Wednesday, March 4, 2015

It's All About Character(s)

What makes a book memorable?  What makes the difference between a book we read through one time and think, "Well, that was fun!"  - but then we toss it in the Goodwill sack and never think of it again, and the books we pull down from the shelf and re-read again and again as the years go by?  There are lots of authors out there, and many of them have sold a LOT more books than I have (but hey!  I'm just getting started here, OK?).  I can tell you, though, what makes the difference in my mind.  I suspect this makes the difference for a lot of people besides me, too - it's the characters in the books.  Ultimately, if we like the people on the page, we will like their story.  If the characters are unlikable, no matter how good the story is, it's hard to motivate yourself to read it a second time.  Let me pick two writers we all have at least a passing familiarity with: Stephen King and Michael Crichton.
  Crichton was one of the smartest people ever to pen a best-seller - I read that his IQ was near 160.  But can you name a single character from one of his books that evoked a strong emotional reaction in you? (The movies don't count - Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill were far more engaging on the screen than the characters in the JURASSIC PARK novels.)  Crichton had a gift for cranking out engaging plots, and his understanding of science was phenomenal - but not a single book of his I read had a character that I liked.  Or that I hated, for that matter.  His characters were simply vehicles to carry the story forward, no more.  Thus his books are ones that get read once and discarded, while the movies - which developed the characters far more than he did - are perennial favorites.
   Stephen King, on the other hand, has a gift for great characters.  Some of his books are far better than others, and he has written a couple of books that I actually hated (CHRISTINA and INSOMNIA, if you must know), but even in those works, there was at least one character that I found to be completely credible and sympathetic.  Even his villains have a human side that lets you pity and abhor them at the same time ("Trashcan Man" in THE STAND comes to mind, for one).  I think many of King's works will be read a century from now, because if there is one thing that Shakespeare taught us, it is that memorable characters will stand the test of time.  The people in King's earliest novels are just as engaging today as they were when he created them forty years ago.
   One reason I never completed a novel until I was nearly 50 years old is the fact that it took me that long to understand humanity well enough to create characters that were fun and believable.  Of all the things reviewers have said about my first novel, the thing that makes me proudest is when they talk about how likable my characters are.  I know that I liked them all!  I had fun creating them, and it broke my heart when I had to kill off some of them in THE TESTIMONIUM (some spoilers below, so if you haven't read the book yet, please go buy a copy and read it before finishing this post!).

   Giuseppe Rossini was a fun person to create.  His is the first perspective in the story (if you don't count the prologue), and I tried to shift back to his point of view now and then as the novel progressed.  I knew about five chapters in that he was going to be one of the victims of the terror attack at the lab, but I didn't know he was going to die until I actually wrote that chapter.  Even then, I pulled back from the computer and stared at it awhile to see if there was any other way for those events to happen.  I liked Simone Apriceno, and hated to see her go, but Rossini's death was very difficult to write about, and the funeral chapter nearly killed me.
    Josh is my literary alter ego, as anyone who knows me will recognize when they read the story.  His passion to defend the Gospels, his intense affection for Isabella, the love of his life, his impulsive nature, his love of Indian artifacts, Dr. Pepper, and B-movies are all straight from me. Of course, as my alter ego, I could make him the person that I want to be rather than the person I actually am (hence his skinny physique and dream job!).  Isabella is  partly based on my wife, partly on some other women I have known over the years, and partly my imagination as to what Josh's perfect match would be like.
   Oddly enough, perhaps my favorite character in the story is Father MacDonald, who fascinated me at the time and continues to do so as I spin out the plot of a future story in which he will be the main character.  I am a staunch Baptist and have serious theological differences with the Church of Rome, yet in creating and fleshing out my Vatican scholar, I have come to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for all the good things the Catholic Church has done over the years.  Plus Duncan is such a funny old curmudgeon that his dialogue always makes me smile!  (I envision him as a much younger Ian Holm - circa 1989 in HENRY V or 1996 in THE FIFTH ELEMENT.)
   As for my upcoming work, THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE, the title character is one that I think people will find very fascinating.  As I read over the historical sources on Pilate's life, I saw a great dichotomy between the Gospels, where he is shown in a sympathetic light, and the works of Josephus and Philo, where he is represented as a cruel, grasping tyrant.  The common skeptic's explanation is that the Gospel writers were trying to make a good impression on Rome, so they painted the Roman prefect as Jesus' reluctant executioner, while the Jews who wrote about him later were more truthful about his wicked nature.   I wondered, as I read these different accounts - what if they were both right?  What if Pilate were a man of considerable talent and honor, who also had a vicious streak that the Jews got on the wrong side of?  That is the man I have portrayed, and while you may not like him, I think you will be fascinated with him.
   The other character in PILATE that I had a lot of fun with is Rome's much-maligned Emperor. Tiberius Caesar.  Suetonius and others have portrayed the second Emperor of Rome as a cruel pedophile, a tyrant, and a monster.  But the earlier sources give a different picture, of a talented but morose individual who had a very hard time being happy, even while he ruled over a good chunk of the world.  While I have stuck pretty close to the actual events of Tiberius' reign, I have also tried to picture him as a man who could be admirable at some times and despicable at others.  I am anxious to see what my readers will make of him!
   Character matters in our lives, characters matter in our writing. I hope you will find mine worthwhile.

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