Monday, February 4, 2008

Sexy Samuel

An old friend who was reading The Accident Man and told me she thought Carver was sexy. She’d barely got to page 40 and she’d already decided she fancied him.

‘How did you do that?’ she asked.

To which I could only answer, ‘I haven’t the faintest idea.’

So far as I was, and am concerned, one of the key aspects of Samuel Carver’s character is that however competent and confident he is when he’s doing his job, he’s clueless when it comes to his emotional entanglements with the female sex. I deliberately did not want to create some smoothie-chops spy with a gun in one hand and a pretty girl’s ass in the other. For one thing he’s been done – ‘The name’s Bond …’ etc – and for another, that sort of character bears no resemblance whatever to the way most actual men really are. Certainly the way I am, anyway.

I’ve always loved women’s company, but I wouldn’t have the first clue how to act sexy. I certainly don’t think I could specifically set out to write sexy. And yet, here was this character who came out of my head and somehow was sexy.

To be honest, it was pretty frustrating. What did Carver know that I didn’t? And how could he know more than me, anyway?

In the past, I’ve interviewed authors who told me that their characters wrote themselves, or started taking control of the story, demanding that events unfold in a certain way. I always thought that was pretentious claptrap, the writers equivalent to all the luvvie nonsense actors come up with to explain and justify a profession that basically consists of the two words, ‘Let’s pretend.’ But now I’m beginning to get it.

For example, there were a couple of characters in the book that I had always intended to kill, but who insisted on staying alive. When I tried to write death-scenes, they just didn’t work. Those characters wrote their story, no matter what I had planned.

In the case of Samuel Carver, his character developed as a series of intellectual and intuitive responses to a particular problem.

When I first thought about writing a thriller based on the death of Princess Diana, I’d initially conceived the hero as a Robert Ludlum-style character, an innocent outsider who unintentionally finds himself getting drawn into a knowledge of a massive conspiracy. But then it struck me that it would be infinitely more powerful if the protagonist was the killer who’d actually carried out the murder. I had an image in my head of a man, standing at the end of the Alma Tunnel, plunged into a terrible predicament.

Of course, that posed an immediate problem. The assassination – if it happened – was a heinous, unforgivable act. But I wanted my protagonist to be a good guy, someone readers would root for and stay with for the rest of the book. Even worse, the Mercedes had to crash pretty close to the start of the book. So there wasn’t going to be much space – less than 10,000 words – in which to set up the plot, the central character and the suggestion of a hidden conspiracy.

Okay, who was this man? Well, he had to be a professional killer, probably with some kind of military training and experience, but he couldn’t come over as a psychopath. He had to have moral awareness. He’d justify his actions to himself as being necessary evils, carried out for a greater good. But for all his justifications, he could not possibly kill human beings without being affected, poisoned by his work.

I made him a freelance because even if I’ve never been a soldier, let alone killed anyone, I do at least understand a freelance mentality. I know what it’s like to get to a point where you can’t face doing another job, but you’re even less willing to let someone else do it. I’m used to getting commissions coming in over the phone, bosses barking out orders, wanting the job done yesterday. I know how you say, ‘Yes,’ when you know deep down that you shouldn’t.

Carver is classless, rootless, but well-educated. He has some of the patina that comes from private schooling without any of the sense of entitlement that oozes from the pores of men for whom privilege is taken as a birthright. He has no real family and the years at boarding-school have only deepened the emotional detachment that both enables him to do his work, yet is the central flaw in his character.

Again, that’s semi-autobiographical. Carver’s first day at boarding-school is my first day. It didn’t do me much good either.

From there, I just let Carver do what felt true. Some writers have detailed bibles for their characters, setting out their back-story, their appearance, their personal foibles, the ways they react in given situations. I prefer to feel my way through the story. Once I’ve set up the basic parameters, I really don’t analyse or rationalise my characters’ behaviour at all.

Carver, of course, is coming back in a new book, which I’m just about to start writing, as will several of the Accident Man’s other characters. It will be strange working with characters whom readers will know, whom they may, in fact, know better than I do myself.

Once again, I’ll proceed pretty much by instinct. I guess Carver will be pretty battered by his experiences. He’ll certainly have to call on every ounce of his professional ability to confront the challenge I’m planning on setting him.

But will he still be sexy?

Well, how on earth would I know?

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