HEY! HEY! LOOK AT ME! Or, When the Spear Carriers Start to Sing

My contribution to the new DEAD OF WINTER anthology features Chief Deputy Tim Buckthorn of the Gibson County, North Carolina Sheriff’s Department. Tim was a character from my novel BREAKING COVER (available here for Kindle, here for Nook, and here in paper).  One reader observed that BREAKING COVER ends up being as much about  Tim Buckthorn as it is about Tony Wolf, the supposed protagonist, and he was absolutely right.

Funny thing is, Tim started off as a bit player. He was originally just a redneck deputy who hassles Wolf (who’s been hiding out for years under another name) while Wolf’s just trying to fill up his tank and get a pack of nabs and a cold drink at a country store.

But that’s the thing about writing. Bit players don’t always stay bit.  Part of the reason why is summed up in a quote from the French filmmaker Jean Renoir that always comes back to me: “The truly terrible thing,” he once said “is that everybody has their reasons.”

So I started thinking about Buckthorn and his reasons. I started pondering who this guy was, why he was on Wolf’s case so bad, and by the time the confrontation was defused and both men were getting into their vehicles to drive away, I was as interested in where Buckthorn was going as I was in Wolf. The more I wrote, the more Tim Buckthorn came into focus. He’s actually a good cop, so good in fact that the elected Sheriff (who’s mostly good at getting elected) is wise enough to leave most of the actual law enforcement to him. He drives his people hard, but he’s fair, and he worries about them. He loves his hometown, and he worries about it, too, which is why he’s concerned about this mysterious guy from out of nowhere who seems to have limitless cash and no connection at all to the town. When Wolf is forced by circumstances to break cover and draws the attention of some very bad people, it’s Tim who takes the lead in trying to protect his people and his home. In minutes, he’d gone from almost a piece of scenery to one of the people who drove the story, as if one of the guys standing in the background holding a spear in the opera had stepped forward and started singing his own aria.

I love it when that happens. I love it when a character steps forward and says “hey, look at me!”

Another character who pulled that stunt on me was Marie Jones in the Jack Keller novels. When I was writing THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND, she was just the good cop in a good cop/bad cop duo. But within a few pages, she’d become a fully fleshed character in her own right, a single mom trying to do a tough job, made harder by a partner who’s wound way too tight. A few more pages, and she’d grown into  the love interest who propelled Jack through that book and two more.

This is one of the major reasons I’ve never been an outliner, one of those writers who sits down and plans out every chapter. I’ve tried. I really have. I know it would make that daily ritual of sitting down and opening the work in progress easier and less terrifying if I knew exactly where I was supposed to be going that day. But somehow, my characters, even the bit players, refuse to cooperate. They have this habit of stepping out of the scenery and saying “hey, I’ve got a story too. Listen to me.” It’s just too much fun when that happens to ever give it up.

So now Tim has gone from spear carrier, to supporting player, to  his own lead part. Hope you enjoy the show.

Thalians, have you ever had a bit player take on his own life and muscle his way to a bigger part?  Readers, what supporting character in a book would you like to see get a shot at a lead role?

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