Thursday, October 20, 2011

Back Story and Flawed Characters

Think this guys has some character flaws?

He dated enough to quell most rumors he was gay. Sex was okay but too messy, too intimate. And sex usually took place in the bedroom, where shoes are kept. Daniel had eighty-two pairs, a fact he preferred to keep private. He was sure that once a woman learned he had a thing for shoes she would leave and tell him to never call again. Few people saw the inside of his apartment and no one, ever, went into his bedroom.
All-in-all, Daniel Lawless was an odd man with strange passions, but not so strange that he couldn’t fit in. He discovered he could have his shoes and his music so long as he enjoyed them quietly. He was content and prepared, if necessary, to live out his life alone.
He was not, however, prepared in any way for the horror that was descending upon him and the people he had sworn to serve and protect. Modesto needed a Dirty Harry, a man of action who carried a big gun he wasn’t afraid to use, but what they got instead was Daniel Lawless, a man who carried a small gun he preferred not to use, a man who liked shoes.

When I completed CANALS, it weighed in at a hefty 200,000 words; a bit much. It was the first novel I’d completed and I thought I was the new Stephen King.

In CANALS, I did something authors are strongly advised not to do: I dumped all of my main character’s, Daniel Lawless, back story into one chapter; an “info dump,” they call it. When editing, I chopped a lot of the back story out, but left it together. I split the back story up in my second book, THE MIGHTY T. I think the story flows better that way because when you give back story, you’re interrupting the plot and you want to keep that to a minimum.

What is back story? It’s when an author explains what happened before the timeline of the book. It’s usually used to explain why someone is the way they are, why they’re motivated to do whatever they’re doing in the book.

In CANALS, Lawless is a cop who’s always mindful of what’s happening to his shoes. He kicks a dirt clod in frustration, and immediately regrets doing it because it left a mark on the leather. When he’s finally alone at the scene, he pulls a small shoeshine kit out from under the front seat of his cruiser and makes a quick repair, buffing the mark out. That behavior is a bit odd, don’t you think? I do.

Characters with quirks, or flaws, are more interesting than characters who’re perfect, or think they’re perfect. Which reminds me of a story . . .

When growing up, my older brother (and my only brother) appointed himself the family narc. I’m fifty-four now so I’ve forgotten most of the times he ratted me out, but two memories remain.

When I was about five, our family had a burn barrel for trash; we burned all our paper trash on designated burn days. I was a budding arsonist then and had been warned that if I was caught near a fire again I’d get a whooping. Some time later, on a burn day, I noticed the fire was going to go out before all the trash was burned, so, to help the family, I stirred the fire with a stick so all the paper would get consumed. I was just trying to help, right?

My brother saw me and said, “You’re not supposed to play with fire. I’m telling.” Rat! I’d hoped my mom would do the whooping because her whoopings barely hurt, but no such luck. Shortly before my dad got home, I hid in the back of the closest, which was a mistake as it made him madder to have to hunt me down and pull me out.

(Mind you, if we kids were whooped, it was always on the bottom. His paddle of choice was a foot-long ruler from New Zealand, made of ridiculously hard wood apparently only found in that country. I wanted to throw it in the burn barrel . . .)

Flash forward to age twelve-ish. I had a Daisy BB gun I used to keep the bird population in the neighborhood in check. I was told to stop shooting birds, but how could I? I was sure they were plotting to take over the block by pecking out our eyes. My brother saw me shoot a bird and ratted me out. I was relieved of my BB gun.

My friends and I used to call him “Mr. Righteous,” because he thought he was the conscious of the family. We mostly disliked him. He’s a great guy now, though. A really great guy. Go figure.

When writing Lawless’s character, I wanted the reader to think he had no chance against the monster. He’d always avoided conflict when he could; he wasn’t a womanizer, at all; he liked shoes; he drank wine instead of beer and hard liquor—he wasn’t a macho cop. And here comes this monster, an unstoppable killing machine. An impossible setup.

Modesto needed a Dirty Harry, but what they got instead was Daniel Lawless, a guy who liked shoes. Can he rise to the occasion? You’ll have to read CANALS to find out.