A new year, a renewed determination to improve my writing. I’ve always thought of myself as more of a craftsman than an artist, but even a well-written story isn’t enough—what really holds on to a reader is the characters that populate it. I get that. I’m just not sure how to pull it off.
All writers know that the key to creating a great character is baring that character’s soul. A protagonist has to first possess and then be able to express deep emotional issues, problems, torturous desires, frustrations and despairs. They must have profound secrets they are desperate to keep or desperate to share. They must have emotional crutches and psychological hang-ups. They have to open a mental vein and leave a meandering trail of agony through every page of your book. This is how the reader comes to identify with them so deeply that they can’t put the book down without finding out what happens to that character, their pain so viscerally real to the reader because it’s so viscerally real to the writer.
My problem is I can’t do that.
I hate baring my soul, to be honest, whether in person or by proxy. I don’t think I ever have and I don’t have any plans to. Whatever intense desires and frustrations I may possess, I want to keep locked right here in my own little head. I don’t find writing cathartic—I’m not sure I should—and I have a problem expressing emotion. Possibly because over thirty years of marriage to a short-tempered man convinced me it was easier not to have feelings than to have them routinely battered, but possibly because I just don’t have any. Is that okay, do you think?
I come from a stoic family. My father was a very understated person and we took our cues from him. My mother was easy-going and not given to drama. I despise crying in public. I despise crying at all, frankly, it gives me a sinus headache. I purposely do not see movies where somebody dies (unless it’s by gunshot or a good-sized butcher knife). I don’t spend time with any storyline that involves pets, either in a good way or not-so-good way. I have no interest in exploring my dark side or my light side or any other side at all except the one that goes to work and gets paid, eats chocolate and goes on vacation.
Apparently, I have been completely crippled by a happy childhood. I truly don’t have those depths of trauma and agony to draw on, with which to create my characters. Not that I would change my upbringing if I could, of course—but it’s a real handicap as a writer.
So instead of me developing great depths of emotion and learning to share them, can’t we please go back to the golden age of detective fiction where completely disinterested professional investigators looked into crimes because they found them interesting, or fun, or something to do and not because they were working out some deep-seated childhood trauma? Ellery Queen’s estranged mother or ex-lover never got themselves murdered. A psychotic serial killer didn’t torture Lord Peter Whimsey for days on end. Archie Goodwin took care not to get too attached to any alluring client of Mr. Wolfe’s. Miss Marple never felt so much as the need to raise her voice. Why must all our characters today be so mortally wounded? What was wrong with readers enjoying the puzzle more than the personalities?
What do you think? Must protagonists have a multitude of intense layers (what I call STP—the Standard Tragic Past), or can they simply be clever detectives?
I’m, um, asking for a friend.