Friday, December 23, 2011

When Characters Misbehave

“Well behaved women rarely make history.”
--Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, historian and author

Grey isn’t a color you will ever see in Greek Orthodox art—medieval artists lived and worked in a black-and-white world. But shades of grey are vital when it comes to building a modern fictional heroine. When I began writing Acquainted With the Night, I wanted Caro Grimaldi Clifford to be a fundamentally flawed heroine. She doesn’t always say the right thing, nor does she always act heroically. I knew it would be risky, but I was tired of playing it safe with my characters. As Caro came to life, her personality traits became layered, with room for her character to grow in the second book.

Right away, I knew that Caro would be tall and leggy, but she isn’t a beauty--at least, not in the beginning (after a vampire bites her, she undergoes physical changes, but that's another topic). Indeed, she wasn’t a pretty infant. Strangers referred to her as il bambino brutto—the ugly baby. As an adult, she became a fashion slob, wearing mismatched colors and high-top sneakers. If she didn't comb her wiry hair (and that wild, resilient hair reflects her true spirit) every few hours, she'd resemble a hedgehog.

Caro is the opposite of a supermodel. She loves to drink gingerbread lattes and eat blueberry scones. As a result, she isn’t stick-thin. Also, she’s a practical soul and cuts her hair with kitchen scissors or a razor—whatever is handy.

Caro drinks whisky, cusses in seven languages, and adores black-and-white movies. She’s brash enough to slug the hero and resourceful enough to drive a china shard into the eye of her enemy. She’s soft, hard, resourceful, foolish, smart, child-like, humorous, irreverent, compassionate, and insecure—when she finds herself in love and in trouble, more and more of these insecurities surface.

Thanks to her tour guide job, Caro has learned a bit about human nature, but she often draws the wrong conclusions. Like many people, Caro has been known to say the wrong thing at the worst possible time. As a result, she’s become her worst critic, censoring her language and holding back.
Deep down, Caro believes that her smart mouth is responsible for a series of disastrous romances. In fact, she’s compiled a list of her failed relationships, which she privately refers to as “the Lost Boys.” One of her ex-beaus entered the priesthood, moved to Monaco, and sent her a postcard that featured a casino. He signed his name Chip Monk. True, many heroines have endured a series of ruined love affairs, but Caro’s problem is different. Her failures have a biological explanation.

Her attitude stems from a childhood trauma. She was a much-wanted, much-loved child. The night she was born, her father wrapped Caro in a blanket and sang her a Cole Porter song. In fact, she believed that she’d been named after her father’s favorite Beach Boys’ song, “Caroline No.” When she was five years old, home invaders murdered her parents. Caro ran off into the night and hid behind a waterfall. Days later, she was escorted to England by a distant relative, Nigel Clifford, a British archeologist.

Because Caro suffers from “survivor’s guilt,” a part of her is scared all the time, and she over compensates by forcing herself to act fearless. This bravado often plunges her into trouble. Part of her character arc is to learn how to balance fear and audacity.
Due to her history, Caro is always struggling with personal demons. Her uncle calls her “Dame Doom,” because she’s cynical, always imagining worst case scenarios. And with good reason. Caro privately thinks of herself as a harbinger of death.

Caro’s last boyfriend had specialized in Jack the Ripper tours and couldn’t seem to get enough of her, That is, until he was suddenly distracted by a Soho waitress. A wise move on his part, really, since everyone Caro loved ended up dead.

Shortly before the novel opens, Caro has dropped out of King’s College to become a London tour guide—an odd career path for a Ph.D. candidate in medieval history, but she’d welcomed the chance to leave her uncle’s house in Oxford. She’d assumed that she would wear pearls and escort Americans through the Tate, but Caro didn’t excel at this job. She misplaced an entire family at Waterloo Station, and an article in the Observer had referred to her as a “loser guide.”

Still, Caro is determined to become an independent woman. Her flat is near Big Ben, and her gorgeous roommate (who briefly functions as Caro’s opposite) works for British Vogue. Then Caro’s uncle is murdered, and she must travel alone to Bulgaria. When she exits the world of Starbucks lattes and the Tube, she enters a world of blood-drinking, mind-reading immortals. Just as artifacts won’t always stay buried in the dirt, secrets push their way to the surface, and Caro must use her wits to unravel clues, locate medieval artifacts, and discover her role in an enigmatic prophecy, one that pits humans against vampires.
Photo Credits: Shutterstock, Dreamstime, Fotolia