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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Living in Someone's Shadow

Photo by Penny LamKK

This week’s character assessment comes courtesy of Sharon. She’s writing a cozy mystery set in the present day. Here’s her sketch (which was really great, by the way):

Jess,* private investigator, finds her gram murdered and vows to join in the investigation to find the killer. However, her biggest fear is that she’ll never live up to her deceased mama’s reputation as one of the most respected homicide detectives in the southeast. Jess quit the police force because she lived under the shadow of her mama’s fame. Feelings of hurt and anger collide with her faith/confidence in herself and fear of being unsuccessful in bringing the murderer to justice.

* Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

I had a little extra time and was able to email Sharon to get a little more detail about her character, more specifically some history about her mom and family life. I wanted to know how Jess’s mom died (gang members ambushed and wounded her mom, who later died) and what made her mother so “famous.” Apparently, Jess’s mom was a born leader, fearless, dedicated and respected by all levels of the police force in the southeast area. She’d put her life in jeopardy in order to save a fellow officer or civilian in a moment’s notice.

Jess’s father is the retired mayor and a real estate investor. She has one brother who owns a marshal arts academy. Jess opened a private investigator business once she got out of the police force so that she’d still be connected with the justice system, but she is living in her mom’s shadow. Also important for Jess’s assessment is that she wounded her partner at a burglary in progress and lost faith in herself and her ability to be the best police officer she could be. Jess is a Christian.

Photo by bbaltimore

My main focus was on Jess’s mom as this larger-than-life woman. Think She-Ra, Xena, Wonder Woman…you get the idea. She died in the line of duty after gang members ambushed and wounded her. This would make Jess’s mom a martyr of sorts. A woman who quite literally gave everything she had to the police force in protection of her community.

One thing I should have asked Sharon was how old Jess was when her mother died, as that could change the emotional impact of her death on her. But the main thing to consider here is what Sharon wrote initially: Jess fears she will never live up to her deceased mother’s reputation. And let’s face it. WHO COULD?

What you’ve got here is an unrealistic expectation on Jess’s part. Unless she gives her life in the line of duty, in Jess’s opinion, she couldn’t measure up to what her mom did. And that puts her in a catch 22 anyway, because of course she wants to live. Add to that her bumbling up the burglary in progress and hurting her partner…Jess probably believes she is the worse police office ever. So she quits.

This is some major baggage for her to carry around. Not living up to this super-high standard, feeling like a constant failure (and seeing evidence of that in your wounded partner) for not meeting that standard…this would cause depression, anxiety, and harm to her self-esteem and worth. Depending on how long Jess has lived with this baggage, her reaction could vary from a general despondency about her specific crime-stopping abilities (meaning she feels capable in other areas in her life) to a severe, global reaction that nothing she does is good enough.

You should include in your story several instances of Jess second-guessing herself. Her actions, decisions, words…anything could be game. I would include some powerful deep POV thoughts of Jess wondering what her mother would have done in such-and-such a situation. This would be very true-to-life, as which of your readers wouldn’t have done the same thing at some point in their life? They could really relate to that. And since Jess’s mother is deceased and unable to respond to what she would have done, Jess will live with a perpetual confusion and doubt about whether she actually picked the right thing to do.

And what kind of way is that to live? No one would be able to withstand that for very long. And since Jess is faced with trying to solve the murder of her grandmother, I think it will be important for you to give Jess some tiny successes during the investigation to really build her up….and then WAM! Hit her with a false lead that she runs to the ground or a red herring that she follows fruitlessly…something that will really make her doubt herself. (A black moment, if you will.)

And while you’re doing that for Jess’s external goal (solving grandmother’s murder), you need to make sure you’re working hard on her internal goal (living up to mother’s reputation). The two can go hand-in-hand. Ultimately, Jess will not live up to her perceived notion of her mother’s grand reputation. This is real life. But she has to come to the conclusion that this is NOT necessary. It’s not a very healthy way to live her life…constantly in her mother’s shadow.

Possibly one thing to consider is having Jess find out something about her mother that really shatters the illusion she has about her. This would be easy to do…just add a scene with her mother’s old partner or with her dad…anyone who could shed some light into something her mother might have done that was less-than-perfect. Then Jess would be faced with incorporating this new information into her schema about her mom…and would be a very powerful way to have her realize her mother wasn’t a saint. (No one is!)

However you decide to bring her turning about, Jess would need to understand that her self-worth as a police officer/private investigator/granddaughter/daughter/woman has to come from somewhere inside her…intrinsic. Not extrinsic – based on others expectations. When people constantly measure themselves up to other people, usually they will fixate on the areas where they don’t add up (in their estimation) and will lose sight of how good (or even better) they might be at other things.

Photo by imbecila

It will be important, Sharon, for you to make sure Jess has an internal/spiritual awakening by the end of the book where she comes to this conclusion. You'll want to wrap it up in much the same way you'll eventually wrap up the murder case. Put the two hand-in-hand, as they are equally important. God doesn’t compare us to anyone else. We each have our own relationship with him. He wants us only to be as much like Christ as we can. Even when we fail, however, God only sees the perfection of His Son when he looks at us. And this is something to rejoice have joy and to have it abundantly. Jess will be set free in this truth...and that's the true happy ending.

This service is for fictional characters only, so any resemblance to real life examples is entirely coincidental. Any other fictional character assessment questions can be directed to

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Jill Kemerer said...

Great insight! Thanks for the evaluation of this character. Hope you're enjoying your new digs!

Katie said...

This is wonderful! Makes me want to read Sharon's story! Sounds like a great one with very well-defined GMC's. :)

lightsey said...

Jeannie, thank you so much for taking the time to help me get to know Jess better. Now, I can help her find her happy ending!

ps I'm loving this blogg...

Jeannie Campbell said...

thanks so much, jill and katie!

and sharon...thanks for stopping by and writing in. glad to hear this will be helpful for you!

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.