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Looking Into a Killer’s Eyes to Bring a Character to Life

Killers Eyes1 [1]Today’s guest is Emily Ross, whose debut novel, Half In Love With Death [2], released on December 16 (Merit Press).  Before it was published, she received a 2014 Massachusetts Cultural Council finalist award for the manuscript.  Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in Boston Magazine, Menda City Review and The Smoking Poet.  A 2012 graduate of Grub Street’s Novel Incubator program, Emily is an editor and contributor at the writing blog Dead Darlings and works as a software developer by day.  Welcome Emily!

In the 1960s a man named Charles Schmid murdered three teenage girls and buried them in the Arizona desert. Later, his eerie story became the inspiration for, Tony, one of the main characters in my novel, Half in Love with Death. Though inspired by a serial killer, Tony is the love interest of Caroline, the book’s protagonist, and he had to come across as seductive and irresistible for this attraction to be credible.

But how could I, as a writer, accomplish this paradoxical task?

The answer I discovered was chilling: I needed fall in love with Tony. And to do that I needed to get closer to Charles Schmid.

I’d already meticulously researched Schmid’s life. Known as the Pied Piper of Tucson, he was a hero to many Arizona teens—especially girls, who followed him to parties in the desert and kept his terrible secrets. He was charismatic and handsome, but for the parents of Aileen Rowe, and Wendy and Gretchen Fritz, the teenage girls he murdered, he was a nightmare. Understandably, I didn’t feel any emotional connection to him—that is, until I discovered the photos.

With news stories about Schmid abounding, there were plenty to be found online. Looking at them was like peering through a window into a time long gone. Though a monster, Schmid was an incredibly photogenic murderer. Thanks to the photos, I was finally able see the seductive side of this dangerous man, and to understand the powerful feelings that caused teens to abandon common sense and follow him.

In one photo, Schmid looks like a rock star, with his pretty face, sad pale eyes, and dark tousled hair. He has that irresistible combination of dangerous and beautiful that teenage girls go wild for. Recognizing his allure helped me understand how to make Tony more seductive.

Schmid1 [3]

In another photo, taken when Schmid was a high school gymnast­—long before he became the Pied Piper—he looks sweet and mischievous. Seeing Schmid’s athletic side in this photo made me feel sympathy for him, and wonder what happened to transform this seemingly typical teenage boy into a killer. This gave me ideas for my own character: to make Tony more sympathetic, I decided to make him a championship diver, and came up with a traumatic event involving water that occurred when he was a child.

Schmid2 [4]

Indeed, though the photos helped me better understand Schmid, as I continued studying them, it was my character Tony, and not Schmid, who emerged. He spoke to me. He began appearing in my dreams and lurking in my subconscious, daring me to know him in that way writers must know their characters in order to make them real.

What struck me most about the photos were Schmid’s mesmerizing blue eyes. Lighter than the rest of his face, even in black and white, they provided me with an epithet to use for Tony. The way Caroline sees Tony’s striking blue eyes reflects her feelings for him throughout the book. At first, when unequivocally dazzled by Tony, she thinks, “Blue wasn’t a strong enough word for his eyes. They were cerulean.” But later, perplexed by his behavior and trying to understand him, she says, “His eyes were like a big blue drink, two parts sadness, one part loneliness.”

Other photos helped me understand both Schmid’s and Tony’s dark sides. After the murders, for example, Schmid began to paint a black mole on his cheek, and kept making the mole larger and larger. He also affixed a fake bandage to his nose. Girls thought this made him look tough. Journalists wondered what these strange alterations really meant. I took them as a clue that Schmid was showing the world he was turning into a monster.

In Half in Love with Death, as Tony’s dark side emerges, his appearance changes too. But unlike Schmid, Tony doesn’t deliberately alter the way he looks. Rather, Caroline’s perception of him is what changes. As she struggles to reconcile her strong feelings for him with her rising doubts, in her eyes he goes from resembling a china doll, to seeming like a mime in a white mask, to looking like a tormented otherworldly being.

Schmid3 [5]

Tony is not Charles Schmid, and Half in Love with Death, though inspired by facts, is a work of fiction. Nevertheless, those photos of Schmid were exactly what I needed to make Tony real—however different his story turned out to be.

Have you ever used photos to help with character development? What have you learned? What are some things that you do to get closer to a character?