At Bookstr, you already know we love a good novel, and part of what makes a good novel great is its characters. One author who has honed in on the craft of character creation is Burt Weissbourd, whose character-driven thrillers have been stunning readers for years.
The man behind Corey Logan, Callie James, and the orbiting characters in their literary universes, Weissbourd has carefully crafted the women in his novels, to make them more than just characters on a page but complex people that make the stories what they are. Below, Burt has outlined some key aspects of his main characters, how they came to be, and what really makes them work.
COREY AND CALLIE – STRONG, SELF-AWARE WOMEN AND THE partners THEY CHOOSE
I write character-driven thrillers. I particularly enjoy thinking and writing about complex, unexpected characters and how they change as they become more self-aware. I’d like to compare two, very different, strong, initially unfulfilled women that I have written – Callie James, the heroine in my last book, Danger in Plain Sight and Corey Logan, the heroine in all three books of the Corey Logan Trilogy. Both of these very capable women are functioning far below their capacities. These women have to make hard decisions that lead them/enable them to become more insightful, take charge of their lives, then move in purposeful directions that were unthinkable for them when the books begin.
It’s important to say that my interest in this kind of growth and change draws from my own experience. I spent quite a long time living and traveling on my own as a young man in France and later in Thailand and southeast Asia. During these years, I thought a lot about who I wanted to become, how I’d like to feel differently about myself, to live my life in a different way. Several years after graduating from college, at Yale, I went into therapy. I spent four years working at how to make those changes. It’s very slow and often frustrating, difficult work, but it is doable and once started, it continues for a lifetime.
This is the beginning of my continuing interest in writing about people’s interior lives, especially their capacities to grow and change.
In 1977, I knew that I wanted to go to Hollywood to produce movies. I didn’t know anyone in the movie business but I was confident and I had an idea. My entre, and eventually, my expertise was to develop screenplays.
I was young, optimistic, and emboldened by the films being made. I approached writers that I admired and made, at that time, unconventional deals. Specifically, I was willing to back the writer—giving him or her the first opportunity to do the rewrites, including them in decision making such as choosing a director, casting the picture, all of the decisions that go into making a feature film.
Early in my producing career, I had the privilege of working with author Ross Macdonald, a legend in crime fiction, on his only screenplay. Working with him, I began to understand how characters could drive plot.
This was the New Hollywood (1967 – 1980), and I worked with writers whose work grabbed viewers viscerally, not with explosions but with multi-dimensional characters that would draw you into a deeply moving story. I spent countless hours working out the stories and shaping the people in them. With most of these screenwriters, each and every scene was reviewed and re-examined until we were finally satisfied.
My work developing screenplays included the following screenwriters, (with some of their most famous works noted in parentheses): Frederick Raphael (“Two for the Road”), Alvin Sargent (“Ordinary People”, “Julia”), Andy Lewis (“Klute”), Joe Esterhas (”Basic Instinct”), Ron Bass (“Rain Man”), Stewart Stern (“Rebel Without a Cause”). William Wittliff (“Lonesome Dove,” Raggedy Man”), Larry D. Cohen (“Carrie,” “Ghost Story”), etc.
Working closely with these great screenwriters was a rare opportunity to learn how to create complicated characters and to see how these complex people enriched storytelling.
As a producer developing a screenplay, you look for stories with strong, complex characters and a “rich stew”—that is to say a situation with conflict, emotional intensity, and the potential to evolve in unexpected ways. That is exactly how I approach the books that I write.
The awareness I gained from all of these experiences—separately and together—led me to write character-driven thrillers.
So I chose to write about women who had the capacity to grow and change, but were somehow stuck. In Danger in Plain Sight and the Corey Logan Trilogy, what I did is put these women in situations where circumstances forced them to make difficult choices; to go in a new direction, or to be with a person that they normally wouldn’t choose to be with. Eventually these choices allow these women, often forcing them, to reassess their lives.
Callie is a gifted restaurateur. She owns and runs a beautiful French restaurant on the water in Seattle. Callie is absolutely in control of her restaurant. Everything—food, ambience, service, kitchen and bar etiquette, simply everything—is exactly as she wants it to be, without exception. She has rules and in her restaurant, she expects them to be observed. In her world, she’s tough, demanding and fair. Callie, however, prefers to stay in her world, stay in charge. She hides out in her restaurant, avoiding relationships and a larger life in the world. She has a 13-year-old son, Lew, whom she adores, who’s never met his father.
It took fourteen years to construct this safe world for her and her son, so Callie is more than a little thrown when her ex-husband, French investigative reporter Daniel Odile-Grand—the man who broke her heart soon after they were married—shows up after all this time asking for her help. Even more disturbing: as she throws him out, Daniel is deliberately hit by a car, thrown through her picture window—broken, bloody and unconscious. Worried, Callie hides him. When she gets back to her restaurant, two trained assassins walk in, insisting that she find Daniel that very night or pay the consequences.
Overwhelmed and hopelessly out of her depth, Callie reluctantly hires Cash, her former bartender, a man she had arrested for smuggling ivory through her restaurant two years earlier, and who still hasn’t forgiven her.
The assassins blow up her restaurant. It’s Callie’s nightmare. And now, this improbable, incompatible team has to save her ex, her business and ultimately her own life. The heart of the story, however, is how Callie is forced to change–learn how to know what she feels and how she wants to function outside her restaurant—in short, become far more self-aware. Before the story is over, she has fallen in love with Cash, and she risks everything to save his life. But more of that later.
After serving 22 months for drug smuggling, a crime she didn’t commit, Corey Logan is finally released from a Federal Correctional Institution. All she wants now is to get her teenage son out of foster care and make a home for the two of them in Seattle. But there’ll be a Psychiatric Evaluation first, with some shrink named Dr. Abe Stein, and assuming she gets by him, there’s the threat of Nick Season, the candidate for State Attorney General who set her up, tried to have her killed in prison, and now, more than ever, wants her out of the picture. Her problem—she can neither prove nor say what she knows, for fear of losing her son forever.
Corey didn’t grow up with much family around. Her mother died when she was 17, her father when she was prenatal. She was alone, until Billy came along and upended everything that she thought she knew about the world. He was the best thing that ever happened to her, before or since. And then she let him down—she lost custody in the wake of her arrest. Al, Billy’s father, had disappeared, Corey was in prison and Billy was on his own. With no family to look after him, Billy fell victim to a foster care system that was over-crowded and under-served, sometimes spending his nights in juvie when there wasn’t a group home to take him in. Corey believes that this is her fault, and she feels it deeply. She doesn’t want her son to grow up on his own, like she did.
She’s already completed the court-ordered parenting classes and passed their drug-test. All that was left to do was the psychiatric evaluation, a legal requirement for regaining custody. The next morning, Corey stands outside a Chinese takeout restaurant, consulting a handwritten list of psychiatrists. Her top three are crossed off, leaving only Abe Stein. She climbs the stairs to his office, it’s not as nice as the other offices she’s been to. And then she meets Abe, big, burly, bumbling, disheveled Dr. Abe. As he packs his pipe, he studies her silently. She sets her jaw, refusing to say the first word. Behind him, the match he used to light his pipe ignites a pile of papers on his desk. Abe’s oblivious, Corey’s incredulous. When he finally notices, he douses it with Diet Coke. No big deal. Without another word, she leaves.
So like Callie, Corey is a strong woman who’s coped with painful, debilitating hardship. And she’s also operating far below her capacities. She underestimates her ability to take on her nemesis, Nick Season. She believes that if she hides from him, never poses a threat to him, and falls from his radar screen, he’ll leave her alone. Unlike Callie, Corey is very able in the world, but like Callie, she doesn’t do well with her feelings. She doesn’t talk about her inner life. In fact, she really doesn’t see insight as the first and essential step to solving problems. Like Callie, she’s never had a wonderful relationship with a partner. Like Callie, she’s not able to sort through and understand her emotions. She’s not able to see how to make decisions that might dramatically change the reality she’s stuck in.
Callie can’t imagine ever being with Cash, a soldier of fortune, a smuggler, a man who, unlike her, is so able, so at ease in the world. Cash is not afraid to take risks. If he deems it worthwhile, he breaks the law. He doesn’t follow Callie’s rules, even in her restaurant. He’s so far outside her reality that, at first, she can’t see how smart, how perceptive he is. How able he is to function wonderfully well in the world. In short, he’s the last man she could imagine being with.
The last man that Corey could ever imagine having a relationship with is Abe Stein. He’s distracted. He sideswipes cars. He sets fires in ash trays or in waste baskets, where he carelessly throws lit matches from his pipe. He’s uneasy on her boat because he can’t swim. He misjudges her at the start, not believing that she was framed.
However, Corey is won over by Dr. Stein who eventually accepts her silences, her evasiveness, her half-truths, even her lies, but finally believes in her anyway, is the opening salvo in the Corey Logan Trilogy.
Both Corey Logan and Abe Stein are extraordinary characters, polar opposites who find each other through crisis. Corey is strong, fearless, at home on the street and able in wild country. Abe is bumbling but brilliant – caught up in the life of the mind, commonly distracted in the world. But they are drawn to each other. Together, both of them change dramatically.
While it is Dr. Stein whose work with Corey liberates her, it is Corey who brings Abe back to life. And it is Cash who liberates Callie, but it’s Callie who not only saves his life, but teaches him to love. These love stories – and partnerships – are the foundations, the heart and soul, of all of the books. The challenge in writing them is to make these unlikely couples fall in love – believably, completely – fall in love so madly that they grow and change together and separately. And as they live fuller, richer lives, the women become happier people, able to thrive in those relationships. Wonderful women living extraordinary lives with their unexpected partners.
Feature image via Burt Weissbourd