Character Creep. The Authors Collection.
February 7, 2014
Robert B. Lowe
Okay. I have a confession to make. I am guilty of character creep.
Here are a few of the many I’ve recently created:
Takeo Hayashi is a high-level executive at a major Japanese drug company. When introduced in my upcoming book, Megan’s Cure, Hayashi is participating at a secret meeting of Big Pharma movers and shakers in the basement of a Macau casino. There they plot to control prices, bribe politicians and suppress new drugs that will cut into profits. But Hayashi is a little preoccupied. He’s dwelling on the $300,000 he lost at the gaming tables the previous night and how his gambling debts will affect his family.
The next time we see Hayashi, he is throwing himself off a Tokyo subway platform – faking his accidental death – which is the only way he can see to ensure his family receives a $5 million life insurance payout and the comfortable existence that his gambling threatens. But before he takes the leap, he sends an anonymous email to a reporter about the illicit Macau meetings. It’s another last act of contrition for him and one that moves along the plot of Megan’s Cure.
Murph Murphy is a henchman for a Las Vegas-based organized crime network. He appears in Megan’s Cure stalking a 10-year-old girl and a middle-aged scientist who are on the run. He’s a former boxer with a nose misshapen after connecting with his opponents’ fists too often. Through stretches of the South, he’s after the fugitives using information passed along by paid law-enforcement spies who are tracking the pair’s phone calls and emails. Midway through Megan’s Cure, Murphy catches the wrong end of a tire iron. As a result, he’ll see double for two weeks and never will regain his sense of smell.
Miriam Pastor is a highly respected, 64-year-old microbiologist who has retired from her drug company job to continue her research and academic work at a university lab in San Francisco. For three chapters, she’s engaged in the painstaking work of determining just how effective a new medicine may be. When a lawyer tries to bully her off the project, Pastor tells him where to shove it. After hanging up, she punches the air in triumph, putting all of her 110 lbs. into it.
Pastor comes in early one morning and pulls out the dozens of microscope slides that have been processed in the laboratory’s autostainer overnight. Alone and vibrating with excitement, she puts them into her Leica MM fluorescent microscope to see how many will show her the glowing florescent green that will mean success.
I’ve long known that I tend to overpopulate my books. Just too many characters. One of my readers warned me that I have 30 characters in Megan’s Cure. I’ve tried various ways to help the reader through it. I try to use names, or nicknames, that will stick a little. Like Murph Murphy. Or I’ll give them some physical trait to which I can refer in order to remind the reader who this is. The broken nose. An unusual streak of white in their hair. An accent.
I also will have a character perhaps with a title but no name. Or, maybe with only a first name without a surname. I’m hoping the reader gets the signal that this isn’t a character you have to remember that well. They won’t be important to the overall story.
For some reason, it seems to me that having more minor characters is easier in a movie or television show than in a book. I think it’s because you can more fully explain the context. You can have a guy who talks to the main character for 20 seconds while they’re lifting weights at the gym. When that character reappears halfway through the movie again, you can show the gym and you immediately know (“Oh. He’s just the gym acquaintance.”). Somehow explaining that in a book – even just describing the gym again in a paragraph – seems more of a distraction.
As a further confession, I admit that I do sometimes bring in a new character in the middle of a book because I’m a little bored or don’t know what else to do. It usually starts out as a simple plot device. There’s often a way around it so I am being a tad lazy. But, then I’m into that character, even if just for a chapter or two.
I’m feeling Hayashi’s pain and sadness that he can’t tell his family ‘good bye’ as he jumps in front of the subway train. I’m smiling when the feisty Miriam Pastor gives the lawyer the works. It’s made her week. And when Murph Murphy can’t bring himself to strangle a 10-year-old girl (shooting her is no problem), it’s because she reminds him of his nieces. I get it. Even hired killers have their soft spots.
But, when your mother is reading your books and listing the characters so she can remember them, that’s a signal. It’s time to kill a few more of your darlings.
I hope it still isn’t too late to make a New Year’s resolution.
Please click the book cover image to read more about Robert B. Lowe’s thriller, Divine Fury.