The 4th Dimension

by J.T. Ellison

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!

8 thoughts on “The 4th Dimension

  1. billie

    Oh – I just put this together – one of the members of my writing critique group is at the Southern Festival of Books! I should have told her to look for you and say hello. Her name is AJ Mayhew if you happen to run into her. 🙂

    The panel sounds great. Wish I could be there.

  2. pari

    What a wonderful panel; I wish I could be a fly on the wall and listen to it.

    Hum . . .

    One of the things I love about writing both my series is that I DO get to develop the characters quite a bit. So, there aren’t that many secrets that I wouldn’t reveal.

    However . . .Sasha thinks the missionary position is, well, for missionaries.

    Since I leave most sex scenes to my readers’ imaginations, it’s unlikely they’d know that.

  3. Louise Ure

    Let’s see … Calla Gentry in FORCING AMARYLLIS would probably be doing a crossword puzzle. She’s a bit of a timid thing.

    My blind protagonist, Cade, in THE FAULT TREE would kick back by listening to the Diamondbacks on the radio.

    Jessie Dancing in my current WIP would be seeking out nameless sex in some honky tonk on the south side of town.

    I think my girls are getting bolder.

  4. Dana King

    I try to get my protagonist into as many scenes as I can that show his background, without delaying or diluting the action. He’s a former musician, so I make it a point for him to go to a concert in each story. The concert is primarily background, although there will always be a few paragraphs of description. He may meet someone, have something revealed to him, or have something happen to him, but the backdrop will be a Tower of Power gig, or a symphony concert, or even his daughter’s school band. He also always has a book with him, and will have sporting events worked into his actions, even if only to set the place of the scene. I think it adds depth to his character, and they’re a lot of fun to write.

  5. Mark Terry

    Hi, my name is John Rain.I’m a professional assassin, but in my spare time I like jazz, judo and travel. My favorite TV show is “Brothers & Sisters” and my favorite movie is “The Horse Whisperer.” Although my favorite drink is single-malt scotch, from time to time I just like to put on Jimmy Buffett, knock back a Margarita and put on my bunny slippers and grungy sweats and watch cartoons on TV.

  6. Cameron Hughes

    Lawrence Block is a master at this, I know I’m just as riveted by Scudder going about his life like boxing fights, AA meetings, and late night visits with Ballou(And sometimes those go on for several chapters and you NEVER get bored) just as much as I am when he’s investigating whatever case he’s on.

  7. a Paperback Writer

    I love how many details Ian Rankin gives his readers about Rebus’ life! We know his music, his pubs, his housekeeping skills.I have one main character of my own where I know tons about him: his favorite music, books, movies, food, preferred type of girl, etc.


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