Thursday, 6 December 2012

Germolene and Sticking Plasters

“You put him through a lot of pain!” someone said to me after reading The Poison Boy, aka Sleepwell and Fly recently. They were talking about the protagonist. And yeah, I’m prepared to admit he has a pretty rough time of things. There’s the poisoning, the explosions, the fights – that incident with the knife; I could go on. Re-reading the whole thing again (I’m down to the final line edits now) I got to thinking about why I’ve done this. In many ways, I think, it’s a kind of weakness in the book, and it springs from a weakness in myself.
Here’s what I mean. I’m comfortable when my team of cheerful protagonists are pulling together, battling immeasurable odds and getting a good old-fashioned kicking. Cuts and bruises will heal and they’ll still be the best of friends after it’s all over, see? What I’m a little more scared of – I recognise this now – is putting them through emotional turmoil or upheaval. So I make up for it by throwing an extra gang of heavies with pistols in their direction and watching them grit their teeth and get through it.
It doesn’t necessarily make for a good novel though.
Let’s imagine two protagonists, both at the same point in their narratives; two-thirds through, entering the final act with daunting challenges ahead of them. (And rather than break with tradition people, let’s imagine these guys are both called Argyle):
  • Argyle 1 has to escape a prison cell at the top of a high tower, battle his way through a flotilla of armed guards and rescue a stranded pal before the book ends.
  • Argyle 2 has to choose between breaking a sworn confidence by revealing his best friend’s dreadful secret, or betraying his girlfriend.
There you go.
Now, I know which I’d tend towards: Argyle 1. Why? Because I feel more comfortable putting poor Argyle through the straining of muscle and sinew, the fear, the physical danger, the broken teeth, the fist in the face. He’s trapped in a corner? No worries, Argyle! Open a can o’ Whup-Ass and it’ll all be alright in the end, yeah? I know that, the reader knows that, and as a result all we get is a prose version of Mission Impossible with endless running and jumping, hiding around corners and wise-cracking as the bodies mount up.
But we can all see what makes the more dramatic story; it’s Argyle 2. That lad’s got a major problem, and no amount of ninja skills is gonna get him out of it. He’ll agonise, he’ll fret, he’ll suffer terrible torment… I’m nervous just thinking about it. That’s real drama, right?
So I reckon I need to change direction for my next story. Be brave and tackle it head-on. I need to give my protag a problem that can’t be solved with germolene and sticking plasters.
The question is… what?