The sequel to my book The Thunderegg Speaks is taking longer than anticipated. I’ve been reluctant to finish the draft of Chapter 1 because finishing the chapter requires me to finish off a character, a character I’m beginning to really like. What do I do about this? Agatha Christie had no trouble killing off characters. Sure, many of them were rotten to the core. It’s easy to kill off bad guys, but good guys? Damn.
Does a writer really have control over her characters? I initially planned to kill off my first character, a drifter on his way to the Haight-Ashbury scene. For months now, I’ve been procrastinating, finding excuse after excuse not to sit down and finish the first chapter. I created two nasty villains to show how my protagonist is judged unfairly based on the townspeople’s prejudices against him. Eventually, the protagonist is dismissed based on his personality and lifestyle, as well as, his eccentric quirk.
Doesn’t everyone have a quirk? My character’s quirk is his fear and mistrust of other people. Based on his eccentricities, the police and the townspeople choose to ignore him when he tells the truth.
My reluctance to draft the prequel to The Thunderegg Speaks began nearly four months ago. I found numerous reasons to put off writing: taking out the trash, mowing the lawn, doing some research on the time period (1965), and watching / reading all about the impeachment of POTUS #45. After flipping through my daily planner, I wondered if my reluctance to finish the first chapter had something to do with writing from the perspective of a man struggling with his sexual identity. I am concerned that the LGBTQ community might be offended by a heterosexual female writing from the perspective of a man, a man tormented by his family for loving and desiring other men?
I argued with myself about this issue – if a male writer can write from the perspective of a female character, why can’t I write from the perspective of a man struggling to acknowledge his true sexual identity? With the controversy over the book American Dirt and the heightened feelings in American culture today, I’m even more torn by doubts as to the wisdom of creating a character who is gay.
Perhaps the less controversial step would be to reinstate my initial construction of Jasper’s sexual identity as a heterosexual or bisexual misanthrope. Today, he might be called an involuntary celibate (Incel). Personally, I hate labels. Human beings are so much more complicated than the labels people give them. I think of Jasper as a sensitive man who had been mistreated in his youth by a domineering father and grandfather and further traumatized by an ignorant 19th century code of male norms. Perhaps, what I’m most afraid of is that I won’t do justice to Jasper or the drifter and that is why I’ve been procrastinating.
My conundrum all started during the conception of the prequel to The Thunderegg Speaks. I won’t give away the ending of The Thunderegg Speaks, but I will say the spark that ignited the prequel had to do with my interest and curiosity in Sheriff Stewart Treloar’s character. And then as I was writing the prequel, another character captured my attention – the Victorian in the town of Mintlaw. I’ve always been fascinated with old houses, especially Victorians. The picture to the left isn’t what I imagined as I wrote The Thunderegg Speaks and I doubt it’s Victorian.
The abandoned look suits the time period of this prequel. While writing Thunderegg I wondered about the owner of such a house and why the house ended up as Mintlaw City Hall in 1985.
As I wrote the opening chapter, the main protagonist insisted on taking charge. I felt a real affection for him, a middle-aged man, a loner who feared people. He was the unhappy product of a 19th century mode of parenting. Like the house, the owner of the Victorian became real to me.
Adding to my misery, the drifter Dean West who arrives with the expectation of staying in the town of Mintlaw for one night, at conception merely a fictional prop, a nameless victim cut down in his prime, became too important to kill off. His death was supposed to be off stage, much like Hitchcock’s 1954 movie Rear Window. The more I tried to write about the murder, the more I stumbled over Dean West’s demise, which resulted in an opening which left the question of the drifter’s death in doubt. And Jasper, the main protagonist, ended up appearing to readers as either a crackpot or an unreliable eyewitness.
Maybe, I described Dean West too well, his appearance, his clothes and his kindness toward a stray cat? Whatever I did, I found myself reluctant to let him go. Instead of being an innocent victim, he became crucial to a half-formed twist in the story line. I began to fight with myself over sacrificing these characters, making them just pawns in the story’s arc. My intention had been for Dean to become the first victim of a pair of vicious killers. Then I made him too real and soon found myself liking him as much as I liked Jasper.
Every day, I was finding excuses to avoid the painful part of the first chapter, the written execution of a character I was beginning to like. My procrastination forced me to face the reason why I made excuses, why in my daily planner, on the following day I would be forced to run a red line through my penned notes to “finish Chapter 1.” As I write this piece for my website, I’m beginning to realize that I don’t want the bad guys to kill this drifter. I don’t want the drifter to end his life so shabbily, just an unknown corpse discarded in a few paragraphs.
Maybe, in these troubling times, with an army of cowards in the Republican Party led by a soulless wretch, all of them determined to set fire to our constitution, I have good reason to recoil at the idea of murdering off a good man. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman during the 1930s in the era of the Great Depression, perhaps a necessary mental effort in order to combat defeatism. Also, the creation of Superman has been attributed to Siegel’s grief over the loss of his father, perhaps a means for Siegel to come to grips with his own personal tragedy, his father’s murder.
I believe Siegel and Shuster created Superman to stay sane in an insane world. So, why can’t I keep my character alive and kicking and fighting the good fight?
One of my friends suggested I keep him alive. I’ve been considering that option. But am I being true to the story? Am I allowing my characters to take charge of the narrative or am I using them as an excuse to water down the seriousness of the situation? Instead of writing a serious crime novel, will my book end up as just another insipid cowardly fiction for a writer who doesn’t want to face the real world’s cruelty and unfairness?
In real life, good people die young. In real life, good people go to prison, even when they’re innocent. In real life, good people live in poverty and learn lived-helplessness – until – until they have mental breakdowns and go shoot a relative or friend or more likely, a sister, a wife or a girlfriend. Notice most victims throughout history have been female. These deaths symbolize the weakness in our American culture, even though females are anything but weak. If men had to deal with the garbage women deal with every day, they would appreciate us more.
Never mind. That’s a topic for another day.
The first victim, the character Dean, in this prequel to Thunderegg Speaks, even when he was newly formed began to make himself heard (while I slept). His bravery and kindness began to emerge. I saw him as a tall thin man with long brown hair who hated injustice. I dressed him in a leather fringe vest, psychedelic print shirt, elephant pants and moccasins. He carries a navy duffel bag and stops to caress the smooth back of a tom cat. He agrees to mow a stranger’s lawn for a meal. He rescues a young woman from a lecher. Unfortunately, he is also a draft dodger. He finished boot camp with distinction, gets his marksmanship ribbon but sees himself as a pacifist and refuses to kill anyone or anything, even an ant on a log.
He comes from a middle-class family and formed his opinions about the world by way of a wonderful teacher in middle-school and his ferocious love of reading: John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Joseph Heller, Ralph Ellison, and Jack Kerouac. He is a quiet man, a great listener, someone who would help a stranger and give the shirt off his back to a homeless person. Back in the 60s, the homeless were referred to as bums. Ironically, those bums of yesterday, ninety-one years ago, were a consequence of the Great Depression and like the morbidly rich of the 1920s, we have our own morbidly rich today. The real American tragedy is our love of money. We never seem to learn.
So, how could I kill my drifter off? He’s my version of Superman. I can’t let him die. But I must stay true to the victims also. They deserve as much thoughtful contemplation as my Superman. After thinking about my reluctance to finish my first chapter, I decided I needed a female hero as well, a superwoman who fights for the little guy. And in the middle will be my protagonist, an eccentric recluse who collects rocks, old books and newspapers. They are my three main protagonists fighting the good fight, fighting evil.
The evil they fight is the evil of two serial killers who prey on the weak for money and power. These men found each other during the Depression after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. They’ve been together longer than most marriages – thirty-nine years. Every year, they find a new mark, rob the mark blind and dump his or her body. So far, they’ve never been caught. But I want to show how a town, not just my three protagonists discover the truth and deal with these psychopaths.
You might think of me as a dreamer, a writer who can’t face reality. You might be right. Yet, I can’t help but think of all those dreamers in the past who fought against injustice, who fought against tyranny. They may not have won every battle, but at least they stood up to the bullies at great personal risk to themselves. That’s the kind of story I want to write.