Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Where my characters tread

A friend recently described the characters in my novels as “treading a liminal path.”  Since I know my imaginary friends so well, I thought I knew what she meant, but I looked up the word.  Depending on what dictionary one uses, it has a number of meanings, but it always implies “at a threshold,” “between two worlds,” “between two states of mind.”

Once my friend raised the issue, I began to see that many of my characters live with one foot in each of two worlds.  Evita Duarte (later Peron) who figures prominently in Blood Tango, is a case in point.  Powerless as a child, a starving would-be actress until a few months before the story begins, Evita first appears in my story with her soul still angry at the deprivation she has had to bear.  But she is, at that point, also the mistress of the most powerful man in the nation, a successful radio personality, and a woman who has her clothes made by the most elegant modista in Buenos Aires.  Through the story, she struggles to keep her balance as the action shifts her from one foot to the other, as it were.

In my upcoming series, which begins with Strange Gods, due out in June, I consciously invented characters who did not fit easily into any group around them in the conflict fraught land they inhabit—the Protectorate of British East Africa, beginning in 1911.  The British have just begun to move in, with hopes of adding to their widening empire.  The local tribes have been at each other’s throats for eons.

Here is how my characters fell into my head when I first started to think about who they would be:

·      Captain Justin Tolliver, British constable—an idealistic but somewhat naïve, English policeman who will be the series detective.  He is bright, good at heart and very determined, but his British assumptions, his exaggerated sense of fair play and gentlemanly conduct, his knee-jerk belief in the superiority of the British way of life will get in his way.  As the series progresses, he will develop and mature and become more African than English.  This will jeopardize his position with those above in the British Administration.
·      Vera McIntosh (later Tolliver), his love interest in Book One, later his wife, the daughter of Scots missionaries, born in BEA, raised with black African children by a Kikuyu nanny.  She speaks Kikuyu and some Maasai.  She is very intelligent and logical, but often bungles relationships with the white settlers.  She is warier and more suspicious than Tolliver and often right about what is really going on.  But she is impatient.  Sometimes her headstrong belief in her own conclusions leads Tolliver’s investigations astray, just as Tolliver’s Anglo-centric assumptions trip him up.  Through the series she will have children and struggle with how to raise them as white Africans, but she will always wind up taking an active role in Tolliver’s investigations because he will rely on her superior knowledge of African ways.
·      Kwai Libazo, Tolliver’s top black African lieutenant.  Though he is very intelligent and often is the first to see the path to the truth, he is conflicted in that his allegiance is now supposed to be to the Brits and Tolliver, but his instincts are with the African tribesmen.  No one who knows what job he holds trusts him, not the Whites because he is black and not the Blacks because he represents British rule.  This position interferes with his ability to discover information, but because he is black and not known outside Nairobi or Mombasa, he can go undercover among blacks or get a job as a houseboy and spy on some suspect.

As I wrote the first story, my knowledge of the characters broadened and deepened.  And, without my knowing how, they became more and more people with one foot in each world.

Every once in a while, but only briefly, I wonder what it means about me—that my main characters always turn out to be so unsteady on their feet.   I can tell you this—when I talk about myself being in two worlds I often say that when I am in the USA, people think of me as Italian, but when I am in Italy, they  think of me as American.

I find I am not much motivated to analyze myself further than this.  I much prefer to put my fingers on my keyboard and see what kind of story my characters have to tell me about themselves.


  1. How infinitely rich and deep the human mind is. And especially the mind of an artist - be it a writer, musician, painter, dancer.... etc... we never really know another person, I believe, as s/he has so many realms and worlds the family and friends and colleagues never see! on a lighter note than your views here, I'm in the middle of re-reading all of Margaret Truman's mysteries - haven't read them for a long time - and at this stage I'm amazed at her depth of understanding of the levels of the human mind... . I am fascinated by her expanse of facts. tjs

  2. P.s. You probably read it , but if not, you might enjoy all the Italian art and character and scenery in M. Trumans' Murder in the National Gallery! tjs