WRITING UNLIKEABLE CHARACTERS

The first of my Crime Shorts features an unlikeable character: a young boy, ‘innocent’ in some senses but, depending on the reader’s assessment, possibly not in all senses.

I wrote this in the third person but from the main character’s (MC) point of view. (Close 3rd person). The narrator is unreliable, which makes for more effort from the reader. S/he doesn’t have to like the MC.  A sneaky liking for an unlikeable character makes the reader uneasy. (What sort of person must I be if I feel sympathy for him?) The edginess can derive from the reader’s being in the MC’s head.  The reader has to be drawn to him/her in some way – despite even horror or outrage.

Something unnerving, uneasy, something left ambiguous, can make you read on. There’s a question: is this character telling the truth, or will there be a revelation that will make me re-think? Questions precede page-turns. Edginess is by its nature, an unclear signal.

Edginess doesn’t necessarily require extreme sexual or aggressive behaviour. Risk of some form, especially close to home, can cause the uneasiest feelings; an everyday event suddenly appearing to have a different significance.

I hope I’ve achieved this in the first of my Crime Shorts, A Boy with Potential. You can decide for yourself with the FREE kindle ebook 21st-24th November.  One Amazon reviewer stated ‘The darkest, most horrible story I’ve ever read.’ (1 star) That wasn’t my intention: I’d aimed to provoke unease and reflection. Have I done this?

Do let me know in a review.

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Writing: in his shoes

Could you put yourself in his shoes?

I wrote about this short story in a previous post Unlikeable character – makes you read on. I’ve just updated the e-book and reminded myself (slight shock) that I’d written horror rather than just crime.

Which writer was it who said we only know what our novel is about once it’s finished? A long time, and many thousands of words later, I remembered this because I had just had that flash of recognition. Potential…how it can work both ways.

I’ve written non-fiction, historical fiction and short stories, often humorous, but I never expected to write horror. Sometimes your story runs away with you and you find it is in a different place from the one you expected. To do this means writing in his shoes, the boy you come to fear.

Writing process

It was seeing each news flash of school shootings and the consequent analysis of the boy responsible that started me on this path. I’d been painfully aware of the several times in my work as a psychologist I’d been asked to assess strangely difficult kids and/or school refusers and witnessed the same anomie and alienation that these perpetrators showed.

I created a character of a different age, imagining a potential perpetrator younger, more accessible, adding something positive – a potential event for saving the boy from causing disaster. But it worked the other way.

In attempting to walk in Jake’s shoes, I’d almost unwittingly written a story of horror. Although I’ve had very positive reviews, including a long-listing from Fish and a winner’s accolade from Bloomsbury, I had every sympathy with a 1-star reviewer on Amazon who said it was the nastiest thing he’d ever read.

It seems likely that many writers find they’ve ended up with a story they hadn’t predicted.

Here’s the beginning of mine: ‘I think I once killed a man and I don’t know why. The bloke lay at my feet, dead. I don’t think I knew him but I couldn’t look at his dead face and they didn’t make me. I’d never seen a dead person and I didn’t want to.’ The word ‘dead’ obsesses Jake when he’s ten.

If you’d like to read more about Jake and walk in his shoes, there are some free copies for the next readers who join my Readers List.

 

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Re-writing a short story

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                    Each time I finish a short story . . .

I get a tremendous sense of self completion. It’s transitory: I will be rewriting my short story soon. Although the satisfying sense has gone by my first edit, this ‘completion’ sense doesn’t occur at all when finishing a novel. The process of beta-reading, editing, proof-reading that lies ahead is so lengthy that it’s more like beginning an uphill journey than reaching the top. 

Recently I was asked about my process of writing my Crime Shorts, so I thought beginner writers might be interested in my answer. It begins with a voice or a sentence followed soon by the speaker. The situation that causes the sentence follows, and the story stems from that.

Once an idea comes I can become too involved in one aspect to pay due attention to other important elements that go towards making a good story. In the case of Homed, I was totally immersed in developing the voice of a none too reliable narrator. (These characters appeal to me.)

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Deep into my narrator’s account, at about 2,000 words I realised that I had too many characters. Even without assigning them names, they would crowd my story. I doubt if a story of under 5000 words can work with more than three characters. 

I sat back and re-thought the story. Where was my character at the beginning? How many places and situations could he refer to? As with characters, not too many, otherwise the reader would become confused. How could I best lead up to the climax? Had I laid down a hint near the beginning so that the end had validity? Had I described sufficient of the scenes for them to be visualised?

After these considerations, I rewrote the story. Bearing the number of characters and locations in mind, each had to be written as seen through the eyes of the narrator. Moreover, he had to credibly remember each one. 

I hope I succeeded, but if I haven’t, you can let me know. In the case of my first Crime Short, readers suggested I continued his story and made it a novel. Perhaps I will come back to that story again if its feral narrator refuses to let me go.

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Historical trilogy


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If you like to read historical fiction, especially set in WWII:-

INFILTRATION is the second in the trilogy, A Relative Invasion. It begins in the blitz, September 1940 where Billy, my sturdy, well-meaning main character, is arriving at his new billet in the country, delivered by horse and cart.

When Book One ended, Billy, had just been evacuated for the second time – but this time sinister Cousin Kenneth, is evacuated too. To Billy’s dismay, he finds that Kenneth will be billeted with Aunty right near to Billy’s mother and baby sister, while Billy will be some miles off. As Book Two starts, Billy is mustering all his bravery to enter another unknown home, but this time, not to poverty.

Adaptations, anxieties and adventures lie ahead. Infiltration is a story of boy rivals evacuated to the country. More than that, it explores the resilience of children sent away for a large proportion of their childhood, often five full years. Some of them were miserable the whole time, others bonded more with their foster parents than with their own . . .

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My two boy characters must grow towards their teens developing their different talents, and, crucially, their fateful rivalry in an environment very different to the one they were born into, while their mothers also struggle to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances where they are distinctly not at home.

I’m happy to report that Book One,  INTRUSION, has just been awarded a B.R.A.G medallionbrag-med-gold

INFILTRATION is 5* on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

IMPACT – post-war London, and the fall-out of war and rivalry

Both books available in paperback and on ebook platforms

Intrusion:     ebooks  Kindle

Infiltration: ebooks   Kindle

Impact:         ebooks    Kindle

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