By Caroline Petit
Alissa Nutting is a charming American writer whose debut novel Tampa tells the story of 26-year-old Celeste Price, a beautiful wicked teacher who seduces one of her grade eight boys. Tampa is funny, provocative and wonderfully written, breaking all the rules about what women should be writing.
It was a pleasure to participate in Nutting's masterclass 'Writing Wicked Characters'. I felt encouraged to indulge in sheer wickedness in order to flesh out one of my villainous characters using the techniques and exercises she employs to get to the black heart of her central protagonists.
You don’t have to like an evil character, Alissa enthused, but you as a writer must comprehend their obsessions and their vulnerabilities to write about them well. For her, the concept of 'dis/ease' is a fundamental tool she uses to reach inside her character’s heads and understand their emotional lives. What makes them feel at ease? What makes them uneasy?
She proposed we take our evil characters to the grocery store: walk up and down the aisles with them until we found a product that would make our character feel good, such as a robber buying rubber gloves so he leaves no fingerprints behind. Then we continue with our trolley rolling it along—or perhaps annoyed because we had as usual chosen the shonky trolley, the one with a squeaky wheel or impossible steering—until our robber sees the laundry detergent which he spilled on his way out and had to waste precious minutes to sweep up and was nearly caught. The detergent creates a sense of dis/ease in our robber, conjuring up evil obsessive thoughts.
My wicked character, Charles de Fonçeca, unfortunately lives in the nineteenth century when grocery stores were not self-serve. No matter. Charles’s father was a naturalist, an ichthyologist who taxidermied his specimens. I took Charles to the old fish market that stood where Flinders Street Train Station is now. The smell of fish made Charles gag, creating a terrible sense of unease and dread, but then his mind turned to the smell of arsenic his father used to preserve his specimens. Immediately he was at ease. Charles loves the acrid smell of arsenic, especially on hot summer days when it floods the house with its tangy scent. Ah, the possibilities such thoughts aroused in Charles.
Alissa places her characters under pressure then sits back and watches them unravel. She uses Professor Michael Stone’s scale of evil to imagine what situations could possibly push her characters to do something that would cause to them to break.
She gave an example of the toddler beauty pageants in the US and a mother of one of these toddlers who lives her daughter’s triumphs vicariously; only now this mother is late and she is driving too quickly to the pageant, and oh, she has killed a child and. . .Well, what happens next is the story, but where does this mother fit on Professor Stone’s scale of evil ranging from 1 'Justified Homicide' and definitely not a psychopath to number 22 'Psychopathic Torture-Murderers'? Is she only a level 6 'A Hot Head'? Hot heads are killers who act in an impetuous moment, yet without marked psychopathic features. Or, maybe she is more hard core, coming in at number 12 as 'Power-hungry and Cornered'. A level 12 means this mother is a power-hungry psychopath who kills when ‘cornered’, or placed in a situation she wouldn’t be able to escape with her power intact. If she is a 12, we can be sure the story will contain many wicked turns and twists, and probably more deaths.
Understanding a character’s vulnerabilities, motivations and what he or she is likely to do under pressure are the tools Alissa uses to create unforgettable characters. It was a privilege to see her writer’s mind at work and the scope of her imagination.
As for me and my writing, thanks to Alissa Nutting, Charles will become a more rounded character as he continues on his way through my story committing his larcenies and telling his lies.