Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The criminal character

Plot is character and character is plot. You've heard that one before, but I often wish we'd keep reminding ourselves of it when we write crime narratives. One of the biggest challenges for writers is creating characters believable enough to propel a plausible narrative. Without believable characters, plots suffer because we find ourselves questioning characters' motivations, their thought process, their overall behavior, and because plot is also action, or thought conveyed dramatically, when we find characters' actions less than credible, our belief in the plot fizzles.

The surest way for fiction writers to veer off the path is to assume that all people are alike. Yes, most of us act in ways that make us recognizably human, but experiences, DNA and nurturing or the lack thereof can combine to make us into startlingly different beings. And this, for the crime writer, is where it gets interesting. When we realize that the criminal mind is not like our mind, when we begin to understand that criminals -- those recognizably human people who habitually commit crimes -- perceive the world differently, our understanding of our story criminals will deepen and our plot possibilities will become vastly more interesting.

The danger is that we turn our criminals into cartoons. How many books or movies have been wrecked by cartoonish villains and over-the-top violence? One bit of violence I witnessed happened so suddenly and was so nasty that it left my body humming for days.

I was maybe 15, walking home late one night from a movie with friends. It was a residential street, quiet except for the occasional barking dog. About three blocks from my street, we saw two men approaching, arms around each other's shoulders, swaying drunkenly. A motorcycle roared past, the rider shirtless, reddish dreadlocks. He turned around, parked the bike streetside and marched toward the drunks, shouting and cussing. Under the streetlights, we could see that he was sweating. One of the drunks, a slim black guy, shouted back at him. We couldn't make out what they were saying. We stopped to watch, wondering what the hell was going on.

The biker spun to his left and leaped over an open ditch to get to a picket fence. He jacked a foot on the fence, tore a picket away and leaped back over the ditch with the picket. The slim drunk put up his dukes and waited. The biker ran up and brought the picket down on his head. The drunk's knees crumpled, he went down slowly, tried to stand up and lurched sideways onto the ground. His friend had a beer bottle in his hand and now held it by the neck, like a club. It was the first time I'd seen the bottle. He didn't give the biker a chance, he swung, catching the biker across the face, the bottle breaking. The biker fell straight back into the ditch, still holding the picket. He lay motionless with his feet sticking up out of the grass.

Out of the darkness, another shirtless guy came running up the street. He could have been the biker's twin, the same muscular build, the same sunburnt dreads. But he was bleeding -- why, we never found out -- and he was crying as he jumped into the ditch. While he helped pull the biker out, the friend helped the slim guy to his feet. Then the friend looked up and met my eyes. I tried to look away. Blood on the pavement. Broken glass. Then the friend smiled. He called out my name. I'd never seen this man before. Amiably, he asked after my brother, my cousins, and explained why he had to do what he just did; he even apologized.

I was scared, couldn't take my eyes off the bleeding drunk. I stammered that I had to get going now, my friends started walking away. The man said, "You don't have to be afraid of me," and kept smiling the warmest smile. It was an eerie moment, and the whole thing lasted less than twenty seconds.

I never knew what precipitated the fight, but here's what I found out. The friend was a fisherman and a known drinker and brawler, in and out of jail. The week before, he and another man had kicked someone senseless at a house party. But everyone I spoke to said, yeah, he was the nicest, coolest guy. I could never get over that. The nicest, coolest guy. Sometimes when I think about his smile, it chills me.

For him violence was a matter of course, a way of life. It didn't reach down and tug at parts of him the way it did for me at age 15. What was his deal? How could he lash out with such nastiness and in the next second, smile and want to chat? Since then, I've grown up some, had several jobs, met interesting people, traveled, read books, tried to live thoughtfully and have concluded that criminals, lifelong deviants of every stripe, though their backgrounds and life stories and crimes may differ, they have one thing in common. You can pick any number of words to describe them and you'd be right -- lazy, selfish, narcisstic, mean -- but it would all point to one defining truth: Criminals are deeply flawed personalities. They have a dark defect in their thinking.
But the mugger's raging feelings of entititlement and the killer's extreme violence are by themselves not that interesting. For the writer who cares about character, it's the knowledge that these troubled people are fathers, sisters, brothers who prefer McDonald's fries over Burger Kings'; who know when to say please and thank you and when to put someone at ease with a smile or casual conversation; who know, in effect, how to manipulate. Criminals may act like you, but it's often just an act, and as writers we would do well to recognize this. The criminal character is mostly always playing a game. Saying this when he really means that. Using you. And if his charm fails, then perhaps his primitive logic of violence may convince you.

The killer isn't that intersting when he's killing; it's when he looks up and smiles.
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