The Big Idea: Peter Adam Salomon
Posted on September 11, 2012 Posted by John Scalzi 7 Comments
Very few people in the world are truly tabula rasa — a blank slate. So when you’re creating a character who is as close to one as can be, how do you keep it real… and compelling? That was Peter Adam Salomon’s task with Henry Franks. Sit down and find out how he did it.
PETER ADAM SALOMON:
When I began to write Henry Franks, my first thought was to start with a father figure, the man responsible for shaping the only world his son knew, and wondered how it would be possible to create a false reality for that child. For instance, if you were taught that the green stuff in front of your house was called ‘hair’ and the brown stuff on top of your head was called ‘grass’ then you would find it perfectly normal to mow your hair and cut your grass. I wanted to play with identity in the same way, to make the completely irrational perfectly normal due to the ‘training’ of the child.
However, what quickly became more interesting to me were the reactions of the son as his doubts weakened all he had been taught to believe about himself. So, I began again, this time from the son’s point of view. Of course, this meant that I was basing an entire novel on a character with some serious holes in his personality.
I struggled to create a character without a past, which turned out to be a great deal harder than I had expected. There’s no history to detail, no depth other than the immediate present. Taking that away forced me to explore other ways to share Henry with the reader and, most importantly, to hopefully make the reader care for this young man.
I kept returning to the same basic questions about identity: Where do you turn when you remember nothing? Who do you rely on to tell you the truth about yourself? If you can’t trust your past, is it really possible to be human?
That pervasive sense of doubt and suspicion provided an excellent backdrop for Henry’s search for identity. In the context of a horror novel with all the requisite “bumps-in-the-night,” where even the weather and the house he lives in become characters, every detail becomes a necessary component to the characterization of Henry. If the possibility exists that anything—a photograph, last night’s leftovers, a locked room—might be crucial to understanding yourself, then everything must be taken into account.
Finally, in order to help Henry, I introduced him to the only person able to see past his scars to the lost young man inside: his one friend, Justine. Originally I had envisioned Justine as the Watson to Henry’s Sherlock (in other words: a platonic friendship) as they investigated his past. But I ended up with something more powerful than I had actually planned for, something deeper and far more real than I had expected. Justine took over the book in so many ways. She grounded it, the way she grounded Henry. She allowed Henry to trust her, she earned that trust and, most of all, she repaid his trust with her own.
What started as the quiet story of a young man’s search for himself (if, by quiet, one includes serial murders and a hurricane) ended up becoming a story about one young man meeting a young woman and together, always together, solving the oldest mystery of all: Who am I?
Henry Franks: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Visit the book site. Read the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.
Thanks, I almost saw my to be read pile dip into the single digits, and then I had to check out your blog.
This looks like a fascinating book! Have added it to my wishlist
I’m a little in love with the writing of this post all by itself – I think I’ll have to read the novel :)
Very few people in the world are truly tabula rasa — a blank slate.
No one is. There’s a lot of our subjective state that is bootstrapped in by evolution and genetics. Even children have a much faster fear/reaction to an image of a snake compared to their reaction of nondangerous animals. It’s part of our original wiring we’re born with.
Capuchin monkeys and dogs understand fairness and can feel envy/get jealous. It’s part of their wiring. It’s a result of a brain designed by evolution.
So when you’re creating a character who is as close to one as can be, how do you keep it real
If no one is a blank slate in reality, then a blank slate character wouldn’t be very real.
If you’re talking specifically about a blank slate of memory then there is something to base such a character on. There’s a guy who was like the Drew Barrymore character in “50 First Dates”.
ooop. Sorry for the “spam” reference. the auto-form feature kept it around from the previous post.
Okay, just bought it on Amazon. My husband mentioned, “You know, it seems like we get a book delivered here EVERY day!” This is primarily thanks to The Big Idea posts. Thank you for feeding my addiction.
I think there need to be more books about characters whose surname is ‘Franks’.
Sounds like a great book. The premise reminds me a little of the excellent Aussie film Bad Boy Bubby.