Posts Tagged ‘sociopath’

I discovered Dan Wells’ John Wayne Cleaver series about a year and a half ago, and I immediately fell in love with his sharp style, finely honed character development, and flawless plotting. What amazes me most about these books is that Dan Wells has created a sociopath we can sympathize with. You may not think you’d want to sympathize with John Wayne Cleaver, but trust me, you will.

Dan Wells is also the author of The Hollow City, and The Partials series, as well as being a host of the weekly podcast, Writing Excuses, with Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Mary Robinette Kowal. I’ve been dying to get him on for an interview here and I was thrilled when he accepted the invitation. He and his awesome assistant, Chersti Nieveen, have been wonderful, and I am pleased to have him.

Check out Dan Wells at:

Q: Who or what inspired your character, John Wayne Cleaver?

A: John came from my own interest in serial killer psychology, and specifically of serial killer predictors. Lots of psychiatrists, or psychiatric organizations, have come up with lists and tests and such to try to predict which people will grow up to be killers, from things as simple as the MacDonald Triad to long, multipage tests. I was talking about this with Brandon Sanderson on our way home from writing group one night, and he suggested a character who had every single predictor but was trying to be good. That’s not exactly what John turned into by the time I wrote him, but that’s where it all started.

Q: In these books, you managed to create a likable sociopath. How did you go about that, and was it difficult to keep him sympathetic?

A: Keeping him sympathetic was the number one driving force of the writing process, because there’s no way the book would work if you didn’t like John. Some of the ways I kept him likable were little tricks, like making him funny, because when you laugh with someone you can’t help but like them. Other ways were more fundamental to his character, such as giving him a horrible life to make you feel sorry for him. The number one thing people respond to in John, however, is his desire to be good. He always wants to do the right thing, even when he doesn’t know what that is, and audiences can’t help but root for that, especially when he takes a wrong turn or walks a razor-thin line between good and evil. We want him to succeed because we see ourselves in him: stuck in a bad situation, trying to make it work, trying to be better than who we are–or who we think we are.

Q: John Wayne Cleaver is a mortician’s son. How did you research the embalming process, and did learning about it change your views on anything?

A: Since I was already kind of an armchair psychologist, almost all of the research I did for the book was on embalming, and how it worked, and how it could go wrong. It were the cases that went wrong that fascinated me the most, and I ended up using some of these in the later books. I became really impressed with the mortician community’s adaptability, if that makes sense–they’re ability to Macgyver their way out of some tricky situation they’d never encountered before. I put some elements of that into the series as well, just because of how cool I thought it was.

Q: In researching sociopaths and serial killers, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: Current theories suggest that serial killers may be ten to twenty times more common than we think they are; we catch the ones who have a really strong pattern, like stealing their victims’ eyes or whatever, but there may be tons more who don’t do that, and thus we never put it together as a form of serial murder. So, you know, sleep well tonight.

Q: I love John’s list of rules (things he does to keep himself in line). How did you develop that list?

A: A lot of the list developed over time, as I wrote the books and forced myself to identify any kind of dangerous behaviors I thought John was showing, and then not allow him to show them anymore. In a way, I guess, John helped write his own list.

Q: Were there any scenes that were especially difficult for you to write, and why?

A: There’s a scene in the first book where John threatens his mother with a knife, which I knew had to be there, and I knew exactly what kind of effect it had to have on the reader to be effective, and I kind of dreaded going into it because I tend to get very emotional as I write, and if I write something painful it affects me pretty strongly. Even with the much worse stuff that happens later in the series, that one is still the scene that shook me up the most, both before and after. I should add, though, that there’s a scene in the third book that breaks my heart every single time I read it, and thanks to the various rounds of edits and copyedits and proofreads I’ve had to read it dozens of times. It’s probably not even the scene most people think it is, but it gets me every time.

Q: Did the concept of this story begin as a trilogy, or just one book?

A: I knew John could be a cool series characters, but I didn’t write the first book with that in mind; I made it the best book it could be, all on its own, and then the publisher asked for two more and I did a little rearranging to make it happen. I had to go back and add some characters to the first book to help support the longer series, and again, they’re probably not the characters you think.

Q: Do you have a favorite scene, or favorite part of one of your books?

A: I have lots of favorite scenes. The epilogue of THE HOLLOW CITY is a huge favorite just because it’s kind of victorious for a tragic ending. There’s a scene in my ebook, A NIGHT OF BLACKER DARKNESS, called the fact scene, that I love, and I honestly don’t know if I could reproduce it; it just came out perfect the first time, and despite the millions of revisions that book has gone through, that scene remains almost untouched. My favorite scene of the John Cleaver series actually comes toward the end, building up to the final showdown, when John is completely dead inside–not evil, not tortured, just gone. I don’t know why I like that one as much as I do, but I do.

Q: How did the people around you react when you told them you were writing about a teenaged sociopath?

A: People who know me are much more disturbed by the books than people who don’t, which I find amusing. My wife was kind of freaked out by the first few chapters of I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, and she asked if that’s how I really thought, but when I assured her that it wasn’t–that John was entirely fictional–she was fine with it. There’s a scene in the second book that made my best friend say he never wanted to be alone with me ever again, which I take a personal victory.

Q: What do you hope readers will come away from these books with?

A: I hope that people who read my books will be better than when they started–that they’ll know themselves better, or somebody else; that they’ll be inspired to write something or make something or learn something new. My characters are never content with the status quo, and I hope my readers are the same.

Q: What inspires you more than anything?

A: Audacity. I love watching somebody try something crazy and get away with it–to take a big risk and go out on a limb and shoot for the moon. Even if they fail. I love it.

Q: Who are your heroes?

A: My dad. Jim Henson. Victor Hugo. Criminal profiler John Douglas. Anyone who stands up for something they think is right.

Q: What do you think are some of the best ways for authors to find an audience for their books?

A: Write really good books. The word of mouth you get as people recommend it to their friends is the best possible advertisement you can ever get.

Q: Was it difficult for you to find an agent, and how did things change once you did?

A: I spent my early years trying to write fantasy, and so my networking had all been down with fantasy agents, and when I sold a horror novel none of them knew what to do with it. I was rejected three times by agents despite having an offer on the table, which sounds harsh but is one of the very best parts of this industry–agents aren’t in it for the money, they’re investing in an artist they love and they’re in it for the long haul. If one of those early agents who wasn’t really into my book or didn’t really know the market decided to pick up my book anyway just for the money, I’d be in a much worse position today. Staying the course and finding the right agent was absolutely worth it.

Q: On average, how much do you write over the course of a week?

A: I try to work 8 hours a day, just like a normal job, but not all of that is writing–I have revisions and edits, I have interviews, I have all kinds of business concerns that take up time. I’d say I average ten to twenty hours of writing, which is, ironically, not nearly as much as I did before I got published.

Q: What is Writing Excuses and what is your role in it?

A: Writing Excuses is a podcast for aspiring writers; 15 minutes a week, completely free, on topics ranging from plotting to dialogue to genre discussions to business advice. I helped start the podcast four or so years ago with co-hosts Brandon Sanderson and Howard Tayler, and then last year we brought Mary Robinette Kowal in as a full-time guest host. We’ve become pretty popular, and I sometimes get recognized just for my voice, which is kind of fun. We’ve won two Parsecs, and this is our second year being nominated for a Hugo, so fingers crossed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My current project is called EXTREME MAKEOVER: APOCALYPSE EDITION, a modern-day SF about a health and beauty company that accidentally creates a hand lotion that overwrites your DNA. It’s completely nuts, and by far the most ambitious novel I’ve ever attempted. I have just a few months to try to wrap it up before it’s time to start work on the third PARTIALS book, so we’ll see how it goes.

As we get closer to the release of Beautiful Monster (September 1st, 2012!), I begin thinking more and more about the sequel. Mimi A. Williams (Kim Williams-Justesen~ my mentor and co-author), and I decided shortly after the manuscript was accepted for publication, that we’d like to make this a three-part story. Whether or not this will be of any interest to the publisher or not, we don’t yet know, but if the only reason we do it is for ourselves, that’s reason enough for us.

We’ve outlined the second novel, which we are planning to call Beautiful Liar, and I have written the first scene of my first chapter. As I get going again, there’s only one thing I’m not looking forward to: seeing the world through the eyes of my deranged main character, Sterling Bronson. Sterling came into existence as the result of more than a year’s worth of intensive research on serial killers, sociopaths, narcissists and a variety of other psychologically disturbed social deviants. I know Sterling well, and this is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, knowing him makes him easier to write. On the other hand, he disturbs me.

Writing fiction seems to be a lot like acting in many ways. When you’re inside the mind of your characters, you really become these characters, and when you’re writing a true monster of a man, as is the case with Sterling, this is not always a pleasant thing. For one thing, you subject yourself to the possibility of nightmares. I have had many disrupted nights of sleep because of Sterling, and I was glad when we finished Beautiful Monster because of that. Now that we’re going again, I have already dreamed of him twice. In one dream, he was just standing on a bridge looking at me, nothing serious. In the most recent dream, however, he was digging up the floorboards in a house to show me all the bodies he had hidden there. For the sakes of the more sensitive readers, I won’t go in to details, but the point is, Sterling is back to his old self again, and eagerly showing me the worst side of his nature.

I’m not complaining. In fact, I feel truly blessed that someone finally believed in me enough to publish one of my books. And that it didn’t take the statistical seven to nine years of rejection after rejection is something I’m truly grateful for. There’s just a small part of me though, that wishes it had been a different, more pleasant novel of mine that caught the eye of a publisher. I didn’t write Beautiful Monster with any real expectation of it ever being published. I thought it was too graphic and too offensive to ever get picked up… but, go figure, it’s the one that made the cut. Again, I am neither complaining nor apologizing. I’m just not looking forward to seeing life through a maniac’s eyes again. I don’t like wondering what kind of mentality is required to take a human life. I don’t like wondering what someone’s flesh, under the blade of a knife, would look like as it separated from itself. I don’t like thinking about the last words a person might utter as their life is being taken away from them. I don’t like the fact that in order to believably write this character (again), I need to really understand the wicked twists and bizarre kinks of his mind.

But I’ll do it. I’ll do it because I want to tell this story. I’ll do it because, despite the horrors this character is composed of, I’ve somehow come to like him, and I want to see how his story plays itself out. I will do it because I was lucky enough to be given an opportunity to prove myself, and if I treat it like a hobby, everyone else will treat it like a hobby, and I don’t have time for another hobby. I’ll do it because it’s my job. And… I’ll do it because if I don’t, I’m afraid of what Sterling might do to me!

     It’s been over a week since I wrote anything in An Evil Heart, the collaborative novel I’ve been working on with my mentor, Kim.  At first, this just seemed like a little break and I thought nothing of it.  The last couple of days though, when I sit down to write, a strange thing happens: nothing.  It wasn’t until today that I realized why.

        Kim and I sat at the coffee shop, where we’ve been meeting on Saturday mornings, and began to discuss our progress.  I, of course, admitted to having made none.  When she asked me why not, I was a bit surprised to realize I hadn’t given any real thought as to what was hindering me.  I thought about it for a while and then stumbled on my answer.  “Because,” I told her, “I am starting to really like Sterling (the antagonist and my main character) and every time I try to write him, I find myself wanting very badly to redeem him, to make him a nice guy somehow… and I know I can’t do that.”  Kim agreed that no, I can not suddenly make Sterling into a good guy.  Doing so would only throw the story entirely off course, not to mention, be wholly unbelievable.  So I know that’s not an option, but my sudden change of heart is a perplexing shift that has thrust me, yet again, into foreign and bewildering new territory.  I suddenly feel kind of like I’m in the middle of the ocean without a life raft… a feeling that is becoming all too familiar in this whole writing thing.

     In the beginning, writing Sterling was fun.  He is all the terrible, nasty things I could never be.  I never admired him by no means, but it was a fresh, albeit horrific, new perspective that invigorated my sense of adventure and truly moved me outside of my own way of thinking.  It was fun and it worked because I hated this character.  Whenever I would think of him, I’d get little chills of distaste all over my body.  The things he did made me feel sick sometimes.  I despised him.  But now that we are more than half-finished with the novel, a baffling thing has transpired:  Sterling has grown on me.  I seriously like the guy… despite his wretchedness and hideous proclivities.  This should be a good thing, but in this case, I’m not sure it is.

     I’ve spent many hours this afternoon rethinking Sterling and re-planning my approach.  Here is what I’ve surmised:  I don’t have to like this character or dislike him.  I have to love this story though, and if I change this character, I have to change story, which A) in this case, isn’t entirely mine, and more importantly, B) would ultimately be a great disservice to the story’s integrity.  Simply put, you can not set out to write a reprehensible, psychopathic character and then develop of conscience mid-stream.  So… I will maintain Sterling, warts and all, and let him tell his story, terrible though it is.  In the end, I know I’ll be glad I did.

     That being said, some definite good has come from this.  I’ve learned that even I have a fundamental desire to find the good in things, even the most vile things.  I’ve learned that with the dark and destruction comes also the light and the creative.  Perhaps above all, I’ve learned that what’s most important to me after all is the integrity of a good story, and that raises my faith in my own ability to continue on this path.