I climb the stairs to my office and turn on the computer. As I begin to type the room and everything in it fades and disappears. It is morning in the valley, and there is a hint of dawn beyond the distant mountain range, its ragged peaks still bearing the remnants of last winter’s snow. The ring of fire from the previous night is now smoldering ash. The pack of coyote, their eyes flashing golden, their teeth white against the night, are gone. The shades of gray gradually become green.
The campfire burns high and curls around the stacked brushwood, and I inhale the scent of coffee brewing. I am tall, slender Hannah, young, brave and athletic, adventurous to the point of blind impulse. I am fearless and determined to do my job, even if it means arresting the man sitting across the campfire, his eyes focused on me in a way that sends shivers of delight up my spine. I realize that I have cast aside the pragmatism that has served me through hardship, and beyond logic I have fallen in love with this exasperating man. I am at a crossroads: do my duty as a detective or bring to an end the loneliness of a lifetime. What will I do?
I turn off the computer. The morning breeze is only the air conditioner. The campfire is the sun streaming through my window. As I rise from my chair I feel the sharp pains in my titanium-patched ankles and the misery in that old rotator cup injury. I see the dust bunnies under the desk, and I hear the unsolicited pitch for aluminum siding on my answer machine. But for those brief moments none of that existed. I wolf down a tuna sandwich for lunch, anxious to go back to that valley, where Hannah will make a decision that affects the rest of her life.
If I’m lucky, my readers will leave the mundane behind and become Hannah, too. They will lose themselves in another time and place.
Actually, luck has little to do with it. It’s work to grab readers and hold them for the duration of a book. To get them to abandon the waiting wash load, the weeds in the garden and that dress that needs hemming we must create someone they will care about, someone like themselves with problems to solve and personality traits that make solving them difficult. We must forget ourselves and become that person for however long it takes.
How do I know what Hannah will do? Because I know her as I know myself. I may have joined her at a crisis in her life, but before I knew what she’d do to solve it I stepped back in time to her birth. How many times have your heard a TV cop say, “Run a full background on …” Until you know how your character came to this crossroads you will decide how she handles it when it should be her decision. What was her childhood like: loving family, single parent, orphan, or absentee parent [physically or emotionally]? What of the major traumatic events in life occurred before the moment we join them?
Psychologists say that death, marriage, divorce, and moving are all life-defining moments. Childhood is a defining moment. Now they tell us that our personalities are forming even in the womb and that what we experience by age five pretty much completes the job. We then spend the rest of our lives refining, modifying those traits or using them as an excuse for our behavior.
Take a good look at the person you want to use as your main character. What made them who they are? And don’t forget to do the same for the advisory. That exasperating guy sitting across the campfire from Hannah has a past, too. As writers we create these characters. The moment they stop being characters and become people what they do is pretty much up to them. Sit back and enjoy the write!
Starting in June I will have room for a limited number of writers for critiques or on-line individualized lessons. Query through this sight.