Unlikeable character – makes you read on

The first of my crime shorts features an unlikeable character: a young boy, ‘innocent’ in some senses and, depending on the reader’s assessment, possibly in all senses.

I wrote this in the third person but from the main character’s (MC) point of view. (Close 3rd person). The narrator is unreliable, which makes for more effort from the reader. S/he doesn’t have to like the MC.  A sneaky liking for an unlikeable character makes the reader uneasy. (What sort of person must I be if I feel sympathy for him.) The edginess can derive from the reader’s being in the MC’s head.  The reader has to be drawn to him/her in some way – despite even horror or outrage.

Something unnerving, uneasy, something left ambiguous, can make you read on. There’s a question: is this character telling the truth, or will there be a revelation that will make me re-think? Questions precede page-turns. Edginess is by its nature, an unclear signal.

Edginess doesn’t necessarily require extreme sexual or aggressive behaviour. Risk of some form, especially close to home, can cause the uneasiest feelings; an everyday event suddenly appearing to have a different significance.

I hope I’ve achieved this in the first of my Crime Shorts, A Boy with Potential. You can decide for yourself with the free kindle ebook today One Amazon reviewer stated ‘The darkest, most horrible story I’ve ever read.’ (1 star) That wasn’t my intention: more to provoke unease and reflection. Have I done this?

Do let me know in a review.

 

Writers’ Criminal Ideas – developing a short story

I hate that question, ‘How do you get your ideas?’ because I rarely know.

When I wake, story phrases or conversations come to me out of the dull mist of very early morning. But in respect of this story, I can give a direct answer about my criminal ideas.

Some years ago I was watching the news of multiple shootings in a school by an adolescent. The account was truly shocking and the media tried to analyse its reasons. Sadly, other such massacres have followed.

As a psychologist, I had sometimes interviewed/assessed such youngsters. I remember several school haters rather than school refusers holed up in their bedrooms after school, keeping themselves separate from family and peers. These boys, and sometimes girls, believed those around them were ignorant of what they themselves knew. Their ‘knowledge’ was of violence, rebellion, conspiracy, retribution. They had dark posters on the wall. Those youngsters, I can’t write about, but I did use the experience to imagine a new character in that role.

I can’t write about those particular youngsters, but I did use the experience to imagine a new character in that state of alienation. (This writer’s criminal ideas)

I created a younger boy from another geographical and social setting and imagined what might lead to such an extreme act. I wrote a longish short story. It was long-listed in the (now defunct) FishKnife competition that year.

Later it won a Bloomsbury review after topping the favourites on the YouwriteOn site. The editor said that I “was a writer of potential” (pun), that I had “an intriguing premise”, my first line provided “a gripping opening” that “plunges the reader straight into the novel’s moral dilemma” and that she “was impressed by use of a first-person narrator.” She went on, “The use of an unreliable narrator is tricky to pull off, and you handle it well – the character of Jake has stayed with me since I first read it.” She suggested how I might develop it as a novel, associating it with ‘Before I Go to Sleep‘ and ‘Gone Girl‘.

I put the story with its criminal ideas to one side, because I was wholly involved with rewriting my trilogy, A Relative Invasion.  Later I tweaked it and put it on Kindle.

A Boy with Potential,” is the first of my Crime Shorts. It has elements of horror. It is a story of suspense. Crime is in the background; crime is the threat. Will it be a killer?  I believe there is an appetite for shorter stories, commuter length. Indeed, one reviewer (Morgen Bailey) has written: “This story has a feel of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, although I much preferred this one, and it just goes to show how much can be done in around 5,000 words.” (and now it’s in its 2nd, longer, edition of 7,000 words). FREE Kindle this week.

Creating edgy short stories.

I have written a few edgy short stories, and I enjoy reading them. As an example, Hilary Mantel’s story of Margaret Thatcher’s fictional death

It’s the suggestion of outrageous possibility that can make a story  or an image edgy.

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If the first person form is used as a literary device, the narrator of an edgy story is often unreliable, but his or her fantasies around true events don’t make a fantasy for the reader. There can be a self-deception that the reader can assess.What is ‘edgy’ is the uncertainty around what is real, especially if that threatens safety, physical or attitudinal.

Where stories are written in the third person,  the main character does not have to be likable.  It is edgier if s/he’s unlikable yet the reader constructs a sneaky liking for him/her. This makes the reader uneasy. (What sort of person must I be if I feel sympathy for this jerk?)

images-2The reader does have to be drawn to the main character in some way – horror or outrage can achieve this – what will he do next? But uncertainty and confusion work best.

 

 

The author can shock the reader by reversing all expectations, or make the protagonist cross over some unacceptable line. He may kill but must he debase? He may cheat, but the person who has just saved him, or his own mother?

Edginess needn’t involve extreme sexuality or aggression.  An action close to home can cause the uneasiest feelings, or an everyday event suddenly appearing to have a different significance. It doesn’t have to involve crime or erotica. It can suggest something subtly sinister. It can be socially provocative. It can even be shockingly funny.

Assumptions we make when we read a story when reversed, can highlight our own prejudices.  Edginess can produce unease and give rise to questions over morality, practice, managing relationships. A story is satisfying when it is thought-provoking and lingers in the mind after the last page.

I hope I’ve achieved this in my Crime ShortsA Boy with PotentialNot Her FaultHomed banner_new

Re-writing a short story

MouseThe_End

                    Each time I finish a short story . . .

I get a tremendous sense of self completion. It’s transitory: I will be rewriting my short story soon. Although the satisfying sense has gone by my first edit, this ‘completion’ sense doesn’t occur at all when finishing a novel. The process of beta-reading, editing, proof-reading that lies ahead is so lengthy that it’s more like beginning an uphill journey than reaching the top. 

Recently I was asked about my process of writing my Crime Shorts, so I thought beginner writers might be interested in my answer. It begins with a voice or a sentence followed soon by the speaker. The situation that causes the sentence follows, and the story stems from that.

Once an idea comes I can become too involved in one aspect to pay due attention to other important elements that go towards making a good story. In the case of Homed, I was totally immersed in developing the voice of a none too reliable narrator. (These characters appeal to me.)

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Deep into my narrator’s account, at about 2,000 words I realised that I had too many characters. Even without assigning them names, they would crowd my story. I doubt if a story of under 5000 words can work with more than three characters. 

I sat back and re-thought the story. Where was my character at the beginning? How many places and situations could he refer to? As with characters, not too many, otherwise the reader would become confused. How could I best lead up to the climax? Had I laid down a hint near the beginning so that the end had validity? Had I described sufficient of the scenes for them to be visualised?

After these considerations, I rewrote the story. Bearing the number of characters and locations in mind, each had to be written as seen through the eyes of the narrator. Moreover, he had to credibly remember each one. 

I hope I succeeded, but if I haven’t, you can let me know. In the case of my first Crime Short, readers suggested I continued his story and made it a novel. Perhaps I will come back to that story again if its feral narrator refuses to let me go.

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