I think we all agree that characters are chief ingredients that make our mysteries come to life. “Cardboard characters,” as the terms implies, leave stories flat. I thought it might be instructive to peel away the layers and see how a protagonist comes into being.
The person in question is Gregory McKenzie, the lead character in four Greg McKenzie Mysteries. When I came up with the idea for Secret of the Scroll, I wanted a man who would do anything to save his wife from a murderous group of terrorists. I preferred someone with investigative experience who could track down hostage-takers without taxing the reader’s credibility. Since I had an Air Force background, I decided a retired Office of Special Investigations agent would be an interesting departure from other protags.
I wrote two-and-a-half single-spaced pages of background for Greg, which also included basic information on his wife, Jill. I put his age at sixty-five, hers a few years younger. One of my intentions was to show retired seniors as the competent individuals that I know them to be. I was tired of reading blundering caricatures of my age group.
Re-reading my notes from ten years ago, I found a lot of information that has never come out in the books. I also noted more than a few incidents that appeared in the book originally, but were dropped after being axed by my editor. I may find a place to use some of them eventually.
To make him sort of Joe Average, I set Greg’s birth in St. Louis. For a good Scottish background (after all, I am a Campbell), I made his father a burly, garrulous, red-faced Scotsman who emigrated at age fifteen and became a master brewer for Anhauser-Busch. His mother also contributed some Highland blood from her side of the family, as did my own.
Greg retired as a lieutenant colonel, held down in the ranks by his penchant for stepping on as many toes as necessary while pursuing the truth in criminal investigations. He angered a brigadier general early in his OSI career who came back later as a three-star general to stop him in his tracks. His doggedness is a characteristic that hasn’t changed over four novels.
I have added more background to the character as different stories came along. One involved his family’s military history. This is how Greg described it in a paragraph from the second book in the series, Designed to Kill:
When the 98th Argyllshire Highlanders were first mustered in 1794 at Stirling Castle, north of Glasgow, there were sixteen McKenzies on the roster, one of them an ancestor of mine. After the unit was re-designated the 91st, other McKenzies followed him on down to 1881 when the 91st was merged with the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders to form the regiment my grandfather fought with in the Boer War and World War I. My dad, Rob McKenzie, was a little less combative, serving as a U.S. Army cook in World War II.
One of Greg’s little idiosyncrasies, seemingly unlikely for a former Air Force officer, is his fear of flying. This despite the fact that his wife, Jill, is a licensed commercial pilot who owns a Cessna 172. It makes for interesting scenes when they need to fly somewhere on a case as private investigators, which they become in books three and four.
Family backgrounds, personal foibles, and other intriguing aspects of character help mold our protagonists and antagonists into real people for the reader. And our protags become our personal friends as well. It makes life at the keyboard more interesting.
Chester Campbell’s website
His Mystery Mania blog