[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Chris Dolley on OCD and How to Write a Thriller When Your Protagonist Refuses To Leave His Room
New York Times bestselling author, pioneer computer game designer and teenage freedom fighter. That was back in 1974 when Chris was tasked with publicising Plymouth’s Student Rag Week. Some people might have arranged an interview with the local newspaper. Chris invaded the country next door, created the Free Cornish Army and persuaded the UK media that Cornwall had risen up and declared independence. This was later written up in Punch. As he told journalists at the time, ‘it was only a small country and I did give it back.’
In 1981, he created Randomberry Games and wrote Necromancer, one of the first 3D first person perspective D&D computer games. Not to mention writing the most aggressive chess program ever seen and inventing the most dangerous game ever played — the Giant Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum Cliff Top Relay.
He writes SF, fantasy, mystery and humour. His novel, Resonance, was the first book to be chosen from Baen’s electronic slush pile.
Now he lives a self-sufficient lifestyle in deepest France with his wife and a frightening number of animals. They grow their own food and solve their own crimes. The latter out of necessity when Chris’s identity was stolen along with their life savings. Abandoned by the police forces of four countries who all insisted the crime originated in someone else’s jurisdiction, he had to solve the crime himself. Which he did, driving back and forth across the Pyrenees, tracking down bank accounts and faxes and interviewing bar staff. It was a mystery writer’s dream.
The resulting book, French Fried: one man’s move to France with too many animals and an identity thief, is now an international bestseller.
by Chris Dolley
Do you have a ritual – a little superstition that you bring out now and then when you need that extra bit of help? Maybe you play a sport. Maybe you insist on being the last one to leave the dressing room before every match, or put your kit on in exactly the same order, or touch the ground and cross yourself before kick off, or touch both goalposts before attempting to save a penalty…
What if those rituals took over your life? Left you unable to pass a table without feeling compelled to align the cutlery. Forced you to catch the same train to work every morning, to stand in the same spot in the same carriage. To walk the same number of steps each day from the station to your place of work. Every week of your life mapped out to be a twin of the week before – the same meals, the same schedules. And the same terror the moment anything looked like disrupting your perfect, ordered life.
To be trapped in a world just so.
I have very mild OCD. So, yes, there are occasions when I can spend a good minute locking up at night because – let’s face it, how can you know a door is really locked unless you’ve opened and closed it at least three times? Wouldn’t you lie awake wondering? And then have to go down and check?
Which is why, for years, I’d wanted to write a story with an OCD narrator. I knew I could it make it work but… I just couldn’t come up with the story to go with it. I didn’t want to tack on an OCD narrator to any old plot.
Then, in 2000, I came up with a plot that not only would work well with an OCD narrator but, the more I fleshed it out, the more I realised that the narrator couldn’t be anyone else. It was perfect.
But… One of the first ‘rules’ you learn as a writer is ‘Choose an active protagonist.’ Someone who does stuff or, at least, makes stuff happen. Choose a passive protagonist, and the reader will switch off. It’s one of the top ten writing mistakes.
And my protagonist, Graham Smith, was the ultimate in passive. He didn’t speak. He avoided interaction with others, had a dead-end job, and was locked in a routine where he did the same things day after day after day.
How could I make that work?
As he wouldn’t speak, I decided I’d have to get the reader inside his head. I used a tight third person point of view and drew on my own experiences to immerse the reader in Graham’s world. Graham may be socially inert, but he had a unique view of the world – a view he’d built up over the last 33 years to explain a world that was forever changing around him.
Graham’s OCD, and terror of speaking, was a reaction to the world he lived in. An unstable world where roads could change course, tube stations disappear, office blocks migrate across town – all at night when no one was looking. He’d learned that the more rigid he made his routines, the less the world changed. And the greater the chance that his house would still be where he left it when he returned home from work in the evening.
Suddenly my protag isn’t as boring as everyone thought. Is he delusional? Drugged? Being manipulated? Or is the world really changing around him? A new world, still growing, sloughing off old layers of reality like dead skin.
Which was my next ‘driver’ – mystery. It’s one of the best ways to keep readers turning the page. My protag may be passive, but he’s interesting, and there’s a mystery there – several of them – slowly unfolding as the reader is brought into Graham’s world.
And, of course, if you have mystery, you have to have a redhead. It’s compulsory.
This redhead – Annalise Mercado – is just as intriguing as Graham. She hears voices – all from girls calling themselves Annalise. Sometimes she thinks she’s crazy. Sometimes she thinks they’re spirit guides. Then they tell her about Graham Smith. How he’s the key, and that only she can save him from the men being sent to kill him.
From a writing viewpoint, Annalise is the final component. We have quirk. We have mystery. Now we have that active protag. But can she convince Graham to break the routines that have kept him sane for the past thirty years? Can she even get him to listen? And what if Graham’s right and her voices are wrong?
Of course there’s far more to Resonance than that, but that’s the technical overview of how I approached the question of ‘How do I make a story with a passive protag into a page-turner?’
Resonance was published by Baen in 2005. It did very well. It even started appearing on recommended reading lists for OCD. And the movie rights have recently been optioned.
Filed under: Special Needs in Strange Worlds
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