Crafting Crazy Characters
By Barbara Claypole White
I love to create damaged, quirky characters—people who struggle with invisible disabilities such as severe grief, neurological disorders, and mental illnesses. While I often refer to them as crazy, I do so with deep affection, offbeat humor, and never-ending respect for the courage it takes to navigate life with messed-up brain chemistry.
My son has battled a crippling anxiety disorder (OCD) for most of his life. Crazy is the term he uses to describe himself—always with an incandescent smile. Watching him throw up his arms and say, “Yup, I’m crazy,” fills me with maternal pride. It’s liberating, brave, and reminds me of the scene in The Bird Cage when Robin Williams’s character illustrates eclectic dance moves. That’s where I want to take my characters—into the moment when they embrace and accept their inner craziness. Robin Williams’s suicide is a horrific reminder that miracle cures don’t exist in the world of invisible disabilities. And yet, I believe there’s always hope. My stories are about finding that hope.
Authors-in-waiting often ask if I agonize over misrepresenting a particular disorder. No, because my goal is to create complex, believable characters—individuals with unique life experiences, not cardboard cutouts labeled depression or OCD.
I have two golden rules:
1) A character is not his or her disorder.
People are glorious composites of experience, genetics, background, and personality.
2) There are no textbook versions of invisible disabilities.
We all have individual brain chemistry; we all process life differently. How many people do you know who grieve the same way? And despite the stereotype of obsessive-compulsive disorder as the hand washing disease, OCD manifests differently in everyone—mainly because it latches on to whatever you care about most.
So, ditch the idea of a right or wrong way to portray your characters, and let the fun begin.
Step one: research
My favorite method is one-on-one interviews. I’ve interviewed suicide survivors, rock climbers, the head of psychiatry at a major teaching hospital, a big dude cardiologist, and the chief of our local Native American tribe. The trick is to encourage people to share their stories. That’s how you excavate the gems.
I also conduct online research, interview support group members, and read memoirs while considering (a) the potential bias of any source and (b) that most research leans toward more extreme versions of disorders. For example, while researching Tourette syndrome for 17-year-old Harry Fitzwilliam in novel three, I spent hours on YouTube. Unfortunately, most of the videos were unhelpful because they highlighted coprolalia, the involuntary utterance of obscene words that is often the popular image of Tourette’s even though it afflicts only a small percentage of people with Tourette syndrome. (Harry does not have coprolalia.)
Step two: find the positive buried in the negative
Flushing out certain behaviors that stem from a mental illness or a neurological disorder can make a character seem unsympathetic. The trick is to find the positive.
Take Harry’s father, Felix. Felix Fitzwilliam has an undiagnosed issue that fuels his obsessive need for order and encourages him to be extremely judgmental. Harry, on the other hand, spins with chaotic, unedited joie de vivre. When the novel starts, their interaction is strained, but as I examined Felix’s judgmental streak from a more positive angle, I found an unexpected bond between father and son. In elementary school Harry suffered with rage attacks that destroyed his bedroom. After the episodes, ashamed and guilty, Harry would step outside his room—often to the muffled sounds of his mother crying—and discover that the rest of the house was as it should be. The sense of order that Felix imposed, his ‘everything must be in the right place’ philosophy, had provided the ideal, safe environment for a child terrified by his own loss of control.
Step three: think outside the box of clinical descriptions to find the person
Consider your character’s relationship to his or her disorder. How has it shaped and defined his life, his work, his relationships? Is she in denial, or is she open and trusting?
Step four: to label or not to label, that is the question
The answer must come from your character. Will Shepard, the hero of my second novel, THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, grew up with a batshit crazy mother. Years after her death, he’s still dealing with the emotional fallout of life with mom. I struggled to diagnose her before realizing that any label was irrelevant. She never admitted she had a problem, and her severe mood swings and alcohol abuse went untreated. What mattered was the impact they had on Will. Here’s the truth: Psychologists frequently misdiagnose patients. If mental health professionals don’t have the answers, why should writers?
Step five: field work
Use unfamiliar settings as a tool to see how your character behaves outside his comfort zone, to see what triggers his anxiety or anger. Visit an art gallery with an outrageous exhibit. Now pop your character down and watch. What grabs his attention? Why? What freaks her out? Why? And when you have the answers, dig deeper. Always dig deeper. OCD, the evil emperor of fear, has taught me to pick apart fear until I find the root cause or inciting incident. (Most fear is personal and irrational. Understanding the layers of that fear is a great way to figure out any character.)
Step six: emotional research
Whether you have relevant personal experience or not, pull from your own emotional life. All my heroes come from my darkest moment as a mother: sitting on the kitchen floor with a weeping child who cried over and over, “Make it stop, Mommy, make it stop.” My son was trapped in hell, I was powerless to help, and all I could think was, “What if, when my son grows up, no one can see beyond the bizarre behavior of OCD to love him for the incredible person he is?” While my son’s courage in fighting OCD inspired James Nealy, the hero of THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, there is nothing of him in my subsequent heroes—Will or Felix. And yet each of them grew out of that single moment, that desire to see my grown-up son successful in life and love. Crazy people deserve happy endings too!
Step seven: boldly go where no one has gone before
Take readers inside your character’s dark corners. When I first queried the manuscript that would become THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, I had only one POV—my heroine’s. At SCWW a famous agent requested my full. Her feedback was devastating: no one would publish the manuscript because James was too dark for a romantic hero. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I rewrote the manuscript to include James’s POV. I unleashed him; I let him talk about the voice inside his head; and within months I landed an agent and a two-book deal.
There you have it—good things happen when you embrace the craziness.
Barbara Claypole White writes and gardens in the forests of Orange County, North Carolina. English born and educated, she creates love stories about damaged people for Harlequin MIRA. The Unfinished Garden, Barbara’s debut novel, won the 2013 Golden Quill for Best First Book. The In-Between Hour was chosen by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) as a Winter 2014 Okra Pick. Her third novel, a father/son story, has a publication date of June 2015. Connect with Barbara on her website www.barbaraclaypolewhite, Facebook https://www.facebook.com/BarbaraClaypoleWhite, or Twitter @bclaypolewhite