Today’s guest is Stephanie Gayle, whose newest book, Idyll Threats, (Seventh Street Books, September 8) is the first in the forthcoming Thomas Lynch mystery series. Stephanie’s fascination with crime stories began when she first met a policeman at the age of four and attempted to outsmart him. After flirting with the idea of becoming a defense attorney and then working for a few weeks as a paralegal, she decided writing crime fiction would be a lot more satisfying — and fun. Stephanie’s first novel, My Summer of Southern Discomfort, was released in 2008 (William Morrow). By day, she’s a financial assistant at MIT’s Media Lab. Stephanie’s here to tell us how letting her protagonist Thomas Lynch speak to her when she was stuck in the writing process helped her discover his secret, and the key to her novel’s plot. Welcome, Stephanie!
The Surprising Confessions Your Characters Make When You Listen
In a novel writing class a while back, I complained, “I couldn’t fall asleep last night. My characters kept talking to me. They kept me up for hours.”
“Treasure that,” my instructor said. “The hard part is when they don’t talk.”
Years later, his words returned to me while I was working on my latest novel, Idyll Threats. My protagonist, Thomas Lynch, had a lot of personality. I knew plenty about him: he was an Irish Catholic cop, he’d had a bad experience with his former partner, he felt out of place in his new job as police chief of a small town. But Thomas didn’t talk to me the way my other characters had. He was withholding. What was his problem?
It’s easy to misunderstand the author/protagonist relationship. Readers figure that if you create a character you can just make him do what you want. Right? I’ve written a couple of novels. It doesn’t work that way for me. Usually, however, I do understand what has influenced my characters and why they behave a certain way.
But Thomas was an enigma. He talked and walked like a cop, yet was somehow an outsider within the police fraternity. I couldn’t pin down why. It’s almost impossible to write a novel when you don’t understand your protagonist. And a first person narrative? Forget about it.
Taking showers, going for walks, and running are my usual methods for breaking through writing dilemmas. The showers hadn’t worked. I’d logged miles of scenic walks without a solution. It was time to pull on the sneakers and sweat. So I went for a jog and I thought about Thomas.
He had a great sense of humor, but he rarely expressed it around others. I huffed and puffed. He had strong opinions, but he didn’t always share them. A stitch formed in my side. I tried to vary my breathing. He was a big, tough guy, but he acted as if he was afraid. I ran easier. It was as if he was afraid of someone discovering a secret. He’s hiding something, I thought. An affair? My pace quickened. No, but something like an affair. And then I stumble-stepped on the sidewalk, mid-stride. Because that’s when Thomas spoke to me at last:
That explained everything! Why he wasn’t at ease with his colleagues. Why he was always policing his own behavior. Why he had few close friends. Why he had no interest in women. Why there was a constant undercurrent of secrecy around him.
After that realization, Thomas opened up to me. He didn’t get chatty. He speaks in three-word sentences. But he felt more accessible. I finally understood where he was coming from.
However, the revelation was not without costs. I hadn’t set out to write a gay character, so I had homework to do. I wanted to create an authentic gay man. Not a caricature, and not an ideal. Luckily, I had astute readers who gave me excellent feedback during revisions, and a brilliant editor. They called me out when they felt Thomas wasn’t behaving as a closeted gay man would. In a scene where Thomas discovers a list of all the gay men in his small town, I’d made him angry and scared because his name is on it. A fellow writer pointed out that a small part of Thomas might be happy to discover that list. Because it shows he’s not alone. That he’s surrounded by people like him. So I worked that in.
Thomas isn’t a paragon. He’s too quick with first impressions and he’s not careful with people’s feelings. He doesn’t like having his authority challenged. He’s also the most fully realized character I’ve created to date.
It took time to understand what it was that made him unique, and the revelation came as a surprise. My characters’ sexual orientation was never at the center of my stories before. I’m glad I took that run (a sentence you’ll never hear me repeat) because it somehow enabled me to let go, open up and tune in to Thomas fully.
Fleshing out characters is one thing, and there are lots of character-development exercises that can help: personality sheets to fill out, diaries written by contemporaries to investigate. You can also borrow quirks from real people you encounter. But sometimes, the most important part of our job as writers is simply to listen. And let our characters tell us their secrets.
Has your character ever surprised you? How did that surprise impact the story? Do your characters talk to you? What form does that conversation take?