Monday, October 17, 2011

Disturbing Characters

    I have a book that lists among my weaknesses the word, ‘DISTURBING’ Just like that, all caps. The only thing that disturbs me about that is that they consider it a weakness. Hell, if I can disturb somebody and there are no consequences, like getting arrested or fired, I’m going for it. Besides, we’re all disturbing in one way or another. Religion, politics, social and societal convention, we are all disturbed and disturbing by and to someone. The question is: should you make your characters disturbing?

    Hell yes. Even if you are writing a piece about well meaning people on two sides of a divisive issue and everyone will be redeemed in the end through compromise and group hugs, someone needs to be disturbing or the boredom will be excruciating.

    I can hear you thinking, ‘Huh, I’ll just have my antagonist be disturbing.’ Does it disturb you that I can hear your thoughts? Now, you can have your bad guy be disturbing, most of them are in one way or another; they’re bad guys. So make them disturbing in their actions. Have them swerve to hit bunnies on the highway, pee in the office coffee pot, try to see the future in the entrails of their victims, etc. That’ll disturb some readers but we expect that sort of thing and we expect bad guys to have disturbing thoughts if they have a POV. By all means, make the bad guy disturbing but also do the unexpected. Give your protagonist disturbing thoughts.

    Heroes are better characters if they are flawed, we all know that. This is just one more way to bring them to life. I don’t have room here to give examples because there are too many possibilities. Think sex, murder, torture, violence, kinky sex, violent sex, torturous sex, vandalism, suicide, autoerotic asphyxiation, homophobic, homosexual, pee in the office coffee pot thoughts.

    I can hear you thinking again and some of you are reluctant to sully your good guy with less than heroic thoughts. You love him because he is so strong and brave and virtuous. He is your idea of a perfect person. You can’t have him think stuff like... No!

    Okay. Many books have been written and published with nary a thought out of place on the part of the hero. The tension comes from insurmountable odds, the hero’s fear or feelings of unworthiness, or his desire to save the villain, etc. There is a large audience for that.

    Not my cup of tea.

    I prefer Han Solo to Luke, Rooster Cogburn to Marshal Dillon, Ironman to Superman, Grace Anadarko to Joe Friday. I want heroes with grit. I want them dirty, nasty, sociopathic in their thoughts and borderline criminal in their deeds. I don’t care if they fight their demons or embrace them. I just want them to have demons.

    Now, I realize this sort of thing can be overdone. So don’t obsess over thinking up and putting in inappropriate thoughts. But there are situations where a reasonable person might think something that would get them arrested if they said it out loud. If one occurs to you, try it out.

    What do you think? Gonna do it?


  1. Already did it. My MC has a lot of ugly thoughts about people she wishes she could act on. Sometimes she does. You have to be careful about not making characters too unlikeable, but I think you're right it does add a more realistic layer to have them show that dark side of themselves once in awhile.

  2. Is it just me or did anyone else hear Darth Vader's voice: "I find your lack of faith disturbing..." :)

    Too perfect heroes are rather boring to read and unbelievable. No one is that perfect. On the other hand, if your MC is going to be disturbing, then give them at least one characteristic that makes the reader care what happens to the MC.

  3. My characters are always in disturbing situations so they can't help but think disturbing thoughts. I write urban fantasy. It's a disturbed genre. Ha! :)

    Oooh, you know what other character is exceptionally disturbing? Hannibal Lecter. Omg, that dude gets the blue ribbon for disturbance, yet he's romanticized in the stories about him. Totally creeps me out.

    Fun post, Mike!

  4. I think I'm going to focus on just this a tad bit more with my newest heroine... You'll have to tell me what you think. Great post! There was a movie I saw this summer I think... The Green Hornet. I HATED the hero! Absolutely despised him. I don't think it was because he was a bit disturbing, though. I think it was because he just wasn't quite done right. Iron Man was a bit disturbing and done well. Great example. Hannibal Lecter is definitely disturbing, lol...

  5. Food for thought, for certain. I also like a gritty, dark character. Who doesn't appreciate the flawed "hero?"

  6. Tony Soprano, Gregory House, Jane Tennison... I could watch those protagonists for years because they were so screwed up.

  7. You disturbed me. Pee in the coffee? Thank God I drink tea. Hitting bunnies? I had a job once that required me to drive before the sun came up and I can tell you, bunnies are suicidal. They run out at the first sign of headlights. I'm disturbed. LOL

    Seriously, excellent post. Our characters must be layered with as much punch as we can pack to make them real and believable and sitting next to us in the car.

  8. Oy - Mike loves House. Me, not so much. They have to have SOME redeeming qualities. LOL.

    Nancy - I hates, I tell you hates, those sneaky suicidal bunnies. Marne and I came across one (literally) on our last trip across the mountains. I was disturbed the rest of the weekend.

    And yes, Mike is disturbing. That's part of what makes him such a good writer.


  9. I personally like a good disturbing protagonist...

  10. I used to be confused as to why some of my critique partners and beta readers considered my villain to be the protagonist, instead of my hero.

    This post explains it perfectly.
    I just want (protagonists) to have demons.

    Thus, readers will root for a villain redeemed at the end (ie: Darth Vader) far more than the hero who turns him back to good (ie: Luke Skywalker). Underscoring the importance of creating a realistic bad guy versus a one-dimensional caricature.