I write with a tight cast. I'm facinated by personalities driven into conflict with each other. When it works, hero and villain crash into each other at the end of an inevitable and ever-accelerating rocket-slide into their own personal hells.
I find myself driven to explore even the lowest-level henchman. Even if the information doesn't make it to the page, I need to know *why* they're on this adventure. Why don't the guards quit? Or call the cops or something? Why do those damn stormtroopers just stand in that hallway?
When one of my characters stays wooden on the page? The whole story lies dead.
Dead, dead, dead. Dead.
This becomes... upsetting.
For me, character is like grappling. Punching and kicking, the shot lands or it doesn't. That's like scene construction. The scene works, or it doesn't. Grappling is fluid: winner and loser can change in the blink of an eye, and everything's up in the air until a definitive hold locks on.
With Poison Door, my problem was my hero. Sarah Crane, my tough cop, notices runaways and street kids going missing. Pulling that thread unravels her life. I had a good grip on the villain and the street kid who acts as the bridge between the two, but Sarah, she just kind of showed up on time and said her lines, you know? No spark.
Two thirds of the way through the book, I was sweating bullets. Sarah was the damn hero, and she bored the hell out of me! One day, riding my bike in the city, I was humming a little tune in my head, One Hundred Punks Rule, by Generation X. Rolling past a couple of young'uns, plaid and piercings and colored mohawks, I had the usual whistful thought that my days in the mosh pit are behind me. For one thing, I'm not as keen as I once was. And even if I *was*, there's nothing creepier than the really old guy at the kids' party.
BAM! The arm-bar shot home, and I had my grip on Sarah. I went back through her sequels and wrote from the heart about the invisible and irrevocable membrane that seperates us from our youthful selves. Bits of her character began to dovetail, and by the time I got back to the point I'd left off, she was barrelling forward on greased rails.
Now, with Crossroad Blues, my problem was Jack Terrabonne. Jack's my Minor Bastard, a vain and selfish man whose ego makes the Major Bastard's evil possible. Jack's a washed-up country music star, putting off his eventual sunset in Las Vegas or Branson, Missouri and pretending to the vigour of his lost youth, living in the glories of his past and blind to his evils in his present.
Problem was, Jack was a little bit cardboard. Part of my problem was that I'm in a very different place in my life, and on a very different trajectory. Part of it is that I simply do not like this asshole. If Jack wasn't so self-involved, a lot of lives might have been saved.
So how do I write him? Where's my hold?
Well, I start with two articles of faith: 1) My subconscious has a reason for putting him in the story. 2) This guy's dog thinks he's pretty cool. That is, somewhere in this guy's life, he gives and receives love and and acceptance.
So I've been grappling with Jack, jumping from hold to hold, trying to find one that locks on. I've written a bit about Jack's few genuine relationships, and a bit more about his efforts to revive his recording career.
But I still don't like him. Jack is isolated, deluded and monstrously selfish. He's....
Jack Terrabonne is the unbridled artistic ego. He's the natural result of Picasso's quote to the effect that 'an artist would rather see his kids on the street and his wife in a whorehouse than go without paints and brushes.' Jack is a big spoiled baby. A talented spoiled baby.
And just like that, I see Jack's great conflict in his life. It's with his own past: all anyone wants to hear are the classic hits from his past (the Branson/Vegas fate), but Jack's ego won't accept that his best days are behind him. He keeps trying to record new material, and it's godawful.
This, I can understand. I could be making a very comfortable living tattooing full-time. I could make better than that if I opened my own studio again. The world is happy to reward the art of my youth. But creatively, I've moved on, and that's an uphill battle.
I've got my grip. I still don't like the guy, but he's mine now...