Sociopath Characters

One of the biggest challenges for newer writers is to develop characters that would do all the things the writer would never do. It may be as simple as mountain climbing or sky diving. And it may be as heinous as rape, murder and pillaging.

How do you write about a character who commits acts you struggle to even imagine?

When it comes to sky diving or mountain climbing, you can interview people who’ve done those things. Or you can learn to do them yourself! What a rush, I would guess.

But when it comes to writing about characters who harm others, what is required is the ability to turn off your humanity, your reason, your moral code, and imagine the character doing things the way a predator would.

We go through phases or stages of innocence, wherein we gradually release long-held beliefs about what people are capable of doing. You hear about a Cosby or a Weinstein or a Trump allegedly touching people inappropriately, and you may still allow yourself to file these supposed events under Social Anomalies. You still believe most people would never compromise another person’s integrity like that. Maybe a Rose surprises you, but that man looks creepy, so the accusation fails to move your needle, so to speak. We prop up most celebrities in ways that can, at times, lead to excessive temptation. Some people fail to resist those temptations, and corruption occurs. Nothing new here.

Then you read about a Franken, a Takei and a Lasseter–things they are accused of doing–and you start to wonder if there really are people who would never harm another person simply for their pleasure. You start to re-classify what it means to be a decent human being. So maybe an ill-advised grope for an attempt at humor gets a lower bad guy score than, say, firing a subordinate who refuses to engage with her boss in sexual acts. Where does forcing a kiss on someone land you? How do you classify a lusty comment about someone’s figure? Where do you draw the lines?

For sociopaths, there may not be lines drawn anywhere. The rules do not apply to them. In many cases, they may not even consider rules of personal comport to exist.

So when you must write about a character who commits treachery or acts that personally or financially violate others, close your eyes and start to see the world through their eyes. To your serial killer or terrorist or rapist or spouse abuser or villainous boss character, imagine that they have an agenda–perhaps relating to money, influence or pleasure–and no code of conduct gets in the way of them pursuing their goals. See things like law, order and social norms as processes designed for lesser creatures. Institutions like businesses or government agencies are designed to keep dogs and sheep in line, to define their boundaries. Not yours. You have no boundaries.

Your fictional character is what I mean, of course. Not you. You would never grope someone or force a kiss on them, or try to copulate with them while they sleep, or drug them into stupor to take advantage, or lie to Congress, or make powerful deals behind closed doors with foreign powers that threaten your country, or hide your fortune from the IRS, or publicly say the words many people want to hear, and then act against those same people in private. You would never murder someone, or hire an assassin.

You’re a good person. We’re just talking about fiction here.

Right?

Choosing Beta Readers for Your Book

Once you’ve finished writing a first draft of your book–or maybe a second if you’re really self-conscious–it’s important to get some people to read your book, see what you missed, see how it flows, see if it makes sense. Their impression is more important than whether you used their, there and they’re correctly. That’s what editors are for!

You don’t need a ton of beta-readers–maybe four or five people. But choosing who beta-reads your book is extremely important. First, they have to be within your target demographic. What kind of people read the kind of books you write? Also, they have to be enthusiasts of the genre you write in. Not much point in having a romance enthusiast read your sci-fi thriller about a demon-possessed velociraptor. And lastly, if you write anything disturbing, you have to make sure they aren’t offended, and that they don’t judge you to be a freak after reading your book.

Unless you don’t care about being judged a freak.

I recently sent out my serial killer thriller Wrapt to beta-readers. I’ve had one really helpful response so far. But I am looking for two or three more people to read it, because I want to make sure it does what I want it to do. I want it to send chills up a reader’s spine, and I want it to compel readers to keep turning the pages!

I also want them to tell their friends to buy the book!

You can find my Amazon author page, and links to buy my first three books here.

Indie Author Services

Independent authors are a lot like baby sea turtles. I’m not saying they move slowly or that they carry a burden on their backs. But they must cross the exposed sand. They are yummy to seagulls and other predators. There are tons of them, but only a few will survive.

Yet somehow, they just know they are heading in the right direction, despite watching their sisters and brothers getting gobbled up.

Indie authors don’t have Random House or Penguin copy editing, formatting or marketing their books. So they must rely on independent author services, like developmental editors, copy editors and proofreaders, formatters, cover artists, printers and marketers, maybe even publicists, and definitely third party advertising sites for promos.

Many who provide these services do a great job, are honest, and add significant value for their writing clients.

But some are predators. And it’s not always easy to spot them in the tall grass.

In addition to writing novels, I provide a variety of editing services for indie authors. And one of my clients was recently offered a publishing deal with a small publisher. I asked what this publisher was selling her, and it wasn’t clear what they would actually do. They said they had a small store and would carry copies there. They would create a cover and help my client develop an online presence, and they indicated they would market her work.

After several months, they had provided her with a very nice book cover, but she told me the font they used for the book was too light. I ordered a copy and agreed. It was practically unreadable. She complained, and they responded by saying she was impossible to work with, and that, because of her lack of effort, not a single copy of her book had sold, other than the one I bought.

They said they would not work with her, but she could not get out of the contract with them unless she paid them more than $1000.

Be sure you know what you are getting. If you are being offered a book deal, find out who else they represent. How are their sales working out? Contact the authors they currently carry. Did they have a good experience? Make sure any contracts are clear and concise. Make sure you understand what the expectations are on either side.

If it sounds too good to be… well, you know.

Damsels

I would love to hear from women on this, but men are welcome to chime in.

Do you get tired of damsels in distress? Do you read a book or watch a movie and wonder why the women have to be the victims before a story can wrap up?

If the villain has cornered the heroine, do you want her boyfriend or brother or a super hero to rescue her, or would you love to see her kick ass and get out of her own mess?

Serial Killers

Once that you’ve decided on a killing, first you make a stone of your heart. And if you find that your hands are still willing, then you can turn a murder into art. – The Police

It’s good to blog about things in real life that are important elements in your books.

My wife and I have been watching Netflix’s Mindhunters, and we just finished the first season. It’s a 2017 show, so there is no second season, yet. After that cliffhanger,  they’d better start filming season two.

My unofficial minor in college was Psychology, and I’ve had an interest in abnormal psych since high school. What makes deviant minds tick? Why do they draw outside the lines? How are they able to do things that our programming tells us is unthinkable? Undoable?

I’ve been intrigued that the show has been exploring the different types of serial killers, rather than just following one or two. And there’s such an amazing difference between crimes of passion, of vanity, and of opportunity.

The serial killer in my book Wrapt stumbles upon his first killing. He wasn’t planning to commit murder. But the victim dies and it changes him.

The question the show’s investigators try to answer is: How do you discern at what point someone has crossed over to the perspective that it’s okay to kill?

Morbidly fascinating stuff.

Rewriting History

I spent an hour or so last night cutting blog posts from years ago. They weren’t consistent with my branding preferences for this site. Politics. Weather. Personal stuff.

I just want this blog to be about writing. Specifically: my writing.

But also about the act or strategy of writing.

Last night I finished the penultimate chapter in my new thriller, Wrapt. The killer stakes out all the places our heroine has visited recently, which does two things. 1) It adds creep factor. 2) It leaves clues about which of our three primary suspects is the killer.

Over the next week I will write the final chapter of the first draft. It’s exciting because this has been a different approach for me. I’m enjoying what I am and am not telling the reader. Who knew mystery writing was so much fun?

Thriller

I’m two chapters shy of completing my fifth novel, called Wrapt–a thriller about a serial killer. I worried that it would be too dark, considering that most of my books, though they’re about paranormal subjects, tend to be romances, too. This one is barely a romance. It’s definitely a murder story.

Tonight I’m writing the penultimate chapter, the last one narrated by the killer. It’s meant to tie up all of his loose ends before he goes after our heroine. I’ll write that climax within the next week.

I’m having a lot of fun with the story, determining what the clues are, where to place them, when to misdirect.

Happy Halloween!

Slashers

I typically work on several books at the same time. Always getting ideas. Jotting them down. The more interesting ones get outlines. And then I store them in a sequence of most interesting to least interesting, so that when it’s time to start another book, I have the best ideas at the top. This requires that I re-order the entire collection, now up to about 50 titles.
Fortunately, I have finished four books so far.
But writers often do this thing where they do all the things except the thing they really want to do. Or need to do.
Is that a form of punishment?
I was going to write something about my next novel, a slasher called Wrapt. But this came out instead.

Your Amoral Online Soul

There is a part of the human brain that allows us to watch TV, movies, stage plays, read books, and understand simultaneously that what we are experiencing is not real, but is potentially full of truth, or at least entertainment value. I’m talking about the suspension of disbelief. We know Harrison Ford isn’t really an archaeologist, and he’s not really being chased by a bunch of angry tribesmen, who mysteriously can’t hit a barn with their spears. But we set that aside for two hours and allow ourselves to be entertained. We can watch fictional characters steal, shoot, stab, murder, rape, cheat on their spouses, lie to each other, blow stuff up, and even survive massive explosions. We don’t pass judgment. We just watch. Maybe smile or laugh. Eat another piece of popcorn.

I believe that same part of the brain is what participates in most social media. Our bodies sit at a computer, or tap away on a tablet or phone, but our moral and ethical sub-routines are disengaged.

The consequences of this are that much of what a person does online–whether it is playing games, trolling, gambling, or participating in private conversations in social media–fails to register or be filtered by the moral compass. You chat with someone privately, and you or they might say something completely inappropriate, like asking a married person for a date, or sexting, but it’s just words on a screen because the moral sense is not engaged. You play a first person shooting game, and blow other players away, and nothing about it feels wrong because it is virtual. What a person does online is not perceived as having real life consequences. But it does. Shooting other players in a game hardens people to each other. It puts up barriers. Gambling or playing games that cost money for tokens ruins a family’s finances, even if cash is not involved. And pretend intimate relationships violate the trust that a couple used to expect from each other. When you sext with someone, you invest the time and energy that would be better spent on your partner. But for that moment in the virtual world, there was a part of you that believed or experienced the sexual encounter. You were still unfaithful to your partner.

For many, the social media environment feels safe because they do not invest in the person they are chatting with online. It’s an escape. They don’t have to pay bills with that person, or settle their differences, or figure out what to do about a financial change of plans. It’s easy. But it’s just a cartoon. And because social media environments are so completely addictive, and because so many people get a flutter with any new perceived relationships, a lot of people get trapped by their own short-sightedness. They spend hours online with these cartoon friends, and let their real life relationships suffer. Some people even migrate these online relationships to telephone and Skype, and that’s when it gets even more dangerous. It’s more addictive, feels more real, but it still isn’t. That other person is still hundreds or thousands of miles away, and they are still not invested in you. If you vanish, they move on to someone else to get their online jollies.

Time itself is altered by these social media experiences. You think you’re online for ten minutes, but it was an hour. Or you plan to be chatting in Fitbit or Twitter for an hour, but suddenly it’s three hours past your bedtime. In the end, what have you got out of it? You’ll be tired at work tomorrow, your partner feels neglected, your kids feel abandoned, and you gained nothing. Those people you chatted with for three hours are not going to pay your bills. They are not going to get you soup when you’re sick, and they aren’t helping with the household chores or your kid’s homework. What you did was a waste of precious time.

Guns, Mental Health and Compassion

I do believe in thorough background checks for all types of firearm purchases, but I do not believe this will deter certain people from committing heinous acts.

I believe we need better mental health care facilities, and a significant change in our national attitude toward mental illness. But I do not believe that will curtail random violence.

I believe that people need to feel loved, respected, appreciated, and feel that they are part of something precious and alive.

I think a lot of people feel disconnected, broken, isolated,  and some of those people are going to do extreme things in order to get attention.

Why not reach out to the people around us and show them we really do care?

First Draft Completed

My next novel, Some Survive Death, has a completed first draft. It’s both exciting and disappointing to finish something like this. There’s more work to be done, but most importantly, everything is written down. It worked out to 73,000 words. I like my novels to be around 100,000. That’s unlikely to happen with this one, even after more drafts. But very few of the books I have edited are over 100,000 words.

I’ll start the editing and checking process tomorrow. But I’m excited to be in this place now.

Have a great day!

Your Life is Probably Pretty Good

I don’t believe in the practice of religion, although it does not matter to me if others do. I don’t care about converting anyone to my way of thinking or believing.

I do believe that there is a power of goodness. I don’t judge you if you call that power God. We can get into the nature of this goodness, but that would be mostly pointless because neither of us knows jack about said nature.

What I do know is that sometimes things happen that you ought to smile and be humbled about. You ought to appreciate those good things, and see what you can do to make good things happen to others, too. I don’t care what you call that.

A bunch of good things have happened recently that most people (possibly) would complain or whine about because they would appear to be stressors. But I look at these things as amazing timing.

I don’t believe Einstein plays dice with the world. But I am grateful and humbled that certain things have worked out the way they have.

Be well.

It Has Been

My wife was telling me about a friend going through some rough times. Personal stuff. Emotional stuff. And she said it was sad. But I disagreed. What this friend is experiencing is certainly challenging, but hardly sad. She’s in a negative situation and needs to get out of it. She needs to find her own place, her own footing, her own voice. And while she may cry a lot about her circumstances, they will make her stronger. One day that friend will look back at this year and know that it was a good year because of what she learned about herself.

This year has been one of those years for me. It hasn’t been sad. But it has been challenging. I prefer to look at it in terms of victories, though. We had to put my father in a memory care home, but that was a victory over confusion. Now he doesn’t have to worry about keeping his finances and groceries straight. My mother passed, but that was a victory over pain, as she had suffered for years with cancer, COPD and spinal issues. I had a regular job I didn’t care for most of the year, but that was a victory over unemployment. Now I have a better job, and my editing business is getting busier and busier.

Every failure leads you down a road toward victory, as long as you keep walking or running or driving in good faith.

If you never experienced defeat, never saw blood, never witnessed suffering or death, then you’d never have thick skin. You’d never overcome. And you probably wouldn’t care.

Suffering makes us stronger. And it makes us care.

Ebb and Flow in Creative Writing

I encourage authors to map out their stories before they compose. A story is like a river, with twists and turns, surprise waterfalls and white water rapids in between placid, flowing stretches. A straight-forward story is not like a river. It is like a canal. No one wants to read a canal. No one puts on their shorts and flip flops, grabs their inner-tube and yells, “Let’s go ride some canal!”

In each chapter or section of your book there needs to be a conflict, an obstacle your heroin/hero needs to overcome. In the first act, the hero/heroin might do well against the obstacles. In the second act, they need to fail. And the third act is where they have learned their lesson, gained wisdom, and finally triumphed over their adversary, or died a glorious death that inspires or educates others.

Unless you are quite experienced in story crafting, this structure does not flow naturally. This is why I recommend some form of story mapping. It is best to do it before composing, but it can be done after a first draft, during self-editing.

Motifs and Emotions

A motif is a re-occurring image, theme or element that appears throughout your novel. A dove symbolizes peace, or a snake represents evil, or a spider represents death. Motifs add color and intrigue to your novel, but you have to be tricky, subtle, underhanded in your use of them. After a first draft is a good time to distribute motifs. Spread them out, don’t just leave them at the end and marvel at your brilliance. And for gosh sakes, don’t explain them.

When your character is experiencing emotion, don’t say: She felt grief. Don’t say grief enveloped her. Don’t say she was painted in grief. Say what she is doing in response to the grief. Say what her posture is, what her hands are doing; and if she’s distracted by the grief, don’t say she’s distracted by the grief. Jane set the letter down on the counter, her hands trembling, her breath quick. She adjusted and re-adjusted her wedding band, removing it, sliding it back onto her finger. She picked up the letter again and held it to her breast and wept.

Modes of Prose

When you tell a story, it’s easy to slip into a mode of communication I call overview. This is when you say what happened, but without most of the story element. Jack liked going to bars to meet women, and sometimes they’d talk to him, but mostly he would go home empty handed. That is overview. I think it’s tempting to write that way because the movies have a form of this called montage, where the passing of time is sped up, someone ages, or a pattern of behavior is revealed, and then time gets back to normal and here we are in the future. But in the movies, you actually see the character doing stuff.

For prose, the best way to reveal important elements of your story is through dialogue, where characters talk to each other. But dialogue also includes revealing blocking. The two or three characters can’t just sit there. They have to do something while they talk. There are subtle ways to reveal their emotions or motivations, like tapping, or pacing, or building or destroying something.

In action scenes, where someone is doing something that moves the plot forward, you typically need dialogue to help explain or support the actions.

And in inner dialogue, the reader gets the intimate thoughts of the Point of View character. Too little of this breaks the flow. Too much bores the reader. This can be a good mode for transitional scenes. Jack drove his Buick away from the bar. He’d struck out again. Maybe he needed to chew on a mint. Or maybe Martha was right. Maybe he should finally call her.

It takes more effort to write scenes directly, and stay with the story in real time. But your story will be much more readable than an overview.

%d bloggers like this: