Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006



After working my creative writing students hard for most of the weekend, I let them sit back and listen while I read them Holly Lisle’s words of wisdom on how to find your writer’s voice. If you want to appreciate her words in full, here’s the link. This section particularly resonated with me:

Your job in this exercise [Challenge your Preconceptions] is to become, although only temporarily, the thing that most frightens, angers, or bewilders you. To do it right, you have to allow your enemy to convince you of his rightness — you cannot allow yourself to convince him. For example, the strongly Christian writer cannot have the character he is writing experience a conversion to Christianity or see the error of his ways — he must, instead, have the agnostic prove to himself that he is right in his choice to be agnostic.

I’ll tell you right now that this is some of the toughest writing that you’ll ever do. Don’t try it when you’re tired or cranky or when you have a headache — you’ll probably get one from this particular exercise even if you felt great beforehand. But do take the leap and do this. It is the absolute best way (if you play fairly) that I’ve ever found to start developing characters that aren’t either transparent versions of yourself or pathetically weak straw men that you can triumph over as villains.

I’ve been struggling with my latest set of novel revisions and this is why. Michaela’s sub-agents in London want the novel to have more psychological darkness and they would like to see the killer become less one-note. In other words: I have to get into the head of a psychopath. Never a pleasant place to be.

I’ve been remembering Kristi’s recent post about empathy in fiction and I realised that I have been struggling to add more light and shade to the character because I don’t want to empathise with him. I don’t want to understand what makes him kill. I don’t want to know how the heart of a killer beats.

When I try to do so, I get a headache, feel unbearably tired or in sudden need of a brisk walk. I do everything possible NOT to find out what makes him tick. I am resisting.

However, thanks a brilliant talk with my number one cheerleader and writing midwife today, I am ready to dive in.

So if you find me wandering the streets of Heidelberg looking disgruntled, send me home.

There’s a murderer waiting for me.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

12 thoughts on “Resistance

  1. What a project. Many murderers, both in this world and in the world of fiction, have motivations and histories that make them understandable and, often, sympathetic. Like a protagonist, a villain often also experiences a struggle of some kind. The abused child who grows up to murder someone who taunts him. The guy addicted to meth who kills a stranger who cuts him off on the freeway. The battered woman who can’t see any other way out. A psychopath is different — a person who himself has no empathy is very difficult to have any real feeling for. Doesn’t Henning Menkel have a few of them in his books? And, of course, there’s Hannibal Lector. Most often, the psychopath seems to be understood by how others react to him, ie., to their discovery that another person lacks a soul. I can’t imagine how a villain like that could be sympathetic, although I do see how they could be understood as a person who doesn’t feel guilt or shame. No wonder you get a headache every time you find yourself inside his head! It’s a intriguing project, and I’m looking forward to seeing what you decide to do with it. xo

  2. Sounds like the toughest job … good luck!

  3. I can understand that resistance. I think our characters often take us to places we are reluctant to go. I don’t know how much empathy, exactly, you are required to muster for a psychopath — enough, I think, to give him just a bit of depth and complexity but not so much to justify his actions. Good luck!

  4. I think I’d read a bit of true crime to help me out there. Often criminals begin life damaged people, due to dreadful childhoods. And I remember someone telling me that criminals all have morality – it’s just not the SAME morality as the rest of the world. I guess your killer just believes something so fiercely that s/he has to act on that belief in any way necessary. Good luck – I have every faith in you!

  5. I’ve been there. With RM one of my favourite chapters features as its central figure a violent and boorish man. It’s my favourite because of the struggle in finding his humanity. However–because he was a sad product of humanity I was able to find compassion more easily than I would had he been intelligent and privileged. Empathy to me means understanding motivation, having sympathy based on the context. But I don’t think it’s necessary to empathize with a psychopath. There is something about that person’s brain that excludes their own empathy, which makes them strange to most of us, incomprehensible. But it’s possible without being in a psychopath’s shoes, I think, to imagine that person as someone who is more than a single note, someone who has preferences and tastes.

  6. That really is a fabulous piece of advice. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it before. It’s much harder than you think, isn’t it, connecting with a piece of writing and yet developing an entirely different perspective than your own. All of this hard work you are doing is going to make a fabulous novel. Hang in there. And thanks for posting that link, I’m going to spend some time doing that.

  7. Great post! No wonder this is a difficult, courageous task to undertake, good luck to you!

  8. bloglily, she very clevah. That’s exactly what I thought, but in more eloquent. Evil deeds are done by terribly banal people often. Inability to reflect and empathise is to be pitied. But i reckon it does not make them very interesting characters, and that be what you want.. so we need James Bond evil then don’t we? really malicious! Apparently there is a higher proportion of psychopaths in management than in the normal population. Slightly worrying that..

  9. I read an article in the Guardian that had the list of qualities psychologists use to diagnose psychopaths, and my first thought on reading it was “Sounds like Donald Trump.” (For non-US folks who may have been spared exposure to him — US businessman, host of TV show “The Apprentice,” who briefly speculated on running for president). Article here if anyone’s interested.

  10. Thanks everyone for chiming in! Kristi, thanks for the link. I read that a few days ago but didn’t relate it to my killer, which shows how deep the resistance has been.

    *heading back in to take notes*

  11. Well, it was a very touching moment for us as you read it. We not-yet-authors (or at least me) struggle with the characters we just don’t want to like. But in all the novels and movie I’ve loved so far, the villain had many faces and wasn’t just the bad, bad guy.
    Actually I love the so called enemy-turned-friend constellation; but obviously you cannot turn every villain you have in your stories into a friend at the end.
    I guessed such constellations are hard to pull off. Actually, I don’t have many examples at all. I – as a Japanese scientist with a certain history in consuming Japanese popular culture – remember a Japanese version of Robin Hood, where Guy of Gisbourne is a very fierce enemy at the beginning but helps our hero in the end. That reminds me why I love the 1994 (Kevin Kostner) version of Robin Hood that much: Will Scarletts twist is just too great.
    It seems I want to like most characters at the end…

    Anyways, thank you so much for the great weekend! It gave me so much! Hope to see you again in HD and I’ll read your blog from now on.

  12. Download the current podcast of This American Life for a look at psychopaths. I think Kachelmann’s one too, but it’s just from looking at the list of obvious traits he has.

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