“In adapting Roth’s approach to my writing, I set out some heuristics—my characters would be 1.) exactly as smart as me, 2.) about as privileged, and 3.) freely awful. They’re millennials. Cory is self-righteous, Linda a malicious liar, Henrik a pitiful sad-sack. Then there’s Will, who, as the only Asian protagonist, I expected readers to identify with me. I’d always played it safe by strapping the neutralizing uniform of whiteness onto my characters, fearing that anything unusual an Asian character did would be attributed to their Asianness (and mine). Well, Will is Asian, and he’s a real dick. He surveils and manipulates his girlfriend, is ugly-rich, drinks, binges on porn, and nurtures a self-centered preoccupation with his own oppression that leads him to minimize everyone else’s. On top of that, he embodies just about every Asian male stereotype there is. Like Roth, rather than avoid unflattering comparisons and stereotypes, I booby-trapped them; and the impossibility of constructing an authentic identity was no longer an obstacle, but a subject.
Freedoms are habit-forming. Once I let go of any pretense of knowing other people and any interest in concealing my flaws, I saw at once how my less desirable qualities could be leveraged—that, for instance, being the most judgmental prick on Earth suited me to satire, or that my self-centeredness offered material for farce I could never touch before, because nothing dulls comedy like respectability. I set out to write with as much love, empathy, hope, and imagination as hate, spite, pessimism, and self-indulgence. And so the book got written.
I’m not saying unsavory characters automatically make for good writing; it’s just as easy to go the other way and make Bret Easton Ellis/Chuck Palahniuk shadow puppets (dark, flat, silly). The same usually goes for attempts to look intellectual, radical, manly, “brave” (in the sense of confessional), self-deprecating, hip; in each case, the project is branding, not art. I’m saying that to try to write your characters in such a way as to avoid or shape any comparisons to you, and worse, to call this empathy, is to forfeit the honesty that readers deserve in lieu of truth.”