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Creating Characters Who Are Both Strong and Vulnerable

A Session with James LePore

When I think of interesting characters, I think of chiaroscuro, the technique in painting, made famous by Caravaggio, of darkening the shadows and fixing the subject in a bright, almost otherworldly shaft of light. There is an acute, almost feral, reality, to Caravaggio’s work. You are mesmerized, and at the same time acutely aware, of what is going on in them, both physically and psychologically.

Caravaggio did it with oil on canvas. Writers have to do it with words on paper. This involves a journey. In my second novel, Blood of My Brother, one of the two central characters is a Mexican woman named Isabel Perez. The illegitimate daughter of a darkly handsome wandering Mixtec and an heiress, Isabel is placed in an orphanage at birth. Her bad start gets much worse, when, at thirteen, she is purchased by a corrupt politician and placed into sexual for-profit slavery. Here is the passage that marks the deepest of her shadows, as well as the beginning of her journey into despair and cynicism:


“Rafael will have sex with you,” Tio Herman said. “It will hurt, and you will bleed, but it will not kill you. It happens to all young girls, it is how they become women.”

Isabel knew that she had not sinned, had done nothing to earn the strange nauseating mix of fear and remorse churning in her stomach——nothing to offend God. And yet she must have offended Him, must have sinned, must be a truly bad person in the sight of all the saints and martyrs, and the Blessed Virgin, to whom she had promised her purity on many occasions. Otherwise how could she feel so evil, with such sickness in her heart? How could she be chosen to do a thing like lay in love with someone like Senor de Leon, who was old and smelled of cigars and whose thin lips seemed always to be wet with saliva?

“But you have already seen me,” she said, raising her beautiful eyes to meet Herman’s, hoping to find in them a reprieve from the vast emptiness that had so suddenly replaced all of her childish dreams and longings and complaints. “I would rather marry you.”

“You will not marry Senor de Leon, Isabel.”

“I know. I meant…” She could not find the words for what she meant, embarrassed, and shocked, that she had mentioned marriage.

“After tonight you will have sex with Rafael a few more times, and then no more. Soon, but not too soon, you will have sex with other men, at my command, only at my command. You will live here for a while, but eventually you will have your own place. You will have beautiful clothes and money, all that you may need. You will work for me, and I will pay you and protect you. As long as you do as I say, you will come to no harm, you will have a good life, far better than most orphan children ever dream of. But if you defy me, or try to run away, I will find you and you will be hurt. Your face will be cut and your body. You will be killed.”

Isabel took advantage of the one defense available only to children and the simple minded: she put aside her pain, locked it away and released the key into the cosmos. Herman——he was no longer Uncle Herman——had done her a favor, and on some unconscious level of her being, she knew that he had. He had allowed her to anesthetize herself against the deep wound that Rafael was about to inflict. Afterward, when the anesthesia wore off, she would find a way to deal with her new life. She would survive. She did not know——what child does?——that someday someone would pluck her cast-off key from the seemingly haphazard currents of the universe, insert it into her heart and unlock her many secrets, down to the last one.



Exercise 1 Try this as an exercise: think of a woman, give her a name, and describe her very bad start in life. (I suggest you keep in mind what I consider the two basic rules for writing fiction: 1. show, don’t tell, and 2. keep it simple. Nothing earth shattering here, but you’d be surprised how important they are). The good thing about this exercise is that as you write your character’s beginning, you will start to see the contours of her journey and a dim outline of her end. This, to me, is the great fun of writing.


* * *

As Isabel, who has grown into a beautiful woman, goes through the next phase of her life, basically as a sex slave, she becomes weaker and weaker in spirit and more and more vulnerable, though she masks her vulnerability in a deep cynicism and even pride in her ability to manipulate. She doesn’t know it, in fact, she believes the contrary, but her soul has remained chaste and intact, and, just as important, she is developing a hidden strength that will be needed when the time of crisis arrives. Here she is in the midst of this darkness:


“Do you know Juan Paredes?” Herman asked Isabel.


“You never met him, not even once? He considered himself quite attractive to woman.”

“I would tell you if I did.”

“He’s dead,” Herman said. “His head is in the suitcase.”

Isabel gave Herman one of her nothing looks, and then glanced over at Jose, who was smiling. She had heard that Jose beheaded his victims, but had been reluctant to believe it, even of him. She looked back at Herman, remaining silent, her face a blank.

“Would you like to see it?”


“We’ll show you anyway.” Herman nodded at Jose, who deftly flipped up the suitcase’s clasps and lifted it open. There, laying on a creamy white towel, was indeed a human head, the face pallid and ghostly, the long dark hair greasy, the raw, jagged flesh of the neck, where Jose’s machete had done its work, ringed with dried blood. Jose reached in, took his trophy by the hair, and lifted it, dangling it at eye level before Isabel, who looked from it to the still smiling Jose, not sure which face was the more ghastly.

“Take it away,” Herman said, “and say goodbye to Isabel. You won’t be seeing her for a while.” The facetiousness of this comment was lost on Edgar and Jose, but not on Isabel. They never said hello or goodbye, and everything in between they kept to the absolutely practical. She watched as Jose carefully——tenderly—replaced the head, closed the suitcase, and rose with Edgar. Ignoring her, Herman’s panthers, as he had taken to calling them, nodded to their master and left.

“Macho Juan was stealing from us,” Herman said when the Ferias were gone. “You will take his place.”

Isabel knew who Paredes was: a former high school teacher in Guadalajara who spoke unaccented English, recruited by Herman to run a money laundering operation in the states.

“Where will I live?”

“In West Palm Beach, in a condo owned by Senor Bryce Powers.”

“Who is Senor Bryce Powers?”

“A businessman with bank accounts in many cities. Our cash is placed in those accounts and then wired to private banks. Powers gets a fee for each transaction.”

“How much cash?”

“Many millions. And business is getting better. You will be busy.”

“You trust me so much?” Isabel’s affect had remained flat, but she let a slight smile flicker across her face as she said this. It was a deceitful smile, one that she knew Herman would take as a sign of timidity and even affection. It was one among many in the repertoire she used to seduce men so that Herman could photograph them and bend them to his will.

“You could have stolen and run off any time in these past two years. We know each other a long time, Isabel. I have kept my word, have I not?”



Exercise 2 Here’s another exercise: Go back now to the girl whose early, very bad start in life you have created. Try to get a feel for what kind of young woman she would be, given that start. Would she have turned to drugs? Would she have multiple personalities? Would she be a zombie, going through the motions of living, a time bomb waiting to explode? The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Remember, you already have an instinctive feel for her and her journey. Give it wings.


* * *

There are two more phases of Isabel’s journey, a turning away from the darkness, and a stepping into that blinding shaft of light that so acutely illuminates her character. Her turning away involves a man, Jay Cassio, the other central character in the novel. Here is when it happens:


“Would you like me to stay to help you kill the Feria brothers?”


“Why not?”

“That wasn’t our deal.”

“Can I ask you a question?”


“Why are you not married?”

Isabel watched as Jay’s beautiful gray eyes turned inward, surprised at his reticence. He drummed his fingers on the wooden arms of his patio chair, as if giving the question more weight than she intended, much more.

“I was married once,” he said, finally. “For a short time.”

“What happened.”

“My parents died in a plane crash.”

Isabel said nothing, not realizing, until this moment, that Jay had been a puzzle from the start. And here was a key piece of that puzzle floating in the air toward her, its contours handles she might grab and hold onto.

“When?” She asked, finally.

“Fifteen years ago.”

“And you left your wife?”


“She left you? Are there children?”

Jay did not answer immediately, but neither did he look inward or drum his fingers. When he turned to face her, Isabel saw the pain in his eyes, and regretted asking her initial question.

“I was dating her. When my parents died I married her because I was afraid of being alone. She wanted children. I immediately had a vasectomy.”

“That must have hurt her very much.”

“It did. She left.”

“Did you love her?”


“Now you have lost your friend.”


“Were there other women?”

“Yes, a few.”

“Did you love any of them?”


The whole conversation had taken on a life of its own, the reins, Isabel realized with a start, held by her heart, not her head. There was a precipice ahead, but she knew somehow that it was too late. She would not be able to wrestle the reins back in time. Perhaps she did not want to.

“What about you?” Jay asked. “Have you loved anyone, besides Bryce Powers?”

“I loved a young man once, a politician.”

“What happened?”

“The Ferias killed him. On Herman’s orders.”

Now it was Jay’s turn to stare hard at Isabel. Yes, she said to herself, there it is, a small piece of my puzzle.

“Is that why you want to stay and help me kill them?”

“No. It’s Herman I want to kill.”

“Is there any way we can get him here?”

“No. He will stay in Mexico City and send his panthers.”

“Can I ask you a question?”


“What is it you did for Herman Santaria starting at the age of fourteen?”

Isabel gripped the arms of her chair for a second, then let go and reached into the neck of her shirt where she found the Mary scapular that Sister Josefina had given her when she left the convent in Polanco. She had kept it with Sister’s letters all these years, but had started wearing it when she promised to help Jay and they fled to Puerto Angel. Fingering it, she remembered Sister’s words. It is not magic. It is a sign of your commitment, of your faith. Do not lose either, no matter what the future brings. 

“I will tell you tonight,” she said. “We will drink your scotch, and I will answer your question.”


To me this is the most exciting moment in any story, real or fictional; the pivot from the darkness into the light, from corruption to redemption. Try writing it. Let your heart, and your intimacy with your character, guide you.

As to the ending, if you’ve done the hard work, the it will come naturally, a bright shaft of light that is a gift, not from your Muse, but from your character herself. She will tell you how she wants her story to end.


About the Author…

New York Times bestselling author William Landay said, “Jim LePore is a great discovery.” Blogcritics called his first novel, A World I Never Made, “An outstanding first novel, and a wonderful thriller.” Of his most recent novel, The Fifth Man, Tome Tender said, “This is another great read from James LePore, who seems to have a knack for writing dark, gritty and gripping scenes with characters that can make your skin crawl and will have you looking over your shoulder.” LePore’s brilliance is his ability to create complex, relatable characters and place them in tense situations where their very humanity comes into question. The result is stirring fiction that hits you in the gut and the heart at the same time.

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