Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Put On the Damn Suit

By Sophie

Do I think like the villain or like the good guy? Easy – I’m thinking like whoever has the most to lose in every scene.

My point-of-view characters are usually my protagonists – the good guys – so I spend a lot of time in their heads because it’s their character arcs that figure most prominently in my books.

But a villain must be well-motivated or they’ll bore your readers, and so they must have three-dimensional arcs as well. Their screen time may well be far less, but they must seem real.

I’m wrapping up the third book in my Stella Hardesty mystery series, so at this point I’ve set Stella up against three major villains (and a variety of ne’er-do-wells).

Each time I’ve had to spend some thinking time exploring the thoughts I would think and the acts I would commit if I was that villain.

That’s an awkward sentence, but it’s also accurate. As a writer, you don’t “become” your character. You consider – in a hazy, free-associating kind of way – all the impressions and memories and facts you know about all the people and events that resulted in the composite who is your villain and then step into the suit that is the result. From that unique vantage point, you write what you (now) know.

I wrote a story a while back about a frustrated, indulged middle-aged executive whose misgivings and self-doubt goad him to violence. I have little in common with him, but I know this guy well; he’s a composite of people I’ve known or worked for or talked to at cocktail parties, and his frustration and insecurity aren’t so different from the garden-variety I’ve experienced plenty.

So when he picks up a Sur La Table meat pounder and contemplates using it to kill, I was, for the moments it took me to write that scene, in a mind-meld with the guy.

I like that character. He’s creepy and believable, but I was only able to write him that way when I put on the Suburban Malcontent suit. (Luckily, I took it off again when I was done writing or who knows what sort of havoc I might have wreaked.)


Leslie said...

Gee Sophie,

I'm going to check out what you're wearing from a distance before saying Hi next time... if you've got a suit on, I'm out of there! ;-)

I totally agree though, you have to try and put yourself in the character's body, or suit, and see life from their point of view or what you write won't ring true!

Rebecca Cantrell said...

OK, you probably need to take off the suit, but I quite like the jacket. Maybe with a pair of jeans and a white shirt?

Thanks for the great post on process, Sophie! It is weird getting so close to the baddies, but they're as human as the goodies. Although very wrong. And evil. Let's just get that out of the way. :)

Sophie Littlefield said...

tee hee :)
I haven't owned a suit in close to two decades.

Oh, I know they're wrong...sigh...but they're just so much more *interesting*, y'know?

Kelli Stanley said...

Soph, I loved the Suburban Malcontent Suit ... and I just know it's polyester! ;)

Hmmm ... and the footwear might be Hush Puppies ... ;)


Jen Forbus said...

Kelli, I think maybe the shoes are something resembling bowling shoes...wouldn't you be a malcontent if you had to walk around in bowling shoes? ;)

Sophie, I love that you can put yourself into that suit. As a reader, characters - all characters - are a deal-breaker for me. If you have a great protag and the antagonist is flat or unbelievable, it's a flop. The best antagonists are the ones I can truly fear as a reader...and not necessarily fear because of "Stephen King" fear...but in any way that is destructive - a "bad" copy, a verbally abusive spouse/parent, an uncaring teacher, a school bully...but they have to come to life just as much as the protag does.

Thanks for the great insight!