by Mac Adams
Have any of you heard of the Mad Bomber? His real name was George Peter Metesky and from 1940 to1957 he engaged in a crime spree in New York City which included not only explosives planted in public and industrial buildings, but also a variety of threatening and crank letters sent to the police, newspapers, and individual citizens. Metesky was motivated when he lost his job due to a workplace injury and his employer, Edison Consolidated, refused to pay compensation. The Mad Bomber terrorized the Big Apple, declaring he wouldn’t stop until the company was made to pay for its crimes against him. He was finally arrested and spent the rest of his days in a mental asylum.
This is only a brief sketch of the Mad Bomber’s story. The full thing reads like the biography of a Batman villain more than the life and times of a real person. Yet, he was real, and so were his crimes. Which leads to a question authors (especially fiction authors) must on occasion struggle with: what is too much to do in a character? What is too weird? Too cruel? I recall how I once tried describing an idea I had for a story to my mother. One of my conceits was that the antagonist was something of an idiot. My mother shot down the idea on the grounds that it was too weird.
But was it? When you stop and think about it, the premise for Frankenstein, that an over-ambitious college student builds a superhuman body from raw materials and then somehow brings it to life (that grave-robbing and lightning storm business was an invention of the movies), is a lot to swallow. Yet, Frankenstein is one of the most important works of science fiction ever. On the darker side of the spectrum, there is Lolita, a novel whose narrator and protagonist is an unrepentant pedophile. If this can make it onto the list of great works of the twentieth century, what is too horrific or disturbing too disturbing to write? Going back to Shelley’s opus, the monster of Frankenstein engages in numerous murders to get revenge on his creator for abandoning him. What makes these crimes so horrific is that, unlike the groaning brute of Hollywood fame, Shelley’s monster is highly intelligent, totally aware of the nature of the acts he is committing. Indeed, he specifically commits them to inflict emotional pain on his true target, Victor Frankenstein.
What makes these works both fascinating and terrifying is that they are grounded in people who actually lived and events which really did happen. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein was inspired by the works of historical alchemists from our own real-world history, and some say Mary Shelley herself was inspired to write the story because of stories of the limbs of dead animals (even humans) twitching when exposed to electricity. Lolita was based on a real kidnapping/child molestation case from 1948.
And all of this is ignoring the cast of characters from reality who led lives stranger than anything written about in fiction. Anyone ever read the biography of Sir Isaac Newton? This is the man who invented calculus in high school just to solve a problem a friend posed to him and then decided not to publish his discovery for two decades. Instead, he dedicated his time to learning Hebrew so he could study the floor plans of King Solomon’s temple searching for mathematical clues for the exact date of Armageddon and performing alchemical experiments with toxic mercury.
The real world is filled with men and women more eccentric and kooky than anything any of us will ever dream up, and literary canon has already normalized some of the strangest leaps in imagination anyone ever took. So, be bold. Try something, anything. Any character, any plan you want to try, try. It can only be saner than what’s come before.
With one very important exception: never write about a character that eats roadkill. I heard this from author Carl Hiaasen at a literary festival once. If you include characters eating roadkill in your book, people will mail you their recipes for “How to Cook Roadkill.” Of course, maybe you, like these individuals, like the idea of eating roadkill. In that case, go nuts!