Creating Your Protagonist

 

The most important character in your novel is your protagonist. Whether you're writing a series or a stand-alone, this is the character your readers are going to be invested in, the one they have to care enough about to follow for the duration of a book, or (in the case of a series) several books. Since we're talking about mysteries, your protagonist is your sleuth, the person who is going to solve the mystery. If you did Lesson #1, you already know what kind of book you're writing, which means you already know something about your main character.

Can you imagine Miss Marple slugging it out with a hopped-up pimp in a shadowy alley that smells of urine and rotting garbage? Can you imagine Mike Hammer sipping tea in a parson's parlor, quietly ruminating about the psychological foibles of a small-town microcosm of society? Well, maybe you can--we're all writers after all; we live on imagination--but the image just doesn't hold up over the long haul. Poor Miss Marple would end up with a cut throat or a broken hip, and Mike Hammer would punch out the parson, and the balance of the universe would be restored. The story must be true to the characters.

This is not to say that the characters "take over the story" and begin writing it themselves (even though a lot of writers say they do). We like to believe that our characters, through our very own literary magic, can, like the Velveteen Rabbit, become real if we only want it badly enough. In a sense, they do become real--to us, and sometimes to our readers. But we must never forget that we are the writers, and we are the ones who ultimately decide where the story must go. What really happens when the characters "take over" is that the writer is in that creative zone, where the right brain has suddenly realized where this story is supposed to go. It isn't working at it any more. It's playing. Let it play, because this means you finally know who your characters are and what they would do in any given situation. If it feels like the characters are taking over, this is the time to let them. Just remember that your characters are really you, and that they may not always make the right decision. You may have to rein them in, eventually. That is what editing is for. We'll discuss this idea more in the lessons on revision.

That said, sometimes when I think about Jared, it seems less like I created him than that I discovered him. I'll show you how it happened, because it's the same process you'll use with your character. Then we'll try it from scratch in lesson #3.

When I started Too Close to Evil, I knew only that I was writing a novel about a private detective, and that I wanted it to be a reasonably serious book, because I don't see myself as being a particularly funny person. I wanted to write about a detective who was like a real detective, but I didn't know yet what kind of real detective.

My first idea was one I still love and may one day decide to write. It was about a half-Seminole airboat guide in the Florida Everglades. I loved him, but I knew little about Seminoles, nothing about airboats, and not much about the everglades. To write that book would take months, maybe years, of research, which I wasn't ready to do. I really felt that, to bring him to life, I'd have to go and spend a year puttering around the everglades. I couldn't do that. I have a day job, and a husband who, though very supportive, is unlikely to want to spend a year or so in a swamp.

My next impulse was to make my detective female. That seemed reasonable. After all, I am female. Almost immediately, I ran into trouble. Most of the mysteries about female P.I.'s featured tough, ballsy, brave women with something to prove. I am not tough. I am not ballsy. And I am certainly not brave. I could imagine a woman who might become a private detective, and I could admire a woman who would become a detective, but I could not understand her in the way I needed to if I were to write an effective story. I tried some more. Every female I came up with was either a caricature of V.I. Warshawski, or she was a lot like me. And she was invariably too nice. I'll admit it: I don't like bitchy women, and I find them tiresome in novels. I like Kinsey Milhone, who is tough and brave and nice, but Sue Grafton already invented Kinsey. The world didn't need another Kinsey Milhone Clone. There were plenty of good female detectives out there in Mysteryland, and I didn't think I had anything to say about them than other, possibly better writers had already said.

I took a step back. If the truth were told, I was trying to write about a female detective because I thought that was what I should be doing. I didn't want to have to answer questions about why I was trying to write from a man's perspective and didn't I think a woman could be just as good a detective as a man?  I just wanted to write a good story. So I said to myself, "What does this private detective look like?" And I saw a man standing in a pasture. He was tall and lean with that kind of muscularity that says Patrick Swayze rather than Arnold Swartzenegger. He was wearing bluejeans, a T-shirt, and a shoulder holster under a leather bomber jacket that I knew had once belonged to his father. His hair was dark (though it would shortly become the buckskin blond it is now), and his eyes were gray. He was handsome and boyish, somewhere in his thirties, and he looked a little like a very dangerous choirboy. I loved him immediately. I just had no idea who he was.

So I asked myself another question. What did he do before he was a detective? My first thought was that he had been a writer, but Stephen Womack already had Harry James Denton, a former journalist turned private eye. Two Nashville P.I.'s who used to be writers was just too much. How many of them were there likely to be? Besides, it would be hard to improve on Harry.

Where do most P.I.'s come from? Law enforcement. I decided my guy was a former policeman. I still had no idea why he had left the force and entered the private sector, but I liked the idea of him as a policeman. It made him more of a tough guy, and I knew he was going to have to be very masculine, because people would be sensitive to the fact that he was being written by a woman. I wanted him to be sensitive in his way, but I couldn't afford to make him effeminate. By virtue of my sex, he had to be a man's man.

I started to flesh out the character. I once read a wonderful piece of advice that said if you are a woman writing as a man, don't ask yourself what a man would do in this or that situation. Ask yourself, "What would I do in this situation, if I were a man?" I wrote down a list of all my hobbies and interests and asked myself which of them I would still be involved with if I were a man (more specifically, if I were this man?).

Art? Possibly, though I couldn't think of any useful reason for him to be an artist. Doll making? Definitely not. Acting? Yes, that's good, because as a P.I. he has to do undercover work all the time. Maybe he used to do a little community theater, and learned something about theatrical make-up and disguises. In fact, maybe he used that skill when he was on the police force and spent some time as an undercover officer. Yes, acting is a keeper. This is where he became a blond, so that he could dye his hair and change his appearance more easily. (I have a theory that he was always blond; I just didn't know it yet.)

Tae Kwan Do? Oh, yes. Definitely. And speaking of combat skills (we were, weren't we?), does he carry a gun? Of course he carries a gun. He was a policeman for years and years. He feels naked without it. Might he have somehow come to dislike guns? I tried it on for size and didn't like it. I'm not a big gun person, but Jared definitely is. Sometime during this process I thought of his name--Jared McKean. Sometimes it happens that way. The name just comes. Sometimes it doesn't. Then I pore through baby name books and the phone book until I find something I like. For me, the name has to fit the character in terms of how it sounds, how it's perceived, and what it means. If the name I really want means "sweet flower blossom" and the character is a skunk cabbage, I'll use the irony somehow to make it work. But for Jared, none of that was necessary, because his name flew out of the ether and smacked me in the forehead.

Does he have pets? He has horses. Why? Because I am insanely in love with horses, but I'm too broke to have one right now, and because I'm a terrible coward and a fearful rider, and Jared isn't fearful. He's brave. I love that he's brave. He can have my horses for me. What does he have? I used to have a gentle old palomino quarter horse, so I gave him one. His horse is older than mine was; he's had it since he was a boy. Then, since his first horse was getting older and wasn't as athletic any more, I gave him another one. This one was a Tennessee Walking Horse. I love this. I think a future book will deal with soring and the Walking Horse Industry.

Anything else? He has a dog. I had a 12-year-old, arthritic Akita at the time, so I gave him a 12-year-old Akita and named her Queenie (my dog was Kiri).

Any cats? No. He might take in a stray if it seemed to need him, but he wouldn't deliberately go out and get one. If a wife or girlfriend had a cat, he'd like it just fine, but it's not something he'd think to go out and pick up just because he wanted one.

Anything else? No, he's a cowboy, not a zookeeper.

How about family? Is he married? I thought about this for a long time. I didn't want to tie him down to a relationship right from the beginning, because I felt like he needed to be in transition, and I wanted him to be free to pursue a romantic relationship if one developed later. I didn't want him to be the kind of man who would cheat on his wife, so I knew he was single. Has he ever been married? He's in his 30s, so I think so. Widowed? No, I wanted him to have loose ends. Divorced? Yes. What kind of relationship does he have with his ex? Modern mysteries are filled with divorced detectives who have acrimonious relationships with their exes. It's been done very well, but I didn't want to explore a relationship between two people who were happy to be rid of each other.  I wanted to explore a relationship between two people who love each other and just can't make it work. Can I do more with this? What if she's re-married--not to a jerk, but to a to a good man-- but the spark between her and Jared is still there? He still loves her. Does she still love him? Oh, yes, it's much better that way, because now they can't get back together without hurting someone else.

(Once, in a book about acting, I read that, when performing a scene, you have to find the love. The love is what's interesting and what holds it together. A man and a woman who are fighting because just because they hate each other doesn't have much depth. But if they're fighting because he loves her but he's afraid she's in love with another man and she does love the other man but she also loves this one, there are all kinds of levels to work with. If John murders Sarah because he hates her, it's flat. But if he murders her because he loves Stephanie and Sarah caused the accident that left Stephanie in a vegetative state...See? Follow the love.)

Why did they divorce in the first place? Did one of them cheat on the other? No. Too simplistic. Besides, I've already said I don't want Jared to be a cheater. And I don't want Maria (suddenly she has a name!) to be the bad guy either. That's too easy. Sometimes there isn't a bad guy. (A friend of mine from college once said, "Love is enough to keep it going, but not enough to make it work.")  What if she hated his job? Why? Because it's dangerous. I feel like I'm closing in on something here. She worried about him all the time, because she knows he has this compulsion to be a hero. He moved to a desk job to ease her mind, but she knew he wasn't happy. He needs the rush. She left him because she thought they needed different things. She needs security, and he needs... What? The hero thing. My boy has a Galahad complex.

Do they have children? Yes, because that makes them have to interact and have some kind of relationship. I taught special education for twelve years, so I wanted his child to have a disability of some kind. Autism? No. I love autistic kids. If I had an autistic child in this book, I would focus so much on the child there would be no room for Jared. I decided Down Syndrome would be a good choice. I love kids with Down Syndrome too, but they're more straightforward, less layered. I could keep my perspective on that. Would he have a daughter or a son? A son. Paul. They call him Paulie. And he's an only child, so Jared is torn between his love for this little boy and his grief for the normal child he may never have. Paulie is eight years old when the series begins, the same age my students were when I began my teaching career, and he has characteristics of several of my students.

I'm already seeing a pattern here. His horse and his dog are both old. He still loves his ex-wife. This is a man who doesn't let go of the things he loves.

Now I know who he is. He would have loved the police force, so something extreme had to have happened. I wanted him to have been pushed out of it, rather than leaving on his own, and I didn't want him to have done anything really wrong. I called a local homicide detective, and he helped me come up with a scenario that worked. After his divorce, Jared got involved with a television reporter who tapped Jared's phone to get confidential information. When the information was used in her news report, Jared was fired for leaking information.

You can see that he has a soft spot (and a blind spot) for women. That can lead to all kind of complications. Good!

Now I needed a landlord for Jared. I didn't think he'd own his own house so soon after his divorce. The feisty/cranky/lovable senior citizen had been done--and done well--by plenty of other writers. I fiddled with a lot of different possibilities. Then, since a dear friend of mine had died of AIDS a few years before, I decided that Jared was living with a gay man who had AIDS. This man was someone Jared had known a long time--since kindergarten. I liked the idea of exploring Jared's relationship with this man. Since Jared, like me, grew up Nazarene in a small southern town, I knew he had been raised with the idea that homosexuality is wrong. Yet, someone he cares about is gay, someone he knows is a good and loving person. He'd have conflict about that. It's a good place for him to change and grow.

Anyway, you see how it works. I made him an orphan so I could explore his relationship with the older brother who helped raise him. His father died in a heroic fashion so that he would feel the need to live up to him. His mother died of cancer because my sister had that disease and I wanted to use that experience, but to make it his sister served no good purpose. I would have had to kill his mother anyway, and that all seemed like too much tragedy to be plausible.

Somewhere along the way, he became very real to me. He has a life outside the books (though not, I know, outside my mind). Between cases, he lives that life, tends his horses, finds lost children, takes incriminating photos of cheating spouses, sits on the porch at twilight and sips a cool beer.

I continue to learn more about him as I write these books, but this is what I started with.

Ready to try it from scratch? See you in lesson #3.