The Hardest Part: Dario Ciriello on Sutherland’s Rules

I can’t quite place how I digitally ran into Dario Ciriello back in 2009. Probably it was that I had a silly idea that I would be a writer, thinking that the mess I was working on was looking like it would be a novella, and looking around to see who published at that length. Enter Panverse One, edited by Ciriello, which blew me away. An all-novella anthology (the first of three, so far, all excellent) with fantastic, varied stories, a beautiful cover, and a well-produced physical book, introducing me to a world of small press, print-on-demand publishing that I had no idea even existed. “Wait, wait… one dedicated person with the drive to do something like this can actually do something like this?” It’s not exaggerating to say that Bull Spec would not exist without the inspiration provided by Panverse One — and Ciriello was just getting started. After taking a brief hiatus after Panverse Three in 2011, Panverse Publishing returned to fiction with three novels in 2013, one of them Ciriello’s own Sutherland’s Rules, a non-fantasy, non-sf (*), high-stakes, high-fun, crime adventure novel set across California, London, and Afghanistan. It’s the second of Ciriello’s books I’ve read and immensely enjoyed (the other being his non-fictional memoir of moving to Skopelos Island in Greece, Aegean Dream) and I’m hoping for many more. Here, Dario writes about the hard part of getting one of the characters from Sutherland’s Rules right, down to her motivations, before being able to write her to the fullest.

(*) OK, OK. There might be some hallucinogenic trips into branching parallel universes.

Sutherland's Rules

By Dario Ciriello:

The hardest part of writing my recent novel, Sutherland’s Rules, was understanding Carol, my female protagonist.

I’ve written female protagonists—and they’re all strong—before, and not had much trouble with them. I like strong women. In fact, I’m married to one.

Carol, though, was a real challenge. Carol is an attractive  professional dancer in her early fifties, now the owner of a dance school; she’s also bisexual and a partner in an open marriage, and the latter made it especially challenging when writing in her viewpoint.

The novel, whose protagonists are all older people in their fifties and sixties, is about love, loyalty, remaining young at heart, and living life to the full despite advancing years. But credibly portraying a woman who’s both deeply committed to her spouse yet fiercely protective of her sexual freedoms presented a real challenge to a male author with no experience of open marriages.

My first attempts at writing Carol were pretty disastrous: since her husband, Chris, always struggled a bit with the open marriage part, Carol initially came across as not very likeable and—even worse—made Chris look weak. This forced me to dig really hard into her motivations, fears, and needs as well as into why Chris, who’s much more of a traditionalist, accepted her conditions and married her anyway (character building hint: give your character reasons to sometimes act against deep convictions and beliefs).

When writers get ideas, these are usually served up by the subconscious (or muse) and need to be processed by the conscious mind in order to make sense on paper—at the very least, the writer needs to understand what it is they’re trying to write. I had no idea when Carol and Chris showed up why she was bisexual and why they had an open marriage. But without digging into their hearts and psyches, their beliefs and motivations, there was no way I could write them credibly or incorporate the dynamic and tensions of their relationship into the novel. The writer who fails to do this critical work of decoding what their muse serves up ends up with a novel full of flat characters and stereotypes.

When I questioned Carol on this, I discovered that what she most feared was the spark and excitement leaving her life as she grew older. After a particularly rough talk with Chris, her husband, she reflects,

It had to be hard for him, who was wired so differently, but how many other men would even begin to understand her need for variety, or begin to deal with their hardwired caveman instinct to sole ownership? Without the occasional fling she was afraid it would all start closing in on her, time catching up all at once and turning her—at least on the inside—from a decent-looking, young-at-heart, middle-aged woman into a sour, wrinkled, old hag overnight.

Now, I have no idea if this is a common motivator for people in open marriages, but it’s Carol’s reason, and a good many readers have said nice things about her portrayal in the novel.

And now comes the magic part: once I understood Carol, she came fully, splendidly, alive on the page. Not only did she turn out to be a complex, likeable, and supremely upbeat character, but her role in the book’s action expanded—at her instigation—from a supporting one to a critical one, surprising both the author and her fellow protagonists.

The bottom line? Most writing problems are character problems. And character is the hardest part.

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Sutherland’s Rules is available in print and ebook from pretty much any place you’d like to look.

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