Mafia stories are a well-trodden path. The genre encapsulates crime, drama, and family. But in order to revive this classic genre, it’s important to come at it from different angles.
So you’ve watched Goodfellas, and decided that you could definitely do that, except as a book. Using my own experience writing mafia stories, and some of my favourite movies, I’ve put together an easy guide to motivate you to start writing. Topics covered will include where to start, location, characters, tropes, and plots.
1. North America, USA
There are many mafias all over the world, but the most infamous are the Italian-American ones, known for their immaculate suits and old New York accents. Keeping that in mind there are a few options here: New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, or Los Angeles.
There are many more cities to choose from, but these are known locations of crime families. Another thing to consider is these cities and states are fairly large and well-known which will make them far easier to write about, no matter where you live in the world.
Probably the most famous state for mafia activity is New York, with five major crime families. There have been countless books and movies based in New York for this very reason. The Godfather by Mario Puzo or The Five Families by Selwyn Raab for example.
2. Main Characters: Mafioso, Don, Consigliere, Cappo
In order to develop your main character(s), ask yourself some questions:
- Why are they involved with the mafia?
- What’s their story?
- Where do they fall in the Mafia hierarchy?
- Are they an integral part of the mafia, or are we watching through an outsiders’ eyes?
These things will all greatly affect how you write your novel. Don’t be wrapped up in writing about the don, or an up and coming mafioso. There is nothing wrong with writing these characters or tropes, but it’s been done. In order to effectively explore the genre further you need to add your own nuance and flair. Either by going through the lens of a character who wouldn’t usually be explored, or changing up the ‘traditional’ character.
History has often been retold through a specific lens, one that conformed with the values of the past. But now in the present differing perspectives are being brought to light. The same can be said for writing. Your mafioso, or don, do not need to be the characters we have seen time and time again. On the other hand you might choose to write a character who isn’t usually explored in mafia film and literature. Whatever you want to do is valid, because you will be the one writing it––as long as it’s done well.
3. It’s All in the Motive
Once your character or characters are three-dimensional beings you must decide on where you will take them. These plots can mostly be boiled down to revenge, money, or power; usually these feed into each other as well. If a mafia needs more money, they will gain more power by proxy. If a mafia wants revenge they might need money or end up making money in the process. If a mafia needs to gain power they will need more money, etc.
There are individual motives and the motives of the mafia. Your character’s individual motive of making more money will facilitate the mafia’s motive of revenge or expanding their business. For example in The Irishman De Niro’s character is paid $10,000 to set light to an opposing business. These motives feed off each other and even rely on each other to reach your individual character’s goals. If your character’s motives don’t compliment their mafia’s it will cause conflict. This might be something you welcome into your story, and have them overcome. Or it might be something you want to avoid for the sake of simplicity.
No matter what you decide, try not to overcomplicate the whole thing. You’d be surprised how convoluted the simplest plots can become once worldbuilding, romantic subplots, side characters, and small acts of revenge are brought into it.
4. The Family and Associates
It goes without saying, but your main character can’t achieve their goals alone. Mafias usually place importance on the value family and mobs need muscle and order. These people are your side characters. In such a serious novel it would be difficult for the most dedicated of readers to go without comic relief or break from action for two or three hundred pages.
The beauty of a mafia novel or movie is getting to know the different members of the crime family, and getting glimpses into their everyday lives. The Godfather movies do characterisation brilliantly. The first movie begins at the wedding of Don Corleone’s daughter, but instantly you understand how criminal activity within the family interrupts such a sacred day. Between the scenes in Don Corleone’s office there are people dancing and eating cake. This brings a third dimension to your characters without making it too explicit. Rather than saying they are real people,you’re showing it. This will make your novel flourish.
Make your characters interesting, make them redeemable. Give your characters jobs, this will help you have a well-rounded novel. Make their personalities well-suited or in contrast to their jobs.
-a character’s job could be adding comic relief, but their instability causes problems––think Joe Pesci’s trigger-happy characters
-the best hitman in the mafia is a neat freak, he can’t bare to look at the mess, leading to others having to clean up for him
-the main character’s spouse and children soften and change them
-the Don is scared of his mother and makes all his men take their shoes off at the door of her house
But, no matter what their function is, steer clear of making them two dimensional objects for your main character to interact with to further the plot. Make them people, who happen to be on this journey with your main characters.
I would suggest showing the reader glimpses of their lives that have nothing to do with the central plot of the book. These scenes do not necessarily have a direct impact on your main character or plot but serve as character-building devices. I’m not suggesting going off on tangents about how someone your character regularly interacts with has an affinity for ferrets for two and a half pages. Though it wouldn’t hurt to have your main character startled when they go to ask them a question and a ferret pops out of their blouse.
5. Life is not Linear.
Unless this has caught the attention of any crime families, I imagine your life is pretty regular. Despite not being in a crime family I bet things get pretty complicated from time to time. Nothing runs smoothly. Sometimes you’ll be jumping hurdles just to get where you want to be in life. Maybe you failed your driver’s exam and have to take the bus to work for another six weeks. Or, a relative is in the hospital ruining your entire schedule. Your spouse decides to leave you. You get my point here.
So, just imagine how complicated it would be for someone involved in the mafia. This brings us back to why the main plot should be kept to a simple goal. Because in your book, just as in life, you must achieve lots of small goals to complete your main goal.
Let me explain a bit further. You have a ‘money’ plot; your main character is part of Mafia A, they want to expand their businesses and territory. They are being stopped by Mafias B, C, and D. Throughout the novel you must strategically decide how to eliminate the threats to your main character, fulfilling their goal of making their mafia money. You must also maneuver the real life consequences of your character’s actions to reach their goal. Death, injury, prison time, etc.
Simply put, your story’s main goal will be interrupted by all the things they need to do to achieve it, and these things will have their own individual consequences. These consequences are your subplots.
6. Romantic interest
You might be thinking, between guns, gang wars and funerals, where does romantic interest come into all of this? Well it’s not imperative that you have a romantic interest, however, it is a safe bet to put in your book. A romantic interest will engage the reader even if they are bored with other aspects of the book.
Perhaps you want to have an established romantic interest. A wife, for example, humanises your character; it makes your readers realise a murderer, with questionable ethics, shares aspects of their life with them, a house, a car, a family. Or, you might have no romantic interests and this is frequently a point of conversation, something the other characters have and they do not.
7. Enemies and Situational Allies of the Family
Wherever your mafia story is set, and no matter how you want to steer it, there will always be people who do not want your characters to reach their goals. This could be another mafia, a traitor in the midst of the family, or law enforcement.
It is a good idea to establish a crime culture for your characters to follow. For example, whilst rivalling mafias might be civil in a restaurant, they won’t be on the street, and they also have a capacity to collaborate because of their shared disdain for law enforcement. The enemy of your enemy is your friend.
Or, maybe they’ll be friendly to officers on the street because they have men on the inside. But when push comes to shove they’ll be happy to take a cop out.
In such high pressure situations relationships outside the loyal members of the mafia will be strained. It is your job as the writer to establish why these relationships exist, and what your mafia is getting out of them. These interactions are tense, as anything could go wrong at any minute. Use these to your advantage to further your plot.
8. Guns, Drugs, Money and Fronts
Making money through organised crime is the name of the game for any mafia. The legal term is racketeering. In America anti-racketeering laws known as RICO were introduced in the 70s because of the loopholes associated with organised crime. For example, if you ordered an affiliate or subordinate of the mafia to murder someone, you technically didn’t commit a crime. But, under RICO if a member of an organisation is caught racketeering the entire organisation is liable. Every single person associated, and the people or person who ordered it, can now be tried. The laws get much more complicated, but it is something to keep in mind when deciding on the time period and activities of your mafia.
Once you understand the basics of the society your mafia operates in you can decide how they make their money. Popular examples from movies, and literature include: fronts, drugs, weapons sales, and the classic extortion. But regardless of what you decide, this will play a part in how your story progresses. You are in control and your decisions should be calculated.
9. Keep it Realistic-ish…
There is a fine line between keeping it realistic and ruining your story for the sake of accuracy. Because the time it takes a man to bleed out is out of your control. When in reality everything is in your control as a writer. If you want a character to survive, even after being shot, you need to understand that, yes, you can die from being shot in the shoulder, but most people don’t know that. Also, there’s a difference between being shot with a modern-day gun and a gun from the 1940s.
The time period your story is set in will affect the reality of the story greatly. The more we progress as a society, the harder it is for a mafia to operate, when it comes to laws for example. But, technology-wise firearms and weapons progress to be more powerful. This leads to more violent crime, and your characters are easier to kill.
So, whilst it is important to understand the facts as a writer, it is also your duty to use them to your advantage. You don’t need to include the details of every little thing, as most readers don’t care. But, you also can’t write anything so egregious that the average twelve year old would question its integrity.
Small miracles are okay if they have explanations, or are easily skipped over by the average person. But no one, not even your main character is surviving being bombed or something of that nature any time soon.
10. Map and Plan Your Story
Between all the characters, enemies, subplots, and that romantic interest, things are bound to get complicated. You need to write a skeleton for your story, and preferably a timeline as well. Your skeleton is the bare-bones of the novel.
The way I like to do it is to write out what I want to happen in each chapter. I also note why these events are significant, and how they connect to each other. A timeline will also help with pacing, one chapter might cover a week because not much is going on, but another might cover a day or two because of the density of the information and events.
This also helps if you forget anything whilst writing, and will save you time from having to go back and read your previous chapters. This is your last step before you actually start writing.
Often when writing a novel it is tempting in my experience to continue researching, rather than just beginning. But as long as you have your basic plot, characters, and structure most things can be fixed in the editing process. The important thing is to find a writing process which works for you; you will be the one spending weeks and months with your work at the end of the day. Happy writing!