By Susan Rogers Cooper
As writers we create characters. We create good ones, bad ones, indifferent ones. And I'm not talking about the quality of writing here. I'm talking about the character of a character. Personally, I need someone to root for. Some one I care about. Someone who's outcome means something.
Anybody ever read the book or see the movie of Paddy Chayesky's ALTERED STATES? I admit to only seeing the movie, not reading the book. And if the book was anything like the movie, I doubt I'll ever read it. Why? Because there wasn't a single person in that story I cared about. Weak-kneed, whiny wife and a husband I liked better as the monster than as the man. But that was the 70s and the anti-hero was all the rage.
I don't necessarily want a hero – I just want somebody who's real. A decent person put in an unreasonable situation. Someone who sees a wrong and feels a need to right it. A lot of us write characters whose jobs it is to do these things: police, PI's, lawyers, and others of us write about non-professionals becoming innocently involved in the carnage. I write both. I have one series with a small town sheriff, and one series with an amateur sleuth. The one major problem with writing an amateur sleuth is just how many dead people can she/he find before we begin to suspect a mass murderer? Personally, I always felt Jessica Fletcher was a serial killer.
And I don't think it's unreasonable to want to root for the bad guy. If the bad guy is a full blown person, and not a cartoon cutout of a villain. People kill for a variety of reasons, most of them stupid, but sometimes you can understand that stupidity. I've created bad guys that make you go “ick,” and bad guys that make you go “ah.” But either way they need to be real, and the only flaw should be one of character.
And must the victim be the villain? No. Maybe there was a reason he was killed. Maybe he did do something wrong, something that forced another person to this act of stupidity. But if we can feel for the bad guy, can't we also feel for the dead guy?
Hero, victim, murderer. The holy trinity of what we do. But with all three, above all else, they must be real. And there better be somebody, anybody, to root for.