truthiness (updated)

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.’ ”

5 Replies to “truthiness (updated)”

  1. Ooh – well, that made my skin crawl. Made me think about horror films, and the range of reactions they trigger in humans. It hadn’t occurred to me that some people might be gleefully entertained and excited when they see a horror film. Well, that’s the leap I made from Ms. Harenski’s comments, anyway.

  2. Wow. I read the whole article and it was so fascinating! I may sound weird, but I do like horror movies and sometimes I am morbidily fascinated by certain things. When one of the doctors form the article said that he went into the field of psychopathy because he wanted to know how and why certain people were “normal” and others psychopaths, I totally understand that. I used to ask my mom when I was a kid “why do people become bad?”. Do they just wake up one day like that or are they born with it?

    Very interesting article.

  3. I can’t imagine writing about such a twisted soul as my main character. I don’t think I could do the research necessary without my skin crawling or getting upset at the things they had done.
    I think those who are able to write about these people must be able to acheive a certain amount of detachment I don’t think I could have.
    In truth I have never really given this kind of writing much thought, and never considered writing something like this myself.
    I have always been interested in the human psyche, and what makes us tick – or not, as the case may be. I have to admire a writer who can put their personal feelings aside enough to research and then create a character like this.

    1. @maggie: You make a really good point, one I should have brought up. In some cases I do admire a writer who can compartmentalize enough to take on this kind of character. Other times such work just feels exploitative. There’s a fine line there, one that’s very difficult to walk.

  4. I always set out to write about nice, untroubled people, but for some reason the characters refuse to cooperate and start revealing personal traumata and psychological problems. Hence, I have found myself writing about a self-injurer, people with PTSD, an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse and a woman escaping an abusive relationship among others. When writing those troubled characters, I partly went with instinct, but also did a lot of research regarding the character’s specific problem to check whether what I had written matched reality and whether I could do more to depict the struggles of my characters.

    I haven’t written any psychopaths, sociopaths or malignant narcissists, at least none that had a POV. I’m not sure I want to either.

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