Billy Craig on Characters

January 25, 2010

Please welcome Billy Craig, my guest blogger for today. Bill has a gift for character creation as well as in depth prose. Today he discusses characters.

Characters: Making them real


Bill Craig

When any author sits down to write a book, there is one thing he needs before he can even get started. That is a character. At least that is where I start. I create the character and then build the cast around them and then pretty soon they are creating the story. In my very first novel back in 2000, I created the character of Jack Riley. Riley was a Chicago Police Detective Sergeant with a shadowy past that included time working for the Central Intelligence Agency in Central and South America. He was divorced and had three grown children that his ex-wife had done a good job of convincing that he was the Devil Incarnate.

Now, what kind of character did I need to compliment Riley and give him someone to play off of. Next came Ken Alston, a former Navy SEAL turned cop and Riley’s partner on the CPD. Alston was a divorced father raising two young girls. Next we needed a love interest for Riley and Moria Clark was born. Moria was an investigative reporter for the Chicago Sun and Riley’s off and on girl friend. Next came the hook. Moria’s brother was missing. He was a pilot, working for an oil company doing oil exploration in the Arctic Circle. Moria’s brother makes a discovery in the Arctic and sends her a video tape of what he has found.

The Oil company in the form of its CEO Harlan Esterhaus doesn’t want that tape to get out and sends mercenary killers to retrieve it. Cue the music and start the action and Valley of Death is running like a freight train towards a slam bang finish.

The cast of the Riley books continued to grow, with the introduction of Julie Carr, a cross between Indiana Jones and Lara Croft. Julie made her debut in Mayan Gold and appeared in every book after. The growing ensemble included Riley’s grown son Josiah, a rookie cop on the department, living in his father’s shadow. His older sister Liza also showed up working for the FBI.

Then in the final book of the Riley series, The Mummy’s Tomb, one more character made his debut appearance. Pulp hero Michael “Hardluck” Hannigan made his very first appearance as a former mentor and family friend of archeologist adventurer Julie Carr. Hardluck Hannigan was an interesting character and I liked him so much, it spawned him his own series.

The Fantastic Adventures of Hardluck Hannigan started with Emerald Death and we meet young Mr. Hannigan for the first time as a young man on a tramp steamer as it arrives in the Congo. In The Mummy’s Tomb, Hardluck Hannigan was in his eighties, so this gave me the opportunity to explore the character and the events that forged him into the man he would eventually become. To say the least it was a daunting challenge.  Because it made me have to go back and look at where exactly Mike Hannigan had come from.

Mike Hannigan was born in a small town in Indiana. His father was a war hero in WWI and a member of the elite Fighting Hawks led by Colonel Dane Hawkins. As he got closer to 18 years old, Hannigan ran off to New York looking for adventure. Carrying a .45 that was a gift from his father, Hannigan found work as a strong arm man for one of the Irish Mobs. Not exactly heroic right? But then this series is about the coming of age and the transformation of boy into man into hero. After a run in with the Mafia and the death of a mobster’s son at the hands of his friend, Hannigan finds himself shouldering the blame and is given the option of fleeing the country by his boss. He takes it and takes work as a seaman on the tramp steamer The African Queen heading for Africa.

One thing about working on a series set in the 1930’s and 40’s is that it allows room for certain in-jokes, especially if you happen to be a fan of old movies like me. The African Queen is one such joke, an homage to the Bogart movie. On the voyage to Africa Hannigan has made friends with the ship’s Russian first mate, Gregor Shotsky. Gregor is an interesting character in his own right, a Russian expatriate who fled Russian with the fall of the Czar. Gregor is a man of science, but also a warrior in his own right. His is the voice of reason that more often than not off-sets the younger Hannigan’s brash fly by the seat of your pants way of doing things.

Together the two men find themselves drawn into a quest to recover an enchanted gemstone said to carry the power to grant eternal youth. The catch, they aren’t the only ones after it and it happens to be held by the legendary Priest-King Prester John deep within the dark Jungles of The Congo. Along the way they meet an interesting assortment of characters from river pirates to a sailor named Rhino Hayes, and a Priest working as a missionary that fought along side Hannigan’s father in the Big War. The priest has an adopted daughter that catches the eye of Hardluck Hannigan and hangs his nickname on him because “you have the hardest luck of any man I ever met,” the lovely red-haired Bridget O’Malley tells him. From his introduction to the end of Emerald Death, we can see a transformation in Hardluck Hannigan. From a man on the run, to a man with an appointment with destiny.

In each of the subsequent books, more cast members have arrived, and Hannigan is well on the way to becoming a hero. He is guided by a deep sense of responsibility for his friends and is not especially sure he likes being forced into the role of a leader. The second book The Sky Masters hails the arrival of Abigail Grayson, and heir to the house of Greystoke as Hannigan’s new love interest. This time Hannigan and his friends face off against a flying legion that are using flying saucers recovered by the Nazi’s from a hidden base in the Arctic.

The third adventure finds the intrepid adventurers traveling to the Amazon to search for the legendary adventurer Sir Percy Fawcett who had vanished in the Amazon while searching for a fabled lost city said to be the last Atlantean outpost. It was interesting writing a real character from a fictional pov. Figuring out Fawcett’s personality and mannerisms from books and reports was certainly interesting. The relationship continues to grow between Hannigan and Abigail and it reaches a pretty serious place.

The fourth title in the series reveals a secret that Abigail has been keeping from Hannigan, and it starts to affect their relationship. Gee sounds almost like a real couple doesn’t it? Through words and actions, you can make your characters very real, not only to yourself but to your readers as well. The fifth Hannigan book which will be out this spring, brings Hannigan face to face with his first love Bridget and that causes certain tensions with Abigail. The Curse of the Kill Devil will be a pivotal point in the development of Hardluck Hannigan and will affect his future for a long time to come.

I started my third series because I wanted to try my hand at writing straight mystery without the high adventure stuff getting into the story. To do that, I needed a private eye, one that had a lot of connections. Sam Decker, P.I. was born. Decker is a former DEA agent that “retired” himself when he got fed up with watching the crooks walk away after getting their hands slapped. He took up residence on a small island in the Florida Keys called Scorpion Cay. He has had a off and on romance with Monica Sinclair the Chief of Police on Scorpion Cay.

One of the most interesting characters that I have come up with is Joe Collins. Self-contained, quiet, doesn’t say much unless he has something to say. With Collins you learn more from his actions than his words, but his words are important. Collins is the cop hero of my noir suspense thriller The Butterfly Tattoo. Collins is a man that is driven to do his job. His wife was murdered, possibly by the very serial killer that he is hunting. Is he too close to the case? Or not close enough? Will he be able to handle the truth if he finds out? Or will he totally lose it? All important questions that need to be answered by both the character development and the plot itself. For example, here is how the reader is introduced to Joe Collins.

Joe Collins looked out at the night. Raindrops splashed against the window then flowed down in small rivulets to the ledge, pooling there until the pools grew too large and then flowed over the edge. He picked up the tumbler of whiskey and ice from his desk, sipping it as he watched the rain. Charlie Parker was playing on the stereo, the soft melodies haunting the room and his mood like the ghost of an old friend. Soon he would abandon this refuge to go out into the streets.

Collins studied his reflection in the window. Dark hair, chiseled features that cast sharp dark shadows over his flesh in the room’s half-light. His eyes were cobalt blue, piercing looking, almost black in his reflection. Somewhere, out there on those rain swept streets was a girl in grave danger. Danger she didn’t even know about, but marked nonetheless by a killer with a burning passion.

One thing marked her, just as it had marked his other victims; a butterfly tattoo. The whiskey burned its way to his belly, despite having been poured over ice to cool and dilute its fire. He needed the fire in his belly to warm him, to help focus him on finding ‘The Butterfly Killer’ as the press had taken to calling the newest serial sensation to grip their attention. Four young women from various walks of life, no known connection between them, yet all linked by two things: they were embellished with a butterfly tattoo and brutally murdered.

That introduction sets the tone for the character and lets the reader know that he is a man who will pursue his quarry to the bitter end. It also gives the reader a visual impression of him that they didn’t get from the cover because he doesn’t appear on it. They know instantly that Collins is a cop to be reckoned with. All of my titles are available on Amazon.


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