The following is a guest post from E.A. AYMAR
Truthfully, I didn’t have a detailed plan when it came to creating Tom Starks, the protagonist for my Dead trilogy. Rather it was a vague idea of a person, a character created by circumstances, steeped in the grief of his wife’s murder and seeking violence.
I’d always been fans of the darker, more conflicted heroes in crime fiction – Parker, the Punisher, Garth Ennis’s Preacher series (conflicted antiheroes and, apparently, characters whose names start with a “P”). And though I was tempted to go with that model of a brutally cutthroat vigilante, it just didn’t ring true for my story. The man I had in mind was despairing over the loss of his wife and, yes, he wanted vengeance, but he wasn’t blind.
I thought a lot about making him a writer. That made sense to me, given that the novels are first-person and I wanted to touch on literary issues throughout the books, but writers as characters are far from unique.
So I settled on Tom teaching English composition and literature classes at a community college. It was a natural way to work in the themes I wanted, and the approach added something else I liked; both an echo to and reverse of Joseph Campbell’s journey of the hero. Here was a man who had been at the end of his journey, but is placed at the beginning of another. And nothing he’s learned can help him.
And I knew this journey would largely take place in Baltimore; the city shaped Tom’s character as much as anything else. Many readers will know Baltimore through The Wire, Homicide, or Laura Lippman’s excellent novels, but the city’s character stretches in all directions. Its home not only to Lippman and David Simon, but also Anne Tyler and John Waters. I was a fan of all of these artists, and hopefully readers find some of their influence in Tom.
So Tom’s initial motivation and the story’s setting happened rather naturally, and it’s beautiful when that happens as you write; the story breathes, blood flows. But I hit a snag when it came to the most difficult aspect of Tom’s character-his role as a father. Tom had adopted his wife’s daughter during their marriage, and now finds himself tasked with the role of a single parent. I soon realized the benefit of having a lonely warrior, given that every dubious choice Tom made was doubly damned by the effect it had on his daughter.
It’s an uneven line for a writer to walk and, in my first novel, there were some stumbles. I wanted distance between Tom and Julie, his daughter, but it couldn’t be cruel, and any separation from a child (especially a child who lost her mother) is unforgiveable. Most readers didn’t have an issue with it, but some found it hard to have compassion for Tom. In the general perspective of the media, criminals savage society, and their family is a distant casualty. In a novel, the more immediate effects are closely examined.
It was a risk, but a necessary one. Julie gave Tom something hopeful to grasp, she tethered him to sanity. So the further he went down his vigilante, criminal path, the further he walked from her. And that was, I realized as I wrote, the brunt of the novel. Tom is pulled between people, both living and dead, and that struggle continues in the sequel, You’re As Good As Dead. Tom’s choices still surprise me, but I’m glad of that; it means he’s real. Walking a dark path with a gun in one hand, his daughter’s hand in the other, hoping they safely reach the end.
E.A. AYMAR is a monthly columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books and a longtime employee of the C-SPAN networks. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers, the Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime. His short fiction and essays have appeared in a number of publications, including Crime Factory, Criminal Minds, The Rap Sheet and the Big Thrill.
You can learn more about E.A. Aymar at www.eaymar.com.