Craig Johnson, author of the Longmire series, discusses Walt’s personality traits and nuances, and explains the influence behind them.
There’s a reason I chose a sheriff as my protagonist: not only because the office is emblematic of the American West, but because it’s the only elected law-enforcement position in the United States. Being the sheriff of the least populated county in the least populated state in America means that Walt is immediately answerable to his constituency, a member of the community whose laws he enforces.
It’s been said that if France is an oil painting, then Wyoming is a charcoal sketch and that’s OK with me – a lot of things become more evident in a charcoal sketch. The sparseness of the environment allows Walt to deal with his surroundings in a seminal sense – a vertical figure on a horizontal landscape.
The Longmire novels are written in the first person, which means that the sheriff is never very far from my thoughts or narrative. I tend to refer to Walt as a detective for the disenfranchised, a man whose secret weapon is his compassion for the less fortunate or forgotten members of society. I think he has an emotional empathy for the outsiders because, in a sense, even though he’s connected to his community, he’s one himself – a rogue male somewhat driven off from the herd, even if it is a self-imposed exile.
Since Walt is the narrator, I knew the books were going to have a masculine propensity to the narrative, and that I was going to have to introduce a number of strong, capable female characters to even things out. The result is that Walt is surrounded by this pride of lionesses who look after him. Ruby, his dispatcher, is responsible for the structure of his days; Dorothy down at the Busy Bee Café is responsible for keeping him fed, his daughter, Cady, provides familial love and support and Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti, Walt’s undersheriff, provides, well, something else . . .
Walt’s also what I tend to refer to as over – overage, overweight, overly depressed – in short, dealing with a lot of the things that my readers deal with on a day-to-day basis; no six-foot-two of twisted steel and sex appeal here, just a decent guy trying to do the right thing. I think in a crime fiction field filled with anti-heroes and guys whose moral culpability allows them to kill of a couple dozen people by the end of each novel, Walt kind of stands out as a white hat.
The old saying goes that you like people for their virtues, but you love them for their faults, and if there is one thing I didn’t take into account, it’s the amount that readers care about him. Generally, the emails I get the most after a book’s release are the ones telling me I’m too hard on the sheriff, and that I need to take it easy on him in the next book – readers think he’s real, and to me that’s the greatest compliment a writer can receive.
When I first started the novels, Walt really wasn’t that smart, well read, or funny, which might explain why it took me so long to write The Cold Dish, the first of the books. I started thinking that if I was going to be in this guy’s head for four hundred pages, he better be interesting, so I made him an English major; consequently the character became well read and insightful. In one of the commercials for Longmire, Walt is actually quoting Robert Frost, and I have to tell you I’m pretty proud of that.
The humour of the character came from all the ride-alongs I did with Wyoming and Montana sheriffs. Anybody who’s ever had a difficult job knows how important it is to keep your sense of humour – it’s the only way you get through the day. I remember a sheriff telling me about how I had a mistake in the rough draft of my fifth novel, The Dark Horse.
‘You got a mistake right there in the first chapter; you got people drinking beer out of bottles in a bar on the Powder River – can-only bars on the Powder River, Craig.’
‘Why is that?’
”Cause if you give people bottles, they throw ’em at each other.’
‘Well, you can throw a full can of beer at somebody and hurt them.’
Pause. ‘Craig, nobody on the Powder River ever threw a full can of beer.’
That’s probably the thing that most cops write me about – Walt’s sense of humour.
Another thing I like about him is his ability to surprise me. I was talking to Greer Shephard, the executive producer of the A&E series based on the books, and she asked me if I thought of Walt as being a verbose person and I said yes. She told me to go through one of my books and highlight his dialogue, what he actually says . . . She was right; he thinks a great deal but doesn’t say much – it was a genuine revelation.
There is the regular ebb and flow of characters in the novels, but there’s always one stalwart, a guy I can depend on to tell the story with me, a guy whose company I still enjoy.
I’ve really come to appreciate the guy, and I’m sure glad you do, too.
The Longmire series is available in The Murder Room, starting with The Cold Dish. Longmire, the TV series, is currently airing on 5USA at 9pm on Tuesday nights.