Everyone loves a redemption story. It’s the basic theme of almost every ancient saga, classic novel, and Hollywood movie ever made. Read any book on writing and you’ll probably get advice on how to take a flawed character, give him or her a problem, and let the resolution of the conflict be the logical outcome of the individual’s moral regeneration (and vice versa).
Redemption as reflected in storytelling is also the essence of addiction recovery. When an alcoholic named Bill Wilson listened to his friend Ebby’s tale of freedom from his drink problem, he in turn took his own story of transformation out to other drunks. After his first success, with a doctor named Bob Smith, he and the doctor went on to found Alcoholics Anonymous, a fellowship based on the telling of tales of redemption.
When I first tried to shop my latest book, Trust Me, I was told by agents that the main character wasn’t sympathetic enough. Why, they said, would a reader invest their time in following a story about a self-centered two-bit drug dealer? Who cares? I got the same critique from my editor when he sent me back Down Solo: make this drug addict likeable enough that we want to root for him. So I had some work to do, and I hope I did it adequately.
Trust Me draws from a number of real-life stories and characters close to my heart. A mash-up of ex-girlfriends gave me the characters Holly and Lilah, deeply troubled but fundamentally decent people in real life and in the novel. The journalist is modeled after a man named Chuck whom I greatly respect, while the homicide detective—well, I never had a healthy relationship with cops back in the day, so I had to invent him entirely.
Without giving too much away, I can tell you that Art, the manipulative self-help guru who causes so much trouble in Trust Me, is based on a real person, a doctor in the recovery community in Los Angeles. In life he was actually an affable guy, charming and seemingly helpful, but he had a creepy side that led to behavior that laid the seeds for what would become—years later—this novel.
And then, of course, there’s Jeff, the loser that gets caught up in it all. His story of redemption mirrors my own, and it was great fun to fictionalize some of the darker—and goofier—events from the “what I was like” days.
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As one who has written a novel about redemption, I agree that it is a popular and recurring literary theme. There are a lot of agents out there, some very good, some not so good, and a lot in between. Some might even be described as two bit. A writer has to trust his own instincts. Why would a reader identify with a two bit drug dealer? How about because more people are worth two bits than four bits, or more, and the fact that one is only worth two bits, and perhaps scrapes by the law here and there doesn’t mean that the character cannot be interesting, engaging and sympathetic.