In case you haven’t been following along, The December Book is the novel I’m currently writing, which I promised to shadow in these entries through the whole process of writing, editing, submitting, and (hopefully, someday) publishing. The working title is The December Book because I started writing it in December. It has a secret other title too, but I’ll keep that to myself until late in the game because… well… it contains spoilers. At the moment, we’re deep into the writing of the first draft…
Back in December, when the idea of having whole chapters of this book behind me was a distant dream, I drew up a plot outline and some character thumbnails to keep me on track through the book. Were I to give you this document and let you skim through the character outlines, your immediate impression would be of a group of irredeemable villains, with nothing and nobody to cheer for among them. What can I say? It’s that sort of story. I’m not saying that nobody moral or heroic will turn up in the novel, but I’m fairly certain that if they do, they won’t last very long.
The prospective difficulty with this sort of set up, in which there are no ‘heroes’, is that the story can get morally lost, drifting along pointless, unpleasant avenues until a conclusion is reached that nobody really cares about. That’s most definitely not what I want you to experience when you eventually hand over your hard-earned cash for a copy of the book. Why would I? That’s what real life’s for.
My approach to avoiding this is the same as when I was an actor. I was never fond of playing morally upright types. Too dull by far, and even when I ended up doing so, I’d look for the dark places in them. It’s in overcoming the worst of themselves that a ‘good’ character really comes to life – without that internal struggle, there’s no drama in them, and they run the risk of becoming empty, tepid plot cyphers.
Of course, the same holds true in reverse for villains. Villains can be brilliant characters to play, as long as you can stop them from becoming flat, two-dimensional representations of evil. Unless you’re doing pantomime, nobody’s going to be interested in that sort of thing. For anything else, the trick to playing truly unpleasant people is to remember that they themselves don’t think they’re evil, villainous, or unpleasant. Much of the fascination with such a character is watching as the better parts of them fail to overcome their worst excesses. Hitler, to pick one example from recent history, probably wouldn’t have described himself on the ‘About Me’ section of his Facebook profile as a racist, genocidal, megalomaniacal dictator, and neither would his mum.
That’s how I’m approaching the motley crew filling the pages of The December Book, because for me writing fiction is no different from acting (except that I’m acting every single character, the set, the soundtrack, and the lighting, all at once). I’m living inside their heads, and so far all but one of them is an interesting blend of moral uncertainty (and hopefully, that last straggler is about to broaden out in the next chapter or two). They might be committing some horrible crimes against God and Nature, as it were, but they also have reasons for doing so, and as far as they’re concerned those reasons justify what they’re doing. And when they’re not perpetrating horrors? Well, some of them have families, spouses and kids that they love and would do anything for. Some have day jobs that they struggle through. They all have friends, and hobbies, and a sense of humour. Hopefully, by peeling them back like this, I’ll create something you want read, even if there isn’t a hero trying to save the day.
That’s the plan, anyway, and next week should see me finish the first act of the novel. For day job reasons, I’ll be spending five nights in a Mumbai hotel instead of home, which sounds like too good a writing retreat to waste. We shall see, but I have high hopes that the book is going to turn a significant corner before next weekend.