A few days ago, I had two enlightening exchanges concerning Julius. The first one was with a friend who asked me about the progress of the book. Come this November, it will be seven years that the notion of Julius was conceived. I’ve written often that this will be the year I finish the book and the truth is I have finished several drafts, but each one seemed incomplete to me. I knew the story was lacking certain elements, but most importantly, and this has been a recent discovery, I needed to intimately know my characters to drive the story forward.
The second conversation I had was with a writing friend; we discussed several factors about the writing process from the subconscious and the conscious working together to believing in the story to not over-thinking it. All of what my friend said made sense and it has helped me look at the story and examine my characters more intensely.
My current task is digging deeper into my characters’ psyches. I have Corinne down, and to a degree bad guy Craig. Now I have to make sure that the metrosexual twins, Jake and Doug, are discernible—each one with his own set of neuroses and distinct ambitions.
So, boys, step into my office, lay down on the couch, and tell me about your childhoods.
For the past week I debated writing this post because I was in a panic mode about shaking things up in Julius. The issue at hand is that my bad guys are not all that bad. They are your garden variety SOBs, and they share too many similarities with Jake, Corinne’s companion.
The problem I had was that both Jake and Doug Barron (the Op-Ed columnist for Julius) were interchangeable—same career ambitions, same political perspectives, same age, same metrosexual lifestyle. Something had to be done to change Fric and Frac so readers wouldn’t be confused or bored.
On the other hand, Craig, the obsessive conservative blogger, has been fleshed out. He’s showing signs that something is not right in his head, but that still wasn’t enough. To up the ante, I decided he should be a tad scary so I wrote a scene where he stalks Corinne.
That’s when the panic set in. The dynamics of the story where changing. I had to rein and steer it back to this whole red scare era isn’t really dead theme, and not turn it into a psychological thriller of a crazy conservative stalking a comely communist.
The alarm bells of an aha moment went off in my head when I read a short Wikipedia biography on Samuel Dickstein. This was a palm to forehead moment, and given the title of the book, I knew I needed a stool pigeon. Now it all seemed so clear: the backstory I created for Doug Barron showed me that he was the perfect candidate for the job.
Now my bad boys are bad in varying degrees: I have a vindictive and a delusional bad guy; I have an opportunist who is getting paid by the Feds to be a stool pigeon bad guy; and I have the garden variety selfish boyfriend, who isn’t bad, but merely self-centered.
My panic attack is gone for the time being (until I fall into another hole in the story) so let the badness begin …. And if you need some inspiration, here’s a little George Thorogood:
I’ve been thinking about the question of character these past few days, specifically pondering Jake and Corinne’s characters in Julius. One of the many problems of Julius is that I’ve created two characters that have no tension. They’re charming, idealistic, financially comfortable, attractive and they whole-heartedly support one another. It’s an ideal relationship that anyone would like to have, but in reality doesn’t exist. Couples fight, they get frustrated with one another, they have differing opinions and sometimes the glue that holds them together is more like Elmer’s rather than epoxy.
To add some tension between my now Not-So-Merry Marxists, I used the old “Write what you know about” rule and took a long and hard look at past relationships (short term, long term, romantic and platonic). From there I created a mind-map of all of Corinne’s traits to see if I could see an underlying action that dominated her personality and that would cause conflict with Jake. Jackpot! I saw a trait that could cause her a lot of problems and that could also be part of the underlying theme.
As for Jake, his personality borders on charm and arrogance. Other than that I really didn’t know how to change the relationship dynamics between him and Corinne until I decided to make him 11 years older, edging very closely to that half-century mark—a time when you reconsider values and beliefs, career choices, personal relationships, finances and so forth Once, I made that tweak, it opened so many doors of conflict.
I was putting off this task for a number of reasons—the big one was that I liked my two protagonists as they were. There’s no question I want my characters to be liked, but maybe not so much.
And now a new feature in these posts: a question to readers.
What major (or minor) changes have you made to your characters and how did it change your story?