Deadly in Earnest

Bad things happen to the best of us. When enough of them happen to you in real life, you may be motivated to write a novel about them, in order to capture the run of bad luck. The logic behind this impulse is impeccable. We all know that a string of obstacles keeps readers entertained. So far, so good.

As you write down these incidents, filling out the book, you may find yourself adding in occasional embellishments. You decide that the hero needs a sour-tongued older sister, for instance, even though you’re really writing about an older cousin. What really happens to the brother seems, now that you are chronicling it for posterity, not that interesting, so you make up some stuff that makes him sparkle a little more. Yet even these garnishes to the bowl of truth don’t seem like enough. By the time you finish, you may have a nagging sense of unease that the whole affair isn’t as interesting as you thought it was when you started. This doubt is fortified when you start receiving a pile of rejection slips.

What went wrong? You know the story is good: you’ve told it to a number of people and they all were shocked/outraged. Before you start lamenting how unfair life can be, you might want to consider several facts. It helps, for starters, to realize that all novels feature a series of untoward events. Whether they are based on a real story or made up out of thin air doesn’t matter as much as whether the reader can participate vicariously in the incidents. 

Second, “based on a true story” implies a momentous step in the novel-making process. Unless you have the writing chops of Norman Mailer, and an extreme “character” like Gary Gilmour, you need to heighten the drama. That usually means exaggerating the qualities of the main character. He can’t be you. The outrage that you felt at the time will probably not transport readers to the same heights. We all know that lawyers are slimy, that the system of justice in this country can be perverted. Isn’t that what happens in every crime drama we read?

Above all, you need to remember that readers like a main character who is flamboyant, larger than life. The shit hitting the fan only serves to bring out in all their stinking glory the provocative attributes she originally brought into the book. A good character is always trying to outsmart her opponents, or is so disconnected from reality that she does stuff that makes readers want to scream: “Stop! Cease and desist this instant!” In other words, you can have all the right ingredients, but if you don’t think of your character first, you merely have one more story waiting to be told the right way.

Exercise: Identify a true-life character and write down the most interesting incidents that have happened to him. When viewed down on the page, are they that interesting? If not, think of the most outrageous stories you have ever heard. Would any of them work if you slipped the character inside them? Should you change your character so he has more of the moxie shown by the guy in the crazy story?

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