Coming apart at the seams: developing characters by Mark Jones

In the twenty-something years since I studied criminology, I still have two beliefs concerning the subject. The first is that a lot of low-level crime is down to impulsive behaviour. The second is that solitary confinement does not reform offenders. These two core ideas were small parts of developing Ermington Snyde. He is one of the villains in Rita Wong and the Jade Mask.

Originally, Ermington was called the Red Knight. His name came from his love of chess. I first tried to base his character on a well-known tyrant. Despite lots of research, I felt I was constructing a very unsavoury character. For that reason, I think the story did not strike a chord with publishers.

In twenty nineteen, during an overhaul of my story, I considered my own beliefs in criminality. In Ermington Snyde I saw a tragic character, a victim of abuse, who had no insight into how damaging his behaviour was. I wondered if he could be reached and gain insight into his toxic beliefs.

My story was accepted for publication in July of twenty nineteen. I was later asked to rewrite a scene and change one of the minor characters. I initially balked at the idea, but then realised it was an opportunity to shed more light on my main villain.

After his release from prison, we see Ermington Snyde enjoy a late-night walk. Along the way, he meets a former associate. In the original draft, the associate was human. At first, I considered changes that touched further upon the subject of criminology. This made me worry that the scene would start to waffle. There was also the risk that the scene could become pretentious into the bargain.

The very same week I was asked to change the scene, I had read through an old science fiction story I had written. The short story was never published, but it contained an idea about a robot bunny. The thinking behind the story was that the robot bunny’s appearance represented its fragile state of mind. It was coming apart at the seams.

In the new scene I constructed, I used another character from my science fiction story. Ermington Snyde meets a tall electric teddy bear called Fred. Inside, although he doesn’t know it, Ermington is in disarray. When he looks at Fred’s polished appearance, he becomes jealous. However, it is Fred’s peace of mind that provokes Ermington to feel envious. Fred’s stitching is tight and neat. Ermington’s seams are coming apart. And the straw is ready to spill out at any moment.

The scene, I suppose, is an example of showing and not telling. There is always the risk that the idea will not come across to the reader. When developing characters, we should consider that the audience is cleverer than ourselves. I also believe that the audience will pick up on hints and clues. They will do this, even if only subconsciously.

RITA WONG AND THE JADE MASK by Mark Woods is out now in paperback (£7.99, Everything with Words).

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