Sunday 13 May 2012

Shakespeare Cruz

"You compared me to what?"
Shakespeare Cruz is the lead character in my novel Even the dead dance to live. A brutal ex-cop with facial scars and tattoos, he's the archetypal hard man. Does he look like Danny Trejo above? I don't know, but it was Trejo I was imaging when I dreamed him up. When the director Robert Rodriguez was giving a lecture on digital movie making, he presented Danny's face as the kind of detail best picked up by the digital format. "Look at that face," he said. "isn't it beautiful?"

Not the kind of beautiful that most people were thinking of, but when I saw it I thought: yes, that's my man. Danny Trejo of course had a reputation for playing bad guys and anti-heroes, and Shakespeare Cruz, as it happens, is both.

Why did I make Cruz so brutal? Well, it was a strange journey, and I'll include it here as an answer to the perennial where-do-you-get-your-ideas question so familiar to writers.

Cruz first appeared in a fantasy novel I was writing about a gay warrior called Breht. I thought I was being original at the time in having a gay warrior as the hero (years later Richard Morgan would do exactly that), but the novel never made it past the first draft. I didn't have enough to build a story on and I was growing out of my sword-and-sorcery phase. I liked the character though - he was the first lead character I'd produced that wasn't just a slightly altered version of me, and in producing him I felt for the first time like a novelist, rather than an amateur writing some sort of twisted angsty diary. I decided to use him for an idea based on a gay version of Othello. That idea however never made it past my notebook. But it's that latter role that earned him his first name in the next book.

Even the dead dance to live began life then as a character looking for a story to star in. At the time however he wasn't the hard man thug he would later become - as a fantasy sword-and-sorcery devotee I was still wedded to the tame honourable and upright warrior stereotype. That idea hit the crash-pads after reading a James Ellroy novel.

The novel in question was American Tabloid, a crime noir set during the Kennedy years. One of the three protagonists was a brutal ex-cop with few scruples and a hardened view of, well, everything. He made movie action heroes look like the pastiches they were, and it was my first inkling of the fact that I really had no idea what a true 'tough guy' was. I hated him and hoped he'd die early on, but as the book wore on (and it's a compelling novel), he got more and more interesting. And the idea of sanitising Shakespeare Cruz got less and less attractive. So I started some research into real life thugs - gangsters, hitmen and, surprisingly, some frontline cops and elite soldiers. Up until then I had the naive notion that action heroes only exercised violence against bad guys. I learned however that, in order to get good at violence, you have to actually like it. And people who like violence aren't that picky on who they practice it on.

John Wayne and the character of James Kirk are sanitised purely for the audience, and even Mal from Firefly is given an honourable streak. James Bond has been roughed up a little for the new Bond movies, and that could be a sign of the times. But it's still rare in Sci-fi. Even in 'gritty' urban cyberpunk they remain socially conscious, which may well be a measure of the target readership. I mean, how could you like a hero who resembles the bully who gave you a hard time at school?

It was a challenge then, but a good one to get my teeth into. And the creation of Shakespeare Cruz was an important step for me in learning how to write compelling characters, for sure. And I got to like him a whole lot more.

But I still wouldn't like to be the one who spilled his drink in a crowded bar. Not without decent medical insurance and the service of a good plastic surgeon anyway.

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