20 July 2015

Guest post: Neil White - Where do I get my characters from?

I'm really pleased that Neil White has agreed to write a guest post for the blog.  

Raised in West Yorkshire, Neil flunked his exams and spent a few years drifting and dreaming. In his mid-20’s, he returned to education to study law, swapping a dole cheque for a student grant and giving himself a few more years of avoiding gainful employment. Qualifying as a solicitor at 30, he grew bored of that adventure and started to write. Twelve years of poor attempts and rejection slips led to a contract with Avon in 2006, with his first book, Fallen Idols, published in 2007. He published six books with Avon before moving to Sphere in 2012, with the first of the Parker brothers trilogy, Next To Die, published in 2013. He is married with three children and still practises as a criminal lawyer. He spends his spare time reading, watching films, rugby league and lounging.

I asked Neil to where his characters came from - not only the heroes, but the villains too.  Over to Neil:

Getting characters right is the hardest part of writing, because they have to be memorable and interest the reader. Locations can be described but characters have to live and breathe.

Fundamentally, characters come from my own experiences and are an extension of me in some way. To some extent, readers do something similar.

Take my first series.

I wrote five books featuring a crime reporter, Jack Garrett, and a detective, Laura McGanity. The two characters had equal billing in the plots, and they were always meant to be part of a duo.

In my head, however, I always thought of them as the Jack Garrett books, because he was the character I identified as myself, the one I based on myself. My various editors, however, who were all women, saw them more as the Laura McGanity books, and I presume for the same reason, that they identified with one character more than the other. The two characters had equal billing in the plot but we looked for extensions of ourselves.

Heroes in books (and I refer to heroes meaning both genders, rather than using the term heroines) are of two types: there is the reflection of how we are, and then there is the reflection of how we would like to be.

The first type feature in the books I write, in that they are deliberately ordinary people who get caught up in extraordinary events.

The second type, a reflection of how we would like to be, would be a hero similar to Jack Reacher. He is an extraordinary character, brave and strong and heroic. He is how we would like to imagine ourselves, in the same way that every cop would like to be like Dirty Harry. Except we aren’t like that. We have weaknesses and insecurities, so sometimes we need the first type of hero, the one who is more like us and responds heroically when the situation arises. We can fantasise about that, fool ourselves that we would be so brave.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t crossover. For instance, I’m a fairly laidback person and I don’t seek confrontation. When I write a scene involving one of my heroes having a confrontation, I try to imagine how I would respond if I wasn’t so laidback.

The trilogy I have just completed involves two brothers, Joe and Sam Parker, one a defence lawyer and the other a detective. I chose them as I liked the conflict, that they would pull in different directions. In my head, Joe is the main character, because he’s a criminal lawyer, as I am. Joe says the things I wish I’d said when I’d been in court but hadn’t thought of until later. So when I write for Joe, I think of how I wish I could be when doing my lawyer job; a little more ballsy, a little more confrontational.

Fundamentally, writing characters is just about imagining being them, and I don’t really know the science behind it. I just do what seems obvious: I imagine I am them or am with them. What they might say or how they might react.

The hardest part is making the characters interesting whilst avoiding the clichés. Not every cop has to be divorced, or be an alcoholic, but then again, how interesting is the ordinary guy who lives at the end of the street?

The most important thing is hoping the reader roots for the person in some way. Don’t make your hero too weak but don’t make them too horrible. The character has to be a man or woman the reader wants to succeed, if a hero, or fail badly if a villain.

How do I do that? The honest answer is that I don’t know. I find analysing writing very difficult, because it is just about putting down on the page what comes into my head, and that isn’t something I can force in there.

It is perhaps simply a logical process.

For instance, I wanted Joe Parker, the lawyer, to be single, so that he could be consumed by his job more. For Sam, the detective, he had to be married, as police officers like to do the right thing on the whole, not live on the edges. Once you fix on those notions, other things follow. Joe will hang about in bars because he’s a single professional in a big city. He’ll live in an apartment, not a house. He’ll be a little cynical, a little sardonic, because there’s no one in his life to show him the warmer side to life. Sam will live in a cul-de-sac and have a steadier life, and it will become about protecting his family and being happy in his marriage. He’ll be more content, more settled, wanting to keep Joe from doing anything rash.

Villains are the hardest. What makes them villains? Is the plot because of the villain, or the villain because of the plot?

For instance, some of the villains in my books have been very ordinary, with their blandness their disguise, the mask that hides their obsessions, their fantasies. Others have been more obvious, driven by their need to live off fear.

In Cold Kill, for example, I wanted to base a plot around Dennis Rader, a serial killer from Wichita in Kansas who adopted the title The BTK Killer, because he bound them, tortured them, killed them. What interested me was a particular quirk he had of filling the orifices of his victims with leaves and soil and debris, and the reason for this (read the book to find out). Also, he was thoroughly ordinary, the boring man with the moustache along the street. Once I’d decided I wanted a villain like Dennis Rader, I had to craft a plot around the villain.

Contrast that with Dead Silent, the book that preceded Cold Kill. Jack Garrett was a crime reporter, and I had this notion that the ultimate scoop for a crime reporter would be to locate Lord Lucan. So I based a book around a Lucan-type character, the premise being that the character contacts Jack and says that he will come out of hiding provided that Jack can prove his innocence first.

The point is that the plot and the villain were created by Jack’s character as a crime reporter, not the plot created by the notion of a killer.

One of the main advantages of writing characters, however, is the ability to use real people in them, even get revenge. A lot of my supporting characters are based on people I know, with traits exaggerated, just a way of having some private fun, my own little sneaky shot.

Neil's ninth book, The Domino Killer, is the final book in the Parker brothers trilogy, with the second in the trilogy, The Death Collector, released in paperback in July 2015. His books are translated into French, German, Russian and Polish.

No comments:

Post a Comment