Morally ambiguous characters are the toughest to create and write. I’m not talking about main protagonists with flaws and failings that make them human, (who cares for a perfect player?) but those characters who, from most perspectives, sound more like primary antagonists and thereby run the risk of alienating readers. Very few will happily follow a main man or woman with distinctly iffy morals for hundreds of pages, not least because it makes the climactic scene when good guy versus bad guy (simplistically put, I realise) tricky.
All of the above filtered into my thoughts when creating DCI Matt Jackson and his sidekick and hit woman, Iris Palmer. A serving police officer and a woman who kills for a living are not a natural fit, yet it’s each character’s very moral ambiguity that glues them together.
Most readers will forgive main characters (and the writer) just about anything as long as two things are in play: a really strong backstory and a nuanced approach to characterisation that includes a healthy measure of self-awareness.
With Matt Jackson, backstory was fairly easy to incorporate. Driven crazy by a serial killer, ‘Neon’, and an investigation going nowhere, Jackson then suffers the ultimate loss when his wife is murdered. Suicidal in the opening scene, vengeful when he believes he has a shot at nailing the killer, conflicted, because a desire to kill goes against his professional code, it’s these emotions that I plumbed into all the way through the story.
By rights, Jackson should be content with colleagues bringing a killer to justice through the judicial system. But the grief, following a death as a result of violent crime, is uniquely different and more extreme to the mourning of an ‘ordinary’ and ‘conventional’ passing. Jackson’s desire to take ‘Neon’ out of the game permanently and by any means is one, I hope, readers will, at least, understand if not condone. Rather than focusing on vigilantism, I deliberately played up the element of ‘There for the grace of God,’ and ‘What the hell would I do in the circumstances?’ A fine line, to be sure.
While Jackson may ultimately come down on the wrong side of the law, it was important to me to ensure that he has enough integrity, psychological insight and self-awareness to recognise who he is, what he feels and why he feels it. Unlike Iris who is a lot less complex in her thinking but a lot more complex in her characterisation! The challenge for me: who is going to love a woman who kills to pay the bills?
Again, it was important to layer her characterisation with a convincing backstory that goes above and beyond the fact that, from the moment of her birth, Iris has been dealt a rotten set of cards in the great deck of life. While making no specific social comment, it’s no accident that the most disadvantaged often fall through society’s widely laid pavements and I took care to drop this into her story, without either descending into polemic or revealing too much. Even Jackson has to wait until the very end to find out who Iris really is, a discovery that explains a lot and puts her more extreme acts into context. I also took care to seed in a few redeeming features. Perversely, Iris actually has a strong sense of basic right and wrong – anyone who beats an animal is likely to get a fist in the face. She’s direct, perceptive and very able to cut through social niceties to what’s really going down. She’s also brave and immensely loyal to Jackson, and not just for the money. In common with him, she knows who she is, recognises what she does, and doesn’t make excuses.
Obviously, sharing a common goal for different reasons welds Iris and Jackson together. Damaged individuals, they spark off and occasionally loathe each other. It makes for an interesting dynamic. While Jackson has no scruples with Iris offing Neon if she can lay her hands on him, he draws the line at her carrying out hits on anyone else. Iris, naturally, views things quite differently and considers Jackson’s objections as obstacles to be ignored for sound economic reasons. Of necessity, theirs is an unholy alliance, each bringing something different to the table in their combined pursuit of a devious and ruthless serial killer. Superficially, their partnership shouldn’t work and yet, somehow, it does. Who knew moral ambiguity could be such fun?
Neon by G S Locke published by Orion Fiction (Out now)
A detective desperate for revenge. A hitwoman with one last job. A killer with both on his list. Detective Matt Jackson's beloved wife, Polly, is the latest victim of a serial killer - Neon - who displays his victims amongst snaking neon lights. Suicidal but unable to kill himself, he hires someone to finish the job. But on the night of his planned murder he makes a breakthrough in the Neon case and offers his assassin, Iris, an irresistible opportunity: help Jackson find and kill Neon in return for his entire estate. What follows is a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse between detective, assassin and serial killer. But when Jackson discovers it's not a coincidence that their paths have crossed, he begins to question who the real target has been all along...