Could you write a squirrel killer?

I can never see the body of an animal at the side of the road without terrible pangs of sadness and regret – no matter that their death had nothing to do with me. I know that I’m soppy about all things small and furry, or fluffy or feathered (except spiders, and the mouse that ate my crème egg, and the magpie that killed a baby sparrow – ok, there’s quite a few exceptions) but many drivers must pass roadkill without a second thought, many probably don’t see them.

I started reflecting on this after seeing a dead squirrel while I was driving along thinking about a character in my current wip who has elevated himself from a bit part to being fairly vital to the story. The brief sketch of him I had in my head was fine for his previous role but now I need to know more and be sure he’s not a cardboard cut-out or nothing more than a hastily assembled handful of characteristics – or worst of all a harmful stereotype – just because he’s a villain doesn’t mean that that that’s all he is.

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I read some marvellous advice recently that I heard before, but when you see it a couple of times close together it really sinks in – although that also means I have no idea whom to give credit to. It’s most usually applied to villains as a way to avoid clichés and it’s to simply remember that in his (or her) own story, the villain thinks they are the hero. They don’t sit around twirling their moustache and throwing puppies on the fire to flag up how evil they are – they get home on time to have dinner with their wife, take the dog for a walk and read their kids a bedtime story. They aren’t always in their lair plotting world domination, or if they are, they should have a better reason that wanting to destroy things – you only have to have look at prominent people in power at the moment to see that many of them (and their supporters) truly believe that they are doing things for good reasons and are making the world a better place; they see themselves as the hero saving the world, while we see them as destroying our future.

This advice of course holds for every character in a book, they are the hero of their own story. Sometimes this is obvious in a series where past and future protagonists show up; the fact that the author knows everything about them shines through, their voice and motivation are assured, their physical description is neither heavy handed nor sketchy or inconsistent, they leap off the page (occasionally to the detriment to of the supposed lead characters.) I’ve been guilty of having speaking characters who could just be farmer 1 and farmer 2 but that’s what later drafts are for, fleshing out those people and thinking what their story might be. It won’t impact the current story at all, but their voice will be more authentic. Even the person who shows up to deliver one piece of important news and is never seen again – we may not even know their name but they have a full life off page waiting for them to return.

Jennifer Crusie wrote a blog post some years ago when she was trying to nail down a character – I have searched for it to no avail, I think it was on a blog for one of the collaborative novels she wrote and looking for it means I have lost most of this morning reading the archives at Argh Ink, I’d almost forgotten how much great writing advice was there, along with possibly even greater humour. The gist of the post as I remember it was that Jenny asked “what would this character do if they hit a squirrel with their car?” I remember thinking “well I’d be horrified and upset – who wouldn’t? What character could I write who’d not feel that way? They’d be a monster.” Jenny went on to say that her character would feel remorse, but (possibly, I can’t quite remember) also annoyance and it gave her the key to that protagonist as being a reckless driver – not dangerous or cruel or unkind, just going a little too fast and not looking ahead for the pitfalls on the road, or in life.

I hadn’t used that particular device before when thinking about a character but it’s been invaluable this week. Many writers talk about interviewing their characters or have long lists of their likes and dislikes and taste in music, clothes, food etc. I have tended to plunder their pasts to see what made them this way, to ensure their motivation is strong enough, and I wrote about how what was on their book shelves or how they decorate their room can show the reader so much, rather than telling them.

I would never have thought I could write a character who wouldn’t care if they killed a defenceless animal by accident, even though I have written villains who have killed humans (always for what they think are valid reasons.) Maybe it’s the senseless nature of hitting an animal with a car, it can’t always be avoided but then most people would feel remorse or guilt. But what about the person who has just had such terrible news that they see nothing but the goal towards which they are driving? The parent dealing with squabbling children in the back seats? The lorry driver concentrating on some precious or fragile load? And conversely, just because an assassin is on their way to their next kill, they might still feel sadness or remorse if an animal starts across their path, as might the ruthless CEO who has just axed 500 jobs – or will he be more worried about his paintwork and coldly inform his chauffeur to clean the car as soon as possible?

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There are many questions or scenarios to consider when fleshing out a fictional character and Jenny Crusie’s example has always stayed with me, even if I hadn’t used it. But as I pondered my secondary character and how vital he is making himself to the plot, I wondered how he would react if a squirrel darted in front of his car? I already know that his key emotions when dealing with my hero and heroine are selfishness and carelessness – the sort of person then who might not give a squished squirrel a second thought – but no, I knew that he would care, would be frustrated and annoyed at the incident, angry at the waste of life (even though he’s a man who shoots game birds competitively and for food.) Why would he care about a squirrel more than the effect he is having on my lead characters?

Selfish and careless; how he has become like that is not as important as what happens when he sees himself like that, when he finds out how others see him and what he has become by tiny steps – he doesn’t want to be an accidental squirrel killer, he wants to be the one who stops and takes it to a refuge to be healed – no, more than that, that’s what he thought he was, he does a huge amount for charities and good causes, but in his day to day life he’s forgotten to care. The book literally ends with him stripping naked, remembering the man he was, the one he thought he was, and the one he plans to become, discarding the trappings of power and revealing another truth he has hidden from himself, and from us. And meaning I have to write his story as well now.

So I have gained lot of character background and new insights into my villain, and therefore new thoughts about how he impacts my hero and heroine and how they will react.  Everyone’s’ goals and motivations have been sharpened and more focussed as a result, and I’ve gained a sequel. All from looking at a deceased squirrel. Maybe its death wasn’t totally in vain.

 

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8 thoughts on “Could you write a squirrel killer?

  1. No, you’re wrong. It’s only the wishy-washy villains in romantic suspense novels that go home in time for dinner.

    The real ones don’t have homes, families, children. They have usually had those things taken away from them. Real villains aren’t made, but they are hatched.

    I aim for squirrels. Put me in your novel.

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    1. Thank you for commenting, Anonymous Villain. I don’t think you’ve been reading the same romantic suspense novels that I enjoy; in those it is usually the hero or heroine who has lost home, family and loved ones – and the story is about their fight back from loss and despair, finding a way to live, love and hope again. Maybe that’s what separates a hero from a villain; how they deal with adversity, resisting the urge for simple revenge and refusing to let grief grow into evil. Nothing wishy-washy about that.

      But I agree that real villains aren’t simply made, they have a long gestation with many influences – some good, some bad. Their attitude to squirrels may shine a light on the person they once were, or the person they have become. I’m afraid if you aim for squirrels your only role in one of my books would be as someone struggling to change a flat tire on a car in a ditch, in the rain.

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  2. Ah, in the rain. End.

    It’s a beautiful, sorrowful, quiet device, as the rain itself of course. Another fine example is Hauer’s swansong in the film Blade Runner. I don’t know if it’s in Dick’s book, I haven’t read it. I should.

    How beautiful your life must be! You have car(s?), tires to change, a roof to keep the rain off, children to go home to, Dr J to moan at for being late for dinner, dinner, and a beautiful little garden in which to photograph the squirrels. What your book will contain except that which will seem to so many to be such comfortable and ridiculous fancy remains to be seen. Don’t think me too nasty, I look forward to reading your book – I’ll even pay for it rather than download it as I do with everything else – but I honestly don’t know what I’m going to make of it. I may ask you for help. As for the RS novels I usually read, I will be giving you the awesome responsibility of introducing me to the genre! At the monent I’m in the autobiog of Henry Allingham, the last WWI veteran. They ate squirrels when they could catch them, and the word “villain” would be a joke to a Jutland Battle veteran.

    I used to be nice. Your “…were, or have become” comment may be good. (Sorry about “good”; of the things I may or not be or have been, “writer” isn’t one of them!). Yes, I lost everything, and even continue to do so having nothing. Pray you never understand.

    Perhaps there really are different worlds, and genuinely, inherently different people. Monty Python used this idea to quip:

    “You’re all different! You’re all individuals!!”
    “Errr… I’m not.”

    There’s been many a grave truth unintentionally buried in humour before. Perhaps here it is that I should keep to my own world and leave yours alone. Your world will never need mine; there’s a sobering thought on the wrong side of which to live. Sorry Churchill.

    May I ask, does your book have a title and a vague on-shelf date yet? Will it have your real name or a pseudo on the cover? When it appears we’ll have to find you somehow!

    P.S. Not even I would throw puppies onto a fire. Alkaline hydrolysis is far more efficient.

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    1. The books of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch are extraordinary, often in the ordinariness of the horrors and difficulties they describe so matter of factly. I’m not sure which is harder to imagine – what they lived through in WWI or the changes (again, for good and bad) that followed in the next century.

      In my previous post, Books as an Escape, I wrote about how hard or trivial it can seem to be writing about love, romance and hope when much around us is in a terrible state – wars, famine, genocide, natural disasters, political turmoil or inadequacy, acts of terrorism, and appalling horrors like the Grenfell tower fire. But finding solace, or escape, in reading other peoples’ books has encouraged me to keep writing, maybe one day I will bring a few hours relief or hope into the life of someone struggling with their lot in life. When the fortunate day occurs that my book has a publication date it will be all over this site; till then I hope books, the power of the imagination and a little optimism keep us all going.

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  3. There is no such animal.

    Well, Anonymous Villain you’re one up on me : by not having a garden (or car and kitchen? WTF) at least you don’t have _squirrels_ eating your peonies. Every year I promise I’ll get a gun, but *hope* prevails.

    I’ve just read a brilliant account of a different author finding their voice, and finding their genre, too – despite heckling from naysayers – and despite them having lost more than most (childhood, parents, home country and language). It takes time, and it’s a delicate process. Keep going, I’ll buy it too.

    Tangent Alley has an authentic and generous voice, brimming with hope, and if the call to write includes villains that drive home to dinner, then I’ll accept that …and leave the psycho killers, dissolving woodland creatures in their chemistry sets, broken down at the side of the road. Alone. And in the rain 😉

    PS I rather liked the idea that everyone is a hero in their own story.

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    1. Thank you for reading and commenting Nosebag, especially your kind words about my voice. I’ve written rather more about myself in the last year than I planned, partly due to world events and partly just the way my “voice” is developing; hope has certainly been something I have been striving to find and share.

      I had decided not to address any of the assumptions Anonymous Villain made about my life or what I write – how dull books would be if we only wrote what we know or if they reflected our daily lives – or of course how horrific given the personal and global catastrophes happening every day. You cannot accurately judge a writer by their words, either in a novel or on the internet, but it does make me admire the work of writers like the one you have mentioned, succeeding against the odds,.

      I think this is what I was trying to say in the original post! That the more we know, even in hints, about our villains – and heroes – makes them more believable. We may not be able to empathise with them, but if we recognise their struggles it may enhance the story and make us root for everyone’s redemption.

      Sorry to hear about your peonies, although I think squirrels are prettier 🙂 And in fairness I should add that in the UK a lot of homes don’t have gardens; I lived without one for many years and got my fix of nature in town parks or walking out to the countryside – or of course in books. Escape, hope and beauty are wherever we find it. Even, or especially, on days like today when it is pouring with rain.

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  4. BTW The writer was Aharon Appelfeld (who is still going strong), in The Story of a Life. But my real ‘guide’ is Donald Murray (who sadly is not…), and his works on writing are largely out of print, and only available second hand… but they’re very good!

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    1. Thank you so much, I did wonder who had inspired your admiration, I’m afraid to say that I hadn’t heard of either of these writers but Applefeld’s books look amazing – and harrowing. As with Henry Allingham’s book, these are lives and stories that must not be forgotten. Thanks again for the recommendation.

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