Telling the Truth – On Writing Real

(written as a participant in the Rainier Writing Workshop)


Tana French

                  Tana French broke onto the literary scene with the haunting novel In the Woods. In that bestseller, her protagonist was a self-deluded murder squad detective who had repressed so much of his childhood that he didn’t even realize when he was getting sucked into a current murder far too deeply for his own mental health or the health of his suspects. In the Woods featured a very close first person story that ultimately showed us the self-delusion and unreliability that can be a hallmark of the best first person stories. In her follow-up, The Likeness, French took a secondary character from that first novel and explored her through a similarly close first person perspective. In that novel, her protagonist is caught in a web of “likenesses,” until she almost doesn’t know who she is anymore by the end of the story. In Faithful Place, the main character (in first person again) finds that his youthful exploits and his memories of his own family look entirely different from the perspective of a jaded older detective – himself, coming back to the scene of a crime that was committed twenty years before. These novels all have in common a peculiarly deep variety of self-knowledge exposed by French’s razor-sharp writing.

So as I set myself to read – and enjoy – French’s fourth novel in the “Dublin murder squad series” of books,[1] I was prepared to have the central character gradually discover the secrets in his own soul, and discover that he is as self-deluding and unreliable as any of us. I was prepared for that level of self-revelation. What I was not prepared for was to learn from French how she uses a character’s own words and characterizations of others to teach us how he sees the world. Kennedy is her protagonist here, and she wastes no time getting started.

French begins by having her main character talk about his work: “I had spent the last few weeks putting together a file for the Director of Public Prosecutions on one of those tricky drug-dealer messes, making sure the little bastard didn’t have a single crack to slime through. Some detectives think their job’s done the second charges are filed, but I take it personally when one of my catches wiggles off the hook.”  In this early passage, we can quickly see that this character despises criminals (this is a marked contrast from earlier French protagonists, who live much more on a gray border line between criminality and law enforcement). We can also see that Kennedy is strongly dedicated to his job. So far, pretty standard stuff as far as a first person character’s self-description. Pretty procedural.

However, I was soon very intrigued to see Kennedy open up about other characters. I don’t do characters-on-character observations very well at all. So I was hoping to learn something here. Kennedy talks about other people in his squad in a matter-of-fact way that never feels false, but that cuts to the quick of motivations: “Quigley loves playing Haze the Newbie, just like he loves leaning on suspects one notch too hard; we’ve all done it, but he gets more out of it than most of us do. Usually though, he has the brains to leave my boys alone. Richie had pissed him off somehow.”

In this seemingly off-hand observation, we’ve quickly learned a couple critical things about the protagonist. He is a harsh judge of human character, as he does not put any sugar in his thoughts about Quigley, calling him out (mentally) for his lack of brains and his actions without a second thought. Secondly, Kenney indicts himself an equally off-hand comment “we’ve all done it.” Thirdly, Kennedy shows a sense of ownership by calling out “my boys.” Finally, Kennedy connects cause and effect in this paragraph, showing that he understands that “Richie” had pissed “Quigley” off somehow, and showing us the track of emotion between the characters.

When Kennedy turns his attention from Quigley to Richie, the observations are just as sharp and even more of an indictment. French has Kennedy say that:

Richie is five foot nine on his best day, all elbows and skinny legs and narrow shoulders – he looks about fourteen, although his file says he’s thirty-one – and call me prejudiced, but after one glance I could have told you what kind of neighbourhood he comes from. It’s all there: that too-short no-colour hair, those sharp features, that springy, restless walk like he’s got one eye out for trouble and the other one for anything unlocked. On him the tie just looked nicked (ie: stolen).

I often don’t have the guts to let a character make such unvarnished observations about other characters. Here French shows me how. Again, French is using these observations to show the acerbic humor and very sly observations that Kennedy is capable of making. She goes further than that in this paragraph though, by demonstrating how arrogant Kennedy can be towards those who he considers younger and less experienced (“looks fourteen”) or of lower class than himself (accentuated by that off-hand “call me prejudiced”). She also finely demonstrates how little patience or sympathy Kennedy has toward any class of criminal. These are just the first of many quick references to the irritating habits of small time crooks – or even those who might resemble criminals, even in the way they walk.

In a rapid-fire follow-up to this opening description of Richie, Kennedy happens on a scene where he is a consulting (ie. supervising) detective with a pair of policemen already waiting for him. Here, Kennedy talks about past experiences in a knowledgeable and exacting way as well. He says: “There are plenty of morons out there who would have spent hours playing detective and churning the whole case to shit, before they admitted defeat and called in the real thing. It looked like we had lucked into a pair with functioning brains.” In this description, we can see – again – that Kennedy believes much of the world of law enforcement to be “plenty of morons” who can easily “churn a case to shit.” Without being self-aggrandizing or overtly arrogant to anyone else in his external actions, Kennedy nonetheless perfectly demonstrates arrogance through his specification of himself (and his partner) as the “real thing.”

I always fear making my main character too strong in personality, wary of the idea that they could overwhelm the story in some fashion and twist my intention by going deep inside their head. There’s a balance to strike in that. In this passage (and so many others), French demonstrates to me how clear and precisely you can paint a protagonist simply through their own observations of the world. For this Kennedy guy feels “wholly real,” and his observations of the world are pretty strong, but he never detracts from the story being told.

In other Tana French novels, this character is seen by OTHER French protagonists as “Scorcher,” and we rapidly – through the observations he makes about other characters (and about himself) exactly how and why that label applies so well, as a shorthand for his character. There is no need for any other character to ever degrade this main character – or even use his nickname – in order for the reader to have a very clear picture in her head of a protagonist who is driven, arrogant, dismissive of others, and utterly dedicated to getting “bastard” criminals off the streets. Scorcher is clearly “described” through the way his own words come out of his head.

In my own writing, I have a mental habit of separating out my own observations of characters and descriptions of scenes as those done by a narrator, from those observations and descriptions that are manufactured by the protagonist themselves. I think this probably derives from the first ten years or so of my writing “career,” when I labored to write all of my long work in omniscient or distant third person voice. In this type of novel, it is more usual to have the narrator’s observations separated from a central character’s perspective. However, it also cost me a great deal, in terms of the ability to have the reader “see the world” through a character’s eyes. I am still unable to present a character’s observations un-varnished without my own sense of “falseness” about it: I can’t do this kind of characterization and observation nearly as adroitly as French can do it.

Yet. In my revisions of Sinful Folk, I’m going to try.

My Novel SINFUL FOLK has now been published. You can buy the novel here >>

[1] This label of “Dublin murder squad series” is a loose coupling urged on, no doubt, by the publisher. The books themselves are great psychologically complex novels, in the spirit of Patricia Highsmith, and the books are hardly a series in any sense of the term. They all stand alone as incisive exposes of human foibles, and are each as powerful in their own rights as many writers’ whole oeuvres.

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