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Get into Character with Robert Dugoni

As his newest novels, My Sister’s Grave and Her Final Breath, explode in popularity, suspense novelist Robert Dugoni delves into the craft and shares his own techniques for crafting characters.


Our interview with bestselling mystery, thriller and suspense author Robert Dugoni delved deep into the craft of novel writing and literary inspiration. Read the rest of what wouldn’t fit in the November/December 2015 issue of Writer’s Digest (download a copy of the issue now) in this online exclusive:

It seems as if genre is where you really make money as a writer, whereas literary stuff takes more time.

Yes and no. If you hit a big literary novel, you make a lot of money. Garth Stein’s book, The Art of Racing in the Rain, is a good example. He wrote a couple literary novels. He writes that novel and it goes huge. Because there are a lot of people out there who will buy those kinds of books. It’s harder to sustain that if you’re writing genre fiction, but if you can hit a big literary novel, you can sell a lot of books. It comes down to the writing. I think there are a lot of genre books out there that aren’t very well written that sell well, but the ones that are memorable and lasting are the ones that are written well. You could look at To Kill a Mockingbird and call it the first legal thriller. It’s literary, but it really is a legal thriller. There are many, many thriller themes in there. You know, the scene where Atticus goes out and sits in front of the jail cell so they don’t come and hang Tom? That’s a thriller scene, but it’s incredibly well written.

With so much instant access to information today via the Internet, how, do you convince someone to spend 10, 15, 20 hours with a book instead of on their phone or computer?

Give them a character they love. It all starts there. If they don’t care about the character, they’re not going to spend the time to get to know them. When I teach, I liken it to a cocktail party. If you go to a cocktail party and there are a group of people there and you walk up to somebody you don’t know and you start talking to them, how much time do you give them before you make the decision I don’t want to talk to this person the rest of the night or Wow, this is a really interesting personI’m glad I started talking to her? Not much. We give them, what, a minute? Five minutes? I think that’s what you can anticipate with your book. You want people to pick up your book and start reading it and say, “I’d really like to spend time with this character.” Once you get them to be empathetic to the character, then they’ll want to see that character succeed at whatever task the author has put in their path. And I think that’s really the key. I mean, it sounds simple, but it all starts with somebody they like. It’s no different than real life.

Writing cannot be taught. Structure can be taught. What mistakes not to make can be taught. But a writer’s voice is unique to that writer and it’s developed and defined by all of the life experiences that that writer has had, all of the people that have come into their life and all of the things they’ve heard and seen. Think about the billions and billions of bits of information that we take in each day. You could go to a park and stand with 10 people and look at the same scene, and probably all 10 people would be focusing on something different. They’re taking in a different thing, but those are the people who are creating the characters, so when [you] create a character, that character is going to be defined by who [you] are and what [your] life experiences have been. I don’t think it’s any surprise that a lot of well-known writers didn’t publish their first books until they were in their forties. It doesn’t mean they weren’t good writers when they were younger. They were. But they might not have had enough life experiences to create a character that was really evolved.

For instance, I wrote My Sister’s Grave with a female protagonist. I get a ton of emails from middle-aged women that say, “Wow. How did you do this? How did you capture a woman’s voice?” Well, I’m married to a pretty strong woman, my mother was a strong woman, I have four sisters that are all professionals, and I worked for years as a lawyer in a profession that has a lot of very competent female lawyers, so I was able over the years to take in all of this stuff. At the same time, I was able to take in my sisters when they were little and how they reacted to one another and treated one another. The things that [I] thought were totally weird but weren’t weird to them. Things like, “I just got this new shirt. You can wear it, but you can’t wear it until I’ve worn it.” And, you know. What? That doesn’t make any sense, but that was one of the rules in my house was if you wore somebody’s thing before they wore it, that was like World War II, but if she already wore it once it was like, “Fine, go ahead and wear it.” Made no sense to me, but that’s how my sisters were. One of my sisters kept a diary. I can tell you right now, none of my brothers kept a diary. So you take all that stuff in and then when you’re sitting down to write that book, and you’re sitting down to write that character, that character is going to come of you. The character is not you. Tracy Crosswhite is not me, but she’s of me. Of course she is. Who else is she going to be of? So she is uniquely me in a lot of respects. That’s something that I think writers need to pay more attention to—who they are, where they came from, what are the life experiences that have influenced them—and allow those life experiences to create their characters rather than trying to create a character [that the writer is] not. For me, that’s a mistake because the character won’t ring true. People won’t empathize with the character. If they don’t empathize with the character, they won’t care what happens to the character. If they don’t care what happens to the character, you have no tension. If you have nobody turning the pages, you don’t have people finishing your book. If they don’t finish your book, they’re not telling 10 people, “Oh you’ve got to go read this book.” So I think it starts with the character. Give them a character they want to see succeed or they want things to turn out well for.

Or it even starts with the author accepting their individuality and writing from that experience.

People say all the time “Write from the heart.” That’s true with respect to characters. Not so much with respect to structure. That’s like telling someone that’s never played the violin, “You know, go play me a song.” Well, if you haven’t taken violin lessons, you can’t play the violin. You go take violin lessons, you might be able to play the violin, but you might not be able to play it very well. You take classes and stuff on how to write a novel, you can learn how to write a novel. Then at that point you have to let your voice, whatever that voice is, be uniquely you. Because really that’s what is going to get you published.

What was your learning process after you realized writing was your passion? How did you hone tools for the craft?

Failure. There’s no better teacher than failure. If you pay attention. Nobody likes to get kicked in the teeth, and I did not like to fail. I hate to lose. I hate it. I hate for my sports teams to lose. I’m ultra-competitive. And so, to be getting those rejection letters was eye-opening for me. Because I could write. I’m never going to win a Pulitzer, but I could write. I wrote for the LA Times; all my life I wrote. But I didn’t know how to write a novel. Failure was my wake up call. Failure said, “You’re not good enough. You need to get better.” And so I really gave myself an MFA program.

I didn’t have the financial ability or the time to go back and get an MFA in creative writing, so I went down to the LA Bay bookstore, went to their “How-To” section and started pulling writing books off the shelf. I started picking up the books that spoke to me. The practical structure books. The practical “here’s how you create characters that are empathetic” books. And I started taking notes. Literally reading and studying. And then every time I read a new book, I read it and I studied it. Why did it work? Why wasn’t it working? What was the writer doing? What were they doing wrong? I was learning in these books on the craft: Lawrence Block, Christopher Vogler, Saul Stein. The Writer’s Digest series of books. I literally took notes on the computer, and I created a binder this thick [holds forefinger and thumb about six inches apart] that I now teach out of. It started with recognizing my limitations. Recognizing my weakness. Recognizing that I wasn’t good enough to get published. Unless I changed, I wasn’t going to. You have a guy that goes out swimming. He’s not a good swimmer, [so] he starts to drown and he starts to panic. So what happens? Lifeguard swims out to rescue him. And what happens then? He starts fighting off the lifeguard because he’s so panicked. So he’s fighting off the lifeguard and he’s only hurting himself. Panic and resistance will get you killed, but not understanding that you need help is the first thing that will get you killed. Swimming out into deep water when you don’t have the ability to swim out into deep water is a recipe for panicking. And that’s sort of what it’s like when you start writing. If you don’t recognize that you need help, you’re going to drown. And if you don’t recognize help when it comes to help you, if you’re resistant to it, you know, “No I don’t need help. I know how to write,” then you’re going to drown. I needed to realize that I needed help, and I needed to be open to the fact that I needed help. And that was the turning point for me and learning how to get better.

Do you think established writers have an obligation to help aspiring writers?

Absolutely. I received so much help from established writers who would give me blurbs on my book, or I’d go to their seminars and they’d impart wisdom from their experience. Absolutely. In the end, this is an art, and art gets passed down from one generation to the next. Where would we be if we didn’t have great books out there that have been passed down, like The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Count of Monte Cristo. I mean all those books I read as a young person that inspired me to become a storyteller, they exist because people were out there passing them down and passing on their experiences.

The best advice I ever received, I received from a photographer, an artist, Michael Collopy. Mike said, “Immerse yourself in a community of possible people.” Because it’s that community that’s going to lift you up. And it’s that community that’s going to teach you. And it’s that community that’s going to be your support group in down moments. And it’s that community that’s going to celebrate you in the up moments. So find that community of artists. And then when you do reach a point where you’re successful, remember. Remember how other people helped you, and lift up the people below you. There’s no such thing as a ladder being pulled up. There’s enough room out there for everybody. It’s not a competition. It’s not like we’re competing with golf balls. Each book is unique, and each book is going to find its own audience. Even books in the same genre. Even legal thrillers. I don’t write the same type of book that John Grisham writes, and I don’t write the same kind of book that John Lescroart writes, and I don’t write the same kind of book that David Baldacci writes. We each have a different voice and we’re each going to find our own audience. It’s not like people are competing against each other. It’s not like people go into a bookstore and say, “Should I buy a Baldacci? Or a Grisham or a Dugoni?” No. They go in with a preset. They’re a Grisham fan, [so] they’re going to buy a Grisham book. They may stumble upon me, but it’s not like there’s this fighting competition. So I do think we have an obligation to lift up the talented young people that are coming up because that talented person coming up might be the next Charles Dickens. They might be the next Stephen King. They might be the next Ray Bradbury. And what a tragedy if the world didn’t get to read their work.

Is that why you teach at the university level?

I teach for two reasons. One is, I love the interaction with students. It helps me tremendously. It makes me think about my own writing and makes me think of mistakes I continue to make in my own writing and that I need to go back and think about these things and fix them. And then, it’s exciting when you read somebody’s work and you go, “Wow. This is really good. This person should be published. This is a great book.” or “This person can really write.” It’s a terrific moment when you read a metaphor you’ve never read before. You’ve never heard anyone describe something the way this person described it. And you go, “Wow. Never thought of that.” To me, that’s the real wonder in it all is just the joy and that interaction with people who want to learn and want to do it and who are talented.

Do you have any specific teaching success stories?

All the time I’ll have somebody call me up and say, “Hey, you remember that book that I was working on when I took your class in Chicago five years ago? I just found a publisher. It’s going to be published in September.” I just got one from a doctor down in Florida. Great guy. He said, “Hey remember that book that I said I was never going to finish? I finished it, and it’s being published by a small press here in Florida.” And you know, I’m thrilled. He’s 80 years old. That’s all he’s going to do, but he was just excited. He’s sending me a copy of it. So, all the time. And some very successful. And you can see it when you read their work. You say, “Wow. This person can really write, they just need a break.”

Some say there’s no such thing as a “new” story idea—that every novel is just an old story in new package. Do you subscribe to that?

You know, you could make an argument that Jaws is the exact same story as Moby Dick. They’re the same. Down to the protagonist, the antagonist, the animal. It’s just a different animal. But what makes them unique is the characters in the book. And I don’t know that you’re ever going to pick up a book and find an idea that has not been written about. But I guarantee you you’ll pick up a book and find a character you’ve never read before. I get frustrated with people who are unwilling to be open to new characters, who will pick up a book and say, “Oh, I’ve read this same story before. It’s a tired story.” Not if the character is unique. It never is. I could list other examples where it’s the same story, but it’s the characters that make them different. A Time to Kill. A Time to Kill is very much like To Kill a Mockingbird: an attorney defending a black man in a racially charged environment. It’s the same story, but it’s told with different characters, with a different perspective, at a different time and setting. I’ve heard people say that you could argue that the first Star Wars movie is really a remake of The Wizard of Oz. Right? Luke Skywalker. Living with his aunt and uncle in this isolated area. On a farm. Who is dreaming about some place up over the rainbow where he wants to be a starfighter. There’s an inciting incident that forces him to go off. The rest of it is a journey to basically get home. It’s the same story. I’ve heard that Cold Mountain is very much a take off of Wizard of Oz. But they’re all unique. They’re unique in their setting, in their characters, so I guess more than anything I feel sorry for people who feel that [there aren’t any stories left to tell], because they’re just closing themselves off to some really incredible experiences that we have through books.

TV is not interactive. You sit and a TV throws stuff at you and you just take it in. Books are interactive. It’s a very unique experience in life because you get to see the character in your head, you get to believe what they look like, you get to be part of the experience. You don’t really get that in any other medium, and that’s what makes it unique. So I feel sorry for people that have that kind of attitude. And I’ll get emails like that occasionally… “This is the same story.” Well you know, you don’t get to experience it. And you may miss out.

The Wizard of Oz is one of your favorite movies. Is it because it’s so vastly influential?

Vastly influential and… it’s magical to me. When I was a kid, we didn’t have a color TV. My parents didn’t have a lot of money to spend on extra stuff. But I remember that. So Wizard of Oz was on once a year. That’s it. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was on once a year. There was no cable, there was no HBO, there were no videos. You got to see it once a year, and if you didn’t see that it was going to be on, you missed it. So we were religious. When Wizard of Oz was on, we knew it. But we didn’t have a color TV. My mom would have us get up in our pajamas, and we’d sit in front of the TV, and we’d get to that place where the house would be taken up in a storm, and then it went to commercial. And we would run out the door and across the street to the Pilgrim’s house. We’d run down the stairs and we’d all sit in their family room, and Mrs. Pilgrim would have popcorn for us, and we’d wait. The commercial would end and Dorothy would open the door and it was like: Color. It was magical for me. It’s a magical movie, and I’ve tried to pass it on to my kids, and it doesn’t have the same resonance with them because it’s always on now. Or you can always buy it. You can always watch it. Doesn’t have the same magic to them, but I think Harry Potter will be magical for them when their kids are born. I think they’ll have their kids look at Harry Potter for the same reason. When I went and watched Harry Potter and they walk into Hogwarts and all those candles were floating up there, to me that was magic. It was like, wow, this is cool. And that’s what Wizard of Oz was for me. It was that magical moment. It also happens to be a brilliant story structure.

How do you get a magical moment in your books?

Again, you have to have a character that people empathize with. And then you have to have one of those moments of universal emotion. Like loss, you know? The loss of a loved one is a universal feeling. Anyone can identify with that. Everybody. Success, happiness, joy. Those moments in our life that everybody can identify with. The day your child is born. I still get teary-eyed when I think of those moments. It’s a magical moment. If you can capture that moment in one of your character’s lives, it resonates with readers because they’ve shared that experience. Then you have a magical moment. I’ll give you a concrete example: Field of Dreams. Kevin Costner wants to play catch with his dad. One last catch with his dad. Because when he was a young man, he didn’t appreciate his father, and he didn’t appreciate what it meant, the bond between a father and a son. And his dad is dead. We all know I lost my dad in 2008. I know I’m never going to have a catch with my dad. Never going to happen again. So to watch him in that movie get the opportunity to have a catch with his dad is magical because I want it so badly. Even now, years later, I cry when I watch that movie. Because it means so much to me, but I know I’m never going to have it. I was watching the movie with my 18-year-old son, and I’m crying on the couch. And I look over at my son, and my son is crying. Because we did have a catch. We had a catch all the time. He was a baseball player. What it said to me is he appreciates it because he knows I’m not going to be here forever. That’s a magical moment.

Any scene between a father and a son gets me every time. Even if it’s in a cheesy action movie and there’s really no plot. Gets me every time.

I wrote a scene in a book that hasn’t been published yet where a son has to say goodbye to his mother. She has cancer and he’s a doctor and he knows this is it. She’s got an hour left, maybe 30 minutes, and he knows she’s going to die. And it’s just killing him inside. And she’s trying to tell him it’s going to be okay. “I’m going to be okay, and you’re going to be okay.” But you don’t believe that because she’s your mom, and even when you’re 40 years old, you still want your mom. A lot of us. Those of us that have been fortunate enough to have wonderful mothers and wonderful lives. Not everyone has, but you know, there are so many (good mothers) out there that that resonates with people. I wrote that scene, and when I read it now, I still get teary-eyed. Because I know that that moment is coming when I won’t have a mom. And that moment is coming where I’m going to have to say goodbye. I had to say goodbye to my dad, and I knew I was saying goodbye to him. Imagine what that’s like. If you can capture that in a book, that’s a magic moment.

As writers we can be very evil. Because we are tugging on our reader’s emotions. We’re tugging on their heartstrings. That’s what we’re paid to do. We’re paid to emotionally involve them in our books. We’re paid to make them love, hate, dislike—whatever it is. I got an email from my agent this morning. She started reading my new novel, and she said, “I forgot how well you write attorneys.” Berkshire, the attorney in my new book, is such an ass, and I knew I’d done my job. She hated him. And that was the intent.

And people love to hate characters.

People love to see bad things happen to bad people. Or they love to see justice for bad people. Now, there’s a big twist in that book, which is going to be interesting to see how people react to it. A lot of times we only see the surface of an individual. We don’t see what’s behind their actions, and when their actions suddenly can be justified, you go, “Oh. If I had known that, I wouldn’t have been so hard on that person.” So it’ll be interesting. But we’re paid to do that. We’re paid to torture our characters because it tortures the reader. And that’s what creates tension. And that’s what keeps them turning the page. They want to see things turn out okay.

Is there a question you’ve always wanted to be asked by an interviewer? Something that you never get to talk about?

I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked this, but I know I’ve said it. When I meet young people, I say to them, “Everyone is so driven now to make money. There needs to be more people who are driven to be happy.” You find your happiness in your passion. So I always tell people: Follow your passion because life is short. And you don’t want to look back with any regret. My friend Mike Collopy said these words that I live by. These were words given to him by his father, who was an artist, and Mike passed them on to me. I use it all the time, and I think it’s even up on my website, but it’s my motto. Mike said to me, “Follow your dreams, and the money will come. Follow the money, and you lose your dreams.” You may not be rich, but you’ll have enough to live off of and, in the end, that’s all you need. The other thing I like to tell people is a toast that my brother gave to my father one time. He’s a doctor, and I have no idea where he came up with this because it’s poetic, and my brother is anything but poetic. He said: “If you measure the wealth of a man by the love of the family and friends he gathers around him, then you are the wealthiest man in the world.” That’s what it’s about. It’s not about money. It’s about love. It’s about finding what you love and making yourself happy so you can make other people happy and you can have a live that’s fulfilled. Money isn’t going to fulfill it. It’s a very, very difficult thing for young people in a day and age where everything is so expensive and everything is driven by dollars. I’ve told people that I feel bad for my son and daughter. I don’t know what awaits them out there. I hope they find their passion. I hope they can find what they’re passionate about. I’ve been very blessed, and I recognize it every day. I’ve been very blessed to have the opportunity to pursue my passion, and not everybody does. Not everybody gets to do it. And it’s such a blessing. I give thanks every day to the man upstairs. I give thanks every day to my parents for what they gave to me, what they sacrificed for me. And I just see too many people that take shortcuts because they think that’s what’s going to make them happy. In the end it’s not. I hope young people come to realize that pursuing your passion can bring you a lifetime of happiness. And that’s what it’s about in the end. You want to say, “Wow. What a great life I had.”

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