From time to time someone will take me to task over my characters—usually my protagonists. The usual complaint is over my hero’s “goodness.” The remarks usually center on, “You know, if your main guy had done the right thing in the beginning, he wouldn’t have gotten himself into all that trouble.” And those people are right. My good guys have usually done something to put themselves in the position they find themselves in. It’s somewhat of a personal belief. If you stray from life’s straight and narrow, then life’s probably going to bite you in the ass and keep biting.
I’m happy with this trait of my stories. Squeaky clean characters blazing a trail for all that is good and right don’t excite me. I like fallible people. People who know to put on oven mitts because they’ve gotten burned a couple of times, not because they’ve been told not to touch hot things without them. I guess I identify with these sorts of characters. I’ve committed a few minor infractions in my time and the repercussions have snowballed. I think it’s the gathering pace of the payback that intrigues me and drives my fiction. The fear and panic experienced when a situation goes sideways makes for great stories, if not for real life.
I must admit it has colored the way I look at the world. I’m not a glass half-empty kind of a guy but more a glass half-filled with something corrosive tipping over and spilling everywhere kind of a guy. I have a habit of predicting how a bad situation will get worse. Once you’ve tempted fate, it has its own gravitational pull that is inevitable.
The spark that ignites my storylines is a moment of weakness. The character is presented with a situation that nine times out of ten they’d ignore, but circumstances are skewed this one time. He’s out of a job. She’s just been dumped. These characters are in a weakened state when an opportunity is presented. Instead of blowing it off, they throw caution to the wind and act out of character. Naturally, it doesn’t pan out and it is going to take a whole lot of fixing to set everything right again. Moments of weakness are dangerous currency.
ROAD RASH’s hero is James Straley. He’s a bank robber. When a bank job goes wrong, he’s on the run when he stumbles across a car wreck. Instead of helping the victims of the wreck, he steals one of the vehicles at the crash site. Not particularly likable of him, but he’s a ruthless and desperate man. But in that desperate moment, things change for Straley. He’s struck down with a rash that makes his problems up until seem like small fry. This is his tipping point. He either continues on a path to ruin or change his ways. Over the course of a story, Straley makes the biggest change of any character I’ve ever written. He starts off as a nasty piece of work and becomes something quite different by the end, figuratively and literally.
I guess I like my shop-soiled heroes, maybe not to hang out with, but to read and write about. It has a lot to do with how someone reacts under insurmountable odds. There’s more at stake than the mystery or the crime to solve. The character’s soul is at stake as well. And I can’t help root for someone in that position. Everyone loves a comeback kid. I think I also identify with human frailty and characters like James Straley. We can all do bad things, but how we atone for our mistakes makes us redeemable and interesting.