Character Building Exercise

In most fiction, the characters are what drive the novel. They create the conflict. Whenever I get ready to write a novel, the characters usually come to me before the conflict and definitely before the plot. With Exiled Heart, it was no different. As a matter of fact, I found it to be a rather interesting process.

Ziad al-Kazim came first. The seed of inspiration for his character came when Steve and I watched the movie The Kingdom, which came out in Fall of 2007. Though Jamie Foxx plays the hero FBI agent, in my opinion, the character who stole the show was a Saudi policeman named Faris al-Ghazi. I liked his character because I was so tired of seeing Muslim men vilified in the press. Faris is one of the good guys, and had it not been for him, Jamie and his crew wouldn’t have survived.

That got me to thinking and led immediately about a character. What if I had a character who grew up in Saudi Arabia, who loved his faith (Islam), his family (four sons), and his job (fast-track career with the Saudi Arabian National Guard)? So that’s how Ziad comes to exist. I chose the last name of al-Kazim, which, simply means “of the Kazims.” The meaning of Kazim is “one who controls anger.” I’ve also seen the words “careful”, “planning”, and “patient” used. In Ziad’s case, this is somewhat ironic, as when you read Exiled Heart, you see that he can be brash, impatient, and angry when he’s not getting his way, especially if it involves his work. The conflict begins when Ziad is framed for the murder of his family, loses everything of significance, and is exiled from Saudi Arabia. He winds up in Charleston, South Carolina, which is pretty opposite Jeddah in terms of culture.

Naturally, when there’s a leading man, at least in my books, there will be a leading lady. My leading lady hails from Charleston, South Carolina, and I call her Claire Montgomery. A proper, southern name in my mind. Claire is what I call a Steel Magnolia. For you non-southerners, that means that a woman may appear soft and genteel on the outside, but she is a very strong woman. The case is certainly true for Claire. She is definitively southern, all the way from her accent to her tenderness toward her family and her desire to help others through her career in nursing. Yet she’s also got a tough core. She’s a survivor, someone who has endured tragedy in her life yet has learned to overcome. Claire also harbors prejudices toward Muslim men, especially Saudis, and keeps them pushed under the veneer of her manners.

The conflict comes when Claire and Ziad meet for the first time. Yet through the conflict, they challenge each other to grow and address the issues that each of them face. That’s what good characters do. They challenge one another to change, and perhaps us to rethink the way we view life. Through learning about different characters, perhaps we can build our own character.

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