“Is your character really you?”

A few weeks ago, I arrived at an out-of-town ibrary where I was the guest speaker for the evening.  The librarian who greeted me asked: “So which car did you arrive in?  A Lexus or a Subaru?”  I was stunned — and a little spooked.  Because it just so happens I do drive a Lexus.  How did this woman, whom I’d never met before, guess which car I drive?

“How on earth did you know?” I asked.

She laughed.  “Because in your books, Maura Isles drives a Lexus and Jane drives a Subaru, and I figured that one of those two characters must really be you.”

A very good assumption, as it turns out. 

 Like other authors, I’m often asked whether any of my characters are really me.  I’m quick to admit that, yes, Maura Isles is me.  At least, she started out a lot like me.  I’m not talking about physical appearances; rather, I’m talking about how she views the world. Her philosophy, her beliefs, her approach to life.  She’s trained in science, she values logic and reason, and she’s introspective.  Whenever I wrote from her point of view, I felt as if I was back in my own skin, and if I needed to include any trivial biographical details, I’d automatically pull them from my own life.  Where she went to medical school, for instance (U.C. San Francisco).  Or which musical instrument she plays (the piano.)  Or which magazines and wines and TV channels she enjoys.  I didn’t have to think twice about these details; that’s how much I identified with Maura.  You’d think that it would be a pretty cool thing for a novelist to do:  Write yourself into a book and become your own heroine!

Then a reader told me, “I love your character Jane.  But that Maura Isles is sorta boring.”

I couldn’t bring myself to tell her whom that boring character was based on.

Of course, Maura Isles is more than just me.  When I create characters, I may draw from certain aspects of my own personality.  But I know very well that I’m not made of heroic stuff.  I’m not a gal who’d run around with a gun, chasing monsters.  I, at heart, am a coward.  My heroines are not.  Which is why they’re the heroines, and I’m the one sitting safely in my nice warm house with the doors locked.  With no intention of going monster-hunting anytime soon.

There were times when I got tired of writing from Maura’s point of view, simply because she feels too familiar.  She’s so reasonable, so rational (most of the time) and she just doesn’t do many things that startle or surprise me.

That’s why I find it so refreshing to write about Jane Rizzoli.  Jane is everything that Maura and I are not: hot tempered, passionate, and painfully blunt.  When Jane comes onto the scene, I’m never sure what she’s going to say, or what outrageous stunt she’s going to pull.  Sometimes she infuriates me.  (And infuriates my readers as well.)  But one thing she never does is bore me. 

I’ve heard that actors have more fun playing the hissing villain than playing the squeaky clean Boy Scout.  I can understand that.  As a writer, I live for scenes with grand emotions.  I can’t wait to write the parts where characters are consumed by terror or hatred or good old-fashioned lust.  A character like Jane, who’s not afraid to blurt incendiary comments, whatever the consequences, is a joy to write about.  You know she’ll get herself into trouble.  And you can’t wait to see those consequences.

But Maura — ah, Maura.  So self-controlled, so logical, so averse to conflict.  This is a character who shuns big emotional blow-ups.  She’s not a drama queen, which is why she’s been such a challenge to write about.  Yes, from the point of view of that one reader, she may be a bit boring.  How interesting is a character who never does anything unwise, anything self-destructive? 

Then, in Mephisto Club, she surprised me.  Like so many other women have done through the ages, she made a desperately unwise choice.  All in the name of lust. 

Suddenly, Maura Isles is a lot more interesting to me.  She may have started out as me (boring though that is.)  Now she’s spun out of my control.  She’s grown into her own person, a woman made of more than cold logic.  A woman who will no doubt start to infuriate readers with her foolish choices.

I can’t wait to see what she does next.   

27 replies
  1. wheatridge64
    wheatridge64 says:

    I’ve wondered about the origin of Maura’s name: how you chose it. It’s nautical, of course. Maura is similar to the Spanish “mar” and the Japanese “maru.” Then there’s the literal English “isles” or the Spanish “islas.” However, beyond her name, Maura has no watery characteristics, unless the water’s frozen, or cold, at least.

  2. vividexpression
    vividexpression says:

    I really liked seeing the change in Jane after she had her daughter. I think it changed her priorities and why she does things. Now instead of doing things because she wanted respect from the males in her fiekd she does them for her daughter. I admire her strength, and I think she is a great character!

  3. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    As a rule, I think our characters aren’t really us. It’s interesting, though, that readers perceive it that way.

    My series character, Nicholas Colt, is brave, honest, trustworthy, sometimes cynical, and sometimes a hothead. He has a soft spot for kids. He has a humorous and sometimes perverted view of the world at large.

    But is he me? Hmmm. Goddamn. Maybe he is.

  4. Tess
    Tess says:

    wheatridge,
    the name “Maura Isles” was a name chosen by the highest bidder at a charity auction. The prize was the right to name a character in one of my books, and the winner gave me a real name in his family. I didn’t even have to come up with the name — it was handed to me. So there really IS a Dr. Maura Isles somewhere. I never expected her to be a major or continuing character. She started off with a bit part in THE APPRENTICE, and then moved into a star position in THE SINNER.

  5. Patricia Wood
    Patricia Wood says:

    I see parts and pieces of me in each of my characters. This was really interesting to read. I actually had to answer a Q & A for my publisher about which character I identified with…my favorite one…I had to really think and it wasn’t the one I would have thought at first.
    I think Tess, you made a great point. When you make your characters do something illogical or “out of character” that’s when they stop being boring and begin to be really interesting (at least that is how I see it as a reader).

  6. struggler
    struggler says:

    Respect, Tess, for your honesty (as usual). I doubt that many leading authors would admit what you have just admitted, not that there’s anything to be ashamed of, of course! In my case I am working on a novel that has a horrifying TRUE story as its backbone but which needed a fictional element to make it a commercially viable project. In short, it needed a character who (like myself) was so enraged by the pain, humiliation and abuse that one woman suffered that he wanted to do something about it, in the shape of eye-for-an-eye retribution against the victim’s abusers. And it’s difficult to ignore that my motivation to write the book in the first place was firmly built around my desire to seek justice, so one of the leading fictional characters will inevitably share some of my emotional leanings, even if he has different musical, artistic and culinary tastes! I wouldn’t want to clone myself for the purpose of creating a fictional character, I’m really not that interesting! But like Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, I can create a character who drives the cars I lust after but can’t afford, travel to all the most exotic parts of the world I’ve never been to……and I suppose (blush) conquer women I (a)have no moral right to conquer and (b)wouldn’t give me a second look in real life!

  7. JMH
    JMH says:

    Tess: Here’s a quote from an interview I did with Crime Scene Scotland last year:

    “Bryson Coventry is basically me, except he’s cooler, taller, younger, smarter, and gets all the women. So I always pretty much know what he’s going to do in any particular situation. Of course, I’m still learning about me, which mean’s I’m still learning about him.”

    Best, Jim.

  8. Millenia Black
    Millenia Black says:

    Tess, it’s interesting that you should say this. I’ll admit – I’ve always preferred Maura’s page time to Jane’s. 😉

    For me she emotes from a level of depth and refinement that makes her more engaging. Whenever we go into Jane’s world, I’m always rushing through so I can get back to Maura’s.

    I think this tends to be true for characters – good or bad – rooted in the author’s own personality. They’re likely to be deeper, and much more accessible.

  9. Tess
    Tess says:

    Joe, yes, I do play the fiddle. But the piano is the instrument of my childhood!

    Struggler, Rizzoli won’t be in the Bone Garden. Maura Isles will have only a bit part in it. Most of the action will take place in 1830’s Boston. I’m just writing an amputation scene now, and I am totally grossed out by what doctors had to do (and what patients had to endure) back then!

  10. DanaKaye
    DanaKaye says:

    If you think about it, we are every character in our story, to a certain extent. They are products of our imagination, we have them react the way we think they would, speak the way we think we would speak. It’s very Freud.

    And I really liked what Jim told Crime Scene. Some of my protagonists are the better, more over-the-top version of myself.

  11. wheatridge64
    wheatridge64 says:

    How neat! I love how you ended up with Maura’s name. Wherever she is, I’m sure the real Maura Isles is intrigued with her fictional alter ego.

  12. Michelle Dawn
    Michelle Dawn says:

    Maura and Jane are both very interesting characters, and their personalities contrast each other’s nicely. 🙂 I admire Jane’s feisty nature; for her job it’s really necessary for her to have a strong, outspoken personality, and I admire Maura’s calm logic. That quality is well-suited for her job too. I think it’s normal for writers to incorporate at least some of their own personality traits into their characters.

    Things would be sort of boring without different personality types.

  13. wheatridge64
    wheatridge64 says:

    Having recently finished reading _The Mephisto Club_, I’m curious how the relationship between Maura and Father Brophy develops in future works. Will Brophy leave the Catholic Church, become an Episcopalean priest, and marry Maura? No, probably not. I can’t see Maura accepting the role of a clergy’s spouse. How will Father Brophy deal with the weight of his sin? The answer to this last question can lead to his rise from a minor character to a major one.

  14. john lovell
    john lovell says:

    I wonder how it would be if it worked the other way around: An adoring reader, say, strives to become as much like your lead heroine as possible. Changes her name, pursues a new career, undergoes plastic surgery, etc. And then begins doing the things your heroine does. But that might be boring. What if, instead, this adoring reader becomes similarly attracted to your arch-villain. Structures his life to duplicate the activities of “The Surgeon,” say…

  15. Lynn
    Lynn says:

    Hello, Tess. This is a very interesting post and I have enjoyed reading these comments as well. Struggler’s story sounds like something I would like to read.

    When I first started writing I did not understand that I was putting myself into my characters. I figured this out accidentally when I became emotionally upset by a character that I was writing. This particular novel is still incomplete because I had been using this character as a dumping ground for emotional baggage that I could not deal with and did not understand. I wish I had been able to be more honest with myself about the effects that certain events in my past had had on me before I started that novel. If only I had known! That novel and that poor character (me in disguise) drove me right into psychotherapy. Sometimes I’m still a bit afraid of writing, but I’m still working with the therapist and I hope to someday be able to finish writing that novel. I think about it often.

  16. Chrissy
    Chrissy says:

    Maura has always been my favourite character. But I also really like Father Brophy (sp?)

    I bet you will think I’m saying this because you said you based your character on yourself. But I didn’t know that until tonight, and I have always loved Maura. I can’t believe someone called her boring… yes Jane is unpredictable and spontaneous But I can’t identify with her… I can with Maura though.

  17. Vanessa F
    Vanessa F says:

    I love Jane but Maura is my favorite! I was so glad when you kept bringing her back. And I love this entry because I’ve often wondered the same thing about my favorite authors, including you 🙂 The novel I hope to someday publish has two heroines. One is 17 the other is in her mid 30’s. Obviously, they’re quite different. I see myself in both of them. They have the qualities about myself that I like and ones I wish I had! Its interesting that you say Maura surprised you. I’ll admit I really wanted something to happen between Maura and Daniel but I was pretty sure you weren’t going to let it happen. You made my day in Mephisto Club!

  18. JanetK
    JanetK says:

    Reading about Maura in MEPHISTO CLUB was like seeing a car accident about to happen. “Don’t do it!” I wanted to shriek. “Don’t you know what heartache this cause?”

    Excellent character twist 🙂 It must be great fun to have characters you thought you knew inside and out surprise you like that.

  19. Jane O.
    Jane O. says:

    I really like both characters, jane was a pain someimes but I like how she evolved into a wife and mother. I was a little
    surprised that Maura went to bed with Father Brophy but I guess characters have to change to be interesting. When is the
    “Bone Garden” coming out? Is there going to be a Rizzoli-Isles novel this year?

  20. Ali M
    Ali M says:

    I like both characters very much, perhaps because I’m somewhere in between both… As a science orientated person myself I probably identify more with Dr. Isles character than Rizzoli.

    It’s interesting how authors often project a lot of themselves into characters, sometimes unknown to themselves. From my own writings I found I had the tendency to write some of my own insecurities into the characters. Also I would agree about the thrill of writing a highly emotional piece or exciting piece. I think that and tying up plot points are the most satisfying part of the writing experience. Sure recognition is welcomed also!

    It’s great that your enthusiasm with writing for your characters is still raging! From other authors who write in series I have seen sometimes it’s as if they’ve lost interest in their lead. The challenge is not to let the main character in a series become stagnant or too predictable, which on consideration is quite a tall order…

  21. Deb0711
    Deb0711 says:

    Okay, I know I’m late on this one, but I had to add my two cents. First, I love Jane, she’s full of enthusiasm and spunk. And I love her husband (I only wish mine could have been like that). As for Maura, I love her too for different reasons. She’s real, not perfect. I can relate to her. I can’t wait to see what you have in store for Maura. I know it’s wrong, but oh, how I love the twist to her storyline!!

  22. Lizzoli
    Lizzoli says:

    Oh my goodness! Tess, I love your books, and the characters are amazing! All of them are so real. I can totally identify with them all (well the main characters), and Maura is just adorable. The way she seems to be so innocent and seemingly sheltered, is just too cute. Jane’s ways are empowering and she’s such a brilliant character. I love how strong you wrote both women!

  23. nagehan
    nagehan says:

    I’ve just finished reading “Mephisto Club”. It caused me a night with very little sleep but it was definitely worth it 🙂
    I like Maura more. Because Rizzoli is very judgemental and instead of reasonable people judgemental people bore me 🙂 I think being reasonable doesn’t always hurt other people but being judgemental does.
    I also love the fact how their professions effect their character and vice versa. Maura can always trust who she is working on- dead people. They don’t lie the truth is always somewhere on their body. On the contrary, Jane has to doubt everything, the stories she has been told, the scenes she has seen could be all lies and working in such a circumference for years and years made her a judgemental and sceptic woman.
    I love reading them both, thank you for writing such great books!
    Nagehan.

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