Discovering Aspects of Your Main Character That Even He Didn’t Know Existed
Aristotle said there were five basic parts of a story: Plot, Character, Setting, Dialogue, and the meaning or point behind a story. People have argued for ages which is the more important, plot or character, but even though I agree with Aristotle that plot is the most important, we do like stories brimming with compelling characters.
I personally want the main character to be someone I would invite into my home; after all, we will be spending some quality time together, often in bed early in the morning… What I mean by that is simple. After my husband has left for work and I am curled up with a good book, I want the hero to be someone I can trust or the heroine to be someone I can go to lunch with or maybe to some breaking and entering with, if that’s the caper.
When I came up with Johnny Casino, the character who inhabits the pages of the three books in The Johnny Casino Casebook series, I wanted someone with a past. The opening line from Past Imperfect, number one in the series is this: My name is Johnny Casino. I’m a retired P.I. with a past. I just hope it doesn’t catch up with me.
Of course his past does catch up with him, often. In fact, every “guest star” in each case in the first collection of short stories has a past, whether good or bad. It’s up to Johnny to sort it out. But along the way, he has to come to terms with his own past.
As I delved into his background while I was writing these stories, he explained a lot about himself. It might sound odd that I am giving credit to my character, but any writer will tell you these “people” have a life, if not a voice, of their own and when they whisper or yell in your ear, you listen.
The first story I wrote had Johnny mention that he once worked for the Mob. I was channeling his voice and the words just came. Then I realized I needed to know a little bit about the Mafia. An ex-cop acquaintance with a rather interesting connection to the Mafia told me what books to read and he also shared some insights that you might never find in a book, but if you did, you would think it was fiction.
This revelation made me dig deeper into Johnny’s character. Even the names of the Mafia guys Johnny worked for changed. One was called Eddie Fontaine, but it changed to Big Eddie “Mambo” Fontaine when I knew him better.
Elmore Leonard once mentioned when he gave one of his characters the wrong name, the guy wouldn’t talk, but when he changed the name, he couldn’t shut him up. The man was on to something.
It’s these layers that build up, like a pearl, that allow the writer to “create” a three-dimensional character. The first story I wrote briefly mentioned Johnny’s Mafia history. The second story, a flashback, shows it in somber detail and it also explains why Johnny has a problem with women. He will be a knight-in-shining armor to a lady in distress, even if she is less than virtuous, but he can be tough, too.
As I was on this road of discovery, I realized I had given Johnny the title: Hollywood Detective, but I didn’t have a story with a movie star. I do now, and a few of these legends make a return engagement in subsequent books. I decided not to use actual names of stars, but I did borrow heavily from stars I liked from the past, but mostly it was their stature and the era, since I doubt if any of these luminaries had too many dead bodies in their own past. That would be another story.
But I learned Johnny had a code, and sometimes that meant breaking the law to do the right thing or maybe covering up something illegal for a friend. But one of the coolest things I discovered in writing the first book was that Johnny’s past might not even be what he thinks it is. That question is answered in the next book in the series – Looking for Johnny Nobody. The first book sets the stage and lets you meet a few other characters that inhabit his world. And as I said on the back cover of the book – everybody has a past.
By the time I started book three, Just Shoot Me, I let Johnny take over and write those stories. He had discovered some new things about his own life that changed everything for him and he was going to carry on with this new identity that he had. But there was something else… He was growing. He was becoming a real character.
My newest character in a series is Chance McCoy. I bill him as a third rate P.I. in a secondhand suit who blows half the cases he takes on. Not a great track record. Then Chance is shot… and killed. But Chance gets the opportunity of a lifetime. He gets to come back, alive. Now he can fix some of those old cases and take on some that challenge even the brightest detectives. What does he use? As the guy who sent him back tells him: You use what’s inside. Chance’s discovery process is a trip in book one: Second Chance. Finding different aspects in this character was definitely a trip for this writer as well.
Aren’t memorable characters what writers want to create? And isn’t that what readers want to read. You betcha. Write On.