It’s during crises or critical events that we find out what a character is made of. For that reason, I chose to write genre rather than literary fiction. Sure, some genre fiction is literary and some literary fiction could fit a genre niche. But, in a mystery or a thriller, the protagonist has to confront the bad guy and overcome evil. The protagonist is expected to meet numerous frustrations and continue. Despite this stubborn persistence and courage in the face of despair, the protagonist should appear human with human failings and idiosyncratic habits and mannerisms.
When a natural disaster strikes, hurricanes, fire, and flood, how do people behave? Why does one person risk his own life to save others and another collapse and need psychiatric help? Everyday heroes don’t see themselves that way. They seem to act from an unconscious drive.
How do people respond to acute and chronic danger? In war-torn countries whole populations are forced to adapt first to acute and then chronic danger. In the US, in this and the previous century, wars have taken place in faraway regions. The general population has not been challenged except for the families of military personnel serving overseas. 9/11 was an exception, an acute and sudden crisis, which forced citizens to react according to their core strengths and weaknesses. Citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq must deal with the constant threat of death. They have to make choices—whose side are they on? Do they want to take sides? Is survival their only goal?
In Europe, whole populations lived under the rule of the dictator, Hitler. Any infringement of the rules enforced by the SS could lead to torture and death. The UK lived under constant threat of being conquered and endured five years of bombing. They had to go about the daily business of living despite air raids and constant reminders of death. People in their late teens belonged to local warden patrols. One of their duties was to scrape victims of bombing off streets and sidewalks. Neighbors saw houses across the street burned to the ground and whole families destroyed. Amazingly, many humans survive this chronic danger with their spirit intact. At the same time as people under siege experience daily threats to their lives, they often experience deprivations such as severe food and goods rationing.
It is this enduring spirit within the human psyche that I search for in some of my characters.
As an RN, I often saw people face crises. How does a family cope with an accident that results in a brain injury to one of its sons, married and the father of two? Does jealousy erupt in uninjured sons who watch their mother spend hours at the bedside of her sick child? The wife, can she divide her time between her husband in a coma, or worse, acting weird, and her young children? Do members of such a family make snap decisions or do their actions seem to come from somewhere deep within their memories?
When people are sick, they sometimes hide their feelings from their doctors who seem so much above them with their control over life-saving techniques and their knowledge. These same patients don’t hide their feelings of frustration, anger, and despair from their nurses. I learned to listen to how ordinary people process their fears of disability, aging, and death. The human spirit never ceases to amaze me.
Then there are the ethical decisions that require courage. I think we learn this kind of courage during our school years. When a classmate is being made a scapegoat, how do you react? Do you join the in-crowd? Do you secretly dislike yourself for joining the winning side? If you are the scapegoat, how do you react to the injustice and the constant chipping away at who you are? Can you fight back and what methods do you choose?
I’m guessing it’s because I was born into a western culture but I most often see the individual against society. Sometimes a person has to reject the beliefs of her/his peers in favor of a more ethical choice. Gang members are scary with their violent tactics but I see them as cowards because they need the backing of the group.
It is these questions of how a person faces a crisis and what unpopular moral or ethical choices she/he makes that motivate me to examine my fictional characters. Sure, the story’s important but who brings that story to life and why—that’s what intrigues me in the work of others and in my own work. I’m reminded of such characters as Scarlet O’Hara, King Lear, the three boys who become men in MYSTIC RIVER, and the women in the adaption of Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli novels on TNT.
WWK Blogger Paula Gail Benson has two short stories running in Kings River Life Magazine this weekend, "Pelican Spring" and "The Mama Factor." Both are Mother's Day short stories. You can read them by going to: http://kingsriverlife.com/category/kings-river-reviewers/terrific-tales/
Linda Rodriguez is a finalist in two categories for the International Latino Book Awards (given out at BEA the end of May)--one for Every Last Secret and one for editing Woven Voices: 3 Generations of Puertorriquena Poets Look at Their American Lives (with Gloria Vando, Anika Paris, and Anita Velez-Mitchell). Congratulations, Linda!
The second SinC Guppy anthology, Fish Nets, has been released by Wildside Press. WWK authors, Gloria Alden, Warren Bull, Kara Cerise and E. B. Davis have short stories in this volume, which can be bought at Wildside Press, the usual retailers and will be available at the Malice Domestic Conference. Look for "the story behind the stories" on May 1 here!
Upcoming Salad Bowl Saturdays include authors Sasscer Hill on 5/18 and Carolyn Mulford on 5/25. If you are interested in being a guest blogger, send a message to Jim Jackson at email@example.com.