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This blog was featured on 07/30/2019
Iris Johansen on Letting Characters take the Lead and Expanding Her Craft
Written by
She Writes
July 2019
Written by
She Writes
July 2019

New York Times bestselling author Iris Johansen is known and beloved for her suspenseful historical romance novels, and this month she releases Smokescreen, her latest featuring forensic sculptor Eve Duncan – a popular, repeat character – as she journeys to Africa to help families torn apart by a violent attack deep in the jungle.

We rounded up some of Johansen’s best interviews to get a glimpse into how she shapes her tales, characters and craft.

On Process

Johansen enjoys a disciplined writing schedule, something in which she has taken great pride since her writing career began.

“I try to be up in my office by nine every morning and I work until I've completed at least ten pages. Sometimes that takes four or five hours, sometimes ten or twelve. It depends on the flow, the research, and the pace at which the characters are moving the story. There are times when the story is streaking like a bullet. Then I just hang on and stay with it.”

Unlike most writers, however, Johansen’s hours spent writing are not always solitary. Her daughter and research assistant, Tamara, is a large part of the conceptual process.

“I wouldn't know what to do without her. She's invaluable in finding out both the small details and the big picture, though I do make her want to pull her hair out in frustration sometimes when I ask her if there isn't a way we can make a certain plot point happen. But then she starts to dig and quite often comes up with a way that can be truthful and factual and still keep my story humming.”

This excerpt was originally published in Book Reporter. Read the full interview here.

Book Browse asked Johansen about the most exciting part of her writing process:

“It does vary from book to book,” she said. “Usually it is near the climax when everything is moving tornado-fast and I am carried along with it. However, there are times when I'm just as excited when I get some complicated bit of research right and feel I did a good job making that part of the story interesting.”

“I'm one of those writers who cannot plan ahead,” she added. “I have to let the story carry me along to reveal the twists and turns. Every book starts with just the kernel of an idea that, hopefully, matures into a full-grown tree. Other than that constant, everything else is up for grabs.”

This excerpt was originally published on Book Browse. Read the full interview here.

On Characters

Johansen is thoughtful in creating diverse, yet stable characters – well-balanced with just enough vulnerability and edge to keep readers engaged.

“A perfect character is like a beautiful, placid lake,” she said in an interview with Book Browse. “You can admire it, but eventually you look away and try to find a little action. Flaws are human and it gives a character something against which to struggle. However, it can be hard to balance,” she admits. “In one book I reached almost the halfway mark and realized my male protagonist was too noble. I was in a terrible dilemma because the plot wouldn't permit a change in character. There was only one solution: I killed him. (Fortunately, I had a satisfactorily flawed secondary character hanging out just waiting to be promoted.)”

The most critical aspect of developing a character is to know their motivations and letting them show it to the reader through dialogue. If they do the work, the character comes alive,” she advised in an interview with The Big Thrill.

And when it comes to the physical makeup of her characters, it’s those motivations and personalities that she allows to lead the way.

I rely on character and personality to be the guiding stars in any description. I don’t go into great physical detail but try to leave it to the reader’s imagination. Settings are the same. If you need a setting for choreography of an action scene, you have to have detail. Otherwise emotional or intellectual response to a setting works better for me.”

On Advice

“Write what you love and always finish what you start even if you decide in the middle that you want to go on to something else,” she advises to aspiring writers. “I usually get a kernel of a plot idea and then invite the characters to the party. I research, live with them, and then start writing. I find they build their own world.”

The above excerpts were originally published on Goodreads, in response to a reader-submitted question. Read the full Q&A with Johansen here.

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  • Patricia Robertson

    Love how you killed off your male protagonist when you realized he was too noble and couldn't be changed! Then you promoted a flawed secondary character!