Last week I talked about tertiary characters, and called them people. I’ll grant you, only a writer can be so self-absorbed that the characters she develops can be considered alive. But there you go. They ARE people. The exist, fully formed in our minds. They live, breathe, cry, eat, feel pain, create mayhem… if they weren’t alive for us, how could they ever be alive for our readers?
I was at my in-laws last week and my MIL asked if Taylor would be getting married. I hemmed and hawed, and while I was busy playing coy, my brother-in-law looks at us both with this incredulous look on his face. "Um, folks?" he said. "They aren’t real."
Oh yes, they are.
I dare any writer to say that their characters haven’t taken on a life of their own in our minds. Haven’t we all been in a situation and wondered how our protagonist would handle it? If you’re me, you wish you could handle life the way Taylor does. She’s stronger than me, less black and white. Things that freak me out don’t affect her in the least. (Except spiders. Spiders freak her out too.)
I bet I’m not the only one. Honestly, if I were Lee Child, and Reacher was my character? Whoo-boy, you can bet I’d be mentally mowing down annoying people left and right.
And of course, since I have a vivid imagination, that train of thought leads me to…
Can you imagine what it would be like to see your favorite literary character with their hair down, at home, so to speak, doing the everyday things we do without threat of murder and mayhem looming over their heads? What do they do when they aren’t on the page? Do they go to concerts? Sporting events? Read a book on a Sunday afternoon? Go to the beach, not get enough suntan lotion on and burn in embarrassing places?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I need a 4th dimension. In genre fiction, thrillers especially, there’s rarely time to develop the outside interests of a character. Do you honestly think a reader would sit through four quarters of a Titans game with Taylor? Now granted, if Reacher wanted to go to a Yankees game, I’d be all for that, but I’m probably in the minority.
It’s another case of how well the author knows their characters, and how much of that information needs to be shared with the reader. Yes, Harry Bosch has bitchin taste in music. But isn’t that a device like any other that we use, something to set the mood, to warn the reader that Harry’s getting in a funk, is probably going to get drunk, bed his latest love, and get called out on a case at 2 in the morning?
It enriches the experience for the reader, absolutely. Barry Eisler is the master at this, letting us have glimpses into John Rain’s head using music. (Why is jazz so favored among us???) But can you imagine Rain waking up one morning and thinking, hmmm, I’d like to go to a soccer game. Maybe he’s a huge soccer fan and we just don’t know it because that’s all in Barry’s head. Yes, extreme case, but I’m trying to make a point here.
While our characters are alive for us, we can’t let too much of them onto the page. We have to measure, and hold back in order to further the plot along. Taylor spends time at the Exit/In and Mercy Lounge, her favorite places to see bands, but that doesn’t make it into the story, because when there’s a murder case popping and a limited time to solve it before whatever crisis will occur, she doesn’t have time to go play.
I’d love to hear from you guys on this. For the writers — what’s something no one knows about your lead character’s life? And for the readers — what do you imagine your favorite protagonists do in their time off?
Wine of the Week — 2002 Chateau des Jacques Moulin-a-Vent Gamay
An enjoyable French entry from la Maison Louis Jadot, to celebrate… well…
nothing in particular, except every once in a while, I still have
dreams about my high school French lab. This wine is from the
Beaujolais area of Burgundy. Amusez-vous bien et jouir d’une bonne santé. Au revoir!
I’m at Southern Festival of Books today, where my panel on Sex and Violence, moderated by Robert Hicks and populated with the most talented creatures I know, Tasha Alexander and Marcus Sakey, runs from 12 – 1:30. If you’re in Nashville, come by Legislative Plaza and say hello. Tonight we’re all going to the screening of ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE, which will be introduced by Tasha, the author of the companion novel to the movie (which is incredible, by the way). Tomorrow is the lunchtime panel slot again with our own Toni McGee Causey, Derek Nikitas, and Marcus Sakey, moderated by the lovely Tasha, on Insider Tips to Getting Published. So I’ll be bopping in and out depending on the wireless capabilities of Legislative Plaza. Play nice!