What I have found most interesting to me as a writer is how my characters become real people, to me. This is especially true of the characters in my fictional town of Ellisville, Ontario.
When I began the Ellisville Stories—of which there are currently four, featuring Detectives John Turner, Bruce MacDonald and Francie Jenkins, with a fifth one in the works—the first person to introduce himself was John Turner, the senior detective on the town’s police force. He came to me almost fully formed, although bits and pieces of his character were still to be discovered, as the stories progressed.
He said he was “Turner” (although others called him by his first name). I realized that I would call him Turner, not only because that was how he introduced himself but, also, because he is an old-fashioned man in some ways and wouldn’t appreciate people he doesn’t yet know well—including his creator— calling him by his first name. (I grew up with a grandmother who didn’t appreciate familiarity from strangers, so I understood this immediately). Nor would he want me—or anyone—to call him “Mr. Turner” because that was his father, an abusive man who had made Turner’s childhood and his mother’s life a misery. He would hate that association. So, Turner it was and Turner it remains.
Bruce MacDonald, on the other hand, was just Bruce, from the beginning. Although he has as complicated a backstory as his best friend, John, he doesn’t mind if stranger or friend alike calls him Bruce. I have to follow a character’s lead in such things.
I also have to follow a character’s lead when he or she exposes an unsavory side that I didn’t see coming (this is especially true in my story “A Stranger in The House”, in the September/October issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine). I didn’t see the unsavory side of Francie Jenkins, who worked alongside Turner and Bruce for many years, until it appeared in this story.
It was as much a shock to me as it was to Turner, who had quickly advised that Francie Jenkins was the best detective he had ever worked with, as well as a good friend. He trusted her implicitly. Bruce, who for a short time had been in a personal relationship with her, also thought he knew her well. Both men were shaken when Francie turned out to be a stranger to them. So was I.
Originally, I hadn’t intended to give her such a prominent role in these stories, as I wanted to concentrate on the relationship between Turner and Bruce, partners at work and friends for decades. I was interested in discovering what a longstanding friendship between two men, carrying burdens of childhood trauma, broken relationships and the deaths of people they loved, might look like.
Then, Francie stepped up and said, “Here I am and I’m not going to take a back seat,” and she quickly came to the fore. I liked her.
When she went over “to the dark side” or, more truthfully, returned to it, I kept trying to figure out a way to lure her back into the light, but by the end of “A Stranger in the House,” I admitted defeat and let her be who she was. To have dismissed that, in hopes of forcing her to be the character I first imagined her to be, would have been to be untrue to her and to the story; still, I mourned Francie, not only because I loved her intelligence and wit but also because of what she first represented to me, a character who believes that things will work out well, in the end. Turner and Bruce were always leery of such as that.
Eventually, though, a character, like a person, shows you their true nature and things work out as they will. I am looking forward, though, to seeing how things work out with these three people in the next Ellisville story.