Sunday, March 22, 2009

How Much Can You Put a Character Through?

neil-plakcyToday the Kill Zone blog welcomes our guest, award-winning author Neil Plakcy. Neil is the author of Mahu, just re-released in trade paperback by Alyson Books, and its two sequels, Mahu Surfer and Mahu Fire, which won the Hawaii Five-O award for best police procedural, and is a finalist for the Lambda award for best gay men’s mystery. His fourth book, Mahu Vice, comes out August 2009. Neil is the Vice President of the Mystery Writers of America, Florida chapter.

A few years ago, as he was getting his breakout novel Mystic River ready for publication, Dennis Lehane spoke at the Miami Book Fair. He’d just published the fifth Patrick and Angie book, Prayers for Rain, and he said that he’d put them through so much that they had just stopped talking to him. He thought he’d give them a break and write something else.

That idea really resonated with me, and I started to think about all the other fictional detectives, and their families and friends, who’d been put through the wringer a few times. In Les Standiford’s Deal series, Deal’s wife Janice leaves him after she’s been kidnapped, nearly drowned, and who knows what else.

The king of putting a character through hell, as far as I’m concerned, is John Morgan Wilson. Poor Benjamin Justice has lost his job and his reputation, been raped, infected with HIV, and had his eye put out. Just thinking of all that stuff makes me shiver. My hero, Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka, is my alter ego, and I can’t imagine putting him through so much—it’d kill me, if it didn’t kill him!

Not to mention the complications you set for yourself, as a writer, when you make such a major change to a character. If you shoot your protagonist in book one, then the effects of that shooting are going to resonate for a while. Kill off a girlfriend or fiancée, as they used to do regularly in the James Bond movies, and your hero’s got to get a little shy of entering a new relationship. Zoe Sharp’s Second Shot begins with Charlie Fox getting shot—and the effects of that shooting resonate through not only that book, but Third Strike, the book that follows, as well.

mahu The same goes for the supporting players. Kimo’s best gal pal since high school, Terri, loses her husband in Mahu, the first book in my series. And then, in Mahu Surfer, the poor thing ends up in a firefight at her uncle’s house. In an early draft of the third book, Mahu Fire, I put her on the mountainside among the others Kimo needs to rescue.

Then I stepped back. How could I do that to her? And more important, would she ever talk to Kimo again after being traumatized in three books? I believe in recycling characters—but I knew that I couldn’t keep putting Terri in jeopardy, or she just wouldn’t remain a convincing character.

When I was in graduate school at FIU, our teachers, including Les Standiford and James W. Hall, reinforced to us that what happened in our books had to matter to our characters. It wasn’t enough for a detective to investigate a case; he had to have a personal stake. In Mahu, Kimo was fighting to restore his reputation at the Honolulu Police Department, and then in Mahu Surfer, he struggled to prove that he could be as good as any cop on the force, if given the chance. I added an extra bounce by bringing in an old nemesis and then putting his close friend at risk.

As I’ve written more books, it’s getting harder to find that personal connection for Kimo, without incurring what I think of as the Cabot Cove Syndrome. I used to wonder why anyone would associate with Jessica Fletcher, since her neighbors, friends and colleagues died so regularly. How much could Kimo’s friends and family take before they would get the hell away from him? And how to avoid the coincidence factor? Fortunately I write about an island, where there are lots of personal connections, where the cops either grew up with the crooks or are related to them, but it’s still important to maintain credibility.

In Mahu Fire, I brought back a sympathetic teenager from Mahu, who’d gone through some hard times, and made things even tougher for him. I teamed him up with a new character I hoped readers would care about. People care about kids, right? And then in Mahu Vice, which is coming out this August, I threw Kimo’s gay pal Gunter into danger, along with Kimo’s troublemaking brother-in-law.

But I try and remember, especially with these supporting characters, that they are civilians, not police officers, and then when they go through trauma, it’s going to take them a while to recover. Kimo’s a tougher guy; by the time we meet him in Mahu, he’s been a cop for nearly six years, three of those as a detective. He’s still got a soft heart, but his skin has been toughened by what he has seen and experienced on the street.

I’ve been shaking up his personal life, though, moving him in and out of romance, but to me that’s all part of his emotional growth and development. Getting dumped isn’t quite as life-threatening as getting shot at, but it’s still pretty painful.

For now, Kimo and his friends and family keep talking to me. Maybe some day, like Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro did with Dennis Lehane, he’ll stop. But for now I’ll keep on throwing him curve balls and seeing how he, and his loved ones, react.



Mark your calendar for the following guest blogger at the Kill Zone:

Liz Jasper, March 29


  1. Welcome, Neil! Great post, and wonderful to have you here today. When you were talking about the trials of Benjamin Justice, I started thinking about the character of Ripley in the Alien films. Talk about a character being put through a wringer! After doing battle with the Aliens in the first couple films, she sacrifices herself because she has an alien embryo inside her, then gets brought back to life as a clone, then has to fight some more. But ultimately she winds up victorious again, floating down to a peaceful planet earth with Winona Ryder, who plays the future's most unlikely android.

    When it gets right down to it, our characters must grow and change through stories that that involve them in violence, risk, and personal loss. Sigh. That sounded really depressing, Kathryn. Now maybe I understand what drove Dennis Lehane to write Mystic River!

  2. Hi Neil,
    Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts with us. Congratulations on your recent award at LLC.

  3. Interesting analogy to Ripley, Kathryn. She's definitely a larger-than-life character. I wonder if you can get away with that sort of thing more in film than in novels, though. Do we expect more realistic characters in books?

  4. I think of a guy like Lee Child's Jack Reacher and I think gee, for a guy that walks around with only a tooth brush in his pocket, he sure is a trouble magnet. But somehow it works. And good series authors somehow make it work. I think that's the special talent of a series writer. A guy or gal that can make the character real but still put them, book after book, into all kinds of trouble.

  5. I wrote a long comment and deleted it because for terra-based detective series (not Ripley), they would definitely have to be more realistic, grin!

  6. “Do we expect more realistic characters in books?” I don’ t think so. For me, a character is successful if I can love or hate them. To do so, they must have attributes that I can relate to. I loved and pulled for Ripley because she had so many of the characteristics we all want in our heroes—compassion, mercy, courage, and trust. And she stood for what was right while never hesitating to take on what was wrong. Even James Bond, who shows little growth from the first book in the series to the last, still had to have the life-pegs on which we can all hang our emotional hats.

    Writing a series characters is extra demanding in my opinion because we have to keep surprising the reader and showing a fresh side of the character with each outing. When Lynn Sholes and I started each new Cotten Stone thriller, our first question we asked each other was: What else does Cotten have to learn? The answer to that was the motivation that carried her character forward to the last page.

    I believe these attributes are true on the screen and on the page.

  7. Glad to hear you say that, Joe! In the comment that I wimped out and deleted before, I said that hopefully characters are universal elements, whether in books, film, stage or television. I do prefer larger-than-life characters, myself. With firmly grounded human emotions, of course.

  8. Hi Neil and belated congrats for the Lefty award! I was looking after the twins that day so I wasn't at the brunch to say congrats in person. Great post - I think Inspector Linley has been put through enough poor man and I think there are many fans still distraught over Helen's death. Like Joe I think that in each book the characters need to learn and change - evolve if you will. I do remember my agent responding to one of my ideas by saying "I think Ursula's been through enough already for one book" and so i left that additional torment out:) I like authors who bravely challenge readers assumptions and put surprises in for their characters. One thing I hate though is bringing back a character from the dead (a la Patrician Cornwall) and I do think it's a fine line - too much trauma and it becomes humorous rather than tragic!

  9. I should add that I don't mind the resurrection thing a la Alien (or indeed in my all time favorite show BSG) but for ordinary mortals not in science fiction I think that is just too much to put a character through!

  10. Completely agree about the dangers of Cabot Cove syndrome, Neil. For me, the trick involves creating other characters that the reader cares about, and investing them with shorter arcs. Although in my latest, a major, recurring character ends the book in critical condition, on the brink of death. And that will have a continuing impact for the duration of the series.
    Karin Slaughter recently killed off one of the main characters in her Grant County series, and it threw me so badly I almost swore off the books. But in retrospect, it was the right decision, and I'm curious to see where she goes from here.

  11. Hey Neil! And congratulations..much deserved.

    Of course adversity is what makes characters grow. And there's no good story without it. But, in a story that's supposed to be "real," that means only a "real" amount of bad stuff can happen. (Although reading the newspaper, that's obvously endless.)

    But isn't that part of the fun? Seeing what makes sense, and then seeing what the characters will do and what they'll learn? Joe, I agree, setting up a specific thematic challenge helps corral the obstacles and allows them to grow from each other.

    But real life is allowed to be stranger than what we write.

    My husband just defended a suspect in a murder case where a person was shot and killed on the anniversary of the day her brother was shot and killed.

    She was in exactly the same location where her brother had been, and was putting flowers on his memorial.

    The incidents were not connected. If that had been in a book, people would say--oh, come ON.

  12. Thanks for the congrats, guys. Michelle, you reminded me of Dana Stabenow, and how she killed off a major character in her books. I was so upset I put the book down. I assume that Kate Shugak had to go through a recovery period-- I just couldn't read any more.

  13. This is a timely subject for me. I'm working on the outline of the fourth Detective Jackson story and struggling with the balance between making it personal while keeping it credible. At some point in the series, I'll likely stop trying to create a personal connection to the cases. I think about John Sanford's character Lucas Davenport, one of my favorite series, and he is almost never connected to his cases. Still very compelling. And he's been through a few things too.

  14. Hi Neil. Great Post. It's one of the several I'm going to save and read again.

  15. Thanks for sharing Neil. When I talked with Jerry Healy at Sleuthfest, he said that maybe killing off Nancy Meagher was a mistake in the Cuddy series. Sometimes when you put a character through too much, you can't go back. (Unless you write fantasy.)

  16. Great post. As a reader there is definitely a point at which I go from “that’s stretching things but I understand this is fiction and things have to happen to this character otherwise I’d be reading a book about a guy brushing his teeth and getting to work on time” to “that’s plain daft, you’ve lost me”. The things Patricia Cornwell has put Kay Scarpetta through fall into the latter basket (and I gave up reading that series BEFORE Scarpetta’s best friend of many years sexually assaulted her!) as do the traumas Alex Cross has experienced at James Patterson’s hands. It’s hard to define what “too much” looks like but I know it when I’ve read it

  17. Hi Neil. Very interesting post - I love the phrase 'Cabot Cove Syndrome' and intend to use it shamelessly in future (with appropriate credit to you, of course!)

    I think if you're writing a series character who does undergo change, then they keep having to make some kind of a journey through the books. When you no longer have a journey for them to make, they're done.

    Of course, not all series characters DO undergo change. Some remain static, with enormous success. Spenser changes very little throughout Robert B Parker's books, and Lee Child's Jack Reacher carries a few extra scars but no emotional baggage from one book to the next. And we love 'em for it.

  18. Thanks for having me-- it has been a pleasure to join you all, and your comments are making me think even more about the question of how much you can put a character through.