(Continued from the previous blog) As the last glow of sun dissolved into the horizon, my agility class friend asked if he could be a character in the novel we had been talking about. My initial plot idea had focussed on our breeder and her family, fictionalized of course, but based on her family, those who lived on the property. But initial plot ideas have a way of morphing into quite different stories than originally imagined. Enveloped in autumnal darkness, I regarded this man I’d known for four years through our ownership of shelties from the same breeder and our participation in training classes and dog shows. His face, obscured by nightfall, nonetheless revealed a man with a settled soul, comfortable and content in the life he had shaped for himself. I asked him, “What kind of character would you like to be?”
His answer astounded me.
“I’d like to be bad. I’ve always been good. I think it would be interesting to be bad.”
There was a challenge. A character grows inside a writer, inside the novel, inside the story within the novel. A writer develops a relationship with the characters she creates. When I create a character who is somewhat based on someone I know, everything that character does or thinks or says is fiction. At the same time, the nature of what that person says or does is grounded in my sense of that person’s ethical core. Often the fictionalized character moves and thinks in patterns similar to those of the person I know. Sometimes the character even looks and dresses similarly. How could I create a bad character grounded in a good man?
I asked a follow-up question, hoping to gain some insight to the kind of ‘bad’ he wanted to be. “What would you like your name to be?”
His reply came after only a few seconds of thought. “Opie.” Opie is the name of his six-year old sheltie, identified by the breeder a few weeks after his birth as a future champion, even a potential grand champion, with his perfect sheltie stance, his speed, his intelligence, and his beauty. But at eight months of age, one of his permanent teeth appeared at a substandard angle. No championship possible for imperfection.
My head exploded with possibilities. How does a potential grand champion become no longer a potential grand champion overnight? How does a good man become bad in the space of a novel? What kind of villain would be called ‘Opie’?
I wrestled with that challenge for several days, during which I happened to be reading about the structure of the mythical journeys of tragic heroes. And therein I found my answer. My character, my ‘hero’, would have a tragic flaw, an irrepressible need to seek revenge for a terrible harm done to his beloved Opie. That flaw would transform him at his core, as he takes on Opie’s name to enact his vengeance.
And thereby my protagonist -- my villain-hero ‘Opi’ -- came into being.
Sharon J. Hamilton has taught English in every grade, from one through master’s level, during her forty-year career. She earned a PhD in language and literacy at the University of London and has participated in writing seminars at Corpus Cristi College, Oxford, and the Faber Academy, London.