Thursday, November 5, 2020

CHARACTER GLIMPSES: Guest Post by Priscilla Paton

Priscilla Paton:


I was stranded in the Albany, New York, Airport when a beast confronted me, a wondrously large beast. One hundred pounds plus of black-and-white Newfoundland, otherwise known as a Landseer because this bi-colored dog was a favorite subject of Queen Victoria’s favorite painter, Edwin Landseer. Landseer’s “Lion” of 1824 portrays a friendly, beautiful black-and-white dog, and the one facing me had eyes that even in awful airport lighting were, to use a Victorian word, lambent. I believe her name was Florence, as in Florence Nightingale, a working dog whose work was therapy. My blood pressure dropped twenty points and I knew she had to appear in my next mystery. 

Whether canine or human, my characters can be inspired by a glimpse, an impression. A teenage girl whose haircut recalls Joan of Arc. A Black student pianist who laughed in shock when a master teacher commanded him to play against the muscle memory of a year to improve in under thirty seconds. The uplifting haircut and downturned mouth of a seventy-year-old woman. Such glimpses beget a fictional character (and my characters are fictional because it’s confining, not to mention of questionable judgment, to adhere to a real person). But the full identity has yet to evolve, and the big question has yet to be answered—how might that character be caught up in a murder? 

A character needs wardrobe, makeup, personality. Most of all a character needs an arc with a starting point, a crisis, and a resolution. You know this from The Sopranos, when Christopher is stymied by his screenplay and his direction in life because he can’t find the effing arc. 

When that effing arc eludes me, I turn to experts. Elizabeth George’s book Write Away demonstrates how she achieved depth-of-character in her Inspector Lynley series. David Corbett’s The Art of Character examines how desire moves a character through a story. Creating characters becomes tough when I have to think—and feel—the way through their worst moment and greatest pain. 

It is an ongoing challenge for writers to appropriately create characters of different social classes, races, genders, or nationalities. But it’s inevitable because communities and families (including my own) are increasingly diverse. Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward provides a starting point, and writers can consult with sensitivity and diversity readers. Listening to other voices is required, and traditional research helps. To prepare for writing Should Grace Fail, which deals with substance abuse, I read memoirs by the children of addicts and was stunned by their suffering and anger. 

Then there are characters who jump at you out of nowhere, leap full grown into your mind like Athena in the head of Zeus. My recurring detectives arrived that way. True, my initial concept of clever reserved Erik Jansson had him older and wiser; then I realized I wanted him to reach that point after multiple adventures, not begin there. He underwent a Benjamin Button reversion to become a more tender age. Erik remained reserved, so I needed someone to shake him up. That’s when Detective Deb Metzger barged in from another storyline I was considering to irk him and seize half the action for herself. Create characters and you’ll have to deal with relationships. Erik and Deb are stuck to each other like gum to a shoe, and it’s on me to see that they grow (or something) as individuals and as partners.

A final note on that airport encounter. I might have given a Newfie a one-sentence cameo in Should Grace Fail except for this: her handler, scarcely bigger than his dog, told me what she meant to PTSD vets and to traumatized children. (Another Landseer painting, Saved, depicts a dog that appears to pray over the child he rescued.) What struck me as the handler talked was that Florence meant everything to him. She had altered one life for the better—his. That was worth developing. 


Priscilla Paton
writes the Twin Cities Mystery series, set in the greater Minneapolis/St. Paul area. The first in the series, Where Privacy Dies, was a 2018 Forward Indies Finalist, and the next, Should Grace Fail, comes out in December 2020. Priscilla grew up on a dairy farm in Maine, a state of woods, lakes, and rivers. She now lives in Minnesota, another state of woods, lakes, and rivers, not far from urban Minneapolis and St. Paul. She received a B.A. from Bowdoin College, a Ph.D. in English Literature from Boston College, and was a college professor. She has previously published a children’s book, Howard and the Sitter Surprise, and a book on Robert Frost and Andrew Wyeth, Abandoned New England. She participates in community advocacy and literacy programs, takes photos of birds, and contemplates (fictional) murder.

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