My name is Tracy “Smith.” I am twenty-six years old. I’ll be twenty-seven in April. I have been driving for several days, with no particular destination in mind, maybe someplace warm. After what went down in NYC I knew I had to clear out of town, but I had nowhere to go, no one I felt I could safely turn to. So I have adopted a new mantra. Let the dice roll. I threw my stuff into the car and started driving. I let the dice roll. They rolled south.
I kept driving south until there was no more south left. The road ended in Miami. I parked the car in front of the first bar I saw, the Flying Horse, and not knowing what else to do with myself proceeded to get drunk with the last of my funds, which meant I wasn’t able to get very drunk at all. The entire time I had the feeling I was being watched, but then I’d had the same feeling for weeks now, so I decided to ignore it and watched a game playing on a television above the bar for a while. The red team was winning.
Welcome to the diary of Tracy “Smith,” a guy on the run, who manages to simultaneously run away from and toward trouble. This excerpt from Wes Pierce’s gritty novel in progress prompted a thoughtful discussion of what to do when the character you create dares to defy the author’s plans for him. Here’s what we had to say about chapter three. It has a title, but we are sworn to secrecy on that detail:
As I already told you, I opened the first pages of chapter three to take a glance and was so immediately drawn in that I read the entire excerpt right there and then. My first thought was: brilliant. Tracy’s first-person narrative voice is stellar in the way it hooks us in and keeps us entertained. We meet him while he’s driving, which isn’t such an original situation, and yet the way he tells it is original and pulls us right in, including perhaps my favorite bit where he decides to roll the dice, and the dice roll in a particular direction that seems to set the course of his unfolding fate.
Tracy is a complex and fascinating guy, and in him I can see hints of Huck Finn, Addie Pray, and Camus’s Meursault. At times, he seems to have the take-it-as-it-comes approach to life that we sometimes ascribe to Huck, although both Tracy and young Huck have an underlying agenda even as they take advantage of immediate opportunities to advance their goals. Then at times we get a more youthfully innocent point of view underscored by street smarts we might associate with Addie Pray, as when Tracy follows Claudia outside but then takes matters into his own hands after she abruptly departs. And finally, we occasionally see the apparent indifference of a modern-day Meursault in some of his choices and reactions, although Tracy ultimately seems to wear his heart on his sleeve both in response to Claudia’s femme fatale behavior and Emil’s (ultimately faux) fatherly demeanor. I didn’t want this excerpt to end, and I’m delighted to know that the chapter continues and we’ll get to follow Tracy around a while longer.
Tracy willingly goes off with two men who are strangers to him, and there’s a delightful sense of danger and sexual undercurrent to their initial encounter, where we see Emil and his companion drunkenly fawning over Tracy, at least until his new friends all of a sudden sober up in the cab. But then we get evidence that Tracy is more interested in Claudia, and we also start to understand that Emil’s allure is based more on the promise of being a type of father figure to Tracy and allowing him a feeling of belonging. That’s a very interesting twist in the potential relationships between this quartet of characters you thrust together in the middle of the book. We watch Tracy being drawn into Emil’s charismatic web, and it’s interesting that even though Tracy recognizes Emil as a plotter, he nonetheless falls for the emotional lure Emil dangles.
Despite the comparisons made above, it’s really actually difficult to pin down just who Tracy is, and that’s where some further thought about what ultimately drives this character might be warranted. Based on the intended character profile you described, I do think you’ve written a character who is defying his own character profile. I don’t think he’s cooperating with his author, and that’s a rather wonderful problem to have. For example, you tell us that he’s an angry character, and yet we don’t see any real hint of that in this excerpt. Instead, he does a remarkable job of taking events in stride, including rising to the occasion of the “moral hazard” Emil devises for him. You likewise tell us that he has eschewed the behaviors of his upbringing and wants no part of the sexual revelry he associates with his parents, and yet—well, we end up in the bushes. I sort of want you to quit trying to define and explain him and just let him fully loose on the page and see what he does. That’s a cop out from a critique standpoint, but this character is just so dang interesting that trying to rein him in to suit the purpose of the plot seems criminal. Frankly, I found myself a little less interested in the story of who Tracy is supposed to be to serve the book and more interested in the Tracy we actually meet on the page, who rolls the dice on life and seems to adapt in the moment to whatever and whoever he encounters.
We talked about some of Tracy’s seeming inconsistencies on the page: At one moment he comes across as fairly innocent and restrained enough to turn away from another couple of guys to adjust his fly, and the next moment his fly is undone and his diction grows crude as he tells us why and how and what he decides to do next. I’m mainly asking if Tracy’s persona in the opening matches what you later evolve him into, or if the later scene in the bushes is meant as a radical change based on circumstances. Right now I don’t know that we have enough information to gauge, and the relative speed at which we arrive at the moment in the bushes doesn’t allow for any real transformation to have occurred, at least as we experience it. It might be that any inconsistencies in his persona are a side effect of trying to rein him back into his original character profile, rather than letting him be who he wants to be—which is, in effect, who you seem to be making him despite any inconvenience to the plot.
Emil is another fabulous character and at his best when we have to try to guess his subtext. His character and that set of scenes operate most effectively when we aren’t told what’s up and instead get wonderfully enigmatic lines like: “We’re more of a faith-based enterprise.” On the one hand, I agree with not delaying the idea of a type of scam being afoot for too long, because once the reader figures that out, they will want you to get on with it and might feel purposefully misled if you don’t. On the other hand, once you name the game, it seems to undercut the great tension of waiting to find out if there is a game and then what that game is going to be and whether it will be won or lost and by who. I think there will be a sweet spot for when to fully reveal what Emil is up to. If you let us in a little at a time, by the time we know enough to say what his plan is, there already will be more at stake to propel the story forward. In this version, the idea seems to be that Tracy guesses what Emil really is but falls for Emil’s fatherly routine anyway. That might work, but it all happens a little too quickly on the page to buy into the emotional aspect, I think.
As I said in our meeting, I kept trying to figure out what it will be like to encounter this chapter within the larger story, after we’ve seen Tracy in a different point in time and from different angles. It might be risky to position his world view too close to that of his sister’s. Even though they grew up with exactly the same background, would they have responded to it differently in the way they now both choose to do life? It might be interesting to consider letting their world views differ even as they remain loyal to each other. We talked a lot about whether the diary concept is fully working on the page and whether the diary notion gets left behind as the first-person narration takes over. Since we’re never actually told it’s a diary, I wasn’t too hung up on that point while reading, but I do think a linear telling of this section works best. The spots where you circled back to dub in back story tended to pull me out of the immediacy that dominates the scenes, and that immediacy seems to spell danger for Tracy, so I experienced it as a strong aspect of sustaining suspension of disbelief. Perhaps in this chapter more so than others, I found little to no need for back story—okay, no need whatsoever. I just wanted to find out as it happened what was in store for Tracy and how he would survive it to roll the dice another day.
Thanks for writing an awesomely compelling set of scenes. I’m excited to read more!
Wes, Wes, Wes, you have put the stardust for an interesting character down on the page. I want to know more. Much more. I was engaged and intrigued, wanting this world and the characters in it to expand beyond the scope of this excerpt. Well done!
Now, let’s cut to the chase, shall we? As we discussed during our meeting, the device you’ve used to blow open Tracy’s character in this section served to take you to a new place with him, one that may now be contradicting your original inspiration, and one that now contains significant contradictions on the page. It’s not unusual for a character to do that when a writer is just putting down words on the fly, taking advantage of the moment and the inspiration, riding the wave no matter where it takes you. But now it’s time for revision, and in this process, it’s important for you to make some decisions about Tracy. Why is he angry? Why formative events from his childhood reveal themselves now that he’s an adult? Are his characteristics consistent? If they aren’t, do those inconsistencies serve a purpose or are they the result of Tracy (the character) taking over and revealing his true colors to you as you write? It’s important to know these things. My advice would be to write down the Tracy that you now envision vs. the one you started with. Write down those key characteristics, those formative details. And as you revise, ask yourself: Does this sentence, this adjective, this action support who this character is right now? Once you do that, I think you’ll be able to revise with some kind of guidance.
Next up: Using a diary as a device can be a tricky proposition, one that creates temporal and other challenges. The temporal aspect is very technical. Is the character who is relating events reveal those events as something that has happened in the past? And if yes, then you’re good. If it feels like some events are happening in the moment and others have happened in the past, the red flags go up. Second, diary devices are also used for two purposes: 1) it allows the character to process what has happened and provide layers of meaning and interpretation that often can’t happen in the moment, and 2) it’s often used to relate information to another character. In this case, you mentioned that you’d originally intended this diary to be written from the perspective of a man who thinks others are out to kill him, so he may not have much time left to tell his story. He wants to put his life down on paper so that his sister will know and understand what has happened to him. In telling us this, you added that this aspect of the diary bogged you down, feeling like you weren’t getting anywhere, so you abandoned that intention. I think that abandonment also removed much of the driving tension (man running out of time) and replaced it with an easygoing, roll-of-the-dice come-what-may go-with-the-flow kind of guy. The tension is lost. And while Tracy is an interesting and entertaining character, along with his soon-to-be-accomplices, I find myself wondering why he’s bothering with this diary at all. And if you choose not to direct this diary at Amnesty, his sister, I’m thinking that you can just use the diary as a device to get Tracy moving on the page and then flip it all to present tense action. But in doing so, you lose an opportunity for processing events. Something to think about.
Another aspect of Tracy’s character bothered me. At one point, he asked to provide an assessment of a pair of characters he’s just met. His response is quite detailed in a detective-observes-every-unspoken-nuance kind of way. It’s like he suddenly revealed a superpower that prior to this moment he hadn’t possessed. It would be far less shocking to have some of this (what I call) superpower slowly leak through during all of his earlier encounters with other characters. Otherwise, I’m jarred out of the moment, wondering where this “new” Tracy came from. But consistency (unless there is inconsistency for a purpose) is key in characterization.
There are other inconsistencies in plot points that I noted in the manuscript, things that you need to go back and make some decisions on how to deal with.
I’d like to finish my comments by mentioning Claudia, Tracy’s new “love” interest. There’s a gorgeous line at a raucous party where she’s telling her father that her glass is empty. She turns the glass upside down and a single drop “falls from it like a tear.” I immediately wondered “whoa! what does that indicate?” Is this giving us a signal that her father has always “used” her for some purpose? That her father has neglected her? That there’s a huge backstory we don’t know about? etc…It’s a brilliant moment, one that leaves the reader guessing instead of being told the backstory, something I’d like to see more of. You’ve got the chops. You just have to let those moments leak through and then rest on the page, giving your reader a half-clue now and providing the “rest of the story” later. It’s OK if the reader guesses wrong because the clue could mean more than one thing. In fact, that’s very satisfying for the reader as long as it makes sense in the later moment.
So onward, Wes! Lookin forward to the next excerpt!
Featured image from MYTHOLOGY.NET.