THE EVOLUTION OF A CHARACTER
By Louise Titchener
Toni Credella, the lead character in my four-book Baltimore mystery series, started off as someone else. In days of yore, before I wrote mystery novels, I wrote romance novels for Harlequin, Dell and Silhouette I turned from romance to murder and mystery/crime is where my writing is today. But one of my last romance novels was a Harlequin Super romance titled “Beyond Mere Words.”
This story was about a dyslexic young woman living in Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood. She falls in love with a wealthy lawyer who is about to embark on a political career. Overwhelmed by his east coast education and put off by his upper class background, she doesn’t tell him about her reading problems.
The bulk of the story is about how these seemingly mis-matched characters overcome the divide between them.
I can’t write a book until the main characters are clear to me. Sometimes that’s a long hard road. Francy was one of those magical characters who sprang to life in my imagination immediately. I was sad when the novel finished and we parted ways.
A couple of years later I wrote my first mystery, Homebody, after hearing a police officer talk about serial killers and their all too often female victims. I guess Francy was still living somewhere in the back of my mind, because when Toni Credella became the main character in my mystery, she had a lot in common with Francy. In many ways they were soul sisters. Like Francy, Toni sprang from an Italian family and lived in Baltimore’s Little Italy. Like Francy, Toni was dyslexic and had an older sister.
There, however, the close resemblance faded. Unlike Francy, Toni has a troubled relationship with her family. Unlike Francy, Toni survived a disastrous marriage. Before the novel starts Toni has accidentally shot and killed her abusive cop husband and suffers from guilt.
For a long time I felt guilty because I had stolen my own character and then transformed her. Now I look back and think, “well that’s interesting.” I wonder what Francy and Toni would think of each other if they ever go for lunch in Little Italy.
Trouble in Tampa: Currentl a finalist for florida Writers Association Royal Palm Award for Best Historical Mystery of 2018
1885 Florida: wild pigs, wild people, and Trouble in Tampa!
Like most people, I moved to Florida looking for warm winters and easy living. But I’m a storyteller. Retired or not, I can’t seem to quit spinning yarns. I started thinking about a setting for the fourth book in my Oliver Redcastle historical mystery series. Oliver is a sharpshooterand ex Pinkerton investigator. The first two Redcastle mysteries are set in 1880’s Baltimore. The third, Hard Water, is set in 1884 on an island in Lake Erie where I’ve spent summers. A fourth book would take place around 1885. What, I wondered, was going on in Florida in 1885?
Turns out Florida in 1885 was a fascinating place and just as wild as the fabled “Wild West.” As far as I can tell, Civil War Reconstruction was not a big success in Florida during that time. Self-styled bands of “Regulators” roamed the countryside, often taking the law into their own hands. People they considered “troublemakers” could disappear, never to be heard from again.
On the other hand, 1885 was the year Henry Plant brought his railroad to Tampa and changed the town from a sleepy fishing village to a major metropolis. My storytelling wheels started spinning. When I learned that William Walters, a 19th century Baltimore tycoon, invested in Plant’s railroad, I knew there was a Florida story brewing for my Baltimore detective. I decided he would meet a former colleague in Tampa, Hannah Kinchman, a daring detective in her own right, working for Pinkerton. I liked Hannah as a character in Gunshy, the first Redcastle mystery, and thought it was time for her to reappear. Hannah has her own agenda in Florida. She and Oliver will clash.
Figuring out the rest of the story meant more research into Florida history—a lot more. I learned it became a state in 1845 and was deeply involved in the Civil War (as was Oliver, my detective). I had imagined Oliver might meet Indians while roaming the Florida interior, but that turned out to be unlikely as decades earlier Europeans brought diseases that wiped out the indigenous Calusas. Later, Andrew Jackson banished most of the Seminoles. Only a few escaped into the Everglades.
That didn’t mean Oliver wouldn’t run across people in the Florida wilderness—people with unusual stories. Civil War survivors who didn’t go west after losing everything in the war etween the states, often immigrated south into the Florida wilderness. Some of them raised livestock. Florida in the19th century was cattle country. There are still a lot of cattle ranches in the interior. Less prosperous Floridians nearly wiped out the egret population hunting tropical birds so women up north could adorn their hats with plumes. And when they ran afoul of what law there was in Florida, they might wind up doing hard labor in a turpentine camp. My beleaguered protagonist, Oliver, finds himself in such a camp, surrounded by mortal enemies and ferocious mosquitoes.
I had a great time writing this novel. I learned about my new home, and did it while having a wild ride through a bygone era in what was, and is, a remarkable state. Check out my book at https://www.amazon.com/Trouble-Tampa-Redcastle-Historical-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B079HHCP7C/ for a wild reading ride of your own. Louise Titchener
Question: Why should your protagonist be special? Answer: Because that’s what will make your reader sit up and take notice!
I find that engaging with the struggles of a sympathetic protagonist is key to enjoying the fiction reading experience. Perhaps it’s even one of a reader’s greatest pleasures.
Why do little girls love the story of Cinderella? Why have versions of that tale about a vulnerable girl’s triumph over a cruel stepparent been around since ancient Egypt and maybe before? For most of us overcoming challenge starts early in life. We’re barely out of the womb before we must learn how to walk, talk, and deal with potty training, rambunctious siblings and erupting teeth. From there on into the retirement years, it only gets tougher. Stories tell us how other humans make it through, and teach us how we may emulate their success. The accounts which do that best are the ones readers keep returning to.
Cinderella overcame her troubles by catching the interest of a benevolent fairy godmother. She was just plain lucky. Luck is okay. I’ll take it any day. Triumphing over misfortune by being in the right place at the right time is a common theme in storytelling. Remember Spiderman? His special skill is gifted by the bite of an insect. There are countless other even more bizarre examples.
Some protagonists already possess a special skill. They just don’t know it exists. They start out as the beleaguered weaklings we fear might describe our own status in life. Then they uncover the truth about themselves. They may have flaws, but (hallelujah!) they’re special—special enough to overcome a host of miseries. What an exhilarating moment that revelation is for the protagonist. He or she isn’t a defenseless weakling after all! And what a satisfying moment that is for the reader. By “readers” I mean the rest of us. Don’t we all want to be special? Don’t we all want the power to deal with this puzzling and sometimes threatening world in which we find ourselves?
An interesting contemporary example of the protagonist unaware of his talent is David Haller, the lead character in the fascinating FX series Legion. In the first episode (the only one I’ve seen so far) David is in a mental institution. He’s convinced he’s schizophrenic. Then he discovers the truth. He’s not deranged. The phantasmagorical world he lives in is real. He’s being kept in an institution because he has hidden powers that make him dangerous. The revelation is a wonderful aha moment for David and for his audience. A man with special talents that have been buried and denied is suddenly enlightened. I look forward to watching David’s story evolve. I just wish I’d started watching the show earlier.
A protagonists special gifts don’t have to be on the scale of Spiderman’s or David’s. My latest protagonist is a sharpshooter—a skill that’s both a talent and a liability. It does make him “special” though. He can do something that sets him apart. He also has qualities of persistence and determination. These are special assets, too. So, when creating your own protagonist think about his or her flaws. Nobody is perfect, and your protagonist shouldn’t be, either. But also think about his or her unique gifts. Those gifts will engage your reader and keep him or her reading.
The Perfect Protagonist
Well, there’s no such thing and there shouldn’t be. A protagonist should always be imperfect. Here’s why I think that’s true.
Perfection is fine in a saint. But most people aren’t saints and don’t want to read about them. They want heroes and heroines they can relate to, identify with, worry about, root for. That doesn’t mean your protagonist must be irredeemably inadequate. In fact, I think a good protagonist needs a special skill. My most recent hero is a sharpshooter.
I believe most readers don’t engage with truly weak or evil main characters. They want something to admire as well as something to worry about. There are exceptions. I saw only the first season of Dexter, but I thought the character walked a fine line. I know some writers have managed to get away with serial killer protagonists. That ain’t easy. Like Goldilocks porridge, a novelist’s “perfect protagonist” must have been cooked up using just the right recipe of strengths and weaknesses.
Plotting a novel can be a torturous process, but it can also be a lot of fun. I usually start by thinking about my protagonist, and find the exercise endlessly entertaining. I am currently writing historical mysteries. If I start a new novel I’m hoping it may turn into a series. That means I’m going to be living with the protagonist I create for quite a long time. I need to like my fictional significant other. I need to find him or her so fascinating that I will enjoy spending years with him or her. I need to believe that my readers will feel the same.
Of course, similar to other relationships, you only get to know your protagonist really well by writing about him or her. But it’s wise to know this person as well as you can before starting an intimate association.
I've been writing novels and teaching about writing novels for many years. It's true that some people write well from the beginning of their careers. It's also true that writing is a craft you get better at over time. I hope to describe some of what I've learned about the craft in my blogs. Please join me.