Saturday, June 23, 2012

Guest Author Jerry Last: Where Do All of Those Characters in the Books Come From?

by Jerry Last

Ambivalent CorpseAs we try to create the imaginary worlds of our books, to be believable we have to rely on reality for inspiration. I use the places I’ve lived in and visited in South America as settings in my South American Mystery novels.

These novels have to be populated with people, both the central characters like my detectives Roger Bowman and Suzanne Foster, and all of the rest of the people they will meet as they investigate the murder or murders. We quickly encounter a problem of how to make these other characters into distinct individuals rather than just 20 clones named Pedro or Jose.

To solve this problem I try to use real people I’ve met in South America as models for fictional characters in these books by visualizing someone I actually met for a physical description or taking part of their personas to start building my fictional characters. Let me introduce you to the path from reality to book pages of a few of the suspects in the murders being investigated and a couple of the minor characters from my last two novels.

First up is Bernardo Colletti, the head of the Uruguayan Nazi Party from The Ambivalent Corpse and a suspect in the murder. He has his roots in reality. I first visited Montevideo in 1982 as a Fulbright Professor teaching courses in toxicology and in protein biochemistry during the waning days of an ultraconservative military dictatorship.

One of my hosts turned out to be married to a physician who worked in the Emergency Room (think of George Clooney’s role in ER) and was the head of the Uruguayan Nazi Party. Despite his politics, he was a charming and well-educated (Uruguay and Chicago, USA) physician with whom I was expected to interact professionally and socially while I was there.

To create Bernardo’s character in the book, I merely aged his role model from 1982 to 2011 and grafted the real Nazi’s looks and personality onto the fictional one. Despite the obvious reasons one should not like a virulent fascist, I tried to portray Bernardo as I recalled the real person: extremely charming and intelligent in social settings where he deemphasized the more odious of his political views.

Next up is another character (actually a couple) from The Ambivalent Corpse, Gerardo and Andrea, who act as hosts for Suzanne at the University de la Republica and become good friends of our heroes as the story evolves. The couple is modeled after my best friends and scientific colleagues in Montevideo. They are, in fact, named after their two children. Now there’s a switch, naming the parents after their children. You can get a real sense of power when you write fiction! The scene at the Feria (open air market) in the park that I described in the book is based on the actual Saturday morning Feria in the park across the street from our apartment we rented when we lived in Montevideo. Andrea’s research with algal toxins that she described at dinner in the book is pretty close to what the real “Andrea and Gerardo” do in Montevideo, and is part of the basis for our collaborative research and teaching.

In The Surreal Killer Suzanne and Roger are taken for a flight over the Atacama Desert in a small two-engine plane by two of their suspects, Pedro and Romero. Along the way, Pedro gives both of them lessons in how to fly the plane. Pedro’s character is a composite based upon a couple of real scientists I’ve known, one of them a North American originally from New Jersey who actually taught me how to fly a single-engine Cessna many years ago while we were both research scientists at The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

The other, more extroverted, half of Pedro's character is based upon a real Chilean scientist who hosted me during several visits to Santiago as we tried to build a collaborative program at The University of Chile similar to those we had already developed in Montevideo and Salta, Argentina.

In this brief blog entry I've tried to describe how a small part of the creative process works for fiction authors. Our life experiences are the source and our books and their characters are the product.

If you'd like to meet Bernardo, Andrea, and Gerardo, they can be found hanging out in The Ambivalent Corpse, available from Amazon , Smashwords , Apple, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble (Nook). You can meet Pedro, Romero, and their Beechcraft Baron airplane in The Surreal Killer, available only from Amazon.