Friday, May 22, 2015

Finding a Character's Achilles Heel

In the mythology of Archaic Greece, Thetis, a sea goddess, marries the mortal hero Peleus. To give their son, Achilles, immortality, she – in one version of the myth – dips the infant into the Styx, the river of Hades. But she holds him by his heel, and that part of his body remains vulnerable.

Although Achilles becomes a legendary warrior, he is killed by Paris with an arrow to his heel.

I have been thinking about Achilles and his heel. I've also been thinking about the "tragic flaw" that is the undoing of Shakespeare's heroes – Othello's jealousy, Macbeth's ambition, Hamlet's indecision. I've been thinking about vulnerabilities because of the two main characters in my 1939 historical thriller. I have an upright, highly moral hero who right now would be chewed up and spit out by my villain. I have a villain who is vile and despicable, who will not hesitate to do what is required to achieve his goal. My hero is a black college-educated sleeping car porter and son of a Southern Baptist minister. My villain is a white New South business man, the son of a doctor and grandson of a Civil War general. Right now, I'm finding my hero's minister father and my villain's father, the doctor, a lot more interesting than hero and villain.

Something's wrong. And I know what it is. My thriller is a big story – moving through the real life events of 1939.  But my hero isn't up to the task. Easy enough to have him discover that something is a-foot. But not at all believable right now that he would pull together his own team of men to pursue the villain and his co-conspirators. Right now, I can't imagine my sweet, idealistic hero doing battle with my villain at the end of the book. My hero must grow. I need to find what it is that would push him to do the things that he can't imagine doing – taking charge, going after the bad guys, taking them down. Idealism will only get him so far.

And then there's my villain. I need to get him out of that black cape – not that he's wearing one. In fact, he seems to be a amicable, cultured, man of integrity. But in my head, he is wearing a black cape and twirling his mustache. I don't like him. But I need to know him. I need to find the Achilles heel, the tragic flaw (from his point of view) that will make him vulnerable. What will shake my villain? What will make him hesitate or make a questionable choice? He will have all the advantages in this game, but I need him to have an Achilles heel.

I've been thinking about these characters for a while, and I had hoped to know them better by now. I've never tried to write a thriller, but I know that the kind of thriller I want to write requires characters who are both three-dimensional and bigger than life. My villain has a plot of epic proportions. He has the money and the knowledge and the access to carry it off. But the question is why would he? Making him a mad man is too easy. I need him to be a zealot, a believer in his cause, a man who thinks he is can do this and get away with it. I need him to at the same time be a son and a friend and a man who is in love. I need to use what is "good" about him to make him three-dimensional. And then I need to give him an internal conflict. He needs to be a man bent on a course, but something makes him stumble or overreach or get careless.

As for my hero – my poor, sweet, kind hero – what is going to fire him up? The book will only work if he is who he is. Right now, I can hear his voice, but it's a voice that is so alien to me that I'm resisting letting him be who he is. I think my only solution is to dig deeper in my historical research and understand him better. College-educated, working as a porter, saving money to go to law school – about to take on a task that he could never imagine. Why? Because he is who he is and can't turn to the police or the FBI with his suspicions. But he's still not up to this. He is smart enough, but not determined enough. He believes in justice. He is optimistic about the future. Now, I need to have him believe that the future he imagines for himself and his country is in jeopardy. He needs to believe as passionately as my villain does that he needs to do what has to be done.

My hero, my villain, and I have a long way to go before the final confrontation. But writing this post has helped me see what I need to do. I need to believe in this story that I want to tell. I have a plot. I have characters. One more dip into research and then I need to start writing and see what happens. Sometimes a writer needs to take a leap of faith.


Donis Casey said...

I always have the same problem with my protagonist. How on earth am I going to get her fired up and involved. She's not going to do it for a less-tha-compelling reason. For me the reason always has to do with some danger to someone she cares about. Could your protagonist be impelled by something similar?

Ann Kellett said...

Perhaps tie it to one of the three possible deaths: psychological, physical or professional. If the stakes are high enough in one of these areas, he will be forced to act (or submit, in which case you won't have a plot).