The Making of a Serial Killer: Fictional Characterization

I’d like to kill them all – anchorless Meg, that milquetoast Mark, passive aggressive Sonya, hapless Hal. I want them dead and it’s legal. I’m on day 4 of the National Novel Writing Month challenge and I LOATHE the characters in my book, Phoenix Rock. I’ve started fantasizing about bizarre and grotesque ways to maim, injure and kill them.

I should state categorically that my novel is contemporary fiction about a dysfunctional family and how they come to terms with the past. It’s not a murder mystery or forensic whodunit. It’s just contemporary lit about people who, at this point in their development, you would really like to see at a crime scene. Yawn. I know – I’m writing it!

Yesterday, I tried to think about characters I really liked and it turns out they’re all weird – afflicted with neurological disorders or mental issues. I adore Lionel Essrog, with his Tourette Syndrome, from Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. The brilliance of that character is that his tics, his condition, they don’t rule the story – they just make the story have flesh. I can’t get enough of frenetic Ignatius J. Reilly from John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Boo Radley is more interesting in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee than Atticus Finch. I don’t wish them dead. I’m interested in what makes them tick. I want to read more about them.

My main character, Meg, is stereotypical for a first time novelist – she moves about in the world an awfully lot like I do. She’s wound a little tight and she has issues, but nothing that makes her interesting. I would like to see her really lose it and punch someone in the face, but that’s only because I’m desperate for a little action. She’s turning into the straight character – the one everyone else gets to bounce their weirdness off of and only present to provide contrast. She’s become the passive observer and I need her engaged. I need to be engaged, before I have to toss her down a well.

The other characters in the town of Phoenix, Iowa are thus far one-dimensional. They could be scooped up in an Oz-like tornado and dropped off somewhere in the Mississippi, where the undertow is powerful – and not a one of them knows how to swim. The characters I’ve come up with have yet to reveal anything quirky or of interest. I blame it on my Midwest upbringing. We know the weirdos are out there – we’re just polite enough not to talk about it. Everybody is “special” or “challenged” or “has issues”. I need to commit to the full range of the human experience, when fleshing out these characters.

“Nothing can be more limiting to the imagination than only writing about what you know.” John Gardner

Right now, my characters are cardboard and I’d like to set them on fire. Admittedly, I’m only near the end of chapter three in my book. There’s still time for them to reveal their quirks and obsessions. But it also leaves a lot of time for a piano to fall on each and every one of their heads.

23 Comments on “The Making of a Serial Killer: Fictional Characterization

    • It was a little surprising, but I am getting caught up in the actual story, so that propels me forward. When experienced writers talk about this kind of thing, it really didn’t register until I started writing. It’s like exploratory surgery – you just don’t know what you’re going to discover.

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    • What can one do when up to one’s ears in a mess, but laugh?

      Yes, my novel is populated with awkward phrasing just like that above! Sigh…back to work.

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  1. The purpose of NaNo is to get the words down on paper/computer screen. Even if you don’t like your characters, there will be time later to flesh them out. For now, just write and get the story out. My characters never do what I want them to do, so I just have to go with the flow. In last year’s NaNo, one of my characters was shot; I never saw that coming. And on one memorable day of staring at a blank screen, I thought about killing off all my characters because they wouldn’t show up. As soon as I said I would kill them off and get new ones, they showed up en masse!! Gotta love writing. 🙂

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    • It’s a pretty weird experience. All those “how to” guides from published writers are starting to make more sense. I’m still wrestling with my editor self, but I’m aware of the issue, so I’m moving along.

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  2. Hello, Ms. Faulkner! I am guessing you have read The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom. Family dysfunction and all.

    Why not give Meg an internal dialogue in which she DOES fantasize about punching someone in the face? Wouldn’t that be natural after being the go-to person for all the family drama? Or, at least, being the one to observe and contemplate it all? Maybe Meg is a little dysfunctional herself, in the form of a bubbling, barely contained rage and frustration. Maybe she secretly takes out her frustrations by surreptitiously keying cars in parking lots or something. Or maybe she’s a road-rage driver as she replays conversations in her head.

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    • I love “southern gothic” and it would be tempting to have a Big Daddy, a little senseless violence (i.e. “A Good Man is Hard to Find”) or a crazy Cousin Lymon (Ballad of the Sad Cafe) running about. Those are characters that you alternately love and hate and I think it takes an amazingly adept writer to pull it off.

      Thanks for some really good ideas! I know Meg is dysfunctional and at some point, will implode or explode. I did have her slam a door hard enough to cause pictures to fall off the wall – at her mother’s house, naturally. They won’t be speaking for a couple of chapters…

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  3. My suggestion? Drop that piano. Discover what happens.

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    • After wrestling with it all day, we have a fatal fire and one drunk driving accident. I’ll save the piano for when I finally hit the wall (actually maybe I’ll have one of them hit the wall!).

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      • They can punch a hole in it :o)
        I read somewhere that to move the story along, pick your favorite character, do something horrible to them, and then you’ll find out what they’re made of.

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        • That is certainly something to think about – testing your character’s well, character, by putting them under duress. Nice. I might have to try that.

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  4. You are such a good writer, I’m sure your book is going to be great. Chapter three sounds very early on…I think your characters will end up surprising you. Give them time. 🙂

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    • I think one of them killed somebody….I’m not sure who, so that ramps things up a bit. I really hadn’t expected a homicide and a secret so much bigger than massive dysfunctionalism. Apparently, you are right – give them time and some of them become downright awful! Thanks for the kind words – they’re much appreciated.

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  5. 🙂 Wow! A murder…I’m impressed. Your ability to keep up with nano and blog so frequently inspires me. I finally got back to writing today.

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    • I have a lot of catching up to do NaNo-wise, but my novel is turning into a real soap opera. I had to stop and draw a story board to keep track of all the dysfunctions! We are looking forward to reading more of your Seed Savers, so we can order Volume 2 when it comes out!

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      • Aha! See, that’s what gets me about people who can write so many words all the time. I always get stopped by needing to research. Unfortunately, my characters are always running off to places I have not actually been, and I’m afraid of getting some geographical fact wrong (even though, yes, I know, it is fiction and it is in the future.) Last night I was searching the internet trying to determine when peanuts are harvested in Georgia! As for your storyboarding to keep track of the dysfunctions (love it), I usually have to make a calendar to see what day of the week my characters are on, how long they have been on a bus, etc. etc.
        (currently tweaking the cover of volume 2; again, so happy your daughter is enjoying the book; you’ll have to let me know her favorite parts
        )

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        • She’s on Chapter 15 now, but laughed out loud when Claire was talking about her head exploding at the end of Chapter 5. She’s 8, what can I say?

          I must get back to my own novel now. I started off with a small cast, but am apparently building an entire town. Must diagram stinking family trees now to prevent inbreeding! Good luck with your research!

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