(Don’t) Give ‘Em What They Want

Troy D. Smith is from Sparta, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, and teaches U.S. and American Indian history at Tennessee Tech. In addition to history, he writes short stories of all stripes, has written for several magazines, published poetry (but not lately), and writes western and mystery novels.

Recently, at the writers’ workshop I teach, we spent the afternoon discussing the ways characterization intersects with plot, particularly where conflict is concerned. After all, conflict moves story, but characters must have some element within themselves that makes them willing to engage in the conflict at hand… the hero’s quest, yadda yadda. At some point, early on, I made the very basic statement: as a writer it is your job to figure out what your character wants, then don’t let them have it. Because once they do, the story is over (so all right, let them have it at the end. That’s what makes it the end.)

Recently I’ve been thinking about what that means when you have an ensemble cast instead of a single protagonist. In the Western Fictioneers series Wolf Creek (by the multitudinous, multifaceted, and multifarious Ford Fargo), for example, every volume has about two dozen potential protagonists to draw from, each one with very different goals and desires/ How do we as a writing team, and I as an editor, keep them all from getting what they want, ever? It’s a sobering thought, at least from my end.

I’ve been thinking about some of the great western ensemble casts of bygone years. Deadwood had a magnificent ensemble cast. The network frustrated the desires of all the characters, and the audience as well, by canceling the show in the middle of a storyline. That’s clearly not the way to go.

The other greatest ensemble cast, in my opinion, was Gunsmoke (with plenty of other contenders). Most of the members of that ensemble had simple desires. Festus seemed to want a carefree life, and Chester a work-free one. Those desires are easily frustrated. Doc wanted to keep people from dying –in a place like Dodge City (at least on television), the frustration of that particular desire was guaranteed.

Which left the main protagonists, Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty. Matt wanted to be a lawman, and Kitty wanted to get married. Matt could not accede to Kitty’s desire, at least in his own mind, and hold on to his –considering it unfair to get married when he could be killed any day. I think that, really, he just didn’t want to be married. So Kitty never got what she wanted, and one suspects Matt was not able to fully enjoy his own life for the guilt he must have felt… and the story continued for about twenty years, with both of them stuck somewhere between vague contentment and unacknowledged sadness. Which was god for the show, really, because the tension between them remained, over and above the tension of each episode’s outlaw gang or Indian raid. And it was all very much between-the-lines, almost subliminal.

But, as I said, in Wolf Creek we have almost two dozen main characters. It would be nice if we could pair them off, a la Matt and Miss Kitty, so that their desires cancel one another out –maybe there’s a way to do that, I’ll have to give it some further thought.

I suppose I should begin by looking closer at the two characters I “run” –Black Seminole scout Charley Blackfeather and Marshal Samuel Horace Gardner. The two are about as different as night and day.

Charley is a remarkably complex man, with remarkably simple desires. He wants his universe to have balance. It is a major tenet of his, and his people’s, spirituality. If anything disturbs that balance it needs to be rectified. If there’s one fictional place your peace of mind can be jacked up, it’s Wolf Creek –check. This puts Charley in a similar situation as Doc Adams (and Doc Logan, in our series) –the one thing that most defines him is constantly going to be challenged as long as he is in that environment. It would be like being a housekeeper in a frat house.

Sam Gardner, on the other hand, is different. The one thing that defines him, that drove him from his Illinois home and keeps him in rowdy places like Wolf Creek, is his desire –his compulsive need –for action. He bores very easily. This makes Wolf Creek the kind of place he would thrive. It also makes for some very witty dialogue –but not much tension. I find myself digging a littelr deeper for the personality quirk that would cause discontent for the marshal in our rough-and-ready environs. And I think, in our most recent efforts (including some that have yet to see print, but will), I have found it.

Sam Gardner, in addition to craving action, craves respect. Not the sort of respect the corrupt mayor or crime boss of the town have, respect for his unique abilities. And that is already causing him some discontent in Wolf Creek. If he is successful at his job, and cleans up the town, there’ll be nothing for him to do. Not that there’s much danger of that; Sam is a prodigious gunman, but cleaning up Wolf Creek is a tall order indeed –the more he tries, the worse things seem to get. And that’s all well and good so far as things remaining exciting, but it is also causing people around town –and elsewhere –to doubt Sam’s abilities. So the marshal is I a Catch-22 of his own making, that is just going to get progressively worse. How long can that continue? I’m not sure –I guess we’ll have to ride along and see.

You can see things begin to unravel for Sam in Wolf Creek 4: The Taylor County War, out now.