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Writers Talk About Writing

Writing Method: Painting a Damaged Character

The protagonist in Laurel Dewey's novel Protector has some, well, issues. But this character also exudes a deep sense of humanity, a feeling that has truly moved so many of the book's readers. So how did Laurel pull give her "damaged" character texture, dimension -- and soul? We asked the author for her insights, the latest of our series of conversations with Laurel about the novel-writing craft. Read on:

VT: First of all, what do you mean when you talk about a "damaged character?"

Laurel: Let me explain by giving you an example of a perfect fictional character: James Bond. He's the ultimate hero, the knight on the white horse, a character with no major issues. He has problems to solve, of course, but he himself is so perfect he could never actually exist in real life. But we love this character because it's a fantasy, a way of escaping.

James Bond is the quintessential hero because men want to be him and women want to make love to him. But then, conversely, you have the anti-hero, which is the damaged character.

VT: How do you paint the anti-hero?

Laurel: Number one, a damaged character has a past, a dark past that they are trying to escape from, but they can't. So it dogs them as part of their personality. If it's a cop drama, maybe it's a cop who went bad and has had to climb back out of the hole. In my book, my character Detective Jane Perry is an alcoholic due to her very, very tragic horrific childhood where she was physically abused.

I think that's probably the most important element of a damaged character but it's certainly not the only one. A damaged character is someone who is not "happy go lucky." They are not the quintessential hero or heroine. You may not want to be like them -- but in fact, you might be related to them. In other words, you may not aspire to be them but you can understand them because there's an element, perhaps, of that character that really rings your bell. Perhaps, they are a lot like you.

You might say, well yeah, I have a problem with drinking or drugs or I did and I overcame it. Or maybe my father, mother, brother, sister, aunt or uncle did. The point is that you look at these characters and there's a truth about them that doesn't jive with the perfect hero.

VT: What's the compelling reason for writing about these kinds of characters, rather than the perfect hero?

Laurel: I think they are so much more intriguing to uncover than a perfect hero or heroine who isn't hiding from or struggling with anything. The perfect hero is just out there to solve a problem and they're not being dogged by any personal issues. But when you deal with a damaged character you're not just dealing with the story. You're not just dealing with trying to get the story solved, the problem solved. You're also dealing with trying to understand the character and their issues and trying to arc that. The story arc of the problem-solving can run parallel to the arc of this character who is evolving simultaneously and attempting to become a better person. To me, that is so much more interesting to read.

VT: Isn't there a danger that such a character could become too damaged?

Laurel: They're more challenging to write because there's a very thin line between someone who's damaged and someone who's just so damaged that nobody wants to read about them.

VT: How do you keep that balance?

Laurel: You have to be very artful in the way that you paint the character and you do it through layering, through bringing some humanity to that character. If there's no humanity to the character, then they just become angry, which isn't interesting.

I can speak from a lot of experience because I went through four drafts of Protector and Jane Perry. When I delivered the first draft to my editor he said he loved my book. He said -- his words -- that I created one of the most real characters he had ever read in fiction. But there was a problem. Jane Perry was just too angry.

He told me to tone her down but not lose that edge. She was really, really full of rage in the first draft. When I gave the draft another read from his point of view, I realized he was right. Jane Perry was extremely irritable. She was a drunk. She was abrasive to superiors. And here she was in the book being in charge of a nine and a half year old trauma victim. I put her in a situation that was basically out of her control. But her character grew and evolved via this child she reclaimed. And by the end of the book, Jane reclaimed some of her own innocence, too. I had to go back and I had to soften her. Now that was very important. My editor told me I had to give her much more vulnerability and allow the reader to feel compassion for her. Well, when I first heard that I thought, oh my God, if I do that I'm cutting her off at the knees. It was a tenuous situation. I didn't want to make her too soft. But, vulnerable, yes -- I certainly allowed her vulnerable moments that make her more human. I also cut out a lot of her profanity, although there's till a fair amount left in there.

VT: What did you add to make her more vulnerable?

Laurel: In the original draft Jane Perry never cried. In fact, it wasn't until the third draft that I added an appropriate moment where she breaks down, first, alone and then quietly in front of someone. But I didn't just "throw in" crying, like, make her vulnerable so make her cry. That's just ridiculous and trite. I added it in a very careful manner. It wasn't to be manipulative in an attempt to create the vulnerability. Mainly what I did is soften her edge. I went through the manuscript page by page -- she's on nearly every page -- and I softened her while still retaining her fire.

There were scenes that the editor did want me to really tone down. There's a pivotal violent scene in the book that still makes some people very uncomfortable. My editor wanted me to change it but I refused. I had to show this ultimate, insane brutality against Jane in order for the reader to really understand her. It's a flashback scene that tells the reader why she is the way she is -- a scene that haunts this character all her life.

VT: So there was a give and take.

Laurel: I recognized that what my editor said was spot on. He helped me look at the book from a different vantage point. I realized there was a lot of anger there. As a writer you don't write damaged characters unless there's an element within you that has to be expressed.

But I am not saying I'm Jane Perry. A lot of people ask me that question. They say there's no way I could write what is in this book if I didn't experience it myself. Well, I'm not an alcoholic. And I did not have the abusive past that my character had. I explored my imagination. We all have our dark corners. We all have our shadow self that people don't know about. I, as a writer, was able to exercise a lot of that shadow self into the vessel of Jane Perry.

That's not to say that I had any of the demons that she has. A damaged character has demons. And I don't mean like possessed. I mean a sense of darkness and latching on to that darkness. But despite this there has to be a redeeming quality to the character -- otherwise the reader won't be rooting for them.

In my book, a terminally flawed character rises above her problems and her darkness and is redeemed. That's what I was trying to get across, because it's so inspiring. It's inspiring to read a book to see a character that is so darkly scripted and has such a horrific life but doesn't just wallow in the pool of darkness. She uses it as her fulcrum to evolve to a better reality.

This, to me, is the most compelling way to write a character. I didn't just want to write a book that sold lots of copies and people liked. I also wanted to write a book that affected people on a deeper level. From the comments reviewers are making and the reader emails I get, I know that I succeeded in striking an emotional chord.


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Comments from our users:

Saturday September 29th 2007, 2:58 PM
Comment by: Loren P.
As a writer, it was helpful to read how Laurel described the process of modifying her character. I also like what she has to say about her character redeeming herself. That's so much one of the "good parts" of writing--and living; the transformation of one's suffering into wisdom. It reminds me of the what the psychoanalyst Carl Jung once said, "Our task is not to create more images of light, but to release the light that is trapped inside the darkness."
Tuesday October 2nd 2007, 9:11 AM
Comment by: Chris T.
Great article. This provided me with a key piece to the puzzle of my own novel as I go through my second draft.
Saturday October 13th 2007, 7:42 PM
Comment by: Mark G. (Spokane, WA)
As a writer, this really helped me see how to write a damaged character, and the "Do's and Dont's"
Saturday June 7th 2008, 5:12 PM
Comment by: Rain
Our new writer's group will be exploring the creation of character in an upcoming exercise, and I'll pass on this article at that time.

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Here Laurel shares her techniques for writing great dialogue.