When a Character Fights You
by Shelly Frome
This topic reminds me of an issue I once had with a patriarchal in-law. Every time he would say, “The party was quite acceptable, everyone was well behaved,” I wanted to counter with, “I’d call this a party that died.” But I held back for fear of upsetting everyone. But that, of course, is what fiction is all about--making a scene. Initiating some action that causes complications, greater effort and greater resistance as the storyline becomes self-generating.
Something even more to the point comes to mind. A renown writer confided to a few of us at the University of Florida that whenever he tried to manipulate any of his characters, they stopped talking to him. In fact they refused to do anything until he gave them free rein. It was only then that something surprising yet inevitable would happen and his writing took off and rang true.
In other words, imagine if J.D. Salinger was frustrated with Holden Caulfield because Holden was dead set on leaving prep school, taking off for New York in flight from all “the phonies,” getting into all kinds of scrapes and eventually spending time with his kid sister Phoebe. What if Salinger insisted that the story took place solely inside the school? No more Holden. No Catcher in the Rye. What if Kathryn Stockett was having trouble with the maid Aibileen who kept all that pain and anguish seething inside. Since Skeeter was on deadline to submit a piece about maids in Mississippi for a New York magazine, suppose Stockett stepped in. Just had Aibileen suddenly throw all caution to the wind and divulge the dreadful things that happened to her during the Jim Crow era? No more Aibileen. The Help would have simply become one of those safe and predictable tales about social conditions in Jackson at that time.
On the other hand, if you’re only interested in making sure readers keep turning the pages, you can use the one about a code and a secret religious society as a guide. The author of this bestseller (who shall go nameless) had no trouble with his characters at all because he made them one-dimensional. Robert Langdon is only described as a crackerjack symbologist from Harvard who looks like Harrison Ford. He doesn’t even have to worry about abandoning his class or telling his department head where he’s off to. And when he examines a mutilated body at the Louvre, he’s given no time or inclination to respond to the victim’s plight. All that matters is solving this juicy puzzle. Even Sophie, who turns out to be the victim’s granddaughter, doesn’t so much as shed a tear. As a cryptographer with tunnel vision, her job is to play second fiddle to Langdon and run here and there as they both skip over to London and cross paths with a crazed albino and all sorts of other stock characters. .
Problem solved. All you have to do is pigeonhole everyone in the cast and send them where you will.
Admittedly, I can’t help preferring the more honest approach. As an actor I learned to keep each performance alive by playing the moment. In a way it’s a trained-in sense of danger and dynamics. Something I look for in choosing the novels I read and a guideline every time I sit down to write.
About Shelly Frome:
Shelly Frome is a member of Mystery Writers of America, a professor of dramatic arts emeritus at the University of Connecticut, a former professional actor, a writer of mysteries, books on theater and film, and articles on the performing arts appearing in a number of periodicals in the U.S. and the U.K. He is also a film critic and a contributor to writers’ blogs. His fiction includes Lilac Moon, Sun Dance for Andy Horn, Tinseltown Riff and the trans-Atlantic cozy The Twinning Murders. Among his works of non-fiction are the acclaimed The Actors Studio and texts on the art and craft of screenwriting and writing for the stage. Twilight of the Drifter, his latest novel, is a southern gothic crime-and-blues odyssey.
Genre: “A laudable crime thriller with a Southern setting”—Kirkus Reviews
Publisher: Sunbury Press; released in January 2012
"Twilight of the Drifter" is a crime story with southern gothic overtones. It centers on thirty-something Josh Devlin, a failed journalist who, after a year of wandering, winds up in a Kentucky homeless shelter on a wintry December. Soon after the opening setup, the crosscurrents go into motion as Josh comes upon a runaway named Alice holed up in an abandoned boxcar. Taken with her plight and dejected over his own squandered life, he spirits her back to Memphis and his uncle's Blues Hall Cafe. From there he tries to get back on his feet while seeking a solution to Alice's troubles. As the story unfolds, a Delta bluesman's checkered past comes into play and, inevitably, Josh finds himself on a collision course with a backwoods tracker fixated on the Civil War and, by extension, the machinations of the governor-elect of Mississippi. In a sense, this tale hinges on the vagaries of chance and human nature. At the same time, an underlying force appears to be driving the action as though seeking the truth and long awaited redemption. Or, to put it another way, past sins have finally come due in the present.
Wolf Creek was silent again, shrouded and hidden away in the fading early December light.
Then the cracking sound of wood as the old hunter’s blind gave way somewhere in the near distance, a sudden scream and a muffled thud. The cracking sound was not nearly as sharp as the first gunshot or the second, the scream not at all as piercing as the first cry or as grating as the moans that followed and faded.
The coonhound took off immediately, ignoring the touch of frost in the creek water, the obstacle course of fallen tree limbs and bare forked branches, the muddy slope and the snare and tangle of vines and whip-like saplings. Within seconds, the hound was bounding higher until he came upon a prone scrawny figure totally unlike the one that had just fallen on the opposite bank.
Sniffing around, barking and howling, the hound snapped at the flimsy jacket and bit into it. As the scrawny little figure began to stir, he tore into the sleeve, ripping it to shreds and barked and howled again, turning back for instructions. The sight of the skinny flailing arms sent the coonhound back on its haunches—half guarding, half confused as it turned around yet again, looking down the slope to the creek bed, still waiting for a signal.
Presently, a tall, rangy man made his way across the same obstacle course, long-handled shovel in hand. But he was only in time to catch sight of a girl clutching her head, staggering away from the scene through the tangles and deepening shadows. Then again, it could’ve been a boy for all he knew, but he settled on a girl, a flat-chested tomboy, more like. Casting his gaze up to the snapped rungs of the tree-ladder, he spotted the broken edge of the rotting hunters blind some eight feet above where she could’ve seen everything.
The coonhound began circling around him, displaying the shards of material dangling from his jaw. Instinctively, the man rushed forward. Then he thought better of it as his overalls got snagged in the brambles. From the look of things, the girl was probably dazed and confused and wouldn’t get as far as the dirt drive, if that.
Wrong guess. The slam of a hood as the flat-bed’s worn V-8 motor fired-up, the grinding of gears and the familiar whine and squeal of tires signaled the tomboy was away and well out of reach.