Thursday, January 28, 2016

Risks and Benefits of Unusual Characters

Emotionless, by Timie, via Flickr
When I created a homicide detective in my first Jackson book (which has now been translated into six languages!), I purposefully made him a good guy, a family man, someone everyone could relate to. I knew, even back then, that I might spend years with him, writing from his perspective over and over, and I didn’t want to get burnt out on his character flaws.

But I throw that caution out the window when I write standalones. I haven’t yet written a protagonist that disgusts me, but I certainly have created some unusual characters. In the Jackson series (#8, Rules of Crime), I introduced Carla River, a transgender FBI agent, who underwent a change from male to female while working for the bureau. All that’s in her past, and I don’t focus on her sexuality, but still, her nature surprised some readers. I created this character four years ago—long before Caitlyn Jenner became a household name.

My current thriller, Point of Control, features an FBI agent who happens to be sociopathic. Why? I read an autobiography of a high-functioning sociopath and was fascinated by how her mind worked. Further research revealed that four percent of the population is sociopathic. The most interesting aspect, though, was that those with the disorder fall along a continuum of behavior. Many aren’t dangerous, or even destructive. They just don’t empathize with other people—which allows them to make decisions based on need and logic rather than emotion. They feel some emotions (but never guilt)—and none to the same degree as most people. If emotions were colors, their world would be black and white.

Guess what? Some of the most successful people in the world are sociopathic, because it’s hard to get to the top without stepping on a few competitors. Surgeons, lawyers, CEOs, and politicians—we’ve seen them in news stories about their misdeeds. So why not an FBI agent? What better place than the bureau for a self-aware, high-functioning sociopath to use her brilliant mind while keeping herself out of trouble? Thus, Agent Andra Bailey came into being.

I enjoyed the research, and I loved crafting a plot that involved disappearing scientists and a rare-earth metal shortage. But writing from her perspective was challenging. I’m the opposite of Bailey—a total empath. I feel everyone’s pain, and I make emotional decisions every day. So I had to keep stopping to back up and rewrite her thoughts to keep them accurate.

But I think I pulled it off. Many readers have commented on the character and how fascinating she is, as well as praised how I handled the POV. Publishers Weekly called Bailey a “deeply flawed, but sympathetic lead.” Other readers have not been so endeared. That’s the risk of writing peculiar characters. Some readers simply won’t relate to or like the protagonist. They may finish the book if the story is compelling, but they won’t leave a five-star review.

I can live with that. I love to explore all the rich possibilities of the human race. There are so many kinds of people in this world that I refuse to limit myself to writing about good-guy cops or the girl next door.

In fact, the standalone thriller I’m working on now features a protagonist who works in a morgue and is gender fluid. But again, I don’t focus on that aspect of his/her/their life. The story is fast-paced, speculative, and intended to keep readers on the edge of their seats. IF it also happens to expose them to new ideas and new types of people, then all the better.

Does the idea of a sociopathic protagonist turn you off to the story? Would the term gender-fluid in a book jacket make you pass on the novel? Tell me what you think.

L.J. Sellers writes the bestselling Detective Jackson mystery/thriller series—a four-time winner of the Readers Favorite Awards. She also pens the high-octane Agent Dallas series and provocative standalone thrillers. Her 17 novels have been highly praised by reviewers, and she’s one of the highest-rated crime fiction authors on Amazon.

L.J. resides in Eugene, Oregon where many of her novels are set, and she’s an award-winning journalist who earned the Grand Neal. When not plotting murders, she enjoys standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes and hurtle down zip-lines.

14 comments :

  1. Well, L.J., my theory is that characters generally trump plot ... most readers are really more interested in who is doing than what they are doing ... just my humble opinion ... and, judging by the scope of my readership, a very, very humble one indeed. I could never say exactly what kind of character would get my attention ... gender bending or sociopathic would not necessarily be a deal breaker ... heck, my man, James Bond is probably a sociopath ... I guess it depends on the package.

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  2. Welcome back to the blog, LJ!

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  3. Reminds me of the main character on Homeland. Despite her strange thinking and mental problems, she fascinates me.

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    1. Yes. Carrie is a great example of a flawed but fascinating character.

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  4. Calling a character gender fluid in the book jacket copy implies it's important to the story. If it is, it's worth mentioning, but if it's not a factor in the plot or the way the character deals with an investigation, maybe leave it out? As far as buying the book, I'm more likely to make that decision based on story. I'll have to admit, though, that a sociopathic protagonist intrigues me. I'd mention that for sure!

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    1. I see what you're saying. But it's complicated. Her and the victims' gender issues are the byproduct of the experiment.

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  5. I loved the sociopath sidekick in the BBC series Luther. The BBC modern Sherlock is a sociopath. It can work. I live for the day when we fire all gender/sexual labels. To me prefacing a character with a label is calling attention to something that should just be "normal." Same with stereotypical racial profiles. We will get there, someday.

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    1. Yes! We need to start with gender neutral pronouns.

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  6. I'm with you all the way, L.J. I adore characters who tip just the other side of normal. Read them and write them. Your rankings confirm that you're on the right track.

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    1. Thanks! I'm grateful for loyal readers who are willing to try anything I write...despite the unusual characters. They end up supporting them in the end!

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  7. I'm very intrigued by your character, LJ, and will definitely add this to my reading list.

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    1. Thanks! I loved the research for this book.

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  8. I fussed with this issue when I began writing about a serial killer. No gender-bending, but I played a lot with psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorders.

    I worried that telling the story from the serial killer's point of view might be too much for some readers. It will, but I got a wonderful bit of advice from a great crime writer: I don't have to like the character, but she has to be interesting.

    Well, done L.J. The more we color outside the lines, the happier we are.

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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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