Tag: character development

Coming soon – a new series with its own mascot!

Clyde happensFor the past year or so, most of my writing effort has been divided between short stories and The Heartsbane Saga, the new series I’m working on. I’ve been working on this series for years, actually, but it’s really gained its momentum over the last 12-15 months.

This series will be 7 novellas (so far, about 40-50k words each although I expect they’ll get longer as the series progresses) and 7 stand-alone-ish short stories, each of which is based on a different fairy tale.

Originally the series was just going to be one book, but then it morphed into 7. I had them all roughly plotted out. My writing group, Chicken Scratch QC, approved of the arc. I was all set.

I wrote book 1. So far, so good. I started on book 2. And that’s when things started to go off the rails (although in a good way, because the direction I’m going in has a lot more depth and excitement and twists to it). Specifically, Clyde happened.

Clyde is a character who wasn’t supposed to be a character, who’s kinda become a legend in my local writing groups as a way to express when things aren’t going the way you thought they would in your story. “Dammit, Clyde” is frequently heard at writing gatherings.

In book 2, my main group of characters travels to Aghlabid, a far away country, and they’re accompanied by a couple nameless huskarler (bodyguards). Or at least, they were supposed to be nameless. Our conversation went a bit like this:

Character A: We want names.

Me: No.

Character B: I’ll be Gunnar.

Me: No.

Character A: And I’m Clyde.

Me: WTF. Clyde? Clyde is not a Viking name. At least Gunnar is a traditional Icelandic/Viking name.

Clyde: Also, we’re going to be integral to the plot.

Me: No.

Clyde: F your outline.

Me: Dammit, Clyde!

And Clyde’s been uncooperative ever since. I’ve had to redo my series outline at least three times now because of him, although again, each time the story’s become stronger and better for it.

But please, don’t tell Clyde that.

Heartsbane slideI’d originally planned to have the first book to my publisher earlier this spring, but due to changes to the series I’ve had to do some retconning (dammit, Clyde) and am now waiting until most of it is done before we release all the books a month or two apart, hopefully starting this spring. If you want to read sneak peaks, please head over to Patreon, where the first short story, “The Maiden in the Tower,” is posted as well as the first chapters of the books.

Being true to the story by killing your darlings

murdered potato

image from Pixabay

I’m working on a story that’s decided to set itself in Baltimore. I’ve never been to Baltimore, so in the interest of research I started watching The Wire. While my characters aren’t nearly as hardcore as those on the show, it’s been a great showcase of an often overlooked part of American life.

If you’ve never seen The Wire, it follows two storylines: that of a unit of the Baltimore PD trying to bring down a drug empire, and that of the leaders and minions of the empire. It’s a gritty show that doesn’t shy away from violence, and without giving any spoilers, it’s best not to become attached to any characters because no one is untouchable on this show.

I watched an interview with one of the creators, who talked about the decision to kill off a popular character in the third season. This character was a favorite, although he was also beyond reprehensible. The creator basically said that killing off the character was best for the story (which I agree with), and to keep him alive would be only to do so for the sake of the character, not the story.

I thought about that with my own stories. I’ve killed a lot of characters, some of whom readers wanted left alive because they liked the character, but as a writer I need to do what the story calls for. And sometimes that means killing off a character.

Readers, how do you feel when a character you like gets killed off?

Writing Exercise #1: Character Development

I’ve recently joined a local writing group. We start most of the bi-weekly meetings with a quick writing exercise. This week’s task was to select a random picture from a stack, imagine that the person was in front of us, and write his or her backstory. I’ve been thinking about my characters for NaNoWriMo, and so I decided to write about one of them.


Houston Jones sits across from me, his gaze darting around the diner.

“Want a drink?” I ask, hoping to calm him down.

He shakes his head. His hands, at first clasped tightly in his lap, clutch the edge of his chair, then drum a beat on the table.

“So…” I prompt him.

“It’s tough, ya know?” My expression must say clearly that I don’t know. “Being here. All this.” His hand sweeps at the patrons, the tables, the whole city.

“You need a job.” No sense wasting time. His agitation is only increasing, and I don’t know what will happen when he reaches his breaking point.

“We didn’t have cell phones. The internet. Think about that. You wanna meet up with someone, you call from a payphone. Plan ahead. Now everything is available, immediately. People ain’t planning no more. They’re in such a hurry, but they ain’t got nothing to hurry to. I learned, the last thirty years, there’s never nothing to hurry to.”

He takes a deep breath, as if to go on, but remains silent. His chest heaves slightly, like he’s been running, and maybe he has, only it’s his thoughts been running for the last thirty years he was locked up, and now they’re out but the world has changed and maybe he’s right; where do you run to?

“I need that job. No more running. I lost thirty years. I ain’t got no time to waste being like this.”

“It’s working in a garage, hauling scrap, general maintenance. Think you can do that okay?”

He laughs, a biting sound that hurts my heart. “I ain’t got much choice.”


This book will be about five people coming together in the face of tragedy. I’m toying with the idea of making it twenty-five short stories, almost like episodes of a sitcom, that are loosely linked and come together with the equivalent of a season finale. Thoughts?

The five guys you’ll meet in YA fiction: a guest post by author Stephanie Fleshman

As someone frequently working with high school students, I’m always on the lookout for books that’ll resonate with the kids. Stephanie Fleshman, author of YA book Render, writes about what kind of male protagonists are frequently found in YA.

According to GalleyCat, YA eBook revenues increased 120.9% last year.  The great news is whatever YA male character types keep you reading, it’s unlikely you’ll run out of books anytime soon. After a while contemplating my favorite YA reads, I noticed a pattern when it came to the male heroes in these stories. Without further ado, here’s a run-down of the 5 guys you’re likely to meet when reading a Young Adult novel…

Guy #1:  The Broken and Vulnerable

When I think of broken, I think of Josh from Barry Lyga’s Boy Toy.  The sad thing about Josh is that he knows he’s broken but blames himself instead of the person at fault.

When I think of vulnerable, two characters come to mind:   Sam from Maggie Stiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls series and Cabel from Lisa McMann’s Wake series.  Cabel is doused with gasoline, then set on fire by his alcoholic father.  He wants to be loved, yet is scared. What makes him strong in a not-in-your-face kind of way is that he wants to love.  His lack of resentment and hate is what makes him attractive.

Guy #2:  The Abusive

In Jennifer Brown’s Bitter End, Cole is the product of “like father, like son.”  In Swati Avasthi’s YA novel Split, however, Jace is the product of being victimized by his own abuser.  Unlike Cole, Jace is capable of remorse and guilt.  He not only owns up to his actions, but he wants to pay for them.  By comparison, Jace makes Cole look like a sociopath.

Guy #3:  The Obsessive

It’s no secret that Edward from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga is borderline stalker when it comes to Bella.  She is his world entirely.  In his mind, though, he is only being protective.  So, is Edward protective, overprotective, or obsessive?  You decide:

  • Protective:  Capable of or intended to protect someone or something.
  • Overprotective:  Having a tendency to protect someone, esp. a child, excessively.
  • Obsessive:  Of, relating to, characteristic of, or causing an obsession; Excessive in degree or nature.
 Guy #4:  The Dominant

A good example of this type of YA male lead character is Patch from Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush series.  Patch is 100% boy.  He’s self-confident, strong, and stands his ground against Nora.  Though he is dominating, I don’t believe it’s in a harmful or abusive manner.
In the second book, you get to see more into his heart as he begins to really care for Nora’s well-being.
By the third book, he’s thinking of Nora’s safety and how he can stay with her.  He sacrifices what he wants in order to protect her and their relationship, which seems non-existent to Nora by this stage.  Not everything is what it seems, though.
Other good examples are Alex from Simone Elkeles’s Perfect Chemistry and Avi from the same author’s How to Ruin series.

Guy #5:  The Lovable

I’m going to start with Koldan from my own YA novel, Render.  Koldan is firm but not so dominating that he feels the need to control.  He’s confident and strong, but recognizes his weaknesses.  He’s romantic in the sense that he will do whatever it takes to keep Raya safe, even if it means risking his own life.  And he’s not afraid to show his feelings for Raya.
Now, I cannot move forward without mentioning Holder from Hopeless by Colleen Hoover.  Thirteen years!  Thirteen!!!  That’s all I’m going to say.  Those of you who have read Hopeless know exactly what I’m talking about.  For those of you who haven’t, there’s nothing about this guy not to love.

Now I’ve got a question for you:  What’s your favorite YA male character type? 

Render Tour BadgeAs part of this special promotional extravaganza sponsored by Novel Publicity, Render, the debut YA Paranormal novel by Stephanie Fleshman, is on sale for just 99 cents! What’s more, by purchasing this fantastic book at an incredibly low price, you can enter to win many awesome prizes.

The prizes include a Kindle Fire, $550 in Amazon gift cards, and 5 autographed copies of the book.
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About Render:  A betrayal born of blood. A curse for a gift. A love worth saving… Seventeen-year-old Raya Whitney thought she knew Koldan–until a sudden turn of events threatens both their lives. Get it on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or iTunes.

Stephanie Fleshman graduated with a degree in psychology and has family throughout the United States as well as in Thessaloniki and Athens, Greece. Visit Stephanie on her websiteTwitterFacebook, or GoodReads.

What motivates you?

As a writer and an educator and a parent with a psychology background, I’m fascinated by motivation. Why do people – characters, kids, students, society – do what they do, and, more importantly, how can we influence it?

What’s important to keep in mind is that there are two kinds of motivation:

  • Intrinsic motivation comes from within – doing things for the sake of doing them, because you want to, with no expectation of a reward
  • Extrinsic motivation comes from someone or something else – doing things for a reward (something tangible, like money, or praise or acceptance) or to avoid punishment.

In my current WIP, A Handful of Wishes (tentatively scheduled for a December 2014 release), I explore this idea further by following Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.

In the first stage, obedience and punishment, people are extrinsically motivated by fear of punishment: I don’t steal the cookie because I know imma get a wuppin’.

The second stage, individualism and exchange, is also all about extrinsic motivation, driven by tangible rewards: If I share my milk with you, you’ll share your cookie with me.

In stage three, interpersonal relationships, the extrinsic motivation takes a bit of a twist, with a social reward: I give you my cookie because then you’ll want to be my friend.

Stage four, maintaining social order, walks the line between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation: I share my cookie because from preschool on we’re taught that in our society, it’s polite to share. I do it because society tells me it’s the right thing; it makes me feel good to do it, and it makes me feel good when society is happy with me.

In stage five, social contract and individual rights, people are intrinsically motivated: I give you my cookie because you don’t have one, and that makes me feel good.

Stage six, universal principles, is the pinnacle: doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.

The main character in my novel, Zeke Archer, moves through each of these stages as his life progresses, guided by his genie, Paribanu.

If you’re a writer, how are your characters motivated – intrinsically or extrinsically? Where do they fall on Kohlberg’s list? Where do you fall?

Postmodernism and the unreliable narrator

In my Human Behavior in the Social Environment class, we recently had a great discussion about what paradigm we agree with most:

  • positivism – using a rational approach, we can figure out the cause and effect of everything (if I promote my book on Twitter, I’ll increase sales)
  • post-positivism – using a rational approach, we can figure out correlations; there are too many variables to be definite about anything (I had increased sales after promoting my book on Twitter, but I also promoted it on a Saturday night when more people were home and online, and several people retweeted my posts who normally don’t, and…)
  • postmodern – everyone’s experience is unique and therefore no conclusions can be drawn (I had increased sales after promoting my book on Twitter, but you may not)

Most of us seemed to fall between post-positivism and postmodernism – we think it’s useful to have categories for people in order to identify them (posting about your book on Twitter vs not posting, maintaining a blog vs not having a webpage), but you need to take into account personal differences (having 100 real people following you on Twitter vs 10,000 bots, blogging consistently for 5 years vs not updating it, etc).

Just because I had a good (or bad) experience with Twitter doesn’t mean you will, but that doesn’t make what happened for me any less valid than what happened to you.

Or does it?

This is where the unreliable narrator comes in. What if that narrator’s experience is completely invalid? Just because he perceived something one way, doesn’t mean that’s how it really is.

I think of the male MC in my upcoming novel, The Lone Wolf (out December 2nd from Evolved Publishing). Andrew is every bit the unreliable narrator; he views the world through a very narrow lens, shaped by an abusive childhood. Everyone in his life needs protection, whether they want it or not. Everyone is either a saint on a pedestal, or a fallen hero; there’s no middle ground for him, no shades of gray – including how he sees himself.

As a writer, it’s my job to portray the story through Andrew’s eyes, while subtly letting the reader know his POV is flawed.

What’s your view on postmodernism? Is everyone’s POV just as valid as the next, or do we as readers and writers need to be aware that the way someone sees the world is wrong? Do you prefer reliable or unreliable narrators – and is there even really such a thing as a reliable narrator, when no one truly knows what’s going on in everyone else’s heads?

Your character is not you (and neither am I)

There are a few topics that come up frequently on writing forums: the value of adverbs, what constitutes passive voice, whether you should self-publish or go the traditional route, and what to use to form your characters’ personalities, actions, and motivations to make them believable.

Today I want to tackle that last one, and I’m going to start by saying


Yes, he may share similar traits.  She may have had a similar childhood, or the same goals.  But your character is not you.

I’m sure you’re a wonderful person.  But as Mark Twain said, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”  And for you to be in your story, as yourself, it’s not going to make sense.  I struggled with this while writing The Lone Wolf.  It was only when I realized that Kasey’s primary motivation was her family, that the story came together; I’d been trying to have her react how I would react.  And I definitely wouldn’t have made the same choices she did, because she’s not me.

But it goes beyond your personal goals and traits; your expectations and views of societal norms can also affect your character, without you even realizing it.

After I graduated college, I taught high school in rural North Carolina as part of a national program.  One of the things that was hammered into us was that these kids and their families had different cultural expectations.  They were a different religion, a different race, a different economic class, living in a different region.  We had to understand why they acted how they did, influenced by their backgrounds and surroundings, before we could reach them.

In social work, this is referred to as an ecological systems theory, but I think it applies everywhere.

Part of the fun of reading is getting into someone else’s head, into their thoughts and actions. But why stop there? Why not apply this to everyone you come across?

I like opera; you don’t. That’s fine. But rather than tell me how no one could pay you enough money to go to a show, why not just leave it at, “I don’t like opera,” or actually try going to a show before passing judgment?

Same with writing. I write; many people I know don’t. Rather than make fun of my novel, why not just acknowledge that I like to write, and you like to watch reality TV, and agree that we don’t have common ground with our interests?

Try putting yourself in your characters’ heads, or in the heads of those around you. Try seeing the world how they see it, for better or for worse. You might just be surprised what you learn about yourself in return.

A is for Antagonist #atozchallenge

(Last year I signed up for the 2012 Blogging from A to Z April Challenge. I met some great writers, so I thought I’d do it again this year too. Basically, you write a blog post every day in April except Sundays, going through the alphabet.)

Day A of the 2013 Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: antagonists.

A couple years ago I wrote a short story, “The Kindness of Strangers,” which appeared in the The Indiana Horror Anthology 2011. Basically it was about a girl who wanted to get revenge on her ex-boyfriend, and she was helped by an evil paranormal antagonist, Alec.

Usually I write about a character once, and that’s it; I have very few recurring characters.  But Alec stuck with me, and when I started a story about a guy driving through the Midwest causing trouble just for the fun of it, I realized that guy was Alec.  The story is mostly written, except for the end, and I’ve been stuck on it for quite awhile.  This past weekend, the story unstuck itself.

I realized that I’d been looking at Alec all wrong.  Yes, he’s the antagonist.  Yes, he’s an unsympathetic d-bag whom readers will probably want to suffer for his crimes.  But he’s more than that; he has a back story, and motivation, and a goal.

I read somewhere recently that every character is the star of his or her own story, and antagonists are no exception.  Great antagonists are ones who could be us except for the (subjectively?) bad choices they’ve made.  They’re trying to reach their goals as best they can, skewed by their moral perceptions and backgrounds.  And my Alec is no exception.  In order to connect, in order for an antagonist to be memorable, I think a big part of it is just getting to know the antagonist as well as the protagonist.

Who’s your favorite antagonist, and why? Do you prefer nuanced villains or one-dimensional bad guys, and why?

A picture is worth a hundred stories

One of my hobbies is genealogy. I love the research aspect of it – hunting for overlooked relatives with misspelled names on censuses, finding an elusive obituary with my mad Google skills, identifying a long-lost relative that cracks open a whole new branch.

More than that though, I love the stories that make my ancestors come alive. Unfortunately, all that’s usually passed down is names and dates, with nothing that makes someone a real living person.  But occasionally, you come across an old photo that gives you tons of details into the life of someone who died decades or centuries ago.

I’m lucky that my grandmother and great-grandmother both loved not only taking pictures of their daily lives, but scrapbooking as well.  I’m in possession of boxes of old photos that I’m slowly scanning to share with relatives scattered around the globe.

I recently scanned my grandmother’s wedding album, and tonight when she was over for dinner, I asked her to identify someone in one of the pictures.

Rather than just confirm that the man hiding in the back row is indeed her stepfather, she told me about where the picture was taken (her mom’s dining room), details about the furniture (that cabinet is made with all pegs, no nails), and what the wedding party went on to do (marriage, dentistry).

She further explained that she and the maid of honor were best friends and frequently double-dated. The maid of honor didn’t like my future grandfather, and my grandmother didn’t like the maid of honor’s future husband (the best man in this wedding, who was good friends with my grandfather). So one night when the two guys asked the two girls out, my grandma and her friend blew them off instead. The young men wanted to know why, and the girls just said, “Eh.” This happened again the next week, so my grandpa asked my grandma to go skating with him, solo.  They were married six months later.

Looking at this picture, there are so many other stories (all true): a woman who left a man to marry his brother. Another woman who left her own husband to run off with an older married man and live under an alias while they traveled the country as truck drivers during the Depression. A bootlegger uncle. An arranged marriage. A mother who sent her young illegitimate son to live with family in America. An overly-protective mother who undermined her child’s marriage. A woman left widowed with 5 kids after her husband killed himself.

What can your old pictures tell you?

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