Using Fence Post Characters

fortitude My favorite stories, written by me or someone else, are those dealing with characters best described as “fence post” characters which usually possess at least two or more of these traits: they are out of their element; in at least potentially in trouble: they have little or no idea how they got where they are; and have to rely on their skills and wits, to get out of the situation, though they appear to be ill-suited to do so. Think of a turtle on top of a fence post, if that helps. Sometimes a character like that can make, or save, the story you are telling, particularly if it just isn’t working otherwise.

I thought of this while binge watching a new dramatic series named Fortitude. It’s on the Pivot Network, which you’ll find in the equivalent of the nosebleed seats of your cable television system.  Fortitude is set in a desolate section of Solvard, a Norwegian territory; the title is the name of the small town where almost of the story takes place. Two murders bookend the first episode, and at first it looks like your typical whodunit which will be investigated by a barely competent sheriff who may well be in the tank for some special interests relating to tourism as well. Everything changes, however, in Episode Two, with the arrival of our “fencepost” character in the form of Detective Chief Inspector Morton. Brilliantly played by the criminally underappreciated Stanley Tucci, Morton is 1) an American; 2) an ex-FBI agent now working for the London Metropolitan Police; and is 3) investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of one of the murder victims, who is a British citizen in 4) a God-forsaken area of Norway that looks like Boston (or Columbus, Ohio) did last week. Morton’s arrival puts almost everyone concerned in high dudgeon, particularly the sheriff (at least at first), but there isn’t much anyone can do about it because of some treaty of some sort which gives Morton jurisdiction. Morton no sooner sets foot on the slippery ice when he starts uncovering things, frozen ground and non-stop snowfall notwithstanding. Think of a cross between True Detective and Twin Peaks (the television series, not the restaurant chain) and you’ll have a vague idea of where things seem to be going. Morton, however, out of his element but not out of his league, is the fulcrum which takes the story off in an entirely new direction.

You can do this in your own work. If your story or novel isn’t working, change up your primary character. Make them uncomfortable in their own skin. Change gender or race or education level, just for a start. Even a small difference taken to its conclusion, logical or otherwise, can change the character and or the story dramatically. Downsizing your character’s abilities, such as they are, and throwing them to the sharks when they can’t swim works even better. I read a book several years ago — and I apologize out front for not being able to recall either the name or the author (yes; I’m getting old) — of an Asian father whose daughter disappears while attending college in England. He doesn’t speak English but makes the trip, determined to find her, armed with little more than fortitude and a keen power of logic and observation.

I do recall the name of a short story — because I have read it at least once a year since it was published — which puts a somewhat unassuming turtle on top of a very dangerous fence post. I’m speaking of “Duel” by Richard Matheson. “Duel,” in case you haven’t had the pleasure, concerns duela motorist named “Mann” who is terrorized along several miles of highway by a trucker. The story was written over four decades ago, some eighteen years before the term “road rage” ever entered the nation’s lexicon, but still reads well. Mann is not Jack Reacher, or even his baby brother; he is totally out of his element and just wants to be left alone to keep driving. It doesn’t happen, of course, but what does will keep you reading. Steven Spielberg made an excellent attempt at capturing Matheson’s magic in a made-for-television movie, but you have to read the story to really appreciate what Matheson did so well.

Now, if I might ask…authors: have you tried this? And readers: have there been any fish out of water characters that you have enjoyed in novels, stories, or films? Please. Share with us.

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Guest Author Stacy Green on Creating a Sociopathic Character



Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

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Swiss psychologist Carl Yung believed our conscious minds possessed four major archetypes: the self, the shadow, the anima, and the persona. Naturally, as a thriller author, the shadow interests me the most.


The shadow holds our repressed ideas and desires, our weaknesses and the darker side of our psyche. Some people it is this shadow side that comes into play when seemingly good people go bad.


But what about the sociopath? I’m not talking about the serial killers we’ve all studied (I refer to those as psychopaths), but those individuals who walk among us every day with their own agenda, no remorse, and a frightening ability to manipulate everyone they come in contact with. Are these people simply more controlled by their shadow side? More importantly, what’s my shadow side like?


In creating my character, Lucy Kendall, I studied sociopaths. Lucy doesn’t believe she’s a bad person and she doesn’t even consider herself a killer. After all, her targets are repeat pedophiles who keep being turned out by the justice system. She’s in the right, and she’s doing society a favor.


Of course, anyone who believes that has to have some kind of sociopathic traits, right? In research for and creating Lucy, I started thinking about my own shadow side and exactly how close I was to the dark side of life.


According to the ICD 10, the following are considered sociopathic traits. Presence of three or more qualifies for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, aka as sociopathy.


1. Callous unconcern for the feelings of others.

2. Gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, and obligations.

3. Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, though having no difficulty in establishing them.

4. Very low tolerance to frustration, a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence.

5. Incapacity to experience guilt or to profit from experience, particularly punishment.

6. Markedly prone to blame others or to offer plausible rationalization for the behavior that has brought the person into conflict with society.

The DSM IV is another diagnostic tool and defines sociopathic traits as:

1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest

2. Deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure

3. Impulsiveness or failure to plan ahead

4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults

5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others

6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations

7. Lack of remorse as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another

A) The individual is at least age 18 years.

B) There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.

C) The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode. SOURCE



So here’s the thing: I don’t fit that list, thankfully. But I’ve certainly had my moments when I realize I’m incredibly callous and most people would consider me a terrible person if they knew what I was really thinking.


Example: my daughter is a competitive swimmer, and she is able to practice in a very new and nice facility our tax dollars paid for. And every practice, when I see swim lesson kids taking up lanes in the pool, I get angry. I see these kids as space fillers who crowd the pool for team kids who need room to move. And I have little compassion for the parents who equally crowd the window space and get excited when little Johnny splashes a few feet and doesn’t drown. It outright annoys me. And even worse, I’m sure most people within my vicinity know I’m irritated because I certainly don’t look friendly.


What a jerk, right? How could I be so unfeeling toward these people who are excited for their kids and have just as much of a right to be there as I do? Thankfully it’s a feeling that subsides as the hour goes on.


Perhaps that’s my shadow side seeping through. The side that’s easily irritated with people and doesn’t have the patience to keep its mouth shut at certain times. The side that has no problem glaring daggers at a strange kid misbehaving in public. The side my husband affectionately refers to as Pissy Stacy. I don’t have the answer, but I bet if you take a moment to look deep inside, you can find something of yourself on this list.


Perhaps we should be afraid of our own shadows after all.


For discussion: Have you ever battled your darker shadow side?


ALL GOOD DEEDS (LUCY KENDALL #1) is now available at Amazon HERE or through more purchase links HERE.

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About the author
Born in Indiana and raised in Iowa, Stacy Green earned degrees in journalism and sociology from Drake University. After a successful advertising career, Stacy became a proud stay-at-home mom to her miracle child. Now a full-time author, Stacy juggles her time between her demanding characters and supportive family. She loves reading, cooking, and the occasional gardening excursion. Stacy lives in Marion, Iowa with her husband Rob, their daughter Grace, and the family’s three obnoxious but lovable canine children.


Website: www.stacygreen.net
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Twitter @StacyGreen26

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