Essay 10 - CHARACTERS
Once I've completed the outline of my novel and I know what characters I am going to need to fill the main roles of the story, I try to spend a little time developing short biographies for each of those characters. In this novel, dealing with a closely knit brotherhood of evil magicians, I felt it was important to make sure relationships, odd as they might be, needed to be well laid out, so that there were no questions later on concerning why one person did something or why another person had to die, etc. etc.
As with anything written beforehand, these cast bios were not etched in stone and they changed as needed. I wrote them more to give me a feel for the characters and how they would act in various dangerous situations. The most important lesson learned from writing bios is that once you decide a character is going to have a specific trait, you need to keep the character true to your vision of her (or him). In the initial version of The Black Lodge that I turned in to my editor, Sally Peters, she liked everything but Chapter 43. In that chapter, Janet bursts into Taine's office and tells him that Tim has been kidnapped. In the original version, Janet then breaks down into tears and is pretty useless the rest of the chapter. Sally pointed out to me that Janet had been described and acted like a take-charge character throughout the novel, a woman willing to do anything to save her son. The last thing she would do if Tim was kidnapped was suffer a complete break-down. It wasn't true to the character I had created. Sally was absolutely right, and I rewrote the section so that Janet goes through some brief tears and then vows to save her son. That action helps make the scene work so much better as it gives Papa Benjamin a chance to vow that no harm will come to Tim and for Ape to make it clear he's had enough being pushed around.
Not every walk-on character in the book needs a complete bio (mine were usually about two double-spaced pages per important character), but anyone who appeared more than once in the book got a write-up. I worked hard on each character, thinking of them as real people and thus giving them real interests, real ambitions, and equally important, real tastes and unique senses of humor.
The Dark Man was a supernatural being, so he required a lot of attention as to where he came from, what he looked like, and what weaknesses he had. I also gave him a nasty sense of humor, which I though reflected the same nastiness of his mentor, Harmon Sangmeister.
Sid Taine’s name was an in-joke that one person in the world noticed. Sid came from a family of detectives who lived in San Francisco, and his father and grandfather were both detectives (this is mentioned in the book). In AMAZING STORIES in 1929, Hugo Gernsback, the magazine’s editor, published a series of SF detective stories featuring a brilliant detective named Taine who solved crazy crimes in San Francisco. I thought it was a neat notion to link my hero with one of the earliest SF and fantasy detectives. His first name, Sid, I admit came from a cousin of mine named Sidney.
Janet was a girl I dated in college pretty much in looks and personality. Her father was pretty much taken from life, his personality being borrowed from several of my business associates. Tim and his transformers came from my own son, Matt, and his toys, and the scene with Taine and the transformers actually took place when my lawyer visited my house one day and saw Matt's toys.
Papa Benjamin came out of a book on voodoo, one of many I have read over the years. Hugh B. Cave, the famous horror writer and a close friend, read the manuscript for THE BLACK LODGE and told me that he felt I captured the depth and heart of the religion better than most outsiders. Since Hugh had lived in Haiti and attended more than a few voodoo ceremonies, I took that as a high compliment.
The story about Willis Royce's son being buried in his car is an actual piece of Chicago history, though names have been changed. It also was another sneaky way to get the death of a child into the Black Lodge without being too obvious. Royce was a combination of a bunch of black alderman from Chicago's south side I had read stories about for a long time.
Ape Largo's life story was based on an interview I read when I was 13 years old, conducted with the legendary wrestler, Gorilla Monsoon. GM weighed around 450 lbs at the time and told a newspaper reporter how he grew up in Mongolia and made his living as a teenager by wrestling bears in taverns. He was thrilled to come to the USA so he could fight only humans! It was a great story and made a lasting impression on me. It wasn't until many years later that I learned Monsoon was born in Hackensack, NJ (not far from where I lived as a child) and had gone to Fordham University before becoming a wrestler. His whole bio was a fake, but what a great fake! I used an embellished version of it for Ape's story, as my tribute to Gorilla M, who died a few years ago.
Harmon Sangmeister combined the names of two local politicians in Chicago I did not like. Angel Caldwell is one of those bad girls that nice guys like me dream of meeting and know we would turn to stone as soon as they looked at us. Her husband was based on one of my more obnoxious relatives.
Characters are central to a good novel. You want them believable and intelligent (or at least as intelligent as they should be for who they are). As the plot bubbles, if you have the right characters, they will act logically, and if your book is constructed correctly, that should mean that their actions will further the plot. Character and plot should be partners. One should not diminish the role of the other. They should work together to create the best book possible.
The geography was all pretty much real in the book. I knew the city of Chicago pretty well, having driven around it for many years. The first scene with the bridge and the railroad yard was exactly as described back in the 1970’s. Now, condos have gone up where the railroad tracks once were. The climactic scene in the novel takes place around 2 miles from my house. If needed, I could draw a map of every location in the book, tracing the streets and highways everyone used, the school visited, and the location of every house and apartment. I believe in details.
Next time, weaving in clues and red-herrings into your mystery so as to keep your readers guessing right to the end.