One of my Creative Writing teachers at university used to tell us that in fiction, as in life, a bum is never just a bum.
(By 'bum' I mean a homeless person -- not, you know, 'bum' as in 'buttocks'. Because if I were talking about a 'bum' as in 'buttocks', well, the truism would be different, because usually a butt really is just a butt.)
He was trying to get us young and eager scribes to understand that the characters in our stories, even the minor ones, especially the minor ones, had to reflect the complexity of real people, and the homeless who begged for change on Yonge Street in downtown Toronto, the ones we passed by on the way to our other, real lives, had histories and stories that would astound us, should we care to listen.
I've often found that the mark of a good fiction writer is how much attention he or she pays to the little guys, the characters who pop up for a page or two, then recede back into the margins of the story. Does the writer bother to describe these characters at all? Does he give them a little bit of life, or are they relegated to be non-performers in their own play?
And mystery writers, especially detective-series writers, often provide the most telling, evocative descriptions of these 'marginal characters'.
Consider this, from Ross McDonald's 1961 novel The Wycherly Woman, part of a series of books narrated his world-weary detective Lew Archer:
The offices of the Wycherly Land and Development Company were on the tenth floor of a ten-story stone-faced building south of Market Street. A girl who hadn't quite made airline hostess took me up in an express elevator and let me out in a reception room decorated with hunting scenes.
Aside from the now odd, anachronistic use of the term 'airline hostess', think of the way that he describes this elevator operator -- the wit, the shadings. 'A girl who hadn't quite made airline hostess' -- there's a whole life history right there. We don't know what she looks like or sounds like; we don't know if she's over-the-hill or still creeping up it. But we get a sense of her, a feel for her. It's a flippant, offhand remark, but it has the ring of authenticity. A woman who wasn't good enough to fly the friendly skies and had to settle for riding up, up, up and away in an elevator all day. A lady not quite good enough even to be a flight attendant. There's a sense of sadness and pathos in what is, ostensibly, a humorous aside. A life history has been hinted at. The detective noticed this, so we do, too.
Or check out this one, from later in the same novel, as private detective Lew Archer checks into a crummy motel:
...At ten minutes to five in the morning the place was like a catacomb. The night clerk looked at me the way night clerks were always looking at me, with dubiety tinged by the suspicion that the customer might be right and I might be a customer.
A perfect, succint summary of the cautious, guarded way by which employees often gauge their potential clients (and an offhand description of the narrator himself). Not wanting to work but wanting the money; understanding that everybody is a potential buck, so better to be hesitant than dismissive.
Crime writers, especially writers who specially in a series character spread out over a number of novels, often give the little guys their due, because the protagonists are inquisitive by nature and prone to examining people up-close and in-depth. They are trying to solve a mystery, these detectives are, and thus every person is a potential clue, and their appearance, their manner, who they are and where they are and why they are must be examined, if only briefly.
I've kind of found a lot of crime writers ass-backwards, starting with Robert B. Parker and his series of books featuring Boston P.I. Spenser, and then discovering John D.Macdonald and his Travis McGee stories, and then getting ahold of Ross MacDonald and his Lew Archer novels. (Eventually I'll make my way back to the beginning, where Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet hang out.) Robert B. Parker has learned from both Macdonalds -- Ross and John -- about wit, and brevity, and tone. Their narrators are tough guys who have been fucked around by life, but still retain a cautious, involuntary wit and charm. The dialogue is lean and spare. The narrative momentum carries us forward. There is a mystery that must be solved; they must solve it; end of story. Along the way they meet the dregs of life and the best of life, and they show us them all, in all their twisted, wounded glory. Detective stories such as these are essentially about people who have fucked-up, and are paying the price, and need help. To not describe each and every one of these characters is essentially to dismiss all of us. (Because who among has not fucked-up, or paid a price, or does not need help?
My Creative Writing teacher was right. The homeless guy outside of the coffee shop, the one with the dirty beard and the paper cup, is never just a bum, and the bleary-eyed clerk at the 7-11 has a pathos and dignity worthy of a Shakespearean sonnet. We just have to look close enough, and listen, and imagine.
Imagine that they are the main characters in their own lives, and we are looking for answers, like a detective.
And then just wait and see what they will reveal to us, if we look hard enough and ask the right questions.