And You Shouldn’t Even Bother Me with Your Stable Characters
by Kimberly Brock
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.
The brave writers are the ones who don’t try to dress up the truth to the taste of their readers. They lay out the reality of who we are without considering the sensibilities of their readers!
Think about it. They trust that instead of being cowards, readers will do what they’ve done for as long as people have been telling stories – they’ll recognize themselves in the mistakes and sicknesses, the betrayals and selfishness, the most heartbreaking falls from grace. The most powerful characters created through literary history have all come from authors who are fearless. Can you think of them? They are made that way by one thing – their authors trusted readers. When this happens, we are all rewarded by an uncensored experience that gives the ultimate gift of human expression. What’s that? You don’t know about the gift? Buddy, I’ll tell you. It’s priceless.
But first, you should know it will cost you. Not all readers will appreciate a straight shooter. They won’t all cheer for the writer that sticks his or her head up too high, who exposes something ugly or tragic or contrary or just plain hard to look at. Because human beings judge. And we preach. And we take stands and get offended. But writers who trust their readers don’t expect accolades and awards and admiration. They expect torches and mobs, condescending emails and ranting blog posts and Twitter *%&!storms. And you’ll know a brave writer by their response to this - they’re smart enough to know that means they’ve done their job.
Which brings me back to my original question – why do I love the weirdo, psycho, screw up characters best? Because they’re true. They’re real. They’re more real than me, even. They are uncensored in ways that implore me to see things their way. They can do and be anything and I can experience it all with them – good, bad and ugly! I can hate them for it or love them for it, but by God, I can feel it with them. And there’s the little gem that this whole quest boils down to for me, the gift of a fearless, trusting author to all us readers – their characters create empathy in us.
Without empathy, none of our stories matter. Empathy can change the world, not just entertain it or appease it. And if I’m going to spend hours out of my life alone in my own head, staring at a screen (which, by the way, is pretty weird), I think at the very least I ought to be doing something brave enough to change the world. And myself. I ought to tell the truth.
So as I work on this next book, I hope it costs me. I hope I let my characters fly their freak flags and don’t censor a single detail to anybody’s liking. I hope I’m brave enough to write like I read, embracing my inner weirdos. All of them. And trusting that if I get it right, Twitter will let me know.
Who are your favorite weirdo characters? Do you read fearlessly? Do you write fearlessly? Would you write differently if you didn’t censor your characters?
Kimberly Brock is the award winning author of the #1 Amazon bestseller, THE RIVER WITCH (Bell Bridge Books, 2012). A former actor and special needs educator, Kimberly is the recipient of the Georgia Author of the Year 2013 Award. A literary work reminiscent of celebrated southern author Carson McCullers, THE RIVER WITCH has been chosen by two national book clubs.
Kimberly’s writing has appeared in anthologies, blogs and magazines, including Writer Unboxed and Psychology Today. Kimberly served as the Blog Network Coordinator for She Reads, a national online book club from 2012 to 2014, actively spearheading several women’s literacy efforts. She lectures and leads workshops on the inherent power in telling our stories and is founder of Tinderbox Writer’s Workshop. She is also owner of Kimberly Brock Pilates.
She lives in the foothills of north Atlanta with her husband and three children, where she is at work on her next novel. Visit her website at kimberlybrockbooks.com for more information and to find her blog.
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
Kimberly, I watch ALL of these shows--you've described their appeal brilliantly here. And you're right: it's so much easier to cheer on these characters when someone else is brave enough to create them than it is to put them on the page ourselves. It's tough not to want our readers to "like" our characters, and therefore, the characters end up being so much less original. Thanks for making me renew my own vow to fly that freak flag on the page!
Thanks for getting it, Holly!
I LOVE this: "fly that freak flag on the page." It's a noble goal. 🙂
Come sit by me, my Twisted Sister. I was nodding, fist pumping and (silently - I'm on a train) shouting "YES!" to ALL of this. My two writing partners will be as well, when they read it. The places the weirdos, screwups, and psychos dwell is where we three have taken up permanent residence.
Ha! I'm a little excited to have inspired fist pumping on the train. 🙂
One show I watch is The Big Bang Theory. All the characters on that show, especially Sheldon, have some quirks to them. That's what makes the show work. Otherwise, they would just be cookie cutter characters. Boring.
I taught kids with behavioral and neurological disorders years ago and I was inspired daily by their realities and perspectives. There's something magical about seeing the world through a different lens.
Such perfect timing. I've been noodling a new story idea and the main character just wasn't working. Too much starch in her freak flag ... time to shake it out. 🙂
Thanks for the inspiration!!
If I inspire you to be freer in your writing, then I'm honored!
I totally agree! Nothing is more engrossing than an off-beat/quirky character on the page or on the screen. Sally Wainwright, the amazing screenwriter behind Last Tango in Halifax also wrote Happy Valley (Sarah Lancashire stars in that one, too) and a superb police drama, Scott & Bailey. Both on Netflix.
Your post has me rethinking my current cast of characters! Thank you, Kimberley!
Happy Valley was hard for me because it was dealing so honestly with rape. I think that's what I'm driving at in this post, though. It was hard for me to look at because it was so close to the bone. I don't expect to always ENJOY a character or a story. I do expect to be moved by it.
Love this post Kimberly, and so now I really want to read your book, The River Witch!! By the way I just read a really terrifying debut that was like nothing I have ever read...Its Psycho Analysis by V.R. Stone...I put a review on Goodreads. You may just like it...or not...but that character Sarah...whew!
You're the second person to recommend Psycho Analysis! I better get on it!
Thank you for this post! I am a huge fan of quirky and strange characters as well. I love movies like Seven Psychopaths that make my husband look at me with a hint of suspicion and wonderment. And I've been hesitant about becoming a Netflix subscriber, but now I see I need to, lol
It's a strange mix for me, because I can be squeamish and I internalize characters so easily. I have to be careful and I sometimes really don't enjoy the darker stories. But I can't TOLERATE it when I know an author has avoided a topic or cleaned up a character out of fear. And yes, Netflix will ruin you. LOL
Great post!! We seem to have the same taste in British shows. I love the Alice character in Luther. And I love Nicola Walker too. She was great in Unforgotten as well as River. Happy Valley has some wonderfully messed up characters too.
I've never loved a nut like I love Alice. 🙂
Just, love. The message, the writing. Thanks!
Thanks for getting it, Cara!
Love this post, Kimberly! I just my pre-writing workout, all the while telling myself to write true. Thank you for reminding me that writing true often means writing ugly.
Write true, write ugly
Love this so much, probably because I think everyone is a weirdo, if not right there in the DSM IV. If they look normal on the outside, I create festering inner demons for them. These are real people I'm talking about, so you can only imagine how I feel about fictional characters. xo
I KNOW everybody's a weirdo, Sonja! And I like it that way. 🙂
Love this!!! I agree wholeheartedly - on loving those freaky weirdos, and struggling to write them because I don't want alienate every reader on the planet. That last part is what I feel like I might do, even though I don't think it's a realistic statement. Thank you for posting!
I think we ALL feel that way! That's why I believe the best test is whether we're telling the TRUTH as our character's see it. It's not a competition to write the darkest or most twisted. It's about truth without letting fear cause us to soften the blow - it totally applies to beauty in our characters, as well!
I'm revising the ending of a book where my main character's older brother plays a large role. For a long time he's been a straight arrow character. In the past three days he's gotten, well yes, a little freaky. He's a much different person than I originally thought. I guess my stress is showing...
Ooooh, I can't wait to meet him, Fae!
Hmmm...I have a weird stepbrother in my WIP. 🙂 I look forward to meeting your character!
I smile every time I read one of your posts, Kimberly. Every. Single. Time. You wiggle my brain toward the weird-and-funny-brilliance side of the fence. THANK YOU.
I don't think I've ever been told that I wiggle someone's brain. I kinda like it! 😉
Oh good, because it's getting wiggly over here in this WIP!
I've always love the bad guy. The Joker, The Penguin (all the best baddies have a capital-t on the). I also love Alice although I have to admit I'm more of a cosy-mystery sort of person - Death in Paradise does it for me (probably because the hero is so weird).
I once wrote a character, the hero, who called his young aunt a slut and my mentor told me that it made him seem unlikable and to rethink it. I duly changed it and always regretted it, because even the best of us say and do things that we regret or are wrong - which doesn't make us bad people, just people.
I've changed dialogue, as well. And sent emails trying to appease disappointed readers. It's hard to remember the choices of our characters don't define US, except in regards to whether we are brave enough to allow them to be true to themselves.
Great post here Kimberly!
Especially like when u say:
"readers will do what they’ve done for as long as people have been telling stories – they’ll recognize themselves in the mistakes and sicknesses, the betrayals and selfishness, the most heartbreaking falls from grace...all come from authors who are fearless....They are made that way by one thing – their authors trusted readers."
Thanks, Lisa. It's not always easy, is it?
Back in the sixties there was a gruesome story about two hitchhikers in Wyoming, who killed their driver and then ate him. As a result the state of Wyoming has never had much tolerance for hitchhiking, even today.
har har har 🙂
You aren't alone with your weirdness. My current protagonist has a psychosis. Although the writing gets difficult, to say the least, I'm enjoying this character so much. It has me to the point where I want to make all of my protagonists have a mental illness of some sort. There won't be many happy endings.
My paper people always have lots of stuff going on! And no, not always a happy ending.
It depends on the audience, too. Sometimes stories written for younger children are more cut and dried, with the hero and the villain more clearly defined.
Thank you so much for this post. It's great to read someone admitting that writing a character that isn't cookie cutter leads to second-guessing their decision. It's something I struggle with as a writer because in my head my characters have that depth and while it doesn't bother me if someone is a grump or bitchy or not the norm, I find myself pulling back when I write and re-write. I think a lot of it comes back to worrying if a character is likable rather than is a character sympathetic. As a reader and a TV/movie viewer I am almost always more caught up in the characters who are deeply flawed rather than Mr. and Ms. Perfect.
I totally get it!