John D. MacDonald was once asked to take two of those comprehensive Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality tests. He took one as himself, and one as his greatest character, Travis McGee. The results, I remember reading were similar, yet indicated two distinct personalities. That really didn’t surprise me. MacDonald had been chronicling McGee’s adventures in a series of novels for over twenty years, and often spoke of McGee as if he were a real person. “He’s going to support me in my old age,” MacDonald once quipped when an interviewer asked what the author had in store for his most famous character. MacDonald was on record as not liking the movie version of Darker Than Amber, in which Rod Taylor played a pretty impressive McGee. I won’t even dignify the TV movie version of The Dreadful Lemon Sky, starring a totally miscast Sam Elliot, with a comment. But I would like to ask McGee what he thought of the Taylor version.
There are a lot of other questions I’d like to ask various fictional characters. I’d be eager to know exactly how and when Sherlock kicked the seven percent solution problem, and if Nicholas Myer got it right in his novel. It would be fun to finally get a clear answer, too, on just which wars Dr. Watson served in during his time in the military. The only person who might have come close to being in so many conflicts was Jonathan Quayle Higgins on the old TV show Magnum P.I. And then there’s Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Here’s a guy who’s famous for not having any luggage or possessions other than the clothes on his back. Oh, really? My question is how often do you change your underwear, Jack? Or your shirt? Your socks? Your pants? Doesn’t it take up a bit of your day each morning to find a store, buy the clean clothes, and change into them? Or maybe this is why nobody wants to sit next to you on the bus. For Batman I’d ask how difficult is it to get in and out of the Batmobile with that big, old cape constantly getting in the way. Doesn’t that cowl interfere with your peripheral vision? And, I’d of course be tempted to mimic Jack Nicholson’s Joker question, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” For Superman I’d ask how good is that x-ray vision, and what’s it like to be faster than a speeding bullet? And while we’re on that subject, why didn’t you just use your superspeed to save Kevin Constner (Pa Kent) from the tornado in the new Man of Steel movie?
I think it was Hannah’s column a few weeks ago (“What Did You Have For Breakfast,” June 20, 2013) that mentioned the producer asking her what her character had for breakfast. It can be a tough query to answer on the spur of the moment, but the importance of being able to answer such questions about your characters is crucial. In my creative writing classes I urge the students to develop comprehensive character sketches of all their characters before starting their stories. It’s imperative to know what they would say if someone should ask what they had for breakfast that morning. (If anyone asks me, I usually steal Warren Beatty’s line from McCabe and Mrs. Miller and answer, “Whiskey and a raw egg.” Although I did down more than a few raw eggs during my training years, the whiskey part would be pure fiction. I don’t drink alcohol. Just remember, real men don’t eat quiche.)
Asking your character these kinds of questions is a good way to develop a character sketch. The basics should be covered. Personal statistics, family, significant life events, etc. Once you get to know the person well enough, you can begin writing. This is not to say that sometimes a surprise might be lurking around a corner. Although few people caught it, Robert B. Parker had Spenser mention the smell in his childhood home of his mother baking bread in one of his early novels. Parker later had Spenser tell his ladylove, Susan Silverman, that he was raised exclusively by men because his mother had died. Was this a slip up? Who knows? Perhaps Spenser had his memories confused, or perhaps he was fibbing to make himself seem more sympathetic or attractive to Susan. After all, we never did find out what his first name was.
These backgrounds also tend to morph a bit as time goes by. When I first began writing about my private eye character, Ron Shade, he and I were about the same age, but as time went by, and the rejection slips mounted, I began to realize that Shade was getting a bit long of tooth to be running around fighting bad guys so he started getting younger. Not that I wasn’t running around chasing crooks as energetically as I always did . . . I just tried to do it smarter instead of faster. But anyway, by the time the first Shade novel, A Killing Frost, saw print, he’d hardly changed at all from the young guy I’d first imagined. I’d really like to ask him how he did that someday. And in my newest short story collection, Pope’s Last Case, I gathered all the stories I’d written about Vince and Laura Pope over a long period of time and combined them into one volume. I did a through revision of the stories, putting in some bits of continuity and mentioning events that had happened in the earlier stories. Both Vince and Laura were very cooperative in filling in the blanks for me, even though these stories all took place quite a while ago (the 1940s).
But anyway, I’m sure by this time you all get the point. Think about your characters before you put them in a story of novel, and ask them those important questions that will help you figure out just who they really are. And keep them handy.