The Prompt – What are your favorite kind of characters to create? To read?
I don’t create characters. They show up. Unexpectedly, at inopportune moments, always with something to say. Even in this first-person thing I’ve almost completed that started as a clinical exercise. They write me into corners, change course, change their minds. Particularly in this one. Exerting any measure of control is a waste of time. I always say, “Let the story tell itself.” Which means let the characters tell it. And they will, even if they have to bump me from my chair to get on with it. Something that really surprised me with an exercise. I should have known better. I’ve tried exercises before, and they’ve always gotten away from me.
You have to understand. I wanted to write forever. I walked out of college because I refused to regurgitate the opinions of tweedy professors. “Hold on,” I said, “I did this as a freshman in high school. Where’s the good parts? Where’re the prompts? When do we write?” We didn’t. We wrote more book reports. So I walked.
When I first began writing again in 2016 after a long hiatus in the music biz, I sat down, started something, it sucked. After two or three days I sat in my chair, staring at the monitor, bummed. Woe is me. Then, as always happens to me, a doorbell goes off in my head. This time a girl named Deanna Collings appeared on my shoulder. “Yeah it pretty much does really suck,” she said, “and you know better. Writing is just like music. So erase all that junk and listen. I’m the story you want to tell. I’ll tell it, you write it.”
They ALL do that. If I struggle with their names they mope, stay quiet until I hear it. Then, BAM, they have a voice. They have production meetings without me, show up in my head. It’s all I can do to keep up.
What kind of characters do I like? Characters who talk and it’s believable. Who do believable things. Even if they do a few unbelievable things, that’s okay. Like Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Or most Hitchock. Average person has to step into the breech.
What I don’t like is cliché characters unless they are well-drawn. Which is why I love Laura Levine’s fluffy Jaine Austen series. Jaine is a cliché of her own. Underemployed, frequently caught with dinner on her blouse, paint in her hair and wishing her pants fit. Yes, Laura’s screenwriter shows, she telegraphs some things. But her books are streamlined, a breeze to read and I never feel slimed or shorted or steamrollered, just out of breath and looking for chocolate with Jaine. Laura’s peripheral characters are better drawn than most stereotypes. Not just that you know a smarmy real estate agent, but you know this one. With no effort. Effortless characters, that’s what I like. John D. MacDonald and Elmore Leonard are rocket scientists that way.
I like to hang out with my characters, no matter what they do. I say never worry about your characters or your story, they’ll sort it for you. I’m curious to see how others work theirs. And because I’m still going to stick writing in here anyway, here’s one where I never saw any of this coming. You can read it if you wish.
From Bobby B.- Monterrey Mick’s Mad Mods
Bernie was laughing when she answered the knock on Bobby’s apartment door. Monterrey Mick pushed her and the door into the wall, lurched into the compact living room.
“Mick? What the — ”
“Shut up.” He reached across himself with his left hand, spun her, shoved her at the round kitchen table littered with wadded up Taco Mejor wrappers, her purse and several open file folders. Bobby and Creighton sat on the far side of the table with three opaque plastic champagne flutes and an open bottle of champagne.
Bernie recovered, shoved Mick’s shoulder. “Look, jerkwad, I get enough of your shit on the clock.” She started to shove him again, and he pushed her back.
“No, you look.” Mick pulled a ridiculously long-barreled, nickel-plated wild west revolver out of his jacket. He wavered for a few seconds, like the weight of the gun had altered his balance. “All of you look.” He leveled the TV gunslinger special on each of his targets, moved it back and forth between them. “Two million. That’s all I want. All I ever wanted. Two mill and I’m out of here, nobody gets hurt.”
“That line is beyond stale, even in Hollywood.” Creighton took a sip from one of the plastic glasses. “Christmas Eve, Mick. Money like that is three days away, best case. Besides, you’ll just blow it on hookers and coke and be done inside a year. If it doesn’t kill you, you’ll be homeless somewhere they have zero pity for broke Americans.”
“Fuck that, and you. I stay here and I’m a restaurant? I’m a fucking artist. I turn rusty iron into dreams and you fuckers want to put empty, painted shells of muscle cars in an over-sized gas station with my name on it? Where mom and dad and their greasy-fingered little screamers can eat designer burgers and cheesy fries while they watch junior college mechanics slap Bondo on some yokel’s Ranchero? That’s somehow better than killing myself with hookers and blow?”
Bernie shoved her hand into her purse, lifted it off the table, pointed it at Mick. “No you don’t, Mick. No, no, no. Not this time, buddy. I’ve waited five years for my chance out of bikinis and cutoffs and off the TNA wagon. No way do you screw this up for me.”
“What the hell, Bern,” Mick laughed. “You got a loaded tampon in there?”
Bernie shifted the purse a few degrees to her right, and it barked like a Chihuahua muffled in a fat lady’s arms. Just behind Mick and a little to his left, a framed starving artist print of rain-slicked streets in Paris dropped to the floor and shattered. Mick jumped and the cowboy gun boomed a shot into the floor. When Mick looked up Bernie’s purse had disappeared and she had a two-handed grip on a pink Ruger 380 pointed straight at his chest.
Mick checked Bobby and Creighton, couldn’t decide where to point the king-size cowboy pistol.
Creighton held up his hands. “We’re unarmed, there’s no money, so you two shoot each other or work it out before Santa and the pizza get here.”
“You don’t get it. None of you.” Mick looked like he was about to cry. “I just want the money. No restaurant, no more custom cars, no more TV show. No fucking grief. I want out the pile of shit my life’s turned into, and two mill isn’t too much to ask. I made people happy. I deserve it. If it’s a year-long funeral procession, I don’t care. Hear that? I. Don’t. Care. Two million doll—”
BAM, BAM, BAM, loud and sharp rattled Bobby’s front door.
“BOBBY B? FBI. WE NEED YOU TO OPEN THE DOOR.”
“Way too much fun now.” Bobby shook his head once, raised his voice. “It’s open.”
The door banged into the wall again. Two men stepped inside, one black, one white, both in jeans, t-shirts and blue windbreakers, their badges on lanyards around their necks. They spotted the pink Ruger and Mick’s long, shiny cowboy special, pulled their handguns and modern danced a slow, bowlegged cross step around the room. A tall man in dark slacks and a crisp white shirt with the cuffs rolled up walked through the middle of all the guns like they weren’t there, set a briefcase on the table in front of Bobby, and offered him a small, relaxed smile.
“Agent Hyland, Bobby.” He scooted the taco wrappers out of the way with the briefcase, dropped it to flat. “You have pizza on the way?”
“Perfect. I’m originally from outside Omaha. Bum Fuck USA. Out where they say boredom breeds excess? I thought we knew how to cut loose come Christmas time.” Briefcase man hooked his sunglasses on the lanyard that held his badge, looked around the room at all the players, the guns, the purse with a hole in it, the taco wrappers, the champagne bottle, the shattered bad art. “But I gotta hand it to you, Bobby,” Hyland nodded his approval. “You throw one helluva Christmas party.”
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