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    Keeping in Character

    Diana Killian Icon

    One of the questions that frequently pops up at book signings and other literary extravaganzas is “How much of your sleuth is YOU?”

    And I suppose, since these are the children of our imagination, sprung fully formed from our paper daydreams, that they are all us. But…I don’t think that’s what readers are really after. I think readers, like shrewd agents, are (though for different reasons) inquiring into “platform.”

    Platform can sort of be defined as your promotional springboard–or your particular qualification for writing a novel. Say that you are a real life PI in a small town or a cop in a big city, and you write a mystery series about a PI in a small town or a cop in the big city.  That’s your platform. That connection can be capitalized on in any book promotion ops.

    Of course an agent or publisher’s motivation is different from a reader’s. Readers like the synchronicity of dog groomers writing series’ about dog grooming sleuths or hair dressers writing series’ about crime-solving hair dressers. Readers are smart enough to realize that even if you are a military spouse and you have to move every eighteen months or so, and you write a series about military wife who stumbles on murder everywhere she goes, you probably don’t have much experience with real life murder–they are liable to rely on you for useful moving tips, however.

    It all ties in with that “write what you know” advice that we all get when we’re starting out (and which I frankly think is some of the worst advice ever given a young writer). Readers like getting that inside scoop on whatever subject that interests them, be it working on a fashion magazine or exploring the Outback. And it’s very natural to assume that if you, the writer, have actually done any of these things, you’re going to be entertaining and informative on the subject.

    Maybe. But all cops are not Joseph Wambaugh and all archeologists are not Elizabeth Peters. Research fills in the gaps for the rest of us. And imagination. And empathy. But it’s not quite as exciting as having been there and done that.

    Which brings us back to readers and their curiosity about how much of our characters is us, and how much is sheer imagination.

    In the Poetic Death series, I write about an American high school teacher with a passion for the Romantic Poets who gets involved with murder and mischief on a vacation to the English Lake District. Like Grace Hollister, I taught high school for several years and I do have an interest in the Romantic Poets. But that’s about it. Grace (who was originally conceived almost 15 years ago) reminds me as much of my friends in college as she does me. Looking back, I think she is very much a composite of a younger me and my chums, but she is also a reflection of the heroines I read at that time: the young women of Mary Stewart and Phyllis A. Whitney and Elizabeth Peter’s novels.

    And because of that, Grace is changing with each book. I’ve tried to keep her as originally conceived, but that’s not interesting and it’s not even practical. I no longer think the same way; so neither does Grace.

    A.J. Alexander, the protagonist of the yoga series I’m writing for Berkeley was originally devised by my agent, Jacky Sach. I had to rework her quite a bit before I could understand her (A.J., not Jacky)–and now, although she is nothing like me on the surface, I understand her very well indeed. She is much harder and much more worldly than Grace Hollister–she has taken hits that Grace has not and she has lost her idealism. She has no particular passion in her life, whereas Grace is passionate about her work and literature and…although she struggles against it…Peter Fox.

    What is interesting to me is how I go about making these characters my own. Their dialog and their humor and the things that hurt them or frighten them all come straight from me. And yet they are not me. These made up women take chances I would not, they value things I do not, they jump to conclusions and make mistakes I do not. Mostly I like them–sometimes I do not.

    So…I suppose the answer to the question is…never mind my heroines, how much of my villains are me?

    8 Responses to “Keeping in Character”

    1. A military spouse who stumbles over dead bodies and gives moving tips…interesting concept. Great post, Diana. I get the “how much of your sleuth is you” question all the time. From now on, I’ll refer people to Good Girls Blog 8/21 for the answer.

      by Sara Rosett on August 21st, 2006 at 11:25 am

    2. A few members of my family have read an early draft of my finished MS. One of my aunts persistently refers to my protag as “you.” I certainly hope she didn’t think I based the victim on a family member!

      As you note, my villains are as much me as my sleuths are. But they’re not just me, or mostly me. The sleuth I’m working with right now has almost nothing I common with me and it’s been sort of interesting to realize which bits of my psyche he comes out of. He is, to some degree, a manifestation of some of my needs or wishes–I guess the sleuth in my original books is as well, but because she’s more superficially like me I didn’t really notice what other roles she was fulfilling inside my head.

      What’s interesting is, this second character is much more flawed than the original one, and I find his flaws harmless and kind of endearing. I always used to think of author-surrogate characters as creatures of monstrous perfection. Now that I’m more into the idea of every character as an author surrogate (at least to some degree), I’m starting to wonder what my likable screwup of a main character actually says about me!

      by Shelley on August 21st, 2006 at 12:27 pm

    3. This was interesting and well said.

      And Shelley, I liked your comment too. The manuscript I finished most recently has a protagonist that may share some very minor things with me, but what I found fascinating was how much I enjoyed her and her cast of side kicks. I was genuinely sad to put them aside for awhile after I typed The End.

      by Laura on August 21st, 2006 at 1:05 pm

    4. In the new humorous gardening mystery series I’m hoping to get back to after I finish the current ms, I modeled the female protag. on two of my favorite people, one fictional: Charlie Dimmock of BBC’s Ground Force and Gregroy House from the TV series, “House.” Combined they make a glorious character: my new favorite, Sawyer Sheldrake.

      She’s not me, but she reflects my love of gardening and my appreciation of certain characteristics: down-to-earth-ness and forthrightness mixed with wit.

      All my characters seem to be that way - an amalgam of my likes and dislikes and what I appreciate and have enjoyed in fictional characters others have created.

      Villains are a bit more complex. That’s where empathy comes in for me - many of my villains are characters one might sympathize with if their story were written from their point of view.

      by Heidi Vornbrock Roosa on August 21st, 2006 at 4:24 pm

    5. I’m one of those asshole writers who bristles at the “Which character is you?” inquiry. Mainly because I’m being genuinely truthful when I say “None of them,” and noone believes me. I make it a point not to put myself into my characters very much, and in the rare instance when I will speak through a character it will be one that I otherwise would never agree with at any other point. Not to mention, all of my characters are REALLY screwed up, and if I were half the train wreck any of them are, instead of writing books I’d be wandering around the neighborhood in a Viking helmet hollering at lamp posts. And I gave that up a while ago.

      Bouchercon update:
      I was on the road, and in fact in Los Angeleeees, when the registration closed. So officially I’m not supposed to be there. I’m going anyway, though, and plan to crash as many paries as possible (won’t makes the panel discussion, alas) so keep an eye out for me. I ain’t hard to spot.

      by Nathan on August 22nd, 2006 at 1:09 am

    6. Villains are a bit more complex. That’s where empathy comes in for me-many of my villains are characters one might sympathize with if their story were written from their point of view.

      Nice point Heidi! Everyone’s the hero of their own story, and having empathy for the villain gives things a lot more emotional weight, doesn’t it?

      by Shelley on August 22nd, 2006 at 5:58 am

    7. Okay, Nathan. We’ll keep an eye out for the bristling guy holding the Viking helmet–er, is that Viking as in sea-going manly men or Viking as in footballers?

      Shelley, Heidi, et al, I think our villains are somewhat limited by what we personally find threatening or frightening (or just unreasonable). That’s my theory anyway, except I keep writing these eccentric goofy villains, so I’m not sure what that really says about my inner fears.

      I do have a deep-seated dread of unshaven Norsemen–although I usually get past it if they buy me enough drinks.

      by Diana Killian on August 22nd, 2006 at 10:47 am

    8. Fabulous post, Diana!

      When people ask me if I’m the heroine in my book, I nod and say, “Yes, I’m the independently wealthy widow of a viscount.”

      Interesting point about villains, Heidi. I like reading about villains who are sympathetic on some level–ordinary people can do awful things if they’re in the right (wrong?) situation. Writing crime fiction lets us explore what pushes people over the line. I started thinking about that a lot when I was writing my second book.

      Nathan, we’ll smuggle you into the Good Girls’ panel at Bcon!!!!!

      by Tasha Alexander on August 25th, 2006 at 7:02 am

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