In the rapidly changing world that we live in, it is important not only for the writer to change with it, but for the literary character as well. A character’s evolution through time, especially in a series of work, allows for the reader to build a connection with the character. Social media proves to be ever-changing the way that society receives news, and thus should be reflected in literary characters. In this weeks guest blog, author R.G. Belsky shows how he has adapted the culture of today with his reporter protagonist Gil Malloy in his most recent novel, Blonde Ice.
Keeping Characters Relevant in an Ever-Changing Media Landscape
By R.G. Belsky
Fictional PIs today are a lot different than Philip Marlowe was back in the 1940s and ’50s. They use DNA evidence, online research and social media to help solve crimes. Same thing with lawyers who operate with modern techniques that Perry Mason could never imagine. And police officers in novels now certainly have to be a lot more sophisticated (not to mention socially aware) than the Jack Webb stereotype of yesteryear.
The bottom line is that a fictional character — just like in real life — needs to keep up with the changing times.
But it’s not always that easy to do for a mystery writer.
My protagonist is a New York City newspaper reporter named Gil Malloy. And there is no industry undergoing changes more rapidly today than the newspaper business — with papers folding, staffers being laid off and readers turning more and more to blogs and other online media for the news.
So how do I deal with this in my novels?
Well, in The Kennedy Connection — the first Gil Malloy mystery published in 2014 — I didn’t deal with it much at all. Gil was still very much the traditional old-fashioned newspaper reporter working for the print editions of his paper, the New York Daily News. By the time of Shooting For The Stars in 2015, Gil was spending a lot more time putting his stories online before print. Now, in Blonde Ice — which comes out Oct. 18 — Gil has gone viral big time. He tweets constantly, Live Stream reports from crime scenes and works for a tech-obsessed twenty-something year old new boss who cares more about web traffic than selling newspapers.
So that familiar image of a newspaper reporter pounding away on his story in the newsroom or racing to a payphone to call in his scoop to rewrite is just a memory from the past.
But the problem for a novelist like me — who writes about newspaper reporters and the media — is that everything in that world is changing so fast it’s almost impossible to keep up with it all.
A few years ago, newspapers barely had websites. Then came Facebook and Twitter and Live Video Chat and all the rest. A book generally takes 12-18 months to make it to publication. There’s simply no way any of us can foresee what new social media developments there will be by the time our book comes out.
But I still try my best to keep my character Gil Malloy up-to-date with the latest developments in the media world in order to make sure he seems authentic to the reader. Best-selling mystery writer Janet Evanovich touched on this briefly at Killer Nashville 2016 when she was asked how she felt about mystery characters aging during a series. Her reply was: You can keep your character the same age if you want, but you do have to be aware of and acknowledge changes in the world around them.
The only alternative for an author is to set a novel in another time period. Like Sue Grafton does with Kinsey Millhone in the ‘80s. Those pay phones Kinsey uses are sure a lot simpler to write about than keeping up with the latest updates on smartphones, iPads and social media apps.
But you want to know something? It really doesn’t matter all that much in the end for me and my books.
Sure, the media is changing all around us so rapidly that sometimes it’s hard to keep up. But it’s always been that way. And always will be.
There used to be twelve newspapers in New York City — now there are ten times that many local news outlets available online. People once got their breaking news first from radio, then from television and now from Twitter. CNN changed the face of journalism with a 24-hour news channel a generation ago in the same way blogs and websites and social media are doing it now. TMZ is breaking big scandal stories online every day the way the National Enquirer used to do once a week at the supermarket checkout counter. But the news is still the same. The only thing different is the way it’s delivered. Or, to paraphrase The Who, “meet the new media, same as the old media.”
In the end, the only thing that really matters to me — both in the newspaper business and in writing my Gil Malloy mystery novels — is the story.
People always want to read a good story.
And that’s one thing that never changes!
R.G. Belsky is an author of crime fiction and a New York City journalist. His new mystery Blonde Ice — the latest in a series featuring newspaper reporter Gil Malloy — will be published by Atria on October 18. Previous books include Shooting For The Stars (2015) and The Kennedy Connection (2014). Belsky is a former managing editor at the New York Daily News; city editor of the New York Post; news editor at Star magazine and — most recently — was a managing editor at NBC News. He recently won the Claymore Award at Killer Nashville 2016 for Forget Me Not, a new book project — and was a Finalist for the Silver Falchion Best Mystery and Best Thriller awards with Shooting For The Stars. Reach him here.
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