Question: “I’ve just finished The Kiss that Counted and as usual I don’t want to let go of the characters. You’ve created hundreds of women I wish I knew — where did CJ and her background come from?”
You’ve already finished it? There’s a certain big online seller that hasn’t even begun shipping it out yet!
Without giving away any spoilers, I explored CJ’s character in a couple of ways. I wanted a character who lived in one world to escape from another, and had to learn to appreciate where she was for what it was, not because of what it wasn’t.
At first I thought I would create someone who had turned her back on her racial heritage because she saw it as a detriment to her career. But once I started down that road it felt…familiar, somehow. Already well-trod ground and I wasn’t sure I had anything to add. (One of my biggest fears is writing the same book twice, so whenever something feels as if I’ve done it before, I always stop and regroup.)
I also knew I wanted to contrast my lead character, CJ, with her love interest, at a fundamental level. Not just country versus city, or artist versus scientist, but more core to their being than even that. As I worked out who Karita was, it became more clear who CJ had to be. (Since you’ve read the book I am hoping that’s clear to you.) CJ feels as if she’s living on borrowed time, and any moment her world could collapse. Karita lives as if time is all she has, and she spends the utmost of her being living every moment as if it’s her last. As I worked out the joys in Karita’s life I tried to turn all those things into issues or elements that CJ didn’t dare get involved with.
After the “pattern” was done, the fabric was easier to weave for both women, and finally all the embellishments that made them unique and propelled the plot. That stage is when a casual comment from a friend or moment from some other entertainment can be inspiring. I watched quite a few episodes of the first season of The Riches, learned about llamas in the Rocky Mountains, and realized why CJ, who considered herself utterly and completely self-sufficient, turned not once but twice to different kinds of aid and shelters for the first time in her life – how important it was that she realize her strength could be a weakness.
Each time she asked for help, she learned more about Karita, and more about how a relationship between them would never work. Should never work. Could never be worth even attempting. Why give up so much safety, after all? And therein lies the romance of the tale and the meaning of the title.
I am also fond of little acts in the opening of the story snowballing and coming back unexpectedly in the closing. Each of these acts deepens CJ’s character and complicates her choices.
If I say more now I’ll surely get in trouble for spoilers – but that’s the long, rambling answer. The short answer is that CJ was created to be the right woman for Karita, and Karita was created to be the perfect match for CJ. As it should be in, in a love story.
I should add that I’m doing a workshop at the upcoming GCLSCon, with Lori Lake, on “It’s Not All About You” — creating characters who don’t derive from the author’s own experience and world view. The basic advice to all writers (and it’s good advice) is to write what you know. But if you only write what you know eventually the well runs dry.
Writing what you don’t know takes practice and research, not to mention a willingness to say to a reader (including your mother) things like, “No, I’m not a cannibal” or “None of my friends are serial killers” and “Maybe I’ve done that, but I’m not telling.”