Main characters have to feel real or you, the reader, will abandon them. I write thrillers and I’m forever striving to write that perfect visceral character. Hemingway’s advice: “From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.”
I wanted to make a thriller heroine who was a whole new thing from a unique experience in my life that I felt perfect for a heroine’s backstory. The part I cannot know, the elements that my character keeps hidden, presented a challenge.
The true story is stranger than fiction.
James Rollins once said, “You can write a story about telepathic marsupials in Antarctica as long as you have the Starbucks in Kansas City on exactly the same corner as the real one. Put it on the wrong side of the road, and telepathic marsupials cease to exist in the reader’s mind.”
Thrillers tend to avoid family members for that reason.* If we get the family relationships wrong, we lose you. Did Sherlock Holmes’ mother hound him about marriage? Did James Bond ever drive his daughter to soccer practice? Would Hercule Poirot take cooking tips from his sister? Writers leave out the one thing we all have in common, family, to avoid complications.
I wanted my heroine to have an involved father. And not a wise, calm and patient father from central casting either. I wanted an accidental father. One who was not even the biological father but was tossed into the role by fate.
When I was nineteen, an acquaintance told me that daycare costs were killing her. She had been sixteen when she conceived her daughter and three years later was working a night shift. She asked if I could help by watching her child from the time I got off work until she came home at midnight. Without realizing how that would change my life, I said, “Sure!”
The next day, I stopped at the daycare facility and announced that I was there to pick up a child. I didn’t know the mother’s last name, and didn’t know the child’s name. And they looked at me blankly. (This was before people worried about child abduction.)
I’d seen the girl once at a distance and described her to the daycare workers: she’s about so high, three years old, blonde hair. They took me to a room filled with three-year olds about so high with blonde hair. It struck me that I might have been a bit unprepared for the responsibility I’d agreed to shoulder.
The workers looked at me. I looked at them.
A little girl came running out of the crowd, her arms outstretched, shouting, Daddy, Daddy Daddy, and leapt into my arms. She squeezed me tight with unconditional love and never let go—for the next thirty-seven years and counting.**
As so often happens in unplanned teenaged parenthood, her biological mother had every intention of being a good mother, but jumped at the chance to start over when I offered to raise the child.
I had no idea what was involved.
I only knew that for the first time in my life I was desperately important to someone. We all want to be important to someone. It is the primary motivator in human life.
Experiencing the dynamics of an inextricable relationship was something I felt you wanted in a thriller. The trick was to make it fascinating. The real story would never work in fiction; it would come off as manipulative or melodramatic. It needed a better, more believable catalyst.
I experimented with short stories, piecing together the things I know and the things I cannot know, and came up with a back story. When my editor read it, he said, No one will believe it in one big chunk. Dole it out over the course of three books or so. I took his advice.
After all, my first priority was making sure the Starbucks was on the right corner.
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* Yes, I know there are exceptions like Zoe Sharp’s Charlie Fox and James Rollins’ Gray Pierce, can you just bear with me a minute?
** There was a small gap in that love-fest when she was a teenager, but we survived. She just turned forty and lives in Seattle with her husband and children. We talk regularly.