Thursday, September 3, 2015

A Journey of Character?

HANK PHILLIPI RYAN:  A writer can change her mind. No question about that. Or...“realize” her mind. No question about that, either. Anyone who’s ever written a character they thought they understood—and then discovered, with a bang or a whimper, that they were wrong wrong worng has experienced the wonderful magic of character growth.

And its not only fictional characters who grow and change, of course. Sometimes the author grows, and then our characters follow.  I’m such a Lynne Raimondo fan. Her “Dante” mysteries—and more about that below—are flat out terrific.

And Lynne’s here today to talk about some inside scoop on her own real life—wow, I did not know this stuff! And how it may connect her to another author. And to you.

On Harper Lee And A Writer’s Journey
                    By Lynne Raimondo

Last month, author Harper Lee set the literary world on fire once more with the publication of Go Set A Watchman, a “rediscovered” sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.  I’m not going to delve into all the controversy surrounding Watchman’s publication, or whether, as some have claimed, it would have been better to leave the manuscript in the safe deposit box where it was hidden, a rough draft to be read primarily by future literary scholars.

Still, Watchman has given me food for thought about how a writer’s work grows and changes over time.  The revelation that Lee originally conceived of Atticus Finch as an unapologetic racist has shocked the public, and rightly so.  Learning that this revered icon was a white supremacist is like finding out that Jo March was actually Lizzie Borden.

It all makes sense, though, if you keep in mind that Watchman isn’t really a sequel.  It’s an early draft, or maybe the debut novel Lee would have published if her wise editor, or  Truman Capote, or her own amazing intuitive sense hadn’t sent her back to the drawing board for two more long years.  The Atticus of Watchman isn’t the same man as the Atticus of Mockingbird because, as Lee continued to spend time with him, she changed her mind.

I haven’t read Watchman and I’m not sure I will.  By all accounts its central theme is disillusionment, a young woman’s bitter discovery that the father she revered as a child has gigantic feet of clay.  Like several others have mentioned on Jungle Red, I think I’d rather remember the Atticus of Mockingbird, a book I read over and over as a teenager and that played a major role in my decision to become a lawyer. 

Perhaps Lee’s earliest writing efforts were autobiographical.  “Write what you know” isn’t just good advice, it’s also a lot easier when writers are first starting out.  We feel more comfortable testing our ability with what’s already familiar.  It’s only later, after we’ve gotten a handle on the basics, that we become more confident of ourselves as storytellers, free to abandon the narrow script of our lives for the much broader territory of the imagination.

It’s conceivable that the Jean Louise of Watchman more closely reflects the relationship Lee had with her own father.  I haven’t read Lee’s biography, so I don’t know this for a fact, but it seems likely there was some friction between them.  Perhaps too, as Lee flexed her talent, she grew bolder and more willing to experiment.  The first-hand experiences that originally inspired her weren’t suited to the narrative she eventually settled on, one in which Atticus wasn’t a hateful bigot but a hero.

Then too, the circumstances had changed.  Watchman was reportedly begun in the 1950s when Jim Crow was at its zenith.  By 1960, when Mockingbird was published and Lee was 35, segregation’s grip on the South was beginning to weaken.  I also suspect Lee had changed a bit herself.  What seems hard and fast in our twenties often takes on a different, more nuanced aspect as we age.  Perhaps this growth enabled Lee to better understand the social pressures that shaped her original Atticus, and to find the seeds of humanity that would transform a despicable Klan sympathizer into a champion of equal rights.

These speculations are very much tied to my own path to becoming a writer.  I’m by no means comparing myself to the great Harper Lee, but looking back, I see a similar kind of journey.  When I first started to write, I had just gone through some professional upheavals that were, to say the least, depressing.  For those who don’t know me well, I was a senior lawyer at Arthur Andersen LLP when it was indicted by the Justice Department and then convicted by a Houston jury.  After the firm collapsed, I became its general counsel, helping to wind down the affairs of this once-proud, ninety-year old institution.  A few years later, a unanimous Supreme Court reversed Andersen’s conviction, but by then it was too late:  the firm was already in its grave.

After living through this debacle, I wasn’t just exhausted.  I was angry and disillusioned and close to quitting the practice of law.  But a friend of a friend coaxed me into taking a new job with the State of Illinois, in the administration of Rod Blagojevich.  You may remember him as the Illinois governor who was later convicted of trying to sell a Senate seat.  Suffice it to say that it didn’t take me long to realize that job wasn’t for me either.

It was around this time that I took my first stab at writing a novel.  Given how I was feeling, it’s not surprising that I started out with a protagonist a lot like me:  a middle-aged lawyer fed up with the world and unsure of where to go next, the very personification of the mid-life crisis I was then caught up in.  I had no real plot in mind except that she – because of course she was a she – would eventually find happiness and professional fulfillment.

I made many mistakes with that manuscript, but the biggest was not understanding the difference between writing and therapy.  Like the imaginary Harper Lee I’ve conjured up here, I wasn’t writing first and foremost to create fiction, but to get something off my chest.  I knew how to put a few words together, but that was only the start.  It was only later, with the intervention of time and and a great deal of practice, that I could move out of my autobiographical comfort zone and write something a reader besides me might care about.  In other words, a story.

Even then, Mark Angelotti, the non-lawyer protagonist of Dante’s Wood, my first published novel, had a lot of emotional baggage I might not give him today if I were starting out fresh.  In fact, by book three in the series, Dante’s Dilemma, which released on August 4, he’s grown into someone considerably less bitter.  But that’s the beauty of writing a series.  Unlike Go Set A Watchman, each of my books is a true sequel.  So I’m free to keep modifying the script without shocking anyone, to grow and change my character in ways that make him a more sympathetic, if not always perfect human being. 

How about you?  Have you ever made a major change in a character? And if so, was it because of something that happened to you in your own life?

HANK: Oh, what a fun question! And a hard one. I know good guys in my books have turned out—little had I predicted!—to be bad guys. I do know, also, on days that I get good or encouraging news, like a great review, it’s MUCH easier to write.

 How about you, Reds and readers?


Lynne Raimondo is the author of Dante’s Wood, Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month, Dante’s Poison, and the recently released Dante’s Dilemma, all featuring Mark Angelotti, a blind, psychologically troubled forensic psychiatrist.  Before turning to writing, Lynne was a partner at a major Chicago law firm, the general counsel of Arthur Andersen LLP, and the general counsel of  the Illinois Department of Revenue.

Blind psychiatrist Mark Angelotti is faced with his most troubling case yet when he is asked to evaluate Rachel Lazarus, the wife of a slain University of Chicago professor. 
Months earlier, the professor’s body was found stuffed into one of the exhibits at “Scav,” the school’s world-famous annual scavenger hunt, and – in a feast for the press – missing a vital piece of its anatomy. Though she’s confessed to her husband’s murder, Rachel is mounting a battered woman’s defense.

Forced into helping the prosecution, Mark becomes unsure of his objectivity when his investigation uncovers uncomfortable parallels between Rachel’s history and his own. That concern proves well-founded when his damaging admission at trial all but convicts Rachel. Then a tip connects the case to another suspected murder and evidence that Rachel may not be guilty after all. As he plows ahead during a brutal Chicago winter, Mark soon learns he has far more to worry about than treacherous snow and ice:  someone will do anything to guarantee that Rachel takes the fall.

Reviews of Dante’s Dilemma:

A must read . . . [The] writing is first class and readers will love having to guess the finale right up until the reveal on the very last page.” – Suspense Magazine


  1. I seem to be the minority in the whole "Go Set a Watchman" debate . . . despite the uncomfortableness it evoked, I liked the book. Atticus, seen through Scout's eight-year-old eyes in "Mockingbird," has become more complex in Jean Louise's adult eyes, but having set aside whatever his personal opinions might have been, he continues to live by the law.
    As is true for most people, I'm sure Harper Lee's views changed over time, but I appreciated having the opportunity to read both her original story and the one that evolved from it.

    Characters, I suspect, like writers and readers, must grow and change as their stories evolve.
    I'm looking forward to reading "Dante's Dilemma"

  2. Lynne, love what you had to say about writing as therapy, and I agree, when you write too autobiographically it can be impossible to tell a really good story. On the other hand... I do find writing is a good way to figure out what I think/feel.

    Characters in my first draft are often coarser, less nuanced. As I write I get to understand why they do what they do which makes them more human in ensuing drafts. In Night Night, Sleep Tight, Deirdre's screenwriter father became a much nicer guy by the time I was done writing him. And he's based on my dad. So... interesting.

  3. Lynne, what an interesting background--from the frying pan to the fire. And a great question too. As I am finishing up the 7th book in my Key West series, I've had time to see characters change. In the first book, Hayley Snow, the protagonist, was seen as dizzy and self-absorbed by some readers. She's much more centered and extremely loyal to her friends in KILLER TAKEOUT. And other characters whom I originally viewed as quite minor have taken on a life of their own.

    I'm wondering how you would have changed your character's baggage?

  4. Oh, Lynne, I have to say I did not know that about hour past. Fascinating..and so disturbing. Because we never can predict, or never WOUL D predict, when something so life-changing will happen, and especially with some things essentially out of our control.

    I had a great pal (who has been a very successful writer for 20 years) say to me, oh, I wish you had started writing when I did,we could have gone on this journey together. Which is a lovely thought, but I said to her--no, because I wasn't the person then than aI am now. SO I couldn't have written my books 20 years ago!

  5. Lynne, this really resonated with me. The first book I ever wrote was pretty autobiographical. And while people said the voice was good, yeah, the story? Not so much. But it gave me the courage to branch out into something else.

    Hank, yes. I wish - sometimes - that I had kept writing in my 20s. But I wasn't the person then I am now, so would writing these stories have been possible? Something tells me "no." It's like a line in a Bon Jovi song (which I shall maim, I'm sure): right where you are is exactly where you're supposed to be.

    Lynne, I'm off to look up the Dante series and put it on my Goodreads list.

  6. Thanks, Judy! Great to see you..hope your book tour is going well!!

    Yes, MAry, I so agree..when you believe that, and I do, it makes life so much more profoundly wonderful. xooo

    Lynne! Tell us more about YOUR book!

  7. Hello Lynne,

    I am fascinated by your perspective on this. I agree that in the beginning, it is difficult to even imaging changing a character midstream because of the instinctual rigidity that comes with being new at something. It is great when you get to the point you can relax enough to play around with it until it feels right.

    In my Joe Gale mysteries I originally had Joe in a relationship with an attractive but toxic woman. This limited how much I could develop the emotional side of Joe. The reader saw his defensive self, rather than his disarmed heart. So I nixed the bitch and broke his heart in a way that opened him up, rather than shut him down. This made for a richer character and broader possibilities going forward.

    I'd put your books on my list before today, because I know I'll be meeting you later this month at the Murder By The Book conference in Bar Harbor. Since reading this post, you've moved to the top of the list. There's a bookstore steps from my office, and I'm headed there at noon.

  8. Lynne, what a lot you've come through! Sounds like you're a real survivor. I'll look forward to reading your books.

    In my Skeet Bannion series, I have one character, in particular, who's changed so much in the writing--Terry Heldrich. In EVERY BROKEN TRUST, I originally intended for him to be a bad guy, the muscle for a wealthy criminal and one of the murderers, but it wasn't working. Mid-book, I had to delve deeper into his character, and he became a more ambiguous character, a sort of badly tarnished white knight and a possible love interest for Skeet. And he's actually much more interesting and human that way.

  9. This post brings to mind the outcry from fans of Elizabeth George when Lynley's wife was murdered. She wrote a wonderful essay in response:

    I agree with both Lynne's and Ms. George's perspectives. And I think that's why I've stopped reading a few series that don't share this perspective.

    Lynne: looking forward to starting your series, and, of course, to the continuation of it.


  10. I'm currently suffering with whether my protag should be a red head.

  11. It's fascinating that some series grow with a character as the character changes. It's very real and in some cases, it leads the author to write a different kind of book. We all grow as people as well as writers and it's a fascinating journey. I especially appreciate your back story.

  12. Well, Keenan, the red head thing is a big deal. Because you'd always have to mention it, and it necessitates a whole backstop of emotions and events, doesn't it?

    And yes, Linda, (and HAllie) when you start asking "WHy would he do that?" -that;s the beginning of a deeper understanding, right?

    Brenda, what's the Murder By The Book conference?

  13. Thanks to everyone who's commented! I can't add much to what I said above, but as to life-changing experiences, I truly believe what Nietsche said (sorry for invoking such a sour puss) -- what doesn't kill us makes us strong. And in an odd way, I feel grateful for what happened to me at Andersen, because it forced me to take another direction in life, one that I'm so happy with today. It's great to be a writer and I'm not sure I ever would have gotten around to it if I hadn't gone through that mid-life crisis.

    Brenda, looking forward to meeting you in Bar Harbor!

    And a big thanks to Hank for hosting me here today!

  14. Lynne, that's the best essay I've read on Watchman. I'm still not sure I'll read it, simple because it's not something that really resonates with me and I have always too many books I really, really want to read....

    Like Hank, I can't imagine having started writing my novels any sooner than I did. I think I had passed the autobiographical stage and wanted to write characters who WEREN'T me:-) But it has been such fun to watch them develop over the years, and often in ways I would never have predicted.

    I did have one character that I intended to be a murderer. By the end of the book I knew he couldn't have done it and had to rewrite the whole damned plot. Ouch.

    Your Dante books sound terrific. Looking them up now!

  15. Deborah, I think that's it exactly. You get to the point where the last person you want to write about is YOU. That's why in the Dante series I decided to write from the perspective of a man and a blind one at that. I wanted to use what I knew about the law, but challenge myself to really step into a very different person/character's shoes. There is a female lawyer in my books (Mark Angelotti's love interest) but even though she and I share some similarities, she isn't me either. And it's been so much fun for me too watching my protagonist grow and change, especially when he surprises me.

  16. BREAKING NEWS: and the winner of LauraDiSIlverio's RECKONING STONES is Kathy Reel! Kathy, email me at h ryan at whdh dot com and we will get you your book!

  17. Yes, Lynne, how many of us would change some of the at-the-time terrible things that happened? Knowing, now, we wouldn't be who we are? I'm sure I wouldn't…that unhappiness made me happier now.

    And Lynne, really, tell us about how you created your main character. A blind detective--very very high degree of difficulty!

  18. Hank, the answer to that question is a bit spoilery, but I'll try. I started out with the idea that my psychiatrist protagonist would be struck by a sudden illness, one that he might reasonably think was a psychosomatic reaction to something he feels very guilty about. To add more ambiguity to the situation, I wanted that illness to be genetic. So I started researching various genetic conditions. Sounds weird, but I know all you novelists out there will understand. Eventually I came across the disease I saddled him with, Leber's Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, a rare, but real life condition that starts out in one eye and leads in short order to the other, usually causing irreversible blindness. It was perfect for my plot, but at first I wasn't sure I could write from the perspective of a blind person. It was only after fooling around with some sample chapters and doing a LOT more research that I thought I might be able to pull it off.

    The challenge of writing Mark Angelotti is keeping a reader interested for 300 pages or so without much visual description. One cheat was to give him a photographic memory, so that he can describe things he saw before he became blind.

    I'm also helped by the fact that there's a lot of cool new technology for the blind that makes Mark's investigations more plausible. I'm waiting for self-driven cars to become commonplace so that I can put Mark behind a wheel again. Wouldn't that be fun!


  19. Lucy Burdette, I just saw your question. (I was stuck for awhile this morning in an internet dead zone so I'm only now catching up.) Many readers of my first novel, Dante's Wood, commented that he was too embittered and frankly a jerk. I thought the bitterness was appropriate. Going blind suddenly in one's late forties would be a big challenge to anyone. But I may have gone overboard on the jerk part. So without making him into a saint, I'm letting him shed a few of his sharper edges. Some unforeseen developments in his life make this a natural progression. And maybe some of my sharper edges are getting softer too!

  20. Lynne, I did a lot of research on what it was like to go blind in your adult life for a project I'm working on. To do that, I talked to a woman who lost her sight in her 30s. I asked if she'd been angry. "Hell yes. I was a bitch for years. To everyone I knew, including those closest to me. I was an a$$hole."

    So yeah, not unrealistic to me. However, the woman I talked to said eventually you have to turn the corner. Maybe Mark is just finally turning his corner. =)

  21. Mary, I'd love to know more about the project you're working on. One of the things that's been most gratifying to me is the positive response I've gotten for the Dante series from blind readers. Yes, I think you do have to turn the corner at some point and I see that happening to my character.

  22. Sadly, a lot of the research material got tossed as I realized the blind ex-cop is not my protagonist. She's a mentor. But I'll buy you a drink at Bouchercon and tell you (i.e., bore you with) the project details. =)

  23. I love it when Jungle Red makes connections! Yay!

  24. Lynne, I have had your series in my sights for a while now, but I just haven't gotten to it. I will. It's so interesting to know what was going on in your life that had an influence on characters and your writing. I do see what you and others are saying about being too autobiographical though. That could cloud judgement and make a character less his own. I'm amazed at how you write from the perspective of a blind protagonist, and his blindness is an intriguing part of the pull of your books. Mary, I was very much taken with your statement from the blind lady you interviewed who said that eventually you have to turn a corner. So true for so many situations in life.

    And isn't it interesting how we get to the places we are now in life, and how timing is truly everything. Hank, when you said you wouldn't have been able to write what you write now in your earlier years, I am reminded that I didn't get my Masters until my late 40s/early 50s, and whenever I start to lament that fact, I remember that it happened when I was ready for it.

    So excited about winning Reckoning Stones! Will email you, Hank, with my address ASAP.

  25. Hurray! And you will love it, KAthy.

    Yup. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

    Hey--Is EVERYONE on vacation???

  26. Thanks Kathy! Timing is important, but so is recognizing an opportunity, though we so often don't see it that way at first.

  27. Writing as therapy is a wonderful concept, and I do believe my short "NCLB Murder" saved my sanity and sublimated many persons' desires to eliminate a certain assistant principal . . . I mean, pure fiction, and NO ONE offered to help hide the body either. I didn't finish Watchman, but did read enough to see it as the righteously angry sort of thing I might have written in my 20s also, and to be grateful for the re-writing that transformed it into one of my all-time favorite books. I will be looking for the Dante books. Thanks, Lynne!

  28. Lynne, I'm putting your Dante series into my TBR pile. I'm glad you didn't achieve the trifecta and work for Enron!

  29. Ha! Yeah, working for Enron would have been the ultimate trifecta!

  30. Thank you, dear LYnne! So happy to host you--and your wonderful book--today!

    See you all tomorrow--for librarian day..