Characters Who Write Themselves

It’s a well-known fact that I’m not a kid-person. I’m not into them. They’re not my thing. I don’t do kids. I never was one, never had one, never wanted one. I’m a fan of the “joke:” I Child-Proofed My House . . .. . . but they get in anyway.

Of course, I (theoretically) love certain children, like grandnieces and cousins three times removed, but I can spend only a limited amount of time with them. An hour tops. Then I get annoyed with their high-pitched voices, tendency to interrupt even when they’re not bleeding, and inability to discuss the objective correlative in their latest writings.

Here’s a typical conversation when a friend or relative brings a kid to visit.

Scene: 8-month-old kid on my carpet, keeps trying to get his left leg in position to crawl, fails time after time.

Parent: Look at him. I could watch him for hours.

Me: Oh. (Thinking: I hope he doesn’t have an accident on my rug.)

Parent (proudly): He’s so persistent. He’s determined to crawl.

Me: Oh. (Thinking: At that age, we all were; otherwise there’d be billions of people unable to get up.)

My general rule is: leave your kids at home until they’re ready to discuss quantum mechanics. Or at least understand the phrase: That’s not a toy.

Me at 6 months. I wouldn't want this kid scootering around my living room.

Me at 6 months. I wouldn’t want this kid scootering around my living room.

HERE’S THE MYSTERY

HOW did Maddie Porter get born and invade eight of my novels? (My/Margaret Grace’s seventh miniature mystery, “Madness in Miniature,” will be out next spring from Perseverance Press. I’m writing the eighth one as we speak). Maddie is 11, well below the age I can relate to, the communicable age, and she’s also a skinny, freckled redhead, the likes of which I never saw growing up in my Italian neighborhood.

I’ve always resisted the “characters want to be heard” myth. Creating a character and moving her around 350 pages in a believable way takes a lot of work.

I was on a panel once with the great Reginald Hill. Someone asked him, “Do your characters ever take over and write the story?”

“If only they would,” he answered. “I’d go and have a spot of tea.”

I’m with Sir Reginald on that, but there’s no doubt that Maddie the Kid crept onto my screen before I could think about whether I wanted to deal with a preteen. Many readers have told me that she’s the best thing about the series, which debuted in 2008. Well, that’s depressing, but . . .

Maddie is precocious and loves sweets, which helps, because I can imagine manipulating her to talk about string theory. And her computer skills make her a good little sidekick sleuth, but I’ve warned her, she’d better not start acting up like some of the kids I see at the mall. I have ways of eliminating characters I no longer have use for.

For each of the books in my three series, I create characters whose lives and professions are unfamiliar to me. I love doing the research, talking to willing subjects to get the inside scoop. Among the people I’ve observed and interviewed are cops, funeral directors, ice climbers, veterinarians, EMT workers and medivac pilots. And, since Maddie’s “birth,” kids.

To develop Maddie I had to actually deal with kids, to capture their behavior, speech patterns, buzz words.

What do you know? They’re not as bad as I thought. I even grew to like a few of them.

The whole experience has made me rethink the characters-show-up-and-take-over theory.

However: no theme birthday party invitations, please. I still prefer college age and up in real life.

 

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2 Responses

  1. I’m glad Maddie came into your all-adult life, Camille. She might even learn to discuss quantum mechanics with you. She sounds like a sort of Annie figure: bright, and determined to outwit her creator. You may be sorry after all–unless of course she earns you a pile of money.

  2. Wouldn’t that be great, Nancy! But you’re right that I’ve started to teach her QM.

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