So, how do you write a troubled or troubling character who is very different from everybody you know, totally outside your personal experience? Could you write from the perspective of a psychopath? A heroin addict? An anorexic? A child molester? A six year old who beats a newborn to death?
Most authors don’t take on this kind of material and I’m sure that for the most part, this is because they don’t feel comfortable with the subject matter. More to the point: they don’t want to feel comfortable with it, or do the research that would help them achieve the necessary understanding.
While most novelists avoid these extremes, we all do write difficult characters at one point or another. Narcissistic boyfriends, an alcoholic uncle with a gambling problem, a teenager who hasn’t gone a day without vomiting in many years. If you find yourself looking such a character in the face, you have a couple choices: you can take a shortcut and use the stereotypes available to you (and there are a lot of examples); you can keep the character in the background; or, you can undertake some research.
This line of thought started when I came across Robert Hare’s Without Conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us. While I was reading it, I thought, this would have been useful when I was writing Queen of Swords, because there was one character who fits the bill, and another who might have, if I had had more background. Maybe I could have got closer to the truth of these characters if I had read Hare’s work before I started.
So I’ve been reading more about abnormal psychology: other non-fiction work for laypeople, case studies and reports of criminal cases, memoirs and biographies. There are some good resources online; for example, interviews with people who have tried and failed to stop drinking or give up crystal meth, and the repercussions of their actions. Fiction and film are not a good source. How the next person interprets and represents schizophrenia is not what you need to know.
Some authors have a better instinctual understanding of characters and won’t need as much prep work. I wonder if Thomas Harris did a lot of reading and preparation before he took on Hannibal Lecter, or if Ken Kesey did the same for his characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. If I wanted to write my own version of an extremely disturbed individual, I would have to do a lot of work ahead of time, but first I’d have to challenge myself to take on something so dark. The idea of letting a character like Hannibal Lecter inside my head is frightening, in many ways. Once he’s there, it might be hard to shut him down.
Certainly there is no lack of factual material to draw from. The example cited above, of a six year old who beat a newborn, is true. It happened in the late 90s in California, as hard as it is to imagine. If you keep an eye on true-crime reporting, you may come across something that really catches your imagination. And then you have to work up the courage to follow that lead.
Update: I had wanted to include this quote from The New Yorker article “Suffering Souls” by John Seabrook which I couldn’t find when I needed it. But of course it popped up when it thought I had forgot about it completely. I like the bit about skin-crawling, it would make a good detail in a character description.
Harenski recently interviewed a Western inmate who scored a 38.9. “He had killed his girlfriend because he thought she was cheating on him,” she told me. “He was so charming about telling it that I found it hard not to fall into laughing along in surprise, even when he was describing awful things.” Harenski, who is thirty, did not experience the involuntary skin-crawling sensation that, according to a survey conducted by the psychologists Reid and M. J. Meloy, one in three mental-health and criminal-justice professionals report feeling on interviewing a psychopath; in their paper on the subject, Meloy and Meloy speculate that this reaction may be an ancient intraspecies predator-response system. “I was just excited,” Harenski continued. “I was saying to myself, ‘Wow. I found a real one.’ ”