The Jerk Line

HannibalBeing married to a fellow writer can be an illuminating experience. Mary and I don’t always see eye-to-eye on what makes a compelling story. She, for instance, can’t stand post-apocalyptic stories and war movies and I’m not the world’s biggest fan of musicals, though some are all right. One thing that we do agree on, however, is the importance of compelling characters. We don’t always agree on what makes a compelling character, but fascinating ones can keep either of us hooked on a story for far longer than we should be (hello most recent season of Hannibal).

Which brings me to the point of this post and something that’s been knocking around in my head the last few weeks: how do you find that line where a character goes from sleazy but interesting to just a total turn-off slime ball? I call it the Jerk Line. It’s a valid question more than ever now that I’ve transformed Came to Believe into a more linear story.

DentistYou see the protagonist, Dean Rohrer, is a sex-addicted small town dentist who actually begins his journey as a cocky creep. He hires expensive Freshmen from the local university who highlight as hookers for one reason or another. He has a thing for “barely legal” women. He’s a seemingly incurable porn addict, and he exploits a legal loophole in order to avoid jail time and/or a fine. Of course, there’s also a thoughtful, tortured guy underneath it all, but the more linear structure of the story demands that he begin as a shallow creep who slowly finds that shining gem of a person within him. The book is about him seeking to become a better person and the various ways that he fails before creeping up to the line of being what he hopes to be.

depressed-manNow the previous structure accounted for this. We see uber-creepy Dean, but we also see a more broken, humbled Dean in the future who still has severe problems but is a little more sympathetic. The problem I faced was how to make uber-creepy Dean interesting even if he wasn’t fully sympathetic yet, and where was the line between creepy and too much to take? How did I keep from crossing that Jerk Line?

The answer, as it turned out to be, was a leveler. A humbling experience that dials back the creepy just enough that the new person begins to emerge almost immediately, albeit at a snail’s pace. We still see him have plenty of compelling jerk moments, but we also witness him humbled, at a low point, and ready to at least feign some change to get himself out of hot water. It’s a start toward him being a genuine human being and I think it will teach me more about the balancing act of writing an anti-hero.

Oh, and on that note, finished up the re-sequencing and am starting on the new version. I had feared that my original opening sentence would be lost, but I think I found an even better one:

“Try as he might, Dean Rohrer could not remember the name of the gorgeous young redhead sitting in the passenger seat of his BMW X5.”

Says a lot about the guy and the situation right away. Pretty happy with it. So far so good! Now to start the day proper…