Thursday, July 2, 2009

Writing Tip #3: Unforgettable Characters from the Eccentric, Unusual, and Just Plain Ornery

How do you come up with your characters? It’s a question every writer receives on a regular basis. The answer—everywhere and everyone. But a recent interview featuring my new Tyndale House Publishers release, Veiled Freedom, added a twist. What strange real life incident inspired a scene in one of your novels? My mind took instant wing south of the equator.


The advance copies of CrossFire, my first adult political/suspense novel set in the U.S./Bolivia counternarcotics war, had just arrived in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where my husband and I served as missionaries and he pastored the International Church. I was enjoying a celebratory lunch at one of the city’s finer restaurants with the American consul, regional heads of World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, and other non-profit personnel when we were joined by an eager and somewhat distraught young woman.

She was American, early twenties, a veterinarian grad student working as a volunteer with Bolivia’s endangered species program. Animals seized from poachers or brought in with injuries were treated, then released back into the wild. If rehabilitation was not possible, such animals would end up in the Santa Cruz zoo for an exhibit or breeding program.

Our young volunteer wanted advice from the more experienced expatriates sitting around the table. Something strange was happening in her program. Valuable animals were disappearing, all high-demand specimens for the rare animal black market and too many to dismiss as coincidence. Now she’d come into the city to bring a female jaguarundi into the zoo, its leg injury proscribing rehabilitation, but perfect for the breeding program. But when she’d returned that morning to check on it, the rare jungle cat was gone. No one would admit to who had given orders for its removal.

She shook her head in bewilderment. Local colleagues on her non-profit organization’s payroll had access. But surely their passion for the environment would never permit such criminal behavior. Glancing around the crowded, upper-class eatery, she lowered her voice to barely above a whisper. She wasn’t so sure about the zoo’s director or the local Minister of Environment, both powerful political figures whose mansions in the city’s most elite neighborhood certainly didn’t come from their government salary.

Duh! was our mental response. Anyone who’d been any time at all in Bolivia knew how corrupt its government systems were at all levels, the flood of expatriate non-profits simply offering new pockets from which to build one’s own personal fortune. The guilty could be zoo director, minister, colleagues or most likely all of the above. Definitely not coincidence.

And now she presented her dilemma. Should she go to the police and demand an investigation? Or perhaps, with kind understanding and lack of a judgmental attitude, she should go to these men herself. Explain to them just how important these animals were to Bolivia’s eco-system. Plead with them to abstain from any further depredation of their country’s wildlife. Which option did we at the table feel she should pursue?

None of the above, we unanimously assured her. But when an acquaintance called her away, we exchanged our mutual dismay. Were non-profits really letting volunteers that green and naive out on their own without a babysitter? As to what she should do, we were also in unanimous agreement. Keep her mouth shut and accept the loss of an occasional endangered animal as the cost of doing business in Bolivia. Or go back to the United States before an embassy alert informed us she’d been found floating in some local river with her throat cut. Corrupt and wealthy Bolivian politicians didn’t take kindly to being lectured on changing their ways by young and female expatriate volunteers.

My husband and I with our four children left Bolivia that same week to Miami, where we worked throughout Latin America for the next five years before, so I never saw the young woman again nor was able to follow up on her. But I wondered often over the years if she’d survived her own naiveté to make it back home alive. And since I never found out the end of her story, I chose to write it myself.

Fast-forward several political/suspense novels to my first Tyndale House Publishers title, Betrayed, released March, 2008. Anthropologist Vicki Andrews is researching Guatemala’s “garbage people” when she stumbles across a human body. Curiosity turns to horror as she uncovers no stranger, but an American environmentalist—Vicki’s only sister, Holly.

Read Betrayed, and you will meet that earnest young veterinarian volunteer, right down to the sunburned, round features and actual conversation around that table as well as my own dismayed reactions played out in the mind of protagonist Vicki Andrews.

Holly is just one of the many characters who have wandered out of real-life encounters into the pages of my books. A jungle village chief facing off with a condescending female environmentalist (The DMZ). A good-looking and arrogant drug lord heir racing around town in his red Ferrari (CrossFire). A nasty coca-growers union leader I killed off in print to cheers from DEA friends who’d longed to arrest him without ever dreaming the man would weasel his way into his nation’s presidency (FireStorm). A supercilious six-foot-four Special Agent in Charge determined to intimidate a five-one female civilian-me! (The DMZ).

My motto as a writer when eccentric, annoying or even nasty people cross one’s path is simple and effective. Don’t get irritated or even. Just write them into your next book!