Today, writer Graham Smith tells us about how about building a character. I hope you enjoy what he has to share.
When I was invited to write a noir piece by an online friend for her blog. I decided I would like to try my hand at writing a gumshoe detective. I also decided that my character would be almost a hopeless drunk. A shadow of the man he used to be. So how did I draw out his character without simply telling the reader? I did it via the methods below in the story ‘Detecting Malicious Murder’.
In the second sentence Harry reaches for a bottle of rye ignoring the knock on the door from the first sentence. This is him showing his priorities. In the third sentence, he acknowledges he is already drunk. This is the character showing self awareness.
The broad who knocked on the door gives clues to Harry character before she even speaks. His description of her suggests they go back a ways and that therefore he wasn’t always a drunk. There is also a hint of the laconic wit about him which belies his intelligence.
Her first words show compassion for him yet an understanding of his circumstances while building his character by hinting at a back story.
“Your ghosts can still find you when you’re inside a bottle.”
His reply confirms the existence of a back story while displaying his jaded opinion of himself, which is tempered by his detective’s curiosity.
“When I put the bottle inside me I can’t find them. Now why are you here?”
She tells him about the case and he then informs the reader in what could almost be a voice over:
“For some years I’d been one of the top private dicks in town. Then a case had ended badly for all concerned. Now I kept company with Jim Beam and Jack Daniels while feeding the habit with the kind of moronic jobs I used to pass to my underlings.” This is explaining what has already gone before.
Harry then follows his mark to a drinker’s bar, where he shows his wit while assessing the place and explaining his feelings after the bar.
“It was a typical dive, the kind of place where the ceiling was hidden behind a fog of cigarette smoke. Hell, maybe there was no ceiling The patrons were men who drank in silence, you could hear a slurp, the odd rustling as someone slipped unconscious from their stool to the floor, you could hear your hair grow but you’d never hear a conversation. Men came here to drink to forget. I’d have to remember this place. It suited me.” This is me again showing Harry’s demons and how he deals with them. It also indicates his lack of self-respect.
Later in the piece I have Harry telling about how he stood his ground in a face off against a Chicago wise guy. This demonstrates that he is a tough guy who is not afraid of getting into ugly situations.
At the end of the piece he reveals his nastier side by implying he committed a murder. However the admission also shows him as being a proud man.
I made a conscious decision to keep Harry’s face out of my descriptions as I wanted him to be a faceless character who the reader could draw themselves. In further stories about him I added demons on his shoulder whispering into his ears. As the stories progressed I gave him family members, more of a history, but not too much. I also introduced his first sweetheart at a later junction when I took him back to his home town.
I told of how he had fought in Europe during the Second World War and the reasons why he joined up to the Army, but I haven’t yet told the tale of the case which destroyed him, instead I make small references to it to keep the reader in suspense. This way each story can stand alone or can be read in sequence.
I originally didn’t want to name him but my friend who commissioned the piece insisted so I used my grandfather’s name although I did shorten Harold to Harry. The more I wrote about Harry, the more I enjoyed learning more about him. He has been given a couple of Grandad’s traits but I made sure they were ones in-keeping with his character.
And, that ladies and gentlemen, is how I built my character Harry Charters.