Hi all. I’m in Italy so I’m repurposing a blog I previously wrote for International Thriller Writers about the importance of scars. Let me know how scars play a role in your characters’ lives!
When Shannon, our middle child and oldest daughter, was little, she fell down some steps and got a nasty cut under her eye. After it healed, she was embarrassed about the faint, white scar. To make her feel better, I told her about the many scars I have: the one where I split my chin open as a toddler while clambering up a wall at my grandfather’s funeral; the one where I stapled my thumb as a third-grader because a friend said the staple wouldn’t go through my skin; or, perhaps best, the one where I split the back of my head open engaging in rock wars during first grade.
The point is not that I was, shall we say, a high energy child – my wife says if she’d been my mother, she would’ve killed me – the point is that while scars do remind us of pain we have suffered, scars also give us character. Scars have stories. Most importantly, scars show healing and the opportunity for growth. In AN UNBEATEN MAN, I quote Ernest Hemingway from A FAREWELL TO ARMS: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” Our scars may be where we are strongest.
I’ve blogged elsewhere about underdog characters in thrillers like Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon, Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, Olen Steinhauer’s Milo Weaver, Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone, Gayle Lynds’ Judd Ryder and Eva Blake, and many others. We want our heroes to struggle, to have made mistakes. We want to see them strain against their limitations and then burst through, if not in glory then in grim satisfaction. We want them to have scars because it’s how we relate to them. We’ve all failed or been hurt. Hopefully, like the best thriller heroes, we’ve learned and grown (even if we haven’t saved the world).
Michael McKeon, the main character in AN UNBEATEN MAN, may have more scars than most. He had a horrific childhood and has never recovered from the fact that, he believes, people die when he’s not watching. His parents and sister died violent, drug-related deaths, leaving Michael alone as a young teenager. Alone and angry, Michael was a “street dog who liked to play in traffic” until he found himself at the Mission Possible Teen Center, where he met Hal, a Bowdon College professor, who would become his mentor and friend.
When we meet Michael, these scars have just been ripped open again. He is now a microbiologist at Bowdoin College and has discovered a microbe that can clean up any oil spill, no matter the size. That should be the breakthrough that defines a career, but Michael’s life is ruined when The Global Group kidnaps his wife and adopted daughter to force him to deploy the microbe against Saudi Arabia and Russia, to destroy their oil reserves, cripple their countries, and throw the world into chaos.
He already lost one family and he will do anything to save his wife and daughter. As one of the characters says about Michael: he’s in Hell and he’ll do anything to get out. Because of the abuse he suffered as a child, Michael draws lines in his life. He either loves or hates, which complicates his relations with others. As we see in AN UNBEATEN MAN, and as further develops in the second installment, THE PRODIGAL, his scars give the potential for growth and rebirth, but it will be painful.
The Mission Possible Teen Center is a real place in my hometown, Westbrook, Maine (now called the My Place Teen Center). I served on its board a few years back and recently had the honor of talking with its director and students about AN UNBEATEN MAN and the role that the teen center played in helping Michael McKeon live with and overcome his scars. It was very moving for all of us. Several of the kids volunteered that they were trying to write stories and asked how to make up characters. I suggested that they watch and listen to people around them and try to make the characters as real as possible, scars and all.