People of the Page: My ‘Real’ Protagonist

She seems to be everywhere this summer.

I first spotted her on I-16, blowing by me in a red Camaro, blond hair tousled and tossing through the open window. She wore sunglasses, dark retro Ray Bans like the eighties teen stars used to wear before they grew up and became Scientologists. She didn’t see me. She had her eyes on the ever-distant horizon, on a destination I could only imagine.

I saw her next at the gun range. Her jeans were low slung, her boots leather and low-heeled. She’d brought her own weapon, a .38 revolver, and had her hair tucked up under a baseball cap. She didn’t ask for anyone’s help. Didn’t need it. She was business-like, shooting for practice, not for fun. Yet there was a visceral satisfaction as she fired off shot after shot, each one well-placed and deliberately executed. I imagined that she wore the scent of gunpowder home with her.

My own house feels like she’s just left. Her perfume sits on the shelf in the bathroom. The coffee in the kitchen is brewed strong, and there’s a candle burning that smells of tobacco and bourbon and glazed doughnuts. My daughter calls her one of the family. Our invisible roommate.

She’s Tai Randolph. My protagonist. And she feels very very real to me, so real that I sometimes glimpse her in the flesh and blood world that I inhabit. Because even though the realistic part of my brain knows that these sightings are actually other human beings and not Tai, the weird author part of my brain isn’t convinced.

I’m not sure how universal this feeling is among writers. I do know that I hear lots of authors say things like, “And then my character refused to follow the plot line.” Apparently our people of the page have initiative and agency separate from our writerly plans for them. For even though we authors “created” them, at some point, characters start to create themselves. And we call this good because it means we’ve done something right, that a cognitive spark has been transformed into a coherent somebody (passive voice used very deliberately there).

There’s good brain science to explain why this is the case. Good psychology and philosophy too. We humans relate best to our creativity when we externalize it, when we call it a muse and invite it into our lives. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert called this relationship “a peculiar, wondrous, bizarre collaboration and conversation.” Author Matt Cardin explains that the unconscious mind is our true genius, and that befriending it as a separate entity puts us in a position to receive its gifts. (Cardin explains more thoroughly in his e-book A Course in Demonic Creativity: A Writer’s Guide to the Inner Genius, which I highly recommend). I’ve decided that for me, my muse isn’t the only part of my creativity that’s separate from my conscious processing — my characters go walkabout too, refusing to stay in two-dimensions.

My family has gotten used to sharing space with Tai and Trey, Gabriella and Garrity and Rico, and the rest of the people in the fictional Atlanta of my books. I’ve learned to accept it too. I can identify the particular music of a Ferrari engine from half a mile away, and I always — always — expect to see a blue-eyed, black-haired, Armani-clad man behind the wheel, a bed-headed dirty blonde right there beside him.

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Tina Whittle is a mystery writer living and working in the Georgia Lowcountry. Her novel Reckoning and Ruin, the fifth in the Tai Randolph series, is available now. Visit www.tinawhittle.com to learn more.