Newsletter #2 - How Police Psychologist Helped Me Craft My Characters

Hello again! Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror author Paul James Keyes here with another newsletter!

Last time I introduced myself [LINK TO NEWSLETTER 1 - INTRODUCTIONS AND CHEESE], this time I’ll be writing about how I spent over a year working with a police psychologist crafting my characters.

As a writer, it always helps to hone the authenticity of my characters by getting another pair of eyes on my work. It helps even more when those eyes happen to belong to a police psychologist with many many years of experience under his belt.

Enter my first publisher, a man named Michael Thompkins; police psychologist by day, successful murder mystery/police procedural detective story author by night. He began a journey as a publisher when the publishing house that managed his stories went belly-up in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. (At least that is my understanding of how that situation played out.)

I met him at a birthday party for a family friend and had just freshly “finished” my first manuscript for my first novel, Wrought by Fire—now book one of my successful Epic Fantasy Horror series, written for scientifically minded individuals like myself. [WROUGHT BY FIRE ON AMAZON] What I didn’t see coming was the year and a half of meetings—more like therapy sessions for my characters—before Wrought by Fire would truly be considered complete. Inexplicably, the novel became about 100 pages longer! During that time a 3rd protagonist was born and developed.

Michael and I would sit together for a few hours a week and pour over both of our notes and changes from all the previous months. I knew most people didn’t get a chance to refine their stories with such care, and I did not squander the opportunity!

Michael always respected my creative oversight, but we debated endlessly about my characters’ decisions—about who they were inside and out. He always made me back up my choices with nitty-gritty character development that felt like a creative writing bootcamp. We nitpicked over what they would say and do, and even talked about the psychology of the experience as a whole—what my future readers would ultimately get out of my books.

He helped me develop my good guys and their relationships with one another, and helped me see better into the minds of my bad guys. There’s no one quite like a police psychologist to help you understand the inner workings of the psychopathic and sociopathic minds.

The novel grew, not only in length, but in depth. I honed my world-building skills and Michael contributed invaluable insight that really helped make my characters flourish on the page. It was always exciting for me each week to see his reaction to my edits and additions.

I enjoyed hearing his compliments: “I don’t know how you do it, creating a new world like this. I stick to real things that already exist in my writing. Not everyone can write all this fantastical $#%T like you.” He could be blunt. He also wasn’t easily impressed. Sometimes the compliments were hard to hear through the criticism, but I always felt he respected my writerly abilities. At times, I dreaded his critiques: “You need a new first chapter. It opens too slow and the stakes aren’t high enough until you’ve gotten in too far.” It was a fair critique.

I asked myself, how do I start this story in a more exciting way?—in my mind it was already complete and I didn’t want to rewrite the whole thing! Suddenly, inspiration struck, and a character mentioned merely in passing as a piece of a backstory for one of my protagonists became a protagonist in her own right.

I couldn’t leave her with only one chapter—Michael insisted as much—“People will be mad at you if you drop her.” And so more chapters appeared, telling my new character’s story.

I should mention I was already well into writing Wrought by Fire’s sequel, Ashen Sky, at the time, and my new protagonist didn’t really fit in. But then suddenly she did! Somehow this new character solved many of my lingering plot threads deep in the series as if she was meant to be there all along. It felt serendipitous! I can’t explain the high of an integral piece of your story suddenly falling into place. I haven’t experienced anything else quite as satisfying. It’s the same excitement my readers experience when they discover the twists and turns of my story for the first time, combined with the cathartic release of creating something new. Sometimes it feels more like discovery than creation.

After Wrought by Fire was completed, we moved on to Ashen Sky and continued the same process, always striving for authenticity. Working with Michael is a time in my life that I will always cherish. My novels would not be the books they are today without his not-so-subtle urgings.

Sadly, Michael passed away last year after a lengthy battle with illness at the age of 78. Our conversations will be missed, but at least I can say that some part of him will live on his stories, and now mine as well, forever.

Freebie: Into the Beyond - Part 1: Fated - A Fantasy Horror Series


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Wrought by Fire
Ashen Sky
Howls on the Wind
Into the Beyond - Part 1: Fated
Into the Beyond - Part 2: Far From Human
Into the Beyond - Part 3: Fires of Heaven

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