Saturday, May 11, 2013

Why Characters Need Their Own Achilles' Heels

What fun is there in having a character who is so perfect, he or she never makes a mistake? You might as well stick a robot in the role, for all the emotions that aren't generated by a character who never fails. Half the fun of an adventure book, a real thriller, is knowing that the hero has his or her back against the wall and has no clue what to do next. That's really when the brain starts scrambling to find solutions. Good writers are also lovers of good tales --- that's how we know real readers don't want to sit on the sidelines. We all want to participate in the story, to be pushed to wonder what might work. Don't we love to be hit with the unexpected, the unpredictable? We're out for the excitement of the wild ride.

When I sit down and write a book, I know my characters as people. I know their weaknesses and strengths, at least on the surface. But I'm never really sure which way they will go until they're backed into that tight corner and have to make choices about what to do, how to do it, and why to do it.

Recently, I was in this position with my latest Gabby Grimm Fairy Tale Mystery, and it wasn't really a comfortable place to be. I happen to think morality and ethics are important in everyday life, so I care that my heroes make decent decisions even in the face of chaos. But in Little Red Riding Hood and the Secret Cookie Recipe, Deputy Gabby Grimm was in over her head. I deliberately yanked her out of her comfort zone and tossed her, along with her victim, to the wolves (pun intended.)

As a law enforcement officer in the small village of Latimer Falls, Vermont, Gabby doesn't have a lot of serious crime with which to contend, so she's all about community policing. She works hard to know the folks she protects. She's trained for this and is very good at it, utilizing her background in psychology. But when organized crime tries to muscle its way into the area, the bad guys are really, really bad. They don't play by any rules. They're vicious bastards who do unconscionable things to innocent people. That's a game-changer right there. When Gabby is thrust into a big, fat mess, she makes a really bad choice, but she makes it for the right reasons.

Would I have made that decision? I'd like to think not. I'd like to think I'd try harder and go deeper for a more reasonable solution. But I say that from the safety of my armchair, where I'm sitting pretty. Gabby was in a life-altering situation at that moment in time and the opportunity presented itself. When you're desperate, you sometimes do desperate things. It's what makes us human. We make mistakes. Yes, I could have given her the chance to go a different route, but writing a novel is all about forcing a story out into the open. Sometimes it's not easy to get away from really bad guys and our hands get dirty in the process of cleaning up after them. Somebody's got to take out the trash. Gabby knows, even as she acts, that she's crossed a line, but she's out of ideas and she knows the life of an innocent teenage girl is at stake. Does she follow the rules or does she save the girl? Do the ends justify the means when it comes to saving lives? The law can read black-and-white, but sometimes the reality is muddied by a variety of factors and villains. Should we protect the rights of bad guys and let the victims die to uphold the law, or should we do what's necessary to protect human targets, even if we stumble on the finer points of justice?

For Gabby Grimm, having a Special Forces soldier as a romantic partner is a new experience. She's already outgrown her local dance partners. As a female deputy, she's used to that male mindset, and she actually holds her own as the only woman in the Latimer Falls Sheriff's Department. Sam Hogan takes more risks than any other man Gabby's ever known, which makes him rather fascinating to her. His covert skills definitely come in handy when organized crime invades Latimer Falls, but do they comply with law enforcement rules? Good heavens, no! Sam's used to dealing with terrorists and warriors. What works with them isn't necessarily what is needed for a small village in Vermont. Gabby is constantly assessing and reassessing her skill set, to meet the needs of the current crisis, but sometimes there is a lag in processing and it's important to go with what you've got.

Romance books often vary in the types of characters and the way in which the pursuits of the ever-elusive love evolve. Whether you hail the conquering hero who triumphs over the vixen or you root for the bronco-busting heroine who tames that wild stallion, whether you tear up at the words scrawled in a secret message left in the crook of the old oak tree or you find yourself maddened by the missed opportunities of star-crossed lovers, you are looking for one thing from your characters -- passion. Some love stories are cerebral, some adventurous, but they all involve desire. Whether it's that touch of a hand that awakens the hidden longing deep within the heroine or it's the sight of a pair of heaving bosoms and a thrusting sword commingling between soft Egyptian cotton sheets as the story comes to its crescendo, the definition of romance is always in the eye of the beholder.

When I concocted Bea Jones, the heroine of The Bard's Bed & Breakfast Mysteries, I saw her as a bit of a rebel. After all, her whole life was turned upside down because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time and rubbed elbows with a terrorist in Paris. From that moment on, her choices were not her own, and over the years, she built up some serious resentment for her circumstances in life. As the wife of a CIA officer forced into early retirement, she takes some satisfaction in his misery, because now he has a first-hand look at what it's like to be the pawn instead of the player. Her CIA handlers renamed her Beatrice after the Shakespearean character in "Much Ado About Nothing" and set her up in a Washington, DC bookstore, a job she loved. Unfortunately, an Iranian spy managed to ruin that for Bea, and now she's an innkeeper for a clientele that's CIA-connected. It's just another thorn in her side that she didn't get to choose who to be or what to do. And her conveniently arranged marriage to Benedick? She wants him to know that no matter how cocky he gets, he's never going to totally control her. If anything, Bea makes Ben work for every little concession on her part as they stumble through married life together.

The funny thing is these two people actually do love and respect one another, but like Shakespeare's pair of lovers, they never stop their bickering long enough to admit to such a weakness. On Ben's part, it comes from a lifetime of being a Cold War pawn. His own family history is so wrapped up in the battles of the past, he has no choice but to be constantly vigilant. He knows that at any moment in time, that bullet can come out of nowhere. For him, it's not an unusual thing to find a dead body under the bed, as was the case in Let Slip the Dogs of War. He just arranges for a clean-up the way a "normal person" might sweep up those Cheerios that spilled on the kitchen floor. In some ways, he's a little too cavalier about his own lot in life. He's so used to taking out the human trash, he sometimes forgets he's supposed to tie that garbage bag up in the kitchen and haul it out to the garage.

Bea's quarrelsome personality can be irritating and annoying, not only to her husband, but to others. And yet, it's her means of surviving in a world where she's been controlled by circumstances. She's not willing to lie down and roll over. She's going kicking and screaming all the way. When she finds herself in the forest with a ruthless spy team, that drive to survive is what saves her. She's forced to wonder what her CIA-trained husband would do to stay one step ahead of the bad guys if he were in her shoes.

Ironically, that situation actually helps Bea understand Ben better, because she gets a first-hand look at his world and just how dangerous it really is. It's no place for sissies or the faint of heart. These are real predators and they mean business. When push comes to shove, Bea actually begs the worst offender to spare an innocent child because she can't bear the thought of putting this tiny victim into harm's way yet again, not after what the little Syrian war refugee has been through. But she's learned from Ben and she uses what she knows of the spy's own personal history to maneuver him into doing what she wants him to do.

But did Bea make a good decision? Novel writing isn't the art of creating perfect characters. From a CIA standpoint, Bea made a terrible decision. She actually surrendered the child she was supposed to protect to the man who could most profit from it. Her intentions were good. Her heart was in it. But that idea that seemed so right actually created more problems than it solved. You see, spies are in the business of manipulating. They operate on the MICE scale, trying to play their targets by leveraging money, ideology, coercion, or ego to get the job done. Can you buy what you want by tossing dollars at the dilemma? Can you work it with the heart, tapping into that adherence to a cause or belief? Can you squeeze your victim until you get compliance, burning those feet until the target screams "Uncle!" and gives up control to you? Can you stroke that enormous sense of self-importance in your target until you convince your drama king or queen that the world is his or her oyster?

What Bea doesn't see coming is what will come back to haunt her one of these days. She wants to believe that in every person there is goodness and it's just a matter of tapping into it. Bea thinks she has changed the brutal spy and humanized him by bringing out the good in him. Ben scoffs at the notion that his evil adversary has been transformed by her efforts to do right by an innocent child, but then he has seen the dark side of life. He knows sometimes we are helpless when time moves faster and more powerfully than the human heart, mind, and body can act. Is there anything lonelier than looking back on those times you were powerless, useless? Bea has a lot to learn about her husband's world, and it looks like learn she will, willing or not.

In the sequel, A Plague O' Both Your Houses, Bea finds her morality wavering when the hateful Linda Romano gleefully puts that same little war refugee once again in harm's way. Most people never know that beast called murderous rage. When Bea suddenly finds herself experiencing it, she struggles to overcome that ugly urge. What stops her? Someone else needs Bea to be better than that. A distraught friend seeks the goodness in this CIA wife and she answers the call by sacrificing the devil on her shoulder.

What Bea Jones and Gabby Grimm have in common is their desire to do right in the face of terrible evil. Even as they realize they are outwitted and outmatched by those with more training and experience, they are still willing to risk their own lives to protect the innocent. They believe in goodness enough to reach out to some very bad people, in order to tap into that smidgen of human decency that might be hiding behind the scary facades. It's a desperate thing to do, but sometimes it's the only thing to do. These two women are operating on female instinct, but they are influenced by the men they know, men who have clearly been too close to the edge of mankind's misery and seen what no human heart should ever gaze upon.

What really seems to define these two female characters is their choices of cars. These women aren't flashy or overly aware of their own beauty, although they do know the power they hold over the men they love. Gabby and Bea are both very practical people and they look to their motor vehicles to serve them well. In many ways, the cars offer insight into their different personalities.

At one point during a chase in Let Slip the Dogs of War, Ben is driving Bea's trusty little Outback station wagon and manages to scratch it up as the Subaru bounces along the dirt road. Her reaction to his carelessness is understandable, but Ben tries to smooth it over by announcing that he's sure that the damage can be "buffed out". No harm, no foul. He's so used to real life-and-death damage, this little scratch is nothing. He sees her sturdy station wagon as survivor, just as Bea is a survivor. It's the perfect car for a nature lover like Bea, who can handle herself out in the wilderness. That's good, because the CIA operates in a very untamed environment.

Ironically, we later learn in A Plague O' Both Your Houses that Ben drives a Hyundai Genesis, which Bea refers to as a poor man's James Bond car. For her husband, that sports car is his toy, his machine, his means of getting from Point A to Point B, alas with some style. He's not necessarily focused on practical, the way his wife is. Maybe that's why Bea is the one who does much of the heavy lifting at the Bard's Bed & Breakfast. Or is it why she's constantly seeking ways to manage her husband and get him to pitch in with the shared responsibilities?

For Ben, keeping his mind alert to potential threats means he is constantly on guard, and he's learned to provoke his wife as a way of practicing his parrying skills, to keep his reaction timing sharp and focused. At the same time, he knows that his work puts her in the potential line of fire, so he feels free to poke the bee's nest frequently, knowing that his bad behavior is actually helping to keep her safer. Bea never suffers fools gladly and she isn't the type of woman the CIA can just drop off in the countryside, hoping she'll settle down eventually. That's why Ben married her, to keep her safe, even if she'll probably never acknowledge that sacrifice, let alone thank him for it. The truth is they need each other to have some semblance of a normal life together.

Gabby Grimm drives a bright yellow VW Beetle with a moon roof. What does that tell you about her personality? It's not exactly a serious car, is it? It's the kind of car you toodle around town in, with maybe a couple of stickers attached to it. You can see Gabby coming down the road -- you'll smile and wave to her as she passes you. Gabby wants to put people at ease because she wants to head off crime before it happens. She's the kind of deputy that actually does bring out the best in people who want to earn her respect and admiration. Trouble is the bad guys don't give a rat's ass about what Gabby wants, any more than they care about what the people of Latimer Falls, Vermont need. That means that 90% of the time, Gabby's spreading sunshine around, and the other 10% of the time, she's in way over her head and learning how to navigate the deep end of life without her "swimmies".

That provides a pretty powerful magnetic pull on the heartstrings of a guy like Sam Hogan. He's used to the ugly side of war, and having a "good girl" girlfriend like Gabby is such a relief. The more she's challenged by nasty protagonists, the smarter she gets and the braver she is. Where will she be in five years? What will she do with her newly acquired skills and training? And what's Sam going to do when his days in Army special ops are over?

Have I surprised you with the amount of thought that went into writing these characters? As an author, I strive to make the characters I create as real and as human as possible. Writing a novel without realistic heroes is like playing demolition derby with Matchbox cars in the sand box. It's lots of banging metal and screeching sound effects, but a real waste of time. You don't really go anywhere on this imaginary journey and you don't really get anything of value from it. I want my readers to do a little thinking during a fun adventure. And, like real life, I use humor to tackle all that tension. Whether it's fighting terrorists, mobsters, or spies, sometimes laughing at the absurdity and the craziness is what keeps us sane. Live in fear and fear controls you. Laugh out loud and you begin to realize that sometimes the bad guys are nothing more than Keystone Cops. Find their Achilles' heel and you can defeat them. But first, know your own weaknesses and rise above them.

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