John Hart: Why he writes character first

By G. Robert Frazier

It’s a hard business, writing. Author John Hart, who spoke to a crowded room at the Nashville Public Library as part of the 28th annual Southern Festival of Books, knows that all too well.

Hart admitted that even after having written four bestselling books, two of them Edgar Award winners, he struggled to write book five, Redemption Road.

“Writers tend to fall into two categories: those who outline really clearly, like John Grisham or Jeffery Deaver who does 200-page outlines, and those like Stephen King, who are of the grope and hope school,” Hart said.

The latter set of writers “do strange things,” he added, like writing the ending first and then trying to figure out the story that gets them to the ending. “I think John Irving said once he writes the whole thing backwards, which just blows my mind.”

Hart confesses that he is of the grope and hope school. “I’ve discovered that works if I start with character.”

It is a simple lesson, but one that can easily elude the best of authors. Hart learned this lesson after making that rookie mistake of sending his first book, The King of Lies, to agents the day after he typed “The End.”

“After spending a year or so living with a manuscript, you get so close to it all you can see are the images in your head and the story you’re trying to convey,” he said. “But, it’s impossible to understand what story has actually been conveyed. What I see may or may not be what you perceive from the words I’ve written.”

For the next nine months, Hart said he was routinely rejected, becoming one of the most widely known unpublished writers in the great state of North Carolina.

It’s sad, but I don’t think there’s a more insecure creature in the world than the unpublished writer.

“It’s sad, but I don’t think there’s a more insecure creature in the world than the unpublished writer. People who have never done it can’t understand how many sleepless nights and sweat and blood and angst you put into trying to do this thing. It’s not something you do in a week or two. You’re talking about a year, two years, three years … and what you want as that young writer is the validation of someone at a publishing company saying, ‘We want what you’ve got.’

“I was very depressed about it,” he said.

After repeated rejections, Hart realized what he’d done was not very smart. He pulled the manuscript out again and immediately began to see all the problems with it. “I saw the plot holes, I saw the bad dialogue, I saw the trite writing, I saw the overwriting. I saw all the things that first-time writers do. So I fixed it.”

What’s more, Hart realized the importance of character first.

“If the person you know at the end of the book is the same as the character on page one, that book is going to fall flat. That character has to evolve” from beginning to end, he said.

In The King of Lies, His protagonist returns home to contend with the mysterious death of his father and the secrets he left behind.

Hart wrote his second book, Down River, from a different perspective, through the eyes of a man wrongly accused of a crime and “where he gets the strength to deal with this terrible thing I’ve done to him.” The emotional journey resulted in the first of his two Edgar Awards.

Another, for his novel The Last Child, followed.

“By this time, I’m figuring I know what I’m doing. I’ve got this figured out,” Hart said. “Hubris, ladies and gentlemen. Don’t let it get you down, it almost unmade me, I promise you. It’s my tale of woe.”

In writing book five, Redemption Road, “I just thought I could sit down and let it happen. I didn’t understand what I knew implicitly with those first four books. They work because of character, not the story. When I sat down for the fifth book, I had an idea for a story, a modern retelling of the Count of Monte Cristo, about a good man wrongfully imprisoned, bitter and hard through the experience, and what happens when he’s out.”

Hart plowed through the first fifty pages before he paused. It didn’t feel right. But he kept forging ahead, figuring it would work itself out. A year later, 300 pages later, he knew it was still not working in some fundamental way.

“I called my agent and said I’m not going to turn in the story. That’s a bad day, I don’t care who you are. Writers get paid to write, not to throw pages away.”

Looking back on it, Hart said he understands exactly what went wrong.

“I started with story and ended up with a main character that felt like a hundred main characters we’ve all seen before. He’s tough, he’s got scars, but there was nothing remotely interesting about him if you’ve read a dozen thrillers in your life.”

In reviewing the manuscript, Hart noticed something. A minor female character on the sidelines. She was dark, wounded, complex, and willing to walk through fire for the right people. “I figured out it was her story, not his.”

After two more years of rewrites and another year of edits, Redemption Road was finally published this past May to critical acclaim.

If there is one thing to remember from Hart’s “tale of woe,” he said, it is that “truly compelling fiction has to start with truly compelling characters. If the characters aren’t so real and vibrant that the reader cares enough about what happens to them, then it doesn’t matter how good your plot is.”

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