Christian Writing How to portray people as jerks, in a realistic way that doesn't turn people off?

Jul 14, 2022
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53
Hi folks, most of my stories are on hold due to my plans to move to Chile, however, I do often think about them and sometimes work on them. Yesterday I thinking about a key aspect of my work, A Priest of the Occident, a story that takes place in an alternate world where Christ hasn't come yet, and the West is run by pagan religion. In that book, one of the key messages I want to show, is how hellish society would be without God, and because of that I intent to have almost everyone in this story to portrayed as an awful jerk, but am of course concerned about going too far with it.

So far there are only three people in that book whom I intend to portray as fairly good people, Marnócammes the protagonist, (Marnãocamîs in the first draft I published on here), his wife Ayahíd, (I need to develop her character more though) and a wise elderly man who notices a problem with Marnócammes' character and tries to warn him about it. (I plan on adding more characters like him as I write)

Too be honest one of the reasons why I'm concerned about this, is because the key plot point of the story his Marnócammes' own, ongoing vacillation between good and evil. On his good side Marnócammes is upright, honest, loyal and trustworthy, he pursues his interest in theology and philosophy out of his love for the truth and not for his own gain, and he's also very pious (albeit of course, to the pagan religion of the West in this world), donating regularly to the Viberies, (this world's version of Charities, as the name implies people give money to the poor through these institutions, in the hopes of winning Good Vibes from the deistic god Ohûl.) not out of an effort to look good, but because he genuinely believes that just as he was helped by the goddess Ehîlhana and entered into her plans for the world, so to can the poor experience the same thing through the god Ohûl. On the other hand, Marnócammes is also a very toxic person, he has horrible anger issues as well as low self-esteem that causes to be very insecure, and lash-out at any real or imagined slight, his main goal upon becoming a priest of Ehîlhana, is too use her demonic powers to curse his hometown in revenge for the bad childhood he had there; (when he does he also gets help from Arjeus, because it's later discovered that the town managed to do something to tick him off.) his low self-esteem also makes him a real coward, and when his theological and philosophical studies lead him to an uncomfortable discovery (namely Monotheism), this along with his toxic relationship with Ehîlhana (who, being in reality a demon, is actually a very abusive person), becomes a key element working against him and leading him to his own self-destruction.

So what I'm trying to get at with this info dump is, when people read the book and see Marnócammes' toxic side, I'm worried what they'll take away from the story is that, degenerate weirdos like Marnócammes will be a threat to society unless the Church is there to hold those freaks down, when reality I want to emphasize is that everyone suffers and becomes a wretch if a society isn't Theo-centric. How I portray almost everyone as a jerk, without going too far and making it look too unrealistic or just unpleasant to read.
 

Grey_Skies

Struggling writer hoping to make dreams come true
Dec 27, 2020
1,521
1,404
I think you've got some solid ideas here, as far as character development goes. Just portray people's bad side, but make the characters authentic as well. Don't make them one dimensional jerks. Show their flaws, show their positive attributes. There's bound to be some good and some bad in everyone, I would think.

I had a similar problem as you. One of the main characters of my novel dumps her husband (a good man) for very selfish reasons. Even though I did kinda want the readers to hate her for the most part, I'm also going to take the time and effort to make her a fully rounded character, not just a narcissistic cardboard cutout. Because, as a main character, she deserves it, and it will eventually lead up to some sort of redemption arc.
 

Johne

Senior Member
Staff member
Sep 27, 2005
3,607
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How I portray almost everyone as a jerk, without going too far and making it look too unrealistic or just unpleasant to read.
Are there other books that depict sinful society that you could look at as a masterwork representative sample? Maybe something as classic as DAVID COPPERFIELD by Charles Dickens could help. "David’s employment at Murdstone and Grinby’s is drawn from Dickens’s own painful experiences at Warren’s Blacking Factory."

I find that looking at how other authors in my genre handle things gives me inspiration on how I can write my own work. For example, the masterwork I looked to for my Fantasy / Noir novel THE BLUE GOLEM was THE AUTOMATIC DETECTIVE by A. Lee Martinez. His work is a Sci-Fi / Noir about a killer robot with the freewill glitch who falls into detecting to find the kidnapped daughter of his next door neighbor. My thing is about a 7' blue clay golem, also created to destroy, who instead uses his skills to solve crimes and oppose the wicked. When I ran into trouble with my novel, I looked at how Lee handled things in his.

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Wes B

Mostly Harmless
Jul 28, 2019
1,517
1,864
Sinfulness can manifest itself in many ways other than "jerkfulness." If all your characters embrace too much of just that one flaw, when so many other flaws are available, it may appear somewhat unrealistic.

A remarkable study in human failings would be Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. (You needn't read more than a couple hundred pages, to get a feel for the vast breadth of flawed character types, though as a novel, the whole thing is positively stunning and you'll probably decide to read it all...)

In just a couple hundred pages, you'd come across Dmitri who is selfish, irresponsible, and consumed in some directions, with hate, Yet he can sometimes despair over what a sorry mess he is. Ivan is a more reserved intellectual, but as an atheist, he is just as lost. He is skillful at arguing his viewpoints, sometimes to the dismay of the third brother... Alyosha is a devout Christian and deeply loves his two brothers, yet he shows signs of having the deepest understanding of his own failings, and is devastated by them. (Interestingly, the three brothers are based on different phases of the author's life, and he gives each one a fair platform on which to express who they are.) Their father, Fyodor, is cowardly, wholly self-indulgent, and is not only unrepentant in his failings, he seems to relish them. He is in competition with son Dmitri for the attentions of the thoroughly self-absorbed "lady," Grushenka. They are all deeply flawed (Alyosha much less blatantly than the others...)

You get used to the names quickly, and though there are a lot of characters, the author is skilled at "refreshing your memory" where it's needed.

It's a time investment, but it can be worthwhile reviewing what a Master Craftsman can do...
 
Jul 14, 2022
71
53
Sinfulness can manifest itself in many ways other than "jerkfulness." If all your characters embrace too much of just that one flaw, when so many other flaws are available, it may appear somewhat unrealistic.

A remarkable study in human failings would be Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. (You needn't read more than a couple hundred pages, to get a feel for the vast breadth of flawed character types, though as a novel, the whole thing is positively stunning and you'll probably decide to read it all...)

In just a couple hundred pages, you'd come across Dmitri who is selfish, irresponsible, and consumed in some directions, with hate, Yet he can sometimes despair over what a sorry mess he is. Ivan is a more reserved intellectual, but as an atheist, he is just as lost. He is skillful at arguing his viewpoints, sometimes to the dismay of the third brother... Alyosha is a devout Christian and deeply loves his two brothers, yet he shows signs of having the deepest understanding of his own failings, and is devastated by them. (Interestingly, the three brothers are based on different phases of the author's life, and he gives each one a fair platform on which to express who they are.) Their father, Fyodor, is cowardly, wholly self-indulgent, and is not only unrepentant in his failings, he seems to relish them. He is in competition with son Dmitri for the attentions of the thoroughly self-absorbed "lady," Grushenka. They are all deeply flawed (Alyosha much less blatantly than the others...)

You get used to the names quickly, and though there are a lot of characters, the author is skilled at "refreshing your memory" where it's needed.

It's a time investment, but it can be worthwhile reviewing what a Master Craftsman can do...
Thanks, I have a copy and have started reading it.
 
Sep 6, 2020
638
524
Depending on how you write, sometimes it can help if you can get inside the characters head, as unpleasant as that sounds. Most people aren't just bad, they have good inside them, but they may choose to only show their bad side. There are many traits and things that people do that could classify them as a jerk. It's important in character development to consider motives and how the character thinks different people see them, this may help in determining how they act in different situations and how they might even use deception to get what they want.

In my current book I am writing a character who is a manipulator, in the start of the book despite people's initial opinion of him because of how he acted when he was young, they see him act heroic and like a decent human being as he saves a girl from a bad situation and this changes their perception of him and that maybe he isn't that bad after all now that he is older. This eventually leads to him getting into a relationship with a girl who swore she would never go out with someone like him. Then after a few years their relationship ended because he did something truly horrible to her. When the girl who was saved confronts him, he is revealed to be the low life they originally thought he was. It turns out that this same guy, orchestrated that situation way back when that he saved the girl from in order to manipulate the feelings of the girl he ended up in a relationship with. But now he is shown to be even worse than he was before and she can never reveal the truth because she feels like it is her fault her friend ended up in this toxic relationship and was hurt so badly.
 

Wes B

Mostly Harmless
Jul 28, 2019
1,517
1,864
Thanks, I have a copy and have started reading it.
I hope you're enjoying it. While I'm nothing close to an expert on Russian literature, I've tried to get at least a tiny feel for the works of their masters, and there are so many wonderful lessons to learn. This novel is particularly insightful.

We here especially know why we're living in a fallen world. Yet as "Westerners," we seem to have created this sanitized, shrink-wrapped, and childproofed façade for it, to make it appear so much neater and cleaner than it is. Villains in our fiction so often appear as caricatures, and so many troubles fit into neat compartments, often with complete and straightforward resolutions.

The Russian authors I've read seem almost overwhelmed by the "fallen-ness" of this world. Even the minor characters (who exist in profusion!!!) have their faults, their troubles and their sufferings gradually revealed like little Russian nesting dolls, slowly disassembled. The authors seem to have mastered using a huge number of POVs, and can give even minor characters greater depth than a lot of the main characters, in many Western novels.

I suspect that many of us in the West try to avoid seeing much of the suffering all round us, preferring to see it only in specially selected spots where it makes for a good story. I think the Russian authors see everyone as being inside a slow-motion train wreck, where instead, occasional distractions from the wreck provide some sense of relief...
 

Wes B

Mostly Harmless
Jul 28, 2019
1,517
1,864
From what I've seen, Russian authors also write much longer books, as it takes more words to carefully examine the minor characters as well.
Can't argue with that... I guess using more words gives more opportunity to explore. Yet maybe that's only part of things. Working with any given wordcount, it's likely possible to make all of the words really matter, or possible to just use them to fill out the piece. I've read more than a few novels that were pleasant enough, but which would instead have made fairly good novellas. Sometimes, perhaps, an author really wants a full novel regardless of the story's natural length, and slows down what could have been a more memorable, but faster progression.

Tolstoy could probably have made a novel out of The Death of Ivan Ilych, but by not stretching it out, it hits us hard. The fewer number of characters reflect the size, yes, but the words he used have an impact. (There are few stories I would reread; this is one of them...)

The characters in Anton Chekov's short stories, while far fewer than in a novel and mostly not the kinds of people I'd likely be friends with, come into sudden focus in the final words, almost like we suddenly wake up. I don't see that duplicated often. (Amusingly, I'd seen a SciFi author, many decades ago, do it among Russian cosmonauts, in a futuristic space settlement: almost certainly a futuristic homage to Chekov...) There's this short but very careful setup that ends, not in a humorous punchline, but an intensely dramatic one.

I suppose I'm slightly rambling here. I think I'm appealing mostly back to the OP, in pointing out a class of stories we may not pay much attention to, but which highlight human imperfections, yet which may more emphasize the human part, rather than the imperfection part. (Even though the imperfections are huuuuuge...)
 

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