Have you ever loved a book so much you grieved when it ended? Have you ever re-read a book simply because it felt like visiting a good friend? Yeah, me too. I’m convinced that books like those share one common denominator: they are filled with people, not characters.
No, I’m not saying that they’re all biographies or memoirs. I am saying that such books, regardless of genre, contain fully fleshed out people who allow readers into their complex lives and because they do, we care about them.
I set out to write just such a book and, like most worthy pursuits, discovered it was waaaay harder than I thought it would be as I attempted to populate the world of CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE with real people.
First, I began with my main character, Jonathan Cooper. I wrote my book in 1st person point of view through his eyes so I absolutely needed to know him. I had to understand his deepest desire and his darkest fear, how he coped with the tension of not knowing which would ultimately manifest in his life, and what lies he told himself and others in order to navigate such uncertainty.
I began by staring off into the distance, imagining and thinking about what it would be like to be sixteen, born into an evangelical Christian home, and awakening to the fact that you’re gay. The surface emotions came to me quickly: the fear, the pain, the desire to hide and repress the truth even from himself. It was a good starting point, but had I settled for surface understanding I fear I would have written Jonathan as a caricature—or worse—a stereotype. And that was not acceptable.
Mary Carroll Moore, a teacher of mine at The Loft Literary Center, suggested I “interview” Jonathan. She told me to have a conversation with him by writing down whatever question I wanted to ask him and then writing down whatever response popped into my mind. I was instructed not to edit or think critically during this exercise.
And yeah, I felt a bit weird and silly…at first.
Here is an excerpt from one of my interviews with Jonathan Cooper (JC) written in the fall of 2011 when I was first drafting CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE:
ME: What would happen if you gave into your feelings for Ian?
JC: Are you crazy? I can’t do that. It’s wrong. Besides, I’m not like that.
ME: Like what?
JC: Like what you think I am. What Ian thinks I am. I’m not THAT.
ME: Okay. Fine. Who are you then?
JC: I’m…I’m…I’m confused. I don’t want to talk anymore.
As you can see it was a LONG journey to get Jonathan to open up not only to himself but to me. However, I continued interviewing him throughout the fall of 2011 and the winter of 2012 and eventually the interviews came to be something I looked forward to as Jonathan trusted me with more of his truths. Ultimately he became real to me and I felt not only responsible but privileged to tell his story with as much heart and sensitivity as I could muster.
I’ll leave it to you to let me know if I succeeded or not. CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE comes out on June 16th from Bold Strokes Books, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the novel! Please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
p.s. I recommend using this technique with all your primary and secondary characters and especially with your antagonists. Begin by asking each one why they think they’re the real hero of the story. I guarantee your mind will be blown by what they have to say!