Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sympathy for the devil

Frankie’s post this past Friday has provided me with a great deal of food for thought.

I’m currently working out details for a projected series (yes, Blechta is considering going over to the dark side), and since I always try to pay attention when more experienced authors speak, I hope I’m going about setting things up the right way. I’m not looking at the first book and what I’ll say about the main characters in it, but I’ve got my eye focused much further down the road. Too often I’ve heard the lament “If I’d only realized when I started that my character wasn’t interesting enough,” or “I didn’t realize I’d be writing 25 books about this person.” I am bound and determined not to get sucked into any of the traps I’ve heard about.

My fourth novel, Cemetery of the Nameless, started out with a far different protagonist than what hit the printed page. First of all, it was a he rather than a she. Second of all, by around page 70, I realized my first-person saga would never reach completion because I would be forced to kill my protagonist long before I reached the end of the story. Reason: I hated his guts. He was a whiner. He was crass. He was conceited. I just didn’t like the guy. (And to this day I have no idea why this happened. Isn’t that weird?) I’d work on excising one personality wart and another would pop up to replace it. Bottom line: he was a complete jerk, irredeemably so. I stopped writing, thought for a few weeks, and then started the book afresh with a different protagonist (although still somewhat of a pain in the behind for me), an altered story, and a different location.

Needless to say, my lesson was learned. So for the past two months and a bit, I’ve been working on my nascent characters who have now progressed to the point where I can almost feel them standing around, waiting for me to come up with their first story.

Then our Frankie stuck her much-needed (for me) oar in the water last Friday. Before I step into this new pool, I very much need to consider my villain.

It’s far too easy to craft a bad guy these days. Psychiatry and psychology have come up with so many seductive afflictions to choose from, we crime writers can get pretty lazy – yours truly included. In many ways, dumping some psychopathology into an antagonist allows a writer the luxury of not having to explain very much. “Why did he do that? Because he’s a psychopath! No one knows why they do some of the things they do.”

But Frankie is correct. We need to make our antagonists more nuanced, give them some redeeming factors to go along with the bad ones. I’m not talking here about a character who does something horrible for what seems a very understandable reason. In this type of situation, the protagonist can bring them down, albeit somewhat reluctantly. Those situations can make good stories.

Frankie’s post made me realize that one of the reasons my new characters are being forced to stand around and wait is that I’ve been looking for something, and that is: a worthy opponent. I’m going to have to draw this character almost as carefully as I’m drawing my two series protagonists. That’s going to require writing them some backstory, a trick I use when I’m creating main characters. For some inexplicable reason, I’ve never done this in any kind of detail for my bad guys. How short-sighted can I be?

This time is going to be different. Nothing less will do than a fully realized antagonist will do.

I’ll let you know how it all works out – but thanks, Frankie, for yanking my chain unintentionally.



It is with the greatest pleasure that I am able to announce that Vicki Delany, one of the founding members – actually the founder – of Type M for Murder, is returning to the fold. She will be writing on alternate weeks with Aline, that is on Mondays (taking Tom Curran’s spot). Look for her first post on March 3rd.

Welcome back Vicki!


Frankie Y. Bailey said...

A belated "you're welcome" -- I'm just catching up on my reading.

I hope I can pull it off, too.

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