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Do plots or characters come first when writing a story?

Wayne Simmons (Author of Flu and Drop Dead Gorgeous) says: “I particularly love the characters in your books: you write complex and flawed protagonists. More anti-heroes than heroes. My question, therefore is this: What’s your process for creating your characters? Does plot come first, or do the characters help shape the plot? Any characters you particularly relate to you within your stories (and why)? Oh, and is Frank Miller from Victims based on Tom Savini?”

“I cannot spend page after page describing a character’s background if it’s not relevant”

Every writer works in a different way when it comes to characters.  Stating the bleedin’ obvious – as Basil Fawlty would say – but true nevertheless.  With characters, as with everything else in a novel, I always think that too much is unnecessary.  Why spend three pages describing a character that is basically going to appear in one short scene and never be seen again for the rest of the novel?  It’s the same with locations and action too.  No point describing how wonderful a restaurant is, listing its fucking menu items, what uniforms the staff wear, how long it’s been in business etc, if that restaurant never appears again.

If they’re [characters] not important, then you don’t need to go mad with details.  Just a quick physical description if you really want to.  You know, the man was tall and broad shouldered (fuck me, that’s pretty in depth for me) or the woman was overweight and badly dressed (a sure sign she’s going to die in chapter three) or the young woman had shoulder length blonde hair, cheekbones you could cut meat with and she was wearing skin tight jeans (I’m reminiscing here).  You get the picture.  Short and to the point if they’re not going to be major characters in your book.

Mind you, this also applies with main characters.  I cannot spend page after page describing a central character’s background and life if it’s not relevant.  Fair enough, if the bloke is an invincible hard-nut who cracks walnuts with his teeth then it might be an idea to mention he was a cage fighter for five years, or if the woman is able to read Latin and Aramaic while reciting the complete version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner then it might be worth mentioning she used to be at University (or did a really good Open University degree). However, for the most part, you can get character traits across in a few lines and also just through dialogue.

If a character is constantly moaning, arguing, snapping at others, swearing and kicking dogs then it’s safe to assume he’s a bit aggressive.  You don’t need five chapters describing his shit childhood and sad upbringing to get that across.  If he’s got a problem with women you don’t have to list the bad relationships he’s been through – just hearing him is enough.  Readers are not thick (well, unless they’re reading celebrity autobiographies of course), they don’t have to be spoon fed information.

On the other hand, if you want to create interest in a character who is going to be killed off, then you can go the ‘warts and all describe everything route’ if you’re so inclined.  Ramble on about how someone has lost a kid, got over cancer, been cheated on etc. Go on, ladle on the sympathy so the readers get behind them and then kill them!  It makes more of an impact if a character you care about gets the chop.

There are no hard and fast rules so don’t try to follow any.  Just don’t have all private detectives as hard drinking, solitary men who are on their second marriage with a couple of step kids who hate them.  It’s a cliché.  Similarly, the bespectacled lady librarian who periodically removes her glasses and shakes loose her pinned up hair to become a femme fatale is also to be avoided.  You get my drift.  With some characters you can’t avoid bits of cliché.  For instance, if your central character is hard boiled, swears a lot, snaps and rasps at people and generally doesn’t give a fuck then it’s unlikely that his secret hobby is working for the Samaritans at weekends.  He could be a closet baker (good therapy?) but just be careful.  There is a temptation to go to the opposite extreme with every character to avoid clichés i.e. the main detective only eats tofu, doesn’t drink or smoke, collects porcelain models of dogs and is happily married to a woman in a wheelchair who broke her back when she was a ballet dancer (wow, not bad that, I might use it) but this can be hazardous too – for reasons of realism.

You can, of course, just fucking cheat.  Don’t sit around agonising about ‘creating’ a character, simply take one of your friends or acquaintances and use their character in a book.  Change the name of course, but use their character traits.  I’ve done that loads of times.  Your central character will inevitably have bits of you in, it’s unavoidable. Even some of the peripheral characters will have elements of the writer themselves.  That way you can express your own opinions through the mouths of your characters, get things off your chest and then if anyone questions you about it just dismiss the whole thing as a figment of your imagination! Writing is just extended lying after all.

With my own books, the plot always comes first.  The characters usually evolve from the storyline itself.  If I decide the plot will concern serial killers then it’s pretty obvious the police will have to be involved, so you’ll need a detective – or two – forensic people, coroners etc. If the plot revolves around the film world then you’ll need actresses and directors. You then work out your characters accordingly and whether they’re going through marriage break-ups, struggling with alcoholism, have just lost a kid/dog/shit load of money etc.  But the same criteria always apply that I mentioned before.  There’s no need spending pages and pages trying to write about their backgrounds when you can do it in a few lines of dialogue.  The characters will become clearer as the book develops (in theory).

Some of my characters are recognisably me and I would never try to hide that.  The character of Sean Doyle (who’s appeared in Renegades, White Ghost, Knife Edge and Hybrid) is very much me in his outlook (bleak), opinions and viewpoint but nothing like me otherwise (Doyle is as hard as nails, incredibly successful with women and generally doesn’t give a fuck whereas I am small, timid and easily frightened. Someone who interviewed me once tried to psychoanalyse me about this creation of mine, telling me I was living out my own fantasies through Doyle. This was bollocks of course because I, unlike Doyle, am a complete coward and would never want a life that involved danger). He is a character, pure and simple, it just so happens he’s one I like.

Character names are also problematic.  For instance, a number of people asked me if the character of Frank Miller in Victims was based on the comic book writer. At the time I hadn’t even heard of Frank Miller.  That character is also not based on Tom Savini. The Frank Miller of Victims was purely and simply my creation (with a few of my own opinions thrown in).  If there had been a character in Dying Words called Mr Ghandi who walked around in a loin cloth, wearing little round glasses, then people might have been right in thinking he was based on the Indian peace campaigner of the 40’s but there wasn’t.  I think you get my drift.

Characters sometimes help a plot along, but they are basically pawns to serve the greater scheme of things – which is the plot.  Well, they are in my books anyway.  And as for trying to educate, enlighten or inform people through the things that your characters do or say in your novel?  Forget it.  As the film director John Ford once said “if you want to send a message, call Western Union.”  Fucking right.


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