In my previous Killer Year blog post, I threw around some highly subjective ideas about what makes for a good read, whether that read is a crime novel or otherwise. Most of what I wrote was about “levels of association,” or what some people reductively call “theme.” But—wait—there’s more. So much more—but I’ll limit myself to musing about character this time around.
I’ve read quite a few guide books on creative writing, all of which spend considerable time on character—whether the guide book is an almost-religious mediation on great writing like John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction or an asinine paint-by-numbers workbook like (and I’m making this up, I hope) YOU, TOO, CAN WRITE THIS YEAR’S GREATEST BESTSELLER EVER IN THREE SHORT WEEKS!!!! One gets all sorts of advice about building great characters, and, because I’m an insufferable iconoclast, I question some of what I’ve read, if only a little bit.
My first gripe is similar to one that Sandra Ruttan expressed in a recent Killer Year post, and it regards the idea that “universal types” or “archetypes” make the best characters because they are recognizable and comfortable to a wide variety of readers. Star Wars is loaded with these archetypes—from Han Solo the wisecracking rogue mercenary to Luke Skywalker the wide-eyed boy hero to Darth Vader the ruthless overlord with a dark secret. Crime fiction features plenty of archetypes, and many of them have been famous serial detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Mike Hammer, Phillip Marlowe and so on. I’m not about to argue against such characters. They are some of the most famous and enduring characters in film and novel history. But sometimes I wonder if maybe this endless recycling of universal types doesn’t lead more often to bad, clichéd, dull, formulaic novels than fresh and exciting novels.
The fact that a character is often universal seems almost a given. Every character is universal, in that she exhibits traits we recognize from ourselves, our friends, or our fantasies about what we could be. Saying “the key to a great character is universality” is almost akin to saying “the key to a great character is a total of two fully functioning eyeballs.” Most competent writers create recognizable characters rather unconsciously, and any self-conscious effort to do it seems almost destined for flatness and cliché. I can almost imagine the hack writer inventing his characters by rolling a twenty-sided die and filling out one of those old Dungeons & Dragons data charts: agility 15, stamina 7, constitution 12.
By contrast, there is the concept of defamiliarization, which I’m borrowing from literary theory (I know, I know; bear with me). This idea says that what’s exciting, what’s compelling about good fiction is how it makes the familiar suddenly strange again, that it unsettles the reader, thus prompting her to get excited and entranced by a weird, fresh, exciting new view of the world. When I look at character this way, I begin to suspect that the most exciting and interesting characters are exciting and interesting because of the ways that I don’t recognize them, not the ways I do. Right now I’m finishing a truly defamiliarizing novel called Smonk by Tom Franklin. Its main character is a one-eyed syphilitic dwarf with a big goiter. Can’t get much stranger than that, and as a reader I’m just as much compelled by the strangeness of the character as I am by the power of the story and the language. Granted, one needs to be able to pull off such a stunt, and Franklin does it brilliantly.
This crazy dwarf dude is a womanizing, murdering lowlife that is deserving of almost none of my sympathy, but I find him compelling anyway. This fact leads me to question another common “truth” about great protagonists, which is they have to be likeable. If one wants nothing but a familiar, comfortable read, then sure—but I’ve often been thrilled by books brimming with nothing but despicable characters. My favorite, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, is a prime example. Jim Thompson’s entire oeuvre is another. Frankenstein? Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian? James Ellroy’s American Tabloid? These are some of my favorite books, though I’d never invite a single character from a single one of them into my home for dinner. We sympathize with what is familiar, but we are also lured by what is unfamiliar, just as we are compelled to look at a car wreck on the roadside. To bring my point back to the case at hand: I think the unnerving, the disturbing, the discomforting, and the unfamiliar seems so fundamental to noir fiction that it’s often disheartening to hear folks argue against it.
Here’s the third “rule” I gripe about: a protagonist must undergo a significant and permanent change by the end of the novel. This advice has the weight of a commandment, and it’s certainly true most of the time. After all, the heart of drama is in a character’s escalating struggle against opposing forces, forcing him or her to change. For instance, I was constantly compelled watching Billy Costigan (Leo DiCaprio) in The Departed gradually devolve under the pressure of his undercover operations. And, much like the Grinch, L.A. Confidential’s Bud White (Russell Crowe) lets his heart grow a bit by the end of the movie version. The characters in James Ellroy’s original novel evince less obvious transformations than in the movie version, and yet the novel is no less compelling.
Outside of the Hollywood system lurks an army of fascinating noir characters who undergo virtually no change at all. The backward chronology of Memento demands that Leonard (Guy Pearce) doesn’t change. “Alice” (Natalie Portman) in Closer is such a mercurial femme fatale that change in her character is only an illusion. In Brick, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is so stoic in the face of his mounting troubles that we’re forced to paint our own reactions onto his blank face. The emotionally vacant, blank slate protagonist or femme fatale is the very basis of hardboiled noir, and the device has been working for over half a century. It provides an empty costume that the reader or viewer can fit his emotions inside. It provides the locked box inside which the writer hides her secrets, poised to be sprung on the audience.
The audience is the real barometer for indications of change, I think. The characters are not required to change so much as the audience is required to change—to grow in understanding as more and more information is revealed. To pull a simile from a decidedly non-noir source, I’ll say characters are like flowers—closed bulbs at the beginning; in full, glorious, revelatory bloom at the end. We appreciate the beauty of the revelation, but the flower is still the same flower. The Leonard we meet at the beginning/end of Memento is the same Leonard we see at the end/beginning—but both Leonard and the viewer are struck by the mind-boggling information he learns about himself. For an instant, he sees himself in full bloom. An instant later that Pandora’s box will slam back shut on him, but not on us. Similarly, what is revealed about “Alice” in Closer does not change her character. Rather, it revises everything we thought we understood about her, as if we’ve watched the movie twice with two totally different plots.
This talk of change is a great segue into the issue of serial characters—your Harry Bosch, your John Rain, your John Rebus, your Sherlock Holmes. As I move from my final revised draft of my first novel Pyres (phew!) to brainstorming my second, this issue is full on my mind. I need to decide whether I want my police investigator to take another case, and currently I’m leaning toward leaving her alone and moving on to new characters and fresh locales. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not here to disagree with the hundreds of thousands of thriller readers who have resoundingly approved the use of serial characters. It certainly makes good business sense to keep a character going, so long as you (the writer) don’t crash your car in the snow and get rescued by Annie Wilkes.
For the reader and writer both, serial characters provide the comfort of an old friend. Or at least, they provide us with that old costume we can dress our emotions inside (thus the reason why so many serial characters are hardboiled blanks, all of them with anonymous-sounding names like John). Sitcom characters are similar; I watch Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm not because I expect to be surprised by what he’ll do or say, but because I enjoy the satisfaction of correctly anticipating what he’ll do or say in unique situations. I read Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels for a similar reason. Of course Bosch develops over the novels—new girlfriends, a kid, old revelations—but these developments are more like a rearrangement of the furniture than a deep-seeded transformation. In fact, the conventions of narrative dictate that serial characters can’t really change that much over the course of a single novel because dramatically sharp character arcs in sequel after sequel eventually get a little difficult to believe. Somebody who changes too much too often is wishy-washy, the furthest thing from the hardboiled cynic that so many serial characters embody.
Can I make a potentially disastrous admission? I like Connelly’s Bosch novels, but in truth I love his stand-alones The Poet and Void Moon even more. The protagonists in those two books had more at stake, more to prove, because they only had one book to do it. I am fully aware that Connelly reexamined some characters from The Poet in The Narrows, but The Narrows provides a good illustration of my point. It is, in my humble opinion—brace yourselves!—the weakest novel I’ve read of Connelly’s impressive output. It lacks Jack McEvoy’s compelling voice and his urgent quest to find his brother’s killer, it reverses the cynical beauty of The Poet’s ambiguous ending, and it mercilessly kills off a character from one of Connelly’s earlier books (it happens in the beginning, so I’m not giving anything away).
In fact, in my own little world I count Blood Work as a standalone because I don’t like to think about Terry McCaleb’s subsequent fate (and I haven’t read A Darkness More than Night). Blood Work is also, I contend, a standalone because it so beautifully captures the total story arc of a great protagonist. I can’t imagine where Connelly could take McCaleb after Blood Work ends. In fact, one of Connelly’s justifications for killing off McCaleb was the settlement of his character; there was simply nowhere else to go with him. Would that some other writers (none of whom I have named here) would treat their own serial characters with such ruthlessness. We’d have a lot fewer flogged horse corpses lying around.
So back to my own dilemma—serial or no serial? Probably the latter, no matter the commercial risks. Heck, if readers hate the characters in Pyres then I won’t have wasted my time writing more nonsense about them that nobody will want to read. Instead, I’m toying with the idea of letting some characters from my first novel show up as minor players in my second. Seeing them mulling around in the background will fulfill my desire for a sense of “connectivity” in my writing, similar to the way Stephen King wrote many of his novels toward the “mythology” of his Dark Tower series without ever recycling the same protagonist, except, of course, Roland himself. One gets a little tingling thrill when somebody in a Stephen King novel other than Cujo refers to “that rabid St. Bernard over in Castle Rock,” or some such reference.
Mind you, I fully respect the writer who can pull off a serial character. She circumvents the problems I mention in ways that I can’t emulate. But as for my own aesthetic—whatever that means—I’m too fickle. In order to immerse myself in a character, I have to have a burning desire to get to know her. The desire has to be total, and it has to be fulfilled by the end of the story or novel. She has to be so fully exposed that nothing more could possibly be revealed. I swear the sexual innuendos only became intentional halfway through this paragraph, but they lead me to a disturbingly self-revelatory conclusion, which is that I’m not really one to call my characters back for a second date after the initial one-night stand.
Author of Pyres
Available Late 2007
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