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A Post-Mortem of "Twisted Complex: A Love Story"

About two years ago, now, I was in the final stretches of finishing my first novel, Twisted Complex: A Love Story. It was a pet project I had been working on since I was about thirteen or fourteen, and from its inception to its completion, it had gone through several, several, several incarnations until it became the finished product that it is today. In the time since its publication, I've had time to go through it several times again, and to field opinions from other people. So now, looking back, I have a few things to say about it, some things to reveal about its production, and where I plan to take the franchise in the future. Also, if you read on, be warned about massive spoilers in this post, as I discuss major plot twists in the book in a pretty casual way.

Madalaine Was Inspired by a Real Killer

So, for starters, let's talk about the character of Madalaine. Leaving the source of her name out of the equation right now (I'll talk about that below,) it may be interesting for you to know where I got the idea for her. First of all, her appearance and personality when she's not in a murderous rage is actually inspired by a real person that I met a while ago. Really, there's not much more to it. But for those who doubt that a child would have the motivation and prowess to murder other children, I would like to point to Mary Bell, who is undoubtedly the biggest inspiration behind the most twisted, complex (see what I did there?) character in Twisted Complex.

Bell killed two younger boys in the 60's, the first one the day before she turned eleven. She had a rough home life, as her mother was a prostitute, and from a very young age (four, I believe,) she was forced to engage in sex acts with other men. On top of that, her mom actually tried to kill her within the first few years of her life and make it look accidental. It makes sense that she would lash out eventually, whether that be through self-harm or the harm of others. Now, this doesn't justify any of it, of course, because two sets of parents lost their children, something they're undoubtedly still haunted by. But Bell was a girl who was suffering, and probably still suffers today, from all of the trauma she went through during her formative years, and what happened was a heinous consequence of that. 

See, in my mind, Madalaine is in the same boat. Her "uncle," who you'll later find out is actually her dad, has molested her for her entire life. Her mother is neglectful and awful in a lot of ways. The only media she's exposed to are violent films, and the news on television always glorifies the killers it talks about. She also has some serious mental issues that the book never addresses because Leon is a terrible, unreliable narrator who would never care to actual find out more about her. Everything in her life is a variable that adds up to her deciding to undertake murdering other people and having sex with Leon, because to her, the only way people will ever pay attention to her is if she acts out, and the only way male authority figures will like her is if she sleeps with them. And because everybody she knows is a shitty person, this type of behavior is enabled. She's a tragic, almost doomed figure, whose fate is all but sealed before the book even begins. And that's why...

Madalaine is Honestly My Favorite Character

I hate the narrator of Twisted Complex, Leon. He's a self-righteous jerk who molests a girl and blames her, victimizes himself, emotionally fucks around with the primary love interest, and is an all-around whiny crybaby. On top of that, the other characters are pretty despicable, too. Jesse's own problems could have been fixed by herself, Gina is pretty reprehensible (although she is my second favorite,) Dennis is a horrible father, Allison is dead, and Janie is a maniacal rapist. But despite her being a bloodthirsty serial killer, and a somewhat unhinged individual in many respects aside from that, I would say my absolute favorite character is Madalaine Winger. Yes, the Crimson Rose Killer herself. And I'll tell you why: I worked the hardest on her.

It might come as a shock to the few who have actually read TC (okay, maybe not "few," but it's not a bestseller or anything,) but I consider Leon an incredibly ancillary character to the entirety of the narrative. Which is weird, considering he's the narrator. For me, Madalaine is the most interesting person in the book for a few reasons. First of all, she's brilliant. She manages to turn the entire nation on its head, to play every person in the book to her every whim, and to do all of this at the age of eleven. In the years it took to write TC, I had more notes explaining her motives, her story, and everything else about her than I did any of the other characters. I have created dozens upon dozens of characters from the time I was seven years old, making my own comic books with markers, printer paper and staples, and in my thirteen years since, she is my absolute favorite fictional creation, simply because I put the most work into her, and because I feel as if I pulled her characterization off very well. But you know what I didn't pull off very well? Everything else about all of the female characters, because....

I Used Rape as Common Plot Device, and It Sucks

I'll come right out and say it. Most of the female characters in TC undergo some sort of sexual trauma, and for the love of god, it's mostly unnecessary. Admittedly, I was in a pretty dark place at the time, and I hadn't really been exposed to a lot of more feminist works. Still, as a novel, there's an undoubtedly sleazy pattern of rape and molestation in the entirety of the narrative, and as a writer and a feminist, I really regret putting it in there. Yes, I was trying to take the stereotypical male coming-of-age story, then take it to the logical conclusion of such discourse (the whiny, pathetic white male somehow ends up being the savior to a cast of women, despite being a terrible person, simply because he's a male,) but I don't think that comes across. And even so, I did this at the expense of a whole cast of female characters, which is bogus and lamebrained of me. 

As an oath of sorts to my female readers, or my feminist ideal-inclined male/queer readers, I promise to characterize women better in the future. I've learned a lot since TC was published, and I really want to kind of make up for the shit I pulled. I will still defend my book on some grounds, of course, because a) I wrote it, and b) I think there are other redeeming qualities to be found in it. Still, though, that's one aspect of the work that I personally feel is unforgivable, and in a way, incredibly inconsiderate of me.

My Main Cast is Entirely White 

There are enough books and movies out there with white dudes as protagonists, and not enough with women as protagonists. Furthermore, though, there are way too many things with all-white casts, and TC does nothing to break that pattern. The only black character in the book doesn't even have a fucking name. It's pretty shitty, and unrealistic considering Georgia has a massive African-American population. So yeah. That's another thing I regret, because in my humble opinion, representation matters. 

Okay. Enough beating myself up. How about some positive or interesting things, like...

There Are Some Neat Little References 

Part of what makes me so happy about reading TC more than once is that I catch little references I threw in there for fun, and in some cases, references that actually tell you the whole plot of the book. For more minor references, Leon's first name comes from Leon Kennedy of Resident Evil fame, and his last comes from Winry and Pinako Rockbell in Fullmetal Alchemist. And what about the entire name scheme of Madalaine's family? Janie (ugh, what a fucking bastard,) is named after Jani Lane of Warrant, Lita is named after Lita Ford, and Madalaine is the name of a Winger song. Yes, Winger, which is also a cheesy 80's rock outfit. More important, Madalaine is named after the song of the same name, for two reasons. The first is that, while I was struggling with her name in my early drafts, this song came on Hair Nation on the way to the local GameStop, and while listening to the lyrics, I knew right then and there what I needed to name her.

Yes, the lyrics of the song are key here, because they essentially describe her character, and what she does throughout the course of the novel. So if you'd listened to that song, and knew that I was naming her that, then you'd probably be clued into the fact that she wasn't what she seemed. On top of these little easter eggs, though, there are plenty of other different references and one-off jokes hidden in the entirety of TC, which were really fun to slip in there. There's even a My Little Pony reference, as I directly reference the episode, "Mystery on the Ponyville Express." Yes, I know it wasn't out in 2009, and thus, it's highly anachronistic. No, I don't care. Moving on.

Gina Wasn't Even Supposed to Exist (and I'm Glad She Does) 

It's funny how the most minor things can change the course of something you're working on. In the second major draft of TC, Leon (originally called Kyon... don't laugh) and Madalaine had an actual romance, brought about their parents being out of town or some such bullshit. About fifty pages into that admittedly terrible version, I decided to introduce a little throwaway character that Leon would just so happen to know. She would be a volunteering waitress at a restaurant he and Madalaine would eat, and the lovable little serial killer would get really jealous of her. Yeah, no, it was dumb, but I was fifteen. Anyway, the waitress would be named Gina Gilotti, and would be a reference to a crappy comic strip that I hate, Dennis The Menace

Actually, while I hate the comic strip, I really liked the 80's show as a little kid, and decided to throw in a little reference (read: borderline plagiarism) to it by lifting a character wholesale, then putting her in the narrative. But the more and more I gave her dialogue, the more and more I realized that she could be more than a one-off gag. And then I realized that the entire fundamental structure of the book was about to be altered for good. She went through some serious changes, including being killed off as a seven year-old and actually being the Crimson Rose herself, but eventually, she became the character you see today. I even named her dad Dennis after the titular menace, and gave them both the last name of my high school English teacher. Good times. Unlike the next topic...

The Original Draft Was Dark, Depressing, Horrible (The Other Drafts Were Also Terribad)

If you've read TC, then you know some messed-up shit happens in it. But if you had any idea of what the original story was going to be like, you'd probably feel a bit queasy. In the original draft, Leon was an anorexic, unrepentant serial child rapist who held himself to a twisted moral code (the title actually comes from the phrase "lolita complex," and the twisted nature of that.) Madalaine was still a child butcher, and ends up becoming a target of Leon when they go to the same after school program together. He attempts to molest her, but she enjoys it, and he realizes that he loves her, and then they team up and... well, they rape and kill kids. Yeah, no, it was sick filth the very core, and something that I deeply regret even dreaming up. It was an exercise in shock value that should have never seen the light of day.

Over time, it got refined and taken away from this direction, and in a bunch of really, really weird ones. At one point, Leon had two younger sisters, and the one who wasn't getting the most of his attention became the murderer out of jealous rage. And at another, Madalaine was a Dolores Haze figure who seduced Leon and had a torture dungeon behind a wall in her basement.. and also had the split personality of her dead sister. Yeah, it was all really, really dumb. And it only got dumber, with the penultimate version.

In this one, Leon's parents were on a cruise, Madalaine was a rich girl who lived in an expensive modern home, and the Crimson Rose Killer was just some random person (I never thought too far ahead in that draft) killing off kids in Atlanta. The two protagonists actually had mutual romantic interest in each other, and at one point, had passionate, romantic sex after listening to Wham. The sad thing? I'm not joking. Hilariously enough, this was the most complete draft before the final version, and thanks to the sudden introduction of Gina into the equation, things started to fall into place. After a brief detour to Albuquerque, I settled on Athens, Georgia as the stage on which the events of my first book would unfold. Everything after that kind of just worked out, and the final draft is what you're basically holding in your hands today. And you know what?

I'm Damn Proud of the Book

Yeah, TC has some undeniably problematic elements in terms of its portrayal of women. And yeah, Madalaine is uncannily intelligent for an eleven year-old, and some shit that happens is incredibly improbable. And while I'm at it, some stuff that happens straight-up defies what would happen in our actual legal system. But all in all, I'm really happy with how the whole thing turned out. I genuinely think some of my best dialogue is in there, and I feel like I used the idea of the unreliable narrator to a really cool extreme. Not only that, but it's the first thing I published that I actually made some money off of, and while that may seem shallow, it was a really cool experiment for me. An experiment that I still regard as one of my biggest achievements today.

But for me, it's a stepping stone, because....

Twisted Complex's Story is Far From Over

Right now, I have the manuscript for the Twisted Complex sequel open right in front of me. Oh, don't believe me? Here it is.

There aren't a ton of typed pages yet, but there are a lot of notes and sketches and hand-written manuscript pages. I have no clue when I'll finish it, or if it'll fall to the wayside with the other projects I have coming up, or if this is even the final version of the story. But I can promise you one thing: it will be released. That universe has more to it than Leon's narrative, and I'm going to expand upon it exponentially. There may or may not be crazy cults involved. Or no love story whatsoever. Or a racially diverse cast of characters. Or no sexual victimization whatsoever. Or a case of a "Mary Bell order," which you should totally Google. 

And remember that, sometimes, dead men do tell tales, especially ones that were only thought to be dead.

Take it easy, and look forward to it. 


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