Sunday, January 17, 2010

Don’t Read This If You Are Offended By The Word Crazy

by Mike Knowles

A while back, I wrote about the Stark Equation. If you missed it, in a nutshell, I wrote that I noticed that each installment in the Parker series by Richard Stark follows a pretty standard equation. The other day I noticed something about a lot of contemporary crime fiction novels. Many books contain a crazy best friend.

The standard crime fiction protagonist is usually a man with a strict code of morals. The morals may differ from character to character, but most are alike in that the character has some personal idea of right and wrong that they base all of their actions on. Crime fiction protagonists are as rigid to their personal code as samurai. But many protagonists, despite having strong feelings about right and wrong, have a close relationship with an absolute psycho. Someone who, by all rights, should offend their code and who should be considered an enemy.

Off the top of my head in no particular order, I present a list of men and their chemically imbalanced friends.

1. Spenser and Hawk

2. Elvis Cole and Joe Pike

3. Patrick Kenzie and Bubba Rogowski

4. Ray Dudgeon and Gravedigger Peace

5. Leonid McGill and Hush

6. Easy Rawlins and Mouse

7. Burke and Wesley

The presence of a nutjob friend in many of my favorite books was something I thought was interesting and as I sat in bed last night thinking about it, it suddenly occurred to me that I did it too. In my books, there is a main character with his own code that he follows and he is friends with a man who is, at the best of times, barely containing his explosive rage. Steve Sullivan in both Darwin’s Nightmare and Grinder is like a lid on top of a pot of boiling water. The lid makes you nervous when you watch it hop around and you know that left untouched the steam will build up and cause the pot to boil over.

I didn’t consciously put a character like that into my book. I didn’t say to myself, you want to write a crime book well then you need to get yourself a nut sidekick. But as I sit back and look at myself as another person who used a similar archetype in his writing, I wonder why. What is the appeal of this type of character?

In many cases, this type of character is a tool. The crazy friend is brought out to provide backup or to connect the hero with a part of the underworld that he would never be a part of. Most stories involve a main character going up against a powerful, evil enemy who outnumbers the hero in bodies and resources. The crazy best friend is usually a way to even the odds and allow the main character to gain an advantage over his foe.

Perhaps, they crazy friend is a foil. Someone who makes another seem better by contrast. The main character seems more noble, more human, when compared to their friend. Those of you with wives know what this is about. How many times have you gone out with your idiot friends and come home looking like a great catch?

The crazy friend could be the yang to the hero's yin. Take Spenser and Hawk for example. Spenser is almost completely good, Hawk is almost completely bad (or at least he once was when he was cool). I use the word almost. Both characters have enough of the other in them to create a balance when they are paired. The balance is what makes the books so good. Most of the weaker Spenser books are those in which Hawk is absent. Spenser never feels quite right without his other half. Suddenly he is less interesting and too much of a goody goody. In the better books, the one’s with Hawk, Spenser’s nobility seems to shine when there is a lack of it so close.

The nut buddy could also serve as a reminder of what could have been for the main character. Most of the protagonists and their friends are close because they have grown up together or have shared extreme experiences. The main character could have gone the other way and become the crazy friend, but their strength of character kept them on the right path. The presence of the friend is a constant reminder of the strength and loyalty of the main character.

But it has to go deeper than that. Why do so many use a similar type of character in their writing?

The idea that an unbalanced character attached to a protagonist serves a function implies that there was a conscious decision to include a character like that. In my case, there was no preplanning. The character came on the fly and stuck around because he earned his keep and made me like him. So why would a writer devise such a character? If the book is looked upon as a reflection of the writer’s consciousness there is a possible answer.

Every character I write has me in it. Good or bad, man or woman, black or white part of me is there. I am sure of this because every time I am typing my first handwritten draft of a novel I find myself typing without looking at the page. I suddenly think I have an idea about the perfect way a character will respond. I will type in the response and then look at the page to find I already wrote it. This happens a-lot. I mean a-lot. It’s not memory. This is tens of thousands of words, months after I wrote them, and I keep rewriting the same thing. This is because the characters are part of me and I know how I would respond.

So if we look at a book as a reflection of the author’s consciousness the rational mind is usually represented in the protagonist. The rationality is expressed in whatever code a character possesses. The code is structure and reason even if it is extreme and outside the societal norm.

If the rational mind exists on the page then the irrational should automatically also exist. The antagonists display the types of wrong behavior our consciences protect us from acting on. Personally, whenever I have a truly heinous thought there is a small bit of shock and shame that follows. I would imagine that these types of emotions are the way certain types of behaviors are controlled and curtailed. On the page however, these feelings and emotions are not beaten back they are instead given life in the bad guy.

But, there are other bad thoughts that my conscience holds me back from acting on. These types of wrong ideas are not accompanied by feelings of shock, shame, or remorse. For example, the urge to do harm to someone who hurts their child. My thoughts run wild with ideas on how to solve the idea of child abuse myself, but I do not act on these thoughts. I do not act on the thoughts because I find the idea of them shameful or wrong - it is because they are not rational. I know better. These types of thoughts, I think, are the root of the crazy friend. They are not felt to be wrong feelings, so they are not the seeds for the antagonist. But the feelings are not also right because they are not rational, so they are not the seeds of the protagonist either. The homeless thoughts feel closer to right than wrong so they end up in a character close to the hero, but not part of the hero. They become the crazy best friend.

Turns out in fiction, friendship is complicated.


Jay Stringer said...

My favourite of these relationships would be in the Scudder books. I find it funny that, as the plots got more muddied and convoluted as the series progressed, so the supporting cast got better.

Mick Ballou is one of hell's kitchens most notorious gansgters, knee deep in blood, yet he and Scudder come to form a strange kinship. Sitting through the night trading stories in the locked up pub, that aspect of the books became far more important than the plots.

JD Rhoades said...

I've always called this character the "Psycho buddy". He's there to do the dirty work, the morally questionable killing and maiming and bullying of weaker bad guys (i.e. henchmen)that the reader might not put up with in the hero. As you've intimated, he also knows where to get guns and explosives.

John McFetridge said...

Good post.

The main character could have gone the other way and become the crazy friend, but their strength of character kept them on the right path.

Strength of character or slightly more belief in the system, the rule of law, the social contracts?

But, there are other bad thoughts that my conscience holds me back from acting on.

This is interesting, especially when the main character and the "crazy friend" share a lot of life experience and background.

With so much of crime fiction taking place on the fringes, this is what I really like to read about - where lines get drawn and sometimes even why they get drawn where they do.

I find it intersting how we draw lione between doing something ouseves and finding it acceptable for others to do it. We must know doing it has some bad effects, but we want it done. How do we draw the line? It's okay to be friends with the crazy guy who does the extra-bad things.

It's like people who are opposed to torture but think it would be perfectly okay to dump child molestors in gen pop and let other criminals torture or kill them.

How far removed do we have to be to be insulated?

This is why I love crime fiction.


I recently read some plotting advice and it insisted that each book needs an "unpredictable" character.

It seems to me that your crazy buddies are this unpredictable chararcter.

When a lead character adheres firmly to his moral code, a certain element of suspense is lost because the reader always knows how he's going to react.

Throw in that crazy, unpredictable character, however, and your tension skyrockets.

Good post with a lot of insightful character assessments.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I'd like to see someone pull off the reverse. An unbalanced protagonish who has a friend who grounds him. Or perhaps Dr. Watson did that for Sherlock.

John McFetridge said...

That was also sort of the original idea for Monk wasn't it, Patti? The OCD detective and the sidekick.

And I still haven't read Motherless Brooklyn but there might be something in there.