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KRIS NERI | Who Is Running This Show?

July 16, 2010


Do writers choose their characters — or do characters choose their writers?

The idea of characters picking their writers might seem a bit fanciful, but surely, characters emerge in ways that neither the writer’s conscious mind, nor even her unconscious, can explain.

Of course, we all draw on life — our own and everyone else’s. My husband always says that writers are the nosiest people on earth. I don’t think we’re nosy, exactly; more like super-interested. Sure, we eavesdrop on private conversations in public places (cell phone users make it a breeze — in case you haven’t noticed, you’re shouting). We watch strangers in restaurants and create scenarios for situations we’re not close enough to hear. But that’s not snoopiness, as much as a desire to understand people.

Remember that old cliché: it’s all grist for the mill. When you share something personal with a writer, you do so at your own peril.

Still, no matter what we experience or observe, it’s hard to explain how fully formed characters, which we weren’t conscious of creating, simply walk onto the page.

That’s what happened with Samantha Brennan, one of the protagonists of my new paranormal mystery, HIGH CRIMES ON THE MAGICAL PLANE (which recently received a Lefty Award nomination! Yay!). In her booming, robust voice, Samantha described herself to me – before I had any idea who she was:

Man, what a sight I was! Long blonde hair curling wildly in every direction, crowned with a wreath of battered silk flowers held together with Christmas tree garland. Makeup by Crayola. And that dress I wore — half Renaissance ball gown in bright blue satin and lace, half soothsayer garb with its filmy organdy layers, half jester suit. Too many halves, I know, but it was quite a dress.

I was even more stunned when her partner-in-crime — Special Agent Annabelle Haggerty, who is also a genuine Celtic goddess — dealt herself in the storyline. How could this come from my background? What did I know of goddesses? But Annabelle hooked me with an unexpected conundrum: What if you could have anything in life you wanted, except the thing you wanted most. She informed me her secret desire was to chuck all her magical powers and be nothing more than an ordinary mortal. Only her overburdened sense of responsibility, to her ancestors and her heritage, kept her from giving herself something that should be well within the scope of her powers.

Throughout the writing of HIGH CRIME ON THE MAGICAL PLANE, Samantha continued to surprise me with her off-the-wall choices and her zany voice, and Annabelle, with her hidden depth, so that sometimes I felt as if they didn’t need me at all. As if I were just along for the ride.

Oh, it shouldn’t have surprised me that much. While the paranormal was new for me, I’ve always been a sucker for madcap stories, which HIGH CRIMES ON THE MAGICAL PLANE certainly is. I was the only little kid I knew who rushed home from school in the hope of catching a zany movie on TV.

Wacky, witty stories have also always dominated my reading. I was actually re-reading a madcap Noel Coward play when Tracy Eaton, the protagonist of my other series — the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity Award-nominated Tracy Eaton mysteries — walked into my life and my writing. While reading that play, I was struck by a startling thought. What if someone had been raised in a Noel Coward-esque world? I wondered. Wouldn’t she always be out of synch with the rest of the world? With that, Tracy and her daffy movie star mother, Martha Collins, burst into life.

Tracy introduced herself by spouting the opening lines to my Derringer Award-winning story, L.A. Justice, which would be their first appearance:

I’ve come to expect the unexpected from my parents. After decades of being billed as “Hollywood’s madcap couple,” those loveable loonies, Martha Collins and Alec Grainger, wouldn’t recognize the real world if it bit them. But Mother’s doozy of a predawn telephone call surprised even me.

“Tracy!” she hissed. “There’s a man in my bed.”

Now I ask you, is that something a mother should say to her impressionable thirty-four-year-old child? I told her as much.

I might have been less flippant had I known the man was dead.

Multiple short stories and three novels later, Tracy and Martha are still directing things, especially in the latest adventure in this fun series, REVENGE FOR OLD TIMES’ SAKE. Sure, if you look at my lifetime interests, you can see my influence. And I’ll admit, I’m working awfully hard for something that pushy characters seem to be sending my way.

But I still wish I knew who is running my writing, my characters or me. I pretty sure it’s not me.

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