It’s A Madhouse: A Writer’s Approach To Character Development

It’s A Madhouse: A Writer’s Approach To Character Development

I may create the characters in my novels, but they’re not fully under my command. They have an autonomy I find surprising, and more than a little vexing at times.

My newest novel, In the Weeds, is a dark comedy about an Air Force pilot in Vietnam who returns to the US a changed man. Suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, and addicted to the adrenaline associated with combat flying, Slats Kisov starts smuggling marijuana into Florida from the Bahamas. An improbable gentleman named Doggy Breath, seeking his own unique form of artistic freedom, aids him in this venture. I’m not sure what it says about my psychological stability that I concocted a protagonist who transitions from Jewish war hero into smuggler, helped along by a poetry-spouting bulimic Cuban marijuana farmer.

It’s not just major characters who develop lives of their own. I intended Darla Pistle to be a single-scene character, a woman who goes out on one date with Slats and then disappears into the literary mist. But she blossomed into his girlfriend then evolved into the ex-wife of the novel’s antagonist. This evolution arose because I fell in love with Darla. I’ve never heard of a branch of psychology that could deal with such a strange a fixation. What would you even call this ailment, Fictional Character Emotive Disorder?

Over time, I’ve come up with some pretty nasty characters. One of them was asking for it throughout the entirety of my first novel, Days of Smoke, and I just couldn’t stop myself. Caught up in a fit of pique, I murdered him in a most violent fashion. Immediately after doing the deed, I glared at the rough draft on my computer screen and screamed, “Take that, you miserable SOB!” Uh-oh, another branch sprouting from the stunted tree of my psyche: Diminished Capacity/Literary Manslaughter Syndrome.

I try my best to ignore Sigmund Freud, particularly concerning his focus on dreams. That’s because I hatch characters in my sleep. They laugh, love, cry, fly and die—all while I slumber. I can’t be sure, but I believe these nocturnal folk are most active during my occasional bouts with sleep apnea. Theorizing that it must have something to do with low oxygen flow to the brain, I’ve tried holding my breath while seated at the keyboard, but it just doesn’t work. Apparently, Polysomnographic Hypoxia cannot be artificially induced.

Understandably, you may choose not to go so far afield in breathing life into your own characters. But don’t be hesitant about getting emotionally involved with ’em—if you hit the right balance, you can bring readers along on quite a ride. As for me, I’ll take what comfort I can find in the words of the philosopher Pascal: “Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness.”

Mark Ozeroff
Mark Ozeroff

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IN THE WEEDS by Mark Ozeroff