Steven John is a writer living in Glendale, California (by way of Washington DC). He and his wife Kristin, an elementary school teacher, were joined by their son Benjamin in October of 2013. In addition to writing for several websites and journals, Steven published his first novel THREE A.M., in 2012. His second book, OUTRIDER, hit shelves in September. When not writing or spending time with his family, Steven tries to squeeze in some mountain climbing.
by Steven John
My first published novel, THREE A.M. (Tor, 2012), was written in the first person and featured only a handful of named characters. You can count on one hand the number of fully-developed “people” in the book, and even they were of course seen through the eyes of the protagonist; eyes often dulled by booze and always darkened by years spent living in a world shrouded by mist (it’s a “bleak fable,” as one reviewer called it).
On the other hand, my second novel, OUTRIDER (Nightshade/Skyhorse, 2014), features more than two dozen named characters, all of whom enjoyed at least some level of color, and more than ten of whom I strove to fully develop. It was an entirely different experience writing a third person perspective novel with a large cast versus the contained, inner monologue-heavy earlier book; it was both a thrill and a challenge. Everything from selecting which character might most effectively act as “focalizer” for a given scene to simply remembering who knew what about whom and when never failed to keep things interesting for me, especially as the plot of the book unfolds via multiple perspectives.
Perhaps the both greatest challenge and the greatest thrill of writing OUTRIDER came from trying to consistently ascribe the right words and the right actions to characters who were in many cases wildly different from each other, and in other instances so similar that it became an effort to maintain the authenticity of likeminded yet distinct human beings.
For example, most of the eponymous Outriders share the same dim outlook on the society they (indirectly) work to support and protect, yet their reasons for ire vary all the way from a surfeit of knowledge and introspection to their total dearth. To reference another example, both Mayor Franklin Dreg and his Executive Secretary Timothy Hale want the status quo to prevail in the megalopolis of New Las Vegas (OUTRIDER takes place about 75 years from now, FYI), but while Hale is (initially, anyway) genuinely civic-minded, Mayor Dreg cares for not but the power he already enjoys.
I’ll not get into the plot nor will I speak on individual characters’ experiences in the novel – chances are anyone reading this article has yet to read the book (hopefully that won’t remain true for long!) and I neither want to confuse nor reveal.
Thus I’ll turn away from the literature to the literary, if I may use such language. Or to be less highfalutin, here’s what it was like to breathe life into a few folks…
- SCOFIELD – If OUTRIDER, a book with a cast of many, has a protagonist, it is he. “E Pluribus Unum” comes to mind when thinking of this gentleman, the most taciturn yet best-respected among the fraternal cadre of the Outriders. Scofield was often easy to write, for indeed I idealize his effortless masculinity and his near-constant ability to do the Right Thing; yet therein too lay the challenge of making him seem real. Here is a man who knows his place in the world, yet does not entirely know his place among people. It would have been too easy to make him an even more romantic, hermetical character than he turned out to be. The difficulty in writing Scofield was that I like the guy so damned much I had to strive to create faults that felt organic.
- MAYORK FRANKLIN DREG – It’s just plain fun to write an egomaniacal asshole. All the better when it’s a person who enjoys a position of genuine power; a position to which none will speak truth. Dreg gets to say what he wants and do what he wants pretty much anytime. And he was pure joy to write. Perhaps it helps that he is so very unlike me and most anyone I know (I may have had some inspiration from a few past associates) that made him such a thrill. My only hope is that his humanity still shows through and that he transcends archetype for the reader in the same was he did for this writer.
- WILTON KRETCH – If you hate Kretch by the end of the book, that’s just fine. You should, in fact. But the sensitive reader may also empathize with him. He is a lonely man, a simple man, above all a coward, and he is filled with a lifetime of spite he so wishes were love. I intentionally left his backstory vague, because so many of us know a person made bitter and ultimately vile due to a tragic lack of warmth during those formative years.
- TIMOTHY HALE – After reading an early draft of OUTRIDER, my agent remarked that Tim Hale, the #2 man to Mayor Franklin Dreg, was the most “real” character in the book. I hope subsequent revisions have elevated other characters to that “real” state, but I certainly agree that Hale is very much someone with whom many may identify. He has potential and knows it but won’t quite tap it; the words that might win the girl are in his mind, on his tongue tip… yet before her mere drivel comes spilling out of his lips; he is ready to stand up and take charge… until the very moment another stands against him. And when dropped into extremes, rather than finding himself the hero that lives in his mind, he is the reed bending in a swift stream.
- BOSS HUTTON – I’ll end with talking about Boss Hutton. He is gruff, wise, kind, and world-weary. I also think he is (forgive me, but I do) well-written and very much a “real” person. And if most readers agree, then that will just make my day – there are few thrills a writer can experience greater than creating a character so unlike them (this is a man more than twice my age and of a background nothing like my own) that really work. (For the record, if I failed to do that in the third manuscript I am currently revising… well, then no matter, for you’ll never be reading it!)