Thank you to author Kimberly Brock and to Writers in the Storm for this marvelous article about characterization.
[Subtitle:] And You Shouldn’t Even Bother Me with Your Stable Characters
Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix with my husband – particularly British crime shows. Well, actually, anything British. I don’t know why. But this blog is not about that. What it is about is the fact that I am always, always, always most interested in the trashiest, quirkiest, strangest, darkest, most unstable characters. Liars, cheats, addicts. Personally, I would rather eat cold, overcooked oatmeal than read about a good character who does good things in a good world where everybody is on time and well-groomed, consuming a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, living life in tastefully decorated rooms with Barry Manilow piped in to set the mood. My husband pointed this out to me a few weeks ago when we were talking about my girl crush on actress Nicola Walker’s character in “Last Tango in Halifax,” which then led to binge watching another of her series, “River.” I actually sank back into the sofa and sighed and said, “Oh, she is so screwed up. I love her.”
My husband was perplexed. But he wasn’t really worried until a few weeks ago when we finished our nightly romp through the “Luther” series. In the final episode, my favorite character, a narcissistic psychopathic serial killer who saves the hero, uttered the most fabulous line to his little wisp of a girlfriend. It was the best line of all time, delivered with steely eyes and a smirk. If you hurt him, I will kill you. (INSERT DELISCIOUS PAUSE) And eat you.
OH, YES! I jumped off the couch, cheering and laughing. I made my husband rewind it. (Do you rewind anything anymore?) Twice. I said the lines with her, dramatically. Gleefully! And my husband, who is a brave man, rolled his eyes. The same way he rolled his eyes later in the week when he caught me making a Pinterest board dedicated to these characters. If you make fun of my Pinterest Board of Psycho Characters, I will kill you. And eat you.
Now, really. I don’t want to kill anyone, much less eat them. But, man! It got a reaction out of me – this character saying those perfect words at that perfect moment and what it meant to the person hearing them. Even though, obviously, the character is quite the psycho, I loved her.
So, why am I confessing all of this to you at risk of sounding like a sicko and losing your readership forever? Because I’ve been trying to work out my fascination with the most unstable characters and why I love them best when I’m a reader. And – here’s the twist – why I’m always so afraid to write them.
Don’t get me wrong! I DO write them. I ALWAYS write them. I write them cloaked in what THEY believe is noble, but they’re screw ups, heroes and villains, alike. Listen, I’ve been to the conferences and the panels and the workshops. Dammit, I teach them! I know what they SAY about how your characters are supposed to be three-dimensional and flawed. I know what they SAY about how a good story is only a good story because there’s CONFLICT. I know how books like Gone Girl have flown off the shelf and been made into blockbuster movies and caused us all to despise Ben Affleck and get our own secret badass undercut bobbed haircuts. Girl Reading This Blog, I know!
But it’s a challenge to actually do it. And I often fail at it before I succeed. Why? When I first sit down to create characters I love they come out fabulously twisted and depraved and socially awkward. But inevitably, I start to lose all confidence that readers will stick with them. I’ll invest tons of energy second-guessing their morality and editing their language. I will smooth out their rough edges and bad habits and cover up their body art. I will make them better parents. I will sweeten up their motives and switch out the shots of whiskey in their hands to a tall glasses of sweet tea. All in an effort to convince my readers they can safely embrace my paper people. They can love us (because, the truth is all of my characters are an extension of me.) We’re perfectly acceptable, if you just don’t notice that little bit of psychopath sticking out from beneath our neatly pressed collars.
Before I know it, my characters turn out like a whole new cast of the Mickey Mouse Club, chilled out on anti-depressants. They turn into cold oatmeal and nobody, not even me, wants to read about them. I’m perplexed. I loved all those super freaks when I started. What went wrong? It’s a common lament and I think I know the answer, but it might not be what you think.