Friday, January 30, 2015
by Paul D. Marks
...get rid of my flaws and there would be no one left.
―Sarah Vowell, Take the Cannoli
Many of my characters are flawed one way or another. Some of them with major flaws like racism, others with everyday flaws like vanity or envy. I think we’re long past the days where the good guys wear white hats, don’t cuss, don’t smoke and don’t throw people off the tops of buildings. And if you look at the examples below I think you’ll see that I’m not “uncomfortable” with much in terms of flaws. Not because I like these traits, but because I think they’re real. And if I want my characters to ring true they have to have real flaws because no one is perfect.
Phillip Marlowe, the quintessential knight errant private eye, was misogynistic, racist and more, just as a matter of course. But he was also a product of his times. We notice it today when we read Chandler, but I’m sure many people reading those stories when they first came out wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Nor do I think Chandler would have given it a second thought or consciously put it in his stories. It was just the zeitgeist of the times (if I’m not being redundant). But today, when most of us write characters with these traits we are doing it on purpose to make a point of one kind or another and to round out the character.
The two main characters in my novel White Heat are both seriously flawed. Duke, the main character, is a screw-up in more ways than one, only that’s not the word he uses to describe himself. His partner, Jack, is majorly flawed. He a racist – at least on the surface. He says things that maybe other people only think. But a lot of them do think those things. If you only listened to Jack talk you’d think he was a really bad guy, but if you watch his actions, you see that it’s not that simple. Jack is also a good guy. He may say the wrong thing, but he pretty much does the right thing. In Jack’s case actions definitely speak louder than words.
White Heat takes place in and around the 1992 “Rodney King” riots in Los Angeles. And, though it’s a mystery, it deals with many racial issues and concerns – which are still relevant today. So the book is sort of a prism on today, though set in the not-too-distant past. I was so concerned by the raw nature of some of it that I put a disclaimer in the beginning of the book. I put the disclaimer in, but I also left in the raw language and actions of the characters. But I was still nervous about how people would react. Luckily the reaction was pretty positive on all fronts and the book ended up winning a Shamus award.
I also see Jack as the little devil on Duke’s shoulder, like you would see in the old cartoons. Jack is sort of Duke’s alter ego, the bad side of Duke, the nature he must fight. And he does. But why, one might wonder, would Duke even be friends with Jack? Because, besides their personal history, Duke sees beyond Jack’s posturing to the real Jack underneath and maybe that person isn’t quite what the surface person comes off as. We all say things we regret, and sometimes do things we regret. Jack pretty much does the right thing, even if he spouts off the wrong thing. And ultimately we are all flawed and can relate to the flaws in others. It makes the characters more human, more accessible. And more real.
The main character – a cop – in 51-50, a story first published in Dave Zeltserman’s Hard Luck Stories – Psycho Noir edition (so the edition title alone might tell you something about the character), now in my LA Late @ Night story collection, shoots a gang banger out of sheer frustration, not because of a life-threatening situation. The cop is unraveling throughout the story, the pressures of life on the street are too much for him to deal with anymore. The story was written and published some years ago, but again is relevant in light of what’s been happening in the country today. The cop is not a bad guy. He wants to do the right thing. But dealing with the stress of the streets and the thugs he has to deal with just wears him down.
Ray Hood (Last Exit to Murder anthology) is an aging rocker in Dead Man’s Curve, his glory days as a road guitarist for Jan and Dean are long behind him. He’s selfish, he does bath salts (not the kind you put in the tub), he doesn’t appreciate what his sister is trying to do for him. Definitely not a model of perfection. And he wants to get back in the game. To that end he will do just about anything.
In Poison Heart (Deadly Ink 2010 anthology), Winger is a crime beat photographer, who can’t adjust to the modern world and has become jaded by all the violence he sees in the real world. So he decides to take things a step further and goes way beyond the bounds of the law to get a good pic, selling his soul (so to speak) in the process. Another desperate character who will do desperate things to stay on top and be a modern-day Weegee. Again, his flaws are the petty flaws we all have, but he takes them to another level. A more personal level of envy and the desire to be on top and what he’s willing to do to be there.
My Enemies Have Sweet Voices features the “typical” noir-guy flaw – he falls under the spell of a woman who convinces him to kill for her. But his real fatal flaw is that he betrays the trust of his best friend by asking him to help him hide the body. His weakness is that he picks lust over loyalty to his friend, while his friend is loyal and helps him with the body, no questions asked. But there is a bigger price he has to pay for it later. (Coming later this year in the Coast to Coast: Murder From Sea to Shining Sea anthology from Down and Out Books. Anthology title is tentative.)
Howling at the Moon (November 2014, Ellery Queen): This one’s a little different in that the character is not a bad person. Not selfish or suffering from envy or any of the other seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride But he is disaffected and has separated himself from his American Indian roots, especially after coming home from the war in Iraq. He ultimately does something we might think is immoral, but we empathize with him and understand why he does it. Nonetheless, he becomes a flawed person by the actions that he takes.
Most of my characters are flawed because people are flawed. I don’t necessarily set out to write a character with this or that flaw, but the character comes to life in the writing and develops those flaws, just as people do as they go through life. Ultimately, I think the reason most of us like flawed protagonists is that we can relate to them more. They are more like us. Not perfect, not saints, more like real people, just trying to get by in a flawed world.
Thursday, January 29, 2015
Ignoring the kind of flaw that's really sociopathy - I mean, you couldn't introduce someone with "This is Crispin. He stamps on kittens but he has a lovely tenor singing voice"- I think the only flaw I'd find it hard to write would be if someone was boring. It's difficult to show boringness properly without actually just *being* boring.
(In real life, a crushing bore can be hilarious if you've got someone's eye to catch and you're both thinking the same thing; then you actively *want* the bore to keep going until you know what kind of replacement showerhead she had to get in the end, or whether the journey was longer or shorter taking the freeway; or how many touchdowns there were at the bottom of the ninth innings at the last Knicks game.)
Dandy Gilver (my 1920s detective character) has quite a dull husband, but I only ever show short snatches of him and it's more that he's excited about unexciting things than that he drones on.
Dandy herself has flaws and foibles that are more fun to write. I always get a kick out of people who don't have much self-awareness: snobs who think they're approachable; spoiled brats who think they're stoical; dictators who think they're solid members of the team. Dandy Gilver's total lack of insight about herself is one of her main flaws, but it's also pretty authentic for a character of her class at that time, when inward reflection would have been seen as feeble and shaming.
The other flaw that I think is central to Dandy Gilver - and probably saves her from being insufferable - is not at all authentic for a toff in the 20s. (This is the first time I've thought about it; I'm grateful to whoever asked this question and forced me to).
A key feature of very powerful people is their incredible self-confidence and, no matter how silly they look to us now, the British upper classes of the 20s and 3os had a great deal of power.
No doubt if Dandy had stayed in her own world - a pretty empty world of house parties and charity work - her confidence would have grown as she grew older and she'd have turned into a splendid old trout.
But she took up detecting and more is now asked of her than her upbringing equipped her for. She has to think on her feet and make it up as she goes along. She regularly gets it wrong too and so she has learned the value of caution and has even - unheard of! - learned to doubt herself sometimes.
I've always been clear that Dandy Gilver is not me, but we have the self-doubt in common. I'm right now having a minor panic because I've just discovered something I didn't know about her and I'm currently writing the first draft of her latest story. What if this knowledge make it impossible to write about her anymore without it being clunky? What if answering this question is the equivalent of looking down from the high wire? What if me realizing that she's making it up as she goes along stops me being able to the same?
Writing: it's not a short-cut to serenity.
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
No Characters Allowedby Clare O'Donohue
Question of the week: Many readers say that they prefer a protagonist with flaws to a model of perfection. Did you intentionally give your protagonist flaws, and if so, what are they? What flaws are you uncomfortable with?
I don't write characters - at least I try not to. Characters are fictional things that exist to serve a plot. They can be (as Susan pointed out) the goody-two-shoes with a moral center so pure that they are never tempted; a P.I. with a drinking problem, an ex-wife he still half loves, and an issue with authority; or the infamous hooker with a heart of gold.
Characters may have flaws but they are imposed on them, a device to make them appear interesting. They are trompe l'oeil, only realistic at a distant glance.
What I try to write, what we all try to write, are people. And people are complex - filled with contradictions, prejudices, problems, the baggage of flawed childhoods, and broken relationships, as well as dreams, and plans, and hopes for the future.
So, in writing, I don't intentionally create flaws - as in "that guy will be a gossip" - I focus my energy on creating a person, a real person. In writing the first draft of a book, those flaws appear when these fictional people make choices, they screw up, they lie, or laugh in the wrong moment, or cover up a murder.
When it works, it's really cool - as a writer, and as a reader. Jay Gatsby, Raylan Givens, Tom Ripley, and Lisbeth Salandar are a few fictional, and flawed, people that come to mind. I'm just finishing Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry, a lyrical poem of a book, inhabited by people so real, so flawed, that they break your heart.
While we might aspire to self-improvement in life, the truth is, our flaws seep out from us, like sweat or blood. They are essential to our nature, the thing that makes us interesting to know. And to write.
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Secondary characters are the same. A brilliant musician might have a tendency toward alcoholism or addiction because of their sensual love for getting lost in another world. A genius at the poker table might treat their real world friends like adversaries in a game. Someone who is steadfastly honest might alienate herself by speaking the truth indiscriminately.
Monday, January 26, 2015
Friday, January 23, 2015
This week's question is: "Have you ever tried to incorporate a popular trend (such as zombies or vampires) into your own work? Have you ever felt pressure to do so to increase sales/circulation?"
As a short story writer, I probably have a different take on this than others. On the one hand, my primary publisher, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, doesn't really give me any instruction at all; instead, my editor considers the stories I send and whether or not they're good stories, they'd be a good fit for the magazine, etc. But at no point has she ever approached me with an idea about what she wants me to write next or instead. (If only she would!!!)
On the other hand, I have submitted stories to various themed anthologies—and in those cases, the stories were either written from scratch or revised from earlier drafts in order to accommodate/address the themes and restrictions. For example, I've had stories in the last two Chesapeake Crimes anthologies, and I've had another story accepted for the next one. The respective themes in these cases are reflected by the subtitles: This Job Is Murder, Homicidal Holidays, and Storm Warning. What's fascinating is that even with these themes, the range of the stories from the various contributors usually proves remarkably diverse; each writer's own stylistic approach or thematic interest almost inevitably shines through, no matter what.
These are themes, of course, and not trends—like the trend toward vampires and zombies that the question above mentions. But clearly there could be overlap, and clearly the process might well be the same.
Dana Cameron's standalone story/novella "The Curious Case of Miss Amelia Vernet"—which draws both on elements of her Fangborn books and on the world of Sherlock Holmes. While it could be argued that Sherlock Holmes has been renewed in recent years as a trend of its own, Dana hardly seems to be jumping on any bandwagon but instead just pursuing her own interest in each of these directions, playing, exploring, seeing what might happen, where such a story might go. In a similar way, I've long enjoyed the anthologies put out by Toni L.P. Kelner and Charlaine Harris—beginning with Many Bloody Returns and continuing most recently through Dead But Not Forgotten. The contributors there have represented a wide array of writers—some already writing paranormal/supernatural, some not—and even in the case of authors who might not already be writing in this vein (pun, sorry), it seems like they're having fun with the challenge of trying something new, of putting their own spin on it all. All of this, perhaps inevitably, produces a broad range of subject matters, tones, and approaches—none of it feeling "pressured," all of it a real pleasure.
Thursday, January 22, 2015
Have you ever tried to incorporate a popular trend (such as zombies or vampires) into your own work? Have you ever felt pressure to do so to increase sales/circulation?
Some people have referred to me as Mr. Anti-Trend.
When bell bottoms and flares were all the rage (way back when), I would only wear straight leg pants. Five years after that, when straight leg jeans were in, I was sporting flares.
I do not own a smartphone (I refuse to get a phone smarter than me).
Don’t own any Apple products. My MP3 player is a Sansa.
I never rollerbladed or went to spinning class.
I didn’t start watching Breaking Bad until the series had already ended.
I’m not on Instagram or Pinterest or Tsu or Reddit or StumbleBumble or whatever.
I don’t know the difference between a mocha, a macchiato, an espresso, a frappuccino, a cappuccino, a whatheheckuccino, a latte, and a flat white (although that last one sounds like the paint color I used for my wife’s dressing room). I think there’s coffee involved, right?
I still own luggage without wheels.
When I read a newspaper in the morning, I read a newspaper.
Sometimes I wear a watch on my wrist. One whose only function is to tell time.
In fact, I’m so untrendy I don’t even know what the current trends are!
I guess my answer to this question is obvious: No, I don’t write to any current trends. I write what I want, and figure if I like it, there must be someone else out there, somewhere, who might like it too.
Now, can anyone help me program my Betamax?
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
|Seriously. Who Knew?|
|"Welcome! That will be $4.50 please."|
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
By R.J. Harlick
"Have you ever tried to incorporate a popular trend (such as zombies or vampires) into your own work? Have you ever felt pressure to do so to increase sales/circulation?"
A book signing immediately comes to mind. I can’t recall which Meg Harris mystery I was promoting, but it was a few years ago, when vampires and the like were the rage. Maybe they still are.
I was sitting up front in a local bookstore waiting for the clamouring hoards to approach, surrounded by tables of the latest vampire best seller. A woman came up to me and asked if I had vampires in my book.
It was one of those questions you aren’t sure how to answer. Do I obfuscate and hint that teeth dripping in blood and innocent white necks lurk somewhere in the story or do I just tell the truth and lose the sale? She by the way was the first customer to approach since I had taken up my station.
I let honesty prevail. “No,” I said and waited for the fallout.
“Good,” she replied. “I’ll buy it. I can’t stand vampires.”
She pretty well summed up my feelings about vampires and other popular trends. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a rebel and tend to shy away from the latest and greatest.
Along a similar vein, I have also never been persuaded to change the setting of my books. The push is very real and very strong for Canadian crime writers to set their books anywhere other than in our country. Publishers and agents have deemed Canadian settings not sexy enough to bring in the big bucks. As a result few Canadian crime writers actually set their books in the country where they live. I’ve known many a writer who was forced to change a Canadian setting in order to sell their manuscript to one of the big international publishers.
Fortunately for those of us stubborn enough to stick with our Canadian settings, there are good independent Canadian publishers who are very happy to publish books about Canada. My own publisher, Dundurn, is one of them. A terrific publisher, by the way.
To say I have not been tempted would be a lie. I have dallied around the idea of setting my mysteries elsewhere, but invariably I come back to the fact that I want to write about the country where I was born, grew up and have spent my entire life. We have fabulous settings, exciting stories. I want to tell them. So, I won’t make the big bucks. I don’t care. I am writing about what I want to write about. And hope my readers want to read about them too.
Monday, January 19, 2015
That's the short answer, anyway. No one has pressured me to "sell out" or do anything I was uncomfortable with in my mysteries in order to increase sales. And I haven't tried chasing the latest fad.
I have certainly watched the latest trend of taking whatever is hot (vampires, for instance) and putting it in whatever story you're writing with a mixture of interest and disgust. Vampire Regency romances or whatever. I think it's short sighted and I can't imagine that any of the books are going to stand the test of time. And I really think it's despicable to take someone else's work (Jane Austen in most cases) and just add something in like sea monsters and call the thing done. I think Jane would protest and she would have a right to do so.
But there's no harm in writing about vampires or zombies if you love books that feature them. And just because everyone else is writing dystopian YA novels doesn't mean that you can't, too. It probably means they're selling or have an audience right now. Just don't make it a gimmick. And write it really, really well so the rest of us will enjoy it, too.
That is all.
Friday, January 16, 2015
by Paul D. Marks
Yes. In fact, I just recently finished two short stories, both of which have female protagonists. Neither is published yet so I can’t turn you onto a place to read them.
But a little side trip before I get to those and other stories. For me the question is not so much have I written things with female protagonists, but whether we can put ourselves in the head of the other gender to be able to write them.
The proverbial “they” tell us to “write what you know,” but if we did only that we couldn’t write
about much since we all only have a limited frame of reference and personal experience. How could we write about an astronaut, a Frenchman (if we’re not French), a Wookiee*, if we haven’t had those experiences. How could we say “je suis Charlie” if we are not Charlie Hebdo? We use what knowledge we’ve gained from living our lives and from the people we know, and fill the rest in with imagination.
Trite as it sounds, we all have experiences as human beings. And, though men and women are different, there is a lot of crossover in our experiences and our shared humanity—how’s that for high-minded pretentiousness? Plus we have empathy for other people if we’re not psychopaths (I’m not naming names here...), including those who are not necessarily just like us. As the saying goes, we have to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes to see what their lives are like...which, in some cases—like writing about the opposite gender for a man—might be a bit of a problem if they’re wearing six inch spiked heels.
Besides the two new stories with female protagonists, I have a couple of golden oldies that have women as their leads. One of them, Graceland, a humorous mystery, is about a female detective hired to find the missing King’s (Elvis Presley’s) body. The main character introduces herself this way: “My name is Van Jones, short for Vanessa. My mother wanted to name me Priscilla, after the King's Queen. My father wouldn't hear of it. He wanted to call me Johnna after John Wayne. My mother wouldn't hear of that. They settled on Vanessa – I don't know why, probably 'cause neither liked it – and my father calls me Duke anyway.”
Both new as yet unpublished stories, hot off the presses, have female leads, but are very different in tone. One is a satire, told in the first person by a woman who may or may not be guilty of the crime. And the other is set almost completely in a jury room, where the protagonist tries to sway the jury’s vote for her own personal reasons. I had fun writing both, but in different ways. And for both I had to research various external things such as fashions and trendy gourmet foods and car makes and models. I also had to imagine what it would be like to be a teenage girl, now the woman lead of my story, and think about what experiences and feelings would shape her personality—I had to put myself inside her head as best I could. Something I would also have to do if I was writing about that astronaut or Wookiee, neither of which I am. I also had to research murder kits, not having had a lot of real-life experience with them other than to know that you must always include duct tape.
Whatever and whoever we’re writing, we do our research, we rely on our experience, and we try to walk a mile in the character’s shoes and hope we don’t fall down and break our necks.
*Yes, that’s how it’s spelled. No, I’m not a Star Wars nerd – I had to look it up.
Thursday, January 15, 2015
Spurred on by a very generous Christmas gift from my wife, I've just started rereading Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley—part of a New Year's resolution to read the entire Ripliad (four more novels) over the course of the year. In his introduction to this boxed set of the first three books, John Banville writes:
This week's question on Criminal Minds—"Most male authors create male protagonists and women create female protagonists. Have you ever tried to write a main character of a different sex?"—called both Highsmith and that passage above to mind, and not just because Highsmith's greatest creation is of the opposite sex or because she identifies so clearly with him (her version of Flaubert's famous "Madame Bovary, c'est moi"). Equally interesting to me—equally appropriate—is that last part about being both the victim and the murderer.
The question about writing on the other side of gender lines seems to be a common one, as if writing from the perspective of someone whom you're not is a struggle at best, a no-no at worst. But isn't that a bigger question than just sex or gender. How could a law-abiding author inhabit the thoughts and decisions of a cold-blooded criminal? How could a civilian author accurately recount the musings and actions of a police officer, a military agent, a government spy? Much of this seems to be simply the very nature of what we do—inhabiting the perspective of someone other than ourselves: different sex or gender, different race, different occupation, different political persuasion, different moral compass, whatever.
the latest Chesapeake Crimes anthology) embodies the dreams, fears, and perhaps overactive imagination of a woman waking up on a stressful Halloween night, while one of the two narrators in "Precision" (from the latest issue of Gargoyle) is a woman with a hidden past and secret plans for dark moves in the near future. Looking further ahead, my novel-in-stories On the Road with Del and Louise, due out in September from Henery Press, is told exclusively from Louise's point of view.
I'm not sure why I fall back so frequently on women protagonists or female perspectives, and I certainly can't comment objectively on whether I pull it off well or not. Answering the former would likely be a much longer post; answering the latter would fall on the readers to decide, of course. I'll just hope that my characters—both the ones I've mentioned above and all of them really—are ultimately judged not just on whether the gender is a match or a successful mimic but instead on whether they come across as real and compelling and multi-dimensional, projections not of myself but reflections of the wider world, the wider cast of folks within it.
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
POV: THAT GUYby Clare O'Donohue
Q: "Most male authors create male protagonists and women create female protagonists. Have you ever tried to write a main character of a different sex?"
The main characters in both my Someday Quilts and Kate Conway mysteries are women, probably because I just think first about telling a story from a woman's point of view.
Someday Quilts is pretty estrogen heavy, but there are guys in the book that, I hope, are fleshed out. Jesse Dewalt, the police chief in Someday, is both a romantic and investigative partner to Nell. And Nell's grandmother, Eleanor, got involved with Oliver White, an artist with a shady past. Oliver was meant to be in only one book, but I liked him, so he stuck around. He's a complex guy and his presence has brought out things in Eleanor that I hadn't considered.
In Kate, Andres and Victor, Kate's camera crew, are central figures in the story. They are her closest friends, but they are very different from each other. Andres is a family guy, strong, low key, not easily rattled. Victor is mostly bluff, but he is loyal and kind, and open to life in a way that neither Kate or Andres dares to be. I have been complimented on getting their "guy talk" right - by men - so I'm thrilled about that.
Admittedly, despite having all these male characters - the point of view in both series is decidedly female. However, in a new series I'm writing, I have two leads - one male, one female. I think I have pretty good insight into the male mind (which isn't that different from the female one anyway), but I am paying attention to how I write his thoughts.
For me, the big challenge in creating any character is making that person real - male or female, killer or cop. I don't want clichés or stereotypes to creep into my writing regardless of the person, and I hope I'm being as respectful of that in my men as I am in my women.