I’ve been working on Demon’s Wager for nearly three years. If you’re already familiar with the plot, skip to the next paragraph. If not, the premise is that God and Satan decide to revisit their wager over free will. They’ve tried this bet twice before, once with Adam and Eve, once with Job, so the score currently stands at 1-1, Satan’s been pestering God for another shot, but for the past 4000 years, God had steadfastly refused. Now, for his own inscrutable reasons, he agrees to go another round. He selects Dara Strong, a widowed nurse who runs a free clinic, to represent him, Satan chooses a demon named Belial, famous for the three snares he uses to trap humanity–weath, fornication and a little something called “corruption of the sanctuary.”
A big part of the three years I’ve been fooling around with this thing was spent on Dara, trying to figure out how to craft a character who represents Good without making her such a goody-two-shoes I couldn’t stand to read back my own dreck. Belial, though, was easy–evil, gorgeous, charming, powerful. Or so I thought.
When I turned the book over to my beta readers, everybody was fine with Dara, but their reactions to Belial ranged from lukewarm to downright cold. The recommendations were inconsistent–make him darker, make him nicer, make him initially meaner, but more redeemable, and I-don’t-know-why-but-I-just-don’t-like-him. Argh.
Finally, my sister Lee (who’s suffered through being my beta reader for three novels now) managed to put her finger on the core problem: he’s a wimp. After that first shock of realizing that she did not love my guy the way I loved him, I really looked at the book and she was right. He was a weenie. How the heck did that happen? How did I take a guy who was supposed to make Christian Grey look saintly and turn him into a wuss?
In the first scene God, Satan, Loki and Zeus are playing poker in the Ninth Ring of Hell. Belial is also at the table. As originally written, Belial makes a smart remark, which pisses off Satan and things escalate from there.
It’s a funny setup, but it’s got a fundamental flaw that I didn’t recognize till Lee helped me see it. Because his initial motivation is fear, it sets the through-line for the entire novel as fear. All the escalations revolve around fear—he’s afraid of being cast into the larvae pit, he’s afraid of losing his long-awaited promotion and eventually he’s afraid of being cast into the Lake of Fire and destroyed.
From a technical standpoint, that works because it ramps up nicely as his fear increases. From a build-a-hot-hero standpoint, though, it doesn’t, because fear isn’t sexy. At the risk of sounding sexist, it might work if the protagonist was female, but in a guy? No way.
Then I went to see Fifty Shades of Grey with my neighbor, who’s a huge romance reader. While we waited for the movie to start, I was telling her about my problem and she said, “Have you ever seen Suits?” Nope. “Check it out,” she said. “Harvey Specter is totally hot. He’s who your guy needs to be.”
So I watched a few episodes. Harvey is a big-time New York lawyer. He’s mentoring a younger guy, Mike, and in the second episode, Mike manages to get cornered by one of the other partners and is essentially blackmailed into volunteering for something he doesn’t want to do. When Harvey asks why, Mike says, “What was I supposed to do? He had a gun to my head.” And Harvey says, “If has a gun to your head, then you pull out a bigger gun, or you shove his gun up his ass, or you do one of 146 other things, but you don’t let the other guy win.”
And I realized my neighbor had nailed it. Harvey, with his creativity and his refusal to lose, is exactly who Belial needs to be. At which point I went back and revamped the entire through-line of Demon’s Wager, starting with scene one.
So that’s how it’s going for me. What’s happening in your writing world?