It probably seems strange to anyone on the outside how real an author’s characters become to them but if you think about it, it’s kind of a necessity. You spend hours upon hours with them, learning their backstory, flaws, foibles and qualities. You discover new things and, if you’re lucky enough to revisit them, build upon those discoveries until you know and love them more than you do plenty of real people.
But just because a character matters intensely to you doesn’t mean they they will to readers and sometimes this can be a hard thing to reconcile. Usually you’ll get at least some people who respond the way you intended, but often there’ll be voices who either outright dislike your favourites, or else fall in love with the characters you didn’t think were all that special. This, by the way, is no bad thing. If all readers react exactly the way you want them to then chances are you have a pretty dull book.
But in thinking about this the other day, I started thinking about which of my characters are my favourites. And while my top five characters are probably somewhat predictable, I think there’s still value to exploring why these fictional people matter so much to me.
So, to kick things off:
5. Boone Shepard
I don’t know that Boone is an enormously interesting character. He’s somewhere between Tintin, Doctor Who and Indiana Jones – an adventuring journalist always dressed in a vest and tie and slightly askew glasses. He’s not that capable or clever or funny. In the crazy world of the Boone books, he’s essentially the straight man surrounded by much more colourful personalities. He has a troubled past and is haunted by deep regrets, but he never really did anything bad.
But I think everything I loved and still love about Boone can be summarised by a single scene in the second book, American Adventure. After her defeat, main villain Addison Cane escapes on horseback into the desert. Boone gives chase and Addison gets the drop on him, holding him at gunpoint and demanding to know what Boone is going to do to stop her.
Boone’s reply, to me, is why the character has value.
“I’ve got nothing, Addison. If you kill me now, that’s it. But at least I know I’ll die trying to stop you.”
Boone Shepard is, one some level, a bumbling idiot who fails more than he succeeds. But he tries, always, to do the right thing, even when he can’t or shouldn’t or it makes no sense. Of all my characters I think he’s the one I most wish I was like, because his north star is always his bravery and decency and determination to stand up to evil even if he’s killed in the process. Is that, as a defining trait, somewhat simplistic? Maybe. But I think after years of writing more morally ambiguous antiheroes, Boone’s good heart feels more unique than ever.
4. Promethia Peters
If Boone is the straight man, then his partner/rival/best friend/love interest is the opposite. Promethia Peters is a brash, loud mouthed, insecure agent of chaos. She’s also one of the first characters I ever encountered who just wrote themselves. Promethia’s absurd approach to life just seemed to spring from nowhere – I never once had to think about what she would say next because she was already saying it.
But Promethia, for all that she can be annoying and adversarial, hides a far more tender, sensitive, emotionally intelligent side. At times she would shock me with her insight and ability to, between insults, intuit exactly what Boone was going through and do whatever she could, in her own way, to be there for him. And this led to one of the biggest surprises of my writing life – the love between them that only revealed itself halfway through the writing of the second book and became key to the trilogy’s finale. These two, on every level, were meant to be together and I had no idea until years into telling their story.
It's a very mild spoiler, but Promethia reappears in Andromache Between Worlds as an older, more world-weary character. I always knew she would turn up and I was so excited to see her again, but was shocked to find that she didn’t much resemble the character I so adored in the older books. Her humour and irreverence and bull-in-a-china-shop mentality had all been worn away by time and loss. But as the story goes on and the circumstances that so changed her are confronted, flashes of the old Promethia started to emerge and I came to find that her new persona was less a change and more another layer to a woman who is far smarter and more thoughtful than the world she inhabits ever gave her credit for. Promethia’s arc in Andromache, relatively minor though it is, is one of my favourite things about that book and while I believe it will land for new readers, I think the ones familiar with the Boone series will most appreciate the journey she’s been on and the difficult path she takes to come back to herself, albeit a more rounded, complete self than she ever was in the older stories.
A slight cheat here. At the time of writing Rylee is yet to make her debut, but she will very soon – as the scene stealing best friend in Andromache Between Worlds. Rylee is a fourteen-year-old Irish science prodigy who is deeply bored by everything around her and has a total inability to be anything other than exactly herself. She’s blunt and no-nonsense and will be as likely to tell her friends that they’re being idiots as she is to deliver exactly the wisdom they need at key moments. She has no insecurities, no demons to vanquish, and absolutely no filter. She will torment rivals with borderline Hannibal Lecter-esque insight and squeal with delight at getting to see dinosaurs, even when they’re trying to eat her.
I bloody love her.
In some ways she feels like a successor to Promethia, filling a similar role with a somewhat similar personality. But in so many other ways they’re not very alike at all; Rylee’s unapologetically tactless energy gave Andromache a spiky sense of humour that allowed an occasionally heavy book a streak of subversiveness. The novel never would have worked without her and I can’t wait for you to meet her.
2. Jack Carlin
Some characters just appear on the page fully formed. I spoke before about how strong a personality Promethia Peters had, but that wasn’t true of the first couple of attempts I made at those novels.
But Jack Carlin, from his first two-scene appearance in an unpublished crime manuscript I wrote in 2014, was just there. Not long ago I dug up that old document to re-read the prototype Jack and I was shocked at how not a prototype he was. Everything that defines him in my more recent work was already there – the wolfish grin, the cigarette behind the ear, the oversized coat, the unique, gutter-poet way of speaking, the enigmatic moral code. In retrospect, it’s no wonder he made such an impression that I included him in The Inheritance years after his bit-part in a mostly forgotten attempt at a novel. You don’t come across characters like him very often, so when you do you hold on to them, even if the stories they initially appear in go nowhere.
Upon his return, Jack more than made up for lost time. In the space of a year he took on an antagonistic role in my lockdown web-series The Pact, gave Maggie some much needed assistance in The Inheritance, and took centre stage in my first Audible Original The Consequence. Across those three stories I learned so much more about him; his fractured relationship with his daughter, his sketchy past as a corrupt cop, his deep-seated guilt and need to atone, his lack of patience or mercy towards what he sees as the scumbags of the world. It was like the most extensive character building exercise possible for High-Rise, which will be his biggest and most important story, a story that I started writing with ease because by this point I know this guy and his rich history so well.
Before we reach our very obvious #1, some honourable mentions:
Anders, in The Caretaker, was a fun way to puncture the tension but also revealed unexpected depths for a character initially conceived as a slightly quirky, Coen-esque Swedish hitman. Vincent Black, the “final boss” of the Boone Shepard Trilogy, might be my best villain because of how tortured and human and broken he is while still being thoroughly dangerous. Dominic Ford, the charming and Machiavellian drug lord from The Caretaker and The Consequence is a case of a menacing villain whose complex backstory I haven’t yet had the chance to fully reveal – something also true of his fellow Caretaker stablemate Leo Grey, the troubled young author who plays a small but pivotal role in that book but, if I have my way, will play a starring role in a yet-to-be-written one. Julie, the gruff vet who helps Jack Carlin in The Inheritance and The Consequence (and High-Rise) will probably always be a bit-part but I love her every time she turns up. And of course, how could I write a piece like this without mentioning The Driver? In my whole writing life I doubt I’ve ever had a better pitch for a character than “Ned Flanders but a serial killer” and he’s such an irresistible good time that he’s been front-and-centre across The Hitchhiker, The Caretaker and soon, The Lodger.
Which brings us to…
It couldn’t really have been anyone else, could it? The troubled, taciturn berserker drifter who does her best to do good despite her deep held fear that she is anything but. You don’t write Maggie so much as you unleash her.
But it wasn’t really supposed to be like this. In the early versions of The Hunted she was vague and hard to pin down until the moment I started writing her perspective, and immediately she was just there, so clear despite how little I knew about her. Which would seem like a contradiction, except Maggie’s force of personality mattered far more than her undefined backstory.
Which did not for a second mean I wasn’t interested in learning more. But Maggie has never given up her secrets easily. The Hunted allowed a glimpse into her brutal childhood. The Inheritance delved a little deeper, in more detail, while also providing tentative access to the more bruised, vulnerable parts of her: the desperate need for someone she can trust, her addiction to violence and disgust at that addiction – or maybe the fact that she’s not more disgusted. And her fragile hope that she can be more than what her horrible childhood turned her into.
I think what makes Maggie so special is that I feel simultaneously in awe of and deeply sorry for her. She’s part savage animal, part broken child and the tension between the two sides has, so far, given me no shortage of fascinating territory to explore. After her central role in four books, plus several short stories and plans for future appearances, Maggie is the dominant force in all of my fiction, the backbone of this neo noir wild-west Australia that I write about. Several times I’ve wondered if I’m nearing the end of her story. Every time I’ve been left understanding that there’s so much more I want to do with her.
And readers, for the most part, seem to feel the same way. I get asked constantly when she’ll be back. My blatant teases of her next appearances on social media are met with day-making excitement. Not everyone loves her and that’s okay, but I do, intensely, and for that reason I think she’ll be around for a long time yet.
Writing words about writing words.