Thursday, March 06, 2008

When a Character Won’t Gel

This isn’t a problem I have often, but I’m wrestling with it now: the antagonist in my current WIP (Work in Progress, i.e., THE DEADLIGHT CONNECTION) just won’t come to life. He lies there on the page, a pale dull reflection of nothing.

Why? I’m not sure. The character in question is an Army general. Now, I know military men. For heaven's sake; my father was an Air Force colonel and I’m married to a retired Army colonel. But this character is also hyper-religious and a racial bigot. And while I’ve known a fair share of people like that, too (although not, fortunately, too intimately), for some reason my General Boyd just won’t gel.

I spent most of yesterday trolling the Internet, reading some truly scary stuff written by some truly scary people out there. Rabid evangelicals (with ready White House access) who think the End Times are upon us and all they need to do to help things along is go nuke Iran. People who homeschool their kids to protect them from the evil influences of biology classes and then send them to colleges where students pledge not to KISS until they’re married. People who drip hatred and ignorance and vile prejudice (many of them also with White House access).

And still the General lays there, an illusive cardboard figure.

I’ve developed his background (for my own usage; most of this stuff never sees the light of day). I know all about his childhood. His rowdy, beer-drinking youth. His decision to “take Jesus Christ as his personal savior”. His marriage and his six kids. And still he lies there on the page, hollow and wooden.

Bookstores are full of popular thrillers with silly, unreal villains. I keep telling myself, Most of your readers will neither notice nor care.

But some will. And I will.


Chap O'Keefe said...

Seems like you've given the character enough thought. I don't know how much of the WIP has been written, but why not push on and have General Boyd's activities affecting the protagonist(s)in some of those scary ways you hint at? Once he is a threat, and is affecting characters who have come to life for you, surely he'll have some life, too? If he stays shadowy, well, maybe that will enhance his menace. I take it you won't be using him at any stage as a POV character.

Steve Malley said...

I'm guessing the trouble is how much you dislike him. Not that one needs to *like* one's antagonist, but at least be sympathetic enough to see it from his point of view.

After all, Boyd's pretty sure *he's* the hero.

Sometimes, it's as simple as a little hook, some piece of yourself you can hang on the character to give you a grip, often discovered some distance in.

You'll get there. You're too good not to.

Charles Gramlich said...

It does sound a bit as if you're resistant to getting inside the guy's skin because he is so alien to your own thoughts and feelings. I've also found as I've gotten older that I resist more and more trying to understand folks who differ drastically from me, primarily because I've tried to understand them in the past and it has done no good. Perhaps there's a little bit of that in what you're experiencing now. As for advice, I'm not sure what to tell you. Maybe, imagine that the decent folks this guy dislikes are, instead, the kind of folks you dislike and have described in your post. HOw would you feel about them then, and transpose that into how "he" feels about his own dislikes.

Farrah Rochon said...

The thought of little me trying to give you any writing advice whatsoever is truly hilarious. All I can say is I am already fascinated by the character I know Boyd will become. Good luck bringing him to life.

cs harris said...

Chap, I have decided to push ahead and come back in the future to rewrite the flat scenes.

Steve and Charles, you're right: I'm so alienated from this guy I can't get into his head. How bizarre that I have been able to somehow see the point of view of murderers, greedy industrialists and spineless politicians, yet this guy is eluding me! I'm going to take your suggestion and try to tap into my inner bigot!

Lisa said...

When you described him, the first question that popped into my head was, what made him that way? When I ponder the phenomenon of bigots of any ilk, I tend to believe that they are drawn toward their beliefs because of some kind of real or perceived oppression. Perhaps one or both parents were fanatically religious and he was perverted through those beliefs, maybe when he was a kid, some family member was victimized in some horrific way. Just spitballing... :)

Anonymous said...

I don't write, I just think about writing and read a great deal, but in terms of the bigotry, I don't think you have to have something happen to you to make you that way. I think most bigots grow up in families where bigotry is absorbed like mother's milk; where any other outlook seems odd. You have to have someone to feel superior to, right? As far as the hyper religious, the young people I knew who grew up in the church would not have been drunken youths. They saw the world in black and white, churched and unchurched, saved and unsaved; and lived in a very narrow world feeling they were always in the right no matter how often logic and reason might make the rest of us question. Again, that feeling of being set apart, of specialness, that being holier than thou gave them. But I'm no expert and I don't presume to do anything but offer up an opinion. I don't know how you breathe life into him on the page though....RitaB

Shauna Roberts said...

What if in one of the early scenes in which he appears, he could be doing something sympathetic, something consistent with his bigoted world view yet a good thing? Go to his kid's soccer game, help an old white lady across the street, plan a special evening for himself and his wife, help a soldier under him clear his name of false charges, using one of his large collection of handguns to scare away a burglar trying to break into the neighbor lady's house, or saying some encouraging words to a new member of his Alcoholics Anonymous group (people sometimes become religious fanatics as a substitute for more dangerous addictions)?