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.