Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Who was the real Mike Reilly?"

“Who was the real Mike Reilly?”

“I almost quit reading the book when he killed that dog.  Where did you get that character?”

When someone asks me if there really was a Mike Reilly, I know that Mike came to life in the reader’s mind.  When a reader expresses revulsion at Mike’s act of killing a dog, I know that they were repulsed as much by his sick mind as by the dog’s death, which was not described in any graphic, gruesome detail.  Mike, at least for a moment, was real, and the insight revealed by his act was upsetting because it was believable.

I listen carefully to comments like that, and probe the reader, if I can, in an effort to understand the reaction.  No writer wants to write something that is so repulsive that it causes the reader to abandon a story; every writer wants to create characters that seem real to the reader.  I take it as high praise when readers find a character so real that they believe I copied him from real life.  Mike Reilly was a product of my imagination, and I’m humbled, surprised, and gratified when a reader finds him so realistic that they can’t discount his actions as just part of a story.  Several people have insisted that I must have known someone like that.  That frightens me a bit; perhaps I did, but I didn’t recognize it at the time.  Reilly isn’t the kind of person I would want for company. 

It’s equally rewarding when readers identify so closely with a character that they express worry about what happened to the character after the story concludes.  In Reilly’s case, I hoped for that.  He was a central character in Bluewater Killer, and I put a lot of effort into developing him.  It’s also fun when readers unexpectedly identify with bit players in a story, and I always take note of which characters those are.  Two peripheral characters from Deception in Savannah keep coming up in conversations with readers.  Neither was central to the story, but clearly each one had some aspect that brought them to life.  I’m studying both of them – Dopey and Jonas Belk – to decipher what about them accounts for their appeal.  It may be that they have stories of their own that need to be told.

Having readers share such thoughts with me is a privilege.  It’s gratifying, and sometimes it’s a little scary, especially when I’m taken by surprise, as I was by the revulsion invoked by Reilly’s killing the dog.  I thought some of his other actions were far more disturbing, personally, but that’s the one that I hear about.
Having a character come to life in my mind is exciting and sometimes unsettling.  I know that a book is going to work out when the characters begin to populate my dreams; they are real for me, then.  They begin to interact with one another in ways that are consistent with their personalities, but their interactions are often unforeseen.

When that begins to happen, my notion of the story has to change.  The more realistic the characters become, the less amenable they are to conforming to the structure required to make a good story.  They have their own agendas, and the story must be altered to accommodate them, or the characters cease to be realistic.   Sometimes the story changes significantly, and I have to argue with the characters until we reach some mutually acceptable accommodation.  The frustrations and rewards of this aspect of writing fiction are private, enjoyed in the solitude of my mind, and I can’t really communicate them.  I can share the results by publishing a book, and readers’ reactions are rewarding, satisfying, and sometimes puzzling, but always quite different from the internal satisfaction I get from writing and watching the characters evolve.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I just finished reading 3 of your books - I really enjoy your writing. When I read this post, I remember my reaction to Mike Reilly killing the dog also. Up to that point it was possible to have empathy for his plight, as there was no evidence yet that he was as off as he turned out to be. I think being lulled into this sympathetic stance with him and to have him destroy the dog was like a slap in the face. How could one's judgement be so far off! I also remember being a bit enlightened by how a person may justify their behaviors and it seemed so logical, we all do that a bit. I realized how someone might not realize just how off their thinking was.

Anyway, I do enjoy your writing! Keep them coming. - Stacy

Charles Dougherty said...

Thanks for your comment, Stacy. I'm glad you enjoyed the books.

My reaction to Mike Reilly was somewhat similar to yours. I started writing the book in the first person, from his perspective, and he drew me right in until I began to discover the other facets of his personality -- I had to back up and start over when I realized where he was headed.

I finished my first draft of Bluewater Voodoo last night. I'm into the first rewrite, now, and I'm also struggling with another cover for it. I expect to have it ready soon.

Thanks for reading my work, and for taking the time to comment.


Charles Dougherty said...

Thanks, Stacy. I posted a reply as a new comment.

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