This week’s blog returns to thoughts about the writing process–in this case character creation. Enjoy! And as always. thanks for stopping by.
THEM or ME
One of the aspects that influenced my decision to pursue writing––to become a writer––was the notion that I had stories to tell. But great stories require great characters. With my personal accounts, the characters were already established. All I had to do was reveal their entertaining qualities. With fiction, however, I’d bear the responsibility of conceiving both characters and plots. Would I be able to birth those characters, or would they find me to seek their release? If it was the latter, then who would really write the stories, them or me?
The first protagonist I featured in a novel was my 1950s Private Eye, Randal Murphy. Murphy and I inadvertently found one another after I arose from bed one night and stumbled into the bathroom. As I stood before the porcelain throne doing…well, doing what most guys do when they stand before the thunder mug, a line popped into my head: It was a bastard of a week, like all my weeks lately. Unsure of how my present situation influenced the thought, my writer’s reaction was: Wow! What a great opening line for novel––a Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe noir kind of tale. But what did I know about private detectives or noir? As I shuffled back to bed, I contemplated the possibilities: Super opening line––gotta use it––but what about characters and a plot?
To familiarize myself with the feel of noir, I read Hammett’s Maltese Falcon and absorbed every Raymond Chandler story I could find. I watched Humphrey Bogart’s on-screen interpretations of those authors’ famous P.I.s multiple times, plus other Noir films to immerse myself in the setting and dialogue. Still, I lacked a plot, and the characters to convey it.
Writers are frequently advised: “Write what you know.” Because I was living in the Colorado Rockies at the time, I wanted part of my impending plot to occur there. But Noir characters were based in big cities, urban background often becoming a character in itself. The 1930s and ’40s, and New York and L.A. were neither eras nor cities I’d experienced––but 1950s St. Louis was. Bingo! I had my main character’s home base and a destination, now all I needed was a case––a crime and reason for my yet unknown P.I. to become involved. That’s when I discovered seat-of-the-pants writing––being a panster. That’s when Murphy stepped forward on the page and offered to assist with my novel.
For months Murphy and I sat down at the computer together, tossed around plot points, and cranked out the chapters. The antagonist quickly emerged and provided conflict. Along the way, Murphy’s pals, plus a few incidental characters introduced themselves. A couple of those characters perished (good for driving the plot). Some merely bid adieu by the conclusion. Regardless, each had fulfilled a particular role. Murphy and his circle of friends insisted on a sequel. How could I refuse? We’ve been pals ever since.
My contemporary Homicide Detective, Ike Barney, made his presence known in a similar fashion. As I drank my morning java and pondered my day’s activities, I overheard a TV news item about a four-hundred-million dollar Powerball jackpot, and how the owner of the winning ticket had yet to claim his/her prize. The story prompted my devious writer’s mind to think: Hmmm. Four-hundred mil––that could provide motive for murder. A simple plot idea was born. But Powerball was well past Murphy’s era. Who would tell this story?
Next day, I sat down at my PC to play with the concept. In the opening sentence, Detective Ike Barney appeared on my monitor. By the end of the first page he’d revealed his temperament and qualifications, and offered to handle the murder investigation. We completed The Power of Seven, Ike’s first short story the following day––and discovered his new girlfriend.
After that, whenever I came up with the idea for a more contemporary crime, I’d mull it over for a bit, then sit down with Ike and an expanding cast of characters to iron out the details. Along the way, Ike and his pals revealed more of their personal background. Seven short stories, plus a novel in the works later, we’re still solving cases.
Between Murphy and Ike, and their assorted comrades and counterparts, I’ve had the good-fortune to work with some enjoyable characters. As eccentric as it may seem (and eccentricity is part of being a writer, doesn’t mean we’re nuts, right?), whenever I compose stories that involve one of my two protagonists and their cast, it’s as if the ensemble was in the room with me. I clearly visualize the scenes in my mind and ‘hear’ the distinct voice of each character involved––and their unique interpretation of grammar applied to the English language. For me, their adventures are the product of a collaborative effort.
That said, the question remains: Who actually writes the stories, them or me? Do I give them voice or am I merely the stenographer?
My response: Does it matter? We’re all having a blast. Plus, I really don’t mind sharing the credit.