A Method To The Madness

The more I read with a writer’s eye the more I see things from a writer’s perspective.  I was on a panel a few years back and an audience member asked what kind of writers we were.  Struggling was the first thing that sprung to my mind, but that wasn’t the answer the questioner was looking for.  At the time I was just writing.  As soon as story idea struck, I wrote it.  I never felt that I had an agenda or a platform to perch my work upon.  But when I examined my stories, I saw a common theme running through them all.  Predicaments seemed to play a central role in my stories.  Usually an unsuspecting person, an average Joe by every definition, is put on the spot.  A situation arises that my protagonist can’t walk away.  The reason they are there is usually their own fault.  Sometimes it falls into the no good deed variety, but usually, the story’s hero has done something to get them ensnared.  A tryst.  An indiscretion.  A little white with a black edge.  A past mistake.  These factors are subject to Newtonian psychics.  For every action there’s an equal and opposition reaction.  It doesn’t matter how minor the mistake my characters have committed, there’s a price to be paid.  Things come back to trip my protagonists up.  This means my heroes are starting off on the back foot.  They are struggling with desperate times where failure means the destruction of their comfortable way of life.  So my stories are told from a nightmarish stance.   My protagonists are desperate when the reader meets them.

Where do these characters come from?  Why have I chosen storylines like this?  I think it’s because I can identify with these people.  I live a pretty ordinary life, but I can see how fine a line I walk.  One bad decision and my life could change forever.  There have been several instances in my life where something I’ve done has come back to bite me.  Some instances have been caused by some very innocuous actions.  So when my what-if synapses kick in, it usually centers on a minor action that will snowball into something large.  My short novel, The Fall Guy, demonstrates this.  A guy gets involved in a fender bender, does a runner and ends up indebted to organized crime.  Life has a funny way of turning mean when you’ve done something wrong.  Ask Michael Richards.

I see other writers express themselves in similar ways.  I love Ruth Rendell when she writes under her Barbara Vane pseudonym.  Guilt raises its ugly head in virtually all of her Vane novels.  For those that have read her, just look at A Fatal Inversion, Gallowglass, The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, No Night Is Too Long and The Brimstone Wedding, to name a few.  The characters have done something wholly terrible and they want it kept quiet, but no matter how depth the truth is buried, it finds a way of rising to the surface.  At times, it’s hard to like these people but I can empathize with them.  Luck sometimes keeps us from falling down a crevice of bad decision-making.  I’ve noticed that Peter Straub often deals with a past injustice that only come to light generations later.  When I notice a common thread, I wonder what the root cause is for the theme.  What’s the source of the muse that created all these great books?  What locked boxes do these authors have?  Maybe none.  Maybe I’m transferring too much of myself into the situation and reading things that aren’t there.  But I hope not.  🙂

The reason for this blog is Lee Child.  I’m reading Killing Floor at the moment.  Child’s hero is rough, tough Jack Reacher.  He kicks butts and takes names.  He’s a force to be reckoned with.  Bad guys watch out, Jack’s in town.  My leading characters aren’t like this.  None of my characters come from a comfortable place.  They aren’t masters of the situation.  They’re vulnerable and it shows.  But that’s because I’m a not a very self-confident or self-assured person.  After reading page after page of Jack’s kickassedness, I thought, wouldn’t it be neat to write a character like this—mad, bad and dangerous to know.  Although I enjoy writing about vulnerable protagonists, I’m wondering if I should break my own mold now and again.  I hanker to write about a tough guy with a bulletproof personality.  As they say, a change is as good as an arrest.

Merry Christmas to one and all,
Simon Wood

19 thoughts on “A Method To The Madness

  1. Guyot

    You should write a kickass open wheel driver.

    Great post, and very insightful. Lee is certainly a self-assured, confident guy. But I’ve also seen the other side.

    Without naming names, there are a couple of well-known writers who pen ass-kicking heroes and the writer is the complete opposite of that. I do think a lot of us channel ourselves as you say, but there’s also those who write a certain character for no other reason than the character is exactly what the writer is not. I tend to do that. I’ll write people better and more noble than I could ever be.

    Though I dearly love the Reacher novels (one of my current favorites), it’s always nice to see a protag struggle. One of Lee’s books had Reacher inside some long tunnel and for a few pages we saw Reacher struggling with a claustrophobia-type issue. It was great see such a bullet-proof character have to really struggle.

    Sometimes I wish I could see Reacher face greater personal challenges at times, but then maybe he wouldn’t be the comicbook level hero that is so much fun to read. I anticipate each Child release like my kids anticipate Christmas.

    After reading what I have of WORKING STIFFS, I’m confident you could write pretty much any character you wanted, in any situation you wanted.

  2. Keith

    The way Guyot is with Reacher books, I’m like that with Repairman Jack. No matter what the odds, and how much damage he takes, you always know he’s going to win (at least, since he became a series character)–but he’s just so ****in’ COOL!

  3. Louise Ure

    Sometimes it’s fun, as a reader, to spend time with a hard-as-nails, never-stepped-in-something-that-he-couldn’t- get-off-him kind of character. Wallow in that world where folks are stronger and braver than I am in real life. A place where they don’t know the copper taste of fear in the mouth.

    I’ll bet it would be equally fun to write about one of them.

    Do it.

  4. pari noskin taichert

    So, Simon, are you going to do it? Are you going to write a totally different character?

    Re: channeling oneselfSasha isn’t me, though people think she is, but we share biographical similarities. She’s fun to write precisely because she’s different, but I can still relate to her.

    My new protag is much more challenging because I don’t share anything with her yet — except that we both have children and a strong internal moral code. But she’s a grandma, a widow and her ethics are far more pronounced and life-earned than mine (at least at the moment). Getting inside Iris’s head is unlike anyone I’ve ever met — she’s the kind of person who would sacrifice her life, her career to do the right thing, even if it doesn’t seem right to others at the time.

  5. Elaine Flinn

    Well, damn – after reading such eloquence from Guyot, Louise and Pari – I’m at a loss to add something relevant.

    My only thought, Simon – is that you obviously have the talent and the well honed skills to try any damn thing you might fancy.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Repairman Jack is an old favorite, Reacher a new one. I don’t go for action heroes in general, but those two…

    It’s always so cool to hear about other authors’ personal themes. I believe whoever it was who said that we’re all writing variations of the same couple of themes, over and over and over again. Mine are about people making a devil’s bargain for love, opening Pandora’s Box (usually by playing with the occult), the thin line between madness and the supernatural, and variations on reincarnation.

    I agree with G. that you could write just about anything, Simon, and the exciting thing to me about you attempting a tough-as-nails hero is that I bet that hero would still get vulnerable in the most surprising moment – and THAT – would be gold.

  7. simon

    Guyot: My open wheel driver will have to hang on for a while yet, if a couple of things fall into place then it might be sooner or later.

    For me, the only problem with writing a kickass character is that I might go over the top and make them too unbelieveable. Child and Wilson walk the line very well.

    I do have a kickass character in mind. I have a nice little story lined up for him based on a kerfuffle I got caught up in once in Bangkok. If there interest is there, then I do it.


  8. Guyot

    No kickass character would ever be caught anywhere near a “kerfuffle.”

    But Bangkok is a PERFECT setting for some ass-kicking!

    I will buy the book at full retail price. There. Now go write it.

  9. JT Ellison

    Okay, Simon, 5 extra points for using one of my all time favorite words. (kerfluffle)

    Another 5 for zeroing in on one of my favorite characters. I adore Reacher (and Lee) and find that a good basis for my character.

    Where was the conversation about characters having to grow in each book? DorothyL? Here? Reacher doesn’t grow from book to book. He is who he is, unapologetic and sound. THAT’S what makes the character so perfect to me.

    I try for that with Taylor Jackson. I suffer from the obvious similarities — tall, blonde — but it stops there. Taylor is all the things I wish I was — strong, unafraid, centered, with a moral code that’s unassailable. Not that my morality is in question, she just doesn’t see as many grays as I do.

    So I have a question for you. Can these characters, these iconic superheros, be women? Or is this a trait limited to men?

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Great question, JT!!! They sure can in graphic novels (Lara Croft, Wonder Woman, the women of X Men). But I think female archetypes are different – our powers are different. The first iconic women superheros that sprung to my mind were (not in this order) : Miss Marple, Rogue, Mary Poppins, and the three Mrs. W’s from A WRINKLE IN TIME.

    There you have the wise women (crones), the gifted (and troubled) maiden, and the mother figure/Amazon. All witch archetypes. I’ll think more about it because it’s a great question – dying to hear what others think.

  11. JT Ellison

    I’ve got Zoe on my list.

    I agree Alex, the women we’ve seen are either over the top or possess some kind of mythical power. I love Lara Croft, but she’s vulnerable as hell, though she could kick ass from here to eternity.

  12. Elaine Flinn

    Why is it that ‘kick-ass’ men are hero’s but their female counterparts are considered bitches?

    Damn, out of my way – I’m gonna write a female bitch who’s gonna kick ass all over the freaking place. Stop laughing, Guyot. Think I can’t do it? Just watch me.

  13. Guyot

    “”Why is it that ‘kick-ass’ men are hero’s but their female counterparts are considered bitches?””

    You’re not a bitch in my book, Double E. You’re my kick-ass heroine who leaves women jealous and broken, and men wanting more.

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