Jeanne: Getting to Know You

StilettosRecently here at Eight Ladies Writing, we talked about our cold start processes–how each of the Ladies gets herself going again on an existing project when she hasn’t written in a while. Michaeline wrote about what I’d call a “fresh start” process–how she gets started on a new project.

In mid-February I started work on the third book in my Touched by a Demon trilogy, The Demon Wore Stilettos. I’ve been looking forward to this one, because the she-demon Lilith, who has been a minor character in the previous two books, finally gets to take center stage.

I’ve had this book in the back of my mind for a while, so I knew the general premise: Megan Kincaid, a recent MFA graduate, sells her soul to Satan in exchange for making the New York Times bestseller list.

I also knew I wanted to make this a second-chance-at-love story, so I wanted Megan to have an old love she would team with to escape Satan’s clutches.

And that was all I knew.

The first question I needed to answer about this character was: why is she so crazy ambitious? So I googled, “What makes people ambitious?”

Reading through the various things that came back (Quora is awesome for providing lists of possibilities for questions like this), I created this list:

  1. Lack of paternal love/approval
  2. Impoverished childhood
  3. Sibling rivalry
  4. Immigrant background
  5. Needs to prove something to someone
  6. Needs money for something specific
  7. Frustrated by lack of opportunity
  8. Because they’re brave enough to challenge themselves to achieve beyond their background
  9. Desire to prove themselves worthy; for example, an adopted child
  10. Desire to prove others wrong

I let all this roll around in the back of my head for a couple of days before choosing No. 9. Megan, I decided, had been adopted. Since all my demon books have an inspirational element, she was adopted by an older couple, a minister and his wife. Reverend Paul Kincaid and Sister Edna were wonderful people, but the church community constantly reminded Megan how fortunate she was and how she needed to repay the Reverend and his wife by being successful. Megan is determined to do just that.

But this didn’t feel like enough to justify selling your soul to the devil–especially if you were brought up Lutheran. I decided to give Megan a younger sister, Kendra, whose reaction to the good people in the congregation was the opposite of Megan’s. Kendra, instead, went the way of their drug-addicted mother. At seventeen, she gave birth to a son with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Just as Megan was preparing to graduate from Columbia with her MFA, (and a carload of student debt), little sister got caught dealing drugs. Rev. Paul and Sister Edna have already spent everything they have and mortgaged their house, dealing with Kendra’s past issues.

Then Lilith shows up, offering to publish Megan’s MFA project and make it a bestseller. The chance for Megan to bail out her sister and pay for a good treatment program, while also achieving her dreams and showing the community the Kincaids were right to take a chance on her, is too much to resist. She signs.

Okay, Ladies and readers–tear that apart. If it doesn’t work for some reason, I’d rather know now!

 

6 thoughts on “Jeanne: Getting to Know You

  1. What feels like a problem to me is that Kendra has all the juice. She’s the one around whom the story revolves. She’s the protagonist, because without her, the story collapses.

    For me, the question is: Why would Megan sell herself to Satan for her sister? What did her sister do for her that would merit this action? I think Megan needs to do it for herself, some reason connected to her own life. (Make Megan the bad girl.)

    You can still write the story this way. I did that once—wrote a story where the issues were all with the secondary character. It’s hard to do (because the juice isn’t with the person you want to be the heroine), and it’s my weakest book. Just sayin’ that I didn’t have the skillz to overcome that structure. You could maybe write the socks off that thing.

    The second point, and it’s more minor: would the Rev and Mrs. go to Al-Anon meetings, to get support from others who have family members with substance abuse issues? Because if they went to Al-Anon meetings, they would be strongly urged not to sacrifice for/give everything to the addicted person. Which they might do, anyway. But the experience of many in Al-Anon (at least, in my experience) is not to sacrifice for others who might not/probably don’t have the ability, strength, courage, support, or health to get sober.

    • These are great points. Thanks, Kay!

      Missing facts: By the time the story opens, six years later,.Kendra is dead of an overdose. The Reverend and his wife have also passed on, leaving Megan to care for her nephew. Megan’s flaw is ambition. Kendra’s situation added time pressure, but Megan wanted to be a bestseller enough to sign her soul away. She was smart, though–she demanded not just one, but seven straight NYT bestsellers in exchange.

      Reverend and Mrs. Kincaid could have gone the Al Anon route, but they went for Christ-like sacrifice instead.So in addition to ambition, Megan had their example motivating her.

      What’s interesting here is that I have a real thing for unlikable protagonists. Ain’t She Sweet is far and away my favorite Susan Elizabeth Philips novel. I’ve written at least two manuscripts featuring such women, only to be told by my beta readers that they hated the protagonists enough that they didn’t want to finish the books. So I’ve decided I don’t have the chops to pull that off.

  2. I was going to say that’s really powerful motivation: rescuing your rescuers. Then I read what Kay had to say, and combining the Meagan/Kendra characters (maybe without the baby?) really ups the stakes. It becomes an exploration of the paths to redemption.

    (Then again, maybe Kendra will follow her own path to redemption, and confront Meagan, and that path will contrast with the one Meagan follows.)

    I’ve been reading Captain Awkward archives this past year, and there is a lot of material, particularly in the archives, about family dynamics of the “screw-up” and the “fixer/good girl”. I can’t find the one I want, but this one does deal with some of those issues: https://captainawkward.com/2013/03/22/london-meetup-462-when-is-it-time-to-cut-off-communication-with-abusive-family/ And the comment section is generally thoughtful and nice, so don’t be afraid to dive below the cut.

    Giving characters interesting and challenging flaws is one of the things I struggle with. Something I’ll have to think about over spring break, I think.

  3. So further to your checklist and Kay’s point: Megan was the good one and Kendra went totally off the rails, yet Megan was constantly told she wasn’t good enough, and Kendra was so loved that the family sacrificed everything for her. I can see that might make a competitive person a little twisted. I think selling her soul to the devil would be the ultimate test of whether Megan’s adoptive parents truly loved her or not. She might tell herself that she’s doing it for Kendra, or Kendra’s child, but I think deep down, it might be numbers (1) and (3) on your list?

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