I understand why my characters are real to me. Being a fiction writer is basically the grown-up version of being a little kid with imaginary friends. They live in my head, they talk to me, and they are a constant presence in my life. In fact, this gets a little weird at times. Some of my characters are based, at least in part, on real people now long gone from this world. When they come to me in the middle of the night with suggestions on what I should do with them in my current book-in-progress, I sometimes wonder exactly who or what is bringing me the inspiration. In short, after 16 books worth of creating them, I have grown accustomed to having a crowded mental world filled with a very large cast of characters.
What I don't understand, and am both pleased and sometimes alarmed at, is how and why some of my characters become so very real to other people — so real that they feel the need to attack or defend them to me, their creator. I first noticed this phenomenon in an early Hubbert & Lil book, the first series I ever wrote. I had spent a little time upfront describing my character TS Hubbert as a meticulous man whose New York City apartment was impeccably designed, relentlessly orderly, and included an entire wall of alphabetized Broadway show albums. Apparently, I went too far, however, when I called him a “lifelong bachelor.” This was too much for my copy editor at the time. As I stared down at their comments on my final draft of the book, I saw a handwritten paragraph in red ink, all caps, that essentially said, “Oh come on! He's GAY. GAY, GAY, GAY. Everyone knows he's gay. Lifelong bachelor, my ass. This man is gay!" Um... okay. Far be it from me to argue with a reader on that point. I can see it means a lot to them. And, yes, as a matter of fact, I did want to leave that possibility a distinct one. But I certainly did not intend my characterization of TS to be a flashpoint for someone else's existential crisis (nor did I find his sex life relevant to the story). This was, after all, the 1980’s when elderly gentlemen did not necessarily proclaim their sexual orientation for some very sound reasons, reasons that are now, thankfully, less common. At the time, I thought it was pretty funny, although I was distressed at having triggered someone else's angst. But I also took it as a bit of a compliment. Clearly, TS Hubbert was very real (to this one copywriter, at least). It happened again when I started my new series featuring Casey Jones. No one would ever call Casey refined and I try very, very hard to keep her apolitical. Even back in the 90’s, when the series was started, I felt there was enough political polarization in this world and, quite frankly, I have always found politics in fiction books incredibly tedious to read about. I'm still sorry my first Casey Jones book even referenced politics at all. Especially since this unleashed a string of emails from ultra-religious people, mostly women, lecturing me on Casey’s “amoral behavior” and me, as the author, on my hatred of the far right. Never mind that one of the goals of that particular book was to show that there are both good and bad people on either side of the political aisle, as was made abundantly clear at the end of this book. But these readers did not get that far. They apparently got to the first time Casey jumped in bed with someone, or a political affiliation was mentioned, and then stopped reading so that they could fire off an email lecturing me on her (or my) failings. This was, of course, only the tip of the iceberg. Many emails from readers followed, most good and a few outraged. Fast forward a few decades to today. I have at least one reader who is very invested in how I depict the detective Bill Butler in my Casey Jones series. This reader feels that Casey uses Bill Butler and that I disrespect him and his position. While I appreciate the emotional involvement this reader brings to my books, the truth is that, as a writer, every single one of my characters serves a purpose. Otherwise, they would not be in the plot. Every character stands for something, either a necessary point in moving the plot forward or, as is the case with Bill Butler, a symbol of how the main character experiences life. He is a by-the-book, squeaky clean, good guy. Admittedly, he has bad taste in first wives, but hey: I live in the south. It's hard to avoid super skinny bottled blondes who throw themselves at your feet and pretend to like everything you like just to lock you down in matrimony. So, I forgive Bill Butler for this foible. But his role in Casey's life is both very specific and complicated. Obviously, Casey has some self-esteem issues. That's what happens when you grow up dirt poor in a world that worships people who have more money than they could ever need as the new royalty. As a result, on some level, Casey does not believe that she deserves a man that good (a theme explored in a recent book). In addition, and trust me when I say I gave this lots of thought, Bill Butler is a little bit vanilla. Let's face it, people who always behave in predictable ways can get a little boring, at least from a literary perspective. It's surprises that keep readers turning the page. Besides, who the heck wants your protagonist to get with the love of their life in the first book of a series, thus eliminating hundreds of pages worth of what if’s that keep readers engrossed? But more than that, and most of all, Bill Butler represents an experience in life that many readers share, which is this: have you ever met someone that you really connected with, but time and circumstances prevented you from being with them? Have you had someone in your life whom you kept encountering, maybe even at different points in your life, yet the timing was never quite right for you to be together? I think that happens to a lot of people. And, in my mind, that's what happens with Casey Jones and Bill Butler. It's never quite the right time, or the right place, for them to explore their connection on a more lasting emotional level. The thing is, while this seems sad on the surface, I think it also serves a deeper purpose both in life and for Casey. If there's always someone out there who might be perfect for you, and you haven't yet completely squandered the opportunity to explore that, well, that's a little ray of hope, isn't it? A small chance that, amidst the complicated and emotionally fraught journey that defines finding love these days, it might actually exist for you out there. I give Casey that hope through the character of Bill Butler, who does not judge her for her behavior, who accepts their relationship as it is without judgment, and who is always, always there for her. He is someone to watch over her and have her back, no matter what. If you’ve got a Bill Butler in your life, then you know how important that is and how much it can mean to you. You don’t waste time wishing it was something else. You embrace and appreciate it for what it is. Every reader brings their own emotional baggage to the reading of a book. And that, in many ways, is the power of literature. What the author produces is only half of the equation. It takes a reader — and all of their unique hopes, dreams, and fears — to truly release the power of a book. I invite any of you to interpret my characters, and the way they interact, as you see fit. But please know that I love them all, on some level, or they would not be in my books. Nor do I do choose their fates lightly. I try to give all of my characters the respect they are due. They are, after all, my (imaginary) friends and I would not trade them for the world.
Please feel free to leave a comment below about pretty much anything you’d like, be it characters in general, my characters and how you feel about them, or the dynamics of relationships these days. I will do my best to weigh in on your comments before the decade is up.