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GET REAL!

By H. P. Oliver

We writers of fiction owe a debt of gratitude to the great American author, Ernest Hemingway because he left us a legacy of ideas about our craft that, if we are willing to learn from them, serve as signposts pointing the way to better writing. One such insight I've always found particularly valuable is this one pertaining to the fictional people about whom we write:

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters.
A character is a caricature.

Coming from a background of film and television, I find this advice easy to follow because I tend to think of the people who populate my novels as actors in roles rather than imaginary characters. For a demonstration of how this works for me, I'll cite two examples from my silent film era mystery, SILENTS!

The primary roles in the story are two LAPD detectives charged with solving a murder. I wanted their relationship to be one that left me room for developing their personalities, creating interesting dialogue, and even inserting some humor. To these ends, I decided one of the detectives would be a college-educated fellow with limited practical field experience, while the other would be a street-wise cop who worked his way up through the ranks from beat officer to detective sergeant. Then I added a unique twist to their relationship by making the older, street-wise detective sergeant subordinate in rank to the younger, less experienced detective lieutenant.

I need to pause here for a word of caution about creating unique relationships in your novels. That word is "believability." As is the case with most elements of fiction, to be believable, a relationship must have some basis in reality. In this instance was it realistic to make an experienced cop subordinate to a relative rookie? I found I could answer that question in the affirmative on two counts.

First, in the 1920s, the LAPD was like most other major metropolitan police departments. In other words, it was corrupt to the point of absurdity-an organization in which greed and ambition for political advancement took precedence over merit and diligence in decision making. In such an environment just about anything could and did happen.

I added further justification for the relationship by making the experienced cop someone who was far more interested in solving crimes than in climbing to a lofty position on the law enforcement career ladder. It wasn't just possible, it was likely that under such circumstances a straight, savvy cop would much rather leave the game of politics to someone else. Thus, by including these points in my introductions to the two detectives, I gave their relationship the believability it needed to work.

Getting back to casting the roles of the detectives, I had little trouble coming up a real-life role model for the younger cop. I personally know someone-not a cop, but a writer with whom I've worked-who I could easily imagine in the role. He is someone who would see the situation as an opportunity to learn, as well as one to be handled with sensitivity and tact. Thus, I cast the role of Detective Lieutenant Robert Winfield.

Casting the experienced cop, however, was more difficult. I simply couldn't come up with anyone I knew with a personality that fit the role. Then, as we all hope will happen in such instances, an idea popped into my head. I found myself thinking of the 1987 film version of The Untouchables. Specifically, I was recalling the role of police officer Jim Malone-a role played to perfection by Sean Connery. I could easily imagine a person based on this film portrayal being perfectly comfortable in the unique relationship I wanted to create. And there he was, Detective Sergeant C. K. Mackie. One point I want to be quite clear about is that Mackie is not a copy of Jim Malone. He is a different individual with a mindset and personality traits similar to those of Malone as he was portrayed by Sean Connery.


Sean Connery portrays Jim Malone in the 1987 film, The Untouchables. His portrayal served as a role model for the creation of Detective Sergeant C. K. Mackie in SILENTS!

And that's the story of how I cast two related roles; one based on a real-life person and the other based on a very believable film portrayal. Now that I've introduced the subject, I'm sure you can think of many other role model sources, each as legitimate as those I used in this instance. Writers of historical fiction are particularly blessed in this area for we have decades or even millennia full of real-life role models on whom to base the people in our novels. The trick is getting to know those real people well enough to realistically imagine how they might react to the situations in which you intend to put them.

The most important part of this process is goes back to our opening quote from Ernest Hemingway: ". . . create living people; people not characters." Or, as I put it from my particular perspective, cast roles instead of creating stereotypes.