Wednesday, January 21, 2015

When Characters Cross Ethical Lines


Up until my once monthly blog for The Blood Red Pencil, I had resisted blogging. I never thought I had anything to say that others hadn’t said better. I was wrong. Every writer has her own experiences to impart, her own twists on writing, whether it be genre-crossing, plot variations, or unusual characterizations. Mine is a little of all three, but mostly the latter, and because I’m self-published, no one can tell me I can’t write a character the way I want to. Readers can, of course, choose not read my books, but I hope they do.

It’s easy to write good, moral characters that readers root for to overcome adversity or to find his or her love or to get the bad guy. But what about those characters pushed into circumstances that make them do illegal or unethical acts? Even murder. Some crime fiction writers tread that line, and I love when they do. Crime is dirty and messy. Writers of the genre know that, and they expect a little line crossing. I do, but how much will a reader accept before slamming the book closed? How far can a writer push her characters without offending reader sensibilities?

What if you don’t like the characters in a book? 2014’s bestselling novel has a husband and wife, that from reading writer blogs and reviews, almost every reader disliked. (Full disclosure: I have not read the book.) So what was it that made the book soar to the top of the charts and remain there to this day? Excellent writing, of course. The mystery, surely. But I believe what kept them reading was a perverse fascination with the unpleasant characters, characters so unlike themselves, that they had to keep turning the pages to see what happens. Kudos to any author who can inspire not only love for a book, but also hate. Would that I could.

Every one of my books has a character that treads an ethical line somewhere in the story. My work-in-progress, Indiscretion, has a thief as a main character and a woman who commits adultery. I’m sure both characters will turn off some readers, but many will persevere to find out the dynamic that caused them to take the path they took and what happens to them in the end. My protagonist in Hooked is a call girl, and the main character in Mind Games, book one of my psychic suspense series, spent more than half her life conning audience participants in her psychic act. A character in Threads enlists a dozen good people, cops and lawyers and doctors, to commit felonies, and they all do it, if not willingly, then for believing it is ultimately the right thing to do. A cop in one of my books (won’t say which one) murders someone in cold blood.

How does a writer create questionable characters so readers root for them in spite of their ethical lapses or downright crimes? Good question. The goal of a thriller is to put characters in situations that force them to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do in order to save the world or a loved one or themselves in the face of evil. Then as bad as it gets for them, writers must make it worse. In romance novel, the old chestnut of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins back girl is tried and true and meets the same requirement as the thriller, only differently.

There are always extenuating circumstances that put my protagonists in questionable situations. Okay, so becoming a call girl might not be one of those professions readers will understand or forgive, no matter what drove her into the life. Writing characters like her and my psychic can be risky, but I want readers to question their own moral code and wonder what they would have done in similar situations.
Polly Iyer is the author of six novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and two books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games and Goddess of the Moon. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

16 comments :

  1. Polly, I've enjoyed all of your books. I found the characters generally likable--people I could root for because circumstances led them into situations that forced them to make ethical choices. For me, it's the ability to root for at least one character in a book that makes it a winner. I may finish a book where all the characters are detestable and/or evil but I probably won't pick up another book by that author. Life is too short.

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    1. Thanks, Linda. I, too, have to root for the characters. I hope I make the circumstances believable so that the reader doesn't close the book. Glad you stopped by.

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  2. Less than perfect characters with occasionally questionable morals have populated books and the silver screen for decades. Consider Pretty Woman, the Richard Gere (wealthy businessman) and Julia Roberts (down-and-out prostitute) movie hit in 1990. We could mention many others, as well as numerous books, that include flawed main characters. (Think about Scarlett O'Hara of Gone with the Wind back in the 1930s.) Whether or not we individually choose to watch, read, or write about main characters who cross ethical lines, most of us understand that even good people do bad things. Nobody's perfect. In my opinion, reader (or viewer) identification with such characters probably trumps strict morality in many cases. Certainly, a reading audience exists for those who walk the line and those who cross it. Strong, compelling stories often win out over the indiscretions of those who populate its pages.

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    1. I always found iffy characters more interesting, both in writing and reading. And you're right about strong stories trumping everything. Thanks for the comment. I agree totally.

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  3. Ah-ha! I knew you had something to say! And although I'd like to say, "Told you so," you and Ellis Vidler helped us out at WWK this fall when our regular bloggers were out sick--and you blogged in their place--so I can't say it!

    I'm not sure I want a corrupted main character, but I do like when they are clever. I even don't mind a legal infraction or two. But they must have some ethical boundaries or I can't trust them. When a main character had something bad happen to them that wasn't their fault, but paid the price, even if no one else knows of their innocence, then that's fine by me.

    A questionable (often humorous) secondary character with questionable morals and ethics is a wonderful addition. That guy you bring in to hack into a terrible polluting conglomerate's system and steal their secrets--now that's a wonderful addition.

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    1. Oh, Elaine, my new book will test your boundaries. I can't wait to hear what you have to say. Thanks for giving Ellis and me the chance to fill in.

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  4. I think my characters are all over the map ... the ethical map that is ... kinda like their author, I suppose.

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    1. I think I'd like you, Christopher. I love characters who tread those ethical lines.

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  5. I think the white hat hero protagonist died somewhere in the 1980s. Every action movie has the viewer rooting for the "right side" to win, even if that means blowing things up, causing massive mayhem on the highway, and gunning down endless "bad bad guys." That said, there are instances wherein someone can write characters so loathsome, I don't want to read the book. The difference is the way the writer approaches the character. If the writer can invoke sympathy for the character's cause, I can sometimes get behind them. Though I admit there are some premises that are a turnoff anyway. But if the writer obviously dislikes her own characters, why should a reader spend hundreds of pages with them?

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    1. And yet, Diana, I can name two bestsellers that have characters like that, so there must be some draw, and that draw is a well-written book. Wish I had the formula. Thanks for the comment.

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  6. There are a lot of what I call mustache twirlers in mysteries and thrillers. One dimensional characters, whether saintly or immoral, are boring. I think writers often confuse true character flaws with simple bad behavior, and because of this, their stories come off flat.

    I'm a fan of psychologically driven mysteries and thrillers, which means I read a lot of books with unlikeable characters. If I'm able to empathize with a character, no matter how morally bankrupt he or she is, I'm vested in the story. It's up to the author to make this happen. In the right hands, I can also get caught up in stories about sociopaths who have no sense of right or wrong. Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell are the masters at writing these characters who fascinate not because of the devastation they precipitate, but because they're so self-obsessed, they are oblivious.

    My take away from the 2014 book—IMO, by far the author's weakest—is that a scary amount of people have revenge fantasies, and this book provided vicarious satisfaction.

    VR Barkowski

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    1. I, too, have sympathized with the "bad guy," VR. I also agree that it's how the book is written. I have "that" book on my Kindle, and expect to read it at some point, so it's not fair for me to make a determination based on others'
      opinions. Just too much written about it in the loops and reviews, both for the book and movie.

      Interesting characters are interesting characters, period.

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  7. A character faced with "crossing the line" verses allowing someone to be harmed in some way makes for great conflict. Following him across the line to see where things go from there will get me every time.

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  8. That's what I hope for, Linda. There has to be a reason that makes a person take that step. Hopefully, readers will agree with the character's reasoning. Thanks for commenting.

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  9. debby turner harrisJanuary 22, 2015 at 10:55 AM

    Both as a reader and a writer, I've always been fascinated by characters on the edge. I agree wholeheartedly with Linda that following the movements of a character on the edge makes for a riveting read. I like your priorities!

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  10. Dastardly deeds require dastardly solutions, Debby. I'm big on revenge novels. But good people sometimes do bad things. It's portraying them that makes it interesting.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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