10 January 2016

Shout at the Devil

© DreamsTime
© DreamsTime
by Leigh Lundin

I’ve been wrestling with a story. I know the plot, I know where I want it to go. But the characters are fighting back and they’re dirty combatants.

The first draft– too funny. Humor is difficult to craft, tricky to get right. Here I’m striving to craft a serious mystery, one with a dark twist ending, and it comes out… amusing, comical. Funny doesn’t work with dark, deathly endings.

If you don’t believe me, check out Shout at the Devil, Wilbur Smith’s novel or Peter Hunt’s movie. Setting: German East Africa. British aristocrat Roger Moore falls in love with Barbara Parkins, daughter of hard-drinking, hard-fighting poacher Lee Marvin. Those two bear a daughter. They enjoy tweaking the noses of the humorless and relentless Germans colonizing Tanganyika. Fun and games. Very droll, slapstick. Then World War I breaks out and the wicked German commander sinks their dhow, burns their house, and his nasty Schutztruppen kills Moore’s and Parkins’ daughter– Lee Marvin’s granddaughter.

Within a page, the story jettisons its humor and turns 270°. The light comedy: gone. In its place: death, destruction, misery, heartbreak, revenge.

No! No! It’s like digging into a lovely dessert and there, under the chantilly lies sauerkraut. Give me cabbage or give me cake, but not both at once, please.

Back to the writing board. Literally from scratch, I start again. The characters behave seriously at first. A woman wronged is designated my protagonist, kind of an anti-heroine. But then a guy steps in and, if you know men, they can’t resist heroically saving a damsel in distress– it’s coded in their DNA. But now it’s interfering with the plot where my anti-heroine is supposed to find her own resolution. Just like a guy, huh?

And then two characters decide to fall in love. That’s a tribulation because guys with their defective DNA can’t get hints. Despite her best efforts at subtlety and suggestions, the lad can’t decide if she’s interested in him or it’s strictly business. He’s petrified she might think sexual harassment, ruining a friendship and career.

While I haven’t started from zero again, I’m negotiating with my characters, wanting my anti-heroine to get through the plot. I’m willing to put the aforementioned relationship on the table and let the oversexed pair have their way with one another, but so far the greedy sods want everything their own way. They’re pretty certain they’ll win.

© Booker Prize


  1. I faced the same problem with the Anita Ray stories. I discovered her in short fiction, where her insouciant attitude worked perfectly. Then I put her into a novel and it's been a struggle ever since to keep the right balance between discovery of horrible doings and her devil-may-care attitude. I'm on book five, but there is a noticeable difference between the short stories and the novels. I will not forget this lesson. Good luck with your characters.

  2. It can be a problem when characters take your story hostage. I agree the problem seems more acute with longer stories and novels.

    Thanks, Susan, and good luck with Anita! (Hey! One of my uppity characters says to thank Anita and wish good luck with Susan!)

  3. I've long heard authors say that their characters took on a life of their own, doing things the author wanted. And I always thought in my practical way: How is that possible? You're creating the character!

    And then I decided to write a story with a crooked sheriff, and every time I tried to figure out the plot, I actually heard this guy say, "Please don't make me do that. I wouldn't do that."

    Now maybe that was the breaking point on my sanity, but I do get where you're coming from, Leigh. (And in the end, that sheriff was let to rest, unwritten. He became a woman, and the plot totally morphed, and the new sheriff was as moral as the prior sheriff wanted to be.)

  4. I usually exert pretty tight control, Barb, but I know exactly what you mean. I think my characters are rebelling because of the dark and dirty deed at the end.

  5. Oh, how I have been there.... Some characters simply will not be written, driven, drawn, bribed, or anything else into doing what the author totally intended. Best of luck with getting the dark and dirty deed done, by someone.

  6. I just had a terrible thought, Eve. What if WE are characters in someone's novel battling free will versus terrible plotting, horrid characterization, bad grammar, and indecipherable penmanship?

  7. Here’s to getting those recalcitrant characters to submit so we can read the final product.

  8. Thank you, ABA. (smile) That's what it boils down to.

  9. I'm chiming in very late so I'm not sure you will even see this. But I just had to thank you for the fascinating graphic you added to the end of your post. I've never seen this before and it lends a whole new level of understanding to the process of plotting out characters' lives -- one I "knew" but not with the kind of clarity I feel this diagram has provided.

  10. Leigh, sometimes I think you nailed it. God, I hope not.


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