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Origin Stories & Character Development

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Sometimes authors send a character on a quest to find out where they come from. My character, Silent Lee, is raised by a great aunt and yearns to learn who her real parents are. Maybe I wrote her this way because I share the desire to find my story.

I was adopted from an orphanage in Chicago. It was a blind adoption—most were in those days. Some years ago I secured a redacted copy of a social worker’s notes. It was my backstory! The social worker had interviewed my birth mother and the story was all there: A young college student taking a painting class with a professor visiting from France. An affair. An unwanted pregnancy.

He went back to his Catholic marriage and she went to a secret house where the orphanage helped her conceal the pregnancy and deliver twin boys.

A private investigator located my original, court-sealed birth certificate. My birth mother was Mary Ford. Father unnamed. I was David Ford. But I am not. The court hid that certificate and issued another in which my adoptive parents apparently were always my parents and I was always Alex Hiam.

I’d revealed the buried truth behind the fiction. Or had I?

My birth certificate gave my mother’s age as 22. The P.I. could search for her birth record. We knew she was from somewhere around Chicago. We knew she went to a liberal arts college and studied painting with a visiting professor, and we knew it must’ve been in the winter prior to my birth. The P.I. assured me she’d track down the protagonists.

However, no one of my birth mother’s name and age was born, went to school, got a driver’s license, got married, bought property, or died in the search area. Despite official documents in hand, she seems never to have existed. My actual birth mother, whoever she was, had passed off a story about herself.

I uploaded my DNA, but only found the most absurdly distant matches. While the DNA trail didn’t lead to a name, it did reveal another mistruth. My report highlighted the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa, not France, suggesting a father of Mediterranean ancestry mixed with a mother of British background. While my biological father might have been living in France—DNA can’t tell you where people live—his family wasn’t from there originally.

This leaves me with another veil over my history, instead of the clear story I’d hoped for. The same thing seems to keep happening to my protagonist in the Silent Lee books.

Did I mention that my protagonist was first conceived as someone my own kids could identify with, including one who is, like Silent, biracial and adopted? As an adoptee who also has adopted, I find this whole territory keenly interesting, and so do many readers.

I want a good story. I think we all do. And my birth mother happened to have told a story that worked for me (although it was probably designed to work for her, of course). I’m creative, artistic, and dyslexic. My adoptive father, an MIT-trained engineer, struggled to understand me as I struggled to understand things that came easily to him, like trigonometry and Latin grammar. My favorite classroom was the art studio. I was held back in third grade. He graduated two years early from M.I.T. I am pretty much the dead opposite of a brilliant engineer.

When I came across the story that I’d been conceived in a studio and was the son of a French painter (no doubt an at least semi-famous post-impressionist!), I felt validated. But the fiction bubble burst, and all I know with reasonable certainty is that my birth father abandoned a pregnant young woman. That’s not very story-worthy, as it turns out.

As a father and husband, I have a wonderful family of my own. I don’t need to find my birth parents. It’s an irrational itch, but it’s there nonetheless. And so whenever I hear about someone who wants to know their origin story, I’m sympathetic. We yearn for our own stories to be complete, and more than that, to be good stories. When facts don’t fill the gap, I understand why people resort to fiction.

Meanwhile, Silent Lee continues to use her sleuthing skills to not only solve the mysteries her plots present, but also to investigate her own mysterious origins. Her backstory is the unifier behind all her adventures, a kind of macro plot arc that I see running through the series, whether it ends at this third book or goes on for many more.

Alex Hiam is the author of books about an adopted, biracial sleuth named Silent Lee. His titles are available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle ebooks. He also teaches writing and illustration, and has designed a literature curriculum for middle grade readers based on Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and other popular stories (available to teachers and home school parents on

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