Build-a-Character

Well, November is almost at an end. Have you finished your novel?

If you’re still smoothing out the rough patches on your characters (hopefully the next generation of Harry Potters), here are few tools to help you:

A – C – S – S

Action – define your character by what he does?
Conduct – define your character by how he behaves (or doesn’t)?
Self-culture – define your character by how he educates himself (or doesn’t)?
Self-control – define your character by how he manages his emotions (or doesn’t)?

To show how character is shown through all four of these tools, watch a master at work. The following excerpt is taken from Allan Quatermain by H. Rider Haggard. For those of you not familiar with this book, Allan Quartermain’s character was played by Sean Connery in the movie, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In Allan Quartermain, the eponymous character is on a quest to find a legendary white tribe. He is accompanied by several friends, including a disgraced Zulu, who has fled his village after his beloved wife betrayed him. The Zulu, Umslopogaas, serves often as the comic relief, but he is also a sword and shield on which Allan, quite an elderly man, often relies (thought Allan is no pushover himself).

Our adventurers are sucked into a whirlpool and sent hurtling down an underground river. Eventually, they are able to ground their canoe and rest a while in a gloomy cavern, which the echoes of their voices makes still unnerving. Watch how our characters, particularly Umslopogaas, deal with this development.

By the river’s edge was a little shore formed of round fragments of rock washed into this shape by the constant action of water, and giving the place the appearance of being strewn with thousands of fossil cannon balls. Evidently when the water of the underground river is high there is no beach at all, or very little, between the border of the stream and the precipitous cliffs; but now there was a space of seven or eight yards. And here, on this beach, we determined to land, in order to rest ourselves a little after all that we had gone through and to stretch our limbs. It was a dreadful place, but it would give an hour’s respite from the terrors of the river, and also allow of our repacking and arranging the canoe. Accordingly we selected what looked like a favourable spot, and with some little difficulty managed to beach the canoe and scramble out on to the round, inhospitable pebbles.

‘My word,’ called out Good, who was on shore the first, ‘what an awful place! It’s enough to give one a fit.’ And he laughed.

Instantly a thundering voice took up his words, magnifying them a hundred times. ‘_Give one a fit–Ho! ho! ho!’–‘A fit, Ho! ho! ho!_’ answered another voice in wild accents from far up the cliff–_a fit! a fit! a fit!_ chimed in voice after voice–each flinging the words to and fro with shouts of awful laughter to the invisible lips of the other till the whole place echoed with the words and with shrieks of fiendish
merriment, which at last ceased as suddenly as they had begun.

‘Oh, mon Dieu!’ yelled Alphonse, startled quite out of such self-command as he possessed.

‘_Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!_’ the Titanic echoes thundered, shrieked, and wailed in every conceivable tone.

‘Ah,’ said Umslopogaas calmly, ‘I clearly perceive that devils live here. Well, the place looks like it.’

I tried to explain to him that the cause of all the hubbub was a very remarkable and interesting echo, but he would not believe it.

‘Ah,’ he said, ‘I know an echo when I hear one. There was one lived opposite my kraal in Zululand, and the Intombis [maidens] used to talk with it. But if what we hear is a full-grown echo, mine at home can only have been a baby. No, no–they are devils up there. But I don’t think much of them, though,’ he added, taking a pinch of snuff. ‘They can copy what one says, but they don’t seem to be able to talk on their own account, and they dare not show their faces,’ and he relapsed into silence, and apparently paid no further attention to such contemptible fiends.

Take every opportunity not only to populate your story with memorable characters, but also to give your characters ways through the story to make themselves memorable.

At the risk of being tiresome, SHOW don’t TELL. I could tell you that Umslopogaas was a bad ass, but I much rather show you that even devils don’t dare show their faces, where he carries his battle ax.

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Let Us Be Graphic and Die

We all know that the “N” word is a no-no, but did you know the “E” word is equally offensive?

“E” being, Eskimo.

I must admit I didn’t, until I caught a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, where one of Bill’s guests (Sarah Silverman) said Eskimo and instantly regretted her faux pas. Since when did Eskimo become an offensive word.

Since always. Apparently.

By chance, I ran across a story in an 1889 children’s book (Wide Awake Pleasure Book: Gems of Literature and Art by American Authors and Artists) called “A Study of Dolls and Cradles” by Otis T. Mason. The article opens: “‘Innuit’ is considered a better name for themselves by our Arctic people than ‘Eskimo,’ because ‘Innuit’ means, in their language, men, people,as much as to say: ‘We are the people and wisdom will die with us.’ But ‘Eskimo,’ or ‘Esquimaux,’ means ‘raw meat-eaters,’ and is held to be a term of reproach.”

The point is, PC offenses are as much a matter of ignorance as they are unabashed prejudice.

That said, what do we do when we have a character who is an unabashed racist? Do we clean up his language to keep from offending our readers? Or do we allow him to let loose according to his bent, because to do otherwise would not be true to life?

This is a rather slippery slope to get on. In my Dark Brethren series, my character, Kurt Adler, was an SS officer, who had no tender spot for the victims of his regime. His opinion of “inferior” races was evident not only in his words but also in his actions. To disguise that would have been as much a disservice to the victims of Nazi persecution as it would be to my readers, who don’t need (or deserve) a bowdlerized versions of historical events.

That said, I see no reason why we should be overindulgent. Like bad language, offensive words should be used even by bad characters in moderation.

I will demonstrate this simple principal for you:

Dad said, “how many fucking times must I fucking tell you to take out the fucking trash on fucking Monday night?”

Dad said, “how many fucking times must I tell you to take out the trash on Monday night?”

See what I mean? In the sentence above, we assume that Dad is simply a low-bred individual who likes peppering his sentences with F bombs, while with the second sentence, we get the idea that Dad is pissed because we once again fucking failed to take out the trash.

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Warped Characters vs. Evil Ones

Will your story’s villain learn the error of his or her ways or will he or she remain unrepentant to the end?

This can be determined largely by how much impact his or her reformation will have on the main characters in your story.

In my novel The Other Tommy, I have a number of antagonists, most who are in no way reformed by the story’s end. In fact, only one of them shows any sign of changing his attitude or behavior toward the persons he’s wounded.

Real-life villains rarely see themselves in the roles they are playing. More often than not, they see themselves as the VICTIMS of your hero or heroine.

Consider carefully before changing the bad guy’s horns to a halo. It may be unrealistic and ultimately disappointing to your readers.

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Trigger Characters

Your hero or heroine has a fatal flaw. Maybe it’s an overdrawn estimate of his or her personal charms, a predilection to impulse shopping, or a short fuse.

Sooner or later (preferably sooner), this flaw is going to lead to his or her fall from grace.

Identify a character in your story (and she or he don’t necessarily have to be villain, though this doesn’t hurt) who can serve as a TRIGGER.

A sleazy ex-boyfriend who comes back into the picture, after Jane wins the Mega Millions.

A “best” friend who drags Jane out to the mall for some early Christmas shopping, knowing full well that Jane has already overspent the monthly budget.

A husband who purposely baits Jane in front of their friends, so he can win their sympathy when she blows her top.

You can make even bit players shine by putting them to use as irritants.

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Getting Readers to Care About Backstory

Ideally, your story should be set ENTIRELY in the present, because what’s happening now is always infinitely more interesting than what happened yesterday, last week, two years ago, or even in infancy. But there are times when backstory is useful.

In my novel The Other Tommy, my character Ember Weiss has a long-standing grudge against fellow student, Lacy Soames, which dates from the time the two were eight years of age. I give a brief summary of this inciting incident, because it not only explains their mutual hatred but also the finer (or coarser) points of their characters.

If you decide to add a little (heavy emphasis on LITTLE) backstory to your story, you have to ask yourself one key question: is a mere summary sufficient or is it necessary to dramatize the scene? That depends largely on how important the memory is to your story.

Your story–not your CHARACTER.

Since any movement away from the main action necessarily slows the progress of the story, side trips should only be made when and IF necessary. I think it better to summarize any backstory, because even careful readers can be confused if your novel is a patchwork of fleshed out blocks of time. Particularly if the time passage is nonlinear.

One final word: avoid a backstory that is unnecessarily complicated, particularly for side characters.

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What Be These Animals?

I recently finished reading a science fiction novel called Dwellers in the Mirage, written by A. Merritt and published in book form for the first time in 1932. Like many “classic” novels, it hasn’t aged well. The main character, Leif Langdon, is a kind of poor man’s Conan, roaming a strange land, at times on the side of the pint-sized angels, at others, on the side of an evil cult to Khalk’ru, an Cthulhu-esque transdimensional monster who “dissolves” his victims. (“This low-rent mouk is NOTHING like me,” says the Lord God Cthulhu.) Our HERO Leif offers a number of sacrifices to Khalk’ru before deciding it isn’t really a god at all (“I told you so,” says the Lord God Cthulhu), but a space monster, who has found a crack in the fabric of something to slip through.

All is resolved (or dissolved) happily (or not so happily), depending on the version of this story you read. But one burning question remains. And it involves a scene relatively close to the beginning of this joyless tromp through Shadow-Land. Leif (while he’s in saint mode) rescues a pair of golden-skinned pygmies, who have been manacled to rocks. Some sort of sentient vine or vines is slowly dripping poison on this hapless pair. Leif is badly burned by the vine’s or vines’ acid, but the female of the pygmy pair alleviates his agony with some sort of aloe vera product she finds close by.

The story moves on without any explanation of the vines. We must assume the cult of Khalk’ru put the pygmies in this The Wild Wild West mantrap. But it’s hard to tell what good (or bad) the vine or vines got out of torturing it’s or their victims. Since the vine or vines never come(s) into play in the story again, the introduction is pointless to the point of wasteful. Why not leave the pygmies dangling by a frayed rope over a moot of crocodiles? It would have served just as well.

Writing Tip: The more interesting and/or inventive a character or plot prop, the more frequently it ought to be used in your story. Find ways to upcycle your McGuffins.

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Will I Ever Learn to Love Again?

A writing a book is like beginning a love affair.

We fall quite haplessly in love (and lust) with our heroes and heroines.

Then suddenly the romance is over and we have to let go, move on, begin again.

As hard as that may seem, there is good news:

We really CAN fall in love again.

And we really SHOULD.

Because only we can introduce the world to the boy or girl of our dreams!

So learn to fall in love AGAIN and AGAIN and AGAIN!

Your readers will thank you!

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Dark Brethren Series Book Trailer

The Dark Brethren series

Plus a peek at upcoming covers!

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Too-Hard-to-Get Gertie

“It’s hard to get snow in July;
It’s hard to get genuine rye;
But gettin’ Gertie is a job that’s harder yet.
The greatest sheiks sadly confess,
They’ve tried for weeks without success;
The boys are calling her
‘The girl that men regret'”
– Jack Yellen

Writers of romance, beware! While your heroine shouldn’t be easy to get (if she goes for Johnny Hero in Chapter 1, where’s the story?), she shouldn’t be like good old Gertie, who could refrigerate ice cream in that cold heart of hers. A misunderstanding (even two) is allowable in the romance story, but if Gertie’s still hating on Johnny after he’s done everything, including crawl on his hands and knees to China, for her, your reader is going to start thinking that Gertie may not be such a prize after all.

A little stubbornness is cute. But don’t make Gertie a bitch!

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Character Kryptonite

Too many writers rely upon misunderstandings and past baggage to keep their (seemingly perfect) characters from their (possibly undeserved) happiness.

A character with a physical flaw can be far more interesting, if handled properly. The illiterate man who is trying to pass himself off as a scholar. The blind girl who must rely on her other senses to get her out of the clutches of a murderous kidnapper. The boy stuck in a girl’s body, who struggles against the prejudice of others as he tries to establish his identity in the world.

Find the beauty in imperfections.

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