Kate Flora here, expanding on a topic I discussed recently with an audience at the Curtis Library in Brunswick: how we draw on real world experiences to develop the character and psychology of our bad guys.
The story goes like this:
A week ago, on a sparkling Sunday morning, I walked down to Land’s End, at the end of Bailey Island, where there is a gift shop with lively whirligigs, a wonderful statue of a lobsterman honoring Maine fishermen, and a classic Maine view of islands and waves, of kayakers and lobstermen plying their trade, and families with small children skipping rocks or wading in the water.
Off to one side, there was a large patch of “something” floating toward shore. The “something” was the
contents of the holding tank on someone’s boat–someone who couldn’t wait to get into a port where it could safely be discharged. Instead, they had simply dumped it off the beach and motored away, leaving their–pardon my language–s**t to settle on the rest of us.
Never mind that that beach is often crowded with tiny children playing. Never mind that lobstermen, fishermen, and clam diggers are taking food many people will be eating out of those waters. Never mind that swimmers will be impacted or that kayakers will be happily paddling through a pool of their crap. Never mind that for many people on the island, the ocean is their yard and their view. Never mind that what these recreational boaters have done is the equivalent of dropping their designer drawers and pooping in someone’s garden.
Well, dear readers, that floating mess of sewage in the middle of a beautiful Maine day really is all it takes to start constructing the character of a bad actor. What can I derive from it? That the person who did it has money, because regular folks don’t generally own boats that have on-board toilets, (shall we say ‘heads’?) and thus the need for holding tanks that must periodically be emptied. That the person who did it is utterly indifferent to the harm or damage they cause to others. That that person believes they occupy a world where rules don’t apply to them. Their pleasure and convenience is all that matters and never mind what it means for everyone else or for the environment.
It raises that fundamental question underlying my crime novels: What is it that makes some people deviate from the social contract we’ve all signed on to, that allows them to commit bad acts? In this case, money, privilege, a sense of entitlement and a belief that they are exempt from rules, and isolation from any sense of community. These traits are an excellent basis from which to begin to craft a person who will harm others with indifference and without a sense of guilt. On this frame, I can start hanging background. Misbehavior at private school. Poor examples set at home, or poor examples being set for the next generation. A character, perhaps, who runs someone down and simply drives off. Or who cheats employees, or exploits them. Someone who mistreats siblings or schemes to get all of an estate out of a sense that they really ought to have it all.
And so it goes. From one small patch, floating on the ocean, a character, and perhaps a plot, begin to emerge. So far, I’ve given him a deep tan, a shark’s mouth of overwhite teeth, a slight belly bulge over Hilfiger swim trunks, and an ever-present cell phone. What would you add?
As the saying goes: When life gives you lemons….etc.
A final note: A friend suggested that all these holding tanks ought to have digital tags that record when and where they were emptied. A great idea. And just to show that criminal (creator) minds think alike, Lea Wait tells me that one of the marvelous Carl Hiaasen’s juvenile mysteries, Flush, involves putting so much coloring in the effluent that the bad behavior really stands out.