Cult of Character

Man, I really over committed when I first set out to write the trilogy in six months.  The second book has taken on a life of its own and now I find myself falling back to do a page one rewrite.  This is bad for the schedule but good for the story as now I have a better understanding of what has to happen in it.  So that happened and now it’s time to just admit that the trilogy will be done when it’s done.

When it is done, however, I’m thinking of trying something experimental.  Something crazy.  It came up the other day that Joss Whedon is so fluent in character that his plots hardly matter.  You really aren’t tuning in every week to see if they’re going to pull off that big train heist.  You’re tuning in to see how the character arcs play out. 

So I came up with an experiment/teaching-tool idea: write a series of short stories where the plot is so crazy and random and genre-busting that the only cohesive element that might keep readers attention is the character arcs. 

I’m not even sure I can do it (actually, I’m doubtful) but it would be a good palate cleanser after slogging through the monster effort of completing the trilogy.  It would have to be something of pure imagination where one story simply leaps into the other and the whole thing just keeps getting more outlandish.

The very idea of it rekindles an old passion of mine.  When I was young and overseas with the military and still struggling to get my novelist’s legs underneath me, I had a good friend who was never without a paperback book.  He’d just stick one his back pocket and whip it out whenever there was the slightest lull in our workload – which, if you were ever in the military, you will know is very often. 

The covers of these books made it plain that he was reading some pulp trash and I was still in my snob days of denying my own pulp leanings so I hesitated even asking him about it.  But one day things were slow and I was bored so I asked him what he was reading.

The Survivalist by Jerry Ahern.

If you are unfamiliar with this gem of back porch yarn spinning, as I was at the time, you are all the poorer for it.  I wasn’t just clueless about The Survivalist, I didn’t really know anything at all about pulp fiction – I had grown up reading golden age science fiction which is a completely different thing – so when he began to rattle off the specifics of this long running, completely insane story, I was immediately sold.  I ended up reading the first five or six books in what would turn out to be a twenty-seven (27!) book series before dropping it.

To be honest, it wasn’t the writing that grabbed me.  The characters were a little flat and most of them came from central casting and the writing wasn’t all that good.  It was really a Clancy precursor where the attention to detail describing the weapons systems precluded any actionable human emotion.   And the plots were ridiculous, going from an apocalyptic nuclear war, through Mad Max territory, to a Soviet invasion, to cryogenically preserved Nazis, to time travel and back again.  Every book was just some new curveball. 

It was amazing and practically incoherent, but it wasn’t the writing or the story that I found attractive, it was the idea that Jerry Ahern was out there doing this.  Maybe he really was sitting on the front porch of a cabin the Rockies with a pipe in his mouth, pounding out one hilariously improbable story after another on a manual typewriter. 

This was the image of writing – sitting around dreaming stuff up while other people went to real jobs – that had first caught my attention at eight years old.  I kept reading, even though I didn’t really care much for the stories, just to see what miraculous leap he would make next. 

I am not under any circumstances denigrating Jerry Ahern or his writing.  He provided me with hours of reading pleasure and ended up selling some 3.5 million copies of books in that series, so he must have done something right.  When I say that the leaps were hilariously improbable, I mean that as an expression of wonder that he was able to pull it off not as a condemnation.  Some people are into character, some are into plot.  I’m into character.  Jerry was more into plot.

Having said that, I’m now planning to move more into his territory but do it in such a way that plot goes crazy and characters hold the thing together.  I’m going to reach back to my comic book/pulp fiction days and throw together a serial of continuous improbabilities held together only by the characters caught in its web.

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