Sunday, November 25, 2012

What did your character have for breakfast?


     Deb is watching football and I'm thinking up a signature for the serial killer in my next Rainey Bell Thriller, typical Sunday afternoon. Deb tried to help with the signature, but she finally said, "I don't think I can think like those people, and I'm not sure I want to." We had a long discussion about what it must be like to really know all of the human depravities to which the FBI behavioral analysts are exposed. When I write, I approach it very much the way I prepared to play characters on stage, during my acting days. I had to truly KNOW the character - backstory, motivation, the soul of the person, the inner monologue – so that when I spoke the character's words on stage, I spoke them as if they were my own, generated from my thoughts. The ability to do that is what separates the great actors from the good ones. The highest compliment I ever received for a performance was from a close friend, who said, "I totally forgot that was you up there." It boils down to a basic concept of acting – the suspension of disbelief, to react “as if” you were the character. The trick is to think like the character, not think like an actor trying to think like a character. If I could embody a character, bring it to life from the written page, I could make the audience forget they were watching a play. As a writer, I want the reader to forget they are reading a book.
     My theatre mentor, Shawn Smith, sold me on the first question he would ask of an actor, "What did your character have for breakfast?" That sounds simple enough, but it isn’t really. It opens a floodgate of questions. Where was this breakfast consumed, if in fact there was a breakfast at all? Did it occur before sunrise or late in the afternoon? If late in the afternoon, then why? Who cooked it? Was it good? Was it found, stolen, bought, bartered for, etc.? Said breakfast is not in the script. The author did not describe this breakfast, but he or she did tell you all about it. In a play, all you have are a few notes from the author and the spoken word of the characters. In a well-written play, what the character says and does tells the actor all they need to know. Maggie the Cat, from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” had a much different breakfast from Jessie, in “ ‘night, Mother.” The actions and words of a character are the culmination of life experiences leading up to the moments of the play. In those actions and words are the keys to the character, what shaped them, and yes, what they had for breakfast. When I write, I know what my characters have for breakfast.
     Writing romances allows me to ride the roller coaster of emotions that exist in a love affair. I may break my heart a few times and use up a box of tissue writing those tear jerking scenes, but in the end, the darkness fades, the sun shines, and everyone is happy. If you’ve ever felt the ache of a character’s emotions, then know it is so very painful to the one writing it. At least it is for me. I am also allowed the rush of emotion when it all works out in the end, a blessing after all the angst in arriving there. It is the essence of empathy, the in-depth understanding of someone else’s feelings. I know those characters. I’ve lived inside their heads. Those characters eat breakfast with me sometimes. I know them inside and out. When and where they were born and to whom, the childhood years, the years never mentioned in a book, the secrets they keep, it’s all written down somewhere or stored in the recesses of my mind. Much of what I know about my characters has never seen the printed page. What they say and do in the books should give the reader a fairly clear picture, if I’m doing it right.
     The point to all that rambling, besides trying to cram seven years of theatre acting classes into a few paragraphs, is that I do have to think like a former behavioral analyst to write about one in the Rainey Bell series. To do that, I also have to know what she knows about the monsters among us. For several days now, I’ve been inside the head of Gerard John Schaefer, convicted sadistic murderer, not a pretty place. His collection of short stories is a way into his twisted mind, and about as deep as I’ve ever been into that shocking world. I’ve visited the volumes of knowledge on Bundy, Fish, Dahmer, and other violent murderers and rapists. My bookshelves are crammed with books by Douglas, Ressler, Hazlewood, Burgess, and other experts in criminal behavioral analysis. I’ve been inside the head of the monster about as far as one can go without a badge or access to more transcripts of the actual conversations with these convicted serial murderers. I’m not sure I want to go too much further. What people see on TV shows like “Criminal Minds” is the version the public could stomach. The truth of what some of these depraved individuals do is far outside the realm of general understanding.
      So, the question is, “What did Rainey Bell have for breakfast?” Did a crime scene from her past flash in her mind just as she was about to bite her toast? Did she shake it off and take the bite, or did she abruptly stand and leave the table? What did she see? How often is her life interrupted by these memories from her past? I have to know the answers, but the more difficult and disturbing aspect of writing about a woman who hunts monsters is the answer to one other question. What did the serial killer have for breakfast?

8 comments:

  1. This is really a great primer for all of us on POV. Brilliant! It's difficult to get into some characters, but well worth it.
    Thanks, Barrett

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    1. Thanks, Barrett. It isn't always fun to be an author, to delve into human emotions the way we must, but I'm glad it's my day job. It's well worth the angst to tell a good story.

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  2. You are a consummate storyteller. If that comes from your stage background I'm sorry I never saw you act. As much as I hate what the criminals and sociopaths that Rainey encounters do to their victims I would never consider missing a book you've written. I think that's because with Rainey there is so much hope for her and Katie and their family and friends. Their lightness balances the darkness of the cases Rainey works with. Authors who have forgotten that such a balance is needed have lost me as a reader.
    Thank you for the glimpse into your process.

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    1. You are welcome and thanks for the compliment.

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  3. Thank you for this blog. I do a character interview with all of my characters but I can honestly say I never asked them the questions about what they ate for breakfast that you posited. I'm copying and pasting that paragraph (with credit to you, of course) to a word document to use for future reference.

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  4. You nailed it! For me, about the most exciting part of starting to write a new book is doing the backstory on the major characters. I always begin with extensive bios, often going back a couple of generations because that's where the seeds are sown for the story I'm about to write.

    As for writing the feelings, they have to be genuine, don't they? In writer's group this week, we were talking about that peculiar phenomenon of laughing out loud, or crying, while writing. Sometimes I get so disturbed with my characters I just have to go get a cup of coffee or play with the dog.

    Thanks for writing this --- it definitely strikes a chord.

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    1. My wife says she lives with the characters when I'm writing. I too have to take that walk and touch base with reality when the emotions get too personal. Glad I'm not alone.

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