Why I Write the Broken Character

Why do we decide to write the characters we do? Lots of reasons I imagine, and I can only speak for myself, but my education is a big reason I lean in the direction I do. I have a B.S. in Psychology and a Master’s in Social Work. I also got a certificate in Women’s Studies to go along with that. A lot of my studies revolved around issues of violence against women.

I was involved in a speaker’s bureau for the local domestic violence shelter where I lived while going to school. I gave speeches to everyone from middle school to adult about the issues around power and gender, date rape, domestic violence, and all of the dynamics involved. It was a very important issue to me then, and still is, but I’m not involved in the public sphere of it anymore.

Thus, I’ve read and heard a lot of stories around abuse toward women and children. It’s heartbreaking, anger-inducing, mind-boggling, and after twenty years, still seems to be as prevalent as it’s always been. It’s a horrifically damaging problem, not only physically but emotionally as well. My education makes me particularly interested in the psychological side of things. Trauma, in all of its various forms can be ruinous and life-altering. Working through issues of abuse and violence is incredibly difficult for people. It is damaging not only when it occurs but continues throughout the course of life.  It also provides great background for character conflict.

When I wrote Deadworld, I wanted to have a character that had been shaped by traumatic events that altered her psyche with damaging results. Too often, I think, stories don’t give a real accurate portrayal of violence and the kinds of effects it can have on a person. It’s used simply as a basis for making a character problematic, tough, and gives the hero or heroine an obstacle to overcome. In some ways I guess you could say it’s a token backstory in order to make a character “difficult.”

While it does do this, it’s far more complicated than that. Damaged people don’t always behave in a productive manner. It makes relationships difficult. It makes self-image/esteem difficult. Issues of fear and trust are always at the forefront. While time and work do a lot to heal and recover, this doesn’t always happen in a timely manner. Too many stories make light of the fact that it is extremely difficult for some people to heal from the damage caused by violence. When I created Jackie for Deadworld, I knew right away that she would be a hard character and she would take more than one book to get back to any semblance of healthy.

Damaged characters don’t always behave nicely. They can be self-destructive to themselves and others. They can be self-involved, emotionally stunted, walled off from the world, uncaring, and even violent themselves. In short, very difficult people to know and love. Jackie is one such character.  Personally I find it very challenging and rewarding to try and bring a character from the depths of this personal kind of damage back to some sort of emotional health.  Perhaps most challenging, is the effort to present a character who is not overly likable by that one can still sympathize with. Who hasn’t known someone who they thought was a good person but their issues got in the way of anyone really seeing that? It’s tough to love them. You want to, but they make it so hard on you to do so.

I like these kinds of characters. Likely a lot of my own background and interests plays into this, as I enjoy playing therapist to my characters through the development of the story. I want them to heal, but it’s never an easy process. You want to smack them upside the head for being such an obstinate bitch, for turning away from that which can most help, for hating themselves and believing they deserve the horrible things that have happened to them.

Deadworld and the main characters of Nick and Jackie is my first effort at writing in this emotionally tumultuous soup. I’ve had a number of readers who just don’t like Jackie or think Nick is too weak. Emotional baggage does this to people. It’s hard to grow from it, and I want to give it the justice it deserves by showing just how hard it can be. I’ll continue to write the damaged, broken character in most of my stories. My own personal make-up makes me want to delve into them and “fix” them. It can be a long and difficult road, however, and the challenge will always be to get the reader to want to go along for the ride.

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2 responses to “Why I Write the Broken Character

  1. Jim: I love characters with that kind of background. They’re so much more interesting than people who haven’t known as much pain. Keep writing them.