From time to time someone will take me to task over my characters—usually my protagonists. The usual complaint is over my hero’s “goodness.” The remarks usually center on, “You know, if your main guy had done the right thing in the beginning, he wouldn’t have gotten himself into all that trouble.” And those people are right. My good guys have usually done something to put themselves in the position they find themselves in. It’s somewhat of a personal belief. If you stray from life’s straight and narrow, then life’s probably going to bite you in the ass and keep biting.
I’m happy with this trait of my stories. Squeaky clean characters blazing a trail for all that is good and right don’t excite me. I like fallible people. People who know to put on oven mitts because they’ve gotten burned a couple of times, not because they’ve been told not to touch hot things without them. I guess I identify with these sorts of characters. I’ve committed a few minor infractions in my time and the repercussions have snowballed. I think it’s the gathering pace of the payback that intrigues me and drives my fiction. The fear and panic experienced when a situation goes sideways makes for great stories, if not for real life.
I must admit it has colored the way I look at the world. I’m not a glass half-empty kind of a guy but more a glass half-filled with something corrosive tipping over and spilling everywhere kind of a guy. I have a habit of predicting how a bad situation will get worse. Once you’ve tempted fate, it has its own gravitational pull that is inevitable.
The spark that ignites my storylines is a moment of weakness. The character is presented with a situation that nine times out of ten they’d ignore, but circumstances are skewed this one time. He’s out of a job. She’s just been dumped. These characters are in a weakened state when an opportunity is presented. Instead of blowing it off, they throw caution to the wind and act out of character. Naturally, it doesn’t pan out and it is going to take a whole lot of fixing to set everything right again. Moments of weakness are dangerous currency.
Lowlifes really underscores the idea of someone at their lowest ebb because of their human frailties. The story centers on Larry Hayes, a San Francisco Detective. He thinks his life has already hit rock bottom. He’s lost his family to divorce and he’s clinging to his career by a thread. All this stems from a painkiller addiction he can’t kick that he picked up from an on-the-job injury. But there’s another level for Hayes to fall as he finds out when he wakes up in an alley after a bad trip with no memory of the last four hours. He thinks this is the wakeup call he needs to turn his life around, but his problems intensify when he receives a call from a homicide inspector. Hayes’ informant, a homeless man named Noble Jon, lies dead two blocks away, beaten and stabbed. The eerie pang of guilt seeps into Hayes. During his lost four hours, he’s been in a fight. His knuckles are bruised and there’s blood under his fingernails. Is he Jon’s killer? The mounting evidence says so. To add insult to injury, his wife has employed a PI to dig up dirt on him to ensure she gets sole custody of their daughter. Hayes mounts an off-the-books investigation and disappears amongst the city’s homeless community to stay one step ahead of a murder charge. In a fight to save his neck, Hayes faces a much larger issue—stay on the path he’s on or turn things around? Despite his faults, isn’t that a character you’d want to read about?
I guess I like my shop-soiled heroes, maybe not to hang out with, but to read and write about. It has a lot to do with how someone reacts under insurmountable odds. There’s more at stake than the mystery or the crime to solve. The character’s soul is at stake as well. And I can’t help root for someone in that position. Everyone loves a comeback kid. I think I also identify with human frailty and characters like Larry Hayes. While I have never done any of things Hayes has done, I can’t say I couldn’t land myself in that level of trouble. I don’t think any of us can. We’re all capable of screwing up bad badly under the right (or maybe it’s wrong) circumstances. There for the grace of God go I and you—don’t pretend you’re infallible. We all have our moments of weakness.
That concludes Lowlifes‘s month in the spotlight. So I’ll leave you with the first three chapters from the book. Enjoy!
Categories: book of the month