Friday, January 3, 2020

The Challenges of Character: Guest Post by Alex Marwood

Alex Marwood:
The Challenges of Character

One of the joys of the crime genre, and one of the reasons I think it’s one of the greatest places for discussing the human condition, is the huge freedom it contains. Ten years ago, I was another sort of writer, straddling “chick lit” (oh, how I hate that phrase) and literary writing, and the pressure, in those genres, to present protagonists with whom the reader would identify was immense. In theory, of course, one wants one’s readers to recognise themselves – or the broader human condition, at least – in the characters one writes, but the practice often forces one into a deadened pedestrianism, afraid of giving offence to those
who regard minor character flaws as major sins.

The glory of the crime genre is that even our heroes, our central protags, are allowed great gaping chasms of failing, limitation, of prejudice and stupidity – for the Crime genre is as much concerned with how things go wrong as with how they can be put right. Our world is one where terrible outcomes are as much the product of human weakness as they are some Manichean narrative of Good vs Evil. Sometimes reviewers complain that my books contain no role models or people they personally like, and though that makes me a little sad (the way I’d be sad if you didn’t like my children), I think I’d be far more upset if they complained that they were bores. To me, the psychology of failure, of bad decision-making and false assumptions, will always be more interesting than the honestly-all-looks-a-bit-the-same of the blandly virtuous.

But then, there’s the downside. For if you’re writing about failed and flawed and even wicked human beings, that also means you are choosing to live with them. Because that is literally what writers do: we live at close quarters with our characters. To write these imaginary individuals, I have to inhabit their psyches, delving further and deeper into them until I understand what drives them, and I have to learn to treat them with sympathy, with kindness. And the people a reader spends 10, 20 hours with live with me, their progenitor, for a couple of years as I wrestle their story from the grey and learn to forgive them their failings.

I mean, seriously – you didn’t identify with anyone? Try being me. These imaginary friends (and enemies, and villains) may be entirely the product of my own florid imagination, but to work on the page, they really do need to start walking and talking and making their own decisions, and that can make for uncomfortable companionship.

Some of them are frankly horrible – but still I have to learn who they are rather than walking away as I would in real life. Some of my central protagonists – Mila, or Cher and Vesta in The Killer Next Door – I have loved dearly. Mila, who’s complicated and flawed, and has many unattractive characteristics, was quite easy, for me; I enjoyed her company. We had situations and family dynamics very much in common, right down to the not-so-well suppressed internal rage and tendency to self-sabotage. Both Cher and Vesta, plucky and brave in an unhospitable world, always made me feel protective however frustrating they were, and I had to get to the end of that book simply to make sure that they would be okay.

Romy, though – the central character of my new novel, The Poison Garden – now, there was a challenge. She fascinated me more than any other character I’ve written and, I think, drove me to the edge of insanity from time to time. Raised in a cult and, though her belief in her leaders has been destroyed, still a slave to the beliefs that that cult has planted in her, I found her both the most frightening and yet the most pitiable character I’ve had to live with in my years of writing. And, as in many ways we are diametrical opposites – I’m a contrarian to a degree that is in itself a character flaw as well as a strength, and which has certainly made me unpopular from time to time – the challenge of learning how it felt to be her was immense. People tend to think of cult members as emotionally deadened, invested only in their beliefs, and discovering the overwhelming emotions Romy also kept buried deep inside was a surprise, and a disturbing one. But that’s what happens if you stop and listen, a habit that’s woefully little practised in our current febrile political atmosphere. We need to stop and listen. Stopping and listening doesn’t mean you have to agree. But if you want to go beyond simple, destructive narratives of Good and Bad, of in groups and out groups and Us and Them, you have to listen, because only by listening will you see the other’s point of view and understand their humanity.

And this is one of the things I love the most about the writing process: that characterisation makes you more empathetic. Writers are selfish, self-obsessed, driven people; we have to be because honestly there are literally a million easier ways of making a living. And yet, if we’re doing our jobs as well as we can, we are at the same time forced to understand people who don't think like us – to root, despite it all, for their survival, their resolutions. It’s a strange dichotomy in the writerly personality, but I think ultimately a healthy urge, for without it we’d simply be self-obsessed and part of the problem. I started out disliking Romy, wondering why I had ever chosen to write someone whose thinking was so two-dimensional and goals so unchanging. After wrestling with her for a couple of years, and seeing her do some truly terrible things, I think I love and pity her more than anyone else I’ve ever imagined.

Alex Marwood won an Edgar for her first mystery novel, The Wicked Girls, and a Macavity for her second, The Killer Next Door. Her new novel, The Poison Garden, which follows what happens to the survivors of a cult suicide, will be published January 14, 2020. She lives in London, England and mostly works in bed.

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