Tuesday, October 11, 2011

That Deep Dark Place...

It's a running theme, that I'm going to answer a great many of the frequently asked questions that writers like myself get.  Because I write horror, many of my characters turn out to be less than savory sorts.  Sociopaths, psychotics, human monsters, my work is filled with them.  And invariably, when I go to conventions, one of the most often asked questions is "How?"  How can I, who on the outside seems like a normal guy (let's not talk about the inside, okay folks?) with a friendly nature and a sense of humor, write someone so diseased and twisted?  How can I write a character who dissects his victims while they're alive and can feel it (like in City of Demons), or who enjoys using corpses as puppets while the rightful owner suffers?  And so convincingly?  And, the most frequent statement/question combo:  You look so normal...What's wrong with you?

Not a thing.  And everything.  Let me explain.

When a writer creates a character, we, like actors, need to understand their motivations.  We need to understand their points of view.  Very few people wake up in the morning and say "today, I'll be...*dramatic pause and fanfare* EVIL!"  Nope.  They go about their daily lives working to do what they feel is the right thing from their perspective.  And your perspective determines your reality.  Whether it's someone who kills because he believes it's for the greater good or because he gets a sexual thrill, he's doing what is right for him.  I know that's a hard thing to wrap your mind around.  I mean, how could a rapist really think that what he's doing is right?  In his mind, however, his victims might deserve it.  The people he tortures need the pain to get closer to God, or because it thrills him so much that it's similar to a drug rush.  Whatever the case, we writers need to examine the ugly side and bring it to the front.  But how?

Actors like Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman are famous for being "method" actors.  They immerse themselves into their roles and, occasionally, have a hard time climbing out of them.  Many writers, myself included, go through a similar process.  We have to put ourselves in the mindset of the characters, no matter how diseased or horrible, in order to have that character make believable choices, and to make the character come off as more than a one-dimensional stereotype.  The killer from City of Demons, for example, killed because he genuinely felt that his actions would bring about the physical manifestation of his God, and that the people he murdered were the scum of the earth.  In his mind, their suffering brought them closer to God, and the more they suffered, the greater their chance at salvation.  He mutilated, skinned, and destroyed because he felt it was necessary, and that gave him a sense of joy at his work.  And how did I write him?

By visiting a very dark place in my imagination.

With characters like him, my first point of access is to see the act, then to determine why he did it.  In order to determine that, I have to put myself in his head and piece out the reasoning, just as he would.  And in the end, it becomes easy to see why someone like him would make the choices he did.  And it's terrifying, the moment when you catch yourself thinking "yeah, that's completely justified."  Because in doing so, you have to admit that there is a black spot on your soul that's dark as pitch and thick as a bog. You have to admit that, somewhere, deep inside you, darkness lives, breathes, and thrives.  Somewhere, within your Jeckyll, Hyde lurks and begs for a chance to get out and flex his muscles.  And, as a writer, it's your job to let him out to play every now and again.

I can't speak for every writer out there.  There are as many ways to write a book or character as there are books and characters.  All I can do is speak about my own methodology.  When I write a psycho, the reason he comes across as real is because he is.  Or at least, part of him is.  Once a long time ago, I had a psychiatrist stop working with me on the grounds that she was afraid of me.  I didn't take it as an insult, though I probably should have.  I took it to mean that my characters were visceral, authentic and just as nasty as they come.

So what about you?  What lives in the dark half of your soul?  Do you visit that part of yourself?  Are you afraid of what you'll find?  Leave a comment below, and write on.


  1. Not surprised you would ask. Yes, I visit there frequently and it can be a frightening place, but also very realistic. You do have to agree with your characters and their beliefs and philosophies - no matter how unrealistic they are. They are the character.
    When I was accepted to the Seton Hill MFA program I had a twenty-year-old roommate. I asked her to move out and she couldn't understand why. Mind you, she was notorious for interrupting me when I was working on my computer (writing). This would have created a devastating effect on her. Why? Because I get into character. And often - they are bad characters. The response she would have gotten at this time would have been the character, not me. Sensitive as she was, it would have led to a multitude of problems. Yes, the words came from my body and my mouth said them but I wasn't speaking.
    But, I can only imagine the psychological damage I would have inflicted on her.
    We have maintained our friendship.
    I do warn anyone that stays with me. If I am writing, please don't interrupt me. Shove a cup of tea or plate of food in front of me if you wish. Just don't do anything to illicit a response, as you don't know what character will be responding. And the words may seem rather harsh or not.
    A writer's life is difficult, especially when you get into writing about the darker side of life. It takes a special type of partner to understand you and your children will probably grow up with warped minds. But I bet they aren't the ones that end up in negative situations, because they already know about them and the outcome!
    Have a happy writing life and writers, remember to return to the real you.

  2. I've been around the world and seen a lot of things that I never thought a person should be exposed to. It's not really just the sights, either, but mostly the smells that linger with you long after the incident is done and you're safe somewhere else. I didn't used to write horror. I always kind of figured I'd be a fantasy writer, but some of the places I've been have shown me the best and worst that humanity has to offer. Usually at the same time. And I've seen more about what our insides look like and blood splatter patterns than I think was healthy for me. Putting it all on paper and then making whatever my brain remembers about the bad situations were into something even worse helps me figure out how to better deal with my own head. So, in essence, making other people suffer worse makes me appreciate suffering less. But I really am a very nice person!

  3. I've often said, "Embrace the darkness inside yourself. It's the only way you are ever going to see the light."

    I've been privy to the stares and the gaping mouths of people who read what I write and who obviously think I'm a bizarre, twisted and warped individual. It's been the bane of my childhood and adult existence. But what has really helped me this year is getting to know people like yourself, and other horror, weird fiction writers who go through similar experiences. There's something to be said for "writer bonding". It is freeing in many ways and on many levels. :)

    Fiction is a way of telling the truth, even horror fiction. Yes, fiction writers tell stories which are creative and imaginative, but the darkness (and the light) which exist in our minds, also exist in our everyday world and are... in a very real sense...true. We just use our stories (or lies as someone once said) to illustrate the truth, or at least our personal perceptions of truth.

    As writers, we show the reader what we know about human nature...fears, hatreds, indescribable pain...and we don't serve it like maple syrup coated frosted flakes inside a crystal bowl. We allow readers to eat what we know, however distasteful and diabolical, at a distance. And that distance makes it easier for readers to consider the truth, because it's about someone or something else far removed from their own lives. In considering those truths however, readers may then feel comfortable enough to bring the writer's ideas closer to their personal lives. They may feel free to analyze their own motivations (or the motives of others), examine emotions inside their own world and see what is truly going on around them. From that point, sometimes, they change. That's one of the joys I get from writing.

    I'll be the first to admit to the "Mr Hyde" within me. And the dark places I go as a writer are hard to swim out of sometimes. I'm not afraid to visit there, but there ARE times I'm afraid I won't get out. And that is why I think our writer community is so very important. We are each others support group both in good times and bad. We are the lifeline that can help to pull a fellow soul out of morbidity, and/or give us a hard slap on the face to wake us up from the fantasy when we need it.

    Great posting, Scott. Now I gotta go. My Mr Hyde is calling...


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