Monday, September 28, 2009

Ghost Writing - Clea Simon

*Editor's Note: I'm always interested in how other writers handle things, so today Clea Simon talks to us about some of the technical aspects of creating a supernatural characters. Welcome, Clea!

Creating characters is a blast. From an initial spark – an overheard bit of dialogue, a peek through a crowd, a dream – you get an idea for who someone might be. From there, you learn about this new person, your fictional creation. A name, some habits. Friends and tastes. The ways that characters come together never ceases to amaze and thrill me. But one thing I’ve learned about characters: In order for them to be interesting, in order for them to be real, they must have limits, weaknesses, and boundaries.
So how do you write a ghost?

This question came up for me while I was working on Shades of Grey, my first Dulcie Schwartz mystery, and again as I was working on the sequel, Grey Matters. The entire Dulcie Schwartz project came out of a simple idea: that a young grad student who was studying Gothic literature would see the ghost of her late, great cat, Mr. Grey. I had an initial scene, in which she would see a cat who looked just like her late cat, and that the cat would try to warn her about entering what she would discover was a murder scene.

That was the seed of the entire series. But after that, well… I was on my own.

As mystery writers venture further into the paranormal, many other ghosts have been launched in the world. But the one that stuck in my mind was an unsuccessful one. I’m a fan of novelist Lisa See. I enjoyed her China-set thriller series and have come to enjoy her more ambitious historical novels as well. But two years ago, when she published Peony in Love, I found myself incredibly disappointed. I understand what she was trying to do in this book – to retell great Chinese dramas from the 16th and 17th century from a woman’s perspective. But the female protagonist, Peony, was a ghost, and in See’s retelling, as a ghost, Peony had no flaws and very few distinctive character traits. She also, basically, had no limitations on what she could do in terms of space or time. The result was disappointing. While the peek inside an ancient world was interesting, there wasn’t anything there to connect to emotionally – no conflict or tension or suspense. So when I started writing Shades of Grey, I kept poor Peony in mind. Mr. Grey, while no longer a flesh-and-blood cat, was not going to be a bloodless specter. No way.

Knowing that I wanted an emotional response to this ghostly feline, I used my own emotions as a guide. The basic idea for Mr. Grey was the strange sense I’d gotten after we’d had to put my much loved cat Cyrus to sleep that Cyrus was still, somewhere, around. I know logically that this was because for the previous 16 years, Cyrus had been my pretty much constant companion. In some way, my mind couldn’t accept that the longhaired grey cat, with a face more Siamese than Persian, was no longer there. So I saw him – felt him – sometimes even heard him everywhere. Talking to other bereaved pet lovers, I found out that this experience was common, and so that’s what I worked with. That feeling that you think you see your pet, unlikely as it seems, but you’re just not quite sure…

As for the question of spectral infallibility, well, that was tougher. A ghost, especially a ghost who is helping solve a mystery, probably knows more than a living creature, right? So how come a caring ghost wouldn’t just explain everything to his human and solve the mystery from the start? I wrestled with this one a bit. Should Dulcie not hear everything Mr. Grey says? Should she misinterpret? Well, yes, a little of both. But what ultimately saved me was the realization that, ghost or no, Mr. Grey is a cat. And what is important to a cat is not always what is important to a human, and even the most loving feline will sometimes lose patience with his person and go take a nap. Making Mr. Grey a ghost, or a possible ghost, presented some problems, but recognizing him as a feline paved the way for many enigmatic and, I hope, mysterious puzzles!

Clea Simon
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  1. I enjoyed the article, and I love the idea. Will have to look out for Grey

  2. If you have a ghostly cat, do you have to change a ghostly cat litter box, I wonder?

  3. "The sound of a spectral scratch-scratch-scratch broke the night's silence...." I think I have the start of Dulcie #3!

  4. Love. It.

    I would read any book that started that way, Clea!

  5. "Soon the ghostly scamper of nonexistant paws announced that the litter was ready to be scooped..."

    ok, I'm getting very silly here.