I sometimes like to have face-to-face conversations with the characters I create. This is admittedly hard to do. It requires an incredible amount of imagination on my own part, since they aren’t real. Still, nothing helps me get into my characters’ heads like a good old fashioned talk. When people ask why my characters seem so real, I tell them it’s because they are—I’ve talked to them. I tell you this not to cast myself into some shade of crazy, but to give you a glimpse into my creative process.
I’ve been doing things this way for years, but something always troubles me. Each time I invite one to the real world—each time I take that step—I leave the conversation with a single realization I can’t seem to shake. All of the characters I create are dicks.
Let me give you an example. I woke up early yesterday and poured myself a bowl of cereal. As I carried my breakfast into the dining room, I ran smack dab into Howard Spence, sitting at my table and reading my paper. In his right hand he held a lit cigarette, which he would occasionally lift to his lips, taking a long drag.
“Hi, Howard,” I said.
“Sit down,” he replied. “We need to talk.”
I sighed. “Can it wait until I’m done eating?”
“I thought I made you more patient.”
Howard shrugged. Howard Spence is a private detective I’ve recently dropped into a search for a necklace worth over two billion dollars. A while ago, he got tired of working domestic-dispute cases, and he’s been down on his luck ever since. Aside from the occasional missing persons case—which almost always turns into a domestic-dispute case—he rarely even works.
I took a seat. “What do you want, Howard?”
“It’s page thirty,” he said.
“What about it?”
“You’ve got two penny-thugs beating me up in an alley.”
“So? So, I’ve got a gun,” he said. “I should shoot them.” To emphasize the point, he pulled his gun out of his holster and twirled it on his finger. “No one should ever beat me up.”
I shook my head. “You’re missing the point, Howard,” I said. “In that scene, you’re drunk, you’re hard up for cash, you’re only in that alley because you’re desperate,” I took a bite of cereal. “But you’re still a good guy. You don’t fight people, unless you’ve got a beef to settle, and you certainly don’t shoot anyone, unless you have to.”
He was silent for a while, before answering. “It just seems stupid. I’m supposed to be a tough guy. Why would I just stand there and take it?”
“Character development,” I replied. “Every story is a journey, and it has to start somewhere. For you, your story starts on page thirty.”
I could see him mulling this over in his head, as he thought about what I said, and what it meant. He re-holstered his gun, and shook his head. “I’m just going to shoot them.”
“You can’t,” I said. “You aren’t real. You don’t get to make decisions. I do.”
He met my gaze and took a long drag from his cigarette. “You,” he said eventually, “are an ass.” And he disappeared.
As I said, all my characters are dicks.
(Author’s Note: This story isn’t autobiographical, but I now really, really want to write a detective story with Howard Spence.)