Thursday, October 13, 2011

Getting a Grip on My Heroine

by Gayle Carline
My mysteries are character driven, because that's important for me when I'm reading a book, or watching a TV show or movie. I'll forgive a Plain Jane story as long as there's an interesting person taking me along for the ride.  

That being said, I had a hard time developing my main character. I knew I wanted her to be a 50-year old woman who used to be a housecleaner and has recently gotten her private investigator's license. But I needed her to be real in my head so I could make her real to my readers. Who was she?  

I attended a workshop by Michele Scott, who suggested interviewing or journaling your characters in order to understand them. So, I called Peri and set up an appointment. If you're a writer, you understand that.  

(I'm not crazy. I'm not I'm not I'm not.) 

* * * * *

Due to our hectic schedules, Peri and I decided to meet in her office on Sunday morning. She rents a small space on the first floor of the Founders Plaza. It's sparsely furnished and decorated, but the back wall is a floor-to-ceiling window, overlooking the atrium. Peri stands up from behind her desk to greet me. She's about half a foot taller than me, with cornsilk blonde hair, and she's wearing khaki shorts and a Hawaiian shirt over a blue tank top that matches her eyes. She offers her hand to shake and I put a cup of coffee in it. 

Peri: (laughing) How did you know? 

GC: It's seven in the morning. Who doesn't need coffee? 

(We both sit down.) GC: Why don't you tell me a little about yourself? 

Peri: Well, I was born in Spreckles, California, which is next door to Salinas. My parents moved to California from Minnesota when they got married.  

GC: Why? 

Peri: My folks were kind of beatniks, I guess. Early hippies. They had this idea of moving to a farm community to "get back to the land." So we lived in this rented farm house on about ten acres where my dad was always trying to raise things. 

GC: What did he raise? 

Peri: My mom's blood pressure, mostly. You know that joke about the new farmer who can't raise chickens? "Either I'm burying 'em too deep or watering 'em too much." That was Dad. Good thing he figured out he couldn't do it for a living – he got a job as a banker so he could play farmer on the weekends. 

GC: And your mom? 

Peri: She was probably the true hippie. Dyed her own cloth, made clothes and sold them at the farmer's market. Rescued animals, that kind of thing. 

GC: Tell us how you got into housecleaning as a career? 

Peri: Well, it all started because my parents wanted me to go to UC Berkley and I wanted to go to UCLA, which meant I went to UCLA on my own dime. I had some scholarships, but I earned the rest of the way working for a housecleaning company. Once I got my Bachelors in English Lit, I worked for a couple of years writing ad copy, then went back to cleaning. 

GC: I heard there was a pretty interesting story about your transition back to housecleaning. 

Peri: Yeah, well, I was working for a pig of a boss for this ad agency, and I really hated it. The ad men thought grammatical errors and misspelled words are really great gimmicks for selling a product, so I had to write the accompanying copy for some really stupid slogans. One day, Pig Boss came to my desk and threw my latest write-up at me, yelling because I had tried to write something meaningful about some snack food with the slogan, "It Tastes Gooder." (Lowers her voice) "I don't want your damned two-dollar words. Write it like a five-year old with learning disabilities." 

I stood up – I was much taller than him – and said, "You want a five-year old?" I took my cup of orange juice, poured it on his head and told him, "I quit, ya big butthead." Then I stuck my tongue out at him and left. 

GC: So why the career change, to private investigation? 

Peri: I was a successful housecleaner for years. I did private residences, offices, you name it. Didn't make me rich, but I could afford to buy a little house, put food on the table. When I turned 45, I started thinking about how long I'd have to work before I could retire, and I pictured myself at 60, on my knees several times a day, scrubbing bathtubs. I'm in good health, but what if I had back or joint problems? 

My friend, Blanche, always teased me about figuring out everyone's secrets just from emptying their trash. It made me think I could make a living doing something that didn't involve bleach and rubber gloves – as a rule. 

GC: Should we talk about your love life? 

Peri: If we don't who will? (laughs) I've been dating Skip Carlton for, um, about 6 years now. He's a detective for the Placentia Police Department. 

GC: Wow, six years is a long time. 

Peri: I know what you're thinking. It's what everyone else is thinking. Six years and no marriage? Skip wants to, but I don't. I've been married three times, so for me, it's kinda "been there, done that, got the t-shirt."  

GC: So, it doesn't sound like marriage is for you?  

Peri: Not really. My first husband was in the Navy, a nice guy but we were both too young and it was probably more about the physical attraction than anything else. I tried to pick the second husband based more on what we had in common. We both liked Eric Clapton and old movies, but he also liked being a sociopath.  

GC: And the third?

Peri: Brilliant, funny, gorgeous, kind, generous. Unfortunately, a year into the marriage he figured out he's gay.  

GC: Whoa, that would have been nice to know earlier. 

Peri: Ya think? Anyway, I like the way things are now. Skip and I spend a lot of time together, but we both have our own places, so when things get too tense, we can go to our corners and cool off. 

GC: How's Skip taking this change of careers? 

Peri: Ha, speaking of things getting tense. He tries to act nonchalant, but I know it makes him nervous. Now he knows how it feels. 

GC: Now that you've been doing it for awhile, how do you like being a private eye? 

Peri: Sitting in my car with a camera sure beats schlepping garbage, although I wish people would stop beating me up and trying to shoot me. Nobody did that when I scrubbed their grout. 

* * * * *

After I had "interviewed" Peri, I wouldn't say I knew her inside and out, but I had enough of her history to be able to get inside her head and see how she handles situations. Sometimes she still surprises me, though. She acts like she doesn't like walking down dark alleys, but I suspect she enjoys the adrenaline rush.

What about you? As a writer, how do you get to know your characters? As a reader, what bugs you more - cardboard characters or too-simple plots?


  1. Thanks for a fun interview. Of course, now I'm trying to figure out which parts of biographical and which are pure imagination.

  2. Only one small biographical piece. Like Peri, I've been married 3 times, but the third one was the charm for me. Dale is most decidedly not gay. Oh, and the second husband was a sociopath, but the first one was not in the service. Everything else seemed to pop out when I closed my eyes and imagined...

  3. This is wonderful, Gayle! What a great exercise.

  4. What an entertaining read, Gayle! Just what I needed as a break in the middle of otherwise nonstop editing all day! I love your character, Peri, and really enjoyed the lively discussion! Can't wait to read the novel she stars in!

  5. Great post Gayle. I'd like to think my novel is character driven but you'll have to be the judge when it comes out! I think well developed or interesting characters are the heart of the story and much more valuable than a good plot. In that way it is much like life and I think readers respond to that.

  6. What a fun woman! I love her!

    I tend to find a name for my characters first, then do some brainstorming and some stream-of-consciousness first person with them. But I love it when they surprise me, and am honored when they tell me their secrets.

    Brandilyn Collins wrote a book called GETTING INTO CHARACTER. If I recall correctly, when she interviews her characters, the one question she keeps asking them is, "Why?"

    Great post, Gayle. I'm looking forward to getting to know Peri better.

  7. Good suggestion. I know what I'll be doing next. :)

  8. One of the hardest things in writing fiction--at least for me--is nailing down a character so he/she comes across as well-developed and real instead of flat and wooden. I do a lot of people watching and mental note taking. It's not uncommon for someone to shoot me one of those what-are-you-looking-at kind of glares. But it's important as a writer to pay close attention to your surroundings, or, as you did, Gayle, take it a step further and jump right in. These are the things that make a story spring to life, adding an element of freshness you just can't manufacture.

  9. Thanks, Drew, again, I have to give credit to Michele for her workshop. One of the best benefits about these interviews is that I could separate my voice from Peri's. I have a problem in making my main characters too passive, as if they are extensions of me and I'm trying to pull myself out of the book. Interviewing Peri allowed me to have "interviewer's voice" and give her the personality. The process made her so much more lively in the book.


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