Saturday, February 22, 2014

Who Do You Love?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Ever fallen in love with a character in a book? We all have, I bet. King Arthur always appealed to me (much more than Lancelot), and Henry V, and my affection for Morse is well-known around the Jungle Red salon. Charles (and Caroline) Todd’s Inspector Rutledge, love him, and Roderick Alleyn, and John Lescroart’s Dismas Hardy. What can I say? I do.

And I can certainly understand, as Liz Zelvin says, that Dorothy Sayers fell in love with Peter Wimsey. Who wouldn’t?

But what about our own characters’ ability to make us love them? Hmm. That’s interesting, because we created them. Didn’t we?

Long time dear friend of the Reds Elizabeth Zelvin is a psychotherapist in her other life, so I bet—she can explain it.

Falling in Love with A Secondary Character

It's widely understood that writers sometimes fall in love with their own characters. In the mystery genre, most famously, Dorothy L. Sayers is said to have fallen in love with Lord Peter Wimsey as he developed from a Bertie Wooster-like silly ass about town in the early books into a brilliant, perceptive, superbly competent, and highly attractive man--what today we might call a feminist's kind of man. I don't know if Harriet Vane would have called herself a feminist, but in my late 20th to 21st century eyes, she's one of us.

Being a feminist, I'm mildly embarrassed by the fact that I have now written two series with male protagonists: the Bruce Kohler mysteries and the Diego Mendoza and Admiral Columbus series, including the Agatha-nominated "The Green Cross" and my new novel, Voyage of Strangers.

When somebody asks a group of authors, "Who writes about a strong female character?" I instinctively raise my hand. Oops. The truth is, having been writing my whole life before getting my first novel published at age 64, I felt I was entitled to leapfrog over the young novelist's autobiographical opus and write about someone quite different from myself: in this case, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, a New Yorker with a smart mouth and an ill-concealed heart of gold ("ham on wry," as he says himself).

Diego, the young marrano sailor with Columbus who made his first appearance in "The Green Cross" and tells the story of Columbus's second voyage in Voyage of Strangers, is one of those characters who appear unexpectedly out of the unconscious or the ether or wherever the Muse hangs out, demanding that their voice be heard. The author is just the channel. I've always felt as if Diego is not only real, but had been waiting for five hundred years for me to tell his story. Voyage of Strangers is about what really happened when Columbus discovered America, told from the outsider perspective of a secret Jew at the moment when the Jews were driven out of Spain on pain of torture and death at the hands of the Inquisition.

Those who have read my mysteries know that I do have a significant woman character: Barbara, a world-class codependent who only wants to help and is addicted to minding everybody's business, especially Bruce's and her boyfriend Jimmy's (Bruce's best friend), whether the business at hand is sobriety or murder. I'm very fond of Barbara, but I can't say I'm in love with her. It would be too much like looking in the funhouse mirror. Barbara isn't me, but we have much in common, including being nice Jewish girls from Queens who never expected to know as much as we do about alcoholism. Unlike me, Barbara has no boundaries and no brakes. It's what makes her such fun to write. Readers have told me she is a strong female character. Some think she's "a hoot." And at least one person asked me if I'd ever felt (as she evidently did) as if I wanted to slap Barbara. I don't mind. If Barbara's that real to readers, I'm happy.

There were no women on the voyage of discovery in 1492, so of course there were no women in "The Green Cross," which took place on the Santa Maria. Nor did I develop any female characters in "Navidad," the second story in the series. (Both stories first appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.) But I couldn't write a novel without women. Diego's sister Rachel was simmering in my head for more than a year before I set a word of Voyage of Strangers on virtual paper. And I'm in love with Rachel.

As it happens, the Jews were expelled from Spain on the same day Columbus and his three ships set sail into the unknown. So how come Rachel was still in Spain when Columbus and his men returned in triumph early in 1493? The Mendoza family had lived in Seville, where the Inquisition had been cheerfully burning Jews (and especially converso backsliders, whom they called heretics and swine--marranos) for years. Rachel, the youngest daughter, had been sent away to a convent school in Barcelona, where there was no tribunal and a genuine converso aunt with influence, for safety. But the aunt is being courted by a rather nasty supporter of the Inquisition, and Diego quickly realizes he has to get her out of Spain as soon as possible.

When we first meet Rachel, she's putting on a friend's brother's clothes, preparatory to sneaking out of the convent and into the court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who will be greeting Columbus and his followers and getting their first look at the treasures and curiosities he's brought back, including gold, near-naked Taino captives, and some colorful but ill-behaved parrots. She's thinking, How hard can it be to be a boy?

I certainly didn't plan it, but Rachel is a darling. She's irrepressible, curious, impulsive, brave, and funny, and everyone who meets her loves her. Diego is determined to send her to Italy, where their parents and sisters have gone, before he embarks on the second expedition to Hispaniola. Rachel is equally determined to go with him, even when Admiral Columbus himself says no. (Of course she spoke up and asked him almost as soon as she met him. That's Rachel.) 

Whether she's getting the mayor's wife in a Spanish village to roast a kid (ie a baby goat) for their dinner on the road, concocting a plan to help a Moorish slave escape from slavery, outclimbing the ship's boys in the rigging of the Mariagalante on the Ocean Sea, or playing batey, pounding yuca, or making poisoned arrowheads with her Taino friends, Rachel has a gift for friendship and for adapting to any surroundings. Her favorite words to her brother are, "Diego, you worry too much."

It took a long time to get Voyage of Strangers published once I'd written it. But one of the reasons I persisted was that I wanted so much to introduce Rachel to all of you. I think you'll love her too.

HANK: Liz! The research! How did you get involved in this story?
And Reds, what character have you fallen in love with? 


Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York psychotherapist and author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series as well as the Diego Mendoza and Admiral Columbus series. Her new novel, Voyage of Strangers, is available for Kindle and Kindle app at Three of Liz's stories have been nominated for the Agatha Award and one for the Derringer Award for Best Short Story. Her author website is at


Joan Emerson said...

Oh, dear . . . a “characters that I love” list is about as long as my teetering to-be-read pile is tall. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Sherlock Holmes . . . Jack Reacher . . . Russ Van Alstyne . . . Roarke . . . .
Elizabeth, I’m looking forward to reading your book.

Karen in Ohio said...

Even though I've not met her yet, I think I'm in love with Rachel! What a great character.

Thank you for persisting, Elizabeth.

Secondary characters that come to mind: Professor Radcliffe Emerson, the Father of Curses; Kinsey Milhone's Hungarian restaurant owner friend (and her octogenarian neighbor, Henry); and I love the dynamics between Hadley Knox and Kevin Flynn in Julia's books. Those characters have developed so well over the course of this series. The same with the other cop characters in Deb's James/Kincaid series. Love the dynamics between them, and the tension.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks so much for having me back on Jungle Red, Hank. I've told many times how Diego came to me: knocking on the inside of my head in the middle of the night. I have no idea why Columbus, about whom I knew no more than any kid learns in school. And Jewish themes keep creeping up on me without any conscious intention on my part.

Also on my short list of characters I adore are Lois McMasters Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan and his whole circle of family and friends as well as Diana Gabaldon's Jamie Fraser. Oh, and Judge Deborah Knott's family, especially when they're sitting on the back porch singing and playing music. I loved Dwight Bryant long before Judge Deborah was smart enough to marry him.

Marianne in Maine said...

Hi, Elizabeth. Rachel sounds wonderful. (Off now to add more books to the TBR file.)

Secondary characters I love: All the family characters in Deb Harkness' books. The Bishops, the deClermonts, Hamish, Jack, Annie, many. And just as passionately, detest some too.

Gemma and Duncan's family members, their sergeants, Erika Rosenthal are all favorites.

And of course I love all the main characters.

Tea norman said...

Fascinating, it's such a different angle of Historical Fiction. I love the way you talk about your characters.

Kaye Barley said...

Liz, Hey!! So fun to find you here this morning, and your new book sounds fascinating!

Characters I'm in love with. Linda Fairstein's Mike. Even though he's a good guy doing good things, there's that bad boy thing going on too. You'd think I'd have outgrown that by now, but nooooo, I guess not.

Hallie Ephron said...

Rachel sounds like a great character, Liz.

I started falling in love with mysteries when I read P. D. James's "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman" and Cordelia Gray definitely has my heart. Moved on to Ngaio Marsh and, oh my, Roderick Alleyn.

I wonder if readers today start with the Brits like so many of us did back when...

Rhys said...

I have a leading man called Darcy O'Mara... need I say any more.

But I was always a little in love with Morse too. I felt he needed a good woman to drag him away from the booze and opera.

Joe Leaphorn always touched my heart And Deborah's Duncan Kincaid.

Marianne in Maine said...

How could I have forgotten Darcy O'Mara. I'm desperately in love with him. Sigh...

Deb said...

I think Peter Wimsey was my first love. And the first thing I did the first time I went to London was to do to his fictional address on Picadilly...

So obviously the thing for the British guys goes way back.

I love Rhys's Darcy, and Diana Gabaldon's Jamie Frazer. Deb Harkness's Matthew de Clermont. So many more.

And I have to confess that I love Duncan. Have from the very first moment he appeared in my head. There have been others along the way; Nathan in Dreaming of Bones, Lewis and Gordon Finch in Kissed a Sad Goodbye, Alex Dunn in And Justice There is None. But the most memorable is probably Andy Monahan, who walked on to the page in Where Memories Lie and promptly demanded his own book, which he got in The Sound of Broken Glass.

I adore Doug--all the main characters, really, because why spend all day in your head with people you don't like?

Liz--I love your Rachel, too, just from your description!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I'm on the road today… and happy to see you all chatting so nicely. Thanks Liz!

I just ask Jonathan this question… He's thinking... he just said oh, I know! Charlie McNally. Awww

FChurch said...

So many characters to love--it's what keeps me following an author's series. Secondary characters: love Andy and Melody and Doug. Hadley and Kevin. Love Melrose Plant and Stan Keeler (and Stone the dog). Carstairs from Mrs. Pollifax. Jean-Guy and Annie Gamache. Hugh Beringar and Olivier de Bretagne. Too many to list! And main characters! Rachel sounds like my kind of person!

I've started too many books where I find I flip quickly to the end--not just to see if I've guessed correctly about whodunit, but because I don't care enough about the characters to read the in-between.

Pat D said...

Oh gosh. Jamie Fraser, Lord John Grey and his brother Hal, Russ van Alstyne, peter Wimsey, Ian Rutledge, Richard Jury, Melrose Plant, Nicholas Brisbane,Joe Sandilands, Darcy O'Mara, Max Tudor, Sebastian St Cyr, Longmire, Julian Kestral. India Black's government agent she loves to torment--can't think of his name. Dwight in Margaret Maron's books. That hot vampire scientist/professor in A Discovery of Witches. You know who I mean. I'm sure there are more.

Holly West said...

She does indeed sound like an interesting character. Putting this book on my list.

Bruce Carlton and King Charles II in FOREVER AMBER were my first literary crushes at age 14. But I think my biggest literary crush of all time is Henry in THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt. He's just so dark and brooding. He appealed very much to my 20-something self, though perhaps less so to my 40-something self.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Hugh Beringar and Olivier de Bretagne, oh, my, yes. They didn't fare well in the Cadfael TV series, where Olivier appeared only once and three different actors played Hugh in the course of 15 episodes. I'm just rereading my very favorite Ngaio Marsh, A Surfeit of Lampreys, which is all about the phenomenon of falling in love with a whole family. Tana French did a great job with that kind of feeling in The Likeness, where the undercover cop falls for the group of friends she's investigating. So many kinds of love....