How Do You Solve a Pastor like McPherson?

If it wasn’t obvious before I think it should be obvious now: Pastor McPherson is a key player in this little story. He’s also the hardest character for me to approach again. I don’t really know what to do with him.

Remember that this was supposed to be a story that I could sell as Christian fiction. It made sense, then, to make a pastor a central character in Nate’s quest. It’s also why Emma was kind of thinly fleshed out in my original conception. She was really just there as a vehicle to convince Nate to stay in Chauncey and meet Pastor McPherson.

Pastors are an odd breed in the world I came from. They’re universally regarded as being better and smarter than pretty much everyone else by dint of the fact that they’re pastors. They’re touched by god, donchaknow? So Pastor McPherson needed to be one of those guys.

I also needed Pastor McPherson to be a father figure for Nate. I was an unapologetic disciple of John Eldredge and Wild at Heart at the time, so I was fascinated by the notion of boys with broken father relationships and god-as-father being better than father-as-father. Nate, then, has a broken relationship with his (two) father(s) and McPherson, then, steps in to play surrogate and first and then later point in the correct direction.

So, in case you’re wondering, yes, in my original conception of the book Nate was a cipher, Emma was a plot device, and Pastor McPherson was actually Pastor Exposition. The plot was also lifted out of just about every Drew Barrymore rom-com ever. I give myself zero points for originality.

The other thing here is that Pastor McPherson is a bit of an author self-insert. Well, he’s more of a wishful thinking author self-insert. At the time I wrote the book I was planning on going to seminary and becoming a pastor. McPherson was the pastor I wanted to be when I got done. He is wise, kind, patient, and really good at doing lots and lots of stuff.[1]

There’s a reason why I look back at this book now and really, really like what I did. It’s not because I think it’s a particularly great piece of literature. It’s because I remember writing a kind of silly story with a cipher for a perspective character, a plot device for one of the mains, and a Mr Exposition for the other. Oh, and it was explicitly Christian with the intention of being the sort of thing that people would read and think, “Oh, hey, Christianity! I should try that!”

The faults that I find in the book now are that I apparently didn’t realize that Nate was too smart to be a cipher, Emma was much stronger than a simple plot device/damsel in distress, and McPherson would work way better if I wasn’t writing him as the pinnacle of Mr Exposition. Part of the problem there, though, is that we see all of these things through Nate’s eyes. He doesn’t see McPherson when McPherson is having a bad day. He’s got an inkling that there’s a lot to Emma, but he’s been too self-absorbed just yet and won’t get the full-on realization until later.[2]

Part of this was/is my own fault as a writer. I wrote Nate as a cipher. He was supposed to absorb Christianity for the audience and that was really the entirety of his purpose. I’ve been trying to keep the original manuscript as much as possible while editing out the most egregious failures but that commitment is really leaving the scaffolding exposed.

The biggest failure here is the weird little subplot with Rockafeller and Bill Pearson. I put Rockafeller in as a rather stupid plot device to solve two problems at once: Nate needed some sort of income and Nate needed someone to actually push back against. It seemed like a good idea at the time, I guess. So Rockafeller exists as kind of the anti-Nate: the big city guy who came to Chauncey against his will and didn’t want to stay.[3] He also ended up representing a very specific sort of Christian I wanted to take a shot at: the sort of backwards, judgmental Christian who doesn’t like anyone who’s different. He specifically dislikes Emma because of her background. So, weirdly, Rockafeller exists in this tension of both being the stereotype of the big city looking down its nose at flyover country and the embodiment of the rural, conservative values system railing against modernity.

On one level that’s absurdly awesome. On another level I did a terrible job of writing his character since I just needed a stock character and tossed him in.

Either way, I’ve changed very little of McPherson or his interactions with other characters so far. Part of that is because I’m not sure I’m capable of getting into the headspace I was in when I originally wrote the book and I don’t want to fuck too much of that up. I don’t want McPherson to have any guile. I want him to be that good.

I do want to widen the space between “good” and “right,” however. At the tail-end of this chapter Nate begins to realize that McPherson has an agenda. In the original writing of the story Nate went along with the agenda because Nate was a cipher. McPherson’s agenda was the author’s agenda, after all.

I think I’ve finally hit a serious point of departure from the original book. I’ve already spotted cracks in my original read on Emma. Nate’s about to come into his own, too. I’m actually pretty excited to see how that will play out.

Also, the beginning of the next chapter makes me cringe. Terrible. Just terrible. That’s going to need a lot of work.


[1]We’re also supposed to know that Aunt Ruth is one of those terrible secular humanists because she doesn’t like Pastor McPherson. As if anyone could actually do that and still be a decent human!

[2]The way I wrote that moment bothers the hell out of me and is going to require…something. I haven’t decided what to do with that yet and it’s coming fast.

[3]There’s a whole lot of unpacking I could do here. At the time I also wanted to leave Chicago because I thought that I’d like myself more if I just went elsewhere. There’s also the general anti-New York bias of Chicagans at play.

2 thoughts on “How Do You Solve a Pastor like McPherson?

  1. It’s a hard balancing act. On the one hand, you’ve got a plot which you want to happen, so you need your characters to act more or less as it requires. On the other, if they just do that, they feel like puppets.

    For what it’s worth, I didn’t get that particular feel off McPherson in the chapters so far. Which isn’t to say that his behaviour is inconsistent with turning out to be the creepy cult leader. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Weekend Religion and Atheism News Digest, Deluxe Edition | Evangelically Atheist

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