Another great noirish shot by Peter Rozovsky: writer, blogger and editor at Detectives without Borders, lending this page some class.
Dietrich Kalteis and I are back for week four of freestyle conversation with no rules, no editing, and no net under us. We discuss what we’re working on, writing in general and just whatever comes to mind – real off the cuff.
MF: I’d like to talk about originality of character this week, and then touch on themes since they are so closely connected, which we can continue next week.
Some may say there’s nothing new under the sun. Perhaps the broad themes are no longer new, but what makes a book original include:
Characters with lifestyles and attitudes that have been rarely portrayed before. The alcoholic, divorced middle-aged male detective with a drinking problem was once the most popular character in the genre. It’s still popular, but readers wanted fresh detectives with fresh lifestyles to reflect the times we live in. Along came young female detectives which was a breath of fresh air, but writers now need to look at society and see its diversity in the round. There are very few gay or non-white detectives in modern day crime literature I’ve noticed. I say ‘few’ as opposed to none at all. They do exist, but you have to go looking for them.
DK: I agree, avoid writing stereotypical characters with the hang-ups and problems we’ve seen over and over. They can come off as wooden and even uninteresting. It’s critical that the character becomes real, whether likable or not, if the reader is going to follow on their journey.
When I write a character I have to understand them, not influence them with my own beliefs, allowing them stay true to their own nature. Otherwise I might have them doing something that seems out of character, not to say a character can’t change or grow as the story moves along.
And, I agree with what you suggested at the beginning about not getting caught in a trend. Create rather than copy. At the onset of a story when I create a scene, I come up with an appropriate character and drop them in. And as I write, the character grows and traits become clear. Maybe issues that they have or some bit of back story starts to show. And as they begin to feel real, they actually can start to steer the story in a way because they are behaving in a way that’s true to their own nature.
MF: I do share the idea that character preparation is key, i.e. their background, their tastes, their demons, their politics, basically what makes them tick. All these act like gravity, affecting their reaction to events and even the causation of events that are in keeping with the traits of the character. Sometimes it may not be necessary to explicitly detail certain aspects of a character in a story but nevertheless, some of those traits show themselves in character behaviour, thought patterns and even speech. For example, a character may visit a gallery to collect their thoughts and decompress after a particularly stressful event. The reader may wonder what it was in their background that led the character to behave like this.
DK: So long as it’s believable.
DK: One thing I wanted to ask is, does writing a female character or maybe a much younger or older character present any difficulties for you?
MF: I base my characters on myself and other people I have known. I’ve met a wide range of characters in real life, as I’m sure most of us have. Didn’t someone once say by the time you’re 40, you’ve met just about every kind of person there is. Speaking for myself, I think this is strue as long as one doesn’t live inside a social bubble. This helps me develop characters who I hope are realistic regardless of their gender or age. One fault of mine in previous years as a writer has been to ascribe my own personal opinions and behaviours upon characters. Instead of asking how a certain character would act/speak, I turned them into mini-me’s. Thankfully, I’ve learned to stop doing that, and this was something that was picked up by a good friend of mine who gave me honest critique. However, one Achilles’ Heel I would admit to having is not really knowing how to write a child character in a realistic fashion. I don’t have kids, and I have never written a child in any of my stories or novels. It’s funny how kids rarely feature in crime writing unless they are depicted as victims. I am aware of good detective fiction written for children that feature child detectives and from all accounts, they are very good indeed.
DK: Do you base characters on people you’ve seen in films or TV?
MF: Sometimes I might base a character on a film or TV show but only rarely. My second novel features a rather eccentric off-the-wall senior female detective who I loosely based on the character of Agent Stahl from Sons of Anarchy. That was quite fun, but perhaps it was a bit of a short cut; but as I mentioned, I base most of my characters on people I have met in real life. Sometimes when it comes to more extreme characters such as psychopaths or gangsters, it may be a little more difficult, as I don’t hang around with such people. But I did meet one guy about 22 years ago who owned a house a couple of my friends were living in. He was ex-SAS and had a drinking problem, and he would make our blood run cold with his stories from his past, many of which were quite illegal, but he had realized how wrong his life was. I based a character in my first novel on him, a fallen angel so to speak who experienced a epiphany but wasn’t able to handle his demons. What about you?
DK: For me, coming up with characters is a bit like building Frankenstein, a little of this, a little of that. So far, I’ve only done it once in a screenplay I wrote, where I used someone completely based on someone from real life. But most of the time my characters are pure fiction, a bit of this and a bit of that. I also keep a character sheet as I write, one for each and every character in the story, usually along with a photo of what they look like, all the details of who they are, bits of backstory and specifics like what car they drive, or a particular weapon they carry, things like that. It’s just an easy way for me to keep track.
MF: I do something similar but not as detailed. For my next novel, I am preparing more character detail that I ever did before. In fact, in doing so, they become more fully formed individuals in my mind, more rounded, more realistic even. I even mentally try to work out how they would interact with one another and how they would react to a range of events, from the everyday/mundane to more extreme stressors.
DK: My characters have been described as quirky and marginal, and they’re often flawed. None are ever all good or all bad, and they all seem to have an agenda. Some are greedy, some are desperate.
MF: Yeah, no one is all bad or all good unlike fairy tales, but we do occupy a position on a spectrum. Personally I do think it’s easy to be good when you’re dealt the right cards. I like to explore how characters act when their backs are against the wall, perhaps for the first time, and that ain’t always a pretty sight. Putting a character into a hectic, dark situation that they’re not used to is also an interesting concept to explore, and its one I like to write about. Character flaws and quirks add a spice, an edge to the character and definitely enriches the story. Its gives the story more texture and makes for a better read.
DK: I haven’t written a character with the intention to have them come back in sequels, and I’m not sure what special circumstances that might bring up.
MF: My next novel is the first of a series, and it’s for this reason, I need to keep a lot of my character-powders dry and not give away the totality of his back story or his persona within one book. I do intend to gently hint at them and to make the reader wonder why he does what he does, but those boxes will be opened in later novels. Different circumstances and situations bring out different behaviours at different times. A serial novel in my opinion would need a wider cast of characters to allow the writer to explore their different facets at different junctures in the novel to keep the story interesting for the reader. A minor character in one novel could become a bigger player in a later one and vice versa.
One of my favourite characters is Harry Bosch, an LA detective depicted by Michael Connolly. What a backstory. Bosch’s mother was a prostitute who was murdered during his childhood (a parallel with the real life of James Ellroy whose own mother was brutally murdered when he was a boy). Later he served in Vietnam and then the LAPD. He’s led such a brutal yet a vivid life, and all these facets shimmer in differing degrees throughout the novels, always at the most relevant time, and this is important. Exposition for its own sake is not economical and unnecessary when it bears little or no relation to the story at hand. As I said before, keep your powders dry.
More next week …