I have an idea for a story that begins with the death of an aged town eccentric who was known to be wealthy, but never used a bank. For years people have told stories of him roaming his eight weedy acres during the night, carrying a shovel, and burying ‘things’ here and there and then shuffling through the darkness back to his gone-to-seed home.

The protagonist of my story is a young man, new to the town’s police force, who is posted to guard that property every night to keep away the people who want to sneak onto those weedy acres and dig for the old man’s wealth. I decided to add the young cop’s parents and sister and the woman he is falling in love with, who is also a police officer -his sergeant. She’s former military, tough, and as experienced as the young man is new. Other people in town, friends, enemies, ex-girlfriends will offer the cop deals, favors if he’ll only turn his back and let them dig. Some of these people threaten him.

Ok. I have my premise and my protagonist, got the small town setting and good possibilities for conflict and danger, and for a love story, too. Shouldn’t be too difficult: typical new young cop in over his head. Ready? Time to write? Nope, not ready. Not even close. These are only the pieces of my tale. They need to be assembled and carefully glued together. What’s the glue? Emotion. Emotional Realism, I call it. Making it all…FEEL REAL.

So far I know only WHAT my protagonist is. I don’t know WHO he is. How is he different from any other young cop with a first mission? How is he different from anybody else in the world? I haven’t yet made him SOMEBODY–somebody the reader has never met before. That’s our goal.

If I start writing now, I face the danger of writing atypical’ flat character, a stereotype who does only what the readers expect him to do and say only what the readers are expecting to hear – what they’ve heard before in stories aboutthe new young cop.’ No, not this guy, not my guy. Now is the time for me to pick up MY shovel and dig deep, unearthing all the pieces of human possibility for this character. I dig them up and study and choose and assemble this fresh, individual person out of quirks and habits, likes and dislikes, a mix of personality that establishes in him the precious feeling of human truth that will stamp him as one of us – an individual.

For instance: He’s hot-tempered, has a bull riding scar above his eye and a nose broken more than once from fights he’s won and lost. He’s a loner except for his autistic sister who can drive him crazy, but she trusts only him, and he cares for her. His older brother died in a hunting accident for which he feels responsible, and this inner scar can turn him stone cold at times. He studied psychology for two years at a city college, and he has a good singing voice and a poor sense of direction.

When he takes on a job, he is determined to do it right and abashed when he makes a mistake. One of his grandfathers is an African American. He can shoot a fly off the wall with a rubber band from ten feet away. He’s just short of six feet tall, fit, and a little self-conscious about his new mustache. He’s 26. His name is Alan Vitter.

Now my cop is someone with darkness and light and
shades in between and has the ability to surprise a reader, do the unexpected, be human, feel real. I will not write him, not even page one, chapter one, until I can see him, hear his voice and know how he crosses a room. Of course there are infinite choices for each of our important characters, and their traits should not be randomly attached, but selected because they will help us tell the story. He’s now the young cop I have imagined and assembled, but you could create a completely different young cop. Go ahead. You envision YOUR young cop. In fact, since I made up this story, and I’m not going to write it, YOU write it. Use it as an exercise. Write the opening pages or the whole damn story.

It’s yours now. Here’s your shovel.

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