Writing a SymPathetic Villain

villainThere’s a fine line between love and hate, between madness and sanity, between a caricature and a character. It’s easy to paint a villain with broad strokes, make her or him larger than life–like the bad guy in a Bond movie.  But how does one create a villain whose villainy is a matter of circumstance, an individual who, under normal conditions, would actually be a pretty fun guy?

How does one make a character who does awful things elicit pathos in a reader?

Alice Sebold did this in her book The Lovely Bones. If you’ve never read it (or seen the film) it’s the tale of Susie, a girl who is kidnapped, raped and murder by a neighbour. The neighbour, Mr Harvey, is an utterly abhorrent, ghastly, depraved man, a serial killer, and Sebold manages to show his desperate loneliness in how he lives alone–and builds doll houses, which is creepy…and pitifully heartbreaking.

That small thing, the man alone building doll houses, was enough of an appeal to my emotions as I read the book, and, despite all that Mr Harvey had done, I remembered the loneliness that I had once experienced in my own life–and I felt pity for the man. Granted it was a fleeting sensation, but Sebold kind of blew me away with her skill as a writer.

When I wrote Alex, the villain in Next to You, I never really thought of him as a villain. CHIN NextToYou1920_1920x3022_1024I thought of him as the redheaded actor Eric Stoltz, a good-looking good guy having a really shitty year after a family tragedy and being dumped by the love of his life.

People do all sorts of less-than-intelligent things when life goes to hell. Alex walks that fine between love and hate, between madness and sanity, between wanting to do the right thing and winding up doing the wrong thing. I know what I wanted to do with Alex when I wrote him. I wanted to pull off a Sebold and show his humanity. I wanted the reader to have a little sympathy for him–in spite of his despicable actions.

Although it’s available for pre-order and on Netgalley for reviews, with the book’s release a little over a month away, it’s too early to tell whether I managed a balance between caricature and character with Alex’s reprehensible behaviour, if he comes across as simply a villain, or if he’ll elicit pathos of any kind from readers. Perhaps readers will find his desolation pathetic rather than sympathetic. However, I am hoping that someone besides me feels, for at least a fleeting moment, pity, or recognises his frail humanity.

 

 

 

A Fictional Character Inspired by Real Life : Or “I’m Batman”

His milk chocolate eyes were a little on the buggy side. His ears were a tremendous feature, stuck up high on his little head, and he had a mole on his chin. A hair stuck out of that mole. I used to poke it with my fingertip. His hair was so soft.

Budman 1From the start, he was there, when I first got into the writing scene, when it moved beyond keeping a sporadic journal, or writing letters. I would write and he was there, watching me, hoping at some point that I would get tired and peanut butter would eventuate. He liked to sit beside me, and by beside me I mean he got as close to the edge of the mattress as he could because my desk was right next to the bed. Later, when I moved the bed into another room and turned the front bedroom into my study, he’d hop up on the little couch and have a lie down, keeping his slightly buggy eyes on me as I hammered away at a story, hoping for peanut butter. Or a carrot, or cheese, but mostly for peanut butter.

My Little Buddy, my Budman was my companion for every book I have written. Every book. When I wrote him into Next to You he was 3. Caroline, the book’s heroine needed a companion, one who loved her unconditionally and fiercely. I gave her a Rat Terrier–my Rat Terrier. By the time I had three other books published, and Next to You was with my editor, Budman was almost 16, and he’d CHIN NextToYou1920_1920x3022_1024gone grey and blind. But he still sat beside me, his clouded, sightless eyes still set in my direction, hoping I’d break for peanut butter. He’s been gone since last August. I miss him, his warm little black and white body, his erect, bat-like ears, his slightly buggy brown eyes framed by a black mask that made him look like a canine version of Batman.

I didn’t realise that when I wrote him into Next to You, all those years ago, that I’d have such a bittersweet memorial to to my dog now. It’s weirdly fitting that Next to You deals with grief and the expectations that surround all that grief does or doesn’t entail, ideas of how one ought to behave when grieving, what’s considered appropriate, what’s considered crazy. Losing a companion animal, a dog, cat, ferret, whatever animal that was a loved part of your family hurts. A lot. The grief isn’t any different than losing a human family member. There is still an expectation of how one ought to behave when grieving, what’s considered appropriate, what’s considered crazy, yet there is also often an expectation that you only “lost a dog”  and that you should “Get over it” or just “get another dog.”

Expectations blow as much as the asshats who tell you that you should be grateful that you only lost a dog.

Whether it’s for a human friend or a canine companion you lost, grief is different for everyone. It’s a mystery to why there are expectations around how to grieve and how to act when you grieve. I tried to show that as part of Caroline’s story. Part of her grieving process meant having Batman.

This post is part of my grieving process. It’s been nine months and it still hurts. I’m not ‘over’ losing my dog. I’m not done crying about it. I’m ready to get a another dog, but my husband isn’t. You know, in some way I’m grateful that my little peanut butter-loving dog lives on as Batman in Next to You.

I’ve immortalised him.

Next to You Coming July 25th.

A love of ‘70s Bubblegum pop music isn’t the only unusual thing about William Murphy—being a six-foot-three albino tends to make a man stand out. Will’s life is simple and he likes it that way. But when he meets his new next-door neighbor, complicated begins to look mighty attractive.

Caroline’s left the past behind and is trying to grab life by the balls, which means finding new friends besides her dog, Batman. Will offers her neighborly friendship, and as they bond over old movies, Caroline regains her confidence. Unexpected love blooms. But real life’s not like the movies.

Their cute romantic comedy goes all Fatal Attraction and Will learns that nothing about Caroline is quite the way it looks. His simple life turns more complicated than he could ever imagine.

Shyness and The Art of ‘Verting’: Intro, Extro, Ambi

Shyness is not introversion. There are those who mistake introversion for shyness.

NextToYou CoverfinalShyness often occurs in new situations or with unfamiliar people. There’s a sense of apprehension, awkwardness, and a lack of comfort. Shy people may avoid social situations entirely.

In Next to You (see what I did there? A COVER REVEAL) It’s easy to mistake Caroline for shy. She has a sense of apprehension about moving back to Chicago, feels awkward, displays a lack of comfort, hesitates in social situations — and for good reason. No, I’m not telling you why because spoilers. However Caroline is anything but shy. Caroline is an introvert — like a lot of my fellow authors.

I’m not an introvert. I’m not an extrovert. I leave extrovert to my husband. He draws energy from social interaction.  So then, what am I? What is Caroline?

Moetball

  Move over Grace Kelly

Story time! Last year I went to the Moet and Chandon Black and White Ball.  I got all dolled up in strapless black satin, did my hair like Grace Kelly, and put on eye makeup. I even wore a pair of pantyhose that were supposed to give my shapeless, flat ass shape. I looked good and I was ready to have a glamorous evening with men in dinner suits and women in splendid finery.

The fun of going to the ball with my dashing Dr Shrinkee husband lasted seven and a half minutes–the length of time it took us to get from the front of the building, have our photo snapped by some local magazine, and ascend the grand staircase to the ballroom.

Don’t know about you, but the word ballroom fills me with images of high ceilings, chandeliers, a dance floor, banquet tables… Despite the lack of a high ceiling, all those other things were there. Also present in the ballroom were seventy-five bajillion guests. It was wall-to-wall people and three bands, all using giant speakers, meaning it was crowded AND loud. No, wait. It was deafening.

After twenty minutes I was overwhelmed. My husband was IN his social butterfly element.

I’m what you’d call an Ambivert. I’m comfortable with groups and social interaction, but I need time away from the crowd to renew my energy. To be honest, my comfort level with groups reaches its limit at 6 people. I don’t like loud noises. A crush of seventy-five bajillion people and a wall of sound (not disco-ball-727116_1920the Phil Spector music kind) wiped away my ambivertedness and transformed me into an introvert. It was loud EVERYWHERE. People were everywhere. Even the ladies room was packed. There was no place I could go to restore my psyche. For the rest of the evening, I did the only thing I could to save what Carl Jung would have called my my ‘mental energy’. I stood with my back to the wall, behind a speaker, with tissue stuffed in my ears, a deer in black satin caught in the twinkly, spinning lights of a disco ball. Acquaintances shouted small talk in my face. Nice men in dinner suits tried to get me to dance. People stepped on my feet.

This was an extreme case where I became an introvert, and for the next week, my very extroverted husband had to answer questions or field comments regarding his ‘shy’ wife at the ball.

Again, shyness is not introversion.

While being in such a large crowd of people made me apprehensive, while I was so far out of my comfort zone it surprised my husband, like Caroline. I do not have a social phobia. Sure, my social skill isn’t the greatest, and I can be awkward when there are more than 6 people at a dinner party, but I don’t fear rejection. I don’t care what people think of me. I don’t worry about being humiliated. I do not avoid social contact. I have friends. I enjoy the company of others. I can carry on a conversation. Although my ‘vert’ may shift in some situations, like when there are seventy-five bajillion people, I am not shy.

Neither is Caroline.

Next to You comes out on 25 July. You can read the first chapter on Wattpad for free.

 

Getting it Right: Avoiding Stereotypes

WMMand card]There are times I stand upon my soapbox and roll out the words about stereotypes. Usually I discuss ageist and sexist stereotypes of women. It’s easy for me to do that because I’m a middle aged woman and I see the rampant sexist and ageist bullshit all around me, but truth be told I’ve been championing women over 40 before I was even 40. I’ve been at it for so long that it’s second nature for me to be anti-ageist and anti-sexist, for me to present an accurate portrayal of a woman in her 40s, 50’s and beyond in the stories I write. But this time, in writing my forthcoming novel Next to You, I faced three additional challenges with stereotypes.

Challenge One, the hero: William Murphy is in his mid fifties.

I tend to focus on the older heroine, but OK, right. He’s middle-aged. Boom. I’m all over that mid-life thing. I’ve got that covered. I know how to do that. He’s a human being and I tell his story.  Simple. Only…my battle with a persistent stereotype comes from how William Murphy looks.

Challenge Two: William Murphy has albinism. In other words, he’s albino. Uh-huh. How do I present a realistic very un-stereotypical portrayal of an individual with albinism unlike all the usual bullshitty evil albinos and bullshitty comic relief albinos, and bullshitty magical albinos one usually finds onscreen and in fiction?

There was a very nice man named Mike in the UK. Mike’s beautiful daughter Bianca has albinism. Mike and Bianca were both very kind in answering my questions and teaching me about albinism.  As I wrote Next to You, I tried to be as accurate as possible while presenting an “Adult Contemporary Romance” (sounds better than a Mature romance). I also tried to be respectful of people with albinism. And now that the book is about to come out in July I am having a quiet panic attack, which for me means I pour a cup of coffee and only drink half whilst staring at my computer screen thinking, ‘what will Mike and Bianca think of me if I really fucked this up?

Challenge Three: Mental illness. How does one write mental illness and address the stereotypes and stigma associated with mental illness in a romance novel??

It helps (I hope) that I have a shrink husband and know lots of mental health professionals. I consulted them–and others who have experienced mental illness–for insight. As I wrote, I made sure to point out the stereotypes and stigma associated with mental illness. I avoided Fatal Attraction boiling bunny mental illness and Jane Eyre Mr Rochester-keeps-his-looney-wife-Bertha-Mason-in-the-attic mental illness. I tried to be accurate, respectful, and have a sense of humour.

Whether I pulled off these challenges will come to light in July, when Next to You is released. Maybe by then I’ll have drunk a full cup of coffee.