One of the questions mystery writers are frequently asked by friends and relatives is, “Am I in your book?” Our answer is usually something like, “No, but if you make me mad, I might kill you off!”
A more truthful answer would be “You are—or at least a part of you is.” The characters we create are pieced together from people we’ve known, observed, read about, or imagined.
Our good guys and bad guys, the victims and perpetrators, the protagonists and the bit players are all amalgams, born from a combination of observation and imagination. Tiny bits of ourselves are in our characters, too, although we rarely admit it. That’s where the truth comes from. As writers mature, we learn to mine our own hearts. We also perfect the skill of observing others and filing away what we see, including the subtext. The secret ingredient is imagination.
Last week I flew home from a trade show in Florida. Arriving at the airport early, I engaged in one of my favorite activities—character research.
Here’s how the observation/imagination thing goes:
1. The young man sitting across from me at the gate grimaces as he eases his back against the molded plastic seat. His white owl-eyes confirm it. He spent way too long on the beach without sunscreen, a decision he now regrets but will probably repeat because he never, ever plans ahead. His character flaw is impulsivity—the reason he’s never held a job or sustained a relationship longer than eighteen months. If he were the murderer in a mystery, his motivation would be sudden rage, triggered by lifelong feelings of inadequacy.
2. A man and a woman rush past me toward their gate—both mid-thirties and clinging to their youth by fingernails. He’s a weight-lifter with biceps the size of most people’s thighs and thighs the size of small tree trunks. He spends way too much time at the gym and fancies himself much better looking than he actually is. His partner is currently losing her lifelong battle with twenty extra pounds. She struggles to keep up with him, pretending her feet aren’t killing her in the brand-new, impossibly high-heeled sandals she purchased specifically for this romantic getaway. The trip wasn’t a success. Last night they had a real knock-down-drag-out in their rented condo, unfortunately overheard by their neighbors. She’d make a believable victim. He’d be the red herring, who delays the discovery of the actual perpetrator, the woman’s creepy neighbor who’s had a thing for her since she moved into the next apartment.
3. An elderly couple holds hands as they wait in line for their lattes at Starbucks. They look enough alike to be siblings in matching jackets, ball caps, and thick-soled trainers, a resemblance that has developed over the fifty-plus years of their marriage. I imagine them meeting in junior high school, growing up and old together—a happy duo, a matched pair. Retired now, they enjoy excellent health for their age, senior discounts, early-bird specials, and educational vacations with Elderhostel. They never had children—saw no need for it—and have preplanned their final resting place, together. Because they read each other’s minds and rarely need to verbalize, they are wonderful observers themselves and might be witnesses, providing the final clue that cracks the case.
4. My last potential character is a thin, dried-up man who takes the middle seat next to me on the airplane. Tentacles of oily hair cling to his nearly bald pate. His complexion matches the baggy, none-too-clean gray cardigan that hangs on his skeletal frame. As he wedges his ancient leather briefcase under the seat in front of him, I imagine he’s on his way to the annual gathering of coleopterologists, a society dedicated to the study of beetles. Routinely shunned by his fellow academics at university, he is nevertheless a generous, kindly man who donates a large percentage of his salary for the support of orphans in Central America. Although few outside his own circle know it, he has a keen sense of humor. He smiles to himself, remembering the joke he heard at the last symposium: A thylodrias contractus and a reduviidae lopodytes walk into a bar…. This man is the expert witness, called to give evidence in a case involving a beetle-infested body discovered in the Costa Rican rainforest.
“Am I in your book?” Yes, you are, but you’ll never recognize yourself.
Which is a very good thing.