Friday, December 11, 2009

Passing The Torch

By Russel D McLean

In 2004, my first professionally published short story appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. It’s a story that still makes me proud. One scene in particular, set in a nightclub (loosely based on the downstairs at the Student’s Union) still feels very real to me when I look back over it.

It was the beginning of what could be loosely termed a “series” of short stories centred around Private Investigator Sam Bryson. Sam was a man with his own morals that set him apart from the police force on which he had once served. He left in circumstances that were never fully explained and still had a contact on the force in the form of Sandy Griggs, a copper with a strange past whose own experience with domestic abuse as a child made him very hard on a particular type of criminal. Sam’s centre in life was his girlfriend, Ros, a philosophy lecturer at the university who hailed from the US. Ros covered two bases as a character – one, she maintained Bryson’s moral centre and, two, she explained why he had a more American idiom to the way he spoke than most other characters. This was my insurance since at the time I was reading so much US crime fic that the slang and speech patterns had started to bleed over into my own writing.

Somewhere around 2006 I got my first agent.

I said I wanted to write a novel with Sam at the centre.

They said: “Give us someone new. Not someone with all this backstory.”

If I’m honest, this response irritated me. I didn’t see why they wanted me to drop this character who many readers had received well. I liked him. I liked him a lot.

So what was my response?

You want a character who has to build his life, I’ll give you him.

So I stripped Sam of his name. And all his support network. Took away everything he had earned and looked at what was left.

He became McNee*. A man with no first name. So I took that away from him. I took away his support in the force, making him an outcast (by choice, you could say) and then I took away his support in the real world by killing off the love of his life.

What emerged came from the same basic archetype as Bryson but was darker, harder and I think more believable. His reasons for leaving the force suddenly became concrete. His antipathy towards his former colleagues was understandable given the new circumstances in which this archetype found himself.

And then my agent and I parted company.

I didn’t know what to do. But I had this character and this manuscript. And I liked them. If I was honest, I had grown to love McNee more than I had Bryson because McNee’s pain felt more honest and real to me than Bryson’s ever had.

But still the idea of Bryson lingered at the back of my mind. I was still writing short stories about him, and figured that I had to pass the torch somehow. I did this as indirectly as possible, with McNee having “blink and you’ll miss it” cameo in one of the last Bryson stories published, and a few hints about “the other guy” who used to work out of McNee’s offices in the first few chapters of THE GOOD SON.

I admit I’ve always wanted to explore more in-depth what happened to Bryson, what soured him on the PI gig, made him leave. I always had an end point in mind, after all. I always do. After all, regular readers of this blog will know how I feel about series.

And maybe one day I will tell that story. But until then, despite my initial misgivings I’m glad to have got to know McNee over the course of what is now two novels. In my mind, he is the more realistic of the pair, the more believable, and probably the more noir as well. There is something about him that is, I think, genuinely human.

But, of course, my American friends – many of whom will already know Sam Bryson, especially if they subscribe to the wondrous Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine – now have the chance to judge the new boy as THE GOOD SON hits their shores this week. He’s already had Sam’s approval. I hope he’ll have yours.

*For the first draft, his name was McRae until I realised that fellow Scot and bearded God Stuart MacBride had already taken this name for his protagonist.


Steve Weddle said...

Some fantastic behind-the-scenes info about how a character is created, or re-created. Thanks

Looks like I have some short stories to track down.

Mike Dennis said...

Excellent story of the genesis of a character, Russel. Not only how he was created, but why, and the emotion that went into it.

I'd be willing to bet there are other such character-creating stories out there.