Who Are These People?

“It’s the economy, stupid!”

~ BILL CLINTON’s first-term campaign mantra

We are all products of our past.  Upbringing, peers, what family taught us about our heritage; what we learned in our first jobs we took into our second.  From the loving aunt to the snooty receptionist, from sharing peanut butter with a fondly remembered dog to that first fall from the old oak tree, we are all collections of past experiences, stuffed in a sack and tied up with a bow.  Your friends like you and your adversaries don’t because of the hundreds of thousands of experiences and contacts that have combined to form your personality and world view.  The vast majority of them, we don’t remember, but they’re all in there, having their effect on the face we present to the world, and that’s fine.  We don’t have to remember every detail; we are who we are.

But what about our characters, the people who inhabit the stories we write?  Long-time followers will be aware of the principle I have named “Tyler’s Axiom.”  Allow me to restate it for the newer arrivals:

Characters are fiction

Of course, if you’re dashing off a piece of flash fiction, or a 3,000-word morality fable, maybe they don’t need to be all that, but what if you’re undertaking a novel, or a series?  If that is the case, then I am here to suggest that if you want your characters to leap off the page, then you need to know every pertinent detail of the journey that brought them to Page One of your book.  Sure, if your main character goes to buy some meat, and the butcher wants to tell a rambling story about his brother-in-law while he does the cutting, you can gloss it over; the butcher will never be seen again, and doesn’t have to be explained.  But your main character, the third-grade teacher who’s tapped to serve as a juror on a high profile murder case, the killer’s henchman who has decided that she is the weak link that can be influenced by threats, her husband, her sister, these people are instrumental to the success of your story, and nothing can be left to chance.

The henchman, the teacher, the criminal, the attorneys all have backstories, journeys, if you will, that made them who they are, and while it would be disastrously boring for you to give the reader all of these backstories in huge information dumps, you must know them!  What made this woman devote her life to teaching?  Was she dedicated to leaving no child behind, or was she afraid to leave the school environment and compete in the “real” workforce?  Why did she not attempt to get out of jury duty?  Was it a sense of civic duty, a desire to experience the courtroom environment to become a better teacher, or was she bored with the classroom and eager to take a break?  How about her relationship with the aforementioned husband?  Or is she a single mom, and if she is, how does she feel about that?  Betrayed, abandoned, or relieved to be free?  Does she have a tattoo?  Something in her personality caused her to get it.  What?

Sure, you can just start writing:

Most people are annoyed when they open their mailbox to find a jury summons staring back at them, but third-grade teacher Gloria Sims saw it as an opportunity.

But if you want your novel to be memorable, to leave your readers thinking about the world you’ve created long after they’ve left it behind, you need to do more.  You’d better know why, because fifty pages on, when she reacts to another unexpected stimulus, her reaction and her motives had better be consistent.  This means a fully fleshed-out character sheet with background, upbringing, childhood, work environment, everything pertinent that contributed to who this person is.  Let me repeat, pertinent.  A lot of the little day-to-day things aren’t, but the difference between an abusive childhood and a loving one is going to make specific differences in the life of the adult involved, and you, the writer, need to know how.  And this is just for one of your main characters!

Once you know all these things, the temptation then exists to pile them all on the reader in huge information dumps.  If you follow the sample sentence above with a six-page dissertation about Ms. Sims’ education from kindergarten through her graduate work, I promise you that no reader will reach the end of it, and if your book doesn’t get thrown at a stray cat, it will at best be used as a potted plant pad.  But you need to know these things, and you need to use them constantly to inform your characters’ words and actions.

I can hear the electric whine of attenuated nerves already, way at the upper edge of the threshold of hearing:  This guy wants me to become a planner!  No, not really, not for the big picture; if pantsing your plot works for you, by all means, carry on.  But characters are far more complex than simple plots, and it is flatly impossible for any one writer to keep up with every little quirk and foible that he attaches to the half-dozen major players that power a novel.  What I’m telling you is that if you want your readers to be discussing your book a year after they’ve read it, your characters had better be as rich, nuanced, and consistent as your immediate family members.  Readers notice things, and inconsistencies are right at the top of the list.  Get your characters right, and they’ll write your story for you; take the lazy way out, make them up on the fly, and they’ll get their revenge by dooming you to obscurity.

If this torrent of words is a bit too convoluted for you to follow, be guided by these examples:  Lord of the Rings is not about the Ring; that’s the biggest MacGuffin in the history of literature.  Lord of the Rings is about the titanic struggles between the people and similar creatures who want to destroy or possess it.  Likewise, when Q outfits 007 for his mission, those gadgets he provides are fun to check out, but the thrill of a Bond film is seeing how Bond, a character, uses them to overcome the obstacles sure to be placed in his path.  To paraphrase Bill Clinton,

It’s the characters, stupid!

I think that about covers it.

The Engineer: Gunther Brown

“I say,” Ellsworth blurted out, “isn’t that a Prussian name?”

“Und vell it should be, Doctor.  I vas born in Berlin.”

~ BROWN and ELLSWORTH on first meeting

My engineer, Gunther Brown, was less developed than my other characters, and only lasted through the first book.  His character was symbolic of the relationship between England and Germany, or “Prussia,” in the world of Beyond the Rails.  They were, as was clearly stated, “…about two insults from open warfare,” and Gunther was the child of a Prussian mother and an English father, a clerk in the British embassy who had to receive special permission to marry a Prussian national.  His very existence defines the conflict.

I very quickly found that it was difficult to get Gunther into the action anywhere near as much as the others.  Keeping the motors and all the systems running was pretty close to a full time job, and unless I was going to set long scenes in the engine room watching him shovel coal, he was hard to work in with the others.  I gave him a few good scenes, but nothing like what the others got, and he very quickly became a largely unseen function with a name.  Without an engineer, the ship doesn’t fly, so I had to have someone down there making her go, but I never cracked the secret to getting him out of there, other than the odd scenes at Faraji’s, and like I said, a couple of others that I really had to reach for.

The other problem, and the one that led to his departure, can be seen in the quote that begins the article.  Somewhere during the preparation of BtR, I acquired the notion that writing his accent phonetically would contribute to the authenticity of the story.  If everyone is allowed one mistake, let that one be mine!  Of all the negative comments I have received on the series, probably 90% of them cited the struggle to translate the characters’ accents, especially Gunther’s, as the greatest source of difficulty in reading the book.  Accepting and internalizing those complaints, I studied better ways to suggest accents, and sent him back to Germany to care for his mother.

But he had a good ride, especially in Episode 2, The Anthropologist.  He ended the machinations of the evil spy Gudrun, and one of von Redesky’s henchmen as well during the daring rescue of half the crew from the Prussian’s jungle camp.  I saw him as being in his late twenties, large and muscular, and devoted to his fellow crew members.  There might have been more for him to do, but the vastly negative response to his accent sunk him.  It did give me a chance to add an African, Bakari, to the crew, and he has been well-received as well as increasing the diversity, so all seems to have worked out for the best.

All I can say is that when I started BtR, I didn’t realize that it would come to define me among my handful of fans, so I wasn’t as careful as I might have been.  I guess the lesson for newbies who may be reading this is to respect everything you write, because you just can’t know what’s going to break out.  The other object lesson is probably Sherlock Holmes.  Doyle viewed him as a throwaway character, something to make a few bob on the side, and killed him at the end of The Final Problem so that he could concentrate on his “serious” writing.  Fans wouldn’t allow him to stay dead, however, and Doyle had to resurrect the Great Detective for a second career that went on longer than the first.  Yes, respect everything you write.  It’s very important.

That wraps it up for today, but I have a little bonus to offer, an insight into my personal belief system.  If you’d care to see what drives me, and to some extent, my writing, check in on my other blog, Jack’s Hideout.  I trust you’ll find it to your liking…

The Deckhand: David Smith

“David’s an American, straight from the frontier.  Dodge City, Wild Bill Hickok, cowboys and Indians, and all that.  Rough as they come.  We think he had to flee.  No one believes for a moment that David Smith is his real name.”

~ PATIENCE HOBBS describing Smith to Ellsworth

All of these little airships have a deckhand, because the captain can’t do everything.  Some, such as the Leprechaun, carry two, but most have a deckhand and a pilot.  The duties of the deckhand involve everything from handling cargo, through light carpentry repairs, to in-port security.  He’s sort of a dogsbody/jack-of-all-trades who is there to handle anything that needs handling above-deck.

Kestrel’s deckhand claims to be named David Smith.  He’s about 35 years old, hails from the American west, and is a bit evasive about his past.  He claims to have been captured and tortured by Apaches, to have run with outlaws and posses, to have loved and lost, and to have known, at least by proximity, some of the larger-than-life figures of the Old West.  He does a decent day’s work as a deckhand, and possesses an adequate level of skill, but Beyond the Rails is, after all is said and done, a tale of action and adventure, and nobody reading in that genre cares how well you can tie your cargo down.

David is your classic cowboy, skilled in roping and tracking, handy in the barroom with both bottle and fists, and has a lightning draw almost too fast to see.  Like Patience and Monroe, he carries a bit of baggage in the area of cliches, but he is exactly what the role and the ship call for.  The difficulty in writing this article is in avoiding spoilers.  We meet Smith early in the first story, and see him demonstrating skills with no firm explanation of how he acquired them.  I’m not disposed to offer that explanation here, as much of it (but not all!) comes to light in volume III, Slayer of Darkness, when a sizeable piece of his past catches up with him.

Smith, like Ellsworth, doesn’t drive the story so much as contribute to it.  They are second-tier characters, ranking behind Monroe and Hobbs, rarely the center of the action, but make the action more intense, and create many more paths for it to follow simply by their presence.  All of which is not to say that I skimped on his development.  Smith has a deep, rich backstory, not all of which is honorable.  Remember what I said in Character Study, that everyone has a secret they would kill or die to protect?  Well, Smith has a doozie, and it begins to unravel in Slayer of Darkness.

So, for novice writers here to study the craft, Smith presents an example of a supporting character, there to make the leads better.  Just as in your real life, not everyone you know carries equal importance, but everyone enriches the mix.  Let me phrase it another way:  You wouldn’t make stew out of garlic, but used in the right proportion, it certainly enhances the final product.  This is what I’ve attempted to achieve with David.  He contributes to the formidable nature of Kestrel’s crew, but he also attracts a class of problems they wouldn’t face were he not present.  That, I believe, makes the stories better, and that’s why he’s there.

How about you?  Do you have a David Smith in your stories?  I’d love to hear all about him!