GO FIGURE: FIGURING OUT YOUR CHARACTERS AS THEY FIGURE THINGS OUT FOR YOU

GO FIGURE: FIGURING OUT YOUR CHARACTERS AS THEY FIGURE THINGS OUT FOR YOU

 GO FIGURE: FIGURING OUT YOUR CHARACTERS AS THEY FIGURE THINGS OUT FOR YOU

 As a writer of thrillers and mysteries, my job is, in part, to have my protagonists figure stuff out under tense, suspenseful circumstances, usually with life-or-death consequences. If I’m working on a cozy, my hero or heroine might be trying to solve an old-fashioned small-town New England murder. In international suspense/adventure novel, where the drama plays out in widescreen, the heroes are more likely racing to unravel a plot to topple our government and ignite a devastating global conflict.

In either case, once they figure out the who’s and why’s about what bad things their adversaries have done, are doing, and might be planning, they then need figure out how to catch them—or at least stop them before they can achieve their goals.

That’s a whole lot of sussin’. And I can’t just have my bad guys apple picking or watching Netflix while the good guys are busy hunting them down. If I want the book to be fun to read, they need to be figuring out their own stuff to ratchet up the drama and tension. For example, what the heroes might have figured out about them!

Speaking of which ….

I inevitably figure out a lot about myself while putting my fictional characters through their paces. Fueling the whole process is a kind of feedback loop that expands and strengthens throughout the roughly nine months it takes me to write a book, and continues to sweep across the longer lifetime of a novel series. It inevitably transforms my characters, and my own life, in surprising, unexpected ways—and takes us all in directions I never imagined.

Here a couple of examples.

Way back, I was working on the second or third book in the TOM CLANCY’S POWER PLAYS series, when I got to scene that I knew would involve a lot of necessary, but somewhat dull, expositional dialog. Basically, it would show a group of politicians and businessmen talking, well, business and politics on a veranda at the rear of a central character’s hilltop home.

I had to do something to add movement to the scene, or the story’s pacing would grind to a near halt. But what?

It struck me that the character who owned the home—Roger Gordian—had a grown daughter. I don’t recall whether Julia had actually appeared onstage before the scene in question, but I had certainly established her existence.

I thought, Well, say it’s a screened-in or open air veranda. Then everyone at the meeting can see Roger’s daughter running a dog.

It seemed a good way to enliven the scene. Whenever the dialog got too dense or longwinded, I could cut away to Julia’s canine companion and show it streaking over the hillside. The dog would provide movement, the beautiful northern California landscape color and background.

Which led me to wonder: Whose dog was it? Julia’s? Or her dad’s? And what kind of dog was it?

For one reason or another, I decided to make it Julia’s dog. Actually, I gave her two dogs, since that would double the scene’s potential movement! But choosing their breed or breeds took a bit longer. I finally settled on both being greyhounds. It was a simple thought process. The dogs were running, and that’s what greys were known for, right? Easy peasy. Not that I actually knew much about greys beyond the fact that they raced on betting tracks and were frequently adopted after retirement.

Anyway, that’s how the fictional dogs Jack and Jill (they were up the hill, get it?) were born. As usual, I did some research before actually writing the scene, and soon had printed out stacks of informative articles, mostly from greyhound adoption websites. I learned of the abysmal conditions the dogs endured at far too many racetracks, and the tremendous work done by volunteers at greyhound rescue centers. It tugged at my heart. Three weeks later, it tugged my wife and I toward a greyhound rescue center in Bridgeton, Maine, where we adopted a grey named Kirby in spite of the grief we were feeling over the recent loss of our Old English Sheepdog, Jones, and a heartbroken vow I’d made not to commit to dog ownership again for a while. Through my work, I realized Jones’s passing had left a void inside me. That I was, indeed, ready to open my heart to another dog, especially one that had gotten off to a tough start in life.

See the positive feedback loop forming here? Writer needs a dog for story purposes. Writer picks a breed and researches it. Writer winds up with two fictional dogs and one seventy-five pound, perpetually hungry real-life pet.

But all that was just prelude. The loop continued to sustain itself, its tonalities and oscillations deepening and expanding. My experiences as an adoptive grey owner, and Julia Gordian’s interaction with the greys, helped her blossom into an engaging, well-defined character with a vastly expanded role in the series. Her dogs also became regulars, and were joined by a third grey, Viv. The plot of the sixth book in the series revolved around Julia getting abducted from a greyhound rescue center where she’d become a part-time volunteer. Viv played an essential role in the story. By then, I was very attuned to the particularities of greyhound behavior—especially the behavior of a grey that had suffered horrendous abuse at the track—and thought I could use some of their unique qualities to plant some clues that would help my heroes figure out what happened to Julia. As it turned out, the hero who did most of the figuring became Julia’s love interest.

What originally seemed a minor story device—adding a dog to a scene to give it some zip—eventually altered my life, and the entire direction of the series. We grew and changed together in ways I never could have predicted.

Sometimes, the resonances of these creative feedback loops can seem downright eerie. As a for instance, here’s one that’s currently swept me into it:

For most of my life, I’ve been fascinated by the traveling carnivals that were once common summertime attractions in small-town America. I could never explain why. Was it my childhood reading of Ray Bradbury’s exquisite dark fantasy, Something Wicked This Way Comes? Or did I simply identify with social outsiders, having been a shy, introverted young boy who never quite fit in? I’d never been to a carny growing up in Brooklyn, New York, though my parents did take me to the circus once or twice.

All I knew—and still know—is that I found there to be something haunting and almost mythical about the carny folk. One of my earliest short stories was about a group of sideshow performers—then known, rather cruelly, as human oddities—staging a revolt a la director Todd Browning’s classic 1932 movie Freaks. My first action-adventure series, written pseudonymously in 1990, was set in a dystopian America where formerly enslaved carnies, freed by a latter-day Underground Railroad, banded together to combat the country’s tyrannical new rulers.

A few years ago, when formulating my reboot of the NET FORCE series, I decided one of its lead characters, the enigmatic SpecOps manhunter Mike Carmody, would have a background connected to the carny, and carny life. I wasn’t sure of its specifics. I just knew it would be an integral part of his past, and something that spoke to the core of his identity.

I was still refining these ideas when a second-cousin from overseas contacted me out of the blue. We’d never met or communicated previously. I barely knew of her existence. As European Jews and Holocaust victims, members of our family’s previous generation who survived Hitler’s death camps were scattered across several continents following the war. Within days of our first online exchange, my cousin  messaged me a few pages from a book about several other relatives who, born with dwarfism in pre-World War Two Romania, formed the Lilliput Troupe, a group of Jewish carnival performers that traveled the very countryside where my father was born, and lived until the Nazis invaded and tore him and his family from their home. Indeed, their first cousin was my father’s aunt, Regina Ovitz-Preisler, a woman of average height. It was only through the little people’s brave intervention that she avoided the gas chamber while all were incarcerated at Auschwitz.

Deeply traumatized by the horrors of the camps, my father has rarely spoken of his youth. I’m absolutely certain he never told me about the Lilliput Troupe while I was growing up. But my newfound relative assured me that Dad not only knew them, but was raised in the same small ethnic community. He is now 92. When I asked, he replied, “Yes. I remember them. I think I went to visit them in Sighet {Romania}.”  That’s all.

I didn’t expect him to say more, but it was enough to leave me floored, and not only because this dramatic piece of family history was connected to one of my lifelong preoccupations.

Suddenly, I knew Carmody’s past. Knew the meaning of at least some of esoteric tattoos that cover most of his body. Knew why I had set big chunks of the first two books in Romania. And knew how the Lilliputian Troupe, or a fictionalized version of them, would become pivotal in Carmody’s future, and in his figuring out some important things about my antagonists. It was brilliantly clear to me. As was so much more about the initial three-book story arc that I had broad stroked for the series. There are still things I don’t know. But I have no doubt Carmody, and some of the other characters, will reveal them to me over time.

Was this coincidence? Serendipity? Or some ineffable, unexplainable, and perhaps even mystical component of my creative process?

I don’t know. I may never know. But when the feedback hits, I’m smart enough to make like Jimi Hendrix and ride the wave, confident it will carry me, my characters, and hopefully my readers, to interesting and surprising places.

 

Jerome Preisler is the prolific author of almost forty books of fiction and narrative nonfiction, including all eight novels in the New York Times bestselling TOM CLANCY’S POWER PLAYS series. His latest book is DARK WEB, the first novel in a relaunch of the New York Times bestselling NET FORCE series co-created Tom Clancy and Steve Pieczenik. Forthcoming in May 2020 is the e-novella NET FORCE: EYE OF THE DRONE. Jerome lives in New York City and coastal Maine.

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