Saturday, February 12, 2011

Oh My

Don’t or wouldn’t do…very different meanings those words. Wouldn’t implies having degrees of impulse control and paying attention to those internal mechanism of propriety we as bill-paying, lawn-trimming upstanding citizenry maintain. Don’t seems to me is worried about the consequences of being caught.

Some of my protagonists, and maybe it would be more accurate to identify them as main characters, don’t have those attributes. These anti-heroes don’t care about square matters such as bills and the lawn. They do worry about being caught, but that doesn’t keep them from doing the deed. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t judge them, my job is to be a conduit for telling you their story. I leave it to you, dear reader, to weigh their faults against their actions. This is not to say they don’t have uplifting aspirations -- but you may have to look closer to see these qualities in them.

For instance, in a short story of mine, “The Investor,” in the recent Damn Near Dead 2 anthology, the main character is a Vietnam vet, a former tunnel rat we learn in the course of the tale. Tunnel rats were those individuals who would descend into the various dark, dank and dangerous tunnels under the rice paddies and villages in Vietnam to engage the enemy. These tunnels were used by the Viet Cong to move in secret about their country. One had to have or develop a certain mindset to do that kind of task. The question for me was, what would you be like if you survived your experiences as a tunnel rat?

When we come to the character in “The Investor,” it’s today so his background was a way to establish him psychologically in terms of how he would react to the developing stressful situation in the present. I won’t give too much else away, but this chap is engaged in a illegal activity and comes into conflict with others not in his field, but underworld types as well.

My point is these characters are doing things I wouldn’t do but I have to imagine what it would be like to be them if I’m going to, hopefully, give these creatures of shadow and text dimension on the page. I play a cruel game with myself when I’m writing a story in that I enjoy the exquisite torture of putting my main character in a tight spot and then just leaving him or her there. It’s not that I want them to suffer, it’s just that I’m stuck, I can’t figure out how to extricate them from the bad guys with the Glocks coming through the door; the Rottweilers in the gloomy hallway prowling about, their vocal cords removed so they can attack silently.

What would you do?

That’s the part in which in real life, if it were me, I’d wet myself and faint. But my guy or gal can’t do that as the story would be over. That’s the sweet trap I willingly construct and spring on my mind to force my psyche into my characters’ skin, to see and feel the world they move and groove in, and burn brain juice trying to devise their next moves.

Now and then the trap is too good and I can’t for the life of me get them out of that room or hallway intact. Actually, it’s okay if they don’t get out whole, you want your characters to pay the price for their indiscretions. Sometimes I have to change the scene, but the best is when I might have to go back in the story and shift something here or change something there, but keep the pivotal scene the way it is and the momentum surging forward. Because these characters, to paraphrase Dashiell Hammett, are just so unpredictable and fun, because they do what I wouldn’t or don’t want to do.


Michael Wiley said...

Hi, Gary, and welcome to Criminal Minds! It's great to have you with us.

I have to say straight out: I have a hard time imagining you wetting yourself and fainting. That said, I think you have this just right: there's an intriguing divide (which we only occasionally cross) between the lives and risks of our characters and the lives and risks of ourselves.

JJ said...

Great post, Gary. That hidden factor is what's so intriguing about our characters. Sometimes, as writers, we only get a glimpse - the deft way someone folds a knife perhaps, or the slight skirting of an alleyway as a man ambles down the street. But we watch and then we use what we see. It's that edge which allows our protagonists to take risks and live large, and allows us to risk vicariously.

Reece said...

Hey Gary -- Welcome to Criminal Minds! Nice post! It's going to be fun sharing the Saturday spot with you.

You're exactly right that, no matter how extreme the situations that we put our characters in, we always have to ask, "What would I do?" The characters may end up acting braver, meaner or crazier than we would, but you always have to ask the question.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Welcome aboard, Gary! Loved your thoughtful post. There is a great deal of space between don't and wouldn't, isn't there? I'm now pondering what I don't do, vs. what I wouldn't. Hmmm....

The tunnel rat character sounds fascinating!

Gary Phillips said...

Hey folks, thanks for the welcome.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Welcome to Criminal Minds, Gary! That tunnel rat guy sounds like an intense and complex character. Though the next time I see you, I'm going to sidle up and ask you if you've wet yourself lately.