“Are any of your characters you?”
The question comes up in virtually every school author visit and Skype Q and A session I do with kids who have read my books. And the answer is tricky.
No, none of them. And yes…all of them.
The truth is, I’ve never written a character I can point to and say, “See this guy here? That’s Bob Randolph, who drives our FedEx truck in my neighborhood.” But the character in the book might share Bob-the-Fed-Ex-guy’s quirk of singing loud country music with the windows down while he drives. He might also have salt and pepper hair like my neighbor’s, a nose that I saw on a guy in Starbucks once, a secret love of gourmet organic salads like my brother, and a pair of muddy hiking boots with purple laces that I just made up. My characters are more collages than anything else – made up of scraps and bits I’ve collected from life and imagination and cobbled together into a more interesting whole.
Do some of those collages contain bits of myself? Sure. Marty McGuire wears my muddy sneakers, Gianna Zales shares my love of running in the neighborhood, and Jaden Meggs has the same desire to simultaneously impress and pull away from her dad that I felt as a teenager. So yes, I always tell readers who ask, there’s a little of me in every single character I write.
“Even the bad guys?” one kid asked during a school visit not long ago.
I had to think about that one for a second before I realized something.
“Yes, the bad guys, too,” I told him. “In fact….especially the bad guys.”
That’s particularly true when I think about my mysteries and science thrillers, like EYE OF THE STORM, which just came out in paperback this week, and MANHUNT, the third book in my Silver Jaguar Society mystery series (June 2014).
Sometimes, as writers, we do things in our art that we don’t understand until much later, long after the book has been published and we’re standing in an auditorium answering questions from fifth graders. But in thinking about this kid’s question, I realized that the villains in my novels all seem to share a common element – passions that got away from them.
The people who know me well know that I am an incredibly passionate person. I have big opinions, big ideas, and big feelings – all of which can be overwhelming sometimes. That quality has served me well in life, in many ways, but left unchecked, it would most certainly hijack my life and damage my relationships. And I think a lot of us are like this; our best qualities can also be our worst qualities. Loaning those qualities to our villains not only lets us explore them more fully but also tends to create bad guys who are more rounded and more sympathetic.
Think about it the next time you’re brainstorming character traits for an antagonist. What’s your very best quality? What would it look like out of control? Answer those questions, and you’ve got yourself a pretty compelling villain.