Hello once again. Welcome to the fifth writing guide in this series, and the first to address what I consider the “power tools” of fiction writing, character development and plot. We’ll be working on character development with a different kind of writing exercise this time. In the first writing guides, the exercises were half page assignments with a specific set of goals in mind. Instead of bogging you down with a full story to set up, you had a goal for each scene building exercise.
This assignment will be different, because your completed work won’t be a scene, but rather a list of answers to random questions posed to one of your characters. This exercise may be the most difficult to finish depending on what questions you ask, and upon how willing you are to listen for the answers. But before you get there, you might get stuck just deciding what you want to ask.
I chose the killer for this exercise to help writers think of a character who, in my opinion, gets short shrift in the character development process with far too many writers. The average fictional human killers are typically walking stereotypes put together from a viewing of the latest Red Dragon clone. This is not always the case, but it often feels that way for the number of people imitating each other with their killers, and with their cops.
Back in the second writing guide, I mentioned the ubiquitous drunk detective. These days, the number of alcoholic detectives who are divorced and using the latest murder as a crutch to excuse their drinking is now so common, you’d think all the beat cops were being fed liquor-filled donuts during training at the academy. This is lazy writing. We all know it, but lots of writers aren’t able to create an “antihero” without resorting to alcoholism and divorce as metaphors for a troubled life. What, no guy ever gets addicted to porn anymore?
You could have a cop addicted to porn, just to be different, or you could have a pot smoking cop. Or you can write about a married cop whose home life isn’t bad, and whose only vice is the occasional Victorian romance novel.
But where’s the tension in that kind of character development? Of course, you could try keeping the tension on your killer, but why do something creative like that? The thing is, when every cop in every story is a divorced alcoholic, it isn’t really indicative of reality, nor is it a compelling fantasy to indulge in. In fact, if I were a cop, I’d be pissed that so many writers expect me to be an alcoholic jerk who hit my ex-wife in a drunken rage over the “one that got away.” (And they think I’m a liquor filled donut addict too!)
By the same token, the single, forty-year-old white male serial killer who was abused as a child and now hears voices is a trope that has been beaten to death. How about you go with a married Hispanic dental assistant in his late twenties? He might the kind of guy who has to keep his killings a secret from his wife and child. Why not give him a normal set of parents, but explain how he developed a childhood love of strangling animals that slowly progressed to a desire to kill other people?
Instead of the killer hearing voices, maybe you can come up with another mental illness. There are a lot of other conditions that can make an interesting killer besides schizophrenia. You might even try for a more disturbing explanation, that your killer isn’t crazy at all; they just enjoy the control that comes from ending someone else’s life. But that might be hitting close to home, wouldn’t it? Because in essence, that’s you.
You’ve been killing people fictionally, but the real reason why you write is to control a situation so completely that the outcome rests in your hands. The fate of the victim, the fate of the killer, and your detective; all these are predestined, because you made up your mind how the events would play out before you started writing. In short, you are god in this fictional world, and you are the true killer who is deciding who lives and who dies.
As god, you make the killer crazy, because you want to excuse their actions in some way, to diminish the impact of their brutal crimes. By forgiving them, you forgive yourself for venting on the victim. It isn’t the killer’s fault that they kill, because they’re afflicted with a disease.
But many more killers in real life aren’t crazy, and by writing about a sane killer, you open a new world of creative possibilities. You also open yourself for some very deep personal reflection on why you would want to kill another person. It’s an awkward place to venture inside yourself, which is why I think so many writers seek an outside source to explain the reasons for the killer’s urges. They must be crazy, or something, right?
Once you’ve accepted your role as the deity of your world, you should think of your killer as a person instead of a placeholder to dump your hatred. You don’t have to be too sympathetic to them, but putting some effort into explaining why your killer feels the need to murder is far more important to your story than how many victims they take out, or how they do it. The rest is really just playing Clue, adding the who, what and where.
Where does your killer work? Do they belong to a gym or social club? Who’s their best friend? Do they own a dog or a cat? Have they now, or have they ever had a negative opinion about McCarthyism? Do they have a dream? Do they prefer McDonald’s, Burger King, or Chick-fil-A? Do they have a favorite TV show? Who’s their favorite singer? What magazine was hidden under their mattress in their teens?
All of these questions might seem silly, but they help build up a personality for the killer far faster than the obvious question, “Why are you killing people?” That’s the kind of question you want to save for late in the interview, after you know more about the person you’re profiling.
Once you ask a question, close your eyes and imagine how the killer will react to it, and then imagine how they answer it. This can be especially fun if you’ve got a supernatural killer. But even if you’re working with a human, imagine what they look like while they’re talking. Make up this person and bring them to life in your head before you try to translate those images into words.
If all you get is a series of short, one word answers, then stop and start over. You want to keep doing this until your killer starts talking to you with every question. Your killer should go on a one minute ramble about why they can’t eat at Mickey D’s due to a bad experience with a boiling apple pie, or they should explain in detail why they think cats are evil. You want to get you killer talking, so they become a real person to you, instead of just a plot device to throw into the story when your alcoholic detective can’t figure out what to do next.
This exercise will tie into the next, when you will take all of this information and try to figure out how it factors into the plot of your story with an outline. I hope that you find these newer exercises to be more difficult to complete, because you’ll be wanting to avoid obvious or fast answers. In effect, this assignment represents the first intermediate stage of this beginning writing course. If you’ve done the first four exercises to reach this point, congratulations. You’re almost ready for the big hurdle of completing your first “big” story, but there’s still just a few more lessons to consider before then.
In conclusion, you have the opportunity to explore one of the darker minds of society when you write in detail about the life of a murderer. This is a unique perspective that many normal people will never know, so treat the characters with more respect than to make a direct copy of a character you saw on TV last night. In the end, it will make your stories more memorable and challenging than the dozens of stories with cookie-cutter characters.