EXACTLY whore a characters comes from is pretty much anyone’s guess, and the sources will change with the technique and temperament of the individual authors. Personally, I don’t keep files, preferring to rely on the resources of’ my imagination and memory — a proud boast that means I don’t have to bother making notes.
Chiefly, they do come straight out from the fantasy land inside my skull, springing up in accordance with the demands of setting and general style of the book I’m writing at the time. For instance, the characters in a BREED tend to be more grotesque than those in a PEACEMAKER, simply because the basic approach of the BREED series is more flamboyant. It was planned that way from the start, when — forno particular reason — I decided a half-breed Apache hero was a good one. Nolan, Christie and all the rest followed on: I wanted to start on a revenge theme, and they just came into my mind (and took over). PEACEMAKER, on the other hand, was (as well as being a joint venture with John Harvey), conceived on entirely different lines.
We started out with the deliberate intention of producing a gentler Western, and hit on the development of a town as a central them by a mixture of design, accident, and watching CENTENNIAL on TV. In sequence, McLain was somewhat gentler than other of our central characters, and that decided the development of the peripheral folk. We dreamed up Alice and Shawn because someone had to run the saloon, and we both fancied the idea of using a woman as a strong character. The others followed on. The various inhabitants of Garrison came with the narrative development of the town; Janey Page came in because we wanted some kind of feminine interest for McLain, though we’ve always planned to offset that with another lady of, perhaps, more direct intent.
It tends to be a question of balancing personal tastes with narrative direction. Loner heroes allow for broader characters; indeed, the very fact that they are loners — and so wandering from town to town without establishing firm roots anywhere — tends to embellish the secondary characters of the story. PEACEMAKER allows for a gradual development of several running characters, whereas a BREED or a HAWK needs characters who establish themselves instantly — and in consequence they tend to be more grotesque, or at least more dramatic.
Something like GRINGOS is a different kettle of fish altogether, or a different plate of tamales. John and I got the idea of doing a Mexican Revolution series first (all right, sales show it wasn’t a very good one, but it was interesting) and that led — inevitably as we’re both avid movie fans — to thoughts of THE WILD BUNCH. We decided a team would be more plausible and so set out to create one. Cade Onslow was made deliberately older than usual and put into the Army because we wanted someone with leadership abilities and military knowledge. Jonas Strong came in because we thought a giant black guy would be a nice idea. Then to offset the altruism of Onslow and Strong, we wanted two weaker characters. It was John’s idea to have a scar-faced drug addict and I think it was mine to bring in Yates McCloud. It’s always easier to dream them up with a co-author as you can bounce ideas off one another. They don’t always work, but the bouncing is fun. Hiram Bender came in because our editor at the time wanted a political element and we got to discussing CIA-type operations. Pancho Villa, of course, is straight research. And that was how GRINGOS got its characters. It allsounds easy on paper. But they really don’t come as readily as it may sound. There are times you sit around pounding your brain for an idea that won’t come; and others when a character just springs naturally to mind.
The big difference, I suppose, is in the nature of the characters themselves. Not as in the books, but as in the need of the idea. Obviously only then central character has to be strong enough ‘to retain interest, which often as not leads to him having some kind of gimmick. Breed is half Apache; Hawk has a crippled hand; Jubal, is a doctor; and so on. If you’ve got any running characters (Marshal Nolan in GUNSLINGER, for example) they also need some personally identifying element. Villains require strong characterisation, which is one reason for the crazed Rebel colonels and the sadistic Mexicans.
And they need to come from somewhere.
Mostly, the leading characters ore all predictably fictitious. They are tailored to meet the requirements of the book, and only once in a while are based on real people.
The fillers are much easier There’s a kind of group imagination which Icreated a stock of minor characters. Barkeeps and desk clerks are almost uniformly smug and rather greasy; bankers are either fat or very thin and usually prove nefarious table hands are unctuous, usually grizzled, and usually greedy hotel owners are Laurence.
Friends get inserted as a compliment and a joke. So long as potted descriptions helps to carry the narrative along it doesn’t really matter how many people know you’re describing a friend. Any more than the musicians whose name we all use: that’s a little homage, too. If you can do it without that particular character seeming out of place why not? Just as there’s no reason why cinematic characters shouldn’t swap over I was three quarters through my very first Jubal before I realised the rancher I was describing was Charles Bickford, though mostly it’s far more conscious than that. In BLOOD DEBT, for example, I decided right from the start that Breed’s path was going to intertwine with that of Ethan Allen, out of the all-time great THE SERCHERS. That was my tribute to John Ford and John Wayne, and I had a lot of fun doing it
So, they come from movies; from books read and admired; from records; from friends; from the repertory company of the group mind. But mostly they come from the imagination. Out of whatever mental processes (weird mind?) they are that make us writers. Imagination is such a big word: in this case it encompasses the whole process bf conception through development to definition on paper. But it’s the only word that describes the indefinable process that lets us do that. Half the time I don’t know where they come from — they’re just lurking around here someplace.
And I’m grateful they are.