I’m often asked whether I’ve ever written myself in as a character in one of my novels. When I hear that I’m tempted to nod and then describe myself as one of my murderous psychopaths (or something worse): “Sure, I’m really Jeb Taylor in Bloodstone, would you like to meet up and discuss this further, perhaps late tonight in a deserted parking lot?” Or “absolutely! Didn’t you recognize me as the sniveling psychiatrist Dr. Evan Wasserman from The Reach? I’m experimenting on poor defenseless children in my basement right this very moment!”
I wonder if a certain bit of curiosity is what’s really behind the question; is this a variation of the more common one we horror writers get where we’re asked how we can write “that stuff?” In other words, are we really that twisted, and if so, why haven’t we been committed by now?
Or maybe it’s a variant of another common one: “where do you get your ideas?”
It may be hard for people who don’t make stuff up for a living to understand how we writers create people who seem (if we’ve done our jobs right) to be so real. The truth is I have never dropped myself, whole and unharmed, into a novel or story. But I think a bit of me bleeds into every character I create, whether it’s a way of thinking, one particular viewpoint, mannerism or physical characteristic. After all, they’re all figments of my imagination, these people in my head, and as such, they have to be coming from some part of me… Villains most of all, because to me, the very best villains are those who are complex, who have reasons for why they act the way they do–even if you might loathe them in the end.
Take Wasserman from The Reach as an example. He’s a pretty sick man in many ways, and what he does to young Sarah in the name of science is horrible. But readers can (I hope) understand how he reached that point, even if they don’t agree with it or believe they would do the same. He’s haunted by his own past, unable to live up to his own or others’ expectations, a man who is, in many ways, far weaker than casual observers might think, although he puts on a good show. And he’s in love with a woman who just might be more vicious than he is, although he doesn’t yet know it.
This is what makes a good villain: one who is fully fleshed out and alive, who makes “bad choices,” as my seven year old might say, but has his or her own reasons for doing so.
On the flip side, a true hero should have a fatal flaw, and more than that, they should be tested at some point during the story and pushed near the breaking point. Perhaps they’ve done something they’re not particularly proud of, something that just might, in the eyes of another character or person from their own past, paint them as a villain. Perhaps that one terrible act comes back to haunt them before too long, and overcoming it is part of their journey. It makes for very compelling fiction.
Let’s face it. Life’s not black and white. We all are heroes to some, villains to others (and before you protest, think back on some of those people from your past you might have hurt in various ways. Relationships that ended badly? How do you think those people would describe you, if asked?)
Good fiction should be about complex characters who live and breathe on the page. And sure, the characters I create are all a part of me in some way, and in order to write them, I must understand them. I must put some little piece of my own heart and soul into their creation, because if I don’t they’ll be flatter and more lifeless than a cardboard cutout.
After all, life isn’t that simple.
Even the devil was an angel, once upon a time.
Nate Kenyon’s latest suspense thriller, The Reach, has received raves from readers and critics everywhere, including a starred review in Publishers Weekly, which called it “superb” and said it would “leave readers breathless.” His first novel, Bloodstone, was a Bram Stoker Award Finalist, Novel of the Year award winner, and a Five Star bestseller in hardcover, garnering enthusiastic reviews from places such as Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and many others. His third novel, THE BONE FACTORY, will be released from Leisure Books in July 2009. He has a science fiction novella, PRIME, forthcoming from Apex Books, and has published short fiction in magazines such as Shroud, Terminal Frights, Monstros and The Belletrist Review, among others. A member of the Horror Writers of America and International Thriller Writers, Kenyon lives in Massachusetts with his wife and three children. Visit him online at http://natekenyon.com, on MySpace at http://www.myspace.com/natekenyon, or Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1609961&ref=name.