Writing Characters

Writers have ways to create distinctive characters: appearance, age, speech, dress, attitude, background, social class, sexuality, mental state, motive, tics, etc. The less creative rely on stereotypes. These are story-killers. I prefer to write characters with complexity.

Depth of character reflects the writer’s own insight into the so-called “human condition.” Some writers are especially insightful. I’m not sure science has established the basis for such instincts; I only know some are better at it than others. Nor am I establishing a hierarchy; I’m only claiming that on this subject, differences exist among writers, just as with math ability, puzzle-solving, visual sense, verbal sense, or any other feature of the human mind. William Faulkner said that the work of the novelist is the human heart in conflict with itself, a principle that deeply resonates and informs much of my fiction writing.

What is an example of my frustration with shallow characters? How about a character who is alcoholic or a druggie, or carries animus toward a class of people, or has needs, or any other feature populating crime fiction? Many writers stop there and continue on with a plot designed to exacerbate or ameliorate those deficits, or they, the plot. But it’s not deep enough for me.

Character flaws are well-trod territory, especially in crime fiction. Less often do we see the genesis of such flaws (beyond simple “environment” tropes) or the internal conflict they present. It’s one thing to be alcoholic and suffer its effects—loss of job, family, health life, etc.—but what about the accompanying black despair? For me the story is not that a character is a drunk and lost his job and family; for me the story is his anguish and the cascade of mental and behavioral distortions which result. I prefer writing that gets inside of those states. I think of it as getting to the inside of the inside of the inside.

Take Hanibal Lecter, a remarkable character—smooth, hyper-intelligent, poised, manipulative, and a psychopath who eats people. He’s a fascinating study as is, but I want to know how he got that way—not merely that his life unfolded in ways that made him a cannibal—but what specific personality skewers or brain malfunctions or environmental conditions made him the way he is, and further, how did they collide in his mind with other influences? What are his thoughts? How did altruism and empathy—normal traits with survival value in their own right—become subsumed into his darker parts and lead to his conclusion that redemption lay in eating folks?

My work in progress, a novel tentatively titled “Fire in the Belly,” is based on events of the 1985 Project MOVE disaster in Philadelphia, in which a bomb dropped by police on a cult’s fortress resulted in the death of seven and an entire city block burned to the ground. Its actual history was such that no fiction could be more bizarre, considering its outlandish facts and characters. But what prompted me to write the story was the question of vulnerability to cults, about which it is said no one is immune, and started me thinking about “ego strength,” and the cult leader’s wherewithal to overcome it. So my plot may unfold resembling the real event, but no writing about it currently extant explains the cult members or gets inside of their heads to reveal what brought them to force the disastrous police confrontation and its unintended consequences.

My story will make that effort (not with psychology, with which I have no training and often question how much its practitioners actually know) but will attempt to track the human character and spirit—its needs, gains, and desires. I’ll depict certain human traits in service of self-preservation, e.g., tribalism and altruism, and try to reconcile them with practicality and the psychic collisions they entail. I’ll seek out my characters’ rewards and losses, both in temporal terms as well as spiritual terms. If I do my job right, it will have the ring of truth to the reader who might say, “That could’ve been me,” and if he’s not given to introspection, he might become so. I want him walking away in thought.