Characters and the writer’s psyche by John A. Connell

Written by John Connell

If someone had told me that I would be moving to Paris six months prior to doing so, I would have called them crazy. I had a good job as a camera operator on the hit TV show, NYPD Blue, my wife and I had just bought our dream house in Los Angeles (at least as dreamy as we could afford), and I spoke almost zero French. But when my wife was offered an excellent opportunity in Paris, I said yes with little deliberation. I had wanted for years to devote full time to writing, and I had always toyed with the idea of living in Europe.

What better place to try both than in the City of Lights? It was an opportunity for a little adventure, to pull up deep roots, leave friends and family behind (who all must have thought I was crazy), and plop myself smack dab in the middle of it all, to see if I could actually write something worthy of publishing, learn French, and maybe – just maybe – understand the French a little better. Nuts, right? You can probably see where I’m going with this: these experiences have made their way into my writing, and my characters, particularly Mason Collins, the protagonist in my crime thriller Ruins of War.

Characters are formed from the people you encounter, from books, films, and TV; a huge mental file that the writer draws from to create their characters. But I believe what makes them unique comes from who you are—how you think, how you feel, your experiences. While writing a story, thousands of decisions must be made in terms of how the character reacts, how he thinks, what he says, and all this is filtered through the writer’s psyche. Consciously or unconsciously, every character possesses some quality, some quirk, weakness or strength, even the darker aspects of the id, which the writer shares. Even the nastiest of them, if they are to come alive on the page, must be imbued with humanness that can only come from the writer’s mind. My wife certainly wonders who I truly am, what I’ve hidden from the world, if I can come up with such a sadistic and terrifying murderer. Maybe I should wonder myself…. Mason Collins is not like me (and certainly not the killer!), but because he is a creation borne of my psyche—as are all my characters—some astute psychologist could probably form assumptions about me by studying the characters I create.

Mason’s training as a cop and soldier makes him lethal, but he uses his wit and intelligence more often than brawn. He tends to be a loner and has a hair-trigger temper. He displays a dogged determination in the face of what seem to be hopeless odds and a readiness for self-sacrifice to protect others. All these will be tested to the limits during his hunt for the psychotic killer. He can be intense, even spooky at times. He has a strict moral code that keep his dark side in check, though it constantly threatens to come to the surface if provoked—which happens with a few lowlifes in the story. And though he’s been through some soul-crushing events in his life, he’s kept his humanity intact, albeit with a razor-sharp edge.

I am not any of those things, though he is a construct of my imagination. There is one overt aspect of who I am that found its way into Mason: his situation as an expat. Yes, he’s a criminal investigator in the U.S. Army in occupied Germany, but in that capacity he is an American living in a foreign land, and I plan to keep him that way throughout the series, whether he’s in the army or as a civilian. I, too, am an expat. I have lived in Paris for eleven years, now, and I expect that to continue for the near future. This experience has given me a perspective on life I would not have had if I’d remained in the U.S. This is not to say that my perspective is any better than anyone else’s, but it has changed the way I look at the world and my place in it. And this is one of the principle reasons why I have Mason turn down the army’s offer to send him Stateside after the war. And as I was writing Mason’s story, his expat wanderlust came out of seemingly nowhere—until I realized that, unconsciously, it had come from me. He’s not fully aware of why, but I wanted him to begin a journey to finding himself after the traumas of war—maybe among the ruins of Munich, among the dead buried beneath the rubble, he can find regeneration in a festering wound.

I then compounded and complicated the expat idea: Mason is German-born but American-raised. He was six when his mother and grandparents emigrated to the U.S. Now he’s back in Germany as a fully-fledged American. He’s bitter towards the German people—his people—who cheered and supported an evil regime, and he now feels compelled to protect these same people from another kind of evil, one spawned from the hell of the concentration camps. It was somewhere in the middle of writing RUINS that I decided Mason Collins would remain an expat and a drifter, and that the series would follow him to some of the most dangerous and outrageous spots around the globe, where he’ll encounter the sadistic, the insane and bizarre. Some places he will go by choice, and some by circumstance. In either case, I will go along for the ride, living vicariously through his expatriate adventures.

I miss America, and I may go “home” one day, as may Mason, but for now, I remain an expat, and even if I do go home, I have changed—my expat experiences will remain with me always. And Mason is sure to grow and change along his journey to other foreign lands. With Ruins of War, that journey is just beginning, and that beginning promises to be a terrifying and punishing ride!


Synopsis: Winter 1945. Seven months after the Nazi defeat, Munich is in ruins. Mason Collins—a former Chicago homicide detective, U.S. soldier, and prisoner of war—is now a U.S. Army criminal investigator in the American Zone of Occupation. It’s his job to enforce the law in a place where order has been obliterated. And his job just became much more dangerous. A killer is stalking the devastated city—one who has knowledge of human anatomy, enacts mysterious rituals with his prey, and seems to pick victims at random. Relying on his wits and instincts, Mason must venture places where his own life is put at risk: from interrogation rooms with unrepentant Nazi war criminals to penetrating the U.S. Army’s own black market. What Mason doesn’t know is that the killer he’s chasing is stalking him, too.
Berkley Books (5 May 2015) Hardback

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John Connell

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