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.