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September 3, 2012

Writing Characters that Aren’t Like You . . .

by mainecrimewriters

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Hi, it’s Kate Flora, coming to the end of a summer of visiting Maine libraries. One of the best things about talking mystery to a library audience is the questions I get asked. So often there are questions I’ve never been asked before that make me reflect on my process, and on what I’ve learned from nearly thirty years in the writer’s chair.

Today, I’m pondering a question someone in the audience asked recently night at the Camden Public Library, where Vicki Doudera, Janis Bolster and I were appearing on a Sisters in Crime “Beach Reads” panel. The question was this: When I made the transition from writing Thea Kozak mysteries where my character is a “strong, amateur, female P.I.” to writing dark, grouchy, and decidedly male Portland detective Joe Burgess, what did I have to do to make Joe Burgess credible? To write a cop? To write a man? To write a character who has seen far too much, when I’ve spent so much of these last thirty years facing a screen and exercising my imagination? How do I go about crafting any of the characters in my books to make them seem real to a reader?

It’s a wonderful question. My first answer would be that men and women writers have always written both male and female characters. This is simply the writer’s job–to fully imagine characters like ourselves, and also blow life into the ones who are very unlike. Sex isn’t the only challenge, there is age, ethnicity, educational background, morality and culture to consider as well. But that doesn’t explain some of the challenges we face, or the techniques we use, in trying to get it right.

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Here are some of my answers to that question. First, to write any character, I have to think deeply about their psychology and their history. What happened in my character’s life–whether I’m writing a good guy or a bad guy or a victim–that shaped the person my reader will encounter on the page. It’s a lot of wondering and imagining, and it often also involves asking experts my questions. I will talk to psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers about what shapes human behavior, and how a particular kind of damage, or behavior will manifest itself in the adult. Or, conversely, if I have a character who behaves a particular way, I may ask what things in life might have shaped him or her like this.

If I’m writing a young person, I may also talk to a school psychologist. If I’m writing a stalker, as I did in my last Thea Kozak mystery, Stalking Death, I’ll talk to cops, and to victim/witness advocates, as well as to stalking victims.

A casual conversation with a young lawyer in my agent’s office, about the book when I was working on it, led to a quote that went to the center of my character’s dilemma. In Stalking Death, there is a young black student, an outstanding female basketball player, who is being stalked by a male who calls whenever she’s alone in her room. The administration doesn’t believe her, despite some ugly physical items which have been left in her room, and claims she’s doing it to herself, especially once she identifies her stalker as the grandson of a major donor to the school. This makes her even more isolated and frightened because she has no one to turn to for help.The young lawyer I spoke to had been a stalking victim while she was at college, and when she spoke to someone in the administration about the devastating effects of those constant, intrusive phone calls, that sense of invasion and being watched, and how profoundly unsafe she felt and how much it affected her ability to concentrate, he remarked that he didn’t know what she was so upset about. It wasn’t as though the guy had touched her. But oh yes he had–he’d touched her spirit and her sense of security. It was deeply illuminating, and I was able to weave it into the book.

Joe Burgess is the product of a lot of time spent talking to the police. Going on ride-alongs, taking a

Deep in the Canadian woods, viewing the sentinel tree that the killer used to mark the location of Maria Tanasichuk’s body.

citizen’s police academy, taking a police-taught self-defense class, and doing a lot of looking and listening. I’ve sat in the chair across from some very scary police officers and had them ultimately give me the gift of their trust and their confidence. The stories they tell when I’ve stopped being a civilian and an outsider have been instrumental in illuminating Joe. His character first grew out of a story told to me by a Delaware cop over breakfast several years ago. Spending time on interviews, and building trust, has also been instrumental in bringing the people in my true crime books to life.

Creating any character is a process of observation–how do different people speak, how do they move, how do they express their world view. It is also a process of wondering. What shaped them, what are their politics, their religion, how do they relate to others, and what is/was their family like? When I ride down the street with a police officer, I will ask: What are you seeing that I’m not? When I conduct an interview, I will always conclude it by asking: And what are the questions that I should have asked? And when I sit in someone’s office, or at Dunkin’ Donuts or I’m in a store dressing room, I’m looking and listening. How do people dress and move and relate to each other. How do they communicate?

When she was 83, my late mother, A. Carman Clark, published her mystery, The Maine Mulch Murder. She wrote it because she’d complained to the local librarian that either everybody in the mysteries she took out was improbably beautiful and so rich she couldn’t relate to them, or else the books were too violent for a lady in her seventies to enjoy. The librarian said, “Mrs. Clark, if you don’t like what we have to offer, why don’t you go home and write one.” So she did. When she gave the draft to some friends to review, they told her they liked the plot and they like the setting and they liked the characters, but they didn’t believe everyone in a small Maine town spoke like a 7th grade English teacher. She realized she had to start listening, and the book was greatly improved.

I tell my students that the starting point for imagining a character is to think about how the character is like you, then how the character is unlike you, and what do you need to know about them to understand those differences. It’s a lifelong challenge, of course. I learn it. Forget it and have to go relearn it. Because in the end, I want people to feel like they know Joe Burgess. That he’s not generic, or cardboard. He’s a man who struggles to do what’s right, to be honorable, to take care of the little people, and who longs for a more peaceful and normal life. I want you to care. And if I do my job right–you will.

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