Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Do Your Characters Know What They Want?

Riffing on a theme started by Katie with the last Learning From the Pros post, this version asks not whether you know what your characters want, but whether they do themselves.

In The Long Fall: The First Leonid McGill Mystery, mystery author extraordinaire Walter Mosley introduces a Private Investigator for the present day with all the style of a venerable noir tradition.

Leonid Trotter McGill (LT for short) is a black man in his early 50s. Mosley blesses him with my favorite sort of description — brief but evocative: he is ‘two inches shorter and forty pounds heavier than a man should be.’ He's got the muscle and moves of a trained boxer, although he only hits the heavy bag. It is as if life itself is his arena and his opponents don’t wear gloves. It would be one thing if McGill was a modern day knight, but instead he’s a man with a dark past. His goals are realistic. Instead of being completely crooked, he aspires to be only slightly bent. He tries meditation to help deal with his guilty past but it becomes apparent that the only way to get out is to beat his way out with the very hands he has tried to clean up.

Leonid is a complex character who represents the dichotomy of modern-day New York City. New York has given itself a nice, clean face-lift, but its seamy underbelly remains. Leonid McGill has a foot in two worlds, both ruthless and civilized, a PI with a dark past trying to go straight. It is as if he is trying to reform himself to match the face of the city’s effort to become more civil, more mature, but is betrayed by what feels like nearly everyone around him.

And then there is the matter of the nightmares, falling dreams where even his subconscious doesn’t believe he’s capable of any true reform. He is not capable of lucid dreaming, where the dreamer is aware enough to change the apparent script of the dream, so he must content himself with his actions while awake.

The good news is that LT has formidable talent. For instance, he can locate anyone, and he supplants his meager income with apparently noble work by finding people. However, the unspoken underworld knows this going in and uses that against him, a chilling fact he only discovers when the people he finds start turning up dead, and he deduces he’s next on the list.

Leonid McGill has two sets of strong goals, survival itself using only the skills he’s limited himself to, and the overt goal of discovering the identity of the powerful mystery antagonist who wants him dead. Along the way, Walter Mosley’s pared-down first person language is wry and knowing and sad. He manages the trick of creating a new noir that captures the very best elements of the classics which have gone on before.

They say the longest journey starts with the first step. Leonid McGill shows there is a certain nobility in being brave enough to simply take that first step.
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  1. Although it can sometimes be interesting to write a character who hasn't figured out what he wants, the most powerful stories are always those featuring characters with powerful goals. And you're right about that description: pithy and perfect.

  2. Brandilyn Collins has some great thought about this concept in her book, Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors.

    We all have desires and for our readers to be able to connect with our characters they need to have strong desires. Generally that desire is thrust on them in the first 1/3 of the book.

    Good post, Johne

  3. I love the description of this character. One of his goals, as you wrote, is "survival itself using the only skills he's limited himself to." This comment alone indicates he has room to grow in subsequent books in the series. Stretching a character arc through a series of books must be a challenge, but it sounds like Mosely has a good jumping-off point with McGill.

    Thanks Johne!