The Big Idea: Jeff Macfee
Life is full of choices… and not all choices will make you happy. But they might move the plot along. In today’s Big Idea for Nine Tenths, author Jeff Macfee talks about choices and protagonists and how the matters how the latter performs the former.
Most of us live on the edges.
There are plenty of “big character” stories, and I love to read those. A prophesied hero at the center of the adventure. Wonder Woman. Indiana Jones. Ethan Hunt. The one human with a particular set of skills.
But I love to write about characters on the edges. The people who typically live outside the limelight. Wonder Woman’s mechanic. Indiana Jones’s barber. The barista who makes Ethan Hunt’s coffee before Ethan runs off to save the world. I’ve got more room to explore on the edges, creatively. The barrier to entry is low—I’m a guy on the edges. I work in IT, a career that rarely translates to the spotlight, at least not in any realistic sense. I can empathize with someone who doesn’t have the complete grab-bag of skills for a center-stage adventure. And how would they react if adventure came their way? They might persevere, plenty of every-day heroes do. But folks on the edges are going to make more human choices. Sometimes more selfish, impetuous choices. Every now and again, the wrong choice. And how do those wrong choices haunt them?
The “hero” of Nine Tenths is Gayle Harwood, a repoman just doing his job. Only his job happens to be repossessing the powered trinkets of augments, or super-powered individuals. His life is messy. He’s divorced, he’s got a sick kid, his business just gets by, and he’s made suspect choices. Despite personal and professional failures, he’s trying. I can relate. Failing to see your own weaknesses and shortcomings, until hit in the face with them, speaks to me quite a bit. A bit of the author leaked into this equation, for sure. Hopefully that connection, the empathy I’d have for such a person, strengthened the character and the book.
I’m not a genius, as anyone who knows me will attest. I didn’t nail the dynamics in draft one. In early drafts, Gayle made suspect choices and no one confronted him. Thankfully, I have a smart agent, some perceptive first readers, and real life to educate me. In later drafts I surrounded Gayle with friends, work acquaintances, and enemies who called him out on his mistakes. Some kindly, some not so kindly. Mak, his partner, is especially skilled at bringing Gayle down to earth. She’s got her own problems, but like any good friend, she’s too comfortable in the relationship to hold back. And, as throughout the book, there’s consequences for all involved.
Nine Tenths is the story of a man coming to grips with his choices, in messy ways. It just so happens he does that in the shadow of people who can lift cars and walk through walls. Gayle’s life ultimately reflects his choices, good and bad. My two cents—you can write protagonists who don’t always make the likable choice. The key lies not so much in doling out punishment, but in delivering consequences. Get away with a crime, make some money, but lose a friend. Make an immoral choice and profit, but sleep fitfully from then on out. For fiction at least, there’s interest when there’s cost.
I speak in definites as if that’s how fiction always works. As I mentioned above, I’m as fallible as my characters. Take the above with a grain of salt.
And if you’re going to steal Batman’s Batmobile, make sure he’s asleep first.