Add depth to your characters. Indie Interview with @tobywneal #mystery

You live in Hawaii. What's that like? (Anything like the movies?)

Hawaii is better than advertised. Year-round wonderful temperatures, gorgeous views, beautiful ocean and beaches. We do have our problems, though, and it’s those contrasts that fascinate me. I write about the contrasts between beautiful nature and ugly human behavior, and the unique challenges we face here as an island state relying on tourism. That sounds so travel brochure, but what I mean is: extreme wealth of off island mansion owners vs. extreme poverty of hotel workers (Broken Ferns) art, gambling and sex trafficking in paradise (Black Jasmine) rape and murder on the slopes of primordially beautiful Kilauea Volcano (Blood Orchids) just to name a few. As a clinical social worker doing therapy with people, I see and hear it all.

You wrote and illustrated your first story at age 5. What was the story about?

I often work with children in therapy, and part of that is art interpretation. When my first book came out, my mom gave me a copy of an illustrated story of a dream I did at age five, dictating the words to her to write down. It was clear as day to me now: two baby birds in a nest whose father bird didn’t want them fed. The mother bird fought to feed the babies and chased the father bird away. My eyes bugged out at such an accurate interpretation of what was going on in our family at the time—my father was an alcoholic who resented me and my sister’s birth. Out of the pens of babes! (Also has something to do with why I became a mental health therapist.)

Your counseling background has given you the ability to add depth to your characters. Do you have any tips for writers who don't have a counseling background? What are good ways to add depth?

People say one of my strengths as a writer is my use of dialogue. Being a therapist has honed my ear and memory to an “uncanny” (according to one client) degree because of the skill of “tracking.” This is where you listen and summarize, re-interpret, or feed back a client’s words to them for them to think about.

I also do mental health evaluations and diagnose people, so I can detect mental health patterns and diagnoses in just a short time with a client from their story and symptoms.

These skills allow me to close my eyes and construct conversations between my characters that ring true with real  speech patterns. I can also show pathology through action on the page that’s authentic to various types of criminal behavior, and most notably for the symptoms and recovery of Lei Texeira, my main protagonist. (She’s a police officer who is a child sexual abuse survivor and overcomes her past through the course of five books.)

What can others do? Study. Read the DSM-5 and really get familiar with the kinds of behaviors and diagnoses that become criminal. Tape record conversations and listen to the pauses, beats, shortened verbiage. Sit in a coffee shop and do the same. Soak it in without your own bias. Become a student of human nature, and cultivate curiosity. I am unbelievably curious, about pretty much everything, and now that I’m writing so much, it’s all grist for the mill. 

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