Category Archives: Characters

Am I Evan Quinn?

When I first began developing the characters and story for Perceval’s Secret, I read an article about writing fiction that theorized that all first novels were either autobiographical or coming-of-age stories, or both. Ugh. I remember thinking at the time, “Well, if I wanted to write about my life and experiences, I’d write an autobiography, not a novel. And the last thing I want to write is a coming-of-age story.”  But then someone at work whom I’d told about the novel talked to others at work and suddenly they all thought I must be writing about them! Geez. Writers just cannot win, can they?!  If readers aren’t thinking that we’re writing about ourselves disguised as fiction, they believe we’re writing about them.  Author Jami Attenberg writes about this in The New York Times article “Stop Reading My Fiction as The Story of My Life.”

Nothing could stop me from writing Perceval’s Secret in the end, although it went through several versions and there were some large chunks of time when life demanded I focus on life rather than writing. When I was proofing the e-files before publication, I saw certain elements that I realized came from my own life and I would not have been able to write about them without my life experiences. But they are also not me in the novel .  All through my writing of this novel, I was meticulous about insuring that none of the characters in any way resembled real people, including me.

How did I do that? Well, it’s all about revision and research.

Once the first draft was done and I could see the story as a whole and who the characters were, I went through it and noted questions I had about the characters as well as locations, technology, etc. Evan was a primary focus as the main character, but I also did some research about intelligence agencies (Bernie Brown) and the Austrian police (Klaus Leiner) and how Austria would respond to Evan. I knew little about the life of a conductor, only what happens when they step on the podium during a concert. So I spoke with the people who worked with them as well as conductors themselves, and I did a lot of reading.  I went to orchestra rehearsals to observe how conductors actually work with an orchestra to prepare a concert. And I even talked with people who knew conductors on a more personal level to get an idea of just who they were as people and how they approached music. This research took several years, and I did another round for a year about 10 years ago. I had a special concern that no reader would mistake Evan for some famous American conductor.

And then after the research, I began revising and Evan took over, as characters usually do. Once I had all that information from the research in my head, he could show me the kind of person he was, his flaws, his strengths, his dreams, his vulnerabilities, his fears. He showed me how being a conductor was a way of life, not only a job. It takes absolute dedication and drive to achieve any kind of success.  He showed me what he thought of his life’s circumstances, the pain within those circumstances, and his denial. I had set out to write a villain as the main character of my novel, but I found that even though Evan may do awful things, he’s not evil. That raised the question: what or who is evil in this story? Although I began the story thinking that Evan would be the evil villain and I wanted to explore why he was that way, I failed in making him the evil villain because he revealed his humanity to me as I worked on revisions.

Attempting to make Evan Quinn the evil villain was one of my tactics for making it clear that he was not me. When I look at him now, I see a separate personality, a separate person who’s unlike me. The aspect of his life that comes the closest to my experience (but does not recreate it) is his PTSD and his emotional pain. What has been revelatory for me is the way in which Evan has handled his PTSD and emotional pain so far, and how that affects his behavior and perspective of the world.

As Jami Attenberg writes in her article, and what I’d like to tell all readers of my writing:

Maybe it’s only natural to want a glimpse behind the curtain. Fiction is a magic trick of sorts. But at its best it doesn’t just conjure up an imaginary world; it makes the real one disappear, it makes the author disappear. Only a book can do this — let you lose yourself so completely. So, if you can, forget about everything else. Just be there with the book.

Adam Burns, or Characters that are cut

Not Adam, but close to how I imagined him

Not Adam, but close to how I imagined him

Adam Burns has been on my mind a lot lately. He was an old guy, a bum, a journalist in hiding in a very early draft of Perceval’s Secret.  Evan Quinn met him once, in a wooded area not far from the Minneapolis neighborhood where the Quinns lived. Evan was ten years old. He knew Adam as “Old Man Burns,” the neighborhood drunken bum. The encounter Evan has with Adam brings into laser sharp focus for Evan the danger that his family is in. Adam isn’t really drunk when he meets Evan — he’s acting drunk and stupid — and he tells Evan that his father must leave the country. Later, Evan learns that Adam was murdered, his body found along the Mississippi River, a bullet in his brain.

I killed off Adam Burns and that entire encounter with Evan. In fact, just before Evan meets Adam, Evan and his friend Paul Caine have been hounded and abused by Harold Smith and his gang. I didn’t realize it at the time I cut out that entire section of the draft, but Harold Smith would become Evan’s nemesis in the Perceval series. He survives in flashbacks in Perceval’s Secret as well as in the flesh late in the novel. But I never put the childhood section back into the novel. And Adam Burns was lost, except in my mind. Now he haunts me.

Have you ever been haunted by characters that you’ve cut out of stories or novels? It’s strange. It’s like they want their own stories, they do not want to be forgotten. I have yet to figure out why Adam keeps popping up in my mind. What’s his deal?

When I began work on the Perceval series, it wasn’t a series. It wasn’t even a novel. It was a short story about a ten-year-old boy who wanted to be an orchestra conductor when he grew up, but the circumstances of his life in America in 2048 would make that dream impossible to fulfill unless he left the country, according to Adam “Old Man” Burns. Evan senses that Burns has a secret, and indeed he did. I knew his backstory although I never wrote it. It was enough that it was secret and something dangerous that Burns must protect or he could lose his life.

Adam’s backstory: first of all, Adam Burns wasn’t his real name. He made certain no one knew his real name, including me. He’d been a famous journalist on the East Coast during the Change, the period of time during which the New Economic Party (NEP) consolidated power in America with a permanent majority on the federal and state levels of government.

Like any journalist worth his salt defending Freedom of the Press as well as the Bill of Rights, Adam had reported on those in power, exposing their corruption, greed, and lust for power. He’d reported on their narcissism, comparing them to the greatest dictators of the 20th Century. He knew the NEP cared only about enriching itself and insuring that they got everything they wanted. Adam had reported also on the Resistance, the Underground, and the Civil War. But the NEP wanted the American people to know only what they told them. So they waged war against journalists, arresting many who simply disappeared. The NEP wanted complete control over the media. They silenced the media by any means necessary.

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The people had rebelled — the country was embroiled in a Civil War, with western states seceding, southern states threatening to do so, and Washington slamming shut all of America’s borders. By the time Evan is ten, Adam has been underground for over five years, running for his life. In Minnesota, he thought he’d be safer because Minnesota was a hot bed of resistance, led by Evan’s father, a poet, and Paul’s father, a composer. Artists throughout the country had joined the Underground, the loosely organized resistance movement. They could offer Adam a way out of the country.

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I cut Evan’s childhood section when I realized that I was writing a novel and I needed to restructure it to focus on his adult life, what eventually became Perceval’s Secret. Now I find it a bit ironic that Evan carries a dangerous secret in the novel, one that could cost him his life. So perhaps Adam did survive in the importance of keeping dangerous secrets.

Creating Character: Flaws

Creating flawed characters in ink

Creating flawed characters in ink

For the last several months, I’ve been fascinated by Donald Trump. Not because I agree with him and I voted for him.  No. He’s a perfect example of a character with hubris. What is hubris? Pride and arrogance, full on demonstrated by narcissists who possess absolutely zero internal power, i.e. a healthy self esteem. They make fabulous characters in fiction, especially for tragedies. Why is hubris considered a character flaw? Well, the excessive pride and arrogance tend to fuel fantasy thinking rather than reality thinking. Watching someone with hubris is like watching an out-of-control train heading for a massive wreck.

Characters with flaws are far more interesting than perfect characters. Human beings are imperfect creatures, so to have a perfect character is to strain credulity. The challenge for writers is how to create imperfect characters without going to the extreme. Donald Trump is an extreme character. I suppose his wife sees other aspects of his personality as well as those he displays in public, but his choices still point to an extreme character. For example, he chooses to respond to something inconsequential but that he perceives questions something about him whether it’s intelligence, ability, or his “alternate facts,” as KellyAnne Conway so hilariously put it regarding Sean Spicer’s comments in his first meeting with the press as Trump’s press secretary. You can be certain that Spicer, as well as Conway, was saying what Trump wanted them to say. So, I’d say that Trump would be a warning against creating an extreme character, unless of course, the writer wanted to make the point that extreme personalities tend to lead to or cause tragedies.

Writers must notice human behavior, write notes about it, study it, explore it, all in the service of creating plausible human characters. People-watching, then, is part of a writer’s work whether that be politicians or people in an airport, restaurant, walking down the street. And what of human flaws?

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Start with “the seven deadly sins,” for example: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Greed is a wonderful flaw (Trump has this one too, in my opinion) and lust doesn’t need to refer to sex, but also could be a lust for power and/or control. It’s a good place to start. Nowadays, there are all sorts of psychological flaws that humans can have — narcissism, PTSD, mental illness whether mild or extreme. And there are physical flaws, also, of such variety and degree, and how that affects a character’s personality and/or psyche. Sometimes flaws become obstacles that need to be overcome. Sometimes they end up being what has strengthened the character to overcome the obstacles in his way. For a character to NOT have any flaws at all would nowadays be greeted with a certain amount of disdain for not being plausible.

When I was learning about the characters in Perceval’s Secret (or rather, they were teaching me about themselves), I would make lists for each character — one for strengths, one for weaknesses or flaws. Sometimes each played roles in the stories, sometimes not.  For Evan Quinn, his flaws are obstacles that he must overcome.  He is stronger than he realizes, as is true for most people. But he also possesses a flaw that is an effect from another flaw, i.e. the way he perceives the world and other people, as well as himself and what he wants. Because of this flaw in thinking, he makes choices in the moment that are motivated by the deeper flaw. So you see, writers can layer flaws, have one feed into another, and do the same thing with strengths. That will give depth and richness to the character.

Although I’m not at all happy about Donald Trump now being President, it will be interesting to see how he lives out his story as the deeply flawed main character.

Writing Sex

book-cover-keytorebeccaDuring the last week, I’ve been reading a thriller written in the early 1980’s by Ken Follett entitled The Key to Rebecca.  I’d read his The Eye of the Needle when it first was published and loved it. Follett had written an explicit sex scene in that book, as I recall, so the sex scenes in Rebecca haven’t been a surprise to me. On GoodReads, however, I read several comments complaining about the sex scenes in Rebecca being too explicit, even pornographic.

As a writer, I appreciate that it’s difficult to write sex scenes, and I’ve written before at this blog about writing love scenes and writing sex scenesRebecca provides a good example of how to write successful sex scenes that reveal character and move the story forward. Follett does a masterful job of this.

First, in Rebecca, Follett reveals motivation for each character with stunning (and refreshing) clarity. We learn early what Alex Wolff wants that will drive his behavior. He is a user. He uses people to achieve his goals. Part of this strategy is to ferret out their weaknesses, assess their strengths, and then figure out how to gain power and control over them to achieve his goals. Sex is a part of his arsenal. He recognizes that he does not see sex as an expression of love or affection. It is about gaining physical pleasure for himself as well as power over his partner. He calls it “lust.”

Cairo, Egypt (photo: public domain)

Cairo, Egypt (photo: public domain)

Major Vandam’s motivation focuses on insuring that the British defeat the Germans in Egypt. He works in military intelligence in Cairo but possesses a much higher level of integrity and morality than Wolff. Sex doesn’t really enter into his personal actions to achieve his goal because 1) he’s focused on his job and taking care of his son, 2) he’s a recent widower and 3) he doesn’t see sex as a tool of control and power. He is a lover not a user. However, his job requires him to recruit people who may end up in the thrall of the lustful Wolff, and he’s not above encouraging his operatives to use sexual attraction to gain Wolff’s interest and lure him out.

And finally, there’s Elene Fontana, who’s real name is Abigail Asnani. She wants to go home. What “home” means for her, however, remains a mystery to the reader for a while, as well as a mystery to Elene, for what she thinks she wants may not be what she really wants. She has been traumatized in her childhood, and has spent the last few years working as a kept woman for a series of wealthy businessmen. She has used her body and her beauty to survive in Cairo, but deep down she’s not happy about it. Her ambivalence toward sex will provide interesting developments as the story progresses and she meets Vandam.

Understanding the characters gives the sex scenes during the story meaning. Seeing how they respond in that intimate, vulnerable situation reveals character. Some of the sex scenes function as a way to move the story forward as when Wolff recruits his “friend” Sonja, with her own sexual goals, to seduce his target. Reading a sex scene essentially devoid of emotion can be disturbing unless the reader can put it into the context of the characters’ motivations.

ken_follettOnce or twice I thought, as I read, that a sex scene could have used a bit more editing to increase suspense in the layering of motivations and action. But otherwise, I thought Follett succeeded in the way he made sex an important element of the story. The next time you read a novel that includes sex scenes, ask yourself about the characters’ motivations, how the sexual behavior reveals character or moves the story forward. Sex, after all, is a part of human life and can be a powerful tool in a writer’s toolbox for creating riveting stories and human characters.

Violence in Fiction

smoking gunHuman against human violence has become too commonplace in our lives. Much of it explodes out of hatred and/or fear masquerading under the guise of a religion or nationalism or territorial conquest. Then there’s jealousy, greed, betrayal. I’ve been thinking the last few weeks about how much violence is also a part of fiction. This is no surprise since violence is so much a part of human life.

When I first began writing fiction, I idealistically declared that I would not write explicit violence or sex in my stories. Then Evan Quinn entered my life and I learned that there are different kinds of violence, not only the kind in which one human uses a weapon of some kind to hurt or kill another human. Violence can also be psychological, emotional, spiritual. Yes, humans are terribly creative in the ways that they perpetrate violence against one another.

As writers, when we write violence of any kind, what is the purpose of that violence?

As writers, when we write violence of any kind, are we being violent with our readers?

As writers, when we write violence of any kind, are we showing others how to be violent against people?

As writers, do we have a responsibility not to perpetuate violence? But how? By showing its effects? And if so, how do we do that without showing the violence?

These questions have been tormenting me.  While writing Perceval’s Secret, I was conscious of what I was getting into.  How could I write about political assassination without showing it?  I thought of The Day of the Jackal. Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon novels. John le Carre’s novels. And other thrillers that I’d read over the years.  Each writer had approached this question of violence in different ways.  Sometimes by being matter-of-fact and not using prose that romanticized or made the violence appealing it was possible to show the violence but not make it exciting. I wish I could remember the writers and their books in which they truly captured the horror of violence.

Evan Quinn has been a victim of violence.  I wanted to explore how he thought and felt about that fact of his life.  What I learned was the violence had colored his perceptions of people and the world as well as of himself.  The violence he experienced created the belief that violence was an appropriate response to something or someone he didn’t like or wanted to control or feared or hated. And yet, he’d had an important influence in his life at the same time that showed him that violence was not appropriate or acceptable. What happens to Evan, much to my ongoing surprise, in Perceval’s Secret and throughout the series is an inner conflict between these two powerful influences.  Good and evil.  Power and powerless.  Love and hate.

These questions about violence have been asked for a long time about movies and television.  We’ve moved into a world in which violence has become acceptable in those mediums. What about novels?

Do you have these questions about violence too as a writer?  What are your thoughts?  Do you have any answers?