The Characters of Steel Fear, Part 6
John David Mann
This seven-part series takes a behind-the-scenes look at the cast of characters in the military thriller Steel Fear, co-authored by John David Mann and SOFREP founder Brandon Webb, and explores the process of conceiving them and bringing them to life on the page. You can find the first part of this series here.
In interviews and podcasts on Steel Fear, I’ve gotten this question a handful of times: “How do you make your characters come to life—even the minor ones?” It’s a great question, though the truth is, there’s no such thing as a “minor character.” There are characters that come to life and characters that lie flat on the page. That’s it.
So how do you bring someone to life on the page? You start writing them and pay attention. You write them until you start feeling what they feel until they become real to the point that you actually care about what happens to them. And I think that happens by paying attention to the little things—the things that might not seem significant to the story but speak volumes about who each individual is.
It’s like that in relationships. You notice what your partner wants and needs, likes and loves. You notice their favorite colors, movies, books, foods. Things to do at night. Shows to watch, books to read, places to sit, places to walk. You notice things—specific things, things others might not see. Authentic caring is in the specifics.
That’s the secret to bringing a relationship and a character to life. You pay attention. You notice them.
What Makes Them Them
Sometimes a person’s character is revealed in dialogue. In Steel Fear, here’s how we first meet Kristine (call sign: BIKER), the F/A-18 pilot who is Monica’s best friend, when Finn spots her in the crowd at “midrats” (late-night eating in the officers’ wardroom):
He surveyed the space. The noisiest sector here seemed to be focused on a petite, black-haired ball of energy whom Finn remembered seeing in the Jittery Abe line, one the others called “Biker.” The last jet pilot to land that night, Biker had evidently made quite the entrance at recovery. “You see how she dropped that bird?” said one of her squadron mates. “No approach, just splotted it down on the deck. Blam! Like a mutt taking a dump on the street.”
“Thank you, Gopher, that’s very poetic,” said the tiny pilot, as she stabbed a huge forkful of whatever it was she’d mounded up on her plate.
“Jesus, Biker, how the hell do you pack all that in?” said another brother pilot.
“High metabolism,” she said between chomps. “I could eat you under the table.”
“You know what, I think I’d like that.”
“F*** you, Ratso.”
“My stateroom, oh two hundred.”
“In your dreams, Ratso, not in mine.”-Steel Fear
Sometimes it’s revealed through another character’s observations. Here is Finn’s impression of Arthur Gaines, the captain’s XO, at a dinner to which Finn has been invited at the captain’s table.
“He noticed that the XO winced every time the captain called him ‘Artie.’ A microexpression so fleeting that no one else saw it. He probably didn’t even realize he was doing it. Finn sensed that the XO hated that nickname but would never let on, not to his captain. Finn had seen him in operation during that muster call, and he’d carried himself quite differently then. Not a right-hand man, but a man in charge. Not overbearing, not an asshole, but wearing his authority well. Bit of a shape-shifter, though. Sucking up to the captain the way he did now was entirely understandable. Once the captain got kicked upstairs, the XO stood a decent chance of taking his place on the bridge. The promotion path was not automatic. But possible. Which meant that until then, he would stay close to his captain, close and protective. Not necessarily the same thing as loyal.
Arthur had always admired his boss’s piercing intellect, but he found the man’s paranoid streak worrisome. It was Eagleberg’s job to manage the ship. It was Arthur’s job to manage Eagleberg.”-Steel Fear
His boss, the captain, calls him “Artie,” which, as it happens, is a nickname that Gaines himself detests, though he’ll never let on that this is so. In fact, that one little tic gives us a glimpse into the world of not just one but three characters. Gaines himself who has an ego but is way too politically canny to ever confront his boss. Then, the captain who is clueless about how his own words and actions affect others. And finally, Finn, who is the only person on board who notices this little recurring dysfunctional drama playing out between the two men.
Eventually, that mix of traits Finn observes in Arthur—obeisance vs. political realism—will be tested when he has to make a split-second choice whether to listen to the captain or to Finn:
“Arthur froze. In that instant, Arthur knew his life was about to change forever. Whatever he did in the next few minutes—in the next few seconds—would determine whether that change would prove propitious or catastrophic … The voice paused, then said, ‘Arthur. Please.’ Gaines was silent for a few seconds. Propitious? Or catastrophic?”-Steel Fear
His decision is influenced by something so simple it might have seemed insignificant: In that desperate moment, Finn calls him “Arthur.” Not “Artie.” He’d been paying attention.
Here’s the thing about “minor” characters: the story may not be about them—but to them, it is. To Arthur Gaines, Steel Fear is not a book about Finn and Monica and Jackson and Eagleberg. It’s a book about what happened to Arthur Gaines on that fateful tour on the Abraham Lincoln. Arthur’s life is every bit as real, as full, as complex, as consequential to him as yours and mine are to you and me. It’s true of every person you meet in the course of a day. And it’s true of every character you write.
Show vs. Tell
Most of the time in writing fiction, the cardinal rule of “show, don’t tell” reigns supreme: it’s nearly always far more effective to show character, attitude, or mood through a character’s actions or words than by explaining it directly to the reader yourself. But there are exceptions. Conventional screenwriter wisdom says that you get a temporary reprieve from the “show, don’t tell” rule when you first introduce a new character. A brief grace period where you can give a short description that is all “tell” and no “show.”
In the script for Unforgiven (one of my favorite films), here’s how the writer, David Webb Peoples, introduces us to Little Bill, the bad sheriff played to chillingly terrifying effect by Gene Hackman:
“Little Bill is huge and ominous. Some say he acquired the bearskin by staring the bear to death and others say he drowned the animal in spit. Anyhow, he’s big with a drooping mustache, and he is sucking on his church warden’s clay pipe, and you know he isn’t scared of anything.”-Steel Fear
So here are two examples of such “free throw” introductions from Steel Fear. First, the admiral:
“Selena Kirkland’s face was all smooth planes and sharp angles, like fragments of a fine china set, refashioned into an instrument of war. She reminded Jackson of Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and democracy. Also of warfare. And everyone on the Attic plain knew, gods and mortals alike: you did not fuck with Athena.”-Steel Fear
Then, Stickman, the young rescue swimmer Finn first meets in chapter 4 aboard Monica’s Knighthawk:
“The junior guy, the crew’s avionics operator and designated SAR swimmer grinned at him. Black dude introduced to Finn as ‘Stickman.’ Still had that new-guy sparkle. This was a kid who had not yet seen death up close.”-Steel Fear
Bang: right there, that does two things. First, it gives us a sense of who Stickman is. He’s young. He’s a little green, maybe a little naïve. He’s friendly and takes to Finn right away. He’s going to be an ally. That’s one, but it does something else, too. That “this was a kid who had not yet seen death up close” remark. It’s a foreshadow, a red flag that tells you before the story’s done, Stickman will have that experience.
Sometimes you can do it through a single image—a metaphor, like the description above of the admiral—that you then keep returning to as a reference point. They say one picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a few well-chosen words are worth a thousand images.
The first time we meet Master Chief Jackson (this is a few chapters earlier than the one in excerpt in the last installment of this series), he doesn’t even have a name yet:
“Finn noticed a machine-gun turret of a guy planted a few feet behind the XO, watching everything. As if hearing Finn’s thoughts, the CMC’s eyes fixed on him with a Who the f*** are you and what are you doing on my ship? look.”-Steel Fear
Notice that tank image, the “machine-gun turret of a guy.” The book builds on that when we eventually meet him for real:
When he roamed the Abe’s passageways, Jackson moved like an Abrams tank that had taken a few semesters of ballet.
Later on, we encounter Jackson again, making his way up through multiple ladders and levels to the flight deck of the Lincoln, greeting sailors as he goes:
“Jackson nodded his greetings and rolled on.”-Steel Fear
And it happens yet again, still later: patrolling the ship for hours, hoping to prevent a murder, Jackson “rolled on.”
And then there’s Eagleberg, Jackson’s nemesis. When his frustration eventually reaches the point where he can no longer keep it from spilling over, he curses out loud. And what does he say?
“Balls.” That’s it. “Balls.”
You’ve heard the expression, “he swore like a sailor,” right? Well, this is how Eagleberg swears. Talk about self-repression. Throughout the book, we keep waiting for the explosion, wondering if the man’s true bottled-up fury is ever going to show up. (Hint: it does.)
Dances with Mops
There was one character I had trouble with. He was a “minor character” named Hermán Sanchez, a big bear of a guy, of limited intelligence and easily manipulated, a loner whose only source of companionship was three imaginary friends.
The book was finished, but our editor, Anne Speyer, told us Hermán still wasn’t right. He didn’t ring true. It was a cardboard cutout of a character, not flesh and blood and soul, and he didn’t feel real.
So I started over and wrote an entirely new character. His name is Luca Santiago, and he is still of limited intellect, still easily manipulated, still a loner whose only companionship is composed of imaginary friends. Here’s how I described him when Finn discovers him in Finn’s stateroom, ostensibly there to clean.
“A slender, narrow-shouldered sailor over by Finn’s dresser, shuffling a mop around and humming to himself. He swayed slightly on his feet, almost as if he might fall. Drunk? Stoned? It took Finn a moment to understand.
He was dancing with his mop.
As the sailor began swiveling around toward Finn, his tune reached its chorus, and he went from humming to singing. ‘Ayy, ayy, ay, ayyyyy, canta y no llorr’—”-Steel Fear
He stops abruptly when he realizes Finn is standing there at the door, watching him.
By the time the brief scene is over, Finn has made friends with him, and we feel like we know who he is. The boy who serenades his mop. “The last romantic” is how Finn sees him. “Dances With Mops.” In the buttoned-up world of navy culture, he may be at the bottom of the totem pole — but he’s created his own world, too, where he is loved and loves in return.
Just before Steel Fear came out last summer, we heard from Johnathan McClain, the brilliant actor who does the voice reading for the audiobook version of our novel. (You’ve seen Johnathan in roles in Mad Men, Navy SEAL, and other mainstream shows.) It’s extremely rare for an author to hear from the guy who does the audiobook. It never happens. But Johnathan was so moved by the book that he took the time to get our email addresses and write us about it.
And the character he singled out? Luca Santiago. He wrote, “That character just about ripped my heart out.”
Every person alive—in the flesh or on the page—is a human being with a story to tell.
Special Holiday Offer!
Purchase STEEL FEAR as a gift and John or Brandon will send a short personalized cameo-style video to your gift recipient if purchased before December 18th. Just send us a screenshot of your purchase on the SOFREP contact page here, include the gift recipient’s name, and a good email for us to send out your custom video.
John David Mann is the award-winning co-author of more than 30 books, including 4 New York Times bestsellers and 5 national bestsellers. His bestselling classic The Go-Giver (with Bob Burg) won the Living Now Book Award’s Evergreen Medal for its “contribution to positive global change.” Seven of his books are coauthored with SOFREP founder Brandon Webb, including their first thriller, Steel Fear, which Jack Reacher author Lee Child hailed as “an instant classic, maybe an instant legend.” You can order Steel Fear, and find links to interviews with Brandon and John, at SteelFear.com.