Saturday, May 9, 2009

Characters Who Act

A guest blog by mystery writer Neil Plakcy

Neil Plakcy is the author of Mahu, Mahu Surfer, Mahu Fire and Mahu Vice
(August 2009), mystery novels which take place in Hawaii. Publishers Weekly
called Mahu Fire “Engrossing… a sharp whodunit,” and the book has received
enthusiastic reviews from Library Journal, Out, and many mystery and GLBT

For years, I wrote stories and novels about characters who were a lot like me. I changed the particular details—different color hair, different names, and so on. But they were like me, and like many writers, in that they stood on the sidelines of the story and observed what was going on.

Those stories and novels never got published.

Even my MFA thesis, a comic novel about Jewish family relationships and shopping mall construction, fell into that same trap, despite everything I heard from my professors and classmates. By design, my hero was a relatively sane guy surrounded by crazy people—in his family and at work.

He wanted something—like I had been told in graduate school he had to. He wanted love and success, he wanted his parents to be proud of him, and so on. But in the end, he wasn’t much of an actor—he was a reactor, and that’s deadly for a character you want readers to empathize with.

It wasn’t until I started writing about a police detective that I managed to crawl out of that trap. By its very nature, a police procedural with a detective as hero is all about solving the crime. At last, a solid, straightforward reason for my character to act.

Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka has to interview suspects, collect evidence, consult experts and, in the climactic scenes, face down danger and bring the guilty to justice. But even then, it’s so easy to let him step back. After all, the medical examiner is the one who does the autopsy; my hero just gets the results. The crime scene investigators pick up the trace evidence and analyze it.

I’m constantly forced to figure out how to keep Kimo front and center in the action, and make him not only the star of the book but the guy who solves the crime and brings everything together. In my first book, Mahu, which was just reissued by Alyson Books, Kimo gets dragged out of the closet, and then suspended, while trying to solve a difficult case. In order to clear his name, and overcome his own ambivalent feelings about his sexuality, he has to confront the bad guy and wangle a confession out of him.

Nobody else can do that, because no one else can solve his internal problems as well as the external ones.

In Mahu Surfer, the second book in the series, Kimo’s the only cop on the scene when someone starts shooting, at the climax of the book. Once again, he’s forced to act—take down the shooter and save innocent lives.

The third book in the series, Mahu Fire, presented me with a big problem. Kimo starts dating Mike Riccardi, a handsome, sexy fire inspector, and there’s a big blaze at the end of the book. Shouldn’t the fireman be the guy who saves the day? That’s what he’s trained for.

But Mike’s not my protagonist. Much as Kimo and I love him, he’s got to take a back seat. So I had to find a way for Kimo to emerge as the hero of the book, without making him do something stupid.

In every book it’s the same old story, in the end. Readers want to see a hero who acts rather than analyzes. And that’s what we have to give them, even if it means pulling out every last hair while figuring it out.


Dorte H said...

Thank you for this useful and interesting insight in the writing process.
As readers, we don´t always know what it is we want, but you are probably right about action :)

Terry Odell said...

Secondary characters, even significant ones, can be such scene-stealers, can't they? I think it's because we don't have to make them adhere to the 'hero' rules and regs.

Then they start demanding their own books, and you have to make them toe the line.

Neil Plakcy said...

I agree, Terry. I think Suzanne Brockmann does this very well in her Troubleshooters books. She sets up all these different team members as supporting characters, and then gives them their own books.

It must be tough for her when someone who's had his own book then shows up in support in another. I think I identify with my heroes too much to make them supporting characters in another character's book.

Terry Odell said...

Neil, I think Suzanne regards ALL her characters as heroes, and she just puts them in different degrees of limelight over her books (the woman plots in 7 book arcs, for goodness sake!--I can't plot 7 chapters.)

She did an interested workshop on this at an RWA conference.

ryan field said...

Great post, Neil. I always learn something from you.

Sarah said...

I really enjoyed Mahu Fire, it was a great read and I did enjoy Mike's role towards the end of the book. Great read!

Sandra Parshall said...

I read your post with a sense of relief, Neil -- the kind of relief that comes from knowing I'm not the only one who struggles with this issue. It *isn't* realistic to put the hero or heroine in the lead in every situation, yet we have to find a way to make it seem real. I think Tess Gerritsen has found a perfect solution, making her cop (Jane Rizzoli) and her medical examiner (Dr. Maura Isles) co-protagonists. But that sort of division of the action won't work in every book.

Lourdes said...

Neil: Interesting thoughts on making your characters not be you. I think it's difficult as I believe all our characters seem to carry a little bit of ourselves in them. But if we can make our characters different from us it becomes an interesting psychological exercise. For you, with Kimo, it obviously worked to great success! I'm enjoying being "Nicolas" now and hope the results will be similar!

Neil Plakcy said...

Thanks for some very interesting suggestions. I do think it's a struggle to work against that natural instinct of the writer to be the one who sits back and analyzes rather than acts-- but as long as we are aware of the problem we can work with it.

L.J. Sellers said...

Interesting post! It made me think about my own secondary characters and how I like to have the reporter figure things out ahead of Detective Jackson sometimes (because she has a different sort of access to people). She's never the hero, but she sometimes contributes to solving the crime. My rationale was that it made Jackson a little more human, but maybe I just want the reporter to look good because I'm a journalist and relate to her.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great post, Neil, and nice to see you on Poe's Deadly Daughters. I used the "different gender" method of making sure my protagonist wasn't too much like me. But I struggle with wanting my female sidekick character to be in on the action and not wanting the guy to do all the rescuing.

Ware said...

"Readers want to see a hero who acts rather than analyzes."

I can think of lots of very popular protagonists who were mostly thinkers-Sherlock Holmes comes immediately to mind. Harry Bosch acts when he is placed in danger, but he is drawn into danger primarily because of his failure to fully analyze the problem.

Action characters can become cartoonish as well. James Bond is an example of this, while the cerebral George Smiley is admired as the quintessential spy.

Neil Plakcy said...

Good point, Ware. I agree with you that Holmes isn't very "active" in the physical sense. Yet he's the one who solves the crime, and that's what I was getting at.

In my unpublished work, it's often the case that the hero watches everyone else acting and ends up not doing much himself. And now I see that's not very rewarding for the reader.