Friday, March 22, 2013

CHARACTERS SPEAKING THEIR OWN MIND


 
by Earl Staggs

I usually have a good idea what‘s going to happen in my stories as well as what my characters are going to do and say. Sometimes, however, they surprise the heck out of me and come up with something of their own. That happened in my recent novel, JUSTIFIED ACTION. One of the main characters said some things I was not expecting to write.

The protagonist is Tall Chambers, and the story primarily concerns his dealing with a murder and his search for the killer. Tall is also part of a secretive agency which tracks terrorists and stops them before they kill innocent people. If they wish to die for their cause, the agency is happy to grant their wish. The worst of the terrorists is Anatole Remski. His father, a Russian soldier, married an Iranian girl, and Anatole was born and raised as an Iranian.  His specialty is killing American soldiers.

Everyone is familiar with the terrorist religious belief that it is their duty to kill all “infidels.”  For Remski, it’s more personal and goes deeper. When he let loose and expressed his feelings against America, I typed as fast as I could to keep up and put it in the book. I’m not sure I should have left it in and would like your opinion.

In the scene below, Tall has captured Remski after a raid in which seventeen of Remski’s associates were killed. Tall must turn the deadly terrorist over to local authorities, but first, wants to learn the names of the rest of them.

* * * * *

Remski’s appearance up close surprised Tall. He looked like anything but a terrorist. He was slender, no more than five feet nine inches tall, and with his smooth features and short uncombed blond hair, looked more like a mild-mannered student than a former teacher turned terrorist.
Tall smiled when he entered the room and sat across the table from him. “My name is Chambers, Mr. Remski. I have some questions for you. If you give me the answers I need, I’ll see that they go easier on you in court.”
Remski grinned, but didn’t speak at first. He held the grin and his eyes narrowed. He seemed to be studying Tall, sizing him up. “That’s very kind of you, Mr. Chambers,” he said in a soft voice with a distinct Arab accent, “but I’ll do fine without your assistance. I advise you not to waste your time, or mine.”
“I’m not wasting my time. I need the names of your associates. You’re responsible for bombings which killed American servicemen. The authorities will make you pay for that. If you cooperate, I’ll do what I can to help you.”
Remski’s grin faded, and he turned his head away. He sighed, almost as if bored. “All they have is hearsay with regard to my participation in those events, Mr. Chambers. As to actual proof, they have nothing. Besides, the killing of American soldiers in this country is not considered a crime by many people here. Weigh that against the many thousands you have slaughtered, and it amounts to very little.”
“You’re wrong,” Tall said. “Regardless of how you feel about our presence here, those who judge you will be bound by international law to sentence you in accordance with the crimes you’ve committed. As for the casualties we’re responsible for, no one regrets them more than I do, but they’re the unfortunate consequence of war. That’s very different from what you do.”
Remski turned back to him.  “Is it, Mr. Chambers? Why is it different?” His voice was strong and harsh now. His blue eyes had taken on a hardness that wasn’t there before. “Is it because you shout words like freedom and democracy while you murder innocent people? You Americans think you have a right to invade other countries and force them to change. Where is it written that your way is the way for all people? How do you rationalize killing innocent people to force other countries to do everything the American way?”
“That’s not what we do. Our goal is to help people gain their freedom and govern themselves.”
Remski smirked. “You think you’re qualified to tell others how to govern a country? Your country is bankrupt financially and morally, Mr. Chambers. Take your soldiers home. Take care of your own problems and let us take care of ours. Stop waving your red, white and blue flag while you slaughter our citizens in the name of freedom.”
“We don’t slaughter people. We’re only here to help.”
With fierce anger burning in his eyes, Remski shouted, “Do this for me, Mr. Chambers. Go to my village in Abuzak. Stand over the graves of my parents and grandparents. Tell them how you marched into their village to help them by lining them up and shooting them. Tell them they were killed for their freedom.”
Tall was caught off guard. He knew of the massacre at Abuzak. A squad of American soldiers marched into the small village looking for subversives and killed every man, woman and child they found. “I’m sorry about what happened to your family. That was a terrible tragedy and never should have happened. The soldiers who went into that village were wrong. They were tried and punished for what they did.”
Remski leaned over the table. He lowered his voice, but not his vehement anger. “Tried and punished? The soldiers who slaughtered my family, my entire village, were discharged and sent home to their own families. Their leader was sentenced to ten years in prison and was released after three years. Do you consider that adequate punishment for what they did?”
“No, in all honesty, I do not. Is that why you kill American soldiers? Because a small group of them went out of control and did a horrible act? Nothing can compensate you for your loss, but what you’re doing is just as wrong. Seventeen of your associates were killed tonight. Give me the names of the other members of your group. They don’t have to die like the others.”
Remski hung his head and wagged it. When he spoke, he seemed more in control of himself. “No, Mr. Chambers, I will give you no names. The people you murdered tonight are in the arms of Allah and will be rewarded for their sacrifice. Those who remain will continue our war against you as long as you invade our country and slaughter our families. If they give their lives, they, too, will be rewarded. You cannot stop them from doing what they were born to do.” He looked squarely into Tall’s eyes with more hatred and defiance than Tall had ever seen. “And you can’t stop me.”
“Look around,” Tall said. “We have stopped you.”
Remski leaned back in his chair and sneered. “We’ll see about that, Mr. Chambers.”
Ben Goldman opened the door and stuck his head in. “They’re here for him.”
Tall stood and watched two burly policemen place Remski in chains and lead him from the room.
As he passed by Tall, he stopped. “We’ll meet again someday, Mr. Chambers, and when that day comes, I assure you, you will die.”
            “We’ll see about that, Mr. Remski.”


* * * * *

There you have it.  Remki escapes soon after this scene, and the chase is on again.  His anti-U.S. rant, which he insisted on saying, remained. His sentiments are not those of the author, and I wouldn’t want readers to think they are. That’s why I’m questioning whether I was wrong to leave his statements in the book, or if I should have deleted them.

What do you think?











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8 comments:

Richard Posner said...

I would say just the opposite, Earl. In fact, I'm a bit surprised at your squeamishness about it, but I suspect our political outlooks are quite different.

As a writer, especially in fiction, I believe it is imperative to represent all characters' views honestly and with genuine feeling. We all know there are millions (billions?) of people who don't think like Americans. Are they wrong and you (we) are right? I would suggest that to be the very hubris your 'terrorist' character objects to so clearly. (One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.)

I despise writers who 'load the dice' against the 'bad guy'. They're so anxious to make sure their readers understand their moral position they sandbag the 'bad guy' with fatal flaws sure to lead to his destruction; while their protag may have flaws, they do not allow them to destroy him. (Most writers are pretty hesitant to really damage their protag, after all, what about a sequel?)

This is my objection to most serial killer novels: the psychological pathology of serial killers is given short shrift. The authors just use serial killers as a stand-in for 'generic bad guy the good guy must stop'...it's formulaic and frankly, lazy writing geared toward the lowest common denominator.

In fact, without that scene, I'd suggest you would have a rather pedestrian 'kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out' sort of banality...which would be beneath your talents. I know you're a deeper thinker than that.

I don't think Homeland Security will bug your phone anytime soon. Mine? Already done, I suspect.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Earl,

I like what Richard had to say. Why should all characters be sweet and lovable? Bad people say bad things, and yes, that's believable. A novel needs "bad guys" and "good guys" with different feelings and opinions.

Larry W. Chavis said...

Earl,
In my opinion, you have to leave it in. It gives an integrity to the character, insight into his motives, and shows that he is more than just a wild-eyed religious fanatic. I think that's important. It is unfortunately true that we too easily frame things and people in an overly-simplistic moral frame. We do, because it allows us to demonize our opponents, rather than see the more complex picture.
Like you, I can say the terrorist's sentiments in no way reflect mine - but they are authentic and genuine to him. That's good writing.
As an aside, this has sent me to the vendors to acquire the tome. :-)

Kaye Barley said...

Oftentimes, I think, our characters are going to form themselves according to what they want, whether we're ready for that to happen or not. I believe we have to let them do that or the scene doesn't right true. It's a great scene!

J D Webb said...

I agree. Leave it in. Bad guys are bad. ANyone who would think this is an opinion of yours doesn't understand fiction. We make stuff up. My wife tells people, "he goes up to his room and kills people." I haven't been visited by the S.W.A.T. team - yet.

Chester Campbell said...

Good scene, Earl. Definitely a keeper. While there are a few situations or points of view I find irrational and incapable of being understood, most people have quite valid backgrounds to their beliefs. Though we might disagree with their interpretations, they need to be stated to make the character whole.

Earl Staggs said...

Great thanks to everyone who commented. After the book was published, I had the terrifying thought that someone would say,"If that's how you feel about America, you should leave."

That's not how I feel, of course. That's how the character felt and he wanted to say it. I let him.

When we create characters who come to life on the page, we can sometimes become conduits for their thoughts and feelings.

I think that's a wonderful thing to happen.

I feel much better knowing that all of you agree with me.

Again, many thanks.

Earl Staggs said...

Great thanks to everyone who commented. After the book was published, I had the terrifying thought that someone would say,"If that's how you feel about America, you should leave."

That's not how I feel, of course. That's how the character felt and he wanted to say it. I let him.

When we create characters who come to life on the page, we can sometimes become conduits for their thoughts and feelings.

I think that's a wonderful thing to happen.

I feel much better knowing that all of you agree with me.

Again, many thanks.