My aim here, is to see if I can convince you to get up close and personal with your own inner psycho…
Have you ever watched Dexter? If you haven’t, you should. It’s great, Wiki says:
‘Dexter is an American television drama series. Set in Miami, the series centers on Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a blood spatter pattern analyst for Miami Metro Police Department who also leads a secret life as a serial killer, hunting down criminals who have slipped through the cracks of the justice system.’
A rubbish blurb if you ask me it doesn’t give half the detail of Dexter’s utter brilliance. Dexter is a psychopath. Not a sociopath as lots of people would lead you to believe. Sociopathy has a biological element, i.e. you are born like it. Dexter witnessed the murder of his mother as a wee laddie and it scarred him into emotional apathy hence, he developed psychopathy.
The interesting thing with Dexter is that although he can’t quite feel emotion, he wants to. He doesn’t want to kill people, he wants to be good and a nice person, but his ‘dark passenger’ doesn’t let him, he gets these urges to kill, so his adoptive father teaches him how to kill and get away with it, but he is only allowed to kill people that adhere to the ‘code’ i.e. a very bad person who escaped from the police.
What does this have to do with your own personal inner psycho, and more to the point, why can it make you a better writer?
Well, the writers of Dexter literally torture him, and torture us by torturing him. Throughout the 8 seasons, Dexter teases us with ‘almost emotions.’ For example, Dexter gets a girlfriend and eventual wife (Rita) who fully believes that Dexter is in love with her, so much so they have a child together. What is magical about this series and why I am writing this, is the extraordinary juxtaposition this creates: Dexter’s is unable to feel emotion, yet he strives for a normal life and indeed grows fond of Rita, and their son Harrison who he would protect with his life.
The lesson I have learnt from Dexter is just how important it is to torture your characters, and in every way possible. If you torture your characters your viewers or readers feel even more for them. I felt tortured with Dexter as I watched.
Dexter is put under some extremely emotional torture throughout the series. For example, he tries to live a normal life, and have disguise – which involves Rita, but actually, he ends up being extremely fond of her, and they get married and have a child. We watch as he wrestles with himself and his own inner turmoil trying to work out if he does actually feel anything, whilst knowing he wants to spend time with them and be with them, not something he is used to. So when we see Dexter finally attain what he has been striving for – some semblance of normality and a sense of love. It is ripped away as Rita is brutally murdered which = Dexter emotionally tortured. Utter brilliance. I cried, a lot.
But the important lesson here is he was tortured. I felt for him, and as a result it gave him a ton of depth as a character. Here are the main ways Dexter was tortured, and the elements I think you should include in your stories to help readers feel for your characters:
Dexter constantly has to hide who he is, his murders and all the shenanigans he is up to. In one of the series there is another killer ‘The Ice Truck Killer’ who threatens to expose his whole life, he works out who he is – his real brother who he was separated from as a child, and this brother dates his adoptive sister. The torture Dexter has to go through juggling all the balls and trying to prevent his sister from being murdered leaves him exhausted, exposed and vulnerable, and quite frankly, me on the edge of my seat.
Not always appropriate granted it will depend on your novel, BUT, there are some things you could do – say for example you are writing a chick flick book you can still physically torture your character. If they had a long journey to take, you could make it physically demanding, put obstacles in the way, make it exhausting for them. Dexter was beaten and tortured on a number of occasions through out the show, every occasion only serving to make us feel even more sorry for him, but then it was appropriate to the show and also kind of karma for him. The interesting thing is, despite the number of murders he had committed we empathise with him and completely excuse his murderous behaviour, quite worrying really!
This was perhaps on a par with emotional torture for being the best method to get me on the edge of my seat. Despite being a psychopath and a killer, Dexter had morals. And lots of them. He lived his life strictly by ‘the code’ which his dad gave him. He would only kill certain people if they met the code, but throughout the series we watch as people who don’t match the code push him, and threaten to expose him, making him test his morals and everything he believes in, because if he went against his code then he would just be some common murderer. It’s his moral code that makes him interesting and unique, and what drives the viewer to see what he will do, how far does he have to be pushed before he will break his code? Who would he break the code for?
It’s a fascinating case study and if you haven’t watched it, honestly you should. But what’s the point I am actually trying to make?
Torture your characters… Get up close and personal with your own inner bit of psycho in order to create strange and nasty methods for torturing your characters, it will only serve to make us readers turn every page until the book is finished. Use the types of torture above, obviously you don’t need to use them all, and obviously not all at once, or not even all in the same story. In fact it is probably better not to. But do use some of them. Push your characters to their limits, make them have to work hard for their goals and it naturally brings their character to life, gives them layers, texture and grit and importantly creates something the readers to enjoy.
My question to you is:
What’s your inner psychos preferred method of torture?
I think my psychos preference is for moral and emotional torture, I love a bit of moral torture to really test your characters fibre. How far can you push them before its too far? Can you crush them? How far is too far? What would make them break? My inner psycho is going nuts thinking about how I can torture my characters next, and also about timing it just right, right when they think they are plain sailing… boom!
I would love to hear from you…What’s your inner psychos preferred method of torture?