Snakeman:  Creating Compelling Cop Characters in Fiction

Snakeman:  Creating Compelling Cop Characters in Fiction 1

My journey from cop to writer is summed up in the title of Bob Dylan’s 1975 masterpiece, “Tangled up in Blue.” Creating compelling police characters in fiction is a Gordian Knot. Many see police officers as modern-day gunslingers, who protect townsfolk from outlaws and embody American justice. Others, however, have mixed feelings about law enforcement, and portraying police in a way that is both realistic and sympathetic can be a challenge. I’m honored to lend a hand in untangling your protagonist through sharing my:

  • Law Enforcement career
  • Creative muse
  • Tips from a squad of prominent authors.

Each cop is as unique as Dylan’s gravelly voice. The main character in my novel, Typhoon Coast, is a composite character, who depicts my real world, and the magic of many mentors. Like me, Trent is a United States Marine who survives the June 1991 cataclysmic eruption of Mount Pinatubo, Philippines. Trent is also the descendant of the famous Dodge City lawman Bat Masterson. McShane is a skilled San Francisco policeman, SWAT operator, and jungle fighter who, “brings evildoers to justice.”

Snakeman:  Creating Compelling Cop Characters in Fiction 2

A significant part of the story revolves around Trent’s journey into law enforcement. One Typhoon Coast reader wrote, “Readers who enjoy narratives that deliver an inside view of law enforcement and the military would be wise to consider Typhoon Coast.” Another reader wrote, “Typhoon Coast is a surrealistic novel that follows a man’s adventure-filled life from its beginnings as a boy, to becoming a Marine, and later serving as a San Francisco policeman.”

Early in Typhoon Coast, I have a scene in which Trent’s father (Anthony) manifests the noble “Snakeman” in Trent’s imagination. His father has just finished reading to Trent a chapter about Bat Masterson from an oversized book about gunfighters from the Old American West. The two sit at a quiet breakfast table

Snakeman:  Creating Compelling Cop Characters in Fiction 3
Snakeman:  Creating Compelling Cop Characters in Fiction 5

“You see, Trent, a lawman has to be part man….” His father paused. Anthony’s eyes searched his son’s face.

Trent was waiting for his father to find the right words to describe something that would be very important to his boy. Trent’s imagination darted to mythological hybrid versions of cops that were half robot, cops that were mind readers with superhuman strength.

Anthony’s eyes found Trent’s. His pause ended with two final words: “…part snake.”
A man who is part snake stuck in Trent’s Marvel Comics– molded mind: the superpower of detecting in the darkness the body heat of an evildoer, like a python hunts prey.

Anthony never lifted his gaze. “A lawman has to be a good man, with the power to do great evil upon evil men. It takes a lawman years to develop that precise temperament.”

The boy watched his father gently pluck the air. “About as long as it takes a surgeon to perfect a steady hand,” the father told his son.

Anthony McShane’s words fell upon Trent’s mind like a spell cast into a cauldron. He had a birthright now.

He had treasure to find.

Snakeman:  Creating Compelling Cop Characters in Fiction 4

If it could talk, what would Norman Rockwell’s iconic 1958 painting The Runaway say? From T.J Hooker to Dirty Harry, here are some tips on how to create convincing and memorable police characters in your fiction.

  1. Research
    Deep dive: As with any other aspect of writing, research is essential when it comes to creating police characters. This includes not only the technical aspects of police work (weapons, policy, laws, regulations, equipment, training…) but also the culture and “mindset” of law enforcement officers. Interview police officers, or go on a ride-along to get a feel for the weight of the badge. I hope you don’t see something awful that you can’t unsee.

  2. Avoid Stereotypes.
    Every generation of cops is different: Police Departments enforce the law based upon a public expectation, and these expectations differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Not all police officers are corrupt, brutal, or racist, and portraying Norman Rockwell’s policeman as such is inaccurate as it is unfair. On the other hand, not all police officers are saints, so it’s important to balance portraying cops as flawed and respecting our profession. A cop’s uniform and gear weighs about fifteen pounds. Make your reader feel the bulletproof vest, and smell their filthy wool uniform on a hot day!

  3. The ‘Snakeman Rule’.
    Build backstory: Every character needs a backstory that explains why they are the way they are. Perhaps your character is inspired to become a cop after a traumatic experience as a child, or maybe they come from a long line of cops and feel pressure to live up to their family’s legacy. Whatever their backstory, it should inform their motivation, conflict, and actions. Maybe Norman Rockwell’s runaway grows up to be a police officer?

  4. Departments hire good people to do a complicated job.
    Don’t shy away from conflict: Norman Rockwell modeled the depicted officer after an actual person, Massachusetts State Trooper, Richard J. Clemens. Police work is conflict-ridden. These are man against man, as well as man against self stories. This could include conflicts with suspects, conflicts with fellow officers, or conflicts with their own moral code. By putting your characters in tough situations, you’ll give them the opportunity to show what they’re made of. On a daily basis, your cop copes with Death Anxiety. Their lives are pervaded with death, near death, and reminders of death. How does Death Anxiety change your hero?

  5. Not all cops make it to retirement. Many, suffer a change of heart, mental health issues, get killed, suffer career-ending injuries, get in trouble, and, sadly (and too frequently) even take their own lives.
    Richard J. Clemens lived to be 83-years-old. Show the human side of policing: Police officers bleed, and they have personal lives. Many secretly nurse an emotional or physical injury (usually both). Share their scars with your reader. By showing the human side of policing, you’ll make your characters more relatable and sympathetic. Typhoon Coast takes a deep dive into Trent McShane spending time with family, struggling with a personal problem, and simply enjoying a hobby. Cops unwittingly track human remains home on the bottom of their boots—tip-toeing into their kid’s room to sneak a kiss goodnight because he missed her little birthday party. Cops live in two worlds. Make your reader feel your cop’s pounding heartbeat!

  6. Police work, above all, is a Humanitarian Mission.
    Avoid glorifying violence: One of the biggest pitfalls of writing police characters is gratuitous violence. It’s important to remember that violence in police work is the failure of diplomacy. The best cops see themselves as quintessential servant leaders. While police officers have to use force to protect themselves or others, we should never portray it as the first option.

  7. Learn cop-talk.
    Use dialogue effectively: Dialogue is a powerful tool for revealing character, and police officers are no exception. By using dialogue effectively, you can give your characters distinct voices and personalities. Cops live in a “smiles & cries” world. Your cop may be lost in a masquerade of dark emotions? Make your reader’s ears perk! Pay attention to the jargon and slang that police officers use, as well as their tone and body language. Capture your cop’s unique swagger, forged under the awkward pressure of a duty belt’s ridged edges wearing down the lower back, hips, and pelvis. Or an injury.

  8. There are three scenes in a police career: The streets, home, the building (Police politics).
    Don’t forget the supporting cast: Police officers work in teams. It’s important to give your supporting cast distinct personalities and roles. This could include a grizzled veteran who’s seen it all, a rookie who’s eager to prove themselves, or a detective who’s jaded by years of working homicide cases. Beware of the cliché. Avoid relying on popular media portrayals. Find what gives your cop that unique swagger.

  9. Police work is 10% muscle, 90% emotional.
    Police officers know fear: Police work has a profound impact on the communities they serve, and it’s important to show this in your fiction. This could include scenes of your characters interacting with members of the community, investigating crimes, attending community events, or attending a police funeral. There is a perpetual exhaustion that only cops know. Make your reader feel this drain of being pulled in many directions Calls coming in, one after the other. Each more urgent than the one before: A child lost, a woman abused, a robbery in progress. Your cop racing to each heart-pounding scene—Hoping to be the hero. The weight of the job takes its toll. The endless stress. For every life saved, there’s another in need.

  10. And, Please…
    Finally, it’s important to avoid politics when writing police characters. Police work is a complex and multifaceted issue, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. While it’s fine to acknowledge the controversies surrounding policing, your focus should be on telling an interesting story with well-rounded characters.

    There is an early chapter in Typhoon Coast, “The Demigod of Wax Olympus,” in which Trent McShane is on the eve of embarking upon, to quote Joseph Campbell, his “Hero’s Journey.”  Here, Anthony McShane takes young Trent to Boot Hill Museum of Dodge City to meet a wax effigy of Bat Masterson. They learn how Bat’s amazing life ends with the “Well dressed man who brought evil-doers to justice” dying of a heart attack at his typewriter. Yes, this “Snakeman” died a journalist. 

Dear reader, I’m leaving you with gems of wisdom. I asked a few law enforcement turned author friends: Do you have one characteristic to attribute to an endearing cop? Here are some replies:

“Being vulnerable, and real,” says retired Police Sergeant, veteran, author, and police mental health advocate Michael Sugrue.

“You got to remember that cops are trained to be tough,” advises San Francisco Sheriff Chief Deputy Kevin Thaddeus Fisher-Paulson. Kevin is an author, and weekly columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Retired Police Sergeant, veteran, and author George Cramer points out,  “We want our characters to be well rounded whether a good person or not so good. Whichever category you place the cop in, you need the character to exhibit acceptable characteristics.”

“Successful police officers have a moral code. They display a balance of restless courage and an equally strong, protective instinct, which is ultimately motivated by a powerful form of self sacrificial love,” says Doctor Shauna “Doc” Springer, who is a licensed psychologist, best-selling author, award-winning podcast host, and one of the world’s leading experts on psychological trauma, military transition, and suicide prevention.

Kevin Briggs, aka Guardian of the Golden Gate, who is credited for saving over 200 souls from jumping to their deaths from the Golden Gate Bridge encourages, “Don’t assume anything. Listen to all sides first.” Kevin was my podcast guest (Mark R. Clifford’s Heroes for Hope: Thriving Beyond Trauma) where listeners meet amazing survivors who turn trauma into superpower.

And finally, San Francisco Police Sergeant Adam Plantinga, and author of “400 Things Cops Know”, so eloquently offers, “A cop needs a healthy dose of cynicism tempered by a good heart. Like Han Solo.”

My friend, creating compelling police characters in fiction requires a delicate balance of realism and empathy. By doing your research, avoiding stereotypes, and showing the human side of policing, you can create a memorable and engaging Snakeman readers will root for. Remember, police officers are people too.

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