It seems everyone has watched Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey, which means we all know who Sarah O’Brien is—but if you don’t, here’s the in-your-face “thumbnail”: she’s a snotty, meddling, opportunistic lady’s maid at Downtown—and of course we all pretty much dislike and distrust her, because what’s there to cozy up to?
I’m working on a new novel; specifically, the development of characters (character development is my favorite part of novel-writing, which, if you’ve read The Angry Woman Suite, you’ve probably already guessed)—and I just realized I’ve created a character who’s very much like O’Brien (though she wasn’t inspired by O’Brien, but by someone I used to know). Because the worlds my characters inhabit are never black and white, rarely are my characters either (an exception is Lothian in The Angry Woman Suite). So when I start fleshing out a character, I list her or his not-so-shining qualities on one side of a page and on the other side those characteristics that are attractive—the ones that can make us doubt our own assessments, as in it’s just an eccentricity we might tell ourselves (about a “difficult one”), and we should maybe cut her or him some slack.
Because even O’Brien herself has a soft spot (for her nephew), so she can’t really be all bad.
And O’Brien has no clue she’s a meddler; she actually can be helpful, so she can’t be purposely cruel, right? Right?
She also doesn’t know that almost every time she opens her mouth she pretty much alienates everybody, because of a naturally critical nature—but she can be friendly and approachable as well.
Just as she doesn’t see she’s overbearing and judgmental, because she can be charitable and self-deprecating, too.
She doesn’t see herself as scheming or controlling, because what she also is, is quite bright, and intelligent people are often forward-thinking (we tell ourselves).
However, despite a sturdy IQ, her EQ (emotional intelligence quotient) is quite low and so she lacks perspective and empathy, as in how her words come across as demeaning to others. Ironically, she is an overly sensitive individual always on the lookout for slights. She is easily hurt, often feels misunderstood, and would be crushed if she knew how many people go out of their way to avoid her.
One can actually get on with difficult people for some time. Years, actually. How? Well, for one, it’s a good idea to not let a difficult person “in” too close. Tread carefully. Sharing feelings can become ammo for O’Briens at some point in time, against a sharer. O’Briens often want to “fix,” which is not helping or supporting; it’s taking over instead, running roughshod, stepping on boundaries and telling others what to do. And know ahead of time you will always be offending them in ways you can never possibly see coming. The O’Briens are seemingly wired to be offended. It’s the first thing they consider in the morning, as in why did so-and-so get me this present? Or not come to my retirement party? Or (if they did attend) leave so early? To their prickly minds, there are no mitigating circumstances.
And I think this must be the aspect of the world’s O’Briens—how easily offended they can be—that is the foundation of their most unpleasant qualities, those cutting remarks and undermining ways.
O’Briens likely have less than optimum beginnings, maybe even got kicked down the road early on, and unfortunately they’re not resilient, though they can be ambitious. They love an imaginary glory, and see themselves racing against “competitors,” elbowing them aside, tripping them up in their mad quests for long-denied recognition, and turning a screw or two before it’s turned on them—which obviously begs the question: With profiling like that, who among the O’Briens of the world wouldn’t be on the lookout for “offenders”?
Does it help knowing this about the difficult ones? That they probably had tough starts they could never put in perspective? Because … ahem … remember, perspective is something they completely lack.
Depends. On how much distance you can keep. Or how much you want to punish yourself. Because that’s what it feels like after a time of interacting with or having befriended one. It feels like you’re slapping yourself in the face.
Stories are always about overcoming conflict or giving into it. One way or another, a story must have conflict, or it’s just words. Which is why all O’Briens make for great characters—despite a “stiffness” they all, strangely, seem to have, they are conflict in motion. They thrive on it—but unless some upward momentum, some change, occurs, these characters are doomed to predictability. Their snottiness begins to outweigh their positive attributes, and once a balance is that tipped, the weight of an O’Brien becomes a pain-in-the-ass burden.
And so there’s the answer. At some point, when burdens become static, they morph from boring to heavy, to hurtful, and even sometimes dangerous (as in worse than slapping your own face). The difficult people of the world need to be cut loose when they become static, whether they are real-life PIA’s bad for anybody’s mental health, or (safer) characters in novels—or, yes, even fixtures like Sarah O’Brien of Downton Abbey.