March 16 – 22: “How do you distance yourself from the characters you write?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5How do you distance yourself from the characters you write? Or do you? Roll up your sleeves, wash your hands, and join ITW members Arthur Kerns, Maria DiRico, Tessa Wegert, J. H. Bográn and Basil Sands. Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along. You won’t want to miss it!

 

Arthur Kerns is a retired FBI supervisory special agent with a career in counterintelligence and counterterrorism. A past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) his award-winning short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. Diversion Books, Inc. NY published his espionage trilogy, The Riviera Contract, The African Contract and The Yemen Contract. His new novel, Days of the Hunters, was released in 2020.

 

Maria DiRico (the pen name of award-winning author Ellen Byron) was born in Queens, New York, and raised in Queens and Westchester County. She is first-generation Italian American on her mother’s side. On her father’s side, her grandfather was a low-level Jewish mobster who disappeared in 1933 under mysterious circumstances. While growing up in Queens, Maria/Ellen’s cousins ran the Astoria Manor and Grand Bay Marina catering halls. Mardi Gras Murder, the fourth book in Ellen Byron’s bestselling Cajun Country Mystery series, won the 2018 Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel.

 

Basil Sands is the author of action packed thrillers, novellas, and short stories and a professional audiobook narrator. Born on a homestead outside of Fairbanks Alaska, he served in the Marines, was Chef to the Spies (dining manager at the NSA), owned a computer shop, worked as a lumberjack, ambulance driver, radio host, and government IT guy. He’s married to a Porsche driving Korean woman, and has three grown sons and a Yorkie named Heimdall, The Norse Dog.

 

Tessa Wegert is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, The Huffington Post, Adweek, and The Economist. She grew up in Quebec near the border of Vermont and now lives with her family in Connecticut. Tessa writes mysteries set in Upstate New York while studying martial arts and dance. DEATH IN THE FAMILY is her first novel.

 

J. H. Bográn is an international author of novels, short stories and scripts for television and film. He’s the son of a journalist, but ironically prefers to write fiction rather than facts. His genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. He currently divides his time as resource development manager for Habitat for Humanity Honduras, teaching classes at a local university, and writing his next project. He lives in San Pedro Sula, Honduras with his wife, three sons and a “Lucky” dog. His motto is “I never tell lies, I only write them!”

 

11 Comments
  1. I find it very difficult to distance myself from the characters I create. They are shaped with qualities drawn from our own human palette of emotions and psychology. With my stories, some characters appear as backdrop and if they become interesting and help the plot attain greater stature. For instance, my heroine Sandra Harrington. As a bright, young CIA case officer, she appeared four books ago cramped in the back of a surveillance van next to the hero Hayden Stone. The idea came to me to have her flirt with Stone an older, seasoned operative. She bumped her butt next to him to get his attention. The next novel I let her get a little more oomph. She brazenly looks over a naked Stone, who was fleeing a black mamba, before helping him flee. Then she grows in the next two novels, becoming physically and mentally scarred fighting terrorists alongside Hayden Stone. In Days of the Hunters she takes equal billing with Stone and is now prepared to launch off on her own series. This was not planned when she first popped into my imagination. It is if one’s child matured, packed, and left home. You still have an influence on them but they’re almost on their own.

  2. Distancing myself from my protagonist was actually one of the big challenges of writing DEATH IN THE FAMILY. In most ways Shana Merchant is nothing like me, and I had to remind myself of that quite often because the setting in the story (the Thousand Islands of Upstate New York) is so familiar. I would ask myself what I would do in Shana’s situation, when really the answer was irrelevant. It took some time for me to turn over control to the character and follow her lead.

    In general, the characters I write develop as the story progresses. Often they diverge from where they started, and end up being something I didn’t fully anticipate. That’s helpful, because it allows me to be more objective and resist injecting them with parts of my own personality — which, I’ll be honest, is far less interesting than theirs!

    I guess the real issue with creating a character in likeness of the author would be that it’s awfully limiting. I want readers to care about Shana and her experience, and to do that, I have to distance them from my far more limited real life.

  3. It depends how you define “distance yourself.” If it refers to stepping away from characters after a day of writing, I may close a file, but they always linger in my head. This opens the space for moments and lines to pop into my brain when I’m doing a mindless task. If distancing myself means creating characters who aren’t me, I get a vision of a character in my mind. His or her face may be blurry, but I can see the character’s body type, clothing, hair, and behavior. It’s like I’m painting a rough portrait in my head.

  4. Distancing is a term we´d been hearing a lot lately in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. For the record, these questions were created way before the isolation was in sight.

    With that cleared out, as an author, I feel related to my characters. They are my creation; a part of my DNA is embedded in their literary bodies. However, writing thrillers means some of the characters have less than honorable intentions and it´s not in our best interest to say I have a lot in common with say, the serial killer in Poisoned Tears, or the torture-loving fellow in Firefall.

    Although all of my previous novels have been written in third-person POV, and my current Work-in-progress is in first-person, I´m finding myself feeling closer than ever to my character, which makes me feel bad for all the deep troubles I subject him to. Hey, it´s dangerous to populate a thriller novel, right?

    During a recent interview with Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child about their lead character in the on-going series, they had this to say:
    ITW: Speaking of characters, most of the scenes seem to be set with other people’s point of view, and when on Pendergast’s, the POV is so far back it almost feels omniscient. Is this by design?
    LC: That’s a shrewd observation. We don’t want to get into Pendergast’s head too deeply—that’s quite intentional on our part. Whenever possible, or practicable, we’ll write a scene in which he appears from somebody else’s point of view. When we are forced to view things through his eyes, we try to maintain a certain distance, which might come across to readers as approaching the omniscient. But this is primarily because spending too much time in Pendergast’s thoughts would spoil the mystery—not to mention traumatize us as authors.

    (Read the full interview here: http://www.thebigthrill.org/2020/01/up-close-douglas-preston-and-lincoln-child/)

  5. JH brings up a great point about POV. Do others feel first-person storytelling makes it more difficult to create some emotional distance? My WOP is first-person as well, and I do feel very connected to the characters. Thoughts?

  6. Sometimes I have to sit back and ask ‘am I being too kind to this character?’ If I do have to do that the answer is always yes, so they then get a 16 ton weight dropped on them. 🙂

  7. BLIMEY!! I’M LATE TO ENTER!!
    That said…
    Rather than distance myself from my characters, I tend to try and identify with them directly, to see events through their eyes. In the first several novels and novellas I wrote I was going about things exactly like that, and managed to get fairly well invested emotionally with each story. But in my latest series, ICE HAMMER, I went as far as to name the protagonist’s family members with my own wife and son’s names, and many of the characters are actually imagined, and named for, actual friends of mine who have done amazing things.
    I will say that in that recent series I was very emotionally invested in all of the characters and in maintaining a storyline that would both entertain and honor them as well as bring my vision to print.

  8. OH!! and I forgot that this being the day after St Patrick’s Day I should reveal some of my Irish roots and say that the one comic/fantasy novel I have thus far written, APPETIZERS OF THE GODS, was one that I also very much identified with the characters throughout.

    But that may just be due to madness.

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