Every Monday, MYSTERY OF CHARACTER FEATURING SHANNON MUIR focuses on the art and craft of writing, from Shannon’s perspective or that of guest authors. To catch up on all posts, check out the MYSTERY OF CHARACTER FEATURING SHANNON MUIR portion of the website!
This week welcomes a guest post from author Ann Gimpel.
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Guest Post from the Author
Thanks so much for inviting me to your blog. This is a post on the psychology of character development.
Since psychology is a comfort zone for me, it seems logical to begin this blog with a discussion of the psychology of character development. Have you ever wondered why some fictional characters feel so real it seems you could easily know them, while others feel wooden and contrived? Or worse, when an author builds a character who feels real up until they suddenly don’t because of some event that simply jars your sensibilities; and you toss the book aside feeling cheated. Or, when you get partway through a book and all the characters feel alike? Or, they’re two dimensional and it’s difficult to understand why they’re doing what they are. And you find yourself paging backwards to see if you missed something. Of course that’s somewhat harder to do with e-readers.
I’m sure all authors address character development a bit differently. And, truth be told, I wish I could because the way my characters come to life is intrusive. Once “born”, they run about in my head like little mad things. And, if I try to make them do something they don’t like, they let me know about it in no uncertain terms. That’s why I’m an “organic” writer. I’ve tried outlining my material and found it to be a waste of time when my protagonist simply thumbs her nose at me if I push her in a direction she doesn’t want to go. Me patiently explaining about my plot has proven meaningless. Besides, people think I’ve gone bonkers when they see me having conversations with myself!
Before I started writing fiction, I didn’t understand this at all. So, years ago when I read an interview by Diana Gabaldon when she complained about her protag, Clare Randall, who simply refused to cooperate, I just rolled my eyes. Now, I understand perfectly. Apologies, Diana!
I suppose most of my books begin in my head with a protagonist. Once I have the protag, I need to figure out which setting would work best for them. Is it modern day America? Or do they live in a high fantasy world, or a science fiction one? They usually let me know right away if I’ve gotten it wrong.
Characters are just like us–except they’re larger than life. What that means is, while you and I might think about an unusual act of heroism, my characters will actually do it. Oh, they’ll be plenty scared; but they’ll mow right ahead in spite of it. And, when you think about it, a working definition of courage or heroism is action in the face of fear. If I have a character in a situation that would scare me, of course it will scare them too. Unless, of course, the character is a sociopath. They aren’t particularly sensitive to the feelings that plague the rest of us. Things like compassion, fear, honor, etc. Sociopaths manipulate others and are able to do so without much in the way of emotional fallout . . . at least to themselves. Everyone around them suffers terribly, of course.
So long as we’re on the topic of sociopaths, the very best books have well-drawn, three dimensional antagonists as well as strong protags. Without digging too terribly deeply, I can generally find something in any antagonist to at least try to link to a reader’s sensibilities. For example, one of the antagonists in my novel, Dark Prophecy, had a perfectly wretched childhood. When he finally dies, my protag is able to engage in a believable moment of compassion when she thinks to herself that he never had a chance because some things that happen to children just can’t be undone. Humans usually have mixed feelings about lots of things. It’s important for characters to be able to see things from more than one point of view as well. That’s one of the tools an author has to make characters feel believable.
About the Book
Wray—Julie to her few friends—slumped against the padded back of a
business-class seat, grateful no one was sitting too close to her. She’d been
on the move for the last fifteen hours, and it would take nearly that before
her over-the-Pole flight landed at Sea-Tac. She’d been unusually lucky securing
a last-minute flight from Cairo to London, and she’d paid through the nose for
the seat on her current plane.
recycled air and tried not to think about what might be in it. Planes had notoriously
poor filtration systems. Her eyes felt hot and gritty. Blinking only made it
worse. When she glanced at her hands, she winced at how dirty they were. Once
the captain turned off the “fasten seat belt” sign, she’d make a dive for the
restroom and wash them. Never mind the water on airplanes rivaled the air for
hands into fists, she focused on inhaling deeply, blowing it out, and doing it
again. Sleep would be a true luxury, but worry ate at her.
right, miss?” A tall, buff flight attendant leaned over her, solicitousness
stamped into his Greek god good looks. Tawny hair fell just past his chin line,
and his eyes were the shade of raw emeralds. He was so perfect, she wondered if
she was hallucinating.
roster in one hand, probably detailing his few business-class passengers. “Dr.
perfunctory smile. “Yes. That would be me.”
“What kind of doctor are you?” Maybe his interest was part of a coffee, tea, or
me gig he tried out on all his female travelers, but it gave her a momentary
break from her worries.
there’s an emergency on this plane, you’ll have to look beyond me, I’m afraid.”
head to one side. “Okay. That’s what kind of doctor you aren’t, but it’s not
what I asked.”
archaeologist. Reason my clothes are so trashed is I came straight from a dig
in northern Egypt.”
fascinating. Maybe when we’re a bit further into the flight, you can tell me
murmured, aiming for a non-committal tone. The last thing she’d be doing is
sharing details with anyone outside her immediate team about what was shaping
up as the find of the twenty-first century.
picked up on her withdrawal because his smile lost a few lumens. “What can I
bring you from the drink tray?”
water. Maybe something to eat.” A dinging bell overlapped her words, and the
“fasten seat belt” sign winked out. “If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to wash up
before I eat anything.”
Wray. I’ll have a snack prepared for you by the time you return.”
lovely. Thank you.”
until he moved to the next passenger two rows back before unfastening her seat
belt. She lurched upright and closed the short distance between her seat and
the restroom. Once inside, she sluiced water over her hands. Dirt made tracks
down the ivory porcelain sink, so she pumped extra soap and wished she had a
brush to do a more thorough job scrubbing beneath her nails. Once her hands
were as clean as they were likely to get, she went to work on her face. She’d
tried to wash up on the Egypt Air flight, but the lavatory was so dirty she
hadn’t made it past the threshold.
the small mirror convinced her not to look again. Her dark hair hung in lank
strands to the middle of her back. She’d scooped it into a ponytail somewhere
between Cairo and London, but over half had escaped. Circles ringed her eyes,
and she had the haggard look of someone who’d missed one too many meals, which
wasn’t far off the mark. She’d never acclimated to the food at the dig site, so
she hadn’t eaten much to stave off stomach problems.
years old,” she muttered. “If I look this bad now, where will I be at fifty?”
rhetorical. She didn’t bother answering it, but she did redo her ponytail
before walking back to her seat. True to his word, the flight
attendant—Richard, according to his name badge—had arranged a snack tray on her
small pull-down table.
The food on her Egypt Air flight hadn’t smelled very fresh, and she hadn’t had
time at Heathrow to do anything beyond head for this one at a dead run. As it
was, they’d shut the doors right behind her. One of the other flight
attendants, a middle-aged woman, had given her a disapproving look for being
crackers, cheese, and shrimp with bottled mineral water. Somewhat fortified,
she replayed the last day-and-a-half. She and her team, University of
Washington faculty and graduate students, had set up shop in the Nile Delta not
far from Ismailia. Reports of bone fragments had drawn them, but Juliana hadn’t
expected much more than a dry hole. Archaeology was like that.
rainbows, as it were.
what she’d expected would be a one-week excursion, they’d unearthed the remains
of a town. Even so, she’d held her excitement in check until preliminary tests
yielded data dating the town back to two thousand B.C, placing it somewhere
between the Middle and Old Kingdoms.
had flooded her project with money and people. She’d spent ten months living in
a tent next to the Nile and wouldn’t have left if it weren’t for Sarah. Her
twin was sick again. Never healthy, Sarah had gotten the short end of the stick
while they were in utero and developed cystic fibrosis as a child.
this long was little shy of a miracle, but her time may have finally run out.
Julie squeezed her eyes shut against a gush of hot tears. She’d asked about
gene splicing, bone marrow transplants, anything to give her sister’s lungs a
new lease on life. She’d even offered to help with part of a lung for
transplant surgery, but Sarah told her not to bother. The CF was systemic. New
lungs would eventually become infected just like her current ones were.
tried to hold back dripped down her cheeks, and she swiped them with her
napkin. Life was desperately unfair. Her sister had tried to finish medical
school but lacked the stamina. Undaunted, she’d turned her sights to a nursing
degree. She’d worked in clinics and hospitals until a couple of years back when
her inhalers and treatments grew less and less effective.
considered moving Sarah into her home, but she wasn’t there enough. The
compromise had been her parents, who’d redone a bedroom to accommodate oxygen
and the array of equipment Sarah used each day. Julie checked in weekly, but
she’d been so wrapped up in each pot shard and bone fragment they’d unearthed,
she’d missed a week or two along the way.
over her in waves as she huddled in her seat. She flipped her light off and
hoped no one would bother her.
she urged. You’re my twin. Hang on until I get there.
hadn’t wanted to bother her unnecessarily. By the time they’d patched through
an emergency call, Sarah was on a ventilator and couldn’t talk with anyone.
blanket out of its plastic cover and wrapped it around herself. Exhaustion
dragged her into blackness, and she must have passed out because the next thing
she heard was a cheery voice advising they’d be landing at Sea-Tac in thirty
materialized. She ate quickly, not tasting anything, and drank another bottle
to bother you while you were sleeping, Dr. Wray.” Richard loomed over her.
really needed some rest.”
Don’t take this wrong, but you look beat.” He offered his million-watt smile
again, the smile that probably lined his bed with hundreds of willing women.
take you out to dinner once we land. You can tell me more about your
archaeology,” she corrected him automatically, not bothering to add it was a
common misperception and that people frequently confused the two disciplines.
“See? I need guidance.”
you do, honey.
temptation to verbalize a tart rejoinder. “Sorry, but my parents are meeting
me. We have to get to Overlake Hospital.”
He quirked a brow.
she feels better soon.” Richard edged away. Discussions of illness probably
made him uncomfortable. Death wasn’t contagious, but people shied away from
anything that smacked of mortality as if it brought bad luck to delve too
her life to assessing the remains of people’s lives, what they’d left behind.
Death was where she lived most of the time, but it didn’t make losing Sarah any
up. She’s not gone yet. I hope.
swooped out of the sky and bounced twice as it connected with the runway. She
flicked on her phone as soon as she could, scanning for the message that would
Lots of well wishes from her dig team and a terse one-liner from her mother
saying they’d meet her at the gate. Julie stood as soon as she could and
dragged her duffle from the overhead, slinging it across one shoulder. The door
opened, and she bolted through it, walking fast.
customs, a tall, spare uniformed officer, complete with a full weapons belt,
caught up with her. “Dr. Juliana Wray?” His dark hair was cut short. Shrewd
green eyes probably didn’t miss a whole lot.
expedite your way through customs. Passport, please.”
pocket and handed it over. “Did my dad send you?”
answering, he pasted a sticker in her passport, stamped it, and handed it back.
“Come with me. A car is waiting.” Turning, he marched about twenty feet to a
gunmetal-colored door and tilted his chin to activate a retinal scanner. The
locking mechanism whirred, and the door popped open.
him, afraid to ask any more questions. Maybe he’d know about her sister. Maybe
not, but she did not want to hear the words, “I’m so sorry, but she passed on…”
jaws together to hold emotion inside. She’d have her whole life to cry. Now
wasn’t the time to fall apart.
stopped long enough for a second scanner to recognize him and pushed open a
door leading outside. Gray murk typical of the Pacific Northwest surrounded her
under skies spitting rain. She’d lost track of time after leaving Cairo, but it
must be around noon since that was when her plane was slated to touch down.
looked pretty much like dawn and dusk. Gloomy. Dark. Short days that merged
into long, damp nights. What a contrast to hot, dry Egypt.
officer motioned. “We’re headed for that limo.”
car was parked about fifty feet from them. “It— It looks like a hearse,” she
her a surprised look. “It’s a limousine, Dr. Wray.”
father was running toward her. A retired Marine general, he was tall and spry,
despite being in his late sixties. Silver hair was shorn close, and his blue
eyes—eyes just like hers and Sarah’s—crinkled with pleasure at seeing her.
stood tall and saluted. Chris Wray saluted back. “Thank you, Lieutenant.
double take. Her escort was a Marine. How could she have missed something so
simple as the markings on his uniform?
wrapped his arms around her. “Welcome home, princess.”
in return and reared back so she could look at him. “Sarah. Is she—?”
with us, honey. Come on into the car, and I’ll let your mom fill you in. Here.
Give me that duffle. Is that all you have?”
handed it over and trotted to the car with him. Joy mixed with hope speared her.
Sarah was alive. It was all that mattered.
a Marine, took her duffle and held the back door for her and her father, who
followed her inside.
sweetie.” Her mother enveloped her in a hug, her familiar lilac scent washing
over her. Ariel Wray kissed her forehead before letting go. Her black hair was
shot with silver, and her brown eyes glowed with pleasure. “You were gone for a
Tell me about Sarah.”
briskly. Five years younger than her husband, she’d been a Marine colonel and
battle strategist until she retired after the last Iraq conflict.
forward. Julie resisted the urge to pepper her mother with questions and waited
for her to begin speaking.
dark brows together. “Up until two days ago, I was certain I’d summoned you
home for your sister’s funeral.” She tilted her chin up, nostrils flaring. Used
to deployments and death, her mom was one of the toughest women Julie had ever
known, and she wouldn’t mince words or sugarcoat anything.
drowning in her own fluids. There wasn’t much left to lose, so we trolled
through the university’s medical school for another pulmonologist, someone
younger. It pissed our doctor off, but he couldn’t stop us. In any event, we
found a doctor who was willing to try something unproven—”
non-FDA-approved treatment,” her father cut in.
Sorry if I missed the exact nomenclature.” Ariel blew out a noisy breath. “We
gave our permission.”
be working.” Her father couldn’t keep optimism out of his voice.
does.” Ariel chimed in. “She’s off that damned ventilator. God but she hated
continue as they have been, we’ll get to bring her home in time for Christmas,”
emotion Julie had suppressed since her mother’s call summoning her home hit her
in the gut, and she bit back a sob.
It’s okay.” Her father gathered her close; she gave in and clung to him as she
cried, great, choking sobs that made it tough to breathe.
patted her back and smoothed her tangled hair. “It’s okay, Juliana. We’ll keep
her with us for a little bit longer. Oh, I didn’t mention it, but you’ll
remember the miracle-working doctor.”
lifted her head from the wet front of her father’s jacket. “Who is he?”
McKinnon,” her father answered, reminding her how her mom and dad tag teamed
home, along with a slew of nasty memories. “Oh God,” she moaned. “I mean, I’m
glad he saved Sarah, but he is such a bastard. At least, he used to be.”
mother warned and handed her a bunch of tissues.
nose. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll be the soul of nice.”
her dad advised, as always oblivious to things he didn’t find worthy of
attention. “We’ll be at Overlake in about fifteen minutes.”
her streaming eyes. Only a quarter hour before she’d come face to face with the
two-timing slime ball who’d seduced both her and her sister. And ruined her
life because she’d loved him.