When an Author’s Character Takes On a Life of Their Own

When an Author’s Character Takes On a Life of Their Own

by R.G. Belsky

I’m a mystery author, and the character I write about is TV journalist Clare Carlson. We’ve had a complex relationship, Clare and me. It started off as a brief fling, but now has somehow grown into something much more long-term. I’m not sure exactly where we’re headed next, but I’m sure Clare will tell me.

Okay, I know Clare is just a work of fiction that I created. But that’s what happens to an author’s character a lot of times: they really do take on a life of their own.

Clare Carlson began as my protagonist in a fifty-page manuscript that I submitted to Killer Nashville for the Claymore Award competition back in 2016. Clare was an ex-newspaper reporter turned TV news executive trying to uncover the truth about a legendary missing child case in New York City, while at the same time hiding long-buried secrets of her own. I really wasn’t sure there would ever be any more of her other than those fifty pages.

To my surprise, the manuscript—then called Forget Me Not—won the Claymore Award. So I wound up writing a full manuscript about Clare and her exploits in TV news. The book was later sold to Oceanview Publishing, who put it out (under the title of Yesterday’s News) last year.

It was never meant to be more than a stand-alone novel, so I figured I’d say goodbye to Clare after that.

But then the people at Oceanview asked if I’d do another Clare Carlson book. I, of course, said yes.

That book, Below the Fold—about the seemingly insignificant death of a homeless woman on the streets of NYC that leads to shocking revelations about rich and powerful figures—was published on May 7 of this year. 

Looking ahead now, I’ve just completed a third Clare Carlson book that will be out in 2020.

During this time, Clare has changed a lot from the woman I envisioned her to be when I wrote those first 50 pages for Killer Nashville. She’s a good person. An interesting person. But she’s also definitely a flawed person—both professionally and personally, she makes some bad decisions. I like her most of the time, but not always.

I’m the one writing the Clare Carlson character, of course.

But she continually surprises me with some of the directions that character takes.

Of course, I’m not the only author who has had this experience with their characters.           

Jeffery Deaver told me in an interview not long ago how he originally planned to kill off his popular Lincoln Rhyme character at the end of the first book (by suicide, no less)—but Lincoln Rhymes just refused to die. In the end, Deaver couldn’t pull the trigger on his suicide. I’m sure he’s happy about that now with fourteen best-selling Lincoln Rhyme series books, plus a hit movie in The Bone Collector.

The same sort of thing happened to Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child with their hugely-popular Agent Pendergast. Pendergast was just a minor character in their first few books, taking a back seat to other law enforcement figures. But Pendergast’s personality burst through big time in the third book—and he’s been a huge mystery/thriller fan favorite ever since.

And did you know that Hawk, one of the most beloved characters in Robert B. Parker’s long-running Spenser series, didn’t make his first appearance until the fourth Spenser book? I wonder if Parker thought back then that Hawk would play such a big role in his books. And, for that matter, Susan Silverman—Spenser’s long-time love interest—wasn’t in the first book. She showed up in book two.

Did Parker think Hawk and Susan were just one-time characters in those books when he wrote them? Maybe not, but I doubt that even he envisioned the huge role they would play in all the Spenser novels going forward. 

But, like I say, sometimes an author’s character just takes on a life of their own.

They grow. They change. They refuse to die. They go in entirely new directions, and—most surprising of all—they refuse to listen to anything the author tells them to do.

In the end, the author generally winds up letting them have their own way.

Hey, if you don’t believe me, just ask Clare Carlson.

R.G. Belsky is a longtime journalist and a crime fiction author in New York City. Belsky has worked as a top editor at the New York Post, the New York Daily News, Star magazine and NBC News. He has also published 12 mystery novels, including his current Clare Carlson series – about a New York City TV journalist.