Detective Jane Perry was born on January 11th. Just as I know the date of her birthday, I also know where she lives and the perfect gift for Jane. Coffee. Gourmet coffee. That’s what she’s drinking these days. Dark, rich java that kick starts the adrenal glands in seconds. She’s got a freezer full of the aromatic beans.

This might sound odd, but I make a note on the calendar of Jane’s birthday. Not that I’m going to send her a card addressed to Denver Homicide Department. But I do remember her special day, although Jane is the kind of person who doesn’t like a lot of hoopla made around her. Does it sound odd to celebrate the birthday of a fictional character? It shouldn’t be. The main character in any book should be as real as your best friend. Unfortunately, I think a lot of writers today forget that. Often when I’m reading fiction, I come away from it finding the characters flat and with no backstory.

Backstory. That’s the term that one of my college writing professors used as he urged all of us to draft pages on our main character’s life. The pages weren’t meant to end up in the story; they were meant to force us into the mind of that character…to inhabit their world…invade it…understanding every nuance and gesture, every word not spoken.

As a writer, you are literally creating a life. Playing God. Building a world for someone who never existed but lives in your mind’s eye and then on the page.

I built Detective Jane Perry over the course of many months before I ever began writing Protector. And she continued to grow and evolve as I wrote the book.

And then the most fascinating thing happened: she took over. Sound woo-woo? Maybe. But as a writer, it’s one of those magical moments that cannot be duplicated in any other realm. The character springs to life and begins to chart the course of their story, often rerouting the writer’s original plan. I can’t tell you how many times I sat down with a solid outline for how a particular scene was going to go and midway through—usually during a heated rally of dialogue—Jane Perry would take over my fingertips and begin to pen her own words that changed everything I had in my outline.

I’d find myself stopping and saying, “Wait! That’s not the plan!” But then I’d re-read the words and realize that Jane Perry’s approach had a better bite to it.

Yeah, I know it sounds crazy. But I assure you, ask any writer who really KNOWS their main character and they’ll tell you the same thing. In the blink of an eye, the character rules the page. Go against their wishes and the writing will feel false.

So, every January 11th, I remember her. This year, I might bake a cake and hold a seat for her at the table.

If we’re lucky, she might even show up.

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