By Louise Ure
When that man pulled a knife and said he would kill me before the sun came up … I couldn’t scream.
When my (then) boyfriend pushed me off the cliff at Seven Falls … I couldn’t scream.
When the burglar broke into my New York apartment and I awoke to find him standing over me … I couldn’t scream.
When the brakes failed on the car and I plunged through the guardrail … I couldn’t scream.
I don’t even think I would scream if I won the lottery.
There must be something wrong with me. I don’t have that girl-gene that allows the emotional release of pent up anger or fear (or euphoria) in a scream.
Pari would probably tell me that in martial arts a good yell releases little green bubbles of endorphins or adrenaline to help you fight. It probably does.
Barry Eisler would agree that screaming is a good thing, but for different reasons. At Left Coast Crime in Bristol last year, I stopped by a self-defense class that Barry was teaching. (The entire audience was women, but I don’t think the subject matter was the only deciding factor there.)
“Forget knives and mace and tasers and martial arts,” he said. “You have to get too close to the attacker to use any of them. A gun is good, but people who don’t know how to use one well, will most likely have the gun turned against them.”
The best protection, according to Barry? “A healthy dose of precaution, good locks on the door, and a great scream.”
To borrow my friend Ken’s Irish phrasing, I’m fooked.
Instead of screaming, I automatically go into this psychobabble of let’s-just-think-this-through-together routine.
Until the most egregious of those examples at the top of the column occurred, I had never found any situation that I couldn’t talk my way out of.
I know better now.
But I still can’t scream.
I’ve often longed to be the Janet Leigh of screamers. Full-throated, no hesitation, and LOUD. Alas, it’s not meant to be.
And here’s the weird thing: I can’t write screamers either.
When my protagonists – or my victims, for that matter – are confronted, they freeze. Total silence. Their inner crisis is huge, their fear beyond reason, but they don’t lash out verbally. They don’t scream.
My characters are getting better at reacting physically, and I think that’s a good thing, although I personally still jump through a set of mental hoops before I can do the same. Should I or shouldn’t I? Will I hurt him? Kill him? Will I wind up in court myself? What if his intentions aren’t as bad as they appear?
If I tried to write about a screamer, I know I would get it wrong.
We all have things we can’t or won’t write about. Things like killing cats. Torture. Hurting children. But what about those other things, not crimes by any stretch of the imagination, but things that are so intrinsic to our own personalities that we could not faithfully create a character who acted differently than we would?
If you hate cigarettes, can you write a protagonist who is an unrepentant chain-smoker?
If you are religious, can you convincingly create an agnostic hero?
If you’re a homophobe, can you paint a positive portrait of a gay man?
If you’re a vegan, can you wax eloquent about a fine meal of veal and liver?
It’s different, I think, than writing about a serial killer when you despise serial killers. Different than just stepping into the bad guy’s shoes, or writing from the point of view of the opposite sex. That’s the accepted norm. We’re supposed to be able to do all that.
But what happens when you’re asked to argue in favor of a person or a habit or a belief that is different to your own? Or, as a reader, you’re asked to empathize with a character that is unlike you in such a visceral way. Can you do it? Do you choose to do it?
We bring so much of ourselves to the stories we write and the stories we choose to read.
I choose not to read Christian-themed mysteries. That thinking doesn’t match my worldview, so no matter how good the writing is, I know I’m going to bristle and gnash my teeth at the thoughts expressed by the characters.
Maybe that makes me narrow-minded and maybe I’m missing out on a lot of good books, but there you go.
On the other hand, David Liss’s Ethical Assassin got me thinking about a vegan lifestyle in ways I never had before.
But I still eat meat.
And I still can’t write screamers.
What about you guys? Have you ever chosen to write about a character who significantly differs from you at a real gut level? And readers, have you ever fallen for a character whose world view was diametrically opposed to yours?
Has it ever changed your mind?