Unreliable Narrators, or A Character Study on Charlotte Grimly

Charlotte and I have been spending far more time together lately. Part of my struggle with getting back into The Killing Type was the distance I’d formed between Charlotte’s narrative and the world I created in my second manuscript. We needed to reconnect, but I didn’t know how to reach her again. It’s not like I can call her up and ask her out for tea. Rewriting means needing to go back and rediscover who Charlotte is, and why.

Charlotte first appeared in my college fiction writing class in the short story, The Waiting Room. Though “Waiting Room” Charlotte and Killing Type Charlotte are two different characters, I loved the idea of an unreliable narrator. After all, my childhood mentor, Edgar Allan Poe, used them frequently.

She reappeared in my college thesis on the portrayal of madness in literature. My advisor made an offhand comment about writing a series of “Crazy Charlotte” stories, and the idea stuck. The decision that Charlotte should be schizophrenic seemed organic to her character. In my thesis, Charlotte is effected by what she reads, her hallucinations stemming from literature. In The Killing Type, Charlotte’s hallucinations are repressed memories.

I devoured everything I could find on abnormal psychology. I wanted to get it right.

I’m almost always nervous that I will get it wrong. I’ve a limited experience in dealing with mental illness personally, and I don’t want to criminalize or mock those who deal with it on a daily basis. Charlotte is more than a mentally ill narrator, more than merely unreliable. She’s a person (albeit fictional.) She has hopes, dreams, goals, and yes, secrets.

I was talking Cat about character development and diversity, about my concerns about my characters.

Charlotte is a blonde, green-eyed white girl from the midwest. Cat asked me why.

On the surface, it’s because that’s how Charlotte showed up in my head. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Then I realized Charlotte is this way because in order for the story to work, she would need access better medical care, the ability to see a therapist regularly, to afford the proper medications, to be in a nice, clean facility when the levee breaks.

If Charlotte were Mexican, or Indian, or any other race, it would be a different story. Though schizophrenia occurs equally in all races, the proper attention and care is not always available. The social stigma changes. That’s why The Killing Type didn’t work in its orignal setting (1920.) I didn’t have the materials I needed. Charlotte didn’t have what she needed. She needed to be informed, to be able to take care of herself.

She’s more than an insanity plea.

She’s a veracious reader. She’s interested in her own chemistry. She’s not afraid of how she is, but she still feels like an outsider. She’s still “other.” She loves her job. She grows flowers. She’s schizophrenic, but I’ll be damned if she’s not more than a diagnosis.

I still worry over how Charlotte will be seen, especially considering the things I dredge up from her past and the threat of a serial killer leaving bodies around town. I’m not a doctor, nor am I claiming to be. I took Psych 101 and read everything I could on mental illness, but that doesn’t equate to experience. I can only hope I’ve done Charlotte justice.

If you haven’t read it, and would like to, “The Waiting Room” is linked above. You can also find it under the “Short Stories” tab on the menu bar.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to see more of these character-centric ramblings, leave a comment below!

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