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?
I don’t scream either and I always think of an old episode of Mary Tyler Moore show when she said she refrained from screaming because she had a tiny, little scream that did’nt sound right. Me too.
At some point I have plans to write a character who has an abortion. It will be hard, but I don’t demonize women who have them in most circumstances. If anything it will help me be more compassionate.
So, to expand on Louise’s question, which comes first – a certain open-mindedness to write such a character as a protag rather than a villain? Or the character him/herself, who surprises you midway through the story with an uncomfortable revelation?
Also, to what extent is writing like friendship? I would like to think I could keep going in the latter situation, but I was once friends with someone who had an affair and then abandoned her husband and autistic daughter for another man. I couldn’t be friends with her anymore. I felt awful because she needed guidance – she was pretty miserable in her marriage – but I had neither the experience nor the belief that she really was doing the right thing for everyone.
I sure understand how it feels to WANT to run out, and I’m sure that would help me write a story about a character like her. But I’m not sure how she’d come out. Probably as ambiguous as I still feel about the whole situation!
Patti, I’m with you and MTM. My scream would be an eep!
You’ve expanded beautifully on my question, Christa. I tend to think it would be the open-mindedness (and curiosity) that came first. And it might be interesting for you to write your runaway friend’s story some day. I wonder if it would change your relationship with her.
I’m working on something now, and one of the main characters is a guy who has cheated on his wife. While I find this deplorable, it’s necessary for this character, with the double whammy that I also have to make him sympathetic. Definitely a challenge.
Hey, Louise,I don’t scream; I yell — Big, big difference. My keeee yah!!!! is truly frightening. At this point, strange men generally avoid me because I adopt such a fierce demeanor that they just don’t want to deal with it. Hard to believe from little ol’ me.
I haven’t yet written a character that I can’t relate to on some level; I may not like him or her, but there’s always something recognizable, something I’ve felt on some level, that touches the core.
No matter how despicable the person, I’ve personally experienced a micro amount of what he or she is about.
Does that make sense?
For example, if you’ve got a wimpy scream . . . you still know how to do it, so, AMPLIFY.
Intriguing post, as usual.
Kick-ass artwork. I recognize Munch’s “The Scream” but what is the other one? (it’s now my desktop wallpaper.)
Writing characters with a viewpoint diametrically opposed to mine? Pretty easy. They sort of come with their own built in blueprint. i.e. write a 180 degree opposite. Howerever, I need to be very careful here, exercise some restraint, not be too heavy handed, end up creating a caricature rather than a character.
For me the tough part is, as you and Karen pointed out, generating some empathy, both mine and the reader’s, for said character. It is a challenge, but, if the story demands it. . . .
Self defense? A kick in the nuts trumps the loudest of screams. But, most street guys know this and are wary. So, you can’t telegraph it. You gotta be sneaky, and you gotta be FAST! That said, precaution is always your best bet.
That’s a good idea, Pari. Start with that nugget of something about the character’s motivation that you can relate to and build, build, build.
(And maybe I ought to be working on that yell instead of scream in the meantime.)
Karen, I’ll bet that’s what you’re doing with your philanderer right now. Can’t wait to read it.
Louise, I know I can scream well in real life.
My issue is in dreamland. If I’m ever having nightmares that revolve around those you hit on at the beginning (which I wish to God were dreams and not realities)I can’t scream. Or punch. I get the tiny, silent dry lowercase ahhhh, and my punches are equally ineffectual. By all that’s good in the world, I’ve never been faced with the necessity to scream for real, and pray I never do. Because what if I can’t???
As far as writing outside the boundaries, I was doing research last night on a character so very different from my Taylor that I may have a hard time pulling it off. It actually does deal with faith, strangely enough. It could be a fun counterpoint to her character or it could be a mess. We’ll see…
I could scream if the need arose.
I try to find the humanity in each character I write about. Most of my antagonists are basically good people who came to a fork in the road and took the wrong path. Somehow I find them more interesting than serial killers.
Interesting question, about getting into the skins of those characters alien to you. But isn’t that exactly what good fiction is all about? I think it is the very reason why I write — to attempt to go to places physically and psychologically that are not a good fit to my own experiences.
The writers who do this well can breathe life into any character without regard to gender, race, religion, philosophy or mundane habits. The writers who cannot do this — either by lack of will or talent — well, you can see this in their books, a paucity of imagination and empathy. “Cardboard” characters.
Jacky, I can’t find the name of the artist who painted the screaming man at the top of the column. Can anyone help me out here? It looks kind of Dali-esque but I know it’s not him.
And JT, I know that dream intimately. Like you’re swimming in molasses. Can’t move quickly enough, can’t make a sound. Unfortunately, sometimes that’s how it works in real life, too.
Patti S., you and Ms. Parrish (and Jacky, earlier) all mentioned empathy, and I think that’s the key to writing characters who are markedly different from ourselves. Finding that bit of humanity, even when the characters make choices that we would not.
And PJ, I love the phrase, “a paucity of imagination.”
I had a boss in advertising years ago, who said that empathy was the key to creating relevant, “impactful” ads. (God, I hate the word “impactful,” but it was a buzz word for us.) He even went so far as to have a wooden plaque made for his desk with the word “empathy” on it.
Unfortunately, he positioned the sign to face his guests, never himself.
I tend toward yelling, like Pari, but I do have a blood-curdling scream in me for the right moments.
I discovered this one night after work when I was sitting in my car getting ready for the drive home. It was dark, and I had the radio on, cell phone in hand to call home saying I was on the way, and suddenly I glanced out my side window. There was a man standing there, his face so close to the glass he could have touched it with his nose.
He was clearly a homeless man asking for money, which is not uncommon in that area of town, but he did have a scary face and something about the element of surprise touched off a deep-rooted sense of terror. I screamed so loud and kept screaming, he leaped back a step and then backed away from the car and RAN.
I had no idea I could make that kind of noise!
I write characters I don’t relate to on some levels – but I always understand why they do what they do, and that seems to give them life.
Billie, I need to borrow that blood-curdling scream. Or Jacky and Pari’s kicking skills.
” Have you ever chosen to write about a character who significantly differs from you at a real gut level?”
Shelby, Marie’s partner in GOOD DAY IN HELL, is a fundamentalist Christian. You may have guessed that I’m not.
But I made Shelby a good guy, a good father, and a good cop. One, because having every deeply religious person be a nut or a hypocrite is so cliched. Two, because Shelby is closer to the reality of what most of the religious people I know are like.
And I don’t scream either. I’m ore likely to do something stupid like bellow, charge, and get myself killed.
I had forgotten about Shelby, Dusty. You did a great job with him. While I never would have married him, I sure wouldn’t have minded him for a friend.
And while you’re bellowing and charging, I’ll be standing behind you wondering what the implications would be if I took action.
Excellent post, Louise. I think PJ also nailed it with the paucity of imagination… I think, too, that it’s a little easier to write a character who operates outside our comfort zone because we’re still in control–we’re choosing. Being in a situation where you’re surprised means vulnerability and lack of control that we have in our fictional worlds. Allowing yourself to scream when frightened means a couple of heartbeats out of control of the reality world, and I know there are times I’m confronted with awful things and my first reaction is verbal maneuvering and my second reaction is surprise (annoyance) that my maneuvering didn’t get them to change their reaction. Damned humans and that whole free-will crap.
“My first reaction is verbal maneuvering and my second reaction is surprise (annoyance) that my maneuvering didn’t get them to change their reaction.”
Toni, I just knew we were kindred spirits.
And sometimes it’s like trying to talk that mad dog away from a bone. Just not gonna happen.
Now there’s an idea, Tom. I know that folks often don’t react to car alarms because they hear them so often. But a Tarzan scream … now that’s gonna attract a little attention.
Acting isn’t the same as writing, as I learn daily and to my dismay – but something a noted teacher said in a master class sticks with me: “You have to find a way to love yourself in any character. If you’re a villain, and going to do awful things, you must nevertheless have some kind of love for yourself in those acts. Otherwise, you’d suicide instead.”
Likewise, this comment from Ian McKellan: “When I play villains, I don’t play evil men. I play them as sad men, men with a great interior sadness. Learning what that sadness is makes up a large part of the work.”
I go around praying to find those itty-bitty touchstones in myself that may open those big doors into strange characters. A couple of times, it has worked.
Hell, I go around praying to find those itty-bitty touchstones that will help me understand ME.
Your advice is sound, Tom. Whether it’s a villain or a vegan, a bad man or a Baptist, we’ve got to dig for that nugget of understanding that will bring the character to life.
I can’t scream either. But I can yell. Some years ago I had my tote bag cut away from my shoulder at a shopping mall by a young guy. I was so pissed – I started yelling at him and calling him names – and I mean NAMES. Every combination I learned from my former Marine husband. You get the picture. The kid stopped in his tracks – pointed the knife at me and told me to wash out my mouth. I was young enough to be foolish – so I kept at him and he finally dropped my tote and ran off. But hey, I got a round of applause from the wusses who were too scared to come to my rescue.
I think I fall into the “yeller” category –probably incorporating the kind of language that the Emmy censors would definitely object to.
The discussion about characters diametrically opposed to the writer’s nature is really interesting — I have a sense that the one character I’m working on who is the anti-me has made me work on him very carefully — I think much more linearly about how he would react or behave because I don’t want to make him flat, and I don’t react the way he does. For me, the critical part is keeping myself from judging him. Not sure if that’s empathy or not. It’s a fascinating idea, and a great post.
Louise wrote:”Hell, I go around praying to find those itty-bitty touchstones that will help me understand ME.”
Uhhhhh, yeah. And you know what? The clues turn up in the work, sometimes.
I wondered what in hell was wrong with my current work. There’s been a hollow spot in it I couldn’t see well enough to name. Got a ‘nice’ rejection: it mentioned a lack of dramatic development. Went back to where that wasn’t a problem, read forward to the point where it became a problem . . . BLAAMM!! Emeril Legasse with the hammer of Thor!! My central flaw as a human was my protag’s technical flaw as a protag, and the oil-pan leak under my plot engine.
Fookin’ tattle-tale art!! And it’ll be a major damn rewrite, too . . . but perhaps the rescue of the story and the character and assorted hopes and wasted efforts. He lacked obvious faults, deliberately. I won’t bother with the why, but it’s plain now – his rougher edges need to show.
Thanks, Louise – grand subject, and it helps to spit some venom out of the old Frustration Glands.
Tom: awesome quotes from your teacher and from the amazing Sir Ian.
I always put it this way: “The villain thinks he’s the hero.” In fact, *everyone* in the story thinks the story’s about them. That, to me, is the secret of characterization.
Elaine: I completely believe this about you. When the throwdown starts, I want you on my side.
Yeah, Dusty – and that may be why there are so few humble characters in *any* kind of fiction. Humility fights with the mechanics of dramatic structure.
When the throwdown starts, if Elaine is unavailable, I’ll take two of Kage Baker’s ‘Enforcers.’ Someone else can call the doctor in the morning.
Dusty? Tom? I’m there. 🙂
Hey, you guys have been having a threesome without me! (that’s a good thing. Otherwise we would hve had to call it a quadra-some, or something like that.)
Nice to see you , Elaine. Here, in public, in front of all my friends, I admit to being the ultimate dill in forgetting that I was to meet you at your signing in San Mateo last Sunday. Damn, damn, damn.
Dusty, the line I’ve use in my next book is: “We’re all the hero of our own story. Even if that’s not the way it happened at all.”
And Tom? Rough edges look good on you.
Au contrarie – I’m the ‘ultimate dill’ for neglecting to tell her what a terrific theme she chose today for her post.