Sunday, August 18, 2013

The thing about fiction is...

By Alan McDermott

... it isn’t real.

Yeah, I know that’s kinda obvious, but some of the people who have read Gray Justice don’t seem to realise this.

Let’s start at the beginning.

In July 2010 I had the seed of an idea and an empty Word document, and the first thing I needed was a main character.

Male or female? Hmm, good question. I thought about it for a while and decided that as the protagonist would have an SAS [British special military forces] background, I would go with male.

Next, a name. How about Clint Power? Max Thrust? Trenton Steele? Actually, why not go with a normal name? Okay, Dave…Sid…Tom… yeah, Tom. Tom what? Tom Savage!! No, something run-of-the-mill that doesn’t build the guy up as a super hero. Something bland, something … Gray!

Tom Gray!

Okay, so I have the seed of an idea, which is that someone loses a loved one to a repeat offender and sees the punishment handed down by the court as derisory. What should he do?

I know! He starts a petition to demand tougher sentencing guidelines. He goes on Facebook and Twitter and amasses a million followers and they all sign the petition and it goes before parliament and he’s standing outside Number Ten waving a placard and…

No. Where’s the story? Where’s the action, the intrigue? He could trip over a couple of times because he made the placard too big, or…

Stop! That isn’t going to work. He has to do something unique. This is supposed to be a story that grabs readers and takes them somewhere they’ve never been. It shouldn’t read like a few column inches in The Guardian. He could mow down the killer, or kidnap and torture him, or…

Right, that’s enough, Alan! Here’s a hundred bucks, go buy yourself a proper imagination!

What would Stephen King do in this situation? I read Misery, and that was a good book. A woman finds an injured author, her favourite author, and takes him back to her home. Okay, that’s the first couple of chapters. What happens next? Does she call an ambulance and have him taken to hospital? If she’d done that, it would have been King’s shortest and worst story EVER! Instead, she breaks his ankles to stop him escaping and makes him write a novel about her favourite character, one that doesn’t see the heroine die.

Possibility of that happening? Slim to none is my guess, but it made for great entertainment. I was reading it and wondering “How is he going to get out of this?”

Okay, another few light years and I’ll still be a million miles from Stephen King, but that’s the kind of thing you need to give an audience. Put the protagonist in an unheard of situation and have the reader wonder how they could possibly come through the other end.

Okay, got it. He kidnaps not just the killer, but four other repeat offenders and holds them in a disused warehouse. He tells the government that he wants tougher sentencing or his hostages die.
Hmm, it’s missing something. The authorities would soon locate him, if they even gave a shit about the criminals in the first place. So we need a deterrent. What could possibly stop the police wanting to rush the place? Think! Think! I know, he’s planted a bomb somewhere, and if they kill him, the bomb will go off!

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Yeah, a standoff. He’s got the hostages, and the police won’t make a move. So now what? What has Tom achieved? Nothing. The news channels will report about a hostage situation, but Tom’s grievances are falling on deaf ears. The police and politicians might sympathise after what he’s been through, but it all boils down to him committing a criminal act.

Tom needs to reach the people, but how? He builds a website and streams video of the hostages, and tells the government that they mustn’t interfere with it, otherwise…What? And how long is this going to go on for?

Let’s go back to the start. We need to make Tom a man with nothing left to lose. Okay, his wife, overcome with grief at the loss of their son, takes her own life. We still have the problem of a timescale, though. Is this going to go on forever? And where’s the government’s incentive to play ball?

Got it! Tom will reveal the location of the device on Friday, then take his own life! He now has nothing to lose, so why not? But what will he have achieved by then? Think, Alan!

I know! He wants to change the sentencing guidelines, but he thinks the government won’t listen. Why not let the people of Britain vote on the changes? They can ignore one lunatic, but not the entire population! Let the people speak!

All we need now is a set of changes he wants to make, but we have to bear in mind who is creating them. This is a simple ex-soldier, not a politician. Successive governments have had numerous experts working on the perfect judicial system and it still isn’t quite there, so it would be crazy to have Tom come up with the perfect solution. It wouldn’t be in keeping with the character I’m trying to create. Instead, I’ll just have to give him a bunch of unworkable ideas and throw in some counter-arguments to balance things out.

Should I mention rehabilitation and crime prevention as possible solutions, or attacking the root of the problem at an early stage through school workshops and the like? Would anyone in Tom’s situation think like that, or would they just be damn angry and want to see the criminals punished? I’ll err on the side of the latter.

So, that’s the process. I think of situations for my characters, I give them the appropriate personalities and opinions, and let them get on with it.

Anyway, back to the purpose of this post: Some people seem to think that Tom’s thoughts and ideals are actually a reflection of MY feelings towards the British judicial system (here's a classic example). If you’re among that number, then you must also assume that Stephen King condones the kidnapping and hobbling of injured authors! Is that what you really think?

So please, when you read this book, just remember it’s a work of FICTION! Whether you agree or disagree with Tom’s ideals or methods is entirely up to you, but your argument will be with a fictional character.  

Alan McDermott is author of the Tom Gray trilogy: Gray Justice, Gray Resurrection and Gray Redemption. His blog is jambalian.

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