Tony seemed like such a nice bloke...

I love the comment Jason Coggins left on my FridayFlash: "And there I was thinking you were such a nice bloke." In point of fact, I am a rather nice bloke, the kind of guy who tries to find the kindest possible interpretation of events. I'm the sort will buy the first round and the last if he sees you're a bit short of cash, but who wouldn't dream of embarrassing you by doing so.


My work typically doesn't deal with the perpetrators of incestuous sexual abuse, or with their victims who find empowerment (and closure) via a Smith & Wesson snub-nosed revolver. I don't typically write characters who are vicious and nasty, the kind of people who make you recoil and cringe with revulsion and anger. The things I post here don't usually leave you speechless or punch you in the gut, a sentiment expressed by many of the comments on that story.

To be honest, I think that kind of writing is too easy.

It's much harder to make you laugh or to make you like a character. It's really hard to make you like someone so much that you feel bad when bad things happen to them. To make you hate someone in a flash piece is pretty easy. I just have to make them obviously despicable.

  • An old woman who slaps a small child across the face, hard and repeatedly, while hissing, "Stop it! Stop crying, be quiet! Stop it!"
  • A sweaty man who is deliberately rude to teenage checkout clerks because he knows they can't talk back to him.
  • The self-righteous couple who quietly steal the "bad" books from the library in order to protect the community from "filth" and "perversion".
  • That guy up the street, the one with the beer belly and the distorted tattoos on his flabby arms, who thinks that anybody who didn't serve in the military shouldn't have any say in how the country is run.

All of these are tropes and archetypes, of course. I could make them rude or racist, arrogant or greedy, foul with body odor or leering with unwanted sexual advances. Pretty straightforward to make them hateful, actually.

What would be harder, much harder, would be to present you with someone you instantly hate, then make you come to like them as the story unfolds. John Grisham did that with the white supremacist father on death row in "The Chamber". That's not the kind of transmutation you can pull off in a flash fiction piece; there just isn't room for it.

Rest assured, however, that in my longer works, I'm trying to do just that kind of thing. Complex characters with complicated and conflicting motivations, making the best decision possible among a collection of bad options. Sometimes they have sex (or almost do), and this can be either a good thing or a really, really bad idea, depending on the circumstances. They make mistakes, suffer, learn and grow.

Some of my characters are happy, then sad, then happy again. Some were never really happy to begin with, although they've been successful in hiding their pain and loneliness, even from themselves. Those characters would recoil in fear if happiness were to present itself, preferring the security of their prison cell to the uncertainties of the wide, sunny world. The process of coaxing them into the light takes some time, and the telling of it takes space.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, just because I don't typically write mean, rotten, nasty stories doesn't mean I don't know how to.

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.


  1. One recent post in the endless blog-stream of "advice" posts out there talked about not making characters too one-dimensional. Even the most despicable villain can roll his eyes and rescue a helpless puppy, even the most perfect paladin can ride down a peasant in a moment of pique.

    The book-stealing couple, for example, act out of a genuine (if misguided) desire to better their community — what other things might they be doing that actually *do* help the community? The beer-gut dude might have a Purple Heart & be active in local VFW service projects. Et… cetera.

    You make very good points, and even if I thought you were primarily a noir writer, you can still be (and are) a nice bloke.

  2. I agree that negativity is too easy in most fiction. That increasing amounts of fiction are steeped in it under some delusions of realism, honesty or being originally edgy bothers me. I also often question the validity of art that only or primarily elicits the harmful emotions - if neither convinces me of a new worldview, isn't the one that makes me laugh serving a better utility?

  3. I think that as gut-punching as this was, that you actually pulled some punches. I have a hunch that the first draft was even more brutal, but it's only a hunch.

    I wonder why it is easier to write a one dimensional Villain than it is to write the 1-dimensional Hero. I would argue its Human nature to compare ourselves to others. So on that spectrum between the full Villain and the full Hero all of us will appear somewhere inbetween.

    But, with some rare exceptions, we are always the Hero of our own story. So we look at the Archetype Hero and want to bring it closer to ourselves. So we look for the little failings that we would ignore in others closer to ourselves to make us feel better, and that much closer to the ideal.

    Villains though, we're happy to be removed from. With rare exception, who wants to be the Villain in their own story? I think some fo the worst criminals, despite their heinous crimes, felt that the world was out to get them, and that it wasn't their fault for who they are.

    So as we, the Average Reader, see that Villain, why would we want to look for more good? Why would we want to justify their actions if it brings us closer to them.

    Perhaps that's why we accept a flawed hero like Batman more readily than the perfect one like Superman? And we all love our Villain to be Evil for the sake of Evilness.

    Quoth Dr. Evil, "I didn't go to seven years of Evil medical School to be called Mister."

    Just thinking...


Thank you for leaving a comment. The staff at Landless will treat it with the same care that we would bestow on a newly hatched chick. By the way, no pressure or anything, but have you ever considered subscribing to Landless via RSS?