Getting inside your nasty fiction characters

18 Apr

Click on the book cover to go to

Click on the book cover to go to

If you write fiction you are, in a sense, corrupted. There’s a tremendous corruptibility for the fiction writer because you’re dealing mainly with sex and violence. These remain the basic themes, they’re the basic themes of Shakespeare whether you like it or not.

– Anthony Burgess

We’ve talked about character development in previous posts and how you have to get inside your characters’ heads to see what makes them tick. That can be a pleasure if the character is basically a good person with some flaws. But what if one of your major fiction characters – such as a serial killer – is a nasty piece of goods and so unlikeable you cringe.

If you just skim the surface of Mr. Nastiness, that is all your readers will see. Worse, they may think he and his actions are superfluous, perhaps somewhat unbelievable, and maybe he comes across as merely thrown into the plot as a solution for a crime.

You need to get under Mr. (or Ms.) Nastiness’s skin – even if they don’t appear in many scenes but are pivotal to your plot and to the reaction of your major characters.

Or the nasty character can be the main character.

In my short story “Missing in Action,” the main character, Chrissie, has a middle-aged uncle who left his family and ran away with his secretary and the secretary’s son, 15 years ago. Unlike most of these scenarios, this secretary was not a sexpot half the uncle’s age. Instead, as this news report states:

One is led to wonder why Roger Stuart ran off with Anita Perez. The name sounds exotic but Perez was not a Mexican beauty. She was on the heavy side, about six inches taller than Stuart’s five foot eight inch slim build. She had been previously married and had a son, Anthony. She was also two years older than Stuart. Stuart’s wife, Sheila, 47, on the other hand, is a petite blonde, slim, with a heart-shaped face. (Copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, Blue Denim Press, 2012).

From this description you can tell that there is something “off” about Ms. Perez. She is taller than her lover and on the heavy side. That could convey that she might have control over Roger Stuart, perhaps even abuse him. Add in she is older, not younger than Stuart’s wife and the reader may wonder what the attraction is…and if it has something to do with Stuart almost emptying his bank account (that’s in the same news story Chrissie finds archived online) and running off with her. Ugly people fall in love, too.

Of course, Ms. Perez appears later in the story and when she does and has a violent confrontation with Chrissie with her son Anthony present, the reader finds out she is a controlling bitch. There are other instances in the story that show Ms. Perez as being Ms. Nastiness. But no more story details. You’ll have to read the book to find out.

If I hadn’t gotten inside Ms. Perez’s head and “dissected” her, she might have come across as a “so what?” character, i.e., what is her relevance?

Then there are the serial killers. I have one in my pre-quel novel (still in rewriting stages) and I had to get inside his head. How do you do this without turning violent yourself?

Here are a few tips for getting inside the head of your nasty characters.

1.      Read about other nasty characters for information and yes, to help get you in the mood.

2.      Pull in any nastiness from what has happened in your life, and the lives of your family, friends and colleagues. But don’t create a character just like them.

3.      For serial killers it does help to watch Criminal Minds if only to see a variety of backgrounds and motivations for serial killers. But don’t copy.

4.      Get inside your nasty character’s head and feel their emotions – rage, anger, unhappiness, resentment, etc. Get a sense of what they look like and speak like.

5.      To help with 4. create a full character outline of Mr. or Ms. Nastiness – their background (for example were they bullied as a child, where they went to school and were they a good student, how they interacted with their parents, siblings, friends, where they work now; are they married or not, gay, heterosexual). Also their physical appearance, traits, likes and dislikes, etc.

6.      Then take a break from Mr. or Ms. Nastiness.

7.      When you write your short story or novel, the nasty character may change from your character outline. Go with that flow. Mr. or Ms. Nastiness is evolving.

8.      When not writing about your nasty character, try not to constantly think about him or her. He or she is not you…or is he? Maybe you are basing your nasty person on you.

For my upcoming events with Beyond the Tripping Point, go to my BTTP page on my website I continually update it. In particular:

This evening, Thursday, April 18, 2013, 7 p.m.

Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Awards Short List Party Toronto

I’m reading a short suspenseful excerpt from Beyond the Tripping Point. Eleven other CWC readers are reading excerpts from their books as we anxiously await the names of who made the short list. Our books are for sale, too.

Location: Indigo Chapters in the Manulife Centre, Bay St. at Bloor St. W., Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


Sharon A. Crawford


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One response to “Getting inside your nasty fiction characters

  1. Toe Hallock

    April 19, 2013 at 3:29 am

    Sharon A: Thank you for the quote from Anthony Burgess. There are writers I find worth listening to, and those who are not. You, obviously, are in the former group. As is Doug Allyn. Earlier in the year I commented on a post of his on the EQMM website. I boldly mentioned I had read somewhere that there were 7 different plots in fiction. He graciously wondered what the other five were. Pretty cool. Now, thanks to you, I understand his point. Yours truly, Toe.


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