Interesting Characters – WE Master Class

For the last several weeks I’ve been undergoing the Writing Excuses Master Class put out a couple years ago. If you’re not familiar with the folks at Writing Excuses, I highly recommend them. They don’t require a ton of your time (15 minutes long, though it does sometimes stretch to 20) and even if they talk about things you already know, it’s a discussion that might open you up to something you hadn’t heard before.

A prime example is their conversation on interesting characters (Episode 10.5).

This concept was not new to me. I knew about character agency and stakes and accountability walking into it, and yet I was able to glean a little bit more from them. While this series of blog posts are supposed to be focused on a new novel (fictional characters body snatch people via a new reader’s app) and I have been having fun working within that venue, I found this episode helped one of my other works in progress more.

Castle of Three Kings follows Kevin Campbell, a sixteen-year-old boy who finds himself stuck in this cursed castle. The world is interesting, the reason for the curse is solid, and the major players are all colorful or tragic, but Kevin is… well… boring.

Somehow I managed to write 3/4 of a novel with a boy who has only the vaguest character arc, tons of agency (he doesn’t want to die), and zero personality.

Part of me wants to blame this on the fact that I typed the whole first draft instead of doing it by hand (my preferred method). Whatever got me into this position, I’m here now and when I start editing next month I will be concentrating on his arc using some of the methods from this class.

In particular, I’ll be playing with the sliding scales of competency and proactive and likability. These were discussed in other podcasts they’ve done, but they mention it again in this one.

To learn more about the Writing Excuses Podcast and its lovely, talented authors, you can go here.

For kicks and giggles, I’m going to go ahead and put a snippet of the new novel here. This is one of my character auditions from the last lesson.

Kenzie Graham knew the voices in her head weren’t real. She’d lived twenty-three years without them yammering about violins and villains and she was damn well going to live another twenty-three without them. Preferably more than twenty-three, but at this point she was willing to bargain.

She strode down the hall, clutching her Jefferson’s School of Technology computer pad to her chest and avoiding eye contact with fellow students. It wasn’t that she was shy, or even the fact that she was scared – well, petrified – that kept her head down.

No, she couldn’t look at anyone because anytime she did it seemed to trigger Sherlock.

Yes, Sherlock, as in Mr. Holmes himself, the fictional detective that should have stayed fictional. He leaped to vociferous life whenever she locked eyes with someone, running through a list of deductions faster than she could blink. Which in some cases was helpful, he did bark to life in time to warn her away from a spiked drink, but after thirteen hours of his incessant badgering, she was quite done.

Professor Hildon’s experimental app had a major glitch and no amount of extra credit was going to keep her quiet.

“Woah, Kenzie, wait up!” A familiar voice called from behind.

She turned on instinct, surprised and pleased that Cory Miller would seek her out. But Sherlock roused, she could sense him stirring, and as Cory sauntered up there was the familiar barrage of insights; tousled shirt, fraying at the hems of his jeans, sand on his shoes, and the faint odor of decomposing seaweed.

Underachiever, Sherlock said. You can do better.

Kenzie tried for a smile. “Hey, Cory.”

“You bailed early last night,” Cory said with an easy grin.

Please, there’s nothing easy about that grin, Sherlock said. Look at his eyes, he’s worried.

Gritting her teeth, she told Sherlock to stuff it and looked away from Cory. “Yeah, I had homework to do.”

“Oh, right,” Cory said, sounding disappointed.

Crestfallen, my dear. The word you want is crestfallen. HE obviously wanted to spend time with you.

Kenzie held tighter to her computer pad, one part elated at this news and the other part damning Sherlock to hell. Or wherever fictional characters go when they die.

Assuming one believes in an everlasting soul, I should say I don’t have one and therefore don’t qualify for either heaven or hell. But chin up, Kenzie, if he is so distressed, it means he couldn’t have been the one to spike your drink.

“Well of course he didn’t,” Kenzie said, and to her mortification, she realized she’d said it out loud.

Cory blinked at her. “Are you OK?”

“Not really,” she said, going for the truth because why the hell not? It wasn’t unheard of for software to go bonkers, especially in its developmental stage. But she had signed an NDA before taking the extra credit, so there was only so much she could impart without jeopardizing her academic career. “Have you seen Professor Hildon?”

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Haunting Characters

Good characters should haunt you. They should linger with you long after you’ve finished the novel. If a character has been written correctly, you should see traces of them in the people you meet day to day. Perhaps your mother has a similar laugh or your friend at work has that same habit.

Whatever it is, you see it.

The whole purpose of writing is to expose humanity, to dredge through all the nonsense we fill our lives with and highlight the different aspects of being human. We remember characters precisely because they echo our humanity and we identify with them. That’s why it is so hard when we see them struggling or when one of them perishes in the novel.

Jem Carstairs and Will Harindale from Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices series always pop to my mind when I see my son playing with his friends. I want him to have that kind of friendship, the kind that hooks deep and shapes who you are. He’s only nine, so he doesn’t understand any of that, but I do.

Elizabeth Bonner from Sara Donati’s Into the Wild constantly challenges me to stand firm in what I believe and not to shy away from hardship. I tend to read this one every spring. There’s something about the descriptions that lets me breathe deep of another time and place.

Jamie Fraser from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series reminds me that men and women are very different, and it helps me to communicate and better understand my significant other. And I do mean the books, not the show. Although I’ve enjoyed the show quite a bit too.

My own characters are harder to pin down here. They are essentially part of who I am, even the bad ones, so they haunt me quite a lot. Some of them, such as Liana from the upcoming novel Usurper, are difficult for me to understand and I find myself lingering over her more often than the others.

I’ve come to the point in my life where I recognize that a lot of my writing is an effort to know people. If you’ve ever said; “Ugh, I just don’t know why people are like that.” Or “I will never understand people like that.” Then you know what I mean. I write to understand, and I understand more with every character I write.

My current work in progress, a fantasy revolving around a world divided by war, was originally going to be written with just two voices. My protagonists are both from the poorer faction of society, the slaves/servants, and the outline has them surging through all the prejudice and hate in the effort to bring about peace. But I realized early on that I could not tell a story about forging peace without bringing to light the other side of society.

Thus, I added two more voices to the book. One is a high-ranked official in the government who is working hard to keep things as they are. The other is a lower ranked official who has very good reason to hate the people he is subjugating. Through these two voices, the book is shaping into something a bit more meaningful and, while there is a part of me that will never understand the desire to keep people in slavery, I do understand the fear these men have.

Not merely a fear of losing power, but a fear of losing their homes and their families. With bitterness on both sides of the war, it is hard to imagine that anything less would be done to them and theirs should they lose.

Characters linger, they teach us and help us to see the world we are living in for what it is. And they help us cope, reminding us that humanity is more complicated than good versus evil. Check out what characters haunt my fellow authors in this month’s Round Robin Discussion…

Anne Stenhouse  http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Heidi M. Thomas http://heidiwriter.wordpress.com/
Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
A.J. Maguire  https://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/ (YOU ARE HERE)
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Rachael Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

All About Character – June Round Robin

Sitting on my bunk in the open bay barracks one Sunday afternoon, I entered a debate with the soldier in the bunk next to me. Her name was Culpepper and she was a skinny thing with cropped blonde hair and a thin face that made those awful military-assigned glasses look like goggles perched on her nose.

I can’t say much there, I had to wear those glasses too and any sense of vanity I had was forced to the side for those weeks in basic training.

We were both on the top bunks so much of what was happening in the barracks below couldn’t touch our debate, which was just as well because none of the other soldiers would have cared enough to join the conversation. You see, Culpepper and I loved to read.

This, sadly, set us apart from many others in our platoon. The difference between Culpepper and myself was that, at the time, I had already begun my writing career. Pieces of what would become the novel Sedition were written on 3×5 cards that I kept in my cargo pockets alongside a little pencil.

“Plot is more important than character,” Culpepper insisted and I, holding my latest letter home, shook my head.

“Nobody cares about plot, they care about who that plot happens to.”

“Yeah, but a character who doesn’t grow, who doesn’t go anywhere or do anything, is boring,” Culpepper said, which I had to acknowledge as true.

As the debate went on, we came to a consensus that there had to be an equal amount of plot and good characterization on the page to keep the novel going, but I’ve always remembered that conversation. Not only had I found a fellow reader, someone who I could relate to on an intellectual level in the middle of one of the more stressful moments of my young adult life, but she challenged me to remember that plot and character are inseparable.

Plot is born of character, and a character only grows through the plot.

For example, my current work in progress Song of Swans (title is still in the works) has a character named Cassy. I had originally planned for her to be a thief, someone whose circumstances had made her the lowliest of the low, forcing her into a life of crime.

This aided my PLOT quite well, as there’s a chapter in the outline where I have her executing those particular skills in order to survive.

However, when I went to write that first chapter I found that her character was flat. She had no life. There was nothing there that made me truly care about who she was or why she was a thief or … well, anything at all, really.

After several days of struggling, I came to the realization that I couldn’t have her be a thief.

#1) It felt too Dungeons & Dragons to me. (There’s nothing wrong with Dungeon’s and Dragons if you like to play, I just prefer not to have my fantasy novels be that on the nose.)

#2) There are many fantasy novels out there that have the main character as a thief, and I felt I should challenge myself to step out of the cliche.

#3) Cassy herself was telling me she wasn’t a thief, not really, and if I’d shut that plot up for a second she would be willing to tell me exactly who she was.

So I scrapped the thief bit and discovered that she was a laundress with one unique quality; she could read. Which led me to the obvious question of why she, a commoner in a very medieval-feeling setting, had an education and, more importantly, what she was doing with that education. 

What was she doing with the fact that she can read? Well, she was teaching a fellow slave.

Suddenly I have a character driven plot. Cassy is more complicated and more relatable than the original pages, and while I am left wondering how in heavens a laundress is going to survive everything else that’s headed her way, I’m confident that she’ll show me.

Take a look at what some of my fellow authors have to say about building characters and character arcs in their stories …


Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Margaret Fieland http://margaretfieland.wordpress.com
A.J. Maguire  https://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Victoria Chatham http://victoriachatham.blogspot.ca
Marci Baun  http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Rachael Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Dr. Bob Rich https://bobrich18.wordpress.com/rhobins-round-robin/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Anne Stenhouse  http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Marie Laval http://marielaval.blogspot.co.uk/

Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

Problem Characters and How to Negotiate

Since beginning Usurper I have had one character in particular who troubles me; Evaliana Auliere Dyngannon.

Nice long name, I know. She goes by Liana, for obvious reasons. Who wants that mouthful every time you’re being spoken to?

Liana and I constantly have issues, which I know makes me sound insane but I’m an author so I’m allowed. (I hope.) But when push comes to shove, every time I try to write in her point of view I end up hating the scene.

Loathing the scene.

It’s too shallow.

There’s not enough oomph to the character.

I don’t know her the way I know Trenna (her mother) or Nelek (her father) or even Kaden (her brother). She’s this … anomaly outside of her family.

Or inside it, however you want to look at it.

She is … angsty.

And I hate angsty.

Seriously, I avoid angsty with all my power.

But as I’m going through this edit I’ve come to the understanding that … I’m going to have to deal with angst. In order for Liana to be a three dimensional character on the page, she has to be allowed to explain why she’s so … arrrgh! About everything.

So …

I keep her scenes fairly brief.

I just have to. For my own sanity.

Until she grows up and gets over herself, she has a limited word count. (This is part of the reason I don’t do the Young Adult market all that well, can you tell?)

In return, I let her angst all she wants for that limited word count.

And then, once the angst has been written/edited/dealt with in some manner, I get chocolate.

Boom.

Those are my negotiations … with my fictional character … who only lives in my head and on the page …

Yeah, I know how crazy it sounds.

Meet My Character Blog Tour

Shen Hart tagged me in the “Meet My Character Blog Tour” and I’ve been sitting on this for a couple of days, trying to decide who I was going to “tag” in response. I’ve decided on Lisa (LJ) Cohen, RJ Blain, and Skye Taylor. Good luck and have fun! 

1) What is the name of your character?  Is she fictional or a historic person?

Johanna Rorry — otherwise known as Jorry. She is purely fictional. 

2) When and where is the story set?

The story is set many, many, many years into the future. We get to go spelunking on Pluto, lay siege to a space station orbiting Neptune, and infiltrate a military base on Europa but in between all of that the characters are on board the hauler-class vessel known as the Zephyr. 

3) What should we know about him?

Ahem. You mean “her.”

And you should know that when she sets her mind to something she doesn’t waver. She’s a complicated mix of soldier and mother, capable of hacking into computer systems and constantly focused on the safety of her family. 

4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his her life?

Her son Devon wants to go to University, but because Jorry and her counterpart (Seach Barlow) are both deserters from the military this poses many problems. Sending Devon to school could reveal their whereabouts to the military they’ve been running from. So Jorry makes a black market deal to get Devon some security tags that won’t alert the Universe that she’s still alive and still allow him to go to school. 

And … you know … things go very, very wrong. 

5) What is the personal goal of the character?

She wants to see her son safe and happy. 

6) Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

The tentative title is Tapped and you can read a snippet of it on my main website ajmaguire.com. (HINT: It’s under the science fiction tab.)

7) When can we expect the book to be published?

Well, I have a rule that I send out everything to the traditional market first and if it doesn’t get any bites then I look into Indie publishing. So I’m really not sure. It could be out sometime in 2015 or it could be later.