How to Create Sympathetic Fictional Characters Who Are Right-wing Extremists

A sub-theme of my novel, Climbing the Coliseum, explores the recent resurgence of the extremist  anti-government and racist right wing in our society.

ClimbCover-252px

When I was writing the book, I wanted the action to show, from inside the movement, the kind of hate-filled thinking that drives this it. At the same time, I wanted to avoid demonizing anyone and to portray the characters involved with some sympathy. In this sub-plot, Climbing the Coliseum portrays an anti-tax, anti-government conspiracy modeled on the real-life Posse Comitatus, more on whom later.

If I couldn’t write the characters with genuinely mixed good-and-bad traits, I knew that my readers would be unable to feel a human connection with them, and that would sink the story. This problem absorbed a lot of my energy in the early going. In a moment, I’ll share with you the solution that evolved. First, let me give you some back-story on the Posse Comitatus, which is the model for my conspiracy.

Posse C

In the novel, as in real life, the Posse Comitatus is an ugly, hate-filled, and (if they weren’t so violent) ludicrous group of human beings. If you want an in-depth look at what the Posse is about, you can check out Rachel Maddow’s deep-historical overview here. It’s long – twenty-one minutes – but she’s very thorough. She traces the roots of the Posse to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which effectively ended Reconstruction and opened the door to Jim Crow. (If you’d prefer a shorter explanation, check Dana Milbank’s article here.)

At root, the Posse is an outgrowth of two earlier (but still active) extremist movements: Christian Identity and the Sovereign Citizen movement. From the Christian Identity movement, the Posse Comitatus inherits its virulent strain of white supremacy, racial hatred, and anti-Semitism. From the sovereign citizens, it borrows a set of potent but bizarre ideological beliefs:

  • The individual citizen is sovereign; that is, a citizen is a nation unto him- or herself, and citizens are free to decide for themselves which laws, if any, they will obey. This, of course, is utterly confused thinking, since by definition, the citizen is a member of the sovereign state. This idea leads to a basketful of bizarre behaviors, such as people deciding to simply eliminate their debts — without paying anything (except $1500.00 to the sovereign citizen site that promotes the idea).
  • The federal, state, and local governments, with one exception, do not exist and have no authority over individual citizens.
  • The county sheriff is the highest – and only – valid governmental official; however, see the next point.
  • If a sheriff, or anyone, attempts to impose “illegal” taxes or other laws on citizens, the Posse is empowered to try him or her by a “citizens’ grand jury” and, if warranted, “We the People” (you’ll find Posse speakers referring to themselves this way all the time) shall penalize him, and even, if necessary, hang him. Yes, that’s right. Hang him. Don’t believe me? Check it out here. The original statement of this is that the offending sheriff “shall be removed by the Posse to the most populated intersection of streets in the township and at high noon hung by the neck, the body remaining until sundown as an example to those who would subvert the law.” The quote is from 1968. Yes, Nineteen-sixty-eight.

As I said, if they weren’t so violent, the Posse would be ludicrous. But they are violent. Remember Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City bombers? Posse members. Remember Randy Weaver of Ruby Ridge, Idaho? Posse-influenced, if not a member.

Rancher Cliven Bundy, middle, addresses his supporters along side Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, right, on April 12, 2014. Bundy informed the public that the BLM has agreed to cease the roundup of his family's cattle.(AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jason Bean)
Rancher Cliven Bundy, middle, addresses his supporters.

Remember Cliven Bundy? He’s the Nevada rancher who for many years has grazed his cattle on federal lands but refused to pay more than a million dollars in grazing fees – because he does not believe the federal government exists! Remember how he and his supporters stood with rifles aimed at federal marshals who came to remove his cattle from public lands? Remember how he told Fox News that he thinks “the Negro” would be better off as a slave? Why? Because they (“the Negro”) are “basically on government subsidy, so . . . they abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton.” (This video clip appears starting at 19:19 into the Rachel Maddow segment mentioned above.) That Cliven Bundy.

Well, Cliven Bundy was repeating Posse Comitatus propaganda, chapter and verse.

Writing

So, when I was writing Climbing the Coliseum, I faced this difficult task: How could I keep the Posse Comitatus-based group in the novel from so resembling the real Posse that readers couldn’t engage with them, maybe couldn’t even believe they were real? How could I depict the group sympathetically, without descending into either condescension or farce, and without condoning their destructive ideas?

 

As is so often the case, my characters saved me. Originally, Vic Sobstak, the rancher I envisioned belonging to the anti-tax conspiracy, was like most Posse Members. He was opinionated, racist, against the government, and brimming with anger. But I was also writing about his wife, Maggie, a much more sympathetic character, indeed, a good and strong person. The trouble was, Maggie truly loved Vic. This forced me to ask myself, “Would Maggie have stayed married to this guy for so long if he was as big a jerk as I’m portraying him?” The only answer I could find was, “No way on earth.” So Vic had to change.

Vic and Maggie were small-time ranchers facing bankruptcy as a result of a big tax problem. I realized that Vic didn’t have to be an anti-Semitic racist to join an anti-tax conspiracy: Lots of folks are searching for a way to solve their tax problems, and the leaders of the conspiracy could pitch it (during its initial recruiting phase) as a benign help-with-taxes organization. The fact that it turns out so much more deadly than that didn’t need to discount Vic’s motivation for getting involved: He wanted to save his ranch and win back Maggie’s respect.

 

So my solution, thanks to Maggie’s love for her husband, was to write Vic’s character as a decent, hard-working, but stubbornly prideful rancher who, rather innocently (at first), attends some anti-tax meetings put on by the Reverend Crane, from Idaho, who preaches the Posse Comitatus Bible. In his naiveté, Vic has no idea the wasps’ nest he’s being seduced into, and when he finally wakes up to the craziness – and the hatred – it’s almost to late to get out. I wanted Victor to emerge as a vivid and sympathetic guy, trapped by his own pride and fear of failure.

In other words, a person like most of us.

If you’re wondering whether Vic stumbles his way out of trouble, here’s where you can find Climbing the Coliseum!

6 Hints about David Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks”

Forty years of practicing psychotherapy have left me somewhat immune to the bittersweet tragicomedies of life. At least, I find myself these days just a bit short on tears. But the last ten pages of David Mitchell’s new book, The Bone Clocks, turned me back into a weeper.
Bone Clocks.Cover.

The book is too big and too complex a story for easy summary. Also, it’s too damn good. Like great music or a superb dinner, The Bone Clocks needs to be encountered, wrestled with, and savored. Not munched like Cliff Notes.

Let me, however, offer a few hints about what you’re in for when you read Mitchell’s masterpiece:

Hint 1: The book tackles enormous themes, with nary a didactic word or explanatory passage. Despite the themes’ depth, Mitchell shows everything though the actions and interactions of compelling flesh-and-blood characters, drawn with realism, emotion, and precision. What are the themes? Here are a few (there are more): Try life and death (and life after death). Try climate change and its impact on civilization. How about the birth, death, and rebirth of human society? Or the possibility of mental evolution to levels far beyond ours?

Hint 2: There are at least four, count ‘em, four, protagonists – Holly Sykes, Hugo Lamb, Marinus, and Crispin Hershey – and each is simultaneously an antagonist to at least one of the others. (And that doesn’t even count the actual bad-guy and bad-gal antagonists in the plot.) Even the most dreadful characters seduced my reluctant sympathy – and I fell in love with Holly Sykes by page 10.

Hint 3: The four protagonists’ stories are vivid and compelling near-novellas in their own right, but each is entirely, grippingly, and integrally woven into the fabric of the whole novel. Everything — and I mean everything! — coheres and contributes to an inexorable march to the final climax. You can see it all at the climax. Although the enemies seem alien at first, we realize by the book’s end that, in Pogo’s immortal words, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Pogo1.Met enemy

Hint 4: Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law is Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The Bone Clocks can be considered magical realism. Clarke’s law holds true, though, because all the magical elements of the story turn out to be kin to the “miraculous” actions of some advanced Tibetan Buddhist lamas, doing “magical” things with their profound mental training. To me, it would be more accurate to call Mitchell’s style technological realism, if you’re willing to consider sophisticated mental abilities to be like “sufficiently advanced technologies.” It’s a semantic stretch, but when you read the book, you’ll get it. 

Hint 5: Despite having 624 pages, the novel appears to end at page 545! Then, without warning, we’re in an entirely (well, not entirely) new story, set eighteen years later! A seventy-nine page epilogue? Nope. For twenty or more of those pages, I kept asking “Where the hell is he going with this?” Finally, befuddled once again (Mitchell’s story-telling is nothing if not delightfully befuddling), I gave up and let myself sink into this last masterful tale – and that’s when the tears started.

Hint 6: The ending, specifically the last seven pages, is perhaps the most bittersweet – or perhaps I should write, sorrowful-uplifting – prose I have ever read. To my mind, the very last line is nothing short of a masterpiece.

That ending and that last line are what opened me to weep deeply, to let the sorrow and the hope Mitchell portrays so profoundly enter my consciousness fully. I could let the anguish and the aspiration of Holly Sykes – like those of so many clients over forty years – take hold of my emotions as deeply as almost any book has ever done. And so The Bone Clocks proved redemptive – at least for me. I hope it will for you as well.

Writing to Our Audience

When Michele and I visit our grandchildren in springtime, one delight is to watch them practicing with their baseball or soccer teams. Any of you who have children or grandchildren know how the five-year olds all cluster on the ball like puppies going after a chew toy.

Kids playing soccer

 

Or how, when the nine year olds catch ground balls and their throw to first is on target (once out of five or six times!), they strut for a moment, face the outfield, and spit, as confident as Derek Jeter. I smile.

One of the things I enjoy most is watching the coaches patiently and ceaselessly teaching the basics, reminding the kids to master those before trying the harder things. “Stay in your position!” “Eyes on the ball!” They don’t try to get the kids to play far above their abilities, just a slight bit better.

DalaiLama Universe

In his thoughtful book, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyosto, recalls a charming story of a similar “coaching” scene:

“I remember most vividly my first lesson on [what “mental” means] as a child, when I had to memorize the dictum, ‘The definition of the mental is that which is luminous and knowing.’ Drawing on earlier Indian sources, [this is how] Tibetan thinkers defined consciousness. It was years later that I realized just how complicated is the philosophical problem hidden behind this simple formulation. Today when I see nine-year-old monks confidently citing this definition of consciousness on the debating floor, which is such a central part of Tibetan monastic education, I smile.” (The Universe, p. 124).

Whether it’s Little League or the Tibetan debating floor or third grade, good coaches and teachers tailor their lessons to their students’ capabilities. Writers have a similar responsibility: I am to “know my audience, and write to them.”

My friend, Lou Kavar, who’s both a psychologist and a pastor, writes Emergingan excellent blog on spirituality (you might want to check it out). Once, referring to his audience, Lou told me, “My age group is mostly over 40 or so. Because of that, my blog uses a larger font.” He’s taken know-thine-audience to a higher level of compassion.

I write adult fiction, with “adult” defined as folks around thirty or thirty-five and up, whose experiences in the world provide them some understanding of what my characters are going through. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever write for my grandchildren, but then I’ll write differently. However, I know at least one writer who feels quite differently about this business of knowing one’s audience. He put it this way: “Audience doesn’t matter. Writing fiction is art, and it’s the artist who decides what is artistic.” To my friend, writing to a particular audience is “pandering.” It’s his word.

Do good coaches or good teachers pander when they calibrate their instruction to the capabilities of the students? They say the Buddha gave his message quite differently to different audiences, fitting the expression of his teachings to their spiritual maturity. That’s not pandering.

John Gardner, an American writer, taught that good writing creates a “dream” or dream-world in the reader, and that writers must do nothing to “wake” the reader from that dream.

JohnGardner

I suspect that the art of writing lies precisely here: Crafting words and sentences that allow your audience to enter and remain in the “dream,” without being distracted by how you write.

In an earlier post, I talked about how Jesus taught in parables. One day, the authorities challenged him for breaking the rules – he was eating dinner with tax collectors working for the Roman empire. In the simplest of language, he offered a very complex and profoundly revolutionary message. But rather than saying, “My mission is to propose a regime-threatening and radical new way of envisioning social and political relationships.” Nope. He said, “You don’t put new wine in old skins. New wine, new skins!” (Mark, 2:22). So, who was his audience? Even though he was rebutting the highly educated and sophisticated Pharisees, I don’t think they were his actual audience. The Pharisees would have been quite prepared for a philosophical argument. No, his audience had to be the ordinary Joe-Six-Packs with whom he was eating, and for whom he tailored his answer.

Madeline L’Engle once said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” This seems to be different from know your audience. Is she saying, “The book determines the audience”? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. I think she’s telling us that really serious and important themes can get muddied up when their expression is too complex – too “adult.”

“New wine, new skins!”

But what do you think about this business of writing for your audience. Let’s talk.

Writing Lessons from Jon Stewart and Jesus Christ

It may seem brash, but I’m going to share two amazing sources of lessons I’ve learned about writing: Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, and the teachings of Jesus Christ. I’ll start with Jon Stewart.

JonStewart            As he ends his years as the guiding spirit of The Daily Show, I’ve been reflecting on his work, and I’ve realized that he’s leaving me an important lesson about writing fiction. Four nights a week, he has turned serious, complex, and often disturbing news stories into informative and insightful 20-minute laugh-riots. As a fiction writer, I’m intrigued that he can produce such quality night after night.

Granted, he has a team writing with him. An article on the New York Times City Room blog revealed that his scripts are written by his team of roughly twelve writers, producers – and himself – each working about eight hours a day: 96 writer-hours produce 20 minutes of hilarious and penetrating social criticism: Rachel-Maddow-meets-Robin Williams. So, how does that shake out? So: One minute of high-quality writing for The Daily Show requires 4.8 writer-hours!

Let’s see: I write, on good weeks, about fifteen hours, so using The Daily Show as my standard, I should produce about 2.4 pages of excellent content each week! (I can read a page in about 74 seconds.) That’s double-spaced, of course.

(Naturally, there are bad weeks, like this little guy is having.) Frustrated

Sure, it’s a cliché: Devote more time, do more revisions, and your product will improve. Jon Stewart’s success adds dimensions to the cliché: “Good” writing requires a serious story, a wildly entertaining way of telling it. and many hours of hard work. Seems like a no-brainer, eh? Maybe, but I think there’s something else at play in great writing. This is where Himself, as the Irish call him (Jesus, not Stewart), comes in.

Full disclosure: My mother’s career choice for me was the priesthood. Although I drove that train off the tracks early, I’ve stayed engaged with Jesus as a hero, a prophet, a teacher. I don’t actively practice Christianity; in fact, I prefer his friend, Gautama Buddha’s, approach better. In any case, Jesus wasn’t a writer, so what relevance does he have to the craft of writing?

Well, first, he had a team of writers working for him—you know, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the guys. Jesus himself, of course, never wrote a word, or perhaps I should say, never published one. Nor was he a demanding editor: When his writers quote him, they often differ! With his writers, Jon Stewart runs a much tighter ship; Jesus, not so much. And loose ships confuse lips.

Still, his message endures. So, what’s that got to do with writing a novel, like my Climbing the Coliseum?

Note the word: message. Think, “Have a message, but bury it in a story.”

That is, parables. Embed  a message in your story that touches people’s desires, but don’t say the core message in so many words. People say to Jesus: “Tell us how to find God!” He replies, The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Huh? Say again?

The parables raise questions and generate tension by forcing those who hear them to ask questions, to think. I can imagine his listeners looking at each other: What’s he mean by that? He forces people to engage, to dig in. Just what writers want, correct?

The covert message (or theme, if you prefer) of my novel, Climbing the Coliseum, is that when folks skirt the toughest challenges life throws at them, they suffer, and when they turn around and face their challenges head on, redemption happens. It’s about how ordinary folks in small communities help one another survive terrible things. However, nowhere in the novel will you find that message. It’s hidden, like a treasure buried in a field, woven into the story and the plot, but never spoken out loud.

Jon Stewart taught me to entertain, but to entertain about subjects worth grappling with. And Jesus’s parables taught me to hide that message in the field of plot and story. Keep readers entertained, engaged, and wondering—that’s the art of fiction. But make the story worth wondering about. That’s the morality of fiction.

What are your thoughts about this? Send me a comment so we can talk . . .

Bill