Delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for JA Schneider’s thrilling new novel Her Last Breath with a guest post from the lady herself…
Do you love your characters? By J.A. Schneider
If you don’t love your characters, all of them, you’re done. The book will be a weary slog, and the reader will find it boring.
That includes every character, from the protagonist to the mysterious or the downright awful. On many levels it’s the characters we dislike or suspect that propel the drama; the word drama means conflict. What would Peter Pan be without Captain Hook?
What I try to do, draft after draft, is go deeper and deeper into each character. Every gesture and utterance should help to make them come alive, even if they try to dissimulate. That involves a lot of Chekhov’s rule about “Don’t tell; show.” Picture a scene where one character enters a room, upset, telling a second character that something sad has befallen someone they used to know. And the second character just says, “Oh?”
One word, and we know that that character is shallow, uncaring. Maybe worse.
Dialogue helps enormously. It reveals not just character, but also how that person relates to others. In writing Fear Dreams and Her Last Breath, I loved creating colorful, highly intuitive NYPD Detective Kerri Blasco. Kerri has her pain and demons but she deals with them – days, anyway – showing courage in battling her superiors when necessary, and then wise-cracking, or showing sympathy, or just being a regular person with her share of minor bad habits. (Her purse is usually stuffed with candy and hurriedly ripped off candy wrappers.) She also loves her partner, Sergeant Alex Brand, who is also her boss, but she has no problem giving him a hard time when she feels charged with conviction. I had fun portraying the interaction between these two. For example, the following scene:
Kerri was on the floor. Alex Brand paced and wouldn’t sit and was trying not to get annoyed.
“Prints are prints,” he groused, stepping around her head as she lay on her back waving a steak knife.
“Yes but.” She was adamant, her knife making stabbing motions as she drove home her point. “Those prints are upside down. Mari Gill was lying on her back when someone wrapped her hand around the knife. You don’t see it? Look at the screen again.”
He did. Stopped pacing near her black Reeboks and bent to his open laptop. The screen was split in half, the left side showing Gill’s ID’d fingerprints large, the right side showing them on the knife three inches up from the blade. He scowled at the image on the right while Kerri on the floor insisted that nobody stabbed like that – you need to grip closer to the blade.
“Sloppy,” she said, laying the knife down, frowning up at the ugly fluorescents. “Somebody was nervous and sloppy, wrapped Gill’s hand wrong around the handle.”
Buck Dillon, another homicide detective, was meanwhile bending to Kerri offering to get a pillow since the squad room floor was hard, and Jo Babiak, Buck’s partner, thought it was funny and kneeled to capture the moment on her phone.
Alex wasn’t laughing. They’d managed to catch four hours’ sleep up in the crib, now they were back at it, and he felt lousy. Kerri on the other hand was hyped about the Jackie Vic murder and debating again with him. She knew it only bothered him a little that she was so often right, but hell, when something grabbed her like this, fuhgeddaboudit. She shrugged off lost sleep and got all bursting with insights that escaped others. Alex was sergeant in charge, but Kerri was younger, less burned out…not that he’d ever had her uncanny intuition.
If he didn’t adore her, he’d be pissed.
Inner monologue is also important. Like voyeurs, we get to read a character’s thoughts, and what better way to make him or her real? In the following scene it’s late. Kerri and Alex are exhausted, going over evidence, and Alex is starting to get cranky. That’s okay with Kerri; she knows he’s a good man and a terrific cop with flaws like she has, and at the moment he’s digging through her purse looking for something for his headache.
“Have they dumped Gill’s phone LUDs yet?” he asked
“No, says here Verizon’s giving them a hard time.”
“Of course they are, they love screwing with us.” From her bag Alex was irritably pulling out candy wrappers and more candy wrappers and two unwrapped Milky Ways. “Christ, my head. Where’s your Advil?”
Kerri smiled, couldn’t help it. It was bitch and moan time, which was a big part of their relationship because they knew each other’s pain. They’d both been through divorce…and twenty-two weeks into her pregnancy, Kerri had lost her baby. Another week or two and her little girl could have lived! She still cried a lot. Alex had his bad moments too, but he was the one usually giving comfort during their nights together. Her place was way up on West One Hundred and tenth; his was ten blocks away on West Twenty-fourth, in the city’s Chelsea section, so they usually slept there. And shared secrets, shared each other’s load.
“You shouldn’t eat all this crap,” Alex was muttering, tossing out a Snickers and a Hershey’s with almonds.
“Shut up. Besides you it makes me happy.”
“Me and junk food. How romantic.”
In that paragraph starting with “Kerri smiled,” we get not just her backstory but who she is emotionally. She becomes really human, and we identify with her.
Dialogue, inner monologue, and action: the three elements that can make your characters likeable to the reader – but to achieve that, they must first feel wonderful to you the author.
Of course, I haven’t even touched on Mari Gill, the case the police are investigating, the woman who woke in a strange apartment next to a murdered man, and can’t remember the night before. The characters in Mari’s life – estranged husband, friends she suddenly doesn’t trust – and Mari herself are all mysterious characters that pulled me on and wouldn’t let go. I hope the reader will feel the same.
A chilling psychological thriller about a woman caught between two men…Mari Gill wakes to horror in a strange apartment next to a murdered man, and can’t remember the night before. Accused of murder, she feels torn between her husband, a successful defence attorney, and a mysterious, kind man who wants to help. Can she trust either of them – or even her friends? Detective Kerri Biasco battles her police bosses believing Mari is innocent…but is she?
A heart-stopping psychological thriller, perfect for fans of Alfred Hitchcock.
Her Last Breath is out now and you can purchase a copy HERE.