Wes DeMott: Turning Fact Into Fiction

March 15, 2000
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An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Wes DeMott
Author of Vapors and Walking K

By Doris Booth

March 2000

 

Vapors

Editor's Note: Wes DeMott, author of the successful political thrillers, VAPORS and WALKING K (both from Admiral House Publishing), answers some key questions about the components of a successful novel based on truth. DeMott, a former FBI Agent and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team member, writes from his own experiences, and enjoys helping fellow writers improve their craft.

Do you have to know the truth?

No. Great stories are written about events where the truth is unknown. Few people know the truth about POWs in Southeast Asia, but writers have explored this topic over and over again.

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Do you have to be faithful to the truth?

Again, no. Often, the truth is not interesting enough to carry a story. You must embellish and harden it, clean it up and add precision, narrow the gaps in time and the lapses of inertia. Don’t be a slave to history. Stop after each scene and pick the direction that best serves the story.

What comprises a successful first novel?

It’s relatively short, 275-325 pages. It has few characters: protagonist, side-kick, girl-friend, a bad guy and his apes. Anybody else is either not necessary or must be kept rigidly in the background. It has some angle on experience: a book about lawyers by a lawyer, medical examiners by a M.E., POWs by an expert It is tightly plotted, with no excess baggage. Everything fuels the engine of the story. It has one or two bravura scenes. Ahab has to encounter the whale. He can’t throw up his hands 400 pages into the book and say, "What the hell, I think I’ll quit and be a farmer." An interesting location is an advantage. A first novel has to be well-written, but not too well-written. The reader should fall through the surface and into the story–that is, not notice the surface (style)too much.

For what it’s worth, John Baldwin came up with this formula, based on his research into Robin Cook’s Coma:

The hero is an expert The villain is an expert You must watch all of the villainy over the shoulder of the hero The hero has a team of experts in various fields behind him Two or more on the team must fall in love Two or more on the team must die The villain must turn his attention from initial goal to the team The villain and the hero must live to battle again in the sequel All deaths must proceed from the individual to the group. If you get bogged down just kill somebody.

Do I have to understand "point of view" (POV)?

Definitely. Learn POV completely, then read lots of books in your genre. Read them like a writer. Do a character, structure, and POV analysis of them. Use one as a paradigm, a guide. Don’t be a slave to it, and absolutely never plagiarize. But determine:

1. How many characters think?

2. How often does each get a POV section, and,

3. Most importantly, why?

How do you create a good protagonist?

The protagonist is usually admirable. However, sometimes it’s difficult to make a protagonist "human" because he’s the social conscience of your story, the guy who always does the right thing. If he’s stiff, he’s boring. Enrich him with emblematic action or heavy emotional freight. Make the reader want to spend 300 pages with him.

The protagonist usually has some specialized skill that enables him to succeed. But sometimes he’s just a determined smuck, like the Dustin Hoffman character in Marathon Man.

How do you create a good antagonist?

Without a worthy antagonist, our protagonist has nothing much to do. This guy must be a formidable challenge. The antagonist can be an evil government or organization with vast influence, but generally there’s a point man.

A great antagonist has many, if not all, of the same traits of a good protagonist. Robert Ludlum paraphrased George Bernard Shaw in saying, "Give your antagonists the best arguments you can think of, otherwise they’re shallow straw men and not credible." His point, I think, is that a good antagonist is as smart, committed, and intelligent as your protagonist.

Do you always have to be fair with your readers?

Yes. Don’t have your hero produce a lethal device the reader doesn’t know about. Don’t save him by giving him expertise in karate, firearms, nuclear power, poison, anti-personnel devices, foreign languages, knives, mountain climbing, survival, foreign customs, forgery, surveillance, hand to hand combat, sky-diving, deep-diving, racing or chemicals unless you’ve told us earlier that he possesses it.

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This post was written by Doris Booth