Friday, August 21, 2009

"He's dead, Jim."

By Shane Gericke

They were the original Dead Men Walking.

"They" were Redshirts, the poor souls who accompanied Captain Kirk, Scottie, Bones, and other main Star Trek (original series) characters on transporter beam-downs to the planet ... onto the alien spaceship ... into the ice cave ... deep into the heart of the enemy. They were ensigns and lieutenants with no first names. They carried phasers. They wore shiny pants and bright red shirts. They were killed within sixty seconds of landing.

Preferably just before the commercial break.

As Wikipedia explains:

Redshirt is a slang term for a minor stock character in an adventure drama who dies violently soon after being introduced to dramatize the dangerous situation faced by the main characters. The term originated with the science fiction television series Star Trek from the red shirts worn by Starfleet security officers.[1]

I had my own literary Redshirt. His name was Martin Benedetti. He was a sheriff's detective commander in my serial killer series starring Detective Emily Thompson. He was tall, dark and handsome, with a wicked facial scar and a violent streak that he used only for good. Everyone loved him.

In other words, he was born to die.

I created Marty for my debut BLOWN AWAY, to give Emily a love interest. Each would be attracted to the other from the start, and their fondness would grow into love by the middle of the book. Then, Marty would die violently, to make Emily feel that everything she touched in her life, died. Kind of as if Midas turned things into corpses instead of gold.
I wrote the book exactly that way, killing Marty somewhere in the middle. Rather spectacularly, though I forget exactly how. I was proud of my cleverness. I was happy with the book, and was ready to start pitching it to literary agents.

Then, Emily started in with me.

"I need him, Shane," she said, flashing her big emerald eyes. "I want him. You can't take him from me."

Marty chimed in.

"That detective's my partner in crime," he said. "She's gonna be the love of my life. Wake up, Mister Riter Guy, and dig me out of this coffin fore I kick yer ass."


So I did.

When I start a book, I have a pretty good idea of who the main characters are and what’s going to happen to them. But when I'm in the midst of the writing--sometimes right away, sometimes not till I type “The End,” the characters start thinking and acting for themselves. Sometimes they agree with what I'm doing with them. Sometimes, they don't.

And they get demanding when I push them in a direction they don't want to go.

I’ve learned to listen to their voices, because they know themselves better than I do.
That’s what you want in your characters. Independence. Guts. A strong point of view, and the moxie to back it up.

Because if your characters have those qualities, your readers will like them as much as you do.

So, to answer the question, Do you control your characters or do they control you? I control them when I can. I back off when they insist. Everyone's happy.

As for Marty, the detective commander has a starring role in the book that comes out next summer, one that could not be replicated by any other character. Emily continues to need him in her life, and her ability to convince me of that made her ever more complex and dynamic.

I'm glad I listened.

Shane Gericke (pronounced YER-key) is the national bestselling author of the crime thrillers BLOWN AWAY and CUT TO THE BONE, starring hard-charging police detectives Emily Thompson and Martin Benedetti. The third in the series, MOVING TARGET, rolls out July 2010. Shane is an original member of International Thriller Writers and a director of Thrillerfest. He lives in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, where the series is set. He'd love you to visit him at


Jen Forbus said...

Every day this week I've smiled reading how characters come to life. People who read my blog probably get tired of hearing me go on and on about characters when I review a book. Character development can make or break a book for me, and I think the writers that force character are the ones who end up with flat characters.

I know you guys don't like this comparison but I kind of see you like God with Adam and Eve. You take the clay, breathe a little life into it and let it become its own entity. That's so COOL! And I'm so appreciative that you do. I can't imagine my life without the friends I've made on the written page. Thank you!! :)

Unknown said...

My rule is, listen to my characters as long as they're talking about *their* world. If my gay cowboy starts giving me relationship advice, or my investigator's secretary starts telling me to ask *my* boss for a raise, I turn off the computer and take a break :)

Thanks for a great start to my Friday!


Shane Gericke said...

I wanna be the serpent, Jen. God, Adam and Eve are too big a roles for me :-)

Thanks very much for your appreciation of what we do. Speaking for all seven of us Crimettes because, well, this is my bloggy-thing today, without you and folks like you, none of us would be able to have the fun we're having in Wordville. So we salute you even more than you salute us.

And take off that red shirt, it's dangerous :-)

Shane Gericke said...

Happy to be of service, Mysti! When my gay cowboy shows up arm in arm with my investigator's secretary, I'm gonna run away screaming. Unless they're funny. I'll listen to anyone with good lines.

Have a great weekend.

Shane Gericke said...

Geez, did I really write, "...too big a roles ..." Haven't had enough coffee, apparently. It should be, "...the roles are too big for me ..."

There. Better. Still going for the extra coffee though. Just because I can.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

An overcaffeinated Shane? That can't be good.

Ah, the red shirts. In Buck Rogers, it's always the ones in orange who get kidnapped. Apparently, hot colors just aren't good in space.

Great way of showing the character dilemma, Shane!

Shane Gericke said...

Thanks, Rebecca. As always, it's the midlist talent that gets killed in favor of the stars :-)

And overcaffeinated Shane is not pretty to hear. I talk waaaaay too much.

Kelli Stanley said...

Awesome post, Shane!! :) Makes me want to leave my eye-crossing copy edit-stetting behind and go watch an original (was there really any other?) episode of Star Trek! :)

And I'm very, very happy Marty got a reprieve and was promoted from red to blue or gold!!


Shane Gericke said...

Thanks, Kel. ANYthing would be better than proofreading copyediting ... my eyes glaze over at the thought.

Marty is very happy being promoted to blue :-)

Bobby Mangahas said...

Good analysis here, Shane, but I would like to point out one small thing. Both Scottie and Uhura were "redshirts" and yet they lasted long enough to be in the movies.