Guest Post: Lyn Miller-Lachmann

While I’ve been finishing my teen novel and working on a few other projects–I know that I’m so due for blog post forgive me–I’ve been cheering on my colleagues, because nothing makes me happier than seeing people I know achieve their dreams.

VCFA alumni, Lyn Miller-Lachman‘s new novel, Rogue, is about Kiara, a young person with Asperger’s who has difficulty making new friend. When Chad moves across the street, Kiara is determined to make this friendship work. Lyn read part of this novel at her Grad reading and I still remember the visual and emotional impact of the scene where Kiara swipes a girl with a tray in the lunch room,  so I know that this novel will resonate with you long after you’re done.

As you all know, I love bringing authors here to talk about how they approach craft.  Today Lyn is discussing what tools she used to help her readers fall in love with a character that no one in the story likes. Welcome, Lyn!

Lynat300dpi

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rogueWriting the Character Nobody Likes

My first editor, the brilliant and irreplaceable Alexander “Sandy” Taylor of Curbstone Press, never wanted me to enroll in a MFA program. He said, “Why do you need a MFA when you can work with me?”

I believed him, and learned much from working with him on a collection of short stories by Latino authors that I edited and the adult novel that I wrote and he published. But when my young adult novel, Gringolandia, was in production, he passed away suddenly.

In a matter of days, my mentor was gone.

Gringolandia was a work that, I feel, honored his legacy. It received enthusiastic reviews and won major awards and distinctions, including a spot on the ALA Best Books for Young Adults list and an Americas Award Honor Book. Despite that acclaim, I didn’t feel I was ready to make my way alone, without a mentor.

I was right.

I had writing experience and credits when I came to Vermont College of Fine Arts for my MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults, but I felt my work lacked something. I could write other people’s stories—such as the refugees from Latin American wars and dictatorships with whom I worked in the 1980s and upon whom Gringolandia is based—but my own story remained hidden from view. After a troubled childhood and adolescence and continued struggles in the workplace, I was diagnosed with the mild form of autism that, until recently, had the separate name of Asperger’s Syndrome. Having the diagnosis answered a lot of questions about why I failed to fit into most social situations, regularly became the target of bullies, and was convinced that few people actually liked me.

The protagonist of Gringolandia is a teenage boy, and it was easy to write a character so different from me. When I wrote the companion novel from his sister’s point of view, I got the response, over and over, that the main character was unlikable. With the encouragement of my first advisor at VCFA, An Na, I decided to face my own difficult past and to create a character that nobody likes in the story, but who gains the sympathy of readers.

Through workshops and lectures, I learned how to make protagonists likable. I also learned what doesn’t work. For instance, while whining definitely makes a character unlikable, not whining and always trying hard to be helpful doesn’t automatically make one likable. I guess I should have figured that one out from real life. Plenty of times when I was younger, I did stuff for people only to discover later that they didn’t really like me but were only taking advantage of me.

So what did I learn to make Kiara, my character in Rogue, likable?

I learned that other characters should like the main character, because the reader tends to follow the lead of other characters. That was hard for Kiara (as for me in real life) because she had no friends at school. I ended up creating two secondary characters who show Kiara’s essential kindness that lies behind her lack of social skills. One is an older neighbour, a family friend who has cared for Kiara since she was small, and the other is a vulnerable six-year-old boy for whom Kiara (at first reluctantly) assumes the role of playmate and protector.

More importantly, however, I learned that characters become likable when they have a strong desire and pursue it against all odds. On the surface, Kiara desires a friend. But her desire is more complex, woven into her belief that she is a mutant like the X-Men superheroes with whom she is obsessed. She believes that mutants have a special power, and they can use their power to wreak revenge, or else to help the society that has excluded them and thus build understanding of mutants. Kiara has not yet found her special power, and she has not yet committed to making the world a better place. In fact, at the beginning of the novel, she smacks a popular girl’s face with a lunch tray and gets suspended from school.

Despite rejection and the appearance of some very bad options, Kiara doesn’t give up her quest for a friend or for the special power that will give her a place in her world. My efforts to find the strengths of my character—the things that make her sympathetic to readers—have allowed me to reexamine my own childhood and to find something good in my own struggles as well.

 

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About Melanie J. Fishbane

MAUD, my YA novel based on the teen life of author L.M. Montgomery will be published by Penguin Random House on April 25, 2017. I hold an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Here I talk about my writing process, things I love, and creative people who inspire me.
This entry was posted in Authors, Children's Literature, Talented Friends, VCFA, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Guest Post: Lyn Miller-Lachmann

  1. Shawna Lenore Kastin says:

    Yay, Lyn! Can’t wait to read this! And I can sympathize with the difficulty of writing unlikeable characters. I’ve definitely gotten that comment from people about some of my protagonists and I agree about giving them a strong goal, but also showing how they change over the course of the story.

  2. L. Marie says:

    I’m sorry I’m just now seeing this. What a great post!!! It truly is a challenge to write a compelling, unlikable character, especially if that character is the main character. I think we all want to be liked, so we (and I should really say I, since this is something with which I struggle) have a hard time making our (my) character suffer the pain of others’ dislike. Lyn, I admire the fact that you were willing to go there with Kiara, as painful as that had to have been.

  3. I’ll have to say that it wasn’t hard to present a character no one likes because of my own struggles growing up. The hard part was getting me, the writer, to like her. Before Kiara, my socially inept characters really did come off as unlikeable because I couldn’t see anything positive in who I was as a social reject. And as I dealt with rejection in the workplace and as a writer, all those feelings came back. When I started at VCFA, at the same time as I was trying to sell the companion to GRINGOLANDIA without success, I had a long talk with Jessica Powers. When she expressed admiration for my persistence in the face of being ignored, excluded, led on and then taken advantage of, I also began to see the positive aspects of Kiara’s personality, the fact that she never gives up trying to have a friend even though kids don’t want to be her friend and the ones who do show interest eventually dump her. And by not giving up on her desire to have a friend, Kiara learns what it means to BE a friend and how to stand up for the people who do care about her. It’s a lifelong struggle and something everyone, not just people on the autism spectrum, need to think about.

    • Shawna Lenore Kastin says:

      That’s really interesting, Lyn. I didn’t realize that you were also one of the people who didn’t like your character! I’m really glad that you were able to discover your character’s strength and value, as well as your own. I think persistence in the face of injustice and social isolation is a really powerful character trait. And I’m glad to have you as a friend and fellow Secret Gardner 🙂

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