The reason I don't find "people are all garbage… except for you" comforting, is: every person who has ever said it eventually included me.
— Mishell Baker (@mishellbaker) May 24, 2016
A lot of the talk about Borderline has centered around the fact that it’s peculiarly forgiving of its characters. Some see this as a strength, and some see it as a weakness. The latter people can’t stand reading about characters who get away with bad behavior; they end up hurling the book across the room in disgust (I recommend only doing this if you’re reading a paper copy). But I, obviously, fall more into the former group. I am a flawed person. I’ve done bad things. I have to believe that I can still be loved, still do something worthwhile, and so I invent stories where flawed people do bad things and still — well, maybe not get the girl in the end, but — make friends, encounter forgiveness, survive to at least partially redeem themselves.
I like people who believe this, too.
Let me tell you about my best friend, erstwhile intellectual property lawyer and speculative fiction writer Wren Wallis. (She’ll be sliding under her desk right about now). When I met her via the wonderful world of online gaming, I was in a very bad place, emotionally. I was a new mother, a state that had, despite intervening years of therapy, regressed me back to the emotional instability of my twenties. I adored her almost immediately for her wit and for her ability to stand up for me when trolls did their troll thing, but the most miraculous thing about her… well, it took me far too long to appreciate. At first, it annoyed the hell out of me.
“Ugh, that guy,” I’d say. “I just want to log off every time he starts mouthing off in guild chat. He’s loathsome.”
“Tact isn’t his strong point, no,” she’d say, or something like it. “But that’s just his persona; he’s a good guy at heart.”
“There’s no excuse for saying things like that!” I’d insist. And the conversation would go on for a bit in that vein, with Wren calmly refusing to join me in my judgment. It infuriated me. I felt as though she were “taking his side,” or judging me for even having had bad thoughts about him to begin with.
Eventually I left the game we’d been playing, because of all the various people I’d been complaining to her about, and we lost touch. But I never quite got her out of my mind. I platonically pined for her in a way that rivaled the most angsty of romances. I’d sometimes sneak back onto the guild message boards just to see what she was up to, to sigh wistfully over the perfection of even her most casual prose.
Why didn’t I get in touch? Because I assumed that she’d never liked me.
Someone that saintly, that good, couldn’t possibly want to be friends with a hot mess like me.
You see the breakdown in logic here, right? I’m shocked at how long it took me to see it, to realize that the same benefit of doubt she applied to that loathsome guy in guild chat also applied to me. And so when I reached out again, when I found her in a new game, this time I didn’t let her get away.
People like Wren are rare. It’s very fashionable these days to be cynical and cutting and misanthropic. It’s actually one of the reasons Borderline has done as well as it has, because despite the forgiving authorial voice, its narrative voice is quite rigid and angry a lot of the time. People associate cynicism with cleverness; we admire those who focus on others’ flaws, as though our noticing them in others must mean we don’t have them ourselves. Crowds flock to those who can wield a verbal scalpel, exposing the ugliness inside anyone and everyone, because they believe them to be possessed of keener insight (which makes total sense, right? Because if I immediately notice just the red things in a room my vision is obviously better than yours).
But as I tweeted earlier this morning:
And that’s what made Wren so ultimately irresistible to me as a friend. Over the years, I’ve developed a growing awareness that the way someone talks about other people in front of you is the same way they’ll eventually talk about you in front of other people.
I’m not a person with “trust issues.” I don’t make people “earn” my trust, generally, but a person can lose it very quickly by showing their disdain for others. After forty years of social interaction, I am not naive enough to believe that I am anyone’s “one exception” to misanthropy. I look, now, to the way people treat those who are not me, and I decide if that is the way I wish to be treated, and if not, I keep my distance.
I have done too much wrong in my life to spend emotional energy on the unforgiving. I forgive them, of course, to avoid egregious hypocrisy, but I love these people from a safe distance, for my own sake.
If you’ve been struggling to get close to me and can’t figure out why I remain aloof, consider that it may have nothing whatsoever to do with the way you treat me.
To bring this back around to my writing: I don’t expect you to overlook, much less enjoy, my characters’ flaws. If I write a person as having a certain unsavory characteristic (Millie’s misanthropy, for example), it doesn’t mean I condone it or support it. All it means is that I can love her despite it just as I want to be loved despite my own flaws. Because I don’t let my readers “just walk away” from flawed people – not if they want to find out how the story ends – my hope is that I will trick them into sticking around long enough to see that people are not defined by their flaws. To make them realize, by page 137, that they’re developing a sort of grudging affection for that person they dismissed as garbage on page 20.
If I could do that, could work the nuanced magic of forgiveness on even a handful of readers, that alone would be reason enough for having written.