Remembering Kennedy, Considering Character

Young clinicians are taught that most of what is needed to make an accurate diagnosis is obtained in the history. That assumes, of course, that the novice scribe knows not only what to ask but also what to do with that information. With so much historical significance packed into this past week, I took the opportunity to expand my own history taking skills, asking a question at the end of each office visit: do you remember where you were when you found out that President Kennedy was shot? For those old enough to remember, the question elicited a pause, then a story:

  • One man, at his office in Chicago. learned about JFK’s death from Walter Cronkite’s television announcement
  • His wife heard the news on the radio while waiting in the carpool line to pick up their kindergartener
  • A young Navy officer on night watch in peace-time Guam also received the news on the radio, hearing it in the early morning hours of the Pacific. He soon found himself waking his fellow sailors to tell them the news.
  • A fifth grade boy in rural Georgia heard about the shooting from his teacher. His class spent the rest of the day crowded around the school’s only television set

All of my patients-turned-historical-sources recalled the palpable sense of loss in Kennedy’s death. Not one had trouble remembering what they felt and where they were when the news came through. Neither did they have trouble reeling me in to emotions of fifty years ago. Their stories were natural. Unforced. And they flowed easily, as all good stories do.

Why, then, is it so hard to replicate natural emotions in fictional characters?

After completing my first book-length manuscript in 2004, I solicited representation from any number of literary agents. While all of them ultimately passed on the work, some took the time to provide feedback. One agent’s written assessment simply stated the book “does have a surface readability and some tension too, but I just didn’t get involved with the characters.”

At the time, no amount of manuscript massage could revive the work, which led me to shelve that book and begin again.

Fast forward nine years. This past summer, I spent two months re-editing and re-polishing the manuscript for Blood Money. My publisher, an early champion of the Mackie McKay series, continued to press me with typed comments about my main character’s soul. What was Mackie feeling? How did events affect him? Show his reactions to the situation.

The more I read (and re-read) the text I had written, the more I saw areas to fix. I soon noticed a man who needed to not just swim above the turbulent waters of the plot, but also a man who needed to wade through the emotional eddies of his situation. For me, the process of revision was a process to understand the character’s history.

Understanding how ordinary people react in extraordinary circumstances gives clinicians a chance to better understand their patients. It also allows writers to better know their characters. Perhaps the understanding, then, springs from a basic tenet of humanity: it is not so much in asking the right questions of history but in paying attention to the answers.