Authors always love it when readers tell us how realistic they find our characters to be. But at the same time, we’re well aware that they are, in fact, fictional. Or are we? Something that happened a while back makes me wonder about that.
A mere two-dimensional figure
My sister, Laura, and I were at the beach in Santa Cruz, California—the same beach featured in the first chapter of my new book, Death al Fresco—watching our dogs romp through the chilly surf and chase across the sand after ratty tennis balls. Laura asked about my work-in-progress, and I told her about a thorny subplot involving a prep cook at Gauguin, the restaurant owned by my protagonist, who Sally discovers to her horror is an undocumented immigrant.
I’d been trying to figure out if my plot idea was feasible, given the current state of immigration law. But even though I’m an ex-lawyer and did once—long ago in a galaxy far, far, away—study immigration law, I remember virtually nothing about it these days. (Not to mention that the law has changed quite a bit in the thirty years since I took that class.)
So there I was, watching my Jack Russell mix disappear into the enormous hole she’d dug in the sand, when I had a flash of inspiration.“Oh, wait,” I said to my sister. “I know—I can ask Nichole!”
Nichole is an immigration attorney who works for a big nonprofit up in San Francisco. And she would indeed know the answer to my question, as she’s an expert in her area of the law. But the problem is, Nichole isn’t real; she’s a character in my books.
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I burst out laughing. Did I really just say that?
But the thing is, for that one short moment, I really did think I could ask Nichole. She’s been so much a part of my consciousness for the past five years, ever since I started the first book in the series, that she is like a real person to me.
Similarly, I often find myself becoming tense or sad when I write a scene in which a character (other than the killer) has something bad or sad happen to them, and I’m elated when it all works out in the end. Even though I’m in complete control of what happens to them, I worry about my creations’ state of mind, their comfort, their safety.
But these are not real people, you may well be thinking. So why does their situation affect you as if they were?
Almost real, but not quite
I can’t answer that question, except to say that once you create a character, he or she does become “real” in this strange way that perhaps only writers of fiction can understand. It’s as if you’ve brought these people into the world and now it’s your duty to take care of them and make sure they thrive.
And so it does make me wonder: when authors kill off a character in their book, how on earth can they sleep at night?
How about you: Do you ever have moments where you think of either your own characters (if you’re an author) or those in the books you read as being real?
The daughter of a law professor and a potter, Leslie Karst learned early, during family dinner conversations, the value of both careful analysis and the arts—ideal ingredients for a mystery story. She now writes the Sally Solari Mysteries (Dying for a Taste, A Measure of Murder, Death al Fresco), a culinary series set in Santa Cruz, California. An ex-lawyer like her sleuth, Leslie also has degrees in English literature and the culinary arts.
You can visit Leslie on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lesliekarstauthor/, and you can go to her author website http://www.lesliekarstauthor.com/ to sign for her newsletter—full of recipes and fun Italian facts!—and to purchase all of her books.
About Death al Fresco, book 3 in the Sally Solari mystery series:
It’s early autumn in Santa Cruz and restaurateur Sally Solari, inspired by the eye-popping canvases of Paul Gauguin, the artist for whom her restaurant is named, enrolls in a plein air painting class. But the beauty of the Monterey Bay coastline is shattered during one of their outings when Sally’s dog sniffs out a corpse entangled in a pile of kelp.
The body is identified as Gino, a local fisherman and a regular at Sally’s father’s restaurant, Solari’s, until he disappeared after dining there a few nights before. But after witnesses claim he left reeling drunk, fingers begin to point at Sally’s dad for negligently allowing the old man to walk home alone at night. From a long menu of suspects, including a cast of colorful characters who frequent the historic Santa Cruz fisherman’s wharf, Sally must serve up a tall order in order to clear her father’s name.