you want the reader to sympathize with your characters, all of them, because of the care you’ve taken in presenting them, and not because of your conspicuous disdain for them! There is, of course, a kind of writing intended to serve as a mouthpiece for your viewpoints and philosophies – you’re reading that kind of writing now, natch! – but in character-driven pieces, seek to be as objective and multi-dimensional as possible. “The artist must be only an impartial witness of his characters and what they said, not their judge…,” Anton Chekhov wrote in a letter to A.S. Suvorin on 30 May 1888. “Let the jurors, that is to say, the readers, evaluate it.” Today’s challenge is to write about a character you don’t like (can be someone real or fictional, though the former may offer the bigger challenge) and explore what there is to like and appreciate about that person, without qualifications or judgments and without being patronizing.


If you’re still reading, I’ll share a little of my review of Game Change:

Possibly the most striking moment … occurs when Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin slumps back against her sofa, the picture of defeat, and watches Tina Fey satirize Sarah Palin in an instantly iconic performance on Saturday Night Live…. The impersonation is brilliant, truly funny. The scene from Game Change is more subtly brilliant. It shows a depiction of Palin that the viewer is supposed to accept as true. In other words, that’s not Julianne Moore dressed and made up to look like Sarah Palin; that’s Palin herself, the real woman, the way she really reacted when she saw the Tina Fey skit. The viewer of Game Change is expected to believe in this Sarah Palin, while the viewer of Saturday Night Live always understands that that’s Tina Fey up there hoping to tickle our funny bones. But both are performances; both are representations of Palin; both capture something of the spirit of the woman this country saw catapulted onto the national stage during the 2008 presidential election; both capitalize on her mistakes and unpreparedness to take on the role of Vice-President of the United States. But Game Change wants its viewer, perhaps, to take its “Sarah Palin” as the real Sarah Palin rather than a constructed character pieced together from interviews, speeches, and witness accounts.

… It was Game Change‘s too-serious desire to be taken as the truth that ruined the movie for me, ultimately.… Every movie “based on a true story” has fictions beyond its disguising and meshing-together of real-life people, its dialogue and scenes recreated for dramatic effect, etc. But despite Julianne Moore’s superlative performance, this uber-serious portrait of Palin is no less contrived than Tina Fey’s and Adam Samberg’s….

2 thoughts on “On Loving Your Characters, Especially the Ones You Don’t Like

  1. Bravo! you have written about Palin with more care than I can ever muster…. can’t get beyond the gut reaction 🙂

    In CNF the balance between kindness towards people you actually really care about (as in you may have to sit across them at the Thanksgiving dinner table) and authenticity (which may not always be kind) is especially tricky.

    Great post!

  2. Maybe the movie was more artful than I give it credit for. I didn’t sympathize with the character as constructed, I felt no great love for the writers/filmmakers, but I did find myself sympathizing with the private person Sarah Palin whom I’ll never know. I still have ideas about her, a construction of my own based on her public persona and politics, but….

    Anyway, glad you took something from the post!

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