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Transgressive Fiction Characters

Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (Movie)

In Transgressive fiction, the character is vital and it may be because of the genre’s odd similarity to true crime. In both type of genre (one fiction and other non-fiction), rely on characters with grime, dark, frightening depth. Another reason for the importance of character in Transgressive fiction is the fact that the key factors and themes of this fiction are best expressed through a character’s internal life, mind, and reactions. Themes such as escape, isolation, freedom, amorality, deviancy can best be described by going inside of the human mind.

Transgressive Character

Word Watch — December 1996 from The Atlantic Monthly describes the Transgressive character behavior as "feeling confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual or illicit ways."

Such characters are flawed and can be antiheroes in another type of fiction, but make fascinating protagonists in transgressive stories. Somehow, the flawed-yet-relatable heroes can still provoke empathy and that's the key to create such characters.

It is still believed that protagonists need to be "likable and nice" which gradually turns close to "boring." People may not like spending time with "Patrick Bateman", but I don't think they would like it with a handsome popular high school vampire who saves the innocent virgin teen either, or do they?

As a writer the goal is to create protagonists that are great: It means they are compelling, unique, fascinating but not necessarily nice and agreeable. But what makes characters great is the element of surprise and how they can shock the reader. A character who is multidimensional in personality and not predictable, incapable of maintaining reader interest for long.

The difficulty in creating transgressive characters is when you may create a character who disgust and discourage the reader with some repellant traits such as drug addiction, bad temper, a drinking problem, arrogant self-confidence, unacceptable immorality, or even criminality and rage. However, there are characters with such flaws that are worshiped in the history of literature such as Rachel Watson in The Girl on the Train with an obsessive drinking problem or the aimless, depressed, and cynic Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.

How, then, can you create such a character?

The role of hubristic motivation in creating a transgressive character

To explain how can you create a transgressive character, I would like you to understand that every transgressive character needs to be examined deeply through the behavioral psychology of their motivation.

Józef Kozielecki in his research, The role of hubristic motivation in transgressive behavior mentions that "as stipulated by the transgressive model of man, hubristic motivation is a major driving force of transgressive behavior. Hubristic motivation is conceived as a cluster of motives that make people assert and enhance their self-worth (self-importance, self-esteem). By transgressive behavior we mean any behavior whose outcome goes beyond the boundaries of the individual's past accomplishments (e.g., territorial expansion, enhancement of power, broadening of personal freedom, or development of new scientific theories)."

In his paper, he outlines the mechanism of self-worth enhancement and decline in response to success or failure experienced in transgressive behavior. Through this research, we can simply understand the general motivational mechanism and the functioning of human personality which can help us develop a new character.

Mercadante & Tracy in a study about Advances in Experimental Social Psychology explain there are "motives in antisocial or immoral behavior specifically when such acts may allow for the acquisition of increased social rank. These effects were specific to hubristic pride," which this person is prone to lying and cheating for the sake of status enhancement.

How to create a transgressive character?

Name: While creating characters, I always develop a few lines, paragraphs, or pages of narration to figure out how each of these individual characters act, think, and narrate. This needs you to create backgrounds for them that you may never add to your story. For me, building characters always is the priority over nearly every other aspect of the story. When I create characters, I start with the names. Dorothy Uhnak, an American novelist, mentions that "The first thing I had to know about these people was what they looked and sounded like." For me, the name is the first thing that makes my character become as real to me as people I actually know and speak to day after day. Like Uhnak, I name my characters first. I look for baby names or historical/ old names websites online and look up meanings behind each. The readers prefer memorable names that they can remember. So, a memorable name can help make a memorable character like Willy Wonka, Oliver Twist, Catness Everdeen, Forrest Gump... Like Uhnak, my characters take on a personality and identity that need to stay with them. I can take a character and put it in different projects and stories but the name needs to stay the same.

Rebellion: We all know that we had no part in making the rules and that many of them are not there to protect us but to keep us in line. We have an inbound desire for freedom and we instinctively recognize that the goal of the law is often conformity and in many cases even oppression. We all have the suspicion that there is corruption and rot at the top in power and so, with that in mind, I admire those who refuse to fall into line. That, somehow, is the base for creating a transgressive character.

Empathy: I can say, not all my characters are built to empathize with but I always such characters to build empathy toward the characters they are harming. You need to know that there is a natural limitation in transgression and that is the level of harm to others. To build empathy with the character we need to focus on the power in direct proportion to the innocence of the victim. If you push this too far, then you, like me, need to provide a reason or virtue that shows the character isn’t simply a monster just for the sake of being one. It means that the readers can accept a lot of unpleasantness in a character as long as they see it balanced against something that inspires empathy or intrigues them.

Shock: such unsuitability and incongruities in a character automatically offer the element of surprise. In this way, you make the readers wonder at what sort of psychological bound holds these opposite traits together? In a transgressive character, there is an absence of some redemptive quality that can alienate readers. Don't forget that as a writer of transgressive fiction, it is a sin to be shocking just for the sake of it. Trying to be as graphic as possible for no real reason is just immature. It’s okay to shock the readers or to make them feel uncomfortable but remember that the best transgressive fiction creates discomfort by provoking the reader to self-exploration or examination of their own environment and situation that they've ignored or taken for granted.

Framing: Building a distance between your character and the oppressive situation they are facing can be a daunting thing to do, I know. How do you meaningfully persuade the readers that a character is becoming mentally isolated? Is it like a physical and mental paint your character is going through that makes them lose it like the one in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground? or like Victor Mancini in Choke, your character is trapped in terrible past and present without a way out? or are you planning to do it like Welsh’s Filth by undermining your narrator’s own power by pasting a separate narrator’s text over the page in isolated, chunky type? To understand framing, you need to seek to make the familiar not just simply weird but distorted and gruesome. You need to make the reader see the accepted reality in an awful new light. The best way for me to achieve this is to carefully manipulate how the plot is relayed and how the setting is presented. Ask yourself, how the oppressive world your protagonist is transgressing against should be familiar but, through careful re-framing, it should also be horrifying, foreign, or uncomfortable?

Contradictions: To avoid alienating the reader with the transgressive reader we need to build up proper contradictions that are used based on contrasting influences or traits. Let's imagine human behavior at risk in different settings of the office, home, or the local bar. Explore what incompatible environments your character must navigate and the behavior they exhibit in each. Optionally, look to the persons who demand or inspire opposing tendencies. Let them be the devil and the angel on the shoulders at every decision point in the story. So, here we are trying to build a situation or ideas in opposition to one another. Here are some good examples:

Morals or goals: Following contradiction, we shouldn't forget to explore the character’s moral code. In doing so, you need to avoid trying to make it too clean and tidy. Explore in which situation he holds opposing views of the same thing. For example, we may consider innocence in one character nothing but stupidity, yet see it as a kind of gentle nobility in another. The Idiot by the 19th-century Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky can be a good example in this case. The title is an ironic reference to the central character of the novel, Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, a young man whose goodness, open-hearted simplicity and guilelessness lead many of the more worldly characters he encounters to mistakenly assume that he lacks intelligence and insight. In the character of Prince Myshkin, Dostoevsky set himself the task of demonstrating "the positively good and beautiful man." (Fanger, 1971) The Idiot explores the consequences of placing such a unique individual at the center of the conflicts, desires, passions, and egoism of worldly society, both for the man himself and for those with whom he becomes involved. (Source)

Another good example is Meursault in The Stranger by Albert Camus's portrayal of an ordinary man struggling between society's ideas of right and wrong and the ones of his own. He is a sociopathic robotic man who likes smoking cigarettes and shooting people. There are multiple examples in the novel where specific moments show nothing to have an emotional impact on him like the death of his mother. Meursault as the protagonist and narrator of The Stranger is a detached figure who views and describes much of what occurs around him from a removed position (anomie). He is emotionally indifferent to others, even to his mother and his lover, Marie. This character contradiction is in his honesty (morality) versus extreme apathy (immorality).

Secret or deceit: Secrets add depth and motivation to a character because it creates an inner and outer life: Menas what is revealed in their social encounters versus what is hidden in their hearts. By making the character act in a way that hides one's secret, we can create tension. Some great examples: Madame Bovary, Carrie, Rebecca, Big Little Lies,...

Multidimensionality: Having a multi-layered personality shows that your character can change. Readers will have more patience to read about such characters if for example a dreadful character also possesses the capacity to reflect, learn from their failure, or otherwise turn in a new, more agreeable direction.

Language: As explained in my article, "Transgressive Fiction Overview", Transgressive fiction is extremely focused on character. The character is a living being which is normally a human or a human-like creature, in which language is intrinsic to who they are. So, the language your characters use will play a vital role in shaping the worlds they escape from or create, inform how they see themselves, their futures, and their contemporaries.

Many transgressive fictions have an unusual manipulation of language. I want you to compare this idea in books like 1984(Orwell), A Clockwork Orange (Burgess), American Psycho (Ellis), Fight Club (Palahniuk), and Filth (Welsh). If you read them, now you can understand the importance of language. Transgressive writers recognize the vital impact of language in shaping our experiences. As Lera Boroditsky (2009) explains in her article, language is how we form our thoughts, and it forms the limits of what we can even conceptualize. For example, Welsh's addict characters' experiences and futures are limited by what they’re able to verbally express which is basically just swearwords, insults, drug names, and sex acts.

Who's ready to create some new characters?

You, of course!

Get sharp, get satirical, get interesting, and get out there. I'm there with you with a little help: here is a worksheet to practice creating a character.

Transgressive Character Building Workshe
Download • 54KB

Don't forget to tell me hat are your favorite works of transgressive fiction?

Fun Fact

Even before its publication, American Psycho received damning criticism for its graphic violence and perceived misogynistic content. The book was banned in Canada and Queensland (Australia). In the rest of Australia and New Zealand, its sale remains restricted to over eighteen’s. (Source)

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