Down the Rabbit Hole with Dangerous Characters


Like many writers, I’m convinced that my characters have minds of their own, and they sometimes take me into that twilight zone where nothing goes according to my well-laid plan. It happens like this. First, I become aware that the plot is veering into unmapped territory. It’s never as simple as me changing my mind about where I should take the story line, though that does happen often enough. But this is different. I am no longer the one calling the shots. The character I’m writing about at the moment has hijacked my story. At this point, all I can do is take a deep breath and hold on tight for the wild ride.


Then, when my character has my full attention, what he does reveals something about himself that I would have never expected and would be far too timid to write anyway, except I’m no longer left with a choice. Not to write it his way would be dishonest and, frankly, when I actually have such an encounter with a willful character, I’m a little bit frightened of what he might do if I don’t write it his way.


I don’t always enjoy it when a character takes me off the map and into the dark. Here be monsters. Besides, I don’t want to see his flaws up close and personal. I suspect that’s because it’s too much a reminder of my own darkness and flaws. But once I’m no longer in control, there’s a shift that happens, and I realize that I’ve been taken deeper down the rabbit hole of my own inner workings than I would ever be brave enough to go on my own. Denial may not be just a river in Egypt, but it’s most definitely a state I’m totally at home in.


My characters, however, don’t like denial, and the ones that like it least are the villains. One of the scariest and most unredeemable villains I ever wrote was Terrance Jamison, the baddie in two of the four Executive Decisionsnovels I wrote under the name Grace Marshall. If ever there was a character I wanted to hate, it was him. If ever there was a character I felt uncomfortable with, it was him. And yet, Terrance Jamison also compelled me to feel the same lust and rage toward him as the heroine of the story, Stacie Emerson did in The Exhibition.


When she allowed herself to think about that horrible time, it was always with thoughts of what might have been if she could have gotten Zoe away from him, if they could have gone somewhere he couldn’t find them. Strangely, it was his scent that permeated all of her memories of him. Every time she had ever been with him it had surrounded her, practically drowned her; when he held her, when he stroked her hair, when he caressed her. He always smelled like the desert, with everything that was dangerous about it. Everything that was poisonous or desolate or sharp-angled and deadly seemed to seep through his pores in a way that was both dark and compelling. How was it that something as simple as the way someone smelled could elicit such desire, such hope, such terror, such rage? How was it that the scent of the man was the first thing she remembered about him and the last thing that haunted her in her dreams?


It was a summer evening, one of those glorious times when daylight lasts forever and you can’t bring yourself to go inside the house. I was ensconced on the patio sipping Malbec and tapping away on my laptop well into the first draft of The Exhibition.I remember distinctly how everything shifted when Terrance Jamison took control. The encounter he forced me to write was not the one I had planned. There was never any question that he had taken over, and none too gently. Jamison didn’t do gently. He didn’t tell me what to write. Instead he dragged me right into the disturbing, uncomfortable thick of it all. Being with Jamison was not an out of body experience; instead it was a little too much in the body for my comfort. And yet I might have been a million miles from my homey little patio in Surrey. When the scene was finished, he left me feeling euphoric, aroused, disturbed and in need of another glass of wine.


Here is an excerpt from my time under Terrance Jamison’s influence.


When she remembered that night, the night she truly realized just how in over her head she really was, she recalled it with the sounds of sex. Perhaps that was because when she revisited that night in her dreams, she always heard their lovemaking from a long way off – if you could call it lovemaking. It was only much later, too late, that she learned just how cruelly Jamison had used Zoe. In her dreams, she could hear them the moment she entered Zoe’s building. She could hear them in the elevator all the 29 floors to the flat as she road with her heart in her throat, fearing for her friend, wondering why she hadn’t shown up for their dinner meeting, or at least called. Zoe hadn’t been herself since – well, since Jamison came into the picture as more than the distant presence Zoe spoke about from time to time. In her dreams, she heard their moans and gasps as she exited the elevator and walked the interminable distance to Zoe’s front door. In her dreams, the door was always wide open with a view into Zoe’s bedroom, with her naked on the bed, with Jamison on top of her.


In reality, she had heard nothing, been aware of nothing, until it was too late. In reality, she feared the worst. So when Zoe had left no messages and not returned her phone calls, when there was no answer at the door, she let herself in with the spare key Zoe had given her. In reality, it was the fact Zoe’s bedroom door was closed that had led her to knock softly, call Zoe’s name, and push the door open, fearing … She wouldn’t have dared name exactly what it was she feared. And looking back, even in dreams, she could never visit that unnamed fear without its true horror being thrust upon her in reality far worse than any of her nightmares. It was the beginning of the end – or at least in her memories that’s how it felt. But in reality, the end had begun the moment Zoe had introduced her to Terrance Jamison, with her still flushed from the excitement, from the glitz and the triumph of her second exhibition.


Even after she pushed the bedroom door open it took her a few seconds to make the connection, to figure it all out. At first she saw only a man’s back, a man lying face down on Zoe’s bed. For a split second, she thought someone was assaulting Zoe. It was then she heard the sounds of sex, as though someone had just turned up the volume, as though a tidal wave of noise and smells and connections had washed over her, threatening to drown her. And then she heard Zoe’s yelp of surprise, saw a naked arm shove from under the fully-clothed man, and Zoe called her name.


‘Stacie, Jesus, Stacie, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I meant to call. Really I did.’


It was all so disjointed in her mind, even though at the time every second of it felt like a pinprick to cold skin, so vivid, so powerfully focused.


It was then she realized the man was Jamison. He rose from the bed, still wearing that same smile he always wore, as though he owned the world and he were greeting a favorite vassal. She had interrupted their lovemaking and he welcomed her as if he were inviting her to tea at the Ritz. ‘I wasn’t expecting you, Stacie,’ he said. But she knew that he had been. She could see it in his eyes, feel it in the way he looked at her. She was exactly who he was expecting, and it was as though he had forgotten Zoe was even there.


‘I’m … I’m sorry. I was worried. I was worried,’ she managed before turning and fleeing. In the back of her mind she could hear Zoe’s voice, high-pitched and thin with words staccato and clipped, the way she always sounded when she was drunk. But her words sounded like gibberish against the hard hammering of Stacie’s pulse in her ears as she fled, feeling mortified and humiliated and other hot prickly things she didn’t want to think about. Then Jamison yelled something that had silenced Zoe. Stacie heard the bedroom door slam with a loud crack, and then he was calling after her.


‘Stacie! Stacie, wait!’ He caught her by the arm in the hallway by the door, his grip talon-tight. His white shirt was untucked and unbuttoned to show the mat of hair across his chest that glistened with the heat of arousal. He’d made no attempt to do up his fly, and his erection fought against black boxers. He smelled faintly of whiskey. Mostly he smelled of sex and something else, something that prickled along her skin and made her shiver. He had never been anything but pristine, never been anything but under control, and the sight of him like this frightened her, confused her.


‘I’m sorry.’ She forced the words through the desert of her mouth. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know.’


And then he pulled her to him with such force that she cried out, and he kissed her. It wasn’t a kiss she had ever dreamed of or hoped for. It was a scorched earth kiss that took no prisoners and left no hope for survivors. As fear rose to the surface over lust and confusion, he crushed her hand to his bare belly, his muscles tightening as though she had punched him. He slid her palm down into the tent of his boxers, down over the prickle of pubic hair, and forced her fingers closed around the obscene heft of his erection, the erection he’d elicited by what he had done to Zoe. Before she could utter a sound, he took her mouth again and shoved her hard against the wall, his hand bruising an irresistible path up under her skirt, over the tops of her stockings and into her panties.


From her bedroom, Zoe was repeating the same gibberish over and over again like a mantra, like a hypnotic spell. And whenever she remembered that night, Stacie felt as though she might well have been hypnotized or drugged or maybe temporarily insane. Or maybe, she’d hoped against hope, maybe she had only dreamed it.


All of it, the noise, the smell, the fevered touch of his body, of his mouth pushing at her until, at some point in an eternity that couldn’t possibly have taken more than minutes, Stacie kissed him back. At some point, she curled her fingers in her hair and cried out in frustration, in confusion, in fear, pushing back, clawing and gripping at him where he still held her hand to his cock. And then he shuddered against her and she felt the warm stickiness of his semen erupt over the tight grip of her fingers, and still he held her. Zoe’s high-pitched mantra became mere background noise as he stroked feverishly between Stacie’s legs and dug thick fingers between her raw folds, grunting to gain his breath, cursing and shoving at her.


‘I keep waiting for you and you keep running from me, making excuses,’ he gasped against her ear. ‘So I’ll take what I can get. For now. But I won’t wait much longer. I always get what I want. Always. You should know by now, those are the rules.’ With a nearly painful rub of his thumb, she came in a trapped animal cry that drowned out the high-pitched rhythm of Zoe’s mantra as it clawed its way through her lungs and out of her throat. Then he stepped back, his chest rising and falling spastically, his eyes locked on hers, and that was the first time she ever remembered his eyes joining in the emotions of his face. It was hunger that stared back at her, like he would devour her whole, like she was prey and he had already taken her before she even knew what had happened. He jerked her hand from his boxers and wiped it on the hem of her skirt. With a little kitten cry, she shoved him away and ran out the door.


While all of the characters I write, no doubt, represent some part of my psyche, the dark characters, the monster, human and otherwise, are the ones most able to drag me, often kicking and screaming, to places I fear to go. Perhaps that’s why demons and dark passages underground play major roles in my novels. And while those monsters may leave me trembling and disturbed, they never leave me there without new insights into who they are and into who I am.