Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman
Dean Koontz’s villains (who are almost always male) represent fictionalized versions of his abusive, self-destructive, violent, alcoholic father, just as his heroines are imaginary embodiments of his loving, longsuffering, and abused mother. The initial villain, Carl Brockman, and the heroine, Amy Redwing, of one of the prolific Koontz’s latest novels, The Darkest Evening of the Year, are no exceptions to these archetypes, which, like his formulaic approach to fiction, derive from his childhood exposure to good and evil as they were embodied by his mother and his father, respectively.
Once Sarah Michelle Gellar asked Joss Whedon why it was necessary for her character, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to cry in yet another installment in the series’ episodes. Whedon’s reply was that it was necessary to make Buffy suffer (and Gellar to cry) in order to sustain his audience’s interest in the character and the show.
Apparently, Koontz is on the same page as Whedon in this regard, for virtually all of Koontz’s heroines are cursed with past trauma that affects their present-day lives, usually in relation to men, whom they often fear and distrust. They are also usually damsels in distress, for whom the appearance of a knight in shining armor rescues them not only from the looming catastrophe of the moment but also from the pain and suffering they endured in the past and continue to experience in the present.
Giving a heroine (or a child) a traumatic past is a splendid way of creating a sympathetic character and of making him or (usually) her more likeable as well, and, since he is especially adept at doing so, Koontz is worth studying along these lines, and, since it is a recent (and therefore, well-rehearsed) example of the techniques that Koontz uses to intimate a heroine’s past trauma, The Darkest Evening of the Year is as good a text as any to consult for this purpose.
We can deduce a few principles for suggesting a traumatic past for a sympathetic character, based upon Koontz’s practice in doing so. The first rule is to indicate past suffering early in the initial chapter, at the very outset, if possible.
After naming his protagonist and briefly describing the general setting, Koontz transitions to paragraphs four through eight of his first chapter, in which he suggests that Amy’s past includes a good deal of suffering. As a consequence, much of the intimation of Amy’s past trauma appears on the very first page of the novel. (Koontz writes newspaper-short paragraphs in a style that also seems to imitate that of the contemporary journalist.)
Amy Redwing did not know her origins. Abandoned at the age of two, she had no memory of her mother and father.Amy’s history remained incomplete, but the lack of roots did not set her free. She was chained to some ringbolt set in the stone of a distant year (3 - 4).
She had been left in a church, her name pinned to her shirt. A nun had found her sleeping on a pew.
Most likely, her surname had been invented to mislead. The police had failed to trace it to anyone.
Redwing suggested a Native American heritage. Raven hair and dark eyes argued Cherokee, but her ancestors might as likely have come from Armenia or Sicily, or Spain.
Using humorous dialogue between Amy and her friend, architect Brian McCarthy, as Amy drives to a house to rescue a golden retriever (and, as it happens, a mother and her two children) from drunken and abusive Carl, Koontz maintains interest in his protagonist’s current behavior. The contest of wills between Amy and Carl and the potential for additional explosive violence from Carl, whether directed toward his wife Janet, their daughter Theresa (“Reesa”), their son Jimmy, or at Amy and Brian themselves, sustain interest as Amy offers to buy the dog, Nicky, for as much as two thousand dollars. Koontz’s use of humor also contrasts sharply with the violence that follows, thereby heightening the cruelty and brutality when they do occur. While Amy dickers with the sullen, abusive “wife-beater,” Carl, Koontz takes the opportunity to remind the reader of Amy’s past in a short exchange of dialogue between the two characters:
Under his brow, Carl’s eyes were deep wells with foul water glistening darkly at the bottom. “Don’t mock me.”Perhaps afraid that his readers will be put off by the apparent hopelessness of Amy’s life, which is mirrored by the desperate situation in which Janet and her children (and their dog) find themselves, Koontz hastens, at the end of his first chapter, to reassure his readers, in a vague and general way, that things will be all right in the end:
“I wouldn’t, sir. I can’t. I was pretty much raised by nuns. . . ” (13).
At the core of every ordered system, whether a family or a factory, is chaos. But in the whirl of every chaos lies a strange order, waiting to be found (18).At the end of chapter two, having managed to rescue Janet, her children, and their dog (not bad for an evening’s work), Amy drives away, the rescued in her Ford Expedition, and Koontz, once again, now that a lull in the action has been reached, intimates that Amy has herself experienced trauma in her past, about which, readers may be sure, they will hear more in the upcoming pages of Amy’s story:
Amy remembered a winter night with blood upon the snow and a turbulence of sea gulls thrashing into flight from the eaves of the high catwalk, white wings briefly dazzling as they oared [sic] skyward through the sweeping beam of the lighthouse, like an honor guard of angels escorting home a sinless soul (25).Thereafter, until the moment comes to reveal the nature of the past trauma in detail, usually during a flashback that is related to, or inspired by, the story’s present action, an occasional reminder as to the protagonist’s traumatic past is all that is needed, and these reminders can be tucked into the narrative where it is appropriate and effective to do so. For example, in enquiring of Janet whether Reesa has any paranormal or supernatural powers beyond her ability to speak and sing in other languages, such as Celtic, which Reesa has merely heard without having learned, Janet asks what Amy means, which prompts this expository information from the novel’s omniscient, third-person narrator, at the end of chapter six:
To explain, Amy would have to open door after door into herself, into places in the heart that she did not want to visit. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I meant by that” (44).What, exactly, is the trauma that Amy experienced in her past that continues to haunt her in her present-day life and to motivate and to otherwise affect her current behavior?
Her secrets won’t be revealed here; one will have to buy or borrow Koontz’s novel to learn the dirt concerning the protagonist. However, no doubt, the desire to know all the juicy details is there; in fact, it may seem as overwhelming as a need (in which case, another copy of Koontz’s novel will surely be sold or checked out at one’s local library).
And that’s just the point, of course. By intimating that his story’s main character has experienced a traumatic past that continues to haunt her today, Koontz makes his readers want to learn more about Amy. She has become interesting and sympathetic, someone whom readers want to get to know better, someone with whom, readers feel, they could be friends. By suggesting that Amy has a pain-filled past that continues to affect her behavior today, Koontz has made his readers care about her, thereby transforming her, as it were, from a simple cardboard character into a flesh-and-blood person, as it were, about whom readers can wonder and contemplate and for whom they can feel compassion and empathy and affection.
Koontz has also related past to present, making the former the prelude to the latter, imparting order and unity and coherence to his novel’s plot, and he has motivated his readers to continue to read, that they might, in the process, satisfy their curiosity concerning Amy’s past, see how and why her past affects her now, in the present, and get to know her better as a likeable and sympathetic character.