Thursday, October 02, 2014

Being Peyton Cote

I've always loved reading (and, in turn, writing) character-driven fiction. I've been told there's a down-side to this bent, at least commercially — unless millions of readers are already familiar with the character, Hollywood wants thrillers, not mysteries, an agent once told me. But commercial success isn't what made me or most writers I know, for that matter, start writing.

Character-driven fiction appeals to me because, whether reading or writing, I enjoy watching characters grow, book to book, and maybe even growing a little with them. I sure did that with Jack Austin, from 2000 to 2006. He became much more complex from book 1 to book 5, and as he did, the books themselves did, too. I saw how the other half lived — and knew what I was missing — when I wrote a stand-alone, This One Day (Five Star, 2013). That protagonist, Max Tyger, was a one-and-done character, and as I finished the novel, I knew there were more stories to be told with him, more to learn from him.

But then U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent and single mom Peyton Cote appeared, and now, I'm spending a lot of time with her and seeing things from her (third-person) point of view and thinking like her (at least from 4:15 a.m. until 6:15 a.m. most days).

Writing character-driven fiction is a lot like acting. The Austin books (featuring a tough, straight-forward golfer) and the Max Tyger book (starring a tormented, self-centered, cancer-stricken P.I., who, when push comes to shove, will show decent core values) were first-person novels. I literally had only to "step into character" to write those books.

Being Peyton Cote is different.

And harder.

Part of why I wanted to try to write this new series was simply to see if I could do it — could I write a female character well? My neighbor said, "As I'm reading this, I keep picturing you sitting next door, dressed as a woman, writing this stuff." The best compliments I receive are when people tell me they assume Bitter Crossing was written by a women.

A fellow writer recently brought up this male-writing-a-femle situation and said, "Well, you are surrounded by women," pointing out that I'm married with three daughters, living in a dorm with 55 teenage "extended" daughters (hell, even my dog is female.)

I think there's more to it, though, more to writing Peyton Cote than surrounding myself with female influences. I'd like to believe that anytime a writer writes what s/he doesn't know, s/he is forced to display empathy, to truly view things from another's perspective. And I think this is vital to do, given the global community we live in. It's why I routinely ask my student writers to step out of their comport zones when they write, to try to write from another's perspective.

They discover, as I have, that being Peyton Cote isn't easy.

1 comment:

Donis Casey said...

Amen, amen, John. Character is everything, and not only drives the action but as you say, the author has to get into a different head.