A Few Good Challenges
By Dave Butler
Throw them a challenge! That simple piece of advice remains one of the best I’ve received from other mystery writers in whose skilled footsteps I follow. It’s a variation on the ‘ask-the-what-if-questions’ approach to characters and plot. More importantly, it’s an incredibly useful way to develop your protagonists and antagonists. Put them outside their comfort zones (and even better, put yourself outside your comfort zone as a writer), and you’ll watch fascinating and quite unexpected things happen as a result.
In my latest novel – In Rhino We Trust – I purposefully chose to send my main character, Jenny Willson, to Namibia to help prevent rhino poaching. There are probably few places in the world as different from the Canadian mountain national parks as is Namibia. We were off to a good start!
Once Jenny arrived at the airport in Windhoek (Namibia’s capital city), she saw the country with fresh eyes, very much like I did during my travels there. Perhaps I was channeling myself a bit, but I described what it was like for her to see new sights, smell new smells, and hear sounds unlike any she’d heard before – like the deep roars of lions hunting at night, only a short distance from her tent. You can’t help but shiver when every system in your body simultaneously realizes that you are nowhere near the top of the food chain.
I also sensed that Jenny was getting a little too comfortable in the Canadian Rockies in the first two books in the series. So, in this third novel, I placed her in northern Namibia. There, it is relatively flat, often devoid of vegetation, and hot, very hot. She had to continue to concentrate despite sweat dripping in places where she’d never sweated before.
Willson soon realized that women are treated very differently there, so she had to step back, and watch and listen before acting. In a country that has experienced waves of colonizers from largely white nations over many generations, invaders who’ve often done more harm than good, Willson had to let other women, local women, take the lead in the investigations into missing rhinos. She quickly understood that if she came in with an attitude that said: “I’m here from Canada with all the answers,” she would fail. For a hard-edged kick-ass personality like Jenny, that was a challenge. But it was also a learning opportunity, personally and professionally.
Having worked in government for a few years, Jenny was used to obfuscations, delays, and an impenetrable hierarchy. It was no different in Namibia, but to be successful, she had to learn how decisions were made there, by whom and how long it took to make them.
Finally, Jenny had to confront the significant hurdles that poverty creates for conservation. She’d already seen enough of greed back in North America, but when people in developing countries are faced with a choice between feeding their families, or protecting wildlife or their habitats, solutions become much more difficult. Willson saw that on a very personal level.
With In Rhino We Trust in bookstores now, and readers offering me positive feedback, I have no doubt that throwing those significant challenges at Jenny Wilson was the right thing to do.
However, I’ll add a point of caution here. If/when you throw new challenges at your main characters, expect push-back. Be prepared for when they turn to you and say: “Hey writer! What did I ever do to you to deserve this kind of treatment?” That’s when you smile, say: “nothing personal, main character,” then toss another roadblock at them.
Jenny still isn’t talking to me…