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?