Monday, April 16, 2012

Wheels for the Redneck Godfather

In the dark winter days, I had cars on the brain. The characters in my current manuscript had places to go and no wheels to take them. I tried out some generic cars—a blue Ford, a brown Buick—but like bad-fitting jeans, nobody was comfortable. This was especially true of my villain, Lamar West, the Redneck Godfather.

Cars became my obsession. As I scanned the streets for vehicles, I also reflected on fictional characters and the cars they drive. Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton) came to mind first with her '68 VW. Like Kinsey, the VW is a little worse for the wear and needs a tune up. But also like Kinsey, the VW is doggedly persistent and loyal to a fault. In Kinsey's case, the VW is more than just a car. The bug takes on a secondary character role, the trusty side-kick, the confidant and the comforter.

Are cars an outward manifestation of the character? You betcha'. Sara Paretsky's Chicago-based PI, V.I. Warshawski, is one tough cookie. She'd got a smart mouth, an insatiable curiosity, and sense of justice that lands her in trouble. V.I. likes speed and she has just the car to prove it, a Trans Am. The Trans AM is an American racing car and back when V.I. bought hers it was a tough, sexy machine with lots of power. Just like V.I.
The Trans Am is an effective metaphor for V.I.'s excursion into the male dominated world of law enforcement and investigation and in both arenas the speed and danger are a heady mixture for this hard-living and hard-loving character.

This research showed me that if you plop your character into any old car, you miss an opportunity. Cars can provide readers deeper and more nuanced insight into a character's personality. So what kind of car does the Redneck Godfather need?

Well, here's a few facts about Lamar: He's a self-made man with working class origins who today wears Italian suits, brings home an easy million-dollars a year (tax-free!), flaunts his wealth, and has no interest in being green (sorry Prius). He controls a vast criminal organization along Georgia and South Carolina's I95 corridor with interests in drugs, prostitution, extortion, gambling and other vices.

Back in the '80s, Lamar would have driven a hot-rod Camaro, but today he demands a luxury car. But not, he told me, one of those candy-ass European imports. No, Lamar wanted something with some bite. Try typing that in a Car Max search.

Then one day, I saw it: the new Dodge Charger, a beauty of a car with a shark-like silhouette and cocky lift to the rear. It has all the trappings of luxury: shiny chrome, sleek metallic finishes, and a silver grill like a steel-trap. But under all that polish  is an old fashion muscle car with a high performance engine rarin' to go.

With the right adjectives, the Charger can help convey the menacing attributes I want the reader to absorb about Lamar: barely controlled violence under a thin veneer of civility. Next time you see a Charger on the street, imagine the Redneck Godfather at the wheel. He'll be smiling—in a scary way.

So, what's your character driving?


  1. Shellie! As I was reading this, I thought, well, Mr. Godfather would drive a Charge, naturally. LOL! I think this speaks to your ability to draw out character. That dude is a badass and that car will take him to hell, handily.

    Since Joe turns furry and fourfooted at will - and lives in a world without cars - he's happy to supply his own transport. And Della's too, when they need to make a fast get away.

    Khrys...hmm, if he has to drive one, he'd go for a Lotus. Silver. Viviana would probably go for a VW Bus with flowers painted on the side. At least today she would...

  2. A Lotus, huh? Well, as Khrys is a member of the Western Hemisphere's pantheon of gods and goddesses, I guess a Lotus would be appropriate.

    Vivianna's choice interests me. The VW van with flowers epitomizes the '60s socially conscious values. What if a Khrys (son of Poseidon)had to drive the van? That would take him out of his comfort zone.

    That reminds me of Elmore Leonard's book, Get Shorty, where loan shark Chili Palmer gets stuck with a minivan rather than the caddy he wanted. He's all out sorts driving the soccer-mom-mobile, but eventually claims it for his own and even makes it cool.

  3. I don't know...not really sure Chili completely reclaimed the minivan, but good point about taking people out of their comfort zones!!

  4. Loved your post, Shellie! And I can attest that Charger fits mean old Mr. West right down the ground!

    With the end of the spring semester looming large, I'm at the point where I get to start spendIng more time with my characters. Hooray! My protagonist owns two cars. Why? Because she can. She's put a lot of miles--and more importantly to her, a lot of dollars--between herself and that ratty ex-husband of hers.

    I always find it interesting when she gets interested in the vehicle a possible love interest is driving. Does that make sense? I dunno, but I love to see other characters through my protagonist's eyes. When she eyeballs cars, it's a great way to do that!

  5. Cars definitely say a lot about a person. My female character drives a small bright blue car. My hero drives a sports car. I haven't determined which one. But something throaty and powerful.

  6. Hi Nichole,

    Your heroine sounds like an interesting gal! I will admit that I've spent very little time until Lamar came along looking at or thinking about cars.

    I knew them vaguely by shape, number of doors and color. Now, I think like a motor head. When some thugs come to threaten my heroine they're driving a big Suburban. The roar shatters the silence of the night...well you get my drift.

    And don't get me started on fender designs, wheel covers and spoilers.


  7. So Lisa, The Car Doctor is here to help you select the right blue car for your heroine. Answer these questions:

    1. Is your heroine a spendthrift or penny pincher?

    2. How would she describe her "green" values: passionate, supportive, tentative?

    3. How patriotic is she: some, not at all, very?

    4. Is she single or married or married with kids?

    5. Is she a long-range planning kind of gal or has she the attention span of a grasshopper?

    6. Which of these adjectives describes your girl: adventurous, homebody, party-girl, Junior League, or Junior Executive?

    Answer these questions and all will be revealed.

    1. Ok, Shellie, here goes:
      1. Mild penny-pincher
      2. Supportive
      3. Some
      4. Single
      5. Long-range planning
      6. Homebody

      Can't wait to see what you do with this...Lisa McQuay

  8. Want to see the best 2 minute, tear jerking story there is? Go to YouTube and type in:
    Eminem Chrysler Super Bowl Commercial 2011. This will take you to a half-time commerical from the 2011 Super Bowl about Chrysler's "luxury import" from Detroit.

    I'm telling you, I cry everytime I watch this commerical and I have watched it more time than I care to tell you. It's the American story in words and pix.

    Who says short can't have impact?

  9. Great post, Shellie. Loved it and loved thinking about how a car could help build characterization. Awesome. My projects have often been set in England or parts foreign, so my default vehicle has been the Land Rover. Next time I build in vehicles and driving, I'll be using your questions to help me narrow the choice.

    That being said . . . I love the 2012 Mustang commerical. Go to YouTube to watch it if you haven't seen it on TV. "Everybody has an inner Mustang." So true!

  10. Woo-Wee! Candy, that is hot. I love it. The unexpected twist at the end. hmmm!

    Paste this in your browser:

  11. I've not given a lot of thought to what my characters drive, but it's something I'll be looking at now.

    In my YA book, one of the characters was in a band and he drove the white van. That van came in useful, plotwise. :-)

  12. I see your point Yvonne. It's utilitarian. The make and model is less important in this case, but the opportunity to give it a distinctive voice is there and could be lots of fun.

    The van might sputter like an old teapot. Maybe the scent of cannabis lingers in the air and a waves of fast food wrappers crash over occupants each time the van breaks on the breaks. Perhaps the windshield wipers stand, permanently, at attention waving forever like Queen Elizabeth.

    Endless opportunities...