Dorothy Allison says it's OK to hate your characters. "Hating them is almost as good as loving them," says the best-selling author of Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller (both Plume), her own Carolina drawl honeying her words.
"I was raised in the South, so I've got a weakness for S.O.B.s," Allison goes on. "S.O.B.s mean the possibility of action. If all of your characters are good girls who go to church on Sunday morning, what can happen?" Her red hair seems almost to flame, and her voice takes on the fervor of the revivalist preachers of her childhood as she warms to her topic: "I want demon-seed babies!"
There's plenty to hate about Daddy Glen, the stepfather in Bastard Out of Carolina who abuses the title character. The 1992 autobiographical novel was Allison's third book—following a 1983 collection of poetry, The Women Who Hate Me (Firebrand), and a 1988 book of short stories, Trash (Plume)—and it was her first novel. But it became a best seller, earned a National Book Award nomination and was turned into a controversial cable-TV film by Anjelica Huston. The New York Times called Bastard "as close to flawless as any reader could ask for."
Allison's second novel, Cavedweller, published in 1998, also has a memorable villain in Clint, the wife-beating husband of rock-and-roll singer Delia Byrd. That book has recently been adapted for the stage by playwright Kate Ryan, debuting May 8 at the New York Theatre Workshop.
Both novels draw heavily on Allison's real life—especially real villains she's known. "I'll tell you the secret," she says, leaning forward conspiratorially. "When you begin with a character, you want to begin by creating a villain. Remember that dirtbag who dumped you right before senior prom when you'd already bought a dress to match his tuxedo? Use that S.O.B.! Remember your indignation and hurt and copy it over into your character. Just change a few details for the lawyers.
"You steal people you love and people you hate. I myself was gifted with many S.O.B.s. Redneck fools all over the place. I can take a deep breath and write a redneck fool in a heartbeat."
Much like Bone, the title character in Bastard, Allison was born in 1949 in Greenville, S.C., to a 15-year-old unwed mother who'd dropped out of the seventh grade to work as a waitress. Early on, she began expressing the pain of her impoverished and abused adolescence in writing—letters, journals, poetry ("Teenagers are free verse walking around on two legs," she says). But she burned everything she wrote until she was 24. Then, living in a lesbian-feminist collective in Florida, she discovered that she didn't have to be endangered by telling her stories.
But don't get the mistaken notion that Allison is just writing her own life story. Not everything in her novels happened that way, or happened to her. She never really broke into a Woolworth's store, for instance, despite her vivid account of such a caper in Bastard. "I have a couple of cousins who thought it was all dead truth because they recognized some parts," she says with a low chuckle. "It's fun to tease people about where fiction and life intersect."
Dorothy Allison's six essential elements for beginning to build a character: Give the character a real name. What does he do? How tall is he? What color hair and eyes does he have? What's his mouth like? Does he have a scar? What's the name of the town he lives in? Is he married? Creating a character, Allison says, is like the work of a really talented pastel portraitist. "You start off with a gray outline—you don't do any full lines. Then you slowly build the image. As you work, the lines become darker, firmer, stronger."
Love 'em or hate 'em, after you "steal" characters from real life, Allison says, you have to begin to fictionalize them. "The second part is to make them themselves," she explains. "Change some essential thing—and not just for the lawyers.
"It's important to set challenges that you're not sure you're equal to. Take something out of the picture and put something else in: What if Aunt Dot killed somebody? Who would she kill? You begin to build a different Aunt Dot, to move away from the person you know to the person you need."
That's the germ of Allison's character-driven fiction. Some authors start with a plot idea, she says, and bend their characters to fit the plot; she begins with characters and grows the plot from them. "My bias," she adds, "is I put people through hell and I take them out the other side."
The idea of Cavedweller, for example, began with a scene of Delia drunk after having sex with a man in hopes of making the man she loved come back. She's ready to throw herself off a terrace, until a Janis Joplin song comes on.
"I started crying right at my typewriter," Allison recalls. "If she made me cry, I wanted to know who she was. I'd been trying for three days to write a different story, and it took me five months before I realized that what I'd done that night was what I really wanted to be writing."
She likens beginning a book to seeing someone walking toward her out of the fog. Gradually she begins to see this person, who becomes her character. Gifted with what The New York Times called "a perfect ear for speech and its natural rhythms," she often hears her characters before she sees them.
Flawed characters are easier to pull out of the fog of her imagination—and make for more interesting stories—than goody-two-shoes like those in the Bobbsey Twins books she grew up on. "All those stories about the ragged but clean poor were so saccharine they made my teeth hurt," she says. "I prefer people who are good solid Christian people—who shoplift."
Even with those characters she hates, by writing them, she starts to understand something of what made them so hateful. "There are lots of illustrations in our lives of brutal, unfeeling people, but I try to give you somebody you can be appalled at and grieve for at the same time. Some of the worst people I've known are occasionally capable of moments of great grace.
"I don't like easy answers. In Bastard, you begin to see some of why Daddy Glen does what he does. You have to figure out why this character became an S.O.B. Give me an evil S.O.B., but give me a reason. It's not easy or simple—not, oh, his daddy slapped him so he grew up to beat his wife to death. Come on!"
The writer's job, Allison says, is to make these characters real on the page. The good news is: "Readers want to be convinced. They want to fall into the lives of your people. They want what you want to give them."
The bad news is that it isn't easy. "This is not joy. This is not pleasure," Allison says. "Writing is work, and the most difficult work is inhabiting someone who is not you. Or someone who is you, but obscuring some precious details so you don't have to kill yourself when the book comes out."
Allison writes countless drafts—"because it takes so long for me to get it right"—beginning in longhand on legal pads or large notebooks. That approach is also easier on her eyes, which are so bad that she's not legally allowed to drive a car. Once she has a stack of handwritten pages, she types it, prints it and starts revising. That process goes on over and over again, perhaps 20 or 30 times, until she has something she can stand to show other people.
"You winnow your chaff," she says, "until all you have left is wheat, ready to bake up into a rich, crusty loaf of real."
Most aspiring writers don't do enough of this winnowing, Allison says. Every August she works with students at the Maui Writers Retreat—where, she concedes, she has a reputation as a very tough teacher, because she makes her students write and rewrite. She insists that students put it on the page—it's not enough to hear them merely talk about their work, to describe what they intend to write.
The problem she sees with many students is that "No one has taken them seriously" and told them that they must rewrite, that writing is a long, demanding process.
She adds, "Writers who say, 'It just came to me' are lying sacks of shit."
Then the tent-revival preacher begins to creep back into her voice. "This is not genius. This is hard work." Allison pauses as if half-expecting a chorus of "Amen, sister!" to echo her words. "Work will trump talent. Hard work will trump a gift every time."
This article appeared in the May 2003 issue of Writer's Digest.