Being the latest entry in a fitfully irregular series, in which yours truly reclines on a hammock by the pool with a jeroboam of Elf-Wonking Juice™ and lets a proper writer talk about the origins of his or her characters and stories. This week: Russel D. McLean, author of THE GOOD SON.
“It’s fair to say that J McNee is not the man I thought he was when I started writing my debut novel, THE GOOD SON.
“The protagonist of THE GOOD SON – a Scots private eye who lost his fiancé in a car crash years earlier, who’s learning how to live in the world once again – was created in a moment of anger. He quite literally rose from the ashes of another character.
“THE GOOD SON had been written for another protagonist. The character was a fellow PI. His name was Sam Bryson. He’d been successful in a series of short stories* I’d written for various markets including Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. He was a man with issues, but he was kept stable by a supporting cast that filled in the roles of a family surrounding this “lone wolf” hero.
“My then-editor wrote to me with a suggestion, “Could we get rid of the supporting cast? There’s too much backstory. The readers won’t know all the history.”
“To put it mildly, this suggestion irritated me. But it was apparently a deal-breaker. So I went with it in the only way I could. I retired Bryson. Replaced him with an initially nameless narrator. The narrator was nameless not only in an homage to Bill Pronzini’s wonderful Nameless series (which I count among my PI Inspirations) but also in a deliberate jab at the suggestion. They wanted me to give us a character whose backstory was “simple”, I figured the best way to do that was to give him none. To make sure we knew nothing of him off the case.
“But of course, the world has a funny way of working out.
“Because the more I wrote about this nameless protagonist, the more he began to slip in hints of something about his life. Sure, he had no real friends or family, but there was a hint that this was something of his own choosing. And suddenly, he was ignoring messages from a woman named “Rachel” who was telling him that “they needed to talk.”
“But it wasn’t what I thought. Not by a long shot.
“I allowed myself to loosen up the restrictions, to let this character come into his own. Snippets of dialogue grew into scenes and memories that seemed to make sense of the character’s isolation and barely restrained rage. They gave him a motivation and purpose. The more I took out lines of dialogue that sounded like Sam Bryson, the more I found the new dialogue shaping the attitudes and backstory of this new protagonist.
“And somewhere along the line, he gained a name.
“No first name. He’s stated on several occasions he doesn’t like anyone to use it. Even his fiancée, he claimed, called him McNee.
“His fiancée, who I soon discovered was not the woman he was avoiding. The mysterious Rachel was his fiancée’s sister. And she wanted to talk to McNee about something that happened before the book opened. Something that gave me the final hook I needed, the final piece of the puzzle that completed McNee as a character for me. That explained the rage I found in his words, the reasons he tried to withdraw from the world.
“Once I understood him, I was better able to fit him into the book I had written for another character. The novel shaped itself around him, became a means of exploring his character, of helping him to deal with that incident that occurred a few short months before the novel’s opening. The book became even more about him than it had been about Bryson. And, strangely, much stronger for it.
“McNee began as a strike back at a suggestion I disliked. He evolved beyond that. Became his own person. A unique character. Donna Moore, the author of the incredible OLD DOGS, once said of McNee on her blog that “you don’t know whether to hug him or punch him.”
“Which means I succeeded, I think, in creating a very human character.” - Russel D. McLean
Russel D. McLean’s THE GOOD SON has just been released in a UK Kindle edition. It is still available in UK paperback edition from Five Leaves Publications.
*which are soon to be collected in an e-edition of their very own
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.