I’m in one of those great professions where people pay me to love. No, I don’t mean the proverbial “oldest profession.” It’s the second-oldest profession: the writing profession. I get paid to love my characters. To love the predicaments I can throw them into. To love the settings that hinder their efforts even further. I get paid to love their interactions with other characters, whether it hampers or helps them solve the mystery they embark on—or just the mystery of who they are.
H. L. Mencken once said: “Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.” I think he was taking to me. Characters wind up in bizarre situations that they are witty enough not to have gotten themselves into to begin with—were it not for some pesky writer.
You wouldn’t pick up a mystery if you wanted to read about someone walking out the front door—fragrant daisies and lilacs lining the sidewalk, flapping birds and floating butterflies lazing in the air—waving joyously to his next-door neighbor, who is doing the same mundane thing. You want to read about the same guy waving to the same neighbor—because you have to figure out which one buried the body in the backyard.
Think about how you read the newspaper. Some kid gets busted swiping video games from a store and has to pay restitution. Some lady bounces a series of checks and has to spend the night in jail. Some dummy leaves his car running in front of a bar and some other drunk takes it for a joyride and crashes it. These police briefs are good, but you’re just warming up. Then you read where a homicide’s taken place only a few blocks from your home. The murderer has not been caught. People are in danger until he or she is caught. You want to know more. You have to know more. But first you have to jump up and lock your doors and windows. You close all the curtains and blinds. Double-check the locks. Peek out the curtains. Check the locks again. Then come back to finish the rest of the article, grasping the paper a little more tightly in your shaky hands.
Same with characters in fiction. I love when book clubs invite me to their get-togethers. Discussions often begin with the plot. But “what happens” is just the warm-up, almost incidental to the real discussion: the characters. The remainder of the discussion is a lot like speculating about the fate of celebrities featured on the latest tabloid magazine covers. When is Manny ever going to ask Clara to marry him? Is he ever going to quit wrecking so many cars and forgetting his gun? Doesn’t he realize why he keeps having these visions?
You, the reader, want to read mysteries about characters that become your characters. You want me, the author, to place your characters in a constant state of upheaval, facing complications and crises, dilemmas and disasters, confusion and commotion from all sides. You want them to be ordinary people, like you or me, only you want them to be in situations that are anything but ordinary: unwittingly involved in a scandal with the risk of humiliation, or inexorably caught up in a conflict with the threat of grave danger.
As a writer, I love my characters. I love putting characters in fear of losing everything they’ve worked for, in fear of losing their all their meaningful relationships, or—even better—in fear of losing their own lives. I love putting characters in circumstances that force them to do extraordinary things.
I have always loved writing. I even loved being a writer, paying my dues, long before I became a published author—still paying my dues, but also getting paid to love what I do. In the end, maybe the writing profession is like the “oldest profession,” like being a writing “gigolo.” As an author, I love to hear from readers who know my characters, mourning their losses and celebrating their successes. Only readers can give the characters lives of their own. “And when the end comes I know, they’ll say ‘just a gigolo,’ as life goes on without me.”