Writing Characters II – Lacunas

In early November I posted an essay on my website (lannylarcinese.com) about my preference for “character driven” fiction – the deeper the revelation of character, the better. Of course, the writer reveals those insights by the spoonful and more artistic fashion than simply bopping around the character’s head in dense, interminable passages.

Along these lines, Faulkner provides a beacon: The work of the novelist is the human heart in conflict with itself. Such stuff is different from the more typical motives of survival, justice, or mere misguidance. I am a crime fiction writer because crime is the most recognizable and dramatic manifestation of mental and/or social and/or character disorder.

Many crime stories tell us something about the protagonists and antagonists, usually to establish motive. Often, as with noir, characters’ bleak backgrounds may cause their world-view to devolve into cynical actions or sketchy relationships. In many procedurals, the protagonist’s character may actually be enhanced by transcending the bleak aspects of his background – drug abuse, alcoholism, or cynicism caused by too much street life – and lead to uplifting or at least satisfying actions, like taking out the bad guy to save society.

In literary fiction, about which some say, “not much happens but a lot goes on,” the plot may well be the character’s journey from one state to another, e.g., an epiphany or a reconciliation. Such writing serves Faulkner’s dictum well. But for those of us who like action beyond the inner landscape, we crave character insights wedded to significant external events, e.g., where loss of life, limb, or loved ones are at stake.

I strive to get beyond the character flaw tropes of alcoholism/drug abuse/deprivation, etc. In deference to Faulkner, I think about spaces a lot. That is the fictional garden I like to traipse and to me, the most fascinating aspects of the human condition. Examples: the space between want and need; between feelings of tribalism (which have survival value) and altruism (also has survival value); between anger and civility; between faithfulness and lust for others; between what we feel and how we act; between orthodoxy and flexibility; between self-image vs. from others; between laws and mores, etc. Each of these lacunas is fodder for conflict. They may exist within a single character or among many characters and are especially effective when they collide. No matter how such conflict is deployed, sparks will ensue.

The first draft of my novel, Dear Dad, They’re Dead (out fall of 2019 from Intrigue Publications) began as a vivid image of two high school boys having a rumble behind the gym. One pulls out an ice pick; the other, with lightning hand speed, snatches it from him and stabs him in the trachea with it. It was so compelling that I had to write it down. But at the keyboard, I asked myself, “Why were they there? What are their back stories? What would cause two boys to do this?” Like the Big Bang of a singularity and no small amount of dedication to learning craft, it evolved into an 85,000 word novel. It developed that both were nice boys who grew into good men, in fact became best friends. The story is about, among other things, the gaps between their initial circumstances as individuals and ultimate destiny, and the states of mind and bridging of gaps which let it happen.

Lacuna, it’s such a great word and opens so many story doors.


Review: Patient Zero by Todd Harra

Todd Harra has written a compelling techno-thriller with an optimum blend of mystery, terrorism, bureaucracy, interesting characters and science (mostly pathology & anatomy, but who knew odors have mass?) Also, given Harra’s background as a fourth generation funeral director, he provides enough dead-body stuff enough to satisfy curiosity & ease anxiety without overly dwelling on the mortician’s arts. The tone of such passages, like the comforting demeanor of those whose jobs are to deliver a modicum of calm to the grief-stricken, is informative but soothing.

The plot involves the mysterious appearance of the shigella bacterium (or is it a virus?) and a spate of bodies the custody and usual processing of which are mysteriously co-opted by government spooks.

Who are their agencies? Why are they doing this? And what in the hell is causing the shigella epidemic? Those and other questions fall into the wheelhouse of Tripp “Clip” Clipper, ex-Ranger combat medic and current funeral director, and whose particular combination of skills and temperament uniquely qualify him to delve into the mystery. He is also lover to Maggie, a pathologist at the Medical University of South Carolina. She lives in the apartment above Clip’s family funeral home.

As investigation proceeds and ever-increasing danger shadows Clip and those close to him, the stakes go up, culminating in Clip being shanghaied into a casket meant for a dead shigella victim & dumped into the shark-infested drink off the coast of South Carolina. (I won’t mention what happens to Maggie.) The scene is as tense as Lawrence Olivier’s Dr. Szell asking Dustin Hoffman’s Thomas Levy, “Is is safe?” However, a door opens to Tripp’s survival, only to expose him to yet more risk as he continues trying to uncover the cause of the outbreak poisoning Charleston and possibly more of the U.S.

The book’s characters are varied and blessedly human—vs. boring superheroes—yet likable. As thrillers go, Patient Zero is a four-star endeavor, and this reviewer expects readers will look forward to Clip’s release—or escape—from Witness Protection. Trouble always attracts worthy adversaries and readers will find Clip up to the job.

We hope there is a sequel.

Writing Characters

Writers have ways to create distinctive characters: appearance, age, speech, dress, attitude, background, social class, sexuality, mental state, motive, tics, etc. The less creative rely on stereotypes. These are story-killers. I prefer to write characters with complexity.

Depth of character reflects the writer’s own insight into the so-called “human condition.” Some writers are especially insightful. I’m not sure science has established the basis for such instincts; I only know some are better at it than others. Nor am I establishing a hierarchy; I’m only claiming that on this subject, differences exist among writers, just as with math ability, puzzle-solving, visual sense, verbal sense, or any other feature of the human mind. William Faulkner said that the work of the novelist is the human heart in conflict with itself, a principle that deeply resonates and informs much of my fiction writing.

What is an example of my frustration with shallow characters? How about a character who is alcoholic or a druggie, or carries animus toward a class of people, or has needs, or any other feature populating crime fiction? Many writers stop there and continue on with a plot designed to exacerbate or ameliorate those deficits, or they, the plot. But it’s not deep enough for me.

Character flaws are well-trod territory, especially in crime fiction. Less often do we see the genesis of such flaws (beyond simple “environment” tropes) or the internal conflict they present. It’s one thing to be alcoholic and suffer its effects—loss of job, family, health life, etc.—but what about the accompanying black despair? For me the story is not that a character is a drunk and lost his job and family; for me the story is his anguish and the cascade of mental and behavioral distortions which result. I prefer writing that gets inside of those states. I think of it as getting to the inside of the inside of the inside.

Take Hanibal Lecter, a remarkable character—smooth, hyper-intelligent, poised, manipulative, and a psychopath who eats people. He’s a fascinating study as is, but I want to know how he got that way—not merely that his life unfolded in ways that made him a cannibal—but what specific personality skewers or brain malfunctions or environmental conditions made him the way he is, and further, how did they collide in his mind with other influences? What are his thoughts? How did altruism and empathy—normal traits with survival value in their own right—become subsumed into his darker parts and lead to his conclusion that redemption lay in eating folks?

My work in progress, a novel tentatively titled “Fire in the Belly,” is based on events of the 1985 Project MOVE disaster in Philadelphia, in which a bomb dropped by police on a cult’s fortress resulted in the death of seven and an entire city block burned to the ground. Its actual history was such that no fiction could be more bizarre, considering its outlandish facts and characters. But what prompted me to write the story was the question of vulnerability to cults, about which it is said no one is immune, and started me thinking about “ego strength,” and the cult leader’s wherewithal to overcome it. So my plot may unfold resembling the real event, but no writing about it currently extant explains the cult members or gets inside of their heads to reveal what brought them to force the disastrous police confrontation and its unintended consequences.

My story will make that effort (not with psychology, with which I have no training and often question how much its practitioners actually know) but will attempt to track the human character and spirit—its needs, gains, and desires. I’ll depict certain human traits in service of self-preservation, e.g., tribalism and altruism, and try to reconcile them with practicality and the psychic collisions they entail. I’ll seek out my characters’ rewards and losses, both in temporal terms as well as spiritual terms. If I do my job right, it will have the ring of truth to the reader who might say, “That could’ve been me,” and if he’s not given to introspection, he might become so. I want him walking away in thought.