Tuesday, June 19, 2018

More on mobsters, hackers and other stock characters

Yesterday's post about tired old tropes that make me pass on your pages produced a plaintive wail of sorts:

Emilya Naymark said...
Mobsters period? As in no mobsters ever?
I had a vision of Emilya looking at her manuscript replete with three dimensional, interesting criminals who just happened to belong to the mob, and a solitary tear trickling down her cheek.

Of course, this amused me to no end because, as you know, tormenting writers and crushing hopes and dreams is my favorite part of the job.

And of course, my original post was a bit terse. Here's a more nuanced take on "no mobsters."

Mobsters can be something other than Don Corleone or Tony Soprano.

I'd love to see a librarian mob, with librarian street toughs enforcing reading-level-quiet, and godhelp you if you don't pay your fines.

Or simply mobsters that don't wear velour track suits, carry brass knuckles and have a Brooklyn accent that would heat up cold pizza.

To create an interesting mob person (ladies or gents!) think about why your character is IN the mob. What does being in the mob do for them, what do they get out of it? What do they have to sacrifice to stay in the mob. Do they want to be OUT of the mob, but can't figure out how to withdraw gracefully (ie alive!)

In other words, like with every character, you're going to know a lot more than your reader, because you're going to know why they are the way they are.

Mobsters and all those other tired old stock characters are all too often used when the writer needs to move the plot forward, and they don't invest time in understanding them.

A hacker is needed, presto here's the hacker from Central Casting.

So, mobsters, maybe. If you do it right. But that's true of darn near everything. Do it right, and I'll read to the end.

Now, that is a offer you can't refuse.


Timothy Lowe said...

I love Al Pacino's character in Donnie Brasco. Lefty, a Mob sad sack. All he wants is to buy a boat and sail away from it all, but he's trapped in the system, watching as younger, flashier goombas get the promotion. He brings in Donnie, an undercover unbeknownst to him. Explains the ropes to him. Mentors him. You can sense his pride swelling when he takes the young FBI agent under his wing, until they decide that Donnie deserves better than Lefty and promote him, too.

If you don't feel a ton of sympathy for the guy by the end of the movie, you're not human. The final scene where he gets a phone call and takes off his rings before he leaves the apartment so that his wife can have them is one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever seen.

Ellen said...

How do you feel about "untouchable" librarians?


Julie Weathers said...

As I've said before, Dancing Horses, my long lost suspense had mobsters. They were a different kind of mob who invested in things like world champion cutting horse farms. When the farm manager discovers some of the "accidental" deaths of the horses were for insurance money, he quits and disappears on the rodeo circuit, but they know he knows too much and send some hit guys after him. They also have someone else chasing them, but that turns out to be a rich woman who wants one of the Cajun cowboys back for, uh, romantic reasons.

The story, like most good ones are, was triggered by a true event.

Sometimes mobsters can be interesting and different. I've never watched Sopranos, so I have no idea what they were like.

Janet Reid said...

Timothy Lowe that last scene in Donnie Brasco reminds me of the misquoted line from The Lion in Winter (said in The West Wing)

Prince Geoffrey: “You fool! As if it matters how a man falls down.”

Prince Richard “When the fall’s all that’s left, it matters a great deal.”

Peter Taylor said...

Pity you don’t rep picture books – I’ve a mobster goose story titled ‘The Godfeather’. It has dialogue with shades of ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ and other Spaghetti Westerns, too. “Nice fingers – just beak size!” “Which way do you want to walk – through the head high stinging-nettles or the scratchy blackberry brambles?”

Huge sigh!... On second thoughts, I guess it will stay forever in the bottom drawer. I think even 5 year old kids’ grandparents are now too young to have watched those movies - here in Australia, at least.

Amy Schaefer said...

Don't take shortcuts. You'll end up with cardboard cutouts instead of characters.

(Unrelated: it's too hot today.)

Kregger said...

This reminds me of a Roseanne Roseanneadanna/Jane Curtin skit from SNL.

JC: And here's our special restaurant contributor for Weekend Update, Rosanne Roseanneadanna reporting on the Mafia in Midtown.

RR: Thank you, Jane. What is all the hoopla of lobsters killing each other? We've got enough melted butter and lemons. Sure lobster hits will put a few fisherman in Maine out of business, but maybe the price for a meal will come down.

JC: Mobsters, Rosanne, not lobsters.

RR: Oh. It just goes to show you, if it's not one thing it's another. It's mobsters yesterday and lobsters tomorrow. What's next? The zombie apocalypse?

JC: After the Dawn of the Dead, nobody is going to write about zombies.

RR: Never mind.

JC: Good night and have a pleasant tomorrow.

Sherry Howard said...

I was so happy to see this! I did one of those big gulps too. I have a WIP with a family drama that includes the mob. It's a little bit autobiographical, so it's hopefully we'll-developed characters. Funny though, it was the mob part that slowed me down a bit, wanting it to be authentic. There are some fascinating characters to read about through the history of The Family. I'm keeping the link to this post to help guide me through!

roadkills-r-us said...

Write what you know.[1] I know very little of mobsters. But a friend's family was from Sicily and had some experience with those guys. Another friend grew up in a neighborhood right next to one controlled by the Albanian mob. I know other people with Mob experience (from the outside, not the inside, AFAIK). If I were going to write about mobsters, I've got real stories and characters to mine.
I haven't seen Brasco, but I can see the scenes above in my mind's eye. Real people in real life. A guy trapped in his job, trying to make it in a cutthroat (sic) company culture. His consequences are just more extreme than mine.[2] By overlaying the Mundane with a Veneer of the Other (or vice versa), we can create something new and interesting.

[1] This is why I write about dragons and spaceships. Not necessarily in the same book. Yet.
[2] I do not refer to most of my employers, especially the current one.

Peggy Larkin said...

Do they want to be OUT of the mob, but can't figure out how to withdraw gracefully (ie alive!)

Hey, that's my WIP exactly! :)

Timothy Lowe and roadkills-r-us, it may interest you to know that Donnie Brasco is based on a true story--there's a great documentary on Netflix currently called "Inside the American Mob" that I've been watching to liven up doing the dishes that includes interviews with the FBI agent who was the basis for Donnie. They also have a bunch of former (?) Mafiosi talking about their experiences. Although not, for obvious reasons, the guy who was the basis for Lefty.

Emilya Naymark said...

Hahaha! I got a mention! You're right, Janet, I did have a headdesk moment yesterday. My MS doesn't center around mobsters exactly, but they're in it. Being Russian, I have an endless fascination with the Russian mob. I did know a person or two back in the day who were sorta kinda involved in... things. My book is about an undercover and undercovers often go, well, undercover, into mafia syndicates. For that, I had very good sources. As for the mobsters themselves, let's just say I had fun with them.

True story - the Russian mob loves Adidas so much, that their business accounts for a sizable percentage of the brand's footwear. I basically can't read court reports on Russian indictments without giggling.

And if my mobsters turn out cliche, at least they won't be boring. I promise.

Thank you for keeping us all on our toes, Janet.

John Davis Frain said...

Last night, I went to Shakespeare in the Park to see Romeo and Juliet. As many of your likely know, "sun" comes up 57 times (exaggeration used for effect here, work with me) and EVERY TIME I thought, why don't they just say "massive red orb?"

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the massive red orb.

"Maybe it's just me, but I don't see the overwriting," he said while dodging the first fin slap but succumbing to the next two.

Timothy Lowe said...

JDF - That is the funniest thing I have perused with my peepers in a long time. Oops, I meant "read".

The Sleepy One said...

I've only seen a handful of episodes of PERSON OF INTEREST but I remember being impressed by a mobster character they introduced. The protagonists think they're saving an involved, highly-respected teacher, but he's actually a mobster and--I think--turns into a major bad character who has flashes of good because of his consistent moral code. The actor--Enrico Colantoni--isn't your stereotypical mobster, either.

Steve Stubbs said...

Anyone who has never seen THE SOPRANOS has missed one of the finest shows ever to appear on television. Unfortunately the whole series is available on DVD, so all is not lost, sorry. David Chase completed the final season essentially under protest, so where that last season is concerned, fuggedaboutit. But when the earlier shows were at their very best I was left with my mouth hanging open. I simply could not believe television could be that good.

There is a legend that THE SOPRANOS had to be excluded from being considered for an Emmy because they were sweeping the awards every year.

Donnie Brasco was a real person. The movie was based on the book. A much better movie was CARLITO'S WAY, in which Pacino plays a mobster trying to go straight who cannot escape his past.

Sam Mills said...

Though my mom grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood populated with folks very reminiscent of Goodfellas and The Godfather, the field has since changed. Your modern day Family isn't going to be operating like it's still the 1950s.

(I really wanted to visit extended family in Naples after college, but decided not to go because there were trash riots underway. The local mob controls the waste management industry, but they stopped picking up trash, and folks were burning it in the streets. Not as sexy as Michael Corleone.)

Craig F said...

Also remember not to overwrite your secondary characters. If you flesh them out too much they become Chekhov's gun or a McGuffin. There is a fine line but having a mobster vomit after a too brutal scene works. Levity is also a good device to add humanity to a secondary character.

AJ Blythe said...

My favourite mob movie is Oscar. References to "dangling participles" have peppered conversations in my family ever since we watched it in the 80's.

Timothy Lowe said...

Janet Reid - I love that!

Julie Weathers said...

My former editor had people come out and show her how to check under her car for bombs due to the editorials she was writing about certain elements in horse racing and her "secret" testimony before Congress that of course didn't remain secret. Not all mobsters are in NJ. Some show up on the backside in boots and hats with a million dollars in a briefcase and an offer to buy that nice colt you've just pinned your dreams on.

Joseph Snoe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill D said...

Librarian mobsters on the prowl? Somehow, reminds me of the gang of Grannies in Monty Python.