When Writer's Revenge Backfires

It's our privilege to put our personal enemies in our novels, and get their flaws down on paper. But sometimes it backfires on us. And not in the way you'd expect. | lucyflint.com

When I was in college, there was a girl that I, um, didn't get along with.

We were thrown together a lot, and she made me crazy. Almost literally.

She had a constantly demoralizing effect on me, reducing me from a happy-enough, confident-enough student into this ... mess. 

(One day I saw her coming down the hall of the science building. Before she could see me, I ducked into a nearby bathroom, and as I waited for the coast to clear, I watched in the mirror as my face broke into hives. I don't think anyone else has had that kind of effect on me.)

So, fast forward two years, when I wrote my first novel. And needed to put a minor antagonist in. Her personality suggested itself instantly.

AHA, I thought. Finally. All that suffering can have a purpose! 

I can put every character trait of hers right into my novel. She'd be the perfect disruption of the plot, the perfect wrench in my protagonist's plans.

And THEN, I can give my protagonist all the things I should have said. I can let her do all the things I should have done while this girl made my life a living hell.

Writer's revenge. We all know about this, right?

If life hands you a jerk, you get to use them in a book. That's the deal.

And that's what I set out to do.

I got her physical appearance down to a tee. All her worst character flaws (which was all of them, frankly, because I couldn't see a single redeemable thing about her in real life): there on paper. Marching through scenes. Mucking up my protagonist's life.

And then--I got into trouble. A lot of trouble.

And it's probably not what you think.

See, I believe in good books. Good stories. And that means stories with three-dimensional characters.

I don't buy characters that are pure evil, pure good, all terrible, all wonderful. I try not to write them, and I don't care to read about them either.

Which meant that I had to explore this antagonist's personality. This girl that I skewered so wonderfully with my words: I had to balance out her character.

This is not something I wanted to do, but the book demanded it. The story needed her to live and breathe as a real, rounded character.

As I considered ways to make her character more dynamic, I had to graft in slightly less-horrendous character traits. I gave her a really decent line or two. I made her take a stand against a worse character. I gave her just the slightest bit of redemption at the end.

It was hard work. It forced me to scrape the depths of my writerly generosity. 

And that's when it all happened, when it totally backfired, when it blew up in my face:

It made me reconsider the girl herself. The girl I hated so much.

I still shiver when I think of her, honestly. I still think she was pretty messed up, and if you put me in the same room with her, you'd see me claw my way through an air duct to get out.

But. Thanks to the work I did with her in my novel, I can now imagine that there's more to her real story. There were probably some terrible forces in her life that made her the way she was. I'm guessing some pretty ugly crap must have happened to her. 

I'm even willing to believe--just barely willing, but willing nonetheless--that there is something redeemable in her. That somewhere in her scabby soul, she has done something good. That she isn't pure awful.

I might even be mustering up a wisp of forgiveness or two. I might be letting it go, all of it, all the infuriating moments, all the insanity.

Writer's revenge. Approach it carefully.

It just might change your heart a bit.