Continuing my series on writing about my literary influences growing up, today I want to talk about Richard Bachman. Most of what I write hereis also true of Stephen King given that they're the same guy, but I mention King's alter ego because although his work as Bachman perhaps isn't his best work objectively speaking, the stories he wrote in that persona really stick with me.
There are three novels that haunt my memory: The Running Man, the story of a guy agreeing to run for his life in a fatal futuristic gameshow to help get his family some cash (ignore the movie and read the book), The Long Walk, the story of a young man taking part in a marathon-style contest where all but the winner are killed at the end, and Rage, the story of a high school senior that shoots his teacher and takes over a classroom in a hostage scenario (written in 1977, long before the news media learned to sensationalize and glamorize school shootings to boost ratings, King let that one fall out of print due to the subject matter, and that's probably a good thing).
What makes these stories so great in my mind is the characters. They're not great characters. Heck, they're not even good characters. But they are real characters.
Real people are messy. They're opinionated, hypocritical, inconsistent. Bachman is really willing to let his characters go, and just let them be weird, let them be assholes, let them be less than noble. Let them be human beings.
Even when they have goals and even when their lives hang in the balance, they're distracted. And not with important things either, but with trivial things, like wanting to kiss a pretty girl, or tell their story to a stranger, or take a damn nap because they're tired. Things that don't fit with their character. Things that don't advance the plot, or have greater meaning in the context of the story. Just stuff that happens, because real life is full of stuff that just happens, for no real reason, or reasons we never see or understand or articulate.
It gives his characters extra depth and richness without a lot of extra words. It makes them relatable without us ever understanding why. Too much of it can really bog down a story and Bachman/King's characters are rather notorious for derailing his stories (Ben Richards in The Running Man even has a moment of self reflection on that) but it's a good thing.
I often strive to let my characters do what they want to do, so to speak. If they do something that's inconvenient to my plotting, I rearrange my plot. That's a lot easier than rearranging a character or (so much worse) just stripping your characters of their humanity to make them fit a plot outline.
I write that way because of what I learned from Richard Bachman.