Friday, January 30, 2015

Flaws and All

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 uncomfortably with (i.e., substance abuse, misogyny, etc.)

by Paul D. Marks

                        ...get rid of my flaws and there would be no one left.
                                                           ―Sarah Vowell, Take the Cannoli

philip-marlowe-private-eye-blackmailers-dont-shoot-red-powers-boothe-vhs-cover-artMany 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.

White Heat cover -- Paul D Marks -- D26--smallThe 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.

51-50 Psycho Noir ZeltsermanThe 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.)f08bdd34413d865ac5b973afddeacf4d

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

Flaws for the Flaunting

I'll start by answering the second bit of the question: what flaws would I shy away from?

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.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Ophidiophobia, Anyone?

Q: 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 uncomfortably with?

-from Susan

Was Nancy Drew perfect? I don’t recall, but I do remember even at 10 thinking she was a little too Goody-Two-Shoes for me. I write about human beings and human beings aren’t perfect. I’m also an avid reader and I want even silly protagonists to be flawed. In fact, the silliness may BE the flaw.

What does get a little old is the lonely P.I. with a sour attitude, a half-empty whiskey bottle and a serious smoking habit. It’s more fun to think up unusual flaws like phobias no one’s heard of, or addictions we can relate to, or peculiar passions. As a reader and writer, I may not be able to slip entirely into the protagonist’s skin as she stares quivering out the window at the pouring rain (Pluviophobia) or runs screaming from the kitchen when her host opens the white refrigerator door (Leukophobia), but I’m not wild about snakes (Ophidiophobia)* so I have some idea of what the poor person is going through. And, if you’re a writer, can you imagine the scenarios possible with problems like these?

What don’t I like? Sexual sadists, serial killers, child killers, sociopaths, pedophiles, hit men, the cruelest in the human race. 

Remember the killer in the backseat of Marge’s patrol car at the end of “Fargo”? She looks at him in the rearview mirror, from the safety of her sanity and embedded place in society and can’t fathom him. I feel like Marge. I do read and watch some pretty scary stories, partly because the writing or filming is so good, and partly because I don’t want to be a wimp or so far removed from what’s popular that I don’t understand the market or the times. But I can’t write those characters because a) I don’t know what goes on in their heads; and b) I don’t think I want to know.

Dani O'Rourke is a modern woman with problems a lot of us can sympathize with: Her divorce left her insecure; she struggles with 10 pounds that refuse to leave her waistline; she is a little cynical about some of the situations she finds herself in at work; and she can't seem to find a loving partner. Nothing earthshaking, but enough to keep her off balance and distracted when trouble pops up.

There are so many flaws that make people vulnerable, that can drive them nuts or cause them to lose all perspective and yet not make them monsters. Those are the flaws I hope to uncover and use as a writer, and read about and enjoy as a reader.

With thanks to:

Friday, January 16, 2015

Walk a Mile in my Shoes, Just Don't Fall Down

Most male authors create male protagonists and women create female protagonists. Have you ever tried to write a main character of a different sex?

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.

So for me it’s more about knowing your character than it is about just having a protagonist from the opposite sex per se. The main thing is to try to avoid stereotypes. But whatever gender, the questions are the same: what do they want, what are their desires, what choices do they make, and that is the character, not whether or not they wear red nail polish or drink beer and watch football.  Would you expect a guy like Rosie Greer, former defensive tackle for the LA Rams, part of the “Fearsome Foursome,” to do needlepoint? But he does. Oh, and he’s called Rosie.

*       *       *

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.”

And taking a trip into the Way Way Back Machine. One time a producer optioned a screenplay of mine. He had the brilliant idea to change the male lead to a female and the female lead to a male.  So I went through the script and did that, but found I had to change very little besides the names and pronouns to make him happy. The upshot being that men and women are human beings and human beings often have similar emotions, motivations and manners of speaking. We are different, that’s for sure, generally men are less emotional, at least on the surface and/or express our emotions differently. Women tend to be more expressive, but not all women are the same, just like not all men are the same.  But we are also not as different as we think sometimes, so changing the script in just minor ways seemed to work.

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.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Mr. Smith, I Believe?

"Most male authors create male protagonists and women create female protagonists. Have you ever tried to write a main character of a different sex?"

 - from Susan

Important characters, yes. Protagonists, no. I haven’t felt the need in any of my stories to have the central voice be masculine. That’s not to say I don’t have major roles for males in my books, that they don’t have voices, and characters that I hope are convincing.

Richard Argetter III is the bad boy ex-husband in the Dani O’Rourke traditional mystery series, a charming but flawed young man with $450 million dollars, two Porsches, and a pied a terre in Paris. He’s good for laughs and has an open nature that almost compensates for his lack of impulse control. I must be doing a decent job because half my readers love to hate him and the other half want his phone number.

There’s a puffed-up academic dean in the newest book in the series, out in March, who is a pastiche of all the puffed-up deans I have known, and I knew far too many in my previous life. I had fun channeling university characters who felt it necessary to waste time demonstrating their importance. (That is the fate of deans, forever caught between the faculty and the executives, none of whom admire them as much as they admire themselves.)

Dani is attracted to a SFPD homicide inspector who’s a nice guy, and I hope I’ve done his voice and character justice. But it’s hard to make him too much of a hero in her life because he is attached to his cell phone, which interrupts every personal move either of them make toward each other. He’s forever shrugging his shoulders, apologizing, and heading off to answer the call of duty.

I’m excited about a new novel I’m polishing that’s set in rural France, something a little different for me. In it, I have the double challenge of having major male characters who are also – zut alors! – French speakers. It’s quite a lively town, in fact. There’s an old German who lives in a castle and calls out a flippant French neighbor, a moody American teenage boy who looks like someone out of a Calvin Klein perfume ad, an American cowboy songwriter….There are quite a few men in this story, and I like them all and hope I’ve done them justice. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

She had me at "It is a truth"

by Catriona.

Do opening lines matter and what are some of the best ones?

I don't think you need to grab a reader with the very first sentence. At least, as a reader of paper books I can't imagine going to a book shop or library, selecting a volume, bringing it home, lighting a lamp, making a cup of tea and opening the book . . . then packing it in at the first full stop if I wasn't swept away. I can imagine that reading off a screen might be different, since we've trained ourselves to tune out stuff on screens in case we go barking mad from the overload. (Readers of e-books, I'd love to know.) In short, two ropey paragraphs on page one might make me close a book and look over at the TBR pile, but not an unspectacular first sentence, no.

As to my favourites: this got me thinking. I've got five platinum-plated, tip-top favourite books, the books that made me a writer - I'm sure I must have mentioned them here before - and pondering this question I realised that I think I know all the first sentences. They're mostly short and they're all pretty great.

Here goes. (You need to trust that I'm not looking.)

1. Gone With The Wind: Scarlet O'Hara was not beautiful.

2. Catch-22: It was love at first sight.

3. I Capture The Castle: I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

4. The Water-method Man: Her gynaecologist recommended him to me.


5. Pride and Prejudice - all together now - It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

How'd I do?

5 is word perfect but I missed a comma. 4 is word perfect and John Irving spells gynaecologist like me! 3 Nailed it. 2 Nailed it. 1 Slightly failed because that's just the first clause and the sentence goes on ", but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were."

I'm setting P&P aside because genius isn't helpful here - but the other four all have something in common, I think. They all make you want to read the second sentence.  They've all got a 'Huh?" in them. You're in a sink? Whose gynaecologist? Someone's falling in love! (Yossarian and the chaplain, I'll grant you. But still.) Who's this Scarlet O'Hara then?

So then I got to wondering if the first words I read by my favourite living writers were also short, grabby little gems.

My first Joyce Carol Oates novel was Middle Age. I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop on my first trip to the US and I thought I'd discovered an obscure writer who I happened to quite like and - who knows - might have written another one. Its opening sentence is "Is this fair?"

Bingo. No one could read those three words and stop.

My first Stephen King was Salem's Lot and I'm still shaking (He was upstairs. Brrr.) Its opening sentence is "Almost everyone thought the man and boy were father and son." And there goes another short-lived theory. I'm not sure that sentence would necessarily pull me onto the next one.  But something did.