07 October 2015

In the book, from the Book

by Robert Lopresti

I have a ridiculous three stories coming out in anthologies this fall.  I wrote about one of them here and here is number two.

Last year at Bouchercon in Long Beach there was a panel entitled "Jewish Noir."  I couldn't attend but my wife did and it turned out to be about an anthology that was being planned.  Afterwards Terri talked to the editor, Kenneth Wishnia.  She asked two questions: were there any openings left?  And did the authors have to be Jewish?  Ken replied: yes and no, in that order.

Now as it happens, I am not Jewish but my wife and daughter are, so I have some familiarity with the culture.  Could I come up with something appropriate in a hurry?

I remembered one of my favorite Jewish tales, a Midrash, meaning a story the Rabbis invented to explain something odd in the Bible.   It tells of Nachshon, a Hebrew slave in Egypt who saved the day at the parting of the Red Sea.  When I first heard the tale I loved it so much I wrote a song about it.  Now I saw how I could use it as the kernel of a story for the Jewish Noir anthology.

I checked it with my two favorite experts on Judaism, Steve Steinbock and Terri.  They offered useful suggestions.  (By the way, here is Steve discussing, among other things, my song on the subject.)

I wrote fast and what do you know?  Ken Wishnia bought it.  So I am happy that "Nakhshon" (all the stories had to use the same alliteration system) found a place beside stories by Marge Piercy, Harlan Ellison,  SJ Rozan, and many others.

Here's a video of that song, by the way:

*    *   *   *

Changing the subject!  Last week I gave you 25 movie quotations.  Here are the titles of the movies, and who said each line.

Oh, remember  I said there were two movies in a row based on books by the same author, with the same character?  Parker and Payback, based on novels about Parker, by Richard Stark.


1. Your mother mates out of season. - Sam "George" Francisco (Mandy Patinkin) Alien Nation

2. Get off my lawn! -Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) Gran Torino

3. You can tell, you can really tell. You must be physic!  -  Lew Harper (Paul Newman)  Harper

4. Forget it Nick... it's Sandford. - Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) in Hot Fuzz.

5. -There's no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality.
-Yes sir. -Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart)/ Waiter (George Davis) In A Lonely Place

6. -I got a hot date.
-Yeah?  Who is she and what did you arrest her for?   - Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel) / Bud White (Russell Crowe) L.A. Confidential

7. My name? If you knew that, you'd be as clever as me. -? (Daniel Craig) Layer Cake
8. -We makin' trouble for someone?
Which kind?
-The forever kind.   -Uncle John (Joe Dallesandro)/ Stacy (Nicky Katt  )  in The Limey

9. You're nobody till somebody shoots you.  - Earl (Laurence Mason) in The Lincoln Lawyer
10. Yeah, it's always heartwarming to see a prejudice defeated by a deeper prejudice.  -Cliff (Stephen Mendillo) Lone Star

11.  My old man used to say to me, probably the only thing we ever really agreed on, was that whoever has the money has the power. You might wanna jot that down in your book. It's something you're gonna need to remember.- Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode)  The Lookout.

12. I'm the girl they rush home from.  - Simone  (Cathy Tyson) Mona Lisa

13. I think all those stories about you being dead are true. You're just too thick-headed to admit it.  - Rosie (Maria Bello) Payback

14. -How do you sleep at night?
-I don't drink coffee after seven.   - Leslie Rodgers (Jennifer Lopez)/ Parker (Jason Statham) Parker

15. -I want to see my daughter.
-I don't think that would be a good idea.
-Why wouldn't that be a good idea?
-Because we hardly dared to look ourselves. - Duane Larsen (Michael O'Keefe)/ Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson), The Pledge

16. Do I ice her?  Do I marry her?  -Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson) Prizzi's Honor

17. I'll catch up with you guys.  I forgot my bullets.  - Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon)  Premium Rush

18. No, I do not want that in the house. That is my car gun. My house gun is already in the house. Now, put that back in the glove compartment, and don't let me catch you fooling with my guns again.  - Wynn Quantrill (William Daniels) The President's Analyst.
19. -Is life always this hard, or is it just when you're a kid?
-Always like this.  Mathilde (Natalie Portman ), Leon (Jean Reno)  The Professional

20.  Well, if the woman up there is Mrs. Bates... who's that woman buried out in Greenlawn Cemetery? - Sheriff Chambers (John McIntyre) Psycho

21. You'll never see one dollar of this money, because no ransom will ever be paid for my son. Not one dime, not one penny. Instead, I'm offering this money as a reward on your head. Dead or alive, it doesn't matter. - Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson) Ransom

22. Go ahead. Jump. He never loved you, so why go on living? Jump and it will all be over...  -Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) Rebecca

23. Natural law. Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers. - John Rooney (Paul Newman) The Road to Perdition

24. - You ever kill anybody?
 - I hurt somebody's feelings once.  -Spence (Sean Bean) / Sam (Robert DeNiro) Ronin

25. -Where you going?
-To the Lincoln Memorial.
-It's closed.  It won't be open for another hour.
-I don't understand.
-He's an old man.  He needs his sleep.  -Luther Burton (Milton Berle)/ Girl Scout Leader (unidentified) Who's Minding The Mint?

06 October 2015

Murder at a Nudist Colony? Ah, the Joys of Research.

by Barb Goffman

Questions I've asked over the last few years that never would have crossed my mind before I became a mystery writer and editor:
  • If you're found with a murder victim and the police take your clothes for examination, will they also take your underwear?
  • If a murder occurs at a nudist colony, and the suspect is a colony member, how does the pat down work during arrest?
  • Is it easy to break into a home by crawling through a doggy door?
  • How does a groundhog react when cornered?
  • What's the approval process for exhuming a body? How hard is it to dig up a casket? What does an exhumed body look like? And smell like?
  • If I'm writing about someone who's a douchebag, when I spell out the word, is the bag removed from the douche?
  • How many synonyms are there for male genitalia, and why does the word johnson make some women laugh so much?
Yes, I now know the answers to all these questions. I'll give the answers below. But first, a few observations:

It pays to have friends. How do I know the answer to the underwear question? I asked my friend
Robin Burcell
author Robin Burcell, a former police detective, who's always there in a pinch to take my odd questions. Robin's not the only expert who helps mystery authors. Dr. Doug Lyle, Luci "the Poison Lady" Zahray, and Lee Lofland, another former member of the law-enforcement community, have all shared knowledge with me (and many other authors) over the years. A big thank you to you all.

It pays to have friends who pay attention. How did I even come up with the nudist colony question? I learned from my friend Donna Andrews (thank you, Donna) that a Catholic church in our neighborhood used to be the home of a nudist colony, and in the 1940s, a murder occurred
there. That sparked a very interesting discussion about where a nudist might try to hide a weapon (not having pockets and whatnot), and it
Donna Andrews
resulted in my story "Murder a la Mode," which appeared in the anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Second Helping. It's set at a nude Thanksgiving, and was a lot of fun to write.

It also pays to have friends with a good sense of humor. My unpublished novel involves a phone-sex operator, and writing it required coming up with a lot of synonyms for certain body parts. How a writer toils for her art. And what she learns, sometimes, is that the wrong word can take a reader from eagerly turning pages to laughing out loud. And not at an intended time, either. So thank you to my friend Laura Weatherly, who several years ago burst out laughing when she read about a man on the phone talking about his johnson. "You have to find another word," she told me. Done.

It pays to have access to the Internet. No, this isn't for research for the phone-sex book. It was for the groundhog research. When I began writing my short story "The Shadow Knows," (which is a finalist for the Macavity and the Anthony awards at this week's Bouchercon mystery convention), I knew I wanted to write a caper about a grumpy man who believes his town's groundhog is responsible for
Old groundhog who visited my yard.
every long winter, so he decides to get rid of him. But it wouldn't be a caper if things went smoothly. So I began researching things that could go wrong, and I learned many fun tidbits. Did you know that when groundhogs feel cornered, they might bite? Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg learned this the hard way. Thank you, Mister Mayor. Groundhogs will also squeal extremely loudly when upset, dig up drywall, and scratch with their long, sharp claws. All this detail went to good use in the story. Yes, research sure can be fun.

Now, back to the questions:
  • Will the police take your underwear? If the victim's blood has soaked through to them, they might indeed.
  • Can you break into a home by crawling through a doggy door? Yep, if you're petite. But beware: there's going to be a dog inside. And he might not be too happy with you.
  • What are the details about exhuming a body? Every state's process is different, but it's not that easy to get approval, and digging up a casket, then breaking the vault open, is hard work. And then there's the state the body might be in. I'll give you one word: mold. Yuck.
  • If I'm writing about someone who's a douchebag, when I spell out the word, is the bag removed from the douche? Nope. In this context, it's all one word. (And you thought copy editing was boring.)
  • How many synonyms are there for male genitalia, and why does the word johnson make some women laugh so much? This one, I'm leaving up to you to find out. Ask your friends. Make a party of it.
  • How does the pat down work during arrest of a nudist? This one ... well, you'll have to read "Murder a la Mode" to find out. It's too good to give away.
  • And, finally, how does a groundhog react when cornered? This question is answered above, but if you want to see the resulting story, which puts all the fun facts to good use, head over to my website: http://www.barbgoffman.com/The_Shadow_Knows.html
But don't stop there. All the other nominated stories are available online, too, through these links: http://www.bouchercon.info/nominees.html (for the Anthony finalists) and http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2015/06/read-all-macavity-short-story.html (for the Macavity finalists). You should check them all out, especially if you're going to vote. They're all good reading--no question about it.

So, authors, what's the most interesting question you've researched while writing? And readers, what's the most interesting tidbit you've learned from fiction? Please share your fun facts. I really want to know.

05 October 2015

Good Books and Old Movies

by Susan Rogers Cooper

I've been honored over the past few years to be asked to teach classes at Austin's Lifetime Learning Institute. This is a wonderful organization for people 55+ to take classes in just about anything and for a very nominal fee. I've taught classes on writing the mystery a couple of times, which is always fun – especially when I'm able to dazzle my students with guest speakers like Jan Grape and Joan Hess.

This semester I'm teaching a class called: “The Mystery: From Novel to Film.” We read the book, we watch the movie. And we compare and contrast. Our first book was John Buchan's “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” and, of course, we watched the Hitchcock movie version. There were a lot of differences, the main being that in the book there were no women – in the movie there were plenty. I preferred the movie myself. As did a lot of the class.

Our second movie was the William Powell and Myrna Loy version of Dashiel Hammett's “The Thin Man.” After rereading the book, I noted that the alcohol consumption was even higher in the book than in the movie, and those people could drink!

Tomorrow we watch the 1974 version of Dame Agatha's “Murder on the Orient Express,” with Albert Finney as Hercule. I'm rereading the book now and have come full circle in my appreciation of Christie's talent. She was amazing. Even knowing the ending, I'm still fascinated with how she got there.

It's going to take two classes to watch all of that very long movie, but the next, and last, movie will star two of my favorite actors in the film version of a book by one of my favorite writers: the Bogart and Bacall version of Raymond Chandler's “The Big Sleep.”

Teaching this class has given me a chance to reread some classic mysteries and re-watch some wonderful old movies. I'm already thinking about next semester and what new treasures I can share.

Any suggestions?

04 October 2015


by Leigh Lundin

The Prisoner
For a writer who doesn’t own a television, I’ve been watching a lot lately. Friends Steve and Sharon offered their home as an autumn retreat in exchange for house-sitting. And recently I was granted nearly unlimited access to television archives from the past decade, including difficult-to-find productions such as the 2009 update of The Prisoner.

Watching an entire miniseries or season at once offers advantages.
  • Without having to wait a week between episodes and potentially forget clues that occurred in the interim, the viewer gets the full, undiluted impact of the program.
  • Ads become a non-issue. Even with current, prime-time shows, I record episodes and watch them an hour or two later when I can skip ads.
  • Networks have a nasty habit of cancelling series, especially science fiction, but crime-related programs as well. Far too often, these series start with an over-arching plot that that never gets resolved. Occasionally long-running programs sour. By having entire seasons on tap, the viewer can decide whether they wish to vest time in watching many hours of television programming that may go nowhere.
The disadvantage is that such a viewer chatting with the water cooler set might not be au fait with the latest episode. Not just bubbly conversers, of course, because conversations continue on-line in blogs and Facebook. In this case, TV becomes a shared activity, a social glue that becomes part of our societal fabric.

It’s a choice of course, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the impact of Longmire for an hour or two, night after night for the duration.


My most serious complaint about television is what I call soap opera… well, to use the British spelling, soap opera shite. SOS is a catchall for the tacky interpersonal dramas inserted by hapless writers to pad out 47 minutes amid a dearth of ideas. While couched as characterization, SOS is a poor parody of characterization through a Bizarro ray, a devolution of unlasting relationships into superficiality, a script device that muddies everything it touches.

Perry Mason
Among the worst offenders have been legal dramas– LA Law, The Practice, Boston Legal, The Good Wife, etc. But also consider the grand exception, the 1957 original Perry Mason series, purist plots in black and white. If the show was re-imagined today, Paul Drake would be shedding his briefs with Della Street who is having an affair with the wife of a hitman hired by Hamilton Burger who’s the father of Perry and Paul’s love child secretly married to Lieutenant Traff, sleeping with Judge Barlow’s court reporter who’s a secret CIA operative…

To be sure, some programs are deliberately set up to explore relationships between characters, the Sherlock series offering one example and Twin Peaks another. But, as we learned, Twin Peaks followed spiraling devolution as show runners encouraged mattress mix-and-match, pajama plug-and-play. SOS relationships have less structural integrity than a politician’s promise. In another hallmark, when writers can think of nothing else, one character will be found to work for the CIA (or NSA or MI-5).

Murder One
The Minimal Maxim
The axiom regarding television dramas is that creativity decreases as the number of episodes in a series increases and, as a corollary, increases the likelihood of SOS.
Over time, most television dramas descend into SOS, but a few manage to avoid the pitfalls such as the 1993 Murder One and the recent Murder in the First. True Detective also evaded the trap by devoting each season to one story but took matters a step further by completely revising season two with a new cast, plot, location, and theme music. Only its title remained the same.

Promising Premises

The premises of Blindspot and Quantico are auspicious although both show early signs of SOS peril. Viewers can hope for the best, but I want to touch upon another program.

The Player
The Player could turn out to be very, very good or really, really bad. It’s a combination of the once brilliant Person of Interest and… remember Admiral Poindexter’s Policy Analysis Market? For that alone, I’d give it a shot while wondering if something like that may secretly be happening. The Player's Vegas-based on-line casino gives high-rollers the opportunity to bet on the outcome of terrorism and police action, on life and death itself.

While I find the setup intriguing, the program needs to rapidly build characterization, something beyond fast cars and slow-mo fights. While star Philip Winchester has fully deployed all his first semester drama class skills, Wesley Snipes is its most interesting character. Well played, Mr. Snipes. Critics are betting against it, nearly 2-to-1, and they may be right.

Pure Escape

Escape Plan
I mentioned Person of Interest, which co-starred Jim Caviezel as quiet-spoken John Reese along with unassuming Michael Emerson as Harold Finch. Caviezel appeared as a hard-ass prison warden in a 2013 movie, Escape Plan. I was unaware of it when it made its initial rounds, but I caught it in one of those 3AM BlahTV channel reruns.

Normally, I wouldn’t expect to recommend a film starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger but, while the Escape Plan isn’t genius (50% positive rating), it takes an intelligent stab at plotting. It’s entertaining watching Stallone, who tests security by breaking out of prisons, do his jailbreak thing.

What is your take?

03 October 2015


by John M. Floyd

I've been writing for so long now--21 years--that I no longer have many "first-time" happenings, in this business. But I did finally reach one of my goals recently: I had my first story published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. In the past, editor Janet Hutchings has been kind enough to buy a couple of my "mystery poems," but unlike many of my SleuthSayers colleagues, I had never before been able to sell her a short story. (Not for lack of trying, by the way.)

When I last saw her, Janet told me that one of the things that swayed her this time was that my story (it's called "Dentonville," in the November 2015 issue) was so offbeat. That's probably a good description. After all, one of the lead characters is a woman seven feet tall, with an attitude that's different as well--she's normally kindhearted but can be formidable when the situation requires it, and several situations in this story require it. The other main character is an easygoing accountant with a seven-year-old son and a shady past whose old enemies are being released from prison with revenge on their minds, and for most of the story he's not quite sure who (including the aforementioned giant mystery-woman) is friend or foe. The plot soon becomes complicated, with strange alliances and hidden agendas playing a big part in the outcome.

As for other reasons why "Dentonville" might've been accepted for publication, all I know is that we as authors occasionally run into a story that is just plain fun to write, and this one was. And sometimes I think that kind of enthusiasm comes through to the editor who's making the buy-or-don't-buy decision. Whatever the case, I'm thankful that this one made the cut.

Also, I received my author's copies a couple weeks ago, and I found--no surprise, here--that the other stories featured in the November issue are excellent. One of my favorites is "The Lake Tenant," by Brendan DuBois, a mystery that's told with almost no dialogue but paints an unforgettable picture of small-town New Hampshire. It also contains a lot of humor and some delicious twists and turns. Another favorite is "Ninth Caller," by Philip Lowery, from EQMM's Department of First Stories. It's a delightful account of a couple of women who decide to swindle a radio-station call-in program.

In the magazine's lead story, a group of ladies are again up to no good: veteran author Carolyn Hart spins a devious tale of murder between girlfriends in "What Goes Around." Later, in Katia Lief's "The Orchid Grower," a suburban housewife takes us on a fast-moving adventure in survival, and Brazilian author Raphael Montes's "Black Widow" introduces us--in a yarn told almost entirely in dialogue--to a suspicious but remarkable woman who has watched several husbands die after only a year or two of marriage with each. I won't spoil things by giving you a body count on any of these stories, but I will say there's plenty of misbehavior going on, and much of it by the fairer sex.

There are also stories about murder among the Florida elite ("A Killing at the Beausoleil" by my friend Terrie Moran), the ins and outs of professional women's wrestling ("The Female of the Species" by Chris Muessig and Steve Seder), and a serial killer with a Jack-the-Ripper-style M.O. ("Like Jack" by Peter Turnbull). On the lighter side, Golden Derringer Award winner James Powell gives us a story called "Guy Talk" about a private detective who just happens to be a hummingbird.

The quality of these other authors' stories in the November issue makes me even more proud to be featured among them.

Thanks, Janet, for allowing me into the party.

02 October 2015

Breaking Out Of Solitary

By Art Taylor

My first official post as a SleuthSayers contributor—my first big deadline here!—arrives at a busy confluence of events. The Fall for the Book festival, which I've helped run for more than 12 years at George Mason University, is still underway as this post appears (and battening down, scrambling to reorganize as a hurricane looms), and next week, Bouchercon begins down in Raleigh, and just a couple of weeks back, my first book came out (with all the busyness that entails), and on the same day as the launch party, I was a speaker at the Fairfax County Public Library's Book Club Conference and....

Well, the point of all this isn't that it's a busy time, but rather that I wanted to set up a focus on one of the elements that threads through all these various events.

My role at the library's Book Club Conference was to talk about how to moderate a book group—tips and tactics to help keep discussion going, keep the focus on the book (instead of the wine!), and keep everyone involved and engaged. Before I got into specific recommendations, however, I asked people what they wanted from a book club in the first place.

I already had my PowerPoint prepared—the next slide ready to provide my answer to the question—so I hoped that the comments from the attendees would jibe with my own thoughts and expectations, and it turned out they did. "I want to learn something." "I want to read a book I might otherwise not have picked up." "I want to see what other people thought about what we read." "I like getting together with friends." "I wanted to meet new people." Or even as simple as: "I wanted to do something different, and I learned that I liked it."

Here's the PowerPoint slide that I put up at the end of that part of the conversation:

And it's those bolded words at the bottom of the slide I want to talk about now—and not just in terms of reading, but also writing, another solitary act.

In certain circumstances, reading isn't a solitary act, of course. We can attend a reading; my wife and I can read to our son; and in fact, I read to my wife pretty regularly as part of our evening routine, as I talked about in a recent column for the Washington Independent Review of Books. But most of the time, reading is one person engaging with one book at their own individual pace.

Similar, writing can be a collaborative process, of course, but that image of the writer alone with her pen or alone in front of the computer is a persistent one for a reason. We engage with the page—trying to capture in words those characters and stories our imagination has conjured up.

The connection, then, becomes this: solitary writer --> piece of writing --> solitary reader. And in the process, there's also this connection implicit in that one: solitary writer --> solitary reader.

A book club provide the opportunity to expand that solitary reading experience into a shared one. What did you take from the book? What were your attitudes about this character? What did you think of the author's decision to....? And in the process, what emerges is: What did we think of....? —not a decision that will reach unanimity, but a conversation that serves to be bigger than the sum of its parts.

During all my years with Fall for the Book, there have been two types of moments that have struck me as central to our mission—and neither depends exclusively on the actual programming we've hosted year after year. Those readings and panel discussions are part of the larger engagement, of course: hearing authors read from or speak about their works. But what strikes me as more important is when a reader comes in holding a well-loved copy of a book and meets and asks a question of the person who wrote it—making manifest somehow the connection that already exists by virtue of those two solitary experiences I mentioned above, with the book as the connecting point. The other moment is when that reader turns to another person holding another well-loved copy of the same book and says something like, "Didn't you love it when....?"

A book club or a book festival serve to turn the solitary experience of reading into a communal experience, hopefully enriching connections and perspectives and understanding.

And for an event like Bouchercon ahead, opportunities exist not just to connect readers and writers but also to connect people within the community of writer. Networking is inevitably an important aspect of conferences. (How many people will be meeting with their agent or editor next week? How many will be looking for a new agent or courting an editor? How many might ask a writer friend to suggest an agent?) But beyond those more goal-oriented aspects, there's something more important that's gained by being not so alone—by meeting and greeting and sharing anecdotes with others who have elsewhere been toiling alone over those notebooks or in front of that screen, making physical and concrete those connections and that camaraderie that already exist in myriad ways.

I enjoyed your book. I admire your work so much. What you do—it matters, it meant something to me.

I just wanted to say that.

01 October 2015

Secondary Characters, Primary Purpose, Part Two

by Brian Thornton

(Part One of this subject can be found here.)

 Two weeks ago I began to delve into the importance of secondary characters, wherein I summed up with a series of questions and concluded with a promise:

I have been thinking of this sort of thing quite a bit lately, as I toil on my current Work-In-Progress. How do I make my secondary characters more organic? More believable? Less stock? How do I ensure that everyone who appears in my work serves a vital purpose, and isn't just some guy putting watermelons in a crate, or one of a couple of guys carrying a plate glass window back and forth across a street?

I have some answers, and I'll share them next week. If you've got ideas, drop them in the comment section, and I'll share them with the rest of the class in my next blog post in two short weeks.

The calendar confirms that it's a full two weeks later, and I'm gonna take its word for that, because it's September, and during this month, my day gig (teacher) keeps me hopping like Frogger crossing a highway, and I tend to be somewhat organizationally challenged.

That tiny, frantic flash of green you see in the screen capture above? Me in September.

And on that note, let's delve into secondary characters, what they are. what they aren't, and how you can use them to make your work better.

At best, a secondary character is a thumbnail. At worst, an iceberg.

Yup, this guy again.
Let's be clear what I'm talking about when I say "secondary characters." I am referring neither to what the theatre and film industries refer to as "supporting leads," nor to the sorts of stock characters who get a "walk-on" in your book, with maybe a line or two before making their exit, stage right.

I mean the ones who have enough screen time to be impactful, without being either protagonist, antagonist, or some sort of secondary lead. This can literally be a cast of thousands. It's easy to get lost in this sea of faces.

So how to make full, effective use of them?

My friend and colleague David Corbett says (I am paraphrasing here, not quoting, so forgive the inexact nature of the statement) that it's a mistake to think of the secondary characters in your novel (or the primary ones, for that matter) as existing independent of the work.

That makes so much sense to me that it effectively trumps all counterarguments save one: Noted critic and literary snob Harold Bloom has famously remarked that the character of Prince Hamlet in Shakespeare's play of the same name is so large, so fleshed out and so impactful, that he literally transcends the play (especially when Nicol Williamson, arguably the greatest film Hamlet EVER, plays him).

Greatest. Hamlet. Ever. And he wasn't half bad as Merlin a decade later in John Boorman's Excalibur.
Bloom is right.

Literary Sage/Crank Harold Bloom
But the melancholy Dane is the exception. And there's certainly never been a secondary character who so transcended the work of art that framed him.

For the rest of us (and this is especially true of secondary characters), they're one with their setting, appear when where and how they appear in order to suit the dictates of the author's plot/action. They do what they do not because it's in their best interests to do so, or because they're addicted to the actions in question. They don't do them because they love gay marriage or hate the color yellow.

They do the things they do in service to the story.




I realize there is a large and accomplished corner of the greater writing universe who embrace the notion of their characters having lives of their own, and doing things like whispering in the ears of the authors who created them. I've heard them speak at personal appearances and at conferences. I understand where they're coming from.

It does nothing to change the simple, immutable fact that characters do not exist outside of story.

That realization can be freeing. I know it certainly was for me once I came to it. When I heard Corbett say it out loud, he was only confirming for me what I had already worked out for myself.

And I repeat for emphasis: It was so freeing!

Now, before you start saying, "Wait a minute, what about believability? Continuity? What about making it realistic?

The maxim of service of the story takes care of all of that.

This is especially true for secondary characters.

Uberagent and successful writing guru Donald Maas has a thing he does where he has workshop denizens write down a series of observations about their characters: "What is your character's favorite color? Now write down a secret they've kept all their lives. What was the first job they ever had?" And so on.

As an exercise in fleshing out characters it is pretty effective.

And if you do it with secondary characters you'll waste time and drive yourself half out of your own skull.

That begs the question: how do we as writers give our secondary characters life without investing the sort of time/effort we do in our more fully fleshed out characters?

The answer in two weeks, when I wrap up this topic with "Secondary Characters, Primary Purpose, Part Two"!

Until then....