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Writing, Making Your Characters Real

Updated on September 30, 2017
Kenna McHugh profile image

Kenna worked on many productions as PA, Craft Services, Talent Scout, Grip, and Producer. Credits include Bowling for Columbine, Wallace.

Garber's Interview Continues

Joseph was telling me...

At the end of Harlot's Ghost Norman Mailer wrote an essay that impressed me greatly. He observed that as he was writing the book, he'd frequently think about what fun he had back in the good old days when he was a CIA agent - then he'd bring himself up short: hey, I NEVER was in the CIA! It was as if, he said, his characters had been living in his mind, waiting for a chance to come out and tell stories of which he himself was unaware.

I myself have the same experience.

The single most frustrating experience of my life was trying to write In A Perfect State to an outline. I tore the damned thing up a quarter of the way through the book. Never again!

Q. That's a great story about Miller. Thanks for sharing. How did you come up with the story VERTICAL RUN?

A. During the late 1970s, on a more or less a monthly basis, the NYPD bomb squad would order our building evacuated because of IRA threats (and once or twice actions). While walking down 35 flights of stairs with about 5,000 other grumpy white collar workers, I thought to myself: "My goodness, wouldn't Alfred Hitchcock make much of this spectacle!" I imagined a Hitchcock hero fleeing the building; I imagined gunmen waiting at the foot of the stairs; I imagined gunmen in the crowd behind him. The whole novel sprung from walking down those stairs, and from wondering why those gunmen would want to make an ordinary corporate drone dead, dead, dead.


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Characters Take Over the Story

Q. In VERTICAL RUN, your protagonist, Dave, overcomes obstacles after obstacles after obstacles. How do the obstacles help you develop the character to the plot?

A. When confronted with almost any obstacle, Dave's initial temptation is to blow the evil bastards away. As a former MACV-SOG hard case, he certainly has the skills to do so. However, long ago and far away, he vowed that he would war no more. Thus every obstacle forces him to face the sort of man he once was, and to fight to remain the sort of man he's sworn to be. For me, that interior fight is the heart of the novel's character development. Moreover, despite the fact that the book is widely referred to as an "action thriller," there really is quite little exterior action in it - a brief initial shootout; two episodes in the stairwell; a bit of stalking; and the final, climactic/cathartic battle. The bulk of the tension and REAL action all goes on inside Dave's head. That's where the character and the plot interact - nowhere else.

The Mountain Between Us Charlies Martin as Author of Novel

Q. After you have finished a novel do you look back at the story and realize that some of your characters made choices that were not predicted by you?

A. Absolutely. I often have no idea what's coming next. For example, in Vertical Run at a very tense moment, Dave fires off an insult at the bad guy: "Up your poop with an ice cream scoop." I don't know where that came from, had no idea it was on its way and roared with laughter at the absolute incongruity of it. The line had no place in the whipcrack dialog between good guy and bad guy, but there it was, and by god it worked, even though I cannot begin to imagine how it arrived. This sort of thing happens to me all the time.

Developing a Character


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