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Blogs From Exile

Getting It Write: When your main character is a writer

In my new novel Death Troupe, the main character is a playwright. Creating such a role was a new experience for me, and I was surprised by how much work it turned out to be. I’ve read many novels in which the protagonist was some kind of writer (Stephen King’s The Shining, Misery, and ‘salem’s Lot, just to name three from a single author) and had always found the writer-as-character to be highly engaging. Making my playwright interesting wasn’t the hard part, of course; what was difficult was describing a fictitious writer’s creative process without simply restating my own.

When it comes to writing, I believe that whatever works for you works for you. It might work for someone else, but then again it might not. These platitudes are easy to say (and even to follow) in real life because we so seldom control how someone else crafts a story. It’s a very different thing, however, when we do have that control.

Death Troupe’s main character, Jack Glynn, doesn’t follow a standard routine in writing his plays. He’s the in-house playwright for a theater troupe that comes together once a year, each year in a different town, to perform a mystery play written specifically for that locale. As a result, Jack has to travel to that vicinity (in this case a place in the Adirondacks called Schuyler Mills) and develop the story as he gets to know the area and its people. He draws heavily on local history and tradition for this, but the troupe’s director provides his own overbearing input as the play is being developed.

Jack’s meetings with the director provide great opportunities for showcasing the brainstorming process, and they also convert what might have been his deadly-dull ruminations into a freewheeling dialogue. This is helpful, as a main character who is a writer could be expected to spend long periods of time alone with the work-in-progress. As mentioned above, Stephen King did this quite successfully with his imprisoned (and terrorized) novelist in Misery, but even so there is always a danger of boring the audience with long passages where the writer is mentally building the story.

Which is not to suggest that the writer-as-protagonist is necessarily boring—far from it. Because they don’t normally hold down a nine-to-five job, writer-characters are freed to spend the day (or night) as they see fit. The search for inspiration can take them to some highly interesting settings, and those settings can be the home of some very unusual personalities and events. Writers see the world through very different sets of eyes, and the writer-protagonist’s interpretation of those sights, personalities, and events can be both entertaining and revealing.

Even the act of writing need not necessarily take place in a quiet room with a single desk and chair anymore. The laptop and Wi-Fi have freed the artist to roam about at will, almost like Hemingway composing essays in his notebook as he sat in busy cafés. Putting the writer in the middle of things, even while creating, provides the opportunity for other characters to break up those long passages where the reader is inside the writer’s head. And that was where I discovered how to describe a fictitious character’s creative process so that it wasn’t just a repeat of my own: The shifting settings, and the information provided by various characters, drove the playwright’s imagination in such a multitude of directions that it assumed a life of its own. The involvement of the demanding director likewise sent the brainstorming down unexpected paths, as his personality and Jack Glynn’s are almost polar opposites.

Having stumbled across this technique for building someone else’s creative process, I was actually pulled along by it at various times. Jack Glynn’s emerging play itself became quite exciting, particularly when a period of seemingly useless effort bordering on writer’s block suddenly lurched into a full-blown creative spree:

". . . he now found himself in one of those exhilarating periods when he’d rather be writing than doing anything else. Things that made for a normal life—like a daily routine that followed the sun—took a back seat to times like these, and he exulted in that change because it served as proof that his writing was indeed the most important thing in his life. It wasn’t a conscious choice on his part, like deciding to repaint the bathroom or go buy the groceries, but an overarching reallocation of his existence that was as undeniable as breathing. Day turned into night, breakfast turned into dinner, and the laptop or the writing tablet beckoned even when he was asleep. He would often awake with a new idea—as if he’d merely been on a break and not unconscious—and he would see the empty seat before the desk not as his station in some pointless assembly line, but as the pilot’s seat in a ship that could go anywhere." (Death Troupe, 2011)

Perhaps that’s the best part of having a writer as the protagonist: Having followed that individual’s avocation ourselves, we identify with the character’s struggles as the story develops. We sympathize when the tale dead-ends, or a major rewrite becomes mandatory. And we beam with a shared pride when the final product comes together.

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