Digging deep into your character for the real story.
What is it about inner demons? Every book on novel writing seems to stress them. The hero on his journey always packs them along. The Tin Woodsman wants a heart, the Cowardly Lion wants to be brave. Luke Skywalker has his ‘father.’ But why do we really need these interior problems deviling our protagonists?
You don’t. You can write a purely fantastical story without any angst or demons. It will be one-dimensional and a bit shallow, and will not be satisfying for certain readers, but it will entertain some. Think of The Da Vinci Code, for example. What inner demons did Robert Langdon have? The fact that women find him incredibly attractive? He doesn’t really have any demons and thus as a character is rather unsatisfying. He’s a trope, he serves a plot purpose and does that well, scampering here and there, one step ahead of the law and the church. But The DaVinci Code works as pure adrenaline plot.
So it depends on the type of story you like to read, and/or write. If you want to make your story more than a plot but aren’t sure how to figure out what your main character is about, try interviewing them. When I was working on the story development for PLAN X, my new novel, I knew the MC would be a woman, a cop, have an Army background, and have just lost her brother in Afghanistan, but that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t feel her. I couldn’t hear her. I couldn’t get inside her. I need to do all those things to feel confident that I can tell her story.
So I interviewed her one cold January day. I tried to do some reflective listening. Lots of story details have changed. She went from being a cocky FBI agent with some female swagger, to being an Army Reservist at the Bozeman Police Department. She didn’t have panic attacks yet, but she is angry and and alone. This was where I started thinking about how she viewed the world, and what that meant for the story. Here’s how it went.
Q: Why did you decide to become a cop?
A: Mostly by accident. My brother was in the Army then, so I joined up after college. Also because I was in ROTC in college. I knew I had to pay it back. Our parents weren’t, well, how to say this nicely — forthcoming in the tuition department. We both had to put ourselves through school. I chose the MPs and never looked back. I wanted the action.
Q: What else do you want?
A: I want to find out why my brother had to die. I want to find out what exactly he was doing in Afghanistan because I know he wasn’t just doing some reconnaissance mission like the Army says. He was a Green Beret. Or he used to be. I have a feeling he was working for the CIA but I don’t know. Nobody will tell me anything.
Q: Does it really matter?
A: Hell, yes! This is my country, my army. I haven’t been in for seven years, since I was 26, but I have a strong allegiance to the service. I want to know if it failed him. I have a feeling, like I said, that it did, but I could be wrong. I need the facts. I have always been a gut-driven investigator but only because then I can get the facts to discredit my gut feeling.
Q: Could it just be that you’re grieving?
A: Fuck you! You don’t know what it’s like to lose the one person in the world who was solid, moral, a rock in your life. Taken away from you for reasons that no one will explain.
Q: But he was working in service to his country. Isn’t that enough?
A: I told you, no! It’s not enough. I need the facts.
Q: You sound angry.
A: Hell, yes, I’m angry. I’ve lost my brother.
[they discuss the FBI. At this point she was an FBI agent.]
Q: Why do you think you’ve been getting less and less important assignments?
A: Because I’m not a kiss-ass. The FBI is full of ass-kissers.
Q: Do you even like men?
A: I like men. But respect is something a man has to earn. My brother spoiled me for that.
Q: He sounds like he was quite a guy.
Q: Are you crying?
A: No. Leave me alone. He was my brother. My best friend. He could do anything. He made me feel like I could do anything, like he had my back. Always in my corner.
Q: You sound alone.
A: Isn’t everybody? But yes, I am more alone than anytime in my life. And it scares me. Will I always be alone? Will I say, hey, my life doesn’t matter and do something stupid that gets me killed? I can see it happening and it puts a chill on my spine. I’ve seen it before. Not the killed part, but the shot part, the hero thing.
Q: Do you want to be a hero?
A: I want justice. I want to do the right thing. I want to know the truth. I have a hard-on for the truth. Yeah, I know, even though I’m a woman I have a hard-on. It’s just a phrase. You have to get into male lingo if you want to be accepted in the FBI. It’s very macho.
Q: Do you consider yourself macho?
A: Not really. Macho is a posture that men adopt to make themselves feel better. It’s stupid and false. If you need to act macho you aren’t really that sure of your abilities.
Q: Are you sure of yours?
A: I can hit a bullseye at 50 yards with my right hand, and 100 yards with my left. My specialty is people. I get a vibe off people. I know, lots of people say that. But I can scan a crowd and almost instantly get a vibe if there’s a bad actor out there. Then I walk through the crowd and pick out the source of the vibe. I don’t always know what it is the person has done or is thinking about doing or is carrying, but I can pick him out. But mostly I just feel all the meanness in the world.
Q: That sounds like a burden.
A: Yeah, sometimes it is. It makes me realize how badly so many people are brought up, how little love there is in the world, how little kindness and good will.
PLAN X is out now on Amazon.