Character Counts

by James Scott Bell

Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) with Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) in The Maltese Falcon (1941)

I’m a sports guy, so use a lot of athletic comparisons and analogies vis-à-vis writing. Learning the craft, for example, is like learning golf. You’ve got to master certain fundamentals if you want to prevent, as Twain put it, “a good walk spoiled.” You study, practice, get coaching, drill. But when you play, you just play. After a round you think about things you need to improve, and practice some more.

When you write, just write. Then get feedback and work on improving your craft.

In this regard, a certain sports story caught my attention recently. Out of civility, I won’t mention names because I don’t want to kick somebody when they’re down. There’s always a chance for redemption. I hope it happens, because I love redemption stories.

Anyway, a certain NFL team drafted a quarterback in the first round. He signed a $35 million fully guaranteed contract, to go with a $23 million signing bonus. Most of us could probably live on that.

But what dominated the news and social media was a rumor that this kid had bedded his mother’s best friend.

Hoo boy.

His performance over two seasons has been less than inspiring, though not without occasional flashes of promise.

Then came a recent game where the kid stunk up the field. The defense put up a mighty effort in the loss. At the post-game press conference the kid was asked if he felt he’d let the defense down. His answer: “No.”

That one word, as they say, “lost the locker room.” His teammates heard him throwing them under the bus. He later apologized to the team, but the damage was done. He was benched for the next game. The backup QB took over and played great. The kid, instead of standing on the sideline rooting for the starter, sulked on the bench. His future with the team is thus in doubt.

This issue here is character. As defined by the greatest dictionary of all time, Webster’s New Collegiate 2d, “character” is moral vigor or firmness, esp. as acquired through self-discipline.

Character doesn’t come naturally. It has to be taught. It has to be personalized by internal effort. And if you’re going to succeed in sports and in life, you gotta have it.

So does your protagonist.

The heroes I respond to most have flaws that are overcome through a vein of moral rightness. Mike Hammer, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade—flawed all, but saved in the end because they have a code they stick with.

When Spade, surrounded by rogues and liars (and not above some roguishness of his own), is tempted to go away with the femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, he instead turns her over to the cops. Why? He tries to explain it to her:

“Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more and then we’ll give it up. Listen. When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

In Kiss Me, Deadly, Mike Hammer is sapped by some guys, and the women in his car is murdered. He’s told by the Feds to lay off finding out who it was. His friend, the police captain Pat Chambers, tells him the same. Of course, Hammer says he won’t, and explains, “Maybe I have too much pride, but I don’t let anybody get away with that kind of stuff. I’m going to knock he crap out of somebody…”

You will find a similar code embedded in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. It is lifted from the mythos of the Old West, as in the gunslinger hired to clean up a town. This is not surprising; Parker received his Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University, where the title of his dissertation was The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality: A Study of the Private Eye in the Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald.

I’d like to read that sometime. (A copy is available for $1,000 at Abe Books. Dear Santa, I’ve been extra good this year…)

When I do my Story Grinder workshop, I have the students answer some questions about their Lead:

  • What is one thing they’d die for?
  • What would they have tattooed on their arm?
  • Who do they care about before the story begins? Why do they care?
  • What duty will they perform, even if they don’t want to?

On the other hand, there are memorable Leads who are brought down by lack of character at crucial moments. Their just desserts are also a moral lesson.

  • King Lear with his daughters.
  • Michael Corleone with his vengeance.
  • Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy.
  • Scarlett’s obsession with Ashley.

Character and flaws, that’s what a memorable Lead is made of. Give them passion and heat, cooled when it counts for a greater good. Or left alone for a tragic end.

Whatever your choice, go big on character in your characters.

38 thoughts on “Character Counts

  1. “What duty will they perform, even if they don’t want to?”

    That’s a good question and one I need to ask of one of the characters I’m working on right now…

  2. I’m writing a hero right now who was wounded and it made him kind of a coward. He’s so terrified of being hurt again. But this story is going to make him face both the wound and the fear in order to rescue two teenagers he’d been mentoring. I love stories where the hero has to overcome their flaws in order to save someone, so I’m writing it.

  3. “When you write, just write. Then get feedback and work on improving your craft.”

    Excellent. Perfect advice. I’d make only two tiny additions: “When you write, just write. Then [publish,] get feedback and [write the next story or novel to] work on improving your craft.”

  4. This post resonated bigtime with me, Jim. There’s nothing worse than following a character who has no passion, no burning fire forcing them to act, to fight for what they believe in, stand for, or love.

    I wish the Pats put Zappe in last Thursday night. LOL What a s**tshow.

  5. Great advice, Jim. May I offer an additional question to your Story Grinder workshop list?

    What burning failure in the past branded the Lead with such a passion to never again fail (leading to duty and honor and the tattoo)?

    Thanks for the great lesson on building a Lead.

    • That’s a great question, Steve. As I mentioned to BK up top, it’s a great exercise to put together your own list of questions to dig underneath the surface of your characters.

  6. Jim, thanks for forcusing on the character that our characters need. In today’s world, character is sadly missing. That’s another reason why, in fiction, characters with a strong moral compass appeal to readers.

    Hope Santa delivers your Parker book!

    • I so totally agree, Debbie. I write characters I’d like to see more of in the real world.

      I hope Santa reads this. Otherwise, I will probably get some socks.

  7. Terrific post, Jim, showing us why character matters, and how it embodies their character arc. One of the things I love about mystery tis he way character interacts with the issue of justice.

    I’m with Debbie, I hope Santa brings that book!

  8. Your Story Grinder questions are sparkling gems. Even if the answers aren’t mentioned in the story, they give the writer deeper understanding of the character.

  9. Great inspiration for a Sunday morning!

    I have a character in my WIP who has enough baggage to fill a cargo plane. But when he discovers something that indicates his young sister’s accidental death decades earlier may have been murder, he makes it his mission to uncover the truth.

  10. When I first decided I wanted to write I gathered several books on the art. One of those books, on today’s subject, was What Would Your Character Do? There were scenarios like the questions in this blog posting, things like what would your character do if they were at the airport and saw an abandoned bag? Each question is multiple choice and the answer is supposed to demonstrate a character ‘type’.

    I spent what I thought was a good deal of time using the book to frame my main characters and many of my secondary ones. However, looking over the questions you presented today, I realize that, besides the obligatory family, only one of them has anything they would die (or kill) for before the book begins.

    What duty will they perform, even if they don’t want to? Wow, besides Rachel, a 40 something widow who can’t seem to enforce any boundaries on her mother and therefore finds herself being the dutiful daughter against her will, I can’t think of any.

    Before this post I thought my characters were fairly deep, now – rethinking …

    • There’s a great little duty in The Hunger Games, where Katniss, who takes care of her mother and sister, also dutifully takes care of a cat she doesn’t like. That deepens our bond with her.

  11. Those questions are great, and they make me smile cause I am working on a WIP where my protagonist would kill, and just wrote a chapter where she performed a duty she never thought she would. So…

    She would kill for her family. Most specifically her father but for her brother and mother and one cousin as well (note: this is why her father is killed at the inciting incident).

    What would be tattooed on her arm: My definition of victory is… (She craves victory, so she constantly has to ask herself that question to do the right thing.)

    She performs the duty of caring for her baby cousin because her aunt refuses to care for a disabled kid.

  12. I just knew there’d be a PhD buried in here somewhere. It’s nice to cock a snook at the literary types, isn’t it?

    Character: It’s an interesting study. There are infinite gradations but I don’t engineer them too much-not that advanced in my craft-but I let them tell their story.

    Place and status figure into how they materialize on the page. On the general subject of character it often comes out of the writer’s life experiences, viz., the interview with Leonard Gardner, author of the novel Fat City in Paris Review.

    The nearest copy of Parker’s dissertation is at the U of Iowa library, a mere 116 miles from here.

    I maybe can figure out some kind of interlibrary loan. It should make interesting reading.

    • Robert, thanks for mentioning Fat City. I read it when it came out, loved it and the John Huston movie. Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell. One of those books that made me want to try to be a writer someday, but definitely not a boxer.

  13. If you know the university Parker got his Ph.D. at, you may be able to buy a digital copy from them.

    The noir detectives you mention are deliberately patterned after knights errant from medieval literature down to the madonna and whore women as well as the good knight vs. the bad knight. Writers were much better educated back in the day.

    Really, all main characters should follow one rule of behavior that motivates them to achieve the goal of the novel. Otherwise, they’d just grunt with disinterest and walk away.

  14. Jim,
    Sorry I’m late to the party, but your comment about Spenser’s dissertation triggered the memory that there is, or used to be, something called University Microfilms from whom one could get copies of dissertations. Looks like it’s now ProQuest. I don’t know if they still make copies of dissertations available, but if you do want to see that dissertation you could check there.

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