by JT Ellison
Happy Day after Thanksgiving! Are you stuffed? Tired of the relatives? Enjoying the football, or the movies? Well, good. I hope you had a nice day, regardless of how you celebrated. And obviously, since our non-American guests didn't have the pleasure of our most secular holiday, here's wishing you a fruitful year full of joy and happiness too.
I had a strange experience this past weekend. It's making me rethink how I do some things with my writing, namely how I build some of my characters. Specifically, how I create a victim.
I've talked before about creating characters.I have rules, very stringent rules. No character is allowed to exist without a purpose, a reason. Each character MUST drive the story forward, whether they are the waitress at a diner or the Chief of Police or my protagonist. Tertiary characters can be a lot of fun. They can also be heartbreaking.
Early on in my writing career, I read an interview with John Connolly where he described his view of the victims in his novels, based on how a reporter he knew dealt with a real prostitute who'd been killed in Dublin. She was treated as the most basic chattel, just an anonymous, nameless person. She'd been depersonalized by the reporter, treated as if she were nothing. John wanted to be sure none of his fictional victims were ever treated like that.
When I read that, I realized I felt the same way. I'm a crime novelist. Operative word is crime, which means a victim of some sort. I've written books with serial killers, and books where there is a single murder. Creating a believable villain is only one component to the crime novel. Creating a sympathetic victim is a completely different challenge.
Paramount to everything I do when writing a book is how I treat my victims. It's constantly in the back of my head. I do a lot of fictional killing, and the victims are most commonly women. It's a very tricky matter to work through this. It's difficult for me emotionally, because I am a woman, and I'm delving into some of my worst fears, and as such it's quite personal. I strive not to victimize my victims, though bad things are happening to them. I definitely try to breathe life into them, to make sure they're never treated as just another dead body.
To do this, I usually start with a name, and a face in my head. Then I troll through some of my local magazines to see if I can find a visual, a picture of someone who might fit the bill, so to speak. When I find a match, I cut out the picture and create a biographical sheet, a thorough victimology. The information builds throughout the creation of the story. Whether the victim is on one page or fifty, I want to be sure that they are respected and understood. That they will be missed.
Which brings me to my bizarre weekend. I've just finished creating a huge numbers of characters to fit into my new book, THE IMMORTALS. I needed a killer, and victims, and parents and family of victims. I have pages of pasted pictures and bios. Remember, I use local magazines for my pictures, because these books are about Nashville, and it fits that I would have people who LOOK like the Nashville I know.
Randy and I were out to dinner, and after we'd been seated I started looking around – the occupational hazard of dining out with a writer – at our fellow diners. Over Randy's shoulder, I saw a familiar face. I was having a hard time placing this woman, and then it hit me. In all the time I've been writing in Nashville and creating these very Nashvillian characters, I've never ran into one that I've included in my story. Well, sitting no more than five feet from me were the parents of one of my characters.
I felt the strangest feeling of dread. Though they didn't know it, I was using them as an inspiration. It's not their real son who is a part of my novel, but it is their fictional child. Cue creepy chills. They finished their dinner and stood to leave, and started a conversation with the people behind them. And what are the odds… they too were parents in my book. Now I'm feeling a little freaked out. Weird coincidence, without a doubt. But something that was bound to happen – though I always assumed I'd be running into a victim instead of the victim's parents.
The next morning we were out to breakfast, and damn if it didn't happen again. This time it was the victim's sister, sitting at the table next to us. Chatting it up with her family, goofing off with her boyfriend. With no clue that in my own weird little way, I was attached to her.
I wasn't brushing up against the dead, which has always been my fear. I was stumbling into the walking wounded, the ones left behind.
I've always spent so much time worrying about my victim, and hadn't really comprehended until that moment what I was doing to their family. I have dealt with the family dynamic – heck, JUDAS KISS is all about that – but since I've never been that close to anyone who has been touched by tragedy, I've never seen inside that world. I've only imagined it. I couldn't help but think about what she'd look like if she were crying, if she'd just found her brother dead in his bedroom. Not smiling, a dead look in her bright, happy eyes. I thought back to the parents the previous evening, and how they'd deal with the news. By coming face to face with the people who will fictionally be there for the aftermath, I was given new insight into what exactly it must be like. And I admit, it was horrifying.
I think we need to be somewhat detached to be able to write about these weighty issues time and again. I wonder now if I've been too detached. I don't know. I just hope I can do my character's stories justice.
So on this day after Thanksgiving, I'm thankful that God gave me the gift to manipulate words to tell a story. I'm also thankful that I've been given the gifts of tolerance and compassion, so I can make sure the victim's story is told. And now, I think I'll have a better grasp on how to help my victim's families deal with the aftermath of losing a loved one.
I'm thankful for all of you too, listening and helping as I work through some of these issues. Thank you.
So what are you thankful for today?
Wine of the Week: It's that time of year!!! 2008 Louis Tete Beaujolais Nouveau
I continue to be stunned and grateful that my leap of faith out of screenwriting into novels worked.
I am so grateful to be well-employed as an author in these really shaky times.
I am grateful for my beloved mate, my family, my pets, my home, my friends, this community, our fabulous gypsy life.
For this Presidential election and our amazing President-elect, his already staggeringly brilliant team, this historic crossroads and transcendence in American and world history. For that light leading us out of this dark time.
For my creativity, health, education, for my freedom as a person and as a woman.
This is one of those stop now or not get any other writing done all day things.
But I am, profoundly, grateful.
Oh, and I must say – I am grateful for the film SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. That’s what filmmaking is supposed to be. Cannot wait to read the novel it’s based on, Q AND A.
Run, do not walk, to see it.
Don’t worry, I’ll be blogging about it!
Alex, I’m right there with you — too many things to be thankful for. Sometimes that leap of faith makes everything fall into place.
Boy, howdy, am I grateful for so much.
Yesterday, I woke up to my children laughing, the dog barking and an all too rare rainy day. It hailed and sleeted here in Albuquerque and later I went walking in the drizzle — grateful that our parched NM earth was getting a drink.
Writing, love, family, glorious NM views, mountains, crisp blue skies and dark angry storm clouds that you can see sixty miles away.
My imagination. The imagination and determination of others who write, edit and have the strength to get published . . .
This would be a never-ending missive of gratitude. And I know you all have other things to do.
Pari – I always look at rain as a blessing. Love it. Glad you had a little something special on your Thanksgiving!
Wow, thanks for this JT.I’m thankful for my family, my wife, our girls, and the fact that we both have solid footing in a recession-proof industry (education) while I try to write.
I’m thankful to the mystery community at large, and especially those of you here who have been so warm and welcoming (and adopting, Ms. Ure, I haven’t forgotten that!) to a wannabe who’s working to become a gonnabe.
I’m thankful for the many things I’ve learned from all of you, whether in email (Mr. Rhoades, Zoe, JT, Alex, Ms. Ure, Toni), through your blog posts – here and on your personal blogs, and in person (Alex, I learned so much from your presentation and our chat afterwards. You are a goddess. Bless you and thank you).
I am thankful we live in a country where I am allowed to turn the channel when the media bias gets too overwhelming. I am thankful Bill Clinton can’t screw anything else up. I am thankful Bush is almost to the same point (though he can still do some damage). And I amthankful that, if our president-elect (and his awful, separatist wife) turns out to be the ineffective empty suit I believe he will, that we can find some other lying hack to put in place in 4 years (’cause let’s face it, all politicians are lying hacks, even THE WAR HERO and THE SAVIOR from this year).
Oh, and I’m thankful to live in this great country where, if I’m proven wrong, I won’t be caned or imprisoned or shot like in some other Oceanias out there. I’ll just be fed a little lukewarm crow.
Jake, you’ve summed it up perfectly : )
Hope your Thanksgiving was great!
Whoa Nelley!!!!!!!!!!I’m sorry. Empty suit?! Awful, separatist wife?!Jake – I so applaud your right to say these things, and I am so thankful I have the right to disagree. And I wrote a WHOLE bunch more but deleted it.
There’s so much to be thankful for, and thanks for reminding us to think about it, JT.
I have enough to eat and a roof over my head, and gainful employment. Which allows me to enjoy hanging out with my friends, whose kindness and fellowship are what I’m always most grateful for.
The comments above have covered a lot of what I’m thankful for … and some I wouldn’t agree with ever.
But what struck me about your post today JT was the remarkable empathy you have with your characters, even when they take on real life appearances and sit down next to you in a restaurant. I think that’s what makes you such a good writer.
Kaye, I’m thankful we don’t do politics here at Murderati. We all have different opinions and thank God we can express them in a tolerant manner.
Rae thank you for the wonderful message. Many blessing to you and yours.
To be clear – the above posts by “Murderati” do not represent the collective view of Murderati. I for one am 100% with Kaye.
Louise, thank you. When I can’t identify with my characters it all falls apart.
Let’s drop the political stuff, please. I’m logged in on my iPhone and my responses are showing up as Murderati. All the Murderati comments today are from me, JT. And I decree on this day of thanksgiving that we must all get along.
Funny you should mention that, JT; I’m most grateful for those ways in which we *have* learned to get along, to put aside that tribal tendency toward ‘them ‘n’ us’ divisions.
Open eyes and an open heart are a good combination for the New Year.
You’re right Tom. I rarely feel the Us v. Them in our community. It’s still out there, but one of our biggest strengths is our intellectual openness. Everyone’s opinions matter. : )
I’m grateful for:
good friends (that includes the cyber ones!)
a donkey whose broken leg has healed
the whole immediate family/menagerie here (4 horses, 2 mini donkeys, 5 cats, 2 dogs, a husband, 2 amazing children
the view from this desk, right now, a lovely sun lowering shadow of tree and leaves on the back side of the barn
that my dad has made it to the holidays, and is home in his bed
Hospice (I never knew how incredible those folks are)
Thanks, JT. Hope your holiday is being good.
I’m grateful to Sandhill Books for making my life easier and thus making me a nicer mum, wife, grandmother & friend.
We celebrate Thanksgiving in October. But because of the internet, we celebrate again in November. I’ve been blessed numerous times this week because of posts like this one.
Thanks JT. Stay safe.
Since I blogged about what I am thankful for yesterday at Murder She Writes, I want to give JT a high five for her insightful comments about crime survivors.
First, I can only say thank God I don’t model any characters after any actual person (be it personality or physical appearance.) I’d probably be committed if I saw a character in real life.
Crime survivors are often ostracized. I think that we, as society, tend to shy away from living victims, be them the actual crime victim or the surviving family members. Aren’t we all a bit scared to get too close to those who have lost so much, as if their loss would rub off on us? Don’t we hug our children or better half a bit tight, a bit closer, when someone else has had part of their life ripped from them? (It’s always someone else in our mind, never John Walsh or Brenda van Dam or Marc Klass, but another unnamed person we try hard not to identify too closely with.)
All my books deal in some way with survivors of crime. In THE PREY, my heroine’s father killed her mother; in THE HUNT my heroine is the sole survivor of a serial killer; in THE KILL, my heroine’s sister was kidnapped while they played at a park, then later found murdered. In SPEAK NO EVIL, my heroine was babysitting her nephew when he was taken from his bedroom in the middle of the night, and killed. They are survivors in different ways, but I try never to shy away from their feelings or the tragedy that created the person they are today. There’s nothing flip about surviving.
I didn’t come to this realization overnight. I always thought I was a compassionate person. But then through a variety of circumstances, I had a long conversation with Brenda van Dam, who lost her daughter to a predator. And all I could think about was “Thank God it’s not me.” And I felt awful, but after that I started thinking more about the mothers and fathers and siblings. I put myself in each of their shoes and came up with three distinct characters in THE KILL–a mother who barely noticed her two living children because she grieved her dead daughter; a father who couldn’t stop thinking about his daughter’s killer–taking revenge to the extreme; and a young sister who didn’t understand what was going on, but wanted to fix it. It’s the only book I’ve written where I actually cried reading one of the scenes.
I’m glad you brought up this topic, JT. And I’m really love John Connelly’s comment about victims. I hope I never write a generic, faceless victim.
I guess I shouldn’t have spoken up. I guess I’m thankful for the chance to apologize for my personal views upsetting so many I consider friends, insomuch as online people can be. Sorry.
Jake? Me too – still friends?JT & everyone – sorry.(But he DID start it!!!!!!)Oh Laws – I’m sorry – I just could not resist.Jake – that was just a bit of teasing. forgive me, please.
Kaye and Jake, you guys are the best. Different opinions make the world go round.
Allison, you do the victim’s and the families so well. I’ve taken many cues from you too.
I’ve discussed before my friend who went missing, Dale Dinwiddie. But I never saw the up close aftermath of that. And it’s my only, thank God, brush with tragedy. I think what Allison said about people not wanting to get close to victims because it might rub off is so true in so many cases.
Joylene – glad we could give you another go round. Blessings to you and yours.
Billie, what a fabulous list. I’m thankful for my furry friend as well. Though there’s only one of her, I don’t know what I’d do without her.
And I’m thankful for books that spark the imagination. Just got home from seeing Twilight, and I must say that some of the magic was lost on the silver screen.
In Karin Fossum’s first book (which escapes me now), I loved how the victim grew and changed, become more and more real to us as readers as she became more real to the invesigator who found out things about her. She took on shape and dimension, and wasn’t left just as a paper device to get the story going. I really admired that.
Oh, so much to be thankful for, including a lovely woman at the center of my heart, a great job doing what I want, family who love me and friends who help me smile, even through the tears.
Fran, your happiness spills through the computer. : ) Thank you!