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Friday, April 13, 2018

Fitness of Character

How do writers come up with their characters?

The suspicion with novelists—especially first-time ones—is that their protagonists are thinly-veiled versions of themselves. Writers known mainly for one main character—Ian Fleming comes to mind—are frequently seen to have deliberately made that character their alter ego.

But what about the other characters, besides the main one, who populate a novel? Where do they come from?

I suppose in the worst of cases they spring from whatever mechanical need there is to advance the plot. Or perhaps they are just slightly modified stock characters from any number of examples of stock fiction. What writers and readers would prefer, of course, is that every character in a story—even the most minor—would spring to life as a fully realized creation that lives and breathes naturally and is unique in the same way that every human being is non-identical to all other human beings.

My own experience is that a character may begin as being somewhat “like” someone I have known in my life, but by the time she has become fully immersed in the biosphere of the story, she has taken on her own life and overshadowed the original inspiration. It is amazing how your characters—not unlike your children—may begin by depending on you entirely but, before you know it, they have minds and wills of their own. As a writer, you may end up feeling less like an author than a stenographer.

No one has really queried me about where the various characters in Lautaro’s Spear came from—aside from the inevitable accusations that Dallas Green is really me. (For the millionth time, he’s not.) As for the other characters, individual readers have had their favorites and their non-favorites, but most (of the ones who have communicated with me anyway) have liked Marty, the somewhat mysterious proprietor of a hole-in-the-wall Mexican eatery hidden away in San Francisco’s Mission District. Interestingly, he is the one character in the book whom I more or less appropriated full-cloth from real life. It so happens that back in the 1980s when I was working in the Lower Queen Anne area of Seattle, I had my own Marty.

He was pretty much as described, although he did not have a sidekick Leonides (that I was aware of anyway) and I was never invited to his home. And he never made me a margarita, although I am sure it would have been good. He was just a guy who served up Mexican food and liked to talk. Always anxious for an opportunity to practice my Spanish, just like Dallas I would converse with him en español, which he clearly understood, but he would insist on responding in English. And just as in the book, when I mentioned my year in Chile during the Pinochet regime, he began dropping hints that he somehow had something to do with the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende and brought Pinochet to power. I could never be sure, when he said “yeah, we did on a job on him,” whether he was speaking of the U.S. collectively or some other community he identified with or, most tantalizingly of all possibilities, some elite squad of which he was personally a member. The last idea fascinated me. What if he was some sort of secret agent?

If that had been the case, how likely would it have been for him to have wound up cooking enchiladas in the shadow in of the Space Needle? In hindsight, perhaps more likely than I might have thought. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I was a regular customer of a Mexican restaurant in downtown Redmond. Years later I learned that one of the people cooking the food there had been Henry Hill (using a new identity), an FBI mob informant whose story became the basis for the Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas.

I never actually learned the name of the cook who inspired the character for my book. In Lautaro’s Spear I called him Marty. That was my own little tribute to the character played by Edward James Olmos in the TV series Miami Vice, Lt. Martin Castillo. In all my years of television viewing, that was definitely one of the best cases of an ordinary-seeming secondary character being revealed, bit by bit over time, to be way more interesting than was first apparent. I wonder who he was based on.

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