HOW TO CREATE BELIEVABLE CHARACTERS FOR YOUR BOOKS:
THE DICKENS OF DETROIT
It’s not always easy for writers to create believable characters for their stories the reader can identify with, feel sorry for, hate or — what the author should really be concerned in achieving — have a vested interest in their fate. The late, great Elmore Leonard was a true genius at creating memorable characters that oozed realistic traits of the everyman: Ernest “Chili” Palmer, the Miami loan shark and payment enforcer out of Get Shorty, is one such example:
Bo Catlett: There’s nothin’ to know. You have an idea, you write down what you wanna say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas and shit where they belong, if you aren’t positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words… although I’ve seen scripts where I know words weren’t spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it at all. So I don’t think it’s too important. Anyway, you come to the last page you write in ‘Fade out’ and that’s the end, you’re done.
Chili: That’s all there is to it? Then what the fuck do I need you for?
― Scott Frank
Now, though this is a scene from the 1995 movie adaptation of Leonard’s book, it just encapsulates the mood and energy of the author’s characters. Jackie Brown, one of the best female characters I have ever had the pleasure of reading from the eponymous book, does much the same. I think Leonard’s technique of minimal dialogue which sounds like it was taken from conversations at the local bar or pool hall is key. It’s a no thrills gritty realism based on the ‘Dickens of Detroit’s’ intuition and emotional intelligence, and an innate gift, for sure, as not many authors can do it so convincingly.
Since reading my first Leonard book in the early 1990s, I have been trying to model my dialogue on his, using a vernacular devoid of pretense and exposition.
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
― Elmore Leonard
My novel, ‘Master Sisyphus and the Saveloy Men’, finished in 1998 and published in 2014
The first two novels I completed, Master Sisyphus and the Saveloy Men and Mister Blue Sky, both written in the late nineties, have at their core — I hope to say — characters which represent working-class people in Birmingham, in the UK. I base a lot of the characters in my books on people I knew or have known to some degree or other. Sometimes, but not always, I use what I like to call a ‘character frame’ — which is a set of real traits, from real people, used to give a person in my story a face, a mood and personality type. It is also easy to mix personality traits in the character frame for several real people so you can come up with a totally different character type for your story. With these character frames at play, dialogue and characters’ reactions should come naturally as you are basing them on the personalities you know and have empirical knowledge of from life.
The more realistic a book, the more believable a character should act and interact with others. It is very rare for a character to be just dark in a moral sense. Only fairy tales offer us the fight between good and bad. Life, more often, is different hues of grey, sometimes swaying to a darker shade of the colour. At other times it returns back again. In all my books, there are no characters who constitute a purely good or evil mind. There are only the inbetweeners who often shift their patterns of behaviour to the situation they find themselves in.
Even the gangsters/criminals in many of my books — Don Bertoni in Bullet City, Frank Dimissio in The Desert Dago, Eddie and Sean McGoldrick in Transatlantic, The Ballad of Thomas Fox, as well Boz Holliday in Pig Killer at times show humanity, though on the whole they are all unsavoury characters who should not be admired.
‘Transatlantic, The Ballad of Thomas Fox’, a crime thriller set in NYC in 1984
My ‘heroes’, too — if that’s how I can call them — offer only personalities that blur the lines of morality: Detective Dick Devereux in Bullet City, Dmitry Boretsky in Red Corner, An Alternate History of Rus and Johan Kruger in Sputnik Baby. All these men have done bad things in their lives, though counter those past iniquities to fight something which is — at the time — worse than they are on the moral compass. Devereux doesn’t mind killing the bad guys, even if it goes against the laws of a cop. Boretsky, using political intrigue and murder to get his way in 15th century Russia, steps over to the line of the righteous in the name of patriotism. For the pimp Kruger, he protects his prostitute/girlfriend at the hands of the Russian Mob because ‘it is the right thing to do’.
South African Johan Kruger is the anti-hero of ‘Sputnik Baby’
Writing, though often fun, is an ugly business for those scribes amongst us who are more comfortable being around people. The solitary life can bring high word counts but frequently is also responsible for writing that lacks authenticity. ‘Literary fiction’, an adjective and noun I loathe being used together, is such a genre where form and style outweigh the need for overt storytelling and a poetry of reality. For me, humanity is the fuel for my stories, and so long as I can create characters who reflect the diversity, comedy and the absurdity of life, I shall continue to follow that path.