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This week, I met with a local bookclub during their discussion of one of my books–something I try to do whenever I’m invited and my schedule permits. This particular group had read The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes, and during the discussion, we got around to the topic of believability. Do the events of the story ring true or not?

When she is sixteen, CeeCee is seduced into helping to kidnap a pregnant woman, who dies while delivering her baby. CeeCee takes the child and ultimately raises her as her own. (I’m not giving anything away here, so if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry!). I’m first to admit that this situation sounds unbelievable and that CeeCee could turn out to be a very unsympathetic character. Yet the bookclub members  found her actions completely believable. Not only that, they sympathized with her plight. I was, of course, very pleased, since these were two of my many goals while writing the story. It falls on my shoulders–the writer’s shoulders–to make this happen. Sometimes a writer asks a reader to suspend disbelief to too great an extent. I’ve thrown more than a few books across the room when I just don’t buy what’s happening in the story (and, I hasten to add, I’m sure there are some readers who’ve done the same to books I’ve written; we all have different levels of tolerance). I really struggle to make outlandish situations believable, however, and above all, to make my characters the sort of people you want to root for. 

It’s not always easy. Dissecting The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes for a moment, here’s what I did: I made CeeCee incredibly vulnerable by making her a parentless teen who’d once had a loving relationship with her mother and who longed to find that sort of caring again. She was therefore ripe for seduction. I made her compassionate (she returns money to a customer in the restaurant where she works, although she needs the money herself). I had her struggle to figure out what to do about the baby in her care at every turn, trying always to do the “right thing”, but failing out of a lack of life experience, fear, and a yearning for the love she thought she’d finally found. I could go on and on, but my main point is that it’s up to the writer to convince the reader that what’s happening is believable and that the character is sympathetic enough to care about.

As I begin my new book, I hope to create equally as sympathetic characters. They’re already coming to life for me. The situations in the new story are not quite so over the top as in CeeCee, but they still need to ring true to my readers. I’m looking forward to the challenge of making you believe, and more importantly, to making you long to join these characters on their journey.

13 Comments

  1. Margo on January 15, 2009 at 9:16 am

    Diane, you are a master at capturing passionate and very believable characters…you create unique and surprising situations and I always feel compassion for their plight. Altho it might seem like a challenge for you to make us believe, this reader in particular never has a problem connecting with characters who become friends to me…and I sympathize with them because of how you handled the story line. As you write your next novel I know without a doubt it will be thoughtful, and I can’t wait to join them on their journey!
    Our city broke a record this a.m. with -20 degrees below and windchill -40 below…139 schools are closed in our state today. Stay warm everyone.

  2. Margo on January 15, 2009 at 9:19 am

    Correction…193 school closings so far…

  3. Ann on January 15, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Margo, how do you stand such cold weather? It is supposed to be in the 30’s here today and I am dreading going out in that temperature. I am such a wimp!!

  4. Margo on January 15, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    Ann, I grew up in this type of weather…when I was a little girl our winters were full of snow blizzards and -30 below temperatures all the time…then, for several years we went thru a warming trend where we would still have snow, but seldom blizzards and our temps thru the winter would be anywhere from 10 degrees to 30 degrees…the last few years we have gone back to the times when I was little…severe below temps and snow blizzards. We all dress accordingly with layers of clothes and turtlenecks…we wear parkas with hoods and cover all our skin to avoid frostbite which can happen instantly.

  5. Krysia on January 15, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Margo it’s only -12 here but up north where my mom lives it was -55 last night with windchill but is up to -16 now. I don’t know if they called off school, but we got a blizzard Monday (I almost died trying to get Gunnar from daycare) and the eastern half of the state had no school and then late starts on Tuesday. Which side of IA do you live? I live 50 miles from Sioux City and 2 min from Nebraska lol. Ann you get used to the temps eventually, I wear a hoodie all winter, yesterday it was -4 and I was wearing one.
    I agree also about the way Diane captures passionate and believable characters. I liked Cee Cee and I read it like reading someones life story. I am excited for the new books. I finally was able to finish Before the Storm, it was great and really threw me for a loop at the end. Excellent!!! I started reading Luanne Rice’s Summers Child since all you were talking so much about it. I also got Mary Alice Monroe’s Sweetgrass since you guys were talking about that one too.
    Well Gunnar and I are going to hang out today, stay warm everyone!

  6. Margo on January 15, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    Krysia, I live in the middle of IA and am abt 4 hours from Sioux City…we’ve had constant snow all week with 1 nite blizzard like conditions. With temps and windchills like this we worry about our cars starting and of course frostbite. Take care of yourself and your litle one, Gunner.

  7. Diane Chamberlain on January 15, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Brrr! You guys are making me cold. I’m freezing here in NC with our 30 something temps. Such a wimp.
    I have to set my fiction reading aside for a while as I start doing research for the WIP. I love the research, but I’m going to miss the fiction.
    Tonight is my neighborhood bookclub meeting. Love that club! We read DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY. Have any of you read it? Very interesting.

  8. Denise on January 15, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    I always say that if I wanted to read a novel containing unrealistic improbable events, I would read sci-fi or horror. Lol
    Diane, I think you did a great job of making CeeCee believable. A lesser author could not have made the story so believable. I will admit that I was a little skeptical initially but it totally worked! I loved CeeCee as a character.
    I think it also takes skill to make an unlikable character believable, and you certainly accomplished that in the novel.

  9. Denise on January 15, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    By the way, it’s 6 degrees here…brrrrr.

  10. ronnie on January 15, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Diane,
    As far as Cee Cee is concerned, all 12 women in my book club loved her, saw her as a victim and cheered for a happy ending. Only one woman out of 12 of us said, “I think I would have questioned it more before I agreed to do it”. I thought she was speaking from a woman with 68 years of experience and not a girl of 16. I find all your characters believable, compassionate and three dimensional. You also said that your only regret was that you might have told us too much in the first chapter. I don’t see that at all. Because of what you shared with us, it made me want to find out more.
    I hate to do this to you guys but it is 68 degrees here with a wind chill of 67. I am trying to decide if I should have a cup of tea or hot chocolate to take the chill out of my hands. As a former “northerner” I really do sympathize with you all.

  11. Margo on January 15, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    Diane, I’ve not read DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY…I know you love your book group and I hope you’ll be able to still keep up with their monthly book picks, (altho I know your research is your passion right now).
    Ronnie…68 degrees is definitely a heat wave! Send some our way if you can!!!! (-O:

  12. brenda on January 16, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    We are closed-school today. However, I went to the school to get some things…I have to grade finals…we will finish them on Tuesday and delay the semester. I finished the latest Grisham this A.M. I think I read it over the summer…sounded familiar, but I liked the theme…buying politicians…judges…etc…
    Am reading some light fiction…so so so cold. It is not as cold as where Margo is but below 0…The reason I live here-only 5 l/2 hours from my grandchildren and daughter versus the l4 when I was in South Carolina…it is even colder where she is…
    My son enjoys the sunny south-as far as he could get…I’ll do that one day.
    Diane-I loved the book…just reread it…I so believed in the characters…Cee Cee…can’t wait for the next one…

  13. Ann on January 16, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    I just pre-ordered “Secrets She Left Behind” from Amazon. Hadn’t seen if offered before. Looking forward to June 5th – the delivery estimate. Can hardly wait!

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