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Here's the church, here's the people...
Characterization in
The Red Church

By Scott Nicholson

(Note: You'll probably enjoy this article more if you've already read The Red Church. There are no obvious spoilers and it may add a little insight, especially if you're a writer, but I'm throwing in the warning regardless. This was written as ancillary material for a series of writing workshops and classes I'm conducting in the coming months.)

All fiction is driven by characterization. Discovering how fictional characters think, act, and dream is one of the great joys of both reading and writing. In many ways, we learn about ourselves when we read, because we are constantly bringing our own sets of experiences into the mix, comparing and contrasting what we see with what we already think we know. When we meet a character on the page or screen, we can become that person for a brief period and then go back to the security and familiarity of our own minds. It’s a safe, sane form of exploration and adventure.

As an author, nothing gets me more interested in the story than to begin thinking in the mind of a character. Some writers debate which element is more important to a story, plot or character, but to me there’s no difference. The plot arises from the characters and the characters had better be the right people to carry the plot. Whether you make the decisions consciously ("I’m going to write a mystery about a mystery writer who kills her husband") or learn more about your character and story as you go along, in the end the two elements should be wed in perfect harmony.

When I powered up the computer and typed the first sentence of "The Red Church," I didn’t know the ending and I didn’t know all the characters who would eventually appear in the book. At that point, all I really had was the image of a haunted country church. That image set me to asking questions. Why is the church haunted? By what? Who is being haunted? Where? When?

I started by seeing the church through the eyes of Ronnie Day. Ronnie is a 13-year-old boy whose younger brother Tim is a pest and whose parents David and Linda are having marital problems. Ronnie is partly autobiographical, because the theme that would drive the book was derived from one of the questions that plagued me at around that age: how do you know God is real?

Ronnie not only has to deal with the torments of religious doubt, he has the task of protecting Tim and trying to get Linda and David back together. I also throw in a few other weaknesses. He breaks his nose in the first chapter, so he is physically hampered throughout, and the girl he has a crush on ends up betraying him. He’s caught in a maelstrom of confusion and that central search for faith seems to be his only hope.

By the end of the first chapter, we not only learn a great deal about Ronnie’s fears and worries, we also learn about the church’s legend, get a sense of the rural Appalachian community, and discover that some really creepy things are happening. I could easily have written the rest of the story from Ronnie’s point of view, but that would have opened only a narrow window onto the action that follows. By coming up with a bigger cast of characters, I could put the strange events that surround the church in a variety of perspectives, from the flawed to the awed. I could see through a dozen eyes and get into some idiosyncratic heads.

Sheriff Frank Littlefield has his own tragic connection to the church, and in some ways, he is an adult version of Ronnie. Frank’s religious faith faltered after the long-ago tragedy, and now he is left doubting the existence of God. At the same time, he must put on a brave face and attempt to solve crimes that he suspects have supernatural origin. He’s a mountain native and bears the burden of community responsibility, and is a representative of modern Appalachian society.

His chief detective, Sheila Storie, is the perfect complement to him, at least in furthering dramatic conflict. Storie is educated, city-born, and skeptical. She is orderly in her investigation and grows uneasy and angry when things veer out of her control. Of course, there is some romantic tension between her and Frank, since a book without some mention of love is completely devoid of reality. She is a fish out of water, which allowed me to measure mountain values against those of the outsider.

The antagonist Archer McFall is a dynamic character, made even more impressive because his supernatural abilities are revealed very early in the book. He is handsome and charismatic, a strange mountain boy who moved away and became a successful evangelist. Even without the paranormal trappings, he is the type of character who could carry a story. I could easily have written a Southern literary novel about a "returning son," but it wouldn’t have been as thrilling and probably wouldn’t have sold as well. By appearing invincible, he creates a problem seemingly impossible for the other characters to overcome.

Other viewpoint characters tell their pieces of the story, and each serves a purpose. Linda was an early follower of Archer’s, and David pulled her from Archer’s influence and returned her to her native mountains. Yet Linda easily falls prey to Archer’s charisma when he returns to the mountains, buys the haunted church, and begins holding services. Linda serves the important plot purpose of showing how strong Archer’s convictions are and how even his most depraved rituals are justified, at least in her eyes.

David has information about Archer that none of the other characters have, most notably that Archer is indeed "not of this world." David is also the most religiously devout, at least in the conventional Christian sense, of any of the characters. He could be seen as the "good" if the book were reduced to a simple battle of "good versus evil," though such a predictable story would have bored me--and my readers--to tears before we reached the big dramatic conflicts. The climax would have been hollow because the ending would have been pre-determined in one of two ways. Either good would triumph (ho hum) or evil would triumph (ho ho hum).

One other character gets some point of view time. We meet an old country farmer just long enough to feel a little sympathy when he is killed. A handful of other characters play supporting roles, pieces of stage setting designed to give the central conflict a broader spectrum. Some could have been more prominent, but I wasn’t trying to write an epic. Still, I think I did a fair job of making each minor character more than just a fleeting stereotype. I don’t feel that anybody was thrown into the mix just for padding.

The key character to me, though her part in the book relegates her to minor status, is Mama Bet, the mother of Archer. She is a bit wacky and vain, as befits a woman who believes she brought forth a messiah by means of virgin birth. I discovered her late in the book and actually went back into earlier chapters and expanded her role. By writing in her voice, I found a renewed pleasure in telling the story. That’s important when a novel takes nine months of work and sometimes it seems you’re wandering a dark forest without a flashlight or a map. Mama Bet may not have been essential to the novel’s success, but she certainly earned a soft place in my heart.

One radio interviewer pointed out that the book had no central hero figure. Ronnie, Frank, and Sheila are strong and complex enough to fill that role, but I didn’t want to put all the eggs in any one basket. By having several characters carry the load, I was able to look at different faith mechanisms, different ways of dealing with the extraordinary, and different views about religious and familial love. Most importantly, though, I got to meet some really strange and interesting people.

I’m sane enough to realize that Ronnie, Archer, and Mama Bet don’t exist. I could have wiped them out with a few keystrokes. But I think the world is a better place with them around, even in their two-dimensional and artificial forms. In a small way, they touched me and changed my life. I hope they’re just as memorable to you.

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