Monday, June 2, 2014

Creating Crazy Characters

I write stories about the damaged and the broken. My characters are messed-up people, and I take them on journeys that explore healing, acceptance, and the true meaning of family. Some of them are even crazy—bonkers, as we say in England. But crazy is the new normal, and I use that term with affection and respect. To accept your own craziness—as my characters learn to do—means to embrace the rich complexities of life and show incredible courage. In other words, to be a true hero.

“Tell us about your character research,” book club members often say. (Brilliant question, by the way. Love it.) So, here’s my crib sheet for creating crazy people, characters with invisible disabilities:

1) Research.
I climb deep inside my characters’ dark corners to understand their psychological make-up. Research, obviously, is the key. I read memoirs, blogs, and find support groups that might be willing to talk with me, but my favorite part of research comes from one-on-one interviews. I like to listen and not intrude with too many questions, because as people share their stories, they also reveal hidden truths. I could not have found Galen, the suicide survivor in THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, without friends—and strangers—who confided in me about their struggles with severe, clinical depression. One person even helped me act out a particularly dark scene with this character.

2) Make it personal: People are not their disorders.
A character is still a character, not a stereotype. We all have different brain chemistry, and we all bring unique life experiences to pain, grief, love, and hate. My job as an author is to create believable, multi-dimensional characters, not cardboard cutouts that read ‘I am obsessive-compulsive disorder’ or ‘I am depression’.

James Nealy, the hero of my debut, THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, has OCD. Several readers insisted James didn’t, because he wasn’t a hand washer and bore no resemblance to Monk, the germophobic television detective. OCD is a highly individualized anxiety disorder. None of the OCDers I know and love—including my son, who wrote the above sign—are hand washers.

Bottom line: I work hard to avoid stereotypes. Stereotypes don’t create characters; they perpetuate stigma and myth. One-size-fits-all has never applied to human beings. Why should it apply to characters who battle mental illness, even the crazier ones?

3) Decide how the disorder has shaped the character’s life.
There is much potential here for conflict and plot development. Is this character open about his disorder or has he fought hard to keep it secret? If so, at what cost? James, for example, has never told anyone he has OCD. When he makes the decision to tell the heroine’s young son that he has a hiccup in his brain, this is a life-altering moment, and it sets the plot in motion.

4) To label or not to label, that is the question.
The answer has to come from the character. Does your character know he suffers from clinical depression? Has he ever been diagnosed? In THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR my hero Will’s dead mother is a vital part of his backstory. Mentally ill—batshit insane, according to Will—Angeline was never diagnosed nor treated, and the memory of her extreme behavior haunts the novel. Even though I researched her intensely, trying to decide if she suffered from bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder, I finally realized her label was irrelevant. What mattered was the impact of her mood swings on young Will.

Remember too, mental illness is often misdiagnosed. If psychologists don’t have all the answers, why should authors?

5) Flip the negative to find the positive.
The behavior of a character with issues can seem weird and off-putting to the reader. But if you turn a negative around, you can find a positive. For example, when James is a stuck on a thought, which is what happens when you have OCD, it can manifest as extreme self-absorption. But flip that obsessive trait, and you have a man who won't quit; a man will do anything to help someone who needs him. A man who is incredibly compassionate.

6) Fear is the key.
I think of myself as excavating my characters, and I always start by analyzing their fears. Because I live in the world of OCD, which generates crippling fear, I have a trick that I picked up from my son’s psychologist: Find the fear behind the fear. After all, fear is deeply personal, so where does it come from? James’s fear of dirt traces back to his mother’s death. When he was ten, his mother was outside digging frantically in the garden when his father told James she was dying of cancer. His OCD latched onto that moment and whispered that soil was the conductor of disease and death. (OCD fear is not rational, but it always has roots.)

Yes, I wrote a novel with a successful, sexy 45-year-old hero who is terrified of dirt, but James is also the least messed-up character in THE UNFINISHED GARDEN. He has a strong sense of self, and I adore him for it. Real people live, work, and love through the challenges of invisible disabilities in the same way that James does. And they often do so quietly, with unseen courage. I think it’s worth bringing their stories into the light.

Barbara Claypole White is the author of THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt, which won the 2013 Golden Quill for Best First Book. THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, which was chosen by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) as a Winter 2014 Okra Pick, is the story of two broken families coming together to heal in rural North Carolina

Visit her at, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

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