I am such a nice person. No, really. Ask anyone who knows me. I’m maniacally cheerful (still love you for that one, Andy), relentlessly optimistic, incapable of holding a grudge, hopelessly forgiving of other people’s bad behavior, and pretty much swimming in natural endorphins. My former husband nicknamed me “Skip” because my prevailing mood, according to him, could best be described as, “Let’s hold hands and skip!”
Of course, as any mystery reader knows: looks can be deceiving.
You see, while I walk on the sunny side of the street in real life, it’s only because I have found a way to channel my less worthy impulses into my books. Like all mystery writers (at least the ones who admit it) I can afford to reserve my revenge for the page, where I channel my need to exact fictional karma into motivation to sit down and write. Think of it as a writer's character-driven catalytic converter.
This is not out of any personal need for revenge, mind you. Like Fern in Charlotte’s Web, I was born with a keen sense of injustice in the world. Or rather, it probably developed soon after I was born due to the fact that I had five siblings. When you are one of six kids, believe me, the injustice of someone else getting a bigger piece of pie than you or hogging the best seat in the car all the way from Virginia to Maine starts to seem pretty damn important. I still have the scars from scratch marks on my arm to prove it. This hyper sense of fairness followed me into adulthood. I try to treat other people with kindness and respect, but there is nothing I like less than people who break the rules and take advantage of other people's good intentions for their personal gain. So I notice when other people behave badly — and I make it my job to even the score, if only a little.
By now, it’s second nature to me. When I run across someone who deserves a literary slap upside of the head, I catalog their appearance and personal habits, then preserve them in my brain until I need a character deserving of either murder or incarceration. They go into my mental Rolodex under “V” (which stands for either victim or villain) and are forgotten until I need them for a plot. It's my own personal waiting list of unlikeable characters, populated by people who have committed my least favorite transgressions. For example, I can’t stand rude people and I don’t trust liars — but I absolutely loathe mean people… control freaks and phonies… not to mention self-entitled twits and self-righteous bullies … and, most of all, narcissists. I’ve written entire books about making sure narcissists get what’s coming to them and I’m still not done examining the fascinating question of why some people feel so entitled to suck the life out of others.
My fictional hit list has served me well. It gives my characters life and my plots more juice. Most of all, it keeps me writing. And it’s probably a big reason why people keep reading my mysteries. Bullies often get away with intimidating people in real life. People who cheat and stomp on the rights of others can keep on stomping for decades. And narcissists rarely get what’s coming to them in real life. But in the pages of a mystery, especially my mysteries, karmic justice is always served. It feels good when the cheater gets caught. It’s satisfying when a bully has his power taken away. And who doesn't delight when a spoiled, self-entitled jerk is finally thwarted for good? Call it the world the way it should be. A world where the golden rule is more of a double-edged sword, where people get what they deserve instead of getting away with murder.
Is this fair play? You bet. People who can’t play nice in this world deserve my literary wrath, at the very least. Is it emotionally healthy? Probably. It’s certainly healthier than keeping it bottled up inside. Most of all, though, it’s fun—so long as you remember that literary revenge is a dish best written cold. You don’t want to hold on to your anger, you want to transform it into the forces of good.
By the way, I take requests. So feel free to tell me about someone who deserves a little literary payback in the Comments section below and I’ll see what I can do. Because, you know: I am such a nice person.