Beyond any doubt, my most polarizing character has been the eccentric Deathsniffer, Olivia Faraday. Some of my readers seem entirely focused on her to the exclusion of everything else. Some go so far as to say that she single-handedly ruined the book for them. All other reactions lay somewhere on that spectrum. The one thing I’ve heard absolutely nobody say is nothing at all. For better or for worse, Olivia Faraday gets a reaction.
I’m not the sort of person to dismiss reader feedback. I fully understand how and why Olivia could be a character so distasteful that someone couldn’t stand her. I hope those people come back for the sequel and beyond because Olivia has a lot of growing to do, and there’s a lot of story left to see.
But the little Olivia voice in my head that guides me when I write her? She smirks and proudly says “well, good.”
While I’m always disappointed when Olivia leaves a bad taste in someone’s mouth, it was something I not only expected, but anticipated going into the release of the book. She was never going to be a pleasant character, and I made sure as I wrote to make it clear that, in a lot of ways, she is a very bad person.
A lot of people have compared Olivia to the incomparable Sherlock Holmes, both favourably and unfavourably, but as I said in my Chris backstage pass, the characters of Olivia and Chris were either unconciously or not at all inspired from Holmes and Watson. The seed that grew into Olivia was the first one planted in my mind. Chris grew into her empty spaces, to be her foil and complement. Olivia grew all by herself.
And that seed was the idea of the Deathsniffer as a concept. The idea of a society where all detectives can choose or deny their own cases, and the realization that someone who chose to specialize in murder would be seen as ghoulish. With that weight of society’s judgement on your shoulders, what kind of person would you need to be? There were two answers: a brooding hero who is willing to shoulder the burden of ostracization to do the right thing and hunt down dangerous killers, or someone who just really liked murder mysteries and didn’t care about society’s judgement.
One character was infinitely more interesting to me than the other, and Olivia Faraday was born.
Right from that starting kernel of an idea, I had the image of this flambouyantly dressed, childishly excitable, and blissfully unnerving woman in my head. She’d whirl into crime scenes, tap people pertly on their noses while wearing a shit-eating grin, and then breeze past with hair and ribbons flying. She’d be a character who instantly filled every scene and made an impression, for better or worse. She’d be petite and short, a pint-sized ball of unsettling energy.
On the surface, that’s a pretty decent surface character sketch of Olivia. But that character lacks the most important ingredient: humanity. Olivia’s humanity developed and came to the forefront after I began to write. She’s a deeply private person who values her autonomy. She has a complicated relationship with her semi-estranged mother. She vascilates wildly between emotional extremes from one moment to the next; her manic glee can be shattered in a heartbeat, leaving behind churlishness or listlessness. Despite – because? – of her lack of interest in social mores, she doesn’t share any of society’s predjudices. And despite being occassionally monstrous, she doesn’t want to be a monster.
I know what personality disorders I’ve had in mind as I’ve written Olivia, though I’d prefer not to name them specifically. It’s never good to diagnose your characters when the society they’re being written in don’t have equivalent disorders. But I will say this: Olivia isn’t a sociopath. Not exactly. She’s more than capable of empathy, guilt, love, and the full range of human emotion. She just doesn’t default to that state. She has to manually turn it on and fight the urge to flip it back off – because the world is just easier and simpler without it.
I fully understand why she’s not universally loved. Olivia can be petty, cruel, and heartless when she’s not just oblivious. But that’s all a feature, not a bug. I prefer writing characters who are interesting to characters who are likeable or good.
In the sequel, tune in to see Chris drag Olivia, kicking and screaming, a little further into the world that people live in instead of the one Olivia lives in. And to see Olivia drag Chris, whining and dragging his feet, into the one where being polite isn’t the same thing as being nice.
Other Backstage Character Passes: