Rubber Chickens and Peanut Butter

Well, that was a weird freaking Christmas.

It was warm and rainy and felt more like a church Sunday than a holiday. And yes, I know it should be a pleasure to go to God’s house for his son’s birthday but man, when it means I have to get up at 7am to open presents it’s hard to be happy about that. And then, for the first year I can ever remember, I spent Christmas evening at someone else’s home. After a brief visit up here to exchange presents with my sister and parents, Toledo and I headed back to her family homestead for their celebration. Highlights of the evening included Christmas crackers, disposable headwear, and being showered with gifts including a rubber chicken and a jar of peanut butter. I then managed to avoid coming home until well into Tuesday evening. And apparently while I was out of town, Tribe swooped in and invaded my territory and wrangled an invite to a Michigan writer’s party I was not invited to.

Now that the holiday madness is over though, I can get back to the work at hand which is finishing my next book. I’ve finally managed to get into first draft land where I don’t worry about writing good prose, just complete prose. Much of it is fine, some of it less so, but none of it is truly awful and I guess that’s all I can ask for. The main flaw I’ve started noticing though, is the skill level of my PI. My first book, the infamous Lunchbox Hero, featured a PI who was young and inexperienced, which I also happend to be, so it was a perfect fit and I figured he’d grow in skill as I did.

This new guy though, is still sounding a bit green as an investigator even though he’s supposed to have put in at least five or six years as a Vice cop. I don’t outline, so my first draft process is to start with an idea and a client for my guy and then proceed with the investigation as I would if I were the PI. Now I’m not exactly a knob when it comes to investigations, Ive got common sense, and a nose for trouble developed as a police reporter, but I would not qualify as an advanced student in skip tracing which is what my guy does. I’m wondering if this is even something I should worry about. Can it be developed more in later drafts? And if I do need to tweak it, should I work on making my guy sound as experienced as he should be or make him less experienced to fit my knowledge level?

Anybody else working with characters smarter than their creators?

16 thoughts on “Rubber Chickens and Peanut Butter

  1. My characters are so smart that they avoid me like the plague so I can’t find ’em!Hey, lemme know the next time you’re comin’ to T-Town so we can have a beer or four.

  2. Even if you make him a first-year vice cop, he should still have a certain degree of knowledge/experience because he would have done “general assignment” investigating before going to Vice, plus patrol.How easy do you think it would be to find a willing detective to assist you? Or is it that you have reservations about doing so? (I have my own experiences with enlisting cops’ help for fiction, so I don’t mean to come off as hopelessly naive.)

  3. I’m curious, Bryon. What made you leave Lunchbox Hero behind and move over to the more seasoned PI? I’ve thought a lot about this myself for my novel. Maybe crime writers have got to have their version of the Coming of Age novel. *shrug*

  4. Come on, you should be very experience with this. All your characters are smarter than you are. All my characters are smarter than you are.All Christin’s characters are smarter than you are.You may only have Rickards beat.

  5. Nah. They’d be smarter than Bryon if I made them up myself, but thankfully I get all my characters off cereal packets so they’ve still got him beat. This is why my next book is called “Count Chocula in Kill Me, Milkily”.And, more seriously, pretty much all my characters are differently experienced than me – hell, my main guy is in his mid-late 30s, American and former FBI, while I’m in my mid-late 20s, British and a former nothing much. The thing is, you don’t have to come up with every trick or chronicle every clever deduction they make. You can’t figure out how you’d smuggle a gun past an x-ray machine? Just cut the scene from being outside to being inside (Kevin Wignall uses the same trick to have his main guy in ‘People Die’ skip countries without having to explain how he smuggles his gun/buys new ones each time). Don’t know how you’d track down an underworld information broker in a strange city? Have a couple of lines of “I spend the next few days working the streets, talking to people, making connections. In the end, I’m given the name of a guy and told to go to Moe’s Tavern…” type stuff and you’re sorted.I, for instance, have no idea how Alex tracks the guy in TWELVE to the place where it’s all set. A criminal on the run, staying low and out of trouble. How do you track that kind of person when you’re not even a cop? I really have no clue. The character should know, but I don’t. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re both at the place where it’s all set, so I skip over the business of how everyone figures everything out and kick things off with everyone there.It’s a cheat, but cheating’s the trick to a lot of good storytelling, IMO. 🙂

  6. John’s comments are right on the money. I mean, none of us know all there is to know about everything (well, there are exceptions…) and researching something is only of limited value if you’ve never done it before. Like John mentions, there’s no need to get into the specific details of some particular business. Ultimately, its the writing.There are plenty of opportunities for you to show how smart your character is.

  7. My protagonist is a much better reporter than I ever was. But then again, I live with a former journalist who brought down a mayor and unearthed dead voters, so I’ve stolen a lot of his investigative skills for Annie.I think you should just keep writing and find out how your character develops. This is the fun part. Maybe having him still be a bit naive after five years on the job could be an interesting trait.

  8. Whoever said we had a contest on who has the smartest protagonist?It is much better to have an ordinary human being for the main character. John R.’s intelligence, or lack thereof is immaterial as long as he can write a believable character.And then, of course, there is the method by which the intellectually challenged protagonist overcomes his handicap through sheer persistence.Pretty much what a writer does every day.

  9. Not all investigators bring the same tools to the job.And when a character does something beyond my ken, I summarize instead of trying to go into details that I’d probably get wrong despite the research.Side-stepping the topic for a moment, I saw somewhere that you were starting a zine but I haven’t been able to find any info on that.Care to spill the beans?Stephen

  10. In all seriousness, I much prefer dumb-ass protagonists. As far as my stories go, if they weren’t dumbasses they wouldn’t have gotten into trouble in the first place.

  11. Well, with the reader hat on, I’d have to say that if the protagonist is supposed to be a professional detective (or pi) with enough experience to be in plainclothes, I’m going to lose a lot of respect for him if he’s an idiot. Lazy is one thing. Stupid another. I can handle a stupid cashier bumbling through an investigation (if I feel so inclined to read about a really amateur sleuth) but a stupid pro? NMCOT.I mean, there’s a learning curve. People make mistakes. I guess I like my protagonists flawed (John), not someone I’d want to ridicule.With the writer cap on… I’ve had no trouble getting professionals to talk to me. And one of the things I did this year as part of my responsibilities for my mystery writer’s group was coordinate a full-day workshop with a private investigator (someone who runs two companies, actually) and there’s enough in the hours of audio files to keep me in stories until somebody puts me in a box, should I ever decide to write about a PI.And last year we brought in a former undercover police officer. Wow.Gun smuggling – talk to some customs people. They see stuff like that all the time. I just happen to know some. It may be not that the technique is so clever on its own, but if your guy coordinates a diversion at the same time, it might work.I sometimes watch crime-solving shows (documentaries, not dramas) to just get a feel for lingo, procedure…Oh, and there’s a great book I have. Just the Facts, Ma’am by Greg Fallis. A handy reference to many facets of public and private investigation.And I agree with John. Occasionally.

  12. “I try to imagine a smarter man, and ask myself: what would HE do?”You’ve got to craft the character to fit the story — experienced, inexperienced, the story will be better with one or the other, that’s the one you go with. I’m sure Conan Doyle felt like he painted himself into a corner with Sherlock Holmes, that’s why he tried to kill him off.

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