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.

When is the graphic stuff too much?

After seeing a twitter discussion involving a book with a bad guy using a plethora of racial slurs (he was an aryan asshat), I felt the need to post a bit about crossing the lines on violent content. The central, key element to writing content that crosses some kind of violent line, psychological or physical, is that it must have some kind of relevance to the story. If it doesn’t, then you risk presenting the reader with the “tabloid trash” effect, where it appears you are crossing the line purely for shock value, to elicit the *gasp* from the reader, or get them to say, “Oh, my god! I can’t believe they just did that!”

In the above mentioned book, the asshat dies by chapter 4. The racial slurs of the bad guy have no greater context than to point out how bad the bad guy is. The effect is that the reader cringes at the violent word usage and then later asks, “why?” The point I wish to make here in mentioning this, is that you don’t ever need to cross that line in order to take your reader there. Imagination is a powerful thing. As a writer, your job is to open doors, not necessarily lead the way. Readers are actually quite adept and getting there on their own.

As an example from my own writing, my Deadworld short story presents some pretty violent action. The violence that occurs is something that formed the hero’s character for the series. In Blood Justice, Nick’s family is killed. It’s brutal. However, I made the choice to not place the children in the story at all. We don’t need to see them killed. The reader can understand the horror of it without seeing  a single drop of blood spilled. Here is the bit from Blood Justice where Nick realizes his children are gone.

 

Nick didn’t move. “Where are my children?” He attempted to stare Cornelius down, but those soulless eyes bore into his with their devilish charm, and shifted his gaze. The man’s face was a warped mass of scar tissue on the right side, his thinning hair gone. Scar tissue. Nick looked closer. The wound had healed overnight? How was that even possible? No human being could do that. What in God’s name was he dealing with here? Cornelius Battencourt transformed before his eyes from a who into a what.

“They are upstairs, resting…peacefully,” he said, resting a hand upon her shoulder. “Isn’t that right, Gwendolyn?”

Nick had started to move for the staircase and stopped. Gwen still did not say a word, but two single tears now trailed down her cheeks from wide, glassy eyes. His stomach seized in a burning knot. “What have you done?”

The boney hand left Gwen’s shoulder and rubbed at his chin. “Taken my life back, Sheriff. As you may recall, you did your damnedest to take it away from me. You are quite the shot, I must admit. You can see I’m still not quite back to form, but a bit more blood and I shall be right fine and dandy. Now, Nicholas,” he added, his voice dropping to a harsh whisper. “Sit before I put a bullet in your dear wife’s brain.”


We don’t see the children or get any real hint of what was done, but it’s not difficult to imagine what’s happened. Personally, I think leading readers up to the line, to that point of gratuitous, and then letting them take that step over on their own is a far more powerful force in story-telling. It doesn’t matter if it’s physical brutality or emotional hatred, if it does not have a reason to be there beyond signifying the actual act of violence, it’s not needed. You are merely filling pages and leaving a bad taste in the reader’s mouth.  If there is a reason, then by all means, put it in there, but make damn sure your readers sees why.

Anyway, that’s my little bit of writing advice for today. Have you all come across any stories where it was apparent that the graphic nature of things was there just to make you cringe? How about a story that took you there without ever crossing those lines? I’d like to know. Happy reading/writing everyone!