January 10, 2013

Life Isn’t Black and White

Giacomo & Slick

Giacomo & Slick

Conflicting Characters

I write crime novels, mysteries, thrillers, fantasy…no matter what you call them, they’re fiction books. But just because they’re fiction doesn’t mean they’re not real. What the hell does that mean? 

Some readers have written to me and asked how I make my characters seem so real. I thought about that and then realized it’s because they are real. They are made up of characters who are either based on real people, or partially based on real people. My gangsters aren’t all bad. My cops aren’t all good. Nobody is squeaky clean and nobody is pure evil. It’s how it is in real life.

I don’t use content editors. Twice, I engaged well-respected editors for a manuscript and both times I was disappointed. One of them insisted that my “mobster” was acting out of character because he could kill someone with no remorse and then show love for a baby. And another editor kept “correcting” my dialogue, convinced the gangsters should be saying things like, “he ain’t got no,” or “I ain’t gonna do it.”

I’m sure that editor had seen gangsters speak like that in movies, or perhaps read dialogue similar to that in other books, but that doesn’t mean it’s the way all gangsters speak.

Real Characters

When I started writing my first mystery book, one of the inspirations for a mobster type came from an uncle of mine. In the eyes of the law he was not a model citizen. He had been arrested a few times for gambling and bookmaking, and I’m sure there were other things we didn’t know about. But to me, Uncle Ralph was perhaps the most wonderful person I knew, aside from my parents and my two aunts who lived next door.

I had two favorite uncles: Uncle Ralph (born Raffaele Giammatteo on 9/11/1905) and Uncle Jack. Neither one was perfect to the rest of the world, but they were to me.

Raffaele Giammatteo

Raffaele Giammatteo

You Can’t Fool a Kid

Even as kids, we knew something was fishy about Uncle Ralph. We lived in the city and we walked everywhere. Uncle Ralph lived on 4th Street, by the Little Italy section. Lots of times when I was out roaming those streets, I would stop by to say hi to Uncle Ralph. When I was about 8 years old, I asked my father, “What does Uncle Ralph do?”

“Why” he asked me.

“Because I was near his house the other day and he was home and it was daytime.” I didn’t want to tell my father that I’d also seen him in the smoke shop as that might have prompted the question of what I was doing in the smoke shop. Being 8 years old I had no good excuse.

A Long Weekend

My dad proceeded to tell me the true story of how Uncle Ralph was working for the railroad as a young man. One Friday the train he was on got into a minor wreck. Each of the employees had to see the company doctor. They all checked out okay, but to be safe the doctor told them not to report back to work until they saw him on Monday.

Over the weekend the doctor died. Uncle Ralph was 21 years old. He never went back to work. (As a side note: that story instantly made Uncle Ralph a hero with my brother Doggs, who confused the word ‘work’ with another four-letter word.)

Back to the Story

So Uncle Ralph never went back to work, but he did find things to keep him busy. He seemed to be very popular at all the small shops in the area, and he had an uncanny ability with remembering numbers. (Go figure) Even though he never got past 4th grade in school, he could do the NY Times crossword puzzles with ease, and when you played Gin Rummy with him he knew all the cards in the discard pile. He also seemed to have a knack for coming across ‘deals’ on TVs, appliances, and such at greatly reduced prices.

Two Sides To Every Story

That was one side to Uncle Ralph. There was another side too. Like when my dad had his first heart attack. The first night, my mother was at the hospital, and my brothers and I were home. This was back when people who had heart attacks either died or stayed in the hospital for a long time, sometimes for months. We were sitting at home, all of us scared and then Uncle Ralph came, walking up the sidewalk with two bags of groceries in his arms.

And the next week he was back again. He brought food staples, but he also knew what kids wanted—cakes and pies and other treats. He never left without slipping each of us kids a dollar or two.

Uncle Ralph had the patience of a saint, at least when it came to teaching me how to play poker and gin and pinochle. And in all the years I knew him, I never saw him lose his temper. I’m certain he must have lost his temper at times, but I never saw it.

The Character

So here we have a character who:

  • Was a bookie
  • Broke the law (dealt in hot merchandise)
  • Was a gambler
  • Didn’t hold a steady job for 45 years

But this same character also: 

  • Was one of the kindest people I knew
  • Had the patience of a saint, to me
  • Was willing to spend time teaching things I wanted to learn
  • Never lost his temper

If I wrote about a character like Uncle Ralph, that character would have no compunction about breaking certain laws. He’d be a bookie, deal in merchandise that might not belong to him, hold illegal gambling games, and perhaps even participate in the fixing of horse races or other such business.

But he would also be a warm and gentle person to his family. Be loyal to his friends. Be caring and kind. He’d be superstitious, and at times, he’d be afraid. Just like you and me.

The Other Side

I’m sure there was a side to Uncle Ralph that I didn’t know, maybe wouldn’t even have liked, but I only saw the good in him. A lot of people think that if you break the law you’re a bad person. Uncle Ralph obviously didn’t believe in the law against gambling, so he broke it. I have to agree with him on that. After all, there was once a law against drinking, and women voting, and black people doing damn near anything. Who’s to say that it’s wrong to place a bet now and then? The government? The same government that administers the lotteries?

Bottom Line

So when you read my stories and some of the mobsters seem to have a heart of gold—it’s because they do.

As to Uncle Ralph, whenever I think of him all I have are fond memories. I think I’ll keep them that way.


Ciao, and thanks for stopping by,




Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of Murder Takes Time, and A Bullet For Carlos. He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 41 loving “friends.”


6 Responses to “Life Isn’t Black and White”

  1. My Uncle Ralph was called Uncle Ray. I know exactly what you mean. 🙂

    Great story, Jim.

  2. Thanks, Maria. I think a lot of families have an “uncle Ralph”
    It makes life interesting.

  3. Popped over from the WLC Blog Follow program on the World Literary Cafe! Great to connect!

  4. Love the article, thx for sharing. Isn’t it interesting how challenging it is for us to see others beyond the “box” we’ve placed them in? I believe “black and white” thinking is at the heart of most, if not all, of life’s issues and conflicts.

  5. I agree Britta. and thanks for stopping by.

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