Wallace Hartman, the lead character in my forthcoming novel, Dark River Rising, is female. Based upon the very common (but maybe not the very best) advice given to aspiring authors––Write what you know!––it should have been easy for me to write a male lead character. And that’s exactly what I did. But, try as I might, I could not make that male private investigator come to life.
Thinking that I had simply given him the wrong occupation, I reimagined him as a police detective. But, that didn’t help. As I would eventually discover, the problem was that I didn’t understand what the problem was. Laboring under this failure to understand, I continued to play around with the character’s occupation.
If not a police detective, then surely a shadowy operative from some shadowy government agency would do the trick. Nope. A brilliant scientist possessed of all manner of cool capabilities? Put me down for a big nyet on that one, too. How about a regular guy swept up in a treacherous conspiracy perpetrated by a shadowy operative from some shadowy government agency in league with a brilliant scientist possessed of all manner of cool capabilities? Down here in the South, we have a saying for unworkable ideas: ‘That dog won’t hunt.’ Well, that dog couldn’t be bothered to lift so much as a single eyelid, much less haul himself up off the porch and hunt.
Eventually, in a quiet moment, I felt the metaphoric tap on my shoulder followed by a barely audible whisper in my mind’s ear: “The problem is not what your protagonist does, but who your protagonist is.” Ah, the dawning moment: The story needed to be about someone, not something. Hmmmm.
Thinking that my initial instincts had been correct, after all, but that I had simply neglected to include enough detail about him, as a person, I made him a police detective again, and began to tinker with his age and the circumstances of his life. He became a youthful, naïve, just-starting-out crime fighter ready to take on the world. Not quite right. Then, I turned him into a grizzled, cynical, veteran of one too many campaigns in the war on crime. Closer, but still no cigar.
Then came a more insistent voice in my mind’s ear. This time, with a question:
“This job that your plot needs doing–-why have you auditioned only men for the part?”
“Aren’t I supposed to write what I know?” I asked, weakly.
Perhaps my question didn’t dignify a response. Perhaps I was being given some time to reflect on the difference between a piece of advice and a commandment. It was then I realized that ‘write what you know’ didn’t mean write only what you know. This was fiction, after all, so there was room on the canvas for brush strokes that went beyond my actual experience.
As I turned the possibilities over in my mind, the logic of making the change became so obvious that, soon, I was no longer able to even think of the character as male.
Feverishly, I reworked the story, from the perspective of a female police detective. After a bit of trial and error, I settled on having her in her mid-thirties, gamely carrying the weight of her past, warily eyeing her prospects for the future, and inevitably facing a crush-or-be-crushed present.
Slowly, but surely, Wallace revealed herself, and I came to understand why the story was hers––and hers alone––to tell.