I doubt it’s a secret to anyone who frequents this blog, with its digi-sword framing and intermittent edge-bursts, that I harbor more than a little spite towards some writing and even some other writers–a double dose for myself on both counts. I feel no guilt for admitting this; many creators drive themselves with gnawing emotions more than happy ones. In all honesty, I think the majority of my best ideas emerged from spite.
Eventually. They eventually emerged from spite. “Fuck this other guy, he sucks,” can serve you well for an early motivation; it must not be your method, and take care you don’t start believing it. Some of you are already considering the times I failed this advice. You’re right, I am being a little hypocritical here–I now invite you to surpass me. I’d like to help.
Assuming you care about writing and desire improvement, it’s unlikely you’ll have a negative reaction to something in another person’s writing for no reason. If something you encounter makes you pissed off or annoyed or just bored, there’s probably a cause. Here’s where we hit the first difficult part: that cause isn’t necessarily something you can use for your writing. The fact that you feel something negative towards another writer’s work doesn’t mean your feeling has anything to do with that work’s quality. It could be that it’s excellent and you hate it because it’s showing you some facts about yourself that you’re not comfortable with!
Many of you likely think this is very basic advice. You’re right. I’ll wager each of you knows one or two people who need it anyway. At least one of them is always you in a bad mood.
Speaking of bad moods: you will become, on balance, a less-cheerful person if you decide to start using spite when you weren’t already. There’s no way around this. By teaching yourself to see the world that much more in terms of tearing things down, you will become more negative; that’s just factual. Is it worth it? I dunno, seems to have gone pretty well for Jordan Peele.
Now we come to the vital shift. It’s all well and good to determine you dislike elements in another writer’s work. I wouldn’t call it advisable, but you can get away with disliking other authors (after all, I’m still guilty of this myself). What you mustn’t do is make your writing a direct message against your chosen enemies. This approach always reads like a bunch of Twitter arguments transcribed as a prose novel, and can you fucking imagine reading 100,000 words of that? Instead, think of this in terms of a funhouse mirror you’re holding up to yourself. You’re using those hated bits and pieces to define yourself against, to tell you which directions not to take or what mistakes to avoid when you do take them.
Let’s say you feel another writer’s protagonists tend to be whiny entitled shitbirds who let everyone else handle the heavy-lifting and self-improvement only to Deus Ex Machina their way into 1st place by the plot’s end. You may be tempted to include a whiny entitled shitbird character for everyone to rip apart or even a “subtle” reference to the writer you dislike. Rather than doing these things, keep only the superior ideas you defined in opposition to said awful MC. The beautiful thing about writing is that unless you copy an idea wholesale, most people won’t know where you drew inspiration.
The above example’s not arbitrary, of course; it came to mind naturally because that’s one element I went against in order to create my own first protagonist, Gratai Lin. Many fantasy protagonists are reluctant to leave home (because if there’s one thing we know about teenagers, it’s how much they love being trapped in the same small town forever) and hate the powers they acquire at first (because if there’s one thing we know about humans, it’s how much they hate feeling or being made important). Gratai thus became a woman who lives where she does because she ran away; this in itself isn’t wholly uncommon, but she ran away to study the arcane and raise the dead rather than rule a country.
You may be thinking the last bit doesn’t sound that oppositional–runaway princess, really?–and you’re right! But trying too hard comprises the next biggest danger of using spite: becoming wrapped up in making sure nothing you write resembles any prior work, that nothing you do matches any elements of your existing genre. The first will drive you insane because it’s not possible, the second will drive everyone else insane because we do read genres for at least a few common elements.The best stories, again, emerge from characters acting with and against each other according to their traits and the options they have available.
Sometimes you’re going to have overlap with other stories because even stories you hate will include ideas that work for your characters–regardless whether or not those ideas actually worked originally! Spite is an emotional response we experience towards people, objects, and ideas we don’t like. It’s useful when they’re not working well, and a terrible thing when they are. Used in moderation it’ll push you in newer, more interesting directions.
Used too much, it’ll turn you into me. I jest! Mostly; there have certainly been times I’ve stepped too far over the spite side of the line.
Always, the key concept when writing with spite is that you must seek to transcend. You believe this weapon design is uninspired garbage? Devise a masterwork. This character is the most boring possible use of a free-spirited lowborn thief? Make her life on the streets the result of a feud with her noble mother which she herself started. That thief element doesn’t fit this point in the plot? Relegate it to backstory. Tired of the tacit anti-intellectual, anti-professional messages in high fantasy? Create a world where being anything other than a trained professional is so laughable that it’s not even acknowledged.
You’ll know you’re succeeding in writing from spite when the ideas you create become precious to you in their own right. Here’s your last lesson: once you reach this point it’s time to put spite aside. By its nature, spite pushes us away from its objects. When those objects are ideas that just don’t work or stories that could’ve been so much better with a steadier mind behind the keys, spite’s just what we need. Once you’ve driven through the slag and found the pure iron, you’re done throwing elements away, and that means you’re done with spite.
How do you recognize when you’ve hit this moment? In my experience, usually a little ways down the line after you’ve had a few minutes to cool off. If all this sounds risky, well, that’s because it is; spite is always a powerful motivator, but for that same reason it’s always in danger of carrying us away with it. You don’t have to use it; it’s one conceptual approach among many. If you do, just make sure it’s through the mindset of the duelist looking to hew down his opponent–you hate that guy’s technique, so you better be doubly certain you become better than him.
As opposed to standing over his corpse and pontificating about how much he sucked for the next hour. People got the point when he got the point. Now you just look like an asshole–and that kid in the crowd with fire in her eyes has started taking notes on you in turn.
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