Monday, October 31, 2016

A Writer's Defense of Bitterness

How a legitimate character trait got a bad rap, and why we shouldn't be afraid to use it. 

We've been told our whole lives that being bitter, being petty, holding on to hurt feels is bad, bad, bad. This is probably why in fiction of all genres bitterness is an emotional state left mostly to antagonists, or worse, outright villains. The good, sweet, kindhearted protagonists are supposed to forgive, forget, rise above, get zen with the situation, because forgiveness is divine, etcetera, etcetera.

Most of us have encountered the anti-bitter/pro-forgive mantra in our personal lives. Someone does something to harm you (this scenario could be any number of things, from mild to heinous. Take your pick) and after a while your family, your friends, pretty much everyone will start to get "fed up" with your feelings. This is especially true if the person who hurt you is a mutual friend or relation and your bitterness is causing discomfort for them. Yes, we've all heard it:

"You need to get over that!"
"You need to stop this!"
"He/she/they said they were sorry already!"

Now, if someone is making an active nuisance of themselves with regard to a slight—constantly bombing conversations with it, insisting mutual friends/family "take your side", etc.—there is room for issue. But where this situation, and the situation in fiction, gets hairy is when people start demanding you smile and pretend to be happy for the benefit of others...or for the benefit of plot.

In the popularity contest of hurt vs. guilt, guilt always seems to win.

"So-and-so feels really bad about this. You need to give forgiveness."
"He feels just terrible. Don't you think he's suffered enough?"
...and finally, the death knell...
"You should forgive for you. It's not good to hold on to stuff like that."

The last is where forgiveness dives down the slippery slide of being an outright lie. Anyone who believes that saying "I forgive you" out loud is a pure mirror of how the person saying it really feels inside, is kidding themselves. Verbally issuing forgiveness is not always for the victim's benefit. It's for the antagonist or for their mutual friends who no longer want to deal with the situation. Sometimes, the peer pressure from society is so great in regards to forgiveness, that people will publicly offer what they don't really feel for the purposes of virtue-signaling. [It should be noted that while virtue signaling is a relatively new term, and is often used derisively toward the progressive left, the act itself has always existed. If you've ever spent much time in an evangelical church, you'll know that virtue signalling is a universal group trait, though it used to be called being sanctimonious.

Regardless of the motivations, society encourages situations where the victim is  the one who should change, the victim is the one who should adapt, the victim is the one who needs to get zen with the situation and rise above their feelings. In fact, if one persists in withholding forgiveness--either explicit or by simply "acting like it didn't happen"--people will often turn the victim into the new perpetrator. After all, making someone feel guilty is just the worst, isn't it? Hurt vs. Guilt...guilt takes the win. 

By now you're probably asking, What does this have to do with writing? 

In fiction, bad things happen to protagonists and they grin and take it. Very often, this bad, enraging event happens early on and serves as the launching event for the rest of the plot. The younger son who is left destitute when his elder brother inherits everything, the woman who is foisted off into an arranged marriage for her father's benefit, the store owner whose business and life is ruined by the competitor across the street (hello there You've Got Mail); the potential is almost endless. But what almost invariably happens is that this initial conflict is swept aside, both emotionally and for plot driving purposes, leaving the protagonist to exist in the situational aftermath with an artificially clean emotional slate—the younger son struggling to make it on his own, the woman finding contentment or love in her arranged marriage, the friggin' shop owner just getting a different job and falling in love with the guy who ruined her.

The bad event and the antagonist responsible disappear into the night, and the protagonist has their cute but unrealistic moment of semi-forgiveness in the form of internalized resignation: 
"There's nothing I can do about it now" 
"No choice but to make the best of it."
"I'm better than this, rise above..."
[Oh, how many lovely plots are destroyed in this manner! Don't even get me started on how much I love the Sense & Sensibility fan-fiction in which the impoverished Dashwood women exact sweet revenge on their idiot brother and his greedy wife.]  

Instead of always glossing over wrongful events done to protagonists, why not use them instead? Let your character be bitter, let them stew in it. What the hell, let them become damn near pickled from all that salt, because when things change for them (if they do) and they have a reason to no longer feel bad, the prize will be so much better. What's a bigger win? Happiness after meh resignation, or happiness after bitter rage? All of us writers know that the bigger the obstacle, the greater the happy ending, and bitterness is one of the greatest internal obstacles available to us.

Also, we shouldn't forget the plot driving power of bitterness. We want our characters to be the drivers of plots, not just objects that respond and react to events around them. Having characters shed or 'get over' emotions with unrealistic speed or saint-level oneness robs the writer of valuable plot fuel.

But what if my character is unlikable?

I will admit, I have a personal ax to grind with the notion of the always perfect and likable protagonist. Insisting that a protagonist always be likable to begin with is short sighted. For one thing, no type of person is likable
to everyone. Where one person sees kindness and altruism, another sees compensation and desperation. Where one person sees strength and dignity, another sees arrogance and snobbery. You can't control how every reader is going to take your protagonist, so why hedge your bet by bleaching them into this emotionally sterile dummy that doesn't make any decisions or influence events based on their own emotions and desires?
[The unlikable protagonist should not be confused with 
an anti-hero, which a different animal all together.]

So, what does bitterness look like?

Well, it doesn't look like the pinched-faced, scowling monster that it is often portrayed as when applied to villains. Bitterness is an internal emotional state, not an outward action or behavior, but it is often confused as such. One can feel bitter with others having no idea. Your character's behavior is not always the same as how they feel inside, unless you're writing children with no personal control over themselves. 
Balzac portrays Bette as heinously ugly,
following the shallow tradition of unlikable
characters being physically unappealing.

Balzac's novel Cousin Bette is my favorite example of a character driven plot relying heavily on bitterness, although his descriptions of Bette are precisely the nasty, pinched-faced visage I mentioned. Balzac did not see his Bette character as a justified protagonist; he modeled her after three women from his own life whom he despised, so needless to say his demonstration of bitterness and anger in Cousin Bette is heavily colored...despite the character having many MANY reasons to be pissed off and vengeful. 
Full Disclosure: I root for Cousin Bette every time ;)

So, while Cousin Bette is my favorite example of character/emotion driven plot, it is also a perfect example of why bitterness as a character trait is so heavily disliked and talked down. The prose leaves the reading in no doubt that Balzac disapproves of Bette; she is ugly, demonic, acidic, single minded, etc. One of the objects of Bette's rage is her cousin who ruined the family by lavishing wealth on his mistress, a point that Balzac barely gives a moral shrug. The suggestion being that Bette's feelings are inappropriate regardless of the level of hurt and provocation going on around her. She should accept and/or forgive no matter what. 

Balzac is not alone in this. Just a simple search of the term bitterness on brainyquote results in page after page of pro-GetOverIt.

As far as the traditional use of bitterness in literature, it has a long history of belonging to mean, manipulative female characters. The sexist overtones of this are pretty obvious. After all, making it a moral imperative that women accept and forgive wrongs done to them has a pretty long history of benefiting men, right? No man wants to be glared at and made to feel guilty after he just got home from spending the day with his mistress, after all! 

So, it is understandable why there are countless feminist blog posts out there specifically telling writers to stop writing bitter female characters. We've been trained--by a long history of male writers--to view bitterness as a terrible thing exercised by women, and surely we want to get away from that, right? I disagree, because to do so is merely to fall into the very trap they laid, the trap that says women should never feel bitter. I find this odd. Bitterness is a real emotion that men and women have. Instead of instructing people to strip female characters of a real emotional state, maybe we should encourage writers to start applying it more often to male characters as well, and to do so in ways that don't come out as "justifiable vengeful", which is the way male bitterness is often treated in literature.  

So, unless you're writing a tragedy with sanctimonious overtones like Cousin Bette, or a moralizing tale of revenge gone mad like Moby Dick, you don't want a bitter protagonist, right? And especially not in romance, surely! I disagree, because we've been given an exaggerated, villainous impression of what bitterness is. 
An hilarious book, btw.
Available HERE

What bitterness really looks like is just baggage. A character with baggage, whose past is continuing to influence their emotions and decisions in a generally negative way, is, despite semantics, bitter.

To draw from my own writing, Sam Shaw in One Glimpse has a ton of baggage and is absolutely bitter. There is no denying that word usage. His anger toward Henry and the events that occurred due, in part, to Henry's actions have colored and influenced Sam's entire life. His disbelief that anyone could ever truly love him, his reluctance to get too attached to anyone, are not character traits that just magically bloomed from thin air. They exist because he is bitter and hung up on his past. If I had given Sam an unrealistic zen moment of "life throws things at you and you just have to overcome them", his entire story would have been different and probably boring as hell (though my belief the book isn't boring is definitely a personal bias, lol. I encourage readers to decide.)

So, even though the title of this post is "In Defense of Bitterness", what I'm really defending and promoting is that bitterness, for the purposes of writing, be overcome and dealt with realistically and with justification. The writer should not view their character's realistic emotions as a plot hindrance; they are the plot. If your novel ends with the protagonist still feeling bitter enough to be hung up on it, that's fine just means you've probably written a tragedy or a cautionary tale rather than a romance, and I love those too. 


  1. Don't know much about bitterness in fiction, but in the philosophical realm, one's bitter bettyness makes for excellent (if not legendary) philosophy. Hegel, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer... all bitter.

    ALL legendary philosophers.


    The Mindless Philosopher

    1. You are spot on with the philosopher list! I was going to bring up Nietzsche, but I didn't want to get sucked down that rabbit hole, lol ;)

  2. As a proud Bitter Betty, all I have to say is that One Glimpse and Sam Shaw are among my all time favorites because of that bitterness. It just made him who he was and the fact that he found someone to love him just as he was, baggage and all, makes it all the more sweet of a love story. I saw myself represented in Sam Shaw and I almost never see myself represented in any work of fiction. I appreciate your vision and wisdom and fearlessness in showing us that the world is full of flawed characters and fiction should too.

    1. Awww!!! You just made my day. I'm so glad you liked Sam. He's been my labor of love =D - LG