Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Great characters live on in afterplays. 'Afterplay,' by Brian Friel, starring Niamh Cusack and Sean Gallagher at The Crucible Studio, Sheffield - until 1March, 2014.

Brian Friel brings together two of Chekhov’s characters 20 years after their original plays were set. Afterplay is an affectionate portrayal of two people who suffer unrequited love. In a bid to impress his companion, Andrey (from The Three Sisters) exaggerates the truth. As the evening progresses, he timidly confesses to every little fib. A tender bond develops between the characters, creating an opportunity to fulfil the voids in their lives....   

Chekhov’s characters are so perfectly constructed that it is no wonder they became the inspiration for an Afterplay. A great writer makes ordinary people fascinating. We become compelled by what will become of them, intrigued by the hidden meanings behind their language and mannerisms.

As a crime writer, I need to break down labels such as Rapist or Psychopath into a list of traits. An attention seeking self-centred person can also be described as vain, extrovert and uncommitted. Clearly, this character can be summed up as a narcissist. Add the word ‘sadistic’ to that, and you’ve got a whole new kettle of fish: depraved, disturbed and dangerous. The serial killer can be glib, callous, manipulative and almost certainly unafraid of punishment. They might not be clinically insane, but capable of reasoning. An organised individual can hold down a job, get married and provide for children. These offenders treat murder as their work: making meticulous plans, preparing tools for their trade and going to great lengths to conceal the crime. They might, however, become rather sloppy and disorganised towards the end of their killing spree.

Some like to wallow in the glory and might get slightly annoyed if their victim isn’t discovered. They might choose to point the police in the right direction by moving the body to a more exposed location. Then, they’ll sit back to watch the investigation unravel on the news. Perhaps with a cup of cocoa or a glug of beer - maybe even a glass of Chianti.

Try to steer clear of stereotyping your murderer. Not all serial killers live with their widowed mothers, who have a penchant for black gowns and rocking chairs. While next door’s psycho is stabbing someone in the shower, his neighbour (the polite mild mannered accountant) might be hacking his wife to death for an insurance claim.

To make a feasible antagonist, it’s essential to consider their childhood. To create a murderer’s profile, the crime writer should examine early signs of deviancy. Don’t presume all would-be murderers are withdrawn children. Watch out for the reckless ones – those who are surrounded by followers. Beware of the child that dares others to commit acts that demonstrate their power. Maybe they’ve suffered neglect and/or abuse. Remember that not all siblings become sociopaths. Birth order might be a factor. The ‘evil one’ might have endured a different influence along the way.

There are so many questions that need to be addressed when creating a monster. Should I make them handsome or creepy - rich or poor? What tipped them over the edge: humiliation, failure, or some overbearing urge to kill which is beyond their control? Do they have friends and family? Where did they go to school? What were their hobbies: did they earn rosettes for pampering their pets or derive great pleasure out of disembowelling Tiny Tears?

How do you make fictional antagonists believable? Try making murderers by piecing together people who have pissed you off in some way. Play around with this idea: screw on another head, change the body and rearrange their insides until you’ve blended them into one nasty piece of work. Then, take great pleasure in dragging the antagonist towards their sticky end.

Of course, we need to empathise with the murderer before giving them their comeuppance - just as we sympathise with a tragic protagonist. A writer has to get inside every inch of every character. Then, our fictional beings will live on in many ‘afterplays’. It’s an enormous honour for someone to take inspiration from your published work. Friel does Chekhov proud.

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