Not too long ago, I had a dream in which I was preparing to speak to a group about my novel, The Witness. While I was gathering my papers, an argument broke out between two individuals seated near the front of the room. One man was remonstrating the other for his impatience – he was scheduled to speak after I finished and was concerned that I would use more than my allotted time. I stepped away from the podium and addressed them, complimenting the first man for adhering to good manners and reassuring the second that I was well aware of the time limit for my presentation and would abide by it.
Later I thought about the importance of principles, both in life and in literature. Why in literature? Because principles – or the lack of them – are one aspect of each character that an author creates.
A novel begins because an event took place; something happened. Perhaps a crime has occurred. Is the protagonist the perpetrator or the victim? If the perpetrator, then the novel becomes the story of what led him to commit a violent act against someone else. If the victim, then the author will write not only about what caused the victim to be in that particular place at that particular time but also about what consequences the victim will experience as a result.
There are other scenarios. Is the first police officer on the scene a recent graduate of the police academy, someone unaccustomed to seeing the results of violence, who is haunted by what he encounters? How does he reconcile his feelings with his values? Or is the protagonist a doctor or nurse who ministered to the victim when she arrived at the hospital and was affected by some aspect of the victim’s condition or attitude? Does this new empathy help or hinder her future actions? Perhaps one of the detectives investigating the case interviews the victim and is so moved by what he hears that his life is changed, making him the major character in the story. Police officers refer to crimes against persons (CAP) as a category of crime, but in a novelist’s world, all crimes affect people, whether directly or indirectly, because the consequences of crime are pervasive.
In my novel, The Witness, the protagonist is a young college graduate from Texas who is brutally assaulted while visiting London. She is traumatized by the event, and her recovery is complicated by its occurrence far from home and her need to work with an unfamiliar law enforcement system. Are principles relevant in her life? Yes and no: She is a complex character, so although she cooperates with the detectives and legal counsel, she is sometimes less than cooperative with the police officers in charge of her protection.
Principles are an issue for other characters as well. For example, the senior investigating officer waits to romance her until her legal commitments have been concluded. And of course the evildoer embodied a flagrant disregard of the law by committing the vicious crime in the first place. After he is arrested and charged, he proceeds to mount an intimidating defense in court.
The word “principle” comes from the Latin principium or princeps, meaning “first.” Over time a principle came to mean a truth, a behavioral rule, or a scientific fact, because in each case the principle came first. Behavior, for example, does not occur in a vacuum. Our principles, good or bad, are the motivators. In The Witness, the young Texan swears to tell the truth in court. The defendant, sparing nothing in attempting to avoid the consequences of his crime, tries unsuccessfully to have her killed and then does not testify.
“Witness,” from the Old English witnes, means “knowledge.” In The Witness, each character is a witness to something: Jennifer Jeffries to the need for justice and the rule of law, Sergeant Casey to the importance of honor, and Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sinclair to the healing power of love. A true witness does more than see; he or she testifies, possibly with words or by taking an action of some kind. In our lives, each of us is a witness, consciously or not, to the values which come first and define us.