Unwieldy Creatures and Vulnerability
Addie Tsai's Unwieldy Creatures is billed as a retelling of Frankenstein (a queer and biracial one), and so I certainly expected monsters. But I wasn't prepared for how much the tone, language, and mood would mimic Mary Shelley's original. It's in the diction, the epistolary nature, and the formality of the syntax. Each sentence is haunted with Shelley's style.
But that's not what I want to talk about this time (maybe for a later column). Rather, I'm enthralled with the way an abusive and untrustworthy character is made compelling as a narrator.
The book has three narrators, actually, but this one is Z (who later becomes Dr. Frank):
For the most part, I wasn't able to admit to some of the darker truths behind my expressions of anger–that the further I traveled in my identity and ownership of being a calalai, I was inevitably taking on the only masculine model I had ever known: my abusive, violent, narcissistic father. . .
I still remember the first time my rage flew most pointedly out of my body and landed on Hana as a target. It's almost too unbearable to speak of, even now, so many years later, but it's an important part of where our story ends up and what wretched end Hana met due to my own recklessness and vanity.
Z seems to say, yes, I'm abusive, but it's not my fault. (In particular, notice that her rages flies out of her body as if it is a separate entity, beyond her control.) As a reader, I'm immediately skeptical but willing to wait and see. Then we get a clear and chilling scene, in which Z–of her own volition–emotionally abuses Hana. Z follows the scene with more excuses to the reader and then seeks Hana's forgiveness:
I felt a tightness in my chest, a kind of guilt I couldn't possibly articulate the sensation of, but I knew I had no other choice but to push through to keep her with me, to have her mine for always.
Z proceeds to use the same arguments on Hana that she's been telling the reader (and herself), throwing in a hearty dose of performative self-flagellation to manipulate Hana into forgiving her.
As Z begs Hana (and the reader) to understand, I see an abuser's tactics. Z is absolutely a villain. (Like that original Dr. Frankenstein, right?) And yet. Z seems to be arguing as much with herself as with anyone else. Her excuses feel excessive–purposefully so. I don't fall for the schtick, and I certainly don't trust Z, but I do see a different sort of vulnerability in her desperation to convince.
This effect occurs often when a character insists too much. I don't believe what they are telling me, but I sense they are hiding some weakness, building their justifications into a protective armor of sorts. I can't know precisely what is beneath the armor, but I can intuit that no one would wear such a clunky thing unless they believed themself in danger. I know the character is frightened of something and so I feel that they are vulnerable.
In Unwieldy Creatures, Z is not kind to Hana, but her desperate excuses show us how much she fears losing her. Even if we don't like or trust this character, we see that she can be hurt, and it gives us a reason to emotionally invest in her and care about her trajectory. It gives her story stakes.
This is really important. Many new writers get hung up on how to make their characters likeable, but likeability isn't the only (or necessarily the best) way to make a character compelling to the reader. A sense of a character's vulnerability is more likely to pull me along for the ride than knowing the character is good or trustworthy. Whether I love or hate a character, knowing they can be hurt--feeling the pulse of some tender spot on them--is what makes me care about their story.