Usually writers talk about shaping characters, about how they grow and change as the story evolves. And that’s true. We live with them, sculpt them, tweak them, change them if they let us, but we don’t always think of how they affect the reader. Oh, I don’t mean in the context of the story exactly, but how the characters themselves, their attitudes, the way they live their lives, the way they treat other people, can have an effect on someone else’s life.
My brother wrote me an interesting email the other day. He has a habit of doing that, shooting off an idea that makes me stop in mid-stream and think about something that hadn’t been there before. He had just finished re-reading Anne of Green Gables and wanted to talk about it. I hadn’t read it for years, so begged off until I could find my old copy and catch up. In the meantime, he asked what character had most influenced me during our growing up years, and why. Now, there is an interesting question.
He said that the person he was most influenced by he didn’t discover through childhood books. Instead, it wasn’t until he was a young man that he discovered Atticus Finch. To Kill a Mockingbird has influenced millions of people in all kinds of ways over the years, but the way Atticus handled his role as a single father had never occurred to me. It did to my brother. The balanced way Atticus approached his growing children’s needs, how he listened to them, how careful he was to be firm but fair, how he brought them into the discussion of the events that were going on in the town, my brother said, influenced greatly how he tried to bring up his own children. Must have worked. They’re pretty great people.
I read more growing up than my brother did, so have earlier memories of books, characters that influenced me. Jo, of course, in Little Women, all the animal books, I remember the dogs, cats and horses more than I do any of the people. As I got older there were other characters that are forever seared into my memory. Who could forget Scarlett, kneeling in the garden, digging up roots, vowing she’d never be hungry again. Or Jane Eyre as she returns to a burned Fairfield and a now blinded Mr. Rochester, or Oliver Twist as he holds up that wretched bowl and asks for more? I could go on and on talking about characters that I’ll never forget. But that wasn’t what he asked me. Was there one who had an effect on my life, on the way I have lived? Was there one person, one character whose behavior I’ve tried to copy? I’ve thought about that a lot. Finally, I came up with one. Pollyanna.
Stop laughing. Go back and read it again. Pollyanna wasn’t a simpering little thing who ran around with a holier-than-thou attitude. She had some real problems, but what she really had, given to her by her father, was a realistic coping skill. It was called the Glad Game. It started when Pollyanna, daughter of missionaries, got crutches in the missionary barrel instead of the doll she wanted. Her father suggested that, instead of being so sad, she should be glad she didn’t need them. Good little girl that she was, she complied. Sounds sappy, and probably was, but what he did was throw her a life preserver, and teach her how to find one when life tried to drown her.
Everyone needs coping skills. There isn’t one of us that doesn’t have stuff thrown at us through life that we think we can’t deal with. I know I have, and these last two years, while I have learned to live without a leg, learned to walk again, learned that I can do just about anything that I did before, I’ve found they came in quite handy. Not that I’ve run around—wheeled around—playing the Glad Game, but I’ve learned you can cope with almost everything if you give yourself enough time and have some kind of life preserver while you do.
I throw a whole lot of things at the characters in my books that require pretty good coping skills. Maybe that’s why I like writing mysteries. I like to see how these people work out all those problems I present them with. In mysteries, coping is what its all about. I try to make my characters as real, and as memorable as possible while they struggle with murder, mayhem, and mind numbing tragedy. And if any one of them ever is able to influence someone’s life in even the tiniest little way, my cup will runnith over.
Dying for a change: http://authl.it/B005H49UM8
First Place for Murder http://authl.it/B005H49Y2O
And Murder for Dessert http://authl.it/B003V8BSG8
Murder Half-Baked http://authl.it/B00DJGUONU
Murder by Syllabub http://authl.it/B00507FRW4
Kathleen Delaney is the author of the Ellen McKenzie real estate mysteries. The series has been praised by Library Journal, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. And Murder for Dessert was named a Notable Mystery by Booksense.
Kathleen’s next book, Purebred Dead, is the first in a new series featuring Mary McGill and her dog, Millie. Mary is a retired home economics teacher who now donates her time to running many of the town’s charitable events. She has her finger in every pie and a seat on every committee. The town counts on her to make every event run smooth. Usually they do, but not this time. There is a dead man in the manger of the town’s Christmas scene, a small black and white puppy beside him. Two of the local children saw a man run out of the manger. Did he see them? Are they in danger? Mary, along with Millie, determine to find out. The new series will be released by Severn House in the UK in May and in the US on Aug 1.
Kathleen lives in Georgia, close to two of her own grandchildren, along with two dogs and a cat.
Web site: www.kathleendelaney.net