Tag: character development

Finding inspiration from sucky people

On Monday I started a new temp job, working as a secretary at an insurance agency, the part with adjusters who handle filed claims (and the resulting lawsuits).  It’s not bad, as far as temp jobs go: a variety of clerical tasks, no automaton data entry, very little interaction with the public, snacks at my desk, etc.

The best part, however, is the stories.  Oh my God, the stories.

I don’t think I signed a confidentiality agreement, but even so, I’ll keep it vague.  Here are some things I’ve learned so far, that I intend to weave into stories:

  • Insurance fraud is hard to pull off, but that doesn’t stop people from trying.  Like someone who “broke his back” in a fender-bender that barely scratched the vehicles’ paint.  And the high school dropout will always assume that he’s smarter than The Man; any attempts to prove otherwise will be written off as a conspiracy of him vs The World.
  • People are stupid and willing to believe anything the person they love says, including that pregnancies with twins last 18 months, because there are two of them. Yes, someone actually bought that.
  • People are greedy.  They’ll sue their kids, their elderly parents, and their best friends if they think they can get something from it.  And sometimes they do it just to spite them.
  • There’s always a very good reason for the incident, and it’s rarely the fault of whomever’s it really is.  You got drunk, ran a stoplight, and plowed into a pedestrian?  Well, the road was slick.  He came out of nowhere/intentionally jumped in front of your car. The breathalyzer test was faulty because The Man is out to get you.
“I swear, officer, the old bastard had it coming.” (photo from Flickr)

It’s a lot of negatives, I realize, but sometimes it’s useful to have a reminder that there really are a lot of stupid, greedy, manipulative people out there.  Not bad people, necessarily; people who put their own interests ahead of everyone else’s.  And sometimes those can be the worst villains, because they’re ordinary, believable people thwarting your MC’s goals.

Do you prefer your villains evil or mundane?  Why?

Author interview: Samyann

This week’s interview is with historical romance author Samyann, who’s just released Yesterday: A Novel of Reincarnation.

In Yesterday, Amanda is afraid that everyone she loves will leave her.  But then she meets police officer Mark and is hit by a sense of familiarity.  Guided by her elderly godmother Mary, Amanda uses past life regression analysis to connect with the story of Bonnie, a girl growing up in the shadow of the Civil War and later in 1870’s Chicago.  As the novel progresses, Amanda must decide just how much influence her past will have on her future with Mark.

Samyann recently chatted with me about writing historically accurate stories, self-publishing, and reincarnation.

Me:  Your novel, Yesterday, has three settings: Chicago today, Chicago in 1871, and Charleston, SC, during the Civil War.  Obviously as a native of Chicago you know a lot about the first one.  How much research did you have to do for the other settings?

Samyann: Being a native Chicagoan, it’s not really surprising that I have, over time, picked up quite a bit of the history of the city. I think I learned about much of the Great Chicago Fire history when I was pre-teen. For example, the fact that Chicago’s streets were made of wood blocks covered with tar prior to the fire. There was more research with regard to South Carolina and the Civil War era. The fact that the internet is available to make such research pretty simple, it not only didn’t take very long, but has supplied me with a great deal of information that isn’t in the book.

Me:  Did you travel to Charleston while you were writing the book?

Samyann: Not while working on Yesterday. But, in a previous life, I traveled a great deal. Charleston, and the King Street Antique District, which is part of Yesterday, was visited. I didn’t visit St. Michael’s Church, though. I wish I had, simply because of the awesome history of the bells.

Me:  Previous life as in a hundred and fifty years ago? :D

Samyann: Pretty close!

Me:  What kind of websites were the most helpful to you in your research?

Samyann: The websites that helped the most were library, newspaper archives, and city sites. An example is The Charleston Mercury website. Bonnie’s father, one of the characters in Yesterday, reads about the battle of Shiloh in the paper. This battle was chronicled by The Charleston Mercury, and you can read about it on-line today. There are also quite a few sites devoted to the Civil War. Dates were relevant to accurately convey character ages. Chicago has it’s own valuable resources, such as the Chicago History Museum and website, Historical Society, too. These helped a great deal given the fact that Lincoln, an Illinois politician, is factored into the story, if only for the escape of the characters into Lincoln Park from the Chicago Fire.

Me:  The Chicago History Museum provided you with a picture for your cover, right?

Samyann: That’s correct. It is a terrific diorama that can be seen at the Chicago History Museum, at LaSalle Street and North Avenue.

Me:  Did you just call them up and ask to use it for your cover?

Samyann: Yes. I simply made a phone call. There is an agreement I had to sign, which allows for a certain number of copies. If I manage to sell ‘X’ number of copies of their image, the agreement will be re-written. I will be delighted to re-write the contract ;-)

Me:  Past-life regression therapy plays a huge role in your novel.  Did that require a lot of research too, or were you already familiar with it?

Samyann:  I think the concept of regression is something everyone has wondered about. I’ve the same fundamental knowledge about the topic as everybody … that and curiosity, primarily. Toss in some imagination, and voila. Seriously, I did do considerable research into the process of regression, bringing someone into an ethereal state. I wanted people who are studied in the process, and even those who are not, to sense reality. The concept of using the pendulum of the clock as opposed to the hypnotist swinging a shiny object or watch just seemed logical.

Me: I think you’re definitely right, that everyone has wondered about reincarnation at some point.  Given that, and all you probably discovered with your research, how plausible do you think your story is?  In other words, do you believe in reincarnation?

Samyann:  As indicated in Yesterday, a few billion people on earth believe in reincarnation, so I’m not sure I’d put up a very good case against the concept. I think the plausibility is there, sufficient enough for the reader to simply ask themselves, “what if … or why not?”

Me: Way to dodge the question.  :)

Samyann:  Cool, huh.

Me:  If it is possible, who do you think you might have been in a previous life?  Someone famous? Some ordinary?

Samyann:  I’m sure someone equally as ordinary as I am today.

Me:  What about the idea in the story that our paths are connected with someone else, throughout all our lives? Do you think that’s possible too?

Samyann: Why not? That’s a concept in reincarnation called “soul pods,” traveling through many lives within a group of souls. In reality, the entire concept of reincarnation is speculative, with many different thoughts. I don’t think anyone could say with a degree of surety that any one possibility is impossible. That negates the idea of speculation, which is basically what Yesterday is about.

Me:  You definitely have a soul pod going in Yesterday, with Amanda, Mark, and Mary connected both in the present and the past.  I think from a reader’s perspective, though, it makes it a lot easier to connect the two stories.  Amanda=Bonnie. Amanda’s struggles parallel Bonnie’s struggles.

Samyann:  Don’t forget Oprah and Electra :-) [my note: those are Amanda’s and Bonnie’s cats]

Me:  It goes to show that while Yesterday is a romance, it’s not just about the love story between Amanda and Mark; it’s about coming to grips with your past and letting go of it so you can move forward.  Do you think this theme is something that’ll resonate with your readers?

Samyann:  I hope so. I’d like the reader to grasp that happiness is in reach for everyone. But, your happiness today is in your future today, not your past … Yesterday.  EWWWW, how cool is that!

Me:  How similar is Amanda’s character to you?

Samyann: Well, she’s young and beautiful, so we can nix that part :-). Maybe a few decades ago we would have had more in common. Primarily I think, if anything, some of my life experiences might be in her character, a bit. But, they’re also in the other characters. Mary’s in particular.

Me: I think Mary might be my favorite character.  She’s the ideal old woman – lively and comfortable enough with herself to say and do whatever she wants.  That’s how I plan to be when I’m old.

Samyann:  She’ll tell you to have at it, and “don’t pick fly shit outta pepper.”

Me:  That’s disgusting, by the way.

Samyann: LOL

Me:  On a completely non-disgusting topic, you self-published not only a hard copy of your book, but you’ll soon have an e-book and an audio book.  What are your overall thoughts on the whole process?

Samyann:  That it takes time. Lots and lots of time. That it’s not as expensive as I thought it would be. Granted, I did spend a bit to have a custom cover design, and purchased the services of a narrator for the audiobook. But, beyond that, the entire publishing process has been free. I think given the state of affairs with the publishing business today, what an individual with average tech-savvy ability can do, there really is no option anymore. Why would I use a conventional publisher to do what I can do? The biggest marketing effort they do for you is to list your book with Amazon and a few other on-line and bricks & mortar bookstores like Barnes & Noble. Well, I can do that myself so I fail to see why I shouldn’t.

Me:  So you’d do the same thing for your next novel?

Samyann: Absolutely. Unless some big publishing outfit offers me a huge advance, which we know won’t happen.

Me: I just read a quote by author Jon Scalzi, who said, “Hey, I became a writer to get rich.”  Is that your motivation?

Samyann:  No. I write because it’s fun, I’m retired with little else to do, and I always wanted to write when I had the time. When you’re retired, everyday is Saturday.

Me: Fair enough.  :)  What tips do you have for other writers who want to get published?

Samyann:  If you have what you believe to be a good story, and others have told you it’s a good story … don’t wait for the gatekeepers (agents), do it yourself. There are many avenues. Get your book read by others, join a critique site. Yesterday-Chapter 1 had close to 100 critiques. Many people need to tell you that you have a good story, not just “mom.”

Make sure to check out Samyann’s book, Yesterday: A Novel of Reincarnation.  You can also connect with her on Twitter – @Samyann_Writer – or at her website.

Recurring characters

Despite what my summary of last year’s reading habits might suggest, I don’t generally read books that lend themselves to sequels.  I tend to lean more towards literary fiction, where a character grows and changes over the course of the story, and then at the end there’s nothing more left to add, compared to genre fiction where it’s more about the plot and quite often the character is the same in each book.

That being said, I think it’s possible to find a balance between the two with a recurring character threading his way through multiple stories.

The first example that comes to mind is Stephen King’s Flagg character.  If you’re not familiar with King’s work, Flagg is a villain who thrives on chaos.  He shows up in numerous stories, almost as if he can actually climb out of one book and into another:

  • a leader of the “bad” guys in The Stand
  • a wizard in The Eye of the Dragon (which is the first book I read by King, way back in junior high)
  • the man in black that Roland chases in The Dark Tower series, a series which crosses through several worlds including ours and that of The Stand
  • an activist in Hearts in Atlantis

Sometimes Flagg has a different name, but if you know to look, he’s always there, with the same characteristics and end goal, namely of gaining power through destruction.

A second example is by creating an architype that may or may not be given the same name.  This would include Charlaine Harris and her multiple series revolving around twenty-something-year-old women with paranormal abilities living in the South.  Same main characters, different names, different adventures.

As a short story writer, I like the idea of having recurring characters and archetypes in my stories.  Often there’s not enough room to get to know a character completely, and many of my stories don’t lend themselves to novels.  Having that character come back, in a different setting, unites my stories and hopefully keeps my readers wanting to come back to know them more deeply.

One of my goals for 2013 is to put out a collection of short stories, and in it, I plan to have a recurring character somewhat along the lines as King’s Flagg.  He’s a vaguely paranormal guy on a quest, who thrives on chaos while attempting to reach his goal.  He’s already shown up in “The Kindness of Strangers,” which was published in the 2011 Indiana Horror Anthology, and again in a short story I’ve almost finished and will be submitting soon.  He also apparently had a huge hand in Sara going crazy (crazier) during the events leading up to “Tim and Sara.”

What’s your opinion on recurring characters?  Do you like them traditionally in series, or are you a fan of them popping up in various stories?  As a writer, do you use them, and why or why not?

Breakdown of a hero, pt 2: What not to do

On Wednesday, I broke down some of my favorite heroes:  Batman (in all his incarnations), Jason Bourne, and Indiana Jones.  What makes them so great, in my opinion, is that despite their overwhelming awesome talents and minds, they have flaws and their own unique motivations.

I’d planned on devoting part 2 to how my own characters compare, but today while at the gym I got to thinking about heroes on the other end of the spectrum, and thought I’d highlight a few horrible heroes as an example of what not to do.

The biggest flaw a hero can have is to not have any flaws at all.  This is called a Mary Sue character, and it pops up all the time.

Tarl Cabot
Fortunately for the world, Tarl Cabot isn’t very well known.  He’s the hero of a series called the Chronicles of Gor, written by John Norman.  The premise is that Tarl is transported from Earth to the planet Gor, where warrior men fight for control of various city-states and enslave all the women as sex-slaves.  I’ll ignore the philosophy and horrible writing to focus on Tarl himself.

He arrives on Gor unable to speak the language, but he quickly learns it because he’s just so dang smart (he also becomes a chess master in later books, again because of his wonderful intellect).  He masters every single weapon on the planet, quickly becoming better than people who’ve spent their whole life using it.  He understands the nuances of every culture and tribe, and often is able to become a leader in each society he encounters – the plains warrior nomads, the desert nomads (headed by Saladin, because the author has no imagination), the merchants, the fishermen, the city gladiators, etc. And in each book, he has untold numbers of women throwing themselves at his feet because he’s just so darned attractive.

So, in short, there’s a handsome, strong, smart warrior leader who can defeat everyone and always gets the girl.  Just about every book in the series portrays him this way.  It got so that I was actively rooting against him.  That’s not something you want for your character.

The name says it all.  X-ray vision. Superhuman strength. Ability to fly. He can probably breathe underwater. Hell, if I had those powers, I could be a crimefighter too.

Yes, he has his weakness in Kryptonite.  And Batman and Lex Luther know it.  But when it comes down to fighting criminals, Superman will always win.  There’s no element of surprise that you get with mortal superheroes.  And maybe that’s the appeal, in that you have someone who’ll always win.  But who wants to read a story where you already know the ending before it even starts?

There seems to be a universal plot in fantasy: unknown hero boy has super ability/object that makes him the chosen one to defeat a great evil.  Harry Potter. Star Wars. Lord of the Rings. Those dragon books by that sixteen year old whose dad owns a publishing company.  And, of course, David Eddings’ Belgariad.

Garion is an all-American boy (yes, I know he’s not American).  He’s smart but not too smart.  He’s kind, and funny, and attractive.  He’s an all-around good guy.  While he gets into trouble on his adventures, his friends – the thief, the bratty girl, the wizard in disguise, the wise old aunt – have his back.  In his world, good will always win (and hey, he might even become good friends with the leader of the bad guys, who just need to see the error of their ways).

In short – he’s boring.

Basically, what it comes down to with these guys is that if your hero is too perfect, with no flaws, he either comes across arrogant – like Tarl – or boring – like Garion.  In the real world, no one is perfect.  There’s always some flaw that we have to struggle against, that keeps us from reaching our goal.  A realistic flaw, like Batman’s devotion to a cause at the expense of a personal life, and not a cheesy one, like Superman’s reaction to a rare chunk of rock.

As I wrote about on the role of the villain, the hero needs to be someone we can identify with.  If the reader can’t see himself in the role of the hero, then why would he want to keep reading?

Which heroes do you hate?  Why?

Breakdown of a hero, pt 1

If you’ve been around me for any length of time, you’ll know that I love Batman.  And Indiana Jones.

Even with one-legged Batman and faceless Indy, they could easily win against Nazi Joker.

There’s one more action hero I’ll throw into the mix: Jason Bourne. My idea of a good night is a cheesecake, bottle of wine, and Bourne movie marathon.  Fortunately I caught one this past weekend.  And it left me thinking about what these three men have in common, why I like them so much, and what I can take away for my own heroes.

Part 1: Who the heroes are
Part 2, to follow eventually: How my own characters compare

There are several reasons Batman is my favorite superhero. 

  • He has no superpowers; he can’t fly like Superman, or use a magic ring like the Green Lantern, or shoot laser beams from his eyes like Cyclops.  He has to rely on his wits, his extreme intelligence, and his gadgets.
  • He’s smart.  Really, really, really smart.  He uses his intelligence to out-think his opponents, anticipating their moves before they do.  He keeps kryptonite around just in case Superman gets out of hand.  He studies his opponents and knows all their weaknesses, just in case.  He’s a team player, but not because he needs to be.
  • He never kills anyone.  If you’re not familiar with his background, as a child he witnessed his parents’ murder, and basically vowed not to kill anyone if he could avoid it.  He doesn’t carry a gun, unlike Ironman (whom I won’t even get started on).
  • He has a great sense of dark humor and enjoys sarcasm.  

I read a great book this summer, Batman and Philosophy edited by Mark D. White and Robert Arp, which made me reflect more deeply on Batman’s nature.  Although technically he’s just a sexy character in a cartoon or movie or comic book, he’s been around enough to seem real.  As a writer, I want my characters, especially in a novel, to have that same depth, that same realness.

Batman’s goal is to stop crime in Gotham City.  He forgoes everything else to achieve this, including relationships (for example, with Selina Kyle aka Catwoman).  You could argue it’s because he doesn’t want those close to him to get hurt because of who he is and what he does.

Now, contrast this with the next guy.

Jason Bourne
I’ll admit that I’ve only seen the movies and not read the books.  But from just the movies, this is why I love him:

  • Like Batman, he’s good at everything: languages, martial arts, general bad-assery in chase scenes, etc.
  • Once he figures out who he was, he realizes he’s not evil.  He goes around apologizing to everyone he’s hurt.  You know he wants to atone for what he did.
  • He’s awesome at game theory, always staying one step ahead of his opponent.  Compared to Batman, Bourne’s playing chess while the Caped Crusader is still on checkers.

Where the two differ, however, is their motivation.  While Batman’s loyalties lie with a promise he made to his parents to stop crime, and to Gotham City, Bourne isn’t tied to any organization or noble cause.  Instead, he focuses on actual people.  When the CIA killed his girlfriend, Bourne took down the CIA.  When they tried to kill agent Nicky Parsons, who’d helped him out, he went after her would-be assassin.

The lesson we learn from Bourne: friends and loved ones matter, more than the mission.  In fact, avenging his friends and loved ones often becomes the mission.

Considering all these points, we come to my final favorite.

Indiana Jones
Indy is a synthesis of both Batman and Bourne.

  • He’s very smart, even though it often gets him into stickier situations.
  • Like Batman, he’s fighting for a good cause – either to stop Nazis, or to save village children (I refuse to acknowledge the existence of The Crystal Skull).  And, most importantly, knowledge for the sake of knowledge.  For example, he doesn’t want the Ark in order to take over the world; he wants to put it in a museum so it can one day melt off Shia LaBeouf’s face.
  • But like Bourne, he’ll stop his mission to save the ones he loves.  Take The Last Crusade.  Even though Elsa turns out to be a Nazi, he still tries to save her at the end.  He willingly gives up the Grail, something he’d been pursuing forever, in exchange for her life.

Indy is more than Batman and Bourne, however.  Indy is human.  He makes mistakes and takes them in stride, unlike Batman, who broods over them.  He gets injured – a lot – and he complains about it.  He’ll kill if he has to, but unlike Bourne and Batman he tries to work through the proper channels first, going to the authorities if he needs to.  And his flaws just add to his overall appeal: he’s a likable guy, fighting for what’s right.

So, you have three action heroes with similar goals, but with three different ways of reaching them. 

  • Batman, with his serious trust issues, works alone to fight crime and honor a promise to his parents, keeping potential partners at a distance.
  • Bourne wants a normal life, but if you mess with someone he cares about he’ll destroy you.
  • Indy values knowledge and fights for what he believes is right, but puts the people he cares about first.

Which heroes are your favorites?  What are their goals, and how do they reach them?

Evolving villains

A couple months ago I participated in the 2012 A to Z Challenge.  Being a nice reciprocal blogger, I also read blogs by others taking part in the event, which basically consisted of writing a post for every letter of the alphabet.  Many had posts like mine – completely random – but author Christopher Starr over at Crooked Letterz focused on villains, including in-depth analysis of what makes them tick.  Even if you’re not a fan of comics or movies, I highly suggest you read his insightful posts on what makes someone bad.

I recently had a brief conversation with another writer about the decline of chivalry.  He lamented that girls go for the jerks who treat them like crap, passing over the nice guys who would never hurt them.  I countered that perhaps girls see something redeeming in those jerks, something that no one else sees that makes them worth being with.  For example, I knew a guy who generally came off as arrogant, abrasive, and crude, and overall annoyed the hell out of me.  But one-on-one with him, he was conscientious of my thoughts and feelings and instinctively protective of me.  He shared his backstory with me so I could understand his motivations, and after that it was very difficult for me to see him as a one-dimensional bad guy.

I just finished the Hunger Games series.  I’ll try not to spoil the ending, but one thing that stuck out is President Snow’s behavior at the end.  President Snow is despicable, no question about it, but at the end he reminds Katniss of a promise he made to her, a promise that brings him a bit of redemption.  In other words, he evolves from a horrible excuse for a human being to a, well, slightly less horrible excuse for a human being.

My whole point with this – if you want a memorable, effective bad guy, don’t make him a completely one-dimensional bad guy.  Like President Snow, have him kill villages of people without hesitation but keep a promise he made to a young girl.  Like my friend, make him insufferable to be around but loyal to his principles.

To be a good villain, I think the bad guy needs to be someone we can identify and sympathize with, and someone the protagonist can connect with as well.

Christopher Starr asked, in the comments of one of his posts, “Ed, what do you think about the responsibility of making the villain evolve over time? Do we have more compelling villains if they have similar emotional/developmental arcs?”

I responded, “I think they are more compelling, because it becomes a moral lesson for the audience. Two similar characters at some point branch out from the same event – a shared childhood, a trauma, a disappointment. Faced with two choices, one aims for morality and the other for base revenge. It’s a choice we all have to make, and I think it makes the villain that much more terrifying, because we realize how easily we ourselves could be that villain.”

And that’s the key, I think, to writing a good antagonist or villain: “we realize how easily we ourselves could be that villain.”  And in order to connect with that villain, in order to see that, we need them to have redeeming qualities, because no one thinks of himself as all bad.  We need common traits, like love of orphans or kittens, or chivalrous behavior, like holding doors open.

If we know the villain can be good, it leads to the question, what about us?  What’s keeping the protagonist or us from turning into that villain?  If you want your story to stick with people, I think that’s an important point to address.

Who’s your favorite villain, either literary or in movies and pop culture?  Do they have any redeeming qualities, and how does that affect their relationships with the protagonists?

C is for Characters #atozchallenge

Day 3 (Day C?) of the Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: characters.

Last night I was working on a story and noticed that a character from a previous story wanted to make an appearance.  That got me thinking about character types, and I noticed that I have basically four different characters I write:

  • The strong protector – someone who’s trying to save everyone while needing protection himself due to emotional vulnerability.
  • The loyal friend – naive and goodhearted, and will do what he can to help a friend.
  • The unstable protagonist – ranging from not quite in touch with reality, to ape scat crazy, and usually just trying to survive.
  • The malevolent troublemaker – sometimes thoughts distracting the character, and sometimes evil personified.

What about you?  Do you have any recurring characters in what you write?  Or, on the other hand, are you drawn to books with similar characters?

Characters going down with the ship

“I am very muscular.” (Photo: Dario Acosta)

I love the opera.  I know that’s weird.  Every time I go, I’m usually the youngest by at least twenty-thirty years (I have a lot of weird quirks though, and I’m comfortable enough with them that it doesn’t bother me when other people think I’m strange).  Bizet’s Carmen is my favorite, followed by most shows starring Keith Miller (who used to be a football player) or Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

“I am also very muscular.” (Photo: his website)

I live nowhere near New York or anywhere really with an opera company, plus my entertainment budget can’t really afford tickets, so I’m really glad that the Metropolitan Opera has a program called The Met: Live in HD.  Every year they broadcast a dozen or so shows into movie theaters around the country.  Some of them are new live shows, and some are encores from previous years, plus during the summer they broadcast encores of everything  in case you missed one (plus these are cheaper, I think).

This past weekend it was Gounod’s Faust.  Yes, the same Faust that Newland Archer was at when he met Countess Ellen Olenska in Age of Innocence (a book that I love).  And a production that heavily influenced Mikhael Bulgakov when he wrote The Master and Margarita, which is the best book ever.  Read it.

Today’s production had been updated from sixteenth-century Germany to about 1918, and Faust, played by the wonderfully-coiffed Jonas Kaufman, was a nuclear physicist.  René Pape was awesome as Mephistophélès, blending in just the right amount of comedy to show us where Bulgakov got his Woland (the devil in his story).  Marina Poplavskaya didn’t completely suck as Marguerite.  I still prefer Goethe’s version of the story, but overall this one was pretty good.

Faust:  “I’m gonna hit that.”  Marguerite: “Oh, I’m so pure.  Nothing bad could ever happen to me.”Mephistophélès: “Mwahaha.” (Photo: The Wall Street Journal)

Except for the end.  I’m not a big happy ending person, and so Faust is just a bit too upbeat for me, with everything working out nicely.  Mainly, because Marguerite didn’t go down with the ship.

What do I mean?  Let’s look at a few other stories that illustrate my point (warning – spoilers ahead):

  • Carmen:  Mikaëla is in love with Don José.  Everyone expects them to get married, but then Don José falls for Carmen, does time for her, ruins his career for her, etc.  What does Mikaëla do?  She makes the dangerous trip to the Gypsy camp and brings him home to his dying mother.  Everything probably would’ve been better for her if she’d left him to rot, but no; she risks her life to save him. 
  • Stephen King’s Thinner:  At the end of the story, Billy has successfully contained the curse in a pie.  He gets home and finds that his wife and daughter are eating said cursed pie.  He could’ve said, “Sorry, I’m gonna let you suffer and die, now that I’m finally saved.”  But no.  He pulls out a fork and joins them.
  • Shel Silverstein’s The Giving TreeRemember this one?  The tree gives its apples, branches, and even stump to its kid.  It could’ve told him to F off, but no; it keeps giving until there’s nothing left.
  • Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita:  Margarita and the Master are in love, even though he’s kind of insane.  She makes a deal with the devil to get him back.  She could just marry another guy, but no.  She damns her own soul to save the guy she loves.
  • The Bible: I’m not religious, but there’s that whole Jesus guy thing illustrating my point, with his “Turn the other cheek” philosophy.

And then there’s Marguerite. “Hmm, I could go to Hell with the guy I swore I love, because that’s where he’s headed.  I could probably make a deal with Mephistophélès to take my soul and spare Faust.  Nah, I think I’ll go to Heaven and let my babydaddy rot.”  Despite knowing the ending before I saw the show, I was not happy with it.

So, barely-existent readers, what’s your preference?  Would your main characters save themselves, or would they suffer to save their loved ones?

Unreliable narrators

There’s a concept in stories, the unreliable narrator, where the main character is so convinced of something that his beliefs color his every word and thought and action, even though we the readers know otherwise (Humbert Humbert in Lolita is a great example of this).  Or sometimes, we the readers don’t know it until an outside event opens our eyes.

It’s not that the characters are lying, necessarily.  Teenagers always think they’re persecuted and misunderstood, but most people realize the melodramatics are overblown by the time they reach 25-30.  In my Lone Wolf novel, the main character Andrew sees himself as a martyr, as always doing the right thing and being punished for it.  The reader, I think, can see right through it, but that doesn’t make him less of a person.  The female MC, Kasey, is also a bit of an unreliable narrator, although with her it’s more subtle.

It can be more blatent.  One of my students told me today that he went by an Army recruitment office yesterday, and that if he signs up (he’ll be 18 in a few months) they’ll pay to send him to Missouri for training.  Yesterday he had a story about missing a job interview at McDonald’s.  He went by and talked to a major factory employer who offered him a job.  His uncle is a millionaire.  The list goes on.  We both know that he’s exaggerating or outright lying, but it’s who he is – he wants to impress everyone, so he makes up stories.

A friend of mine is the same.  He tells outrageous stories that I know didn’t happen.  But he’s told them so many times, to so many people, that he now believes they’re true.  To him, now, they did happen.

Our perceptions color so much of how we experience life, how we process our thoughts.  I think the key to building great characters is to give them that lens that colors their world, and then let the readers decide if their POV is justified.

PS: My muse went AWOL last night.  I think I know why and I’m hoping it’s just temporary (it usually is), but if not, if you see my muse tell ’em to come back.  I’m a little directionless without it and with NaNoWriMo starting in a few weeks, I need all the help I can get.  Stupid fickle inspiration.

Zodiac signs as character building

Awhile back, I mentioned that figuring out a zodiac sign for your character is a great way to help with character building.

In my current WIP, The Lone Wolf, the female MC, Kasey, is definitely a Cancer.  Home matters to her.  She’s nice and squishy and lovable under her protective shell.  And if you mess with her family, she’ll kill you (well, maybe not that last part).

Andrew was a bit tougher to crack, but I’ve determined that he’s a Sagittarius.  Adventurous, caring, blunt – that’s him.

On Twitter I follow XStrology, who posts zodiac tidbits for all the signs.  I read through them and it’s like daily character insights (for me too; I’m the epitome of a Pisces).

This just popped up today: “#Sagittarius men wish they could stay and love you forever but know that they are incapable. He’d rather not break your heart. He’d leave.”  That pretty much sums up Andrew’s role in the novel.

So if you’re struggling with your characters, or just want more insight, I suggest you follow this guy.  It’s a great resource if you’re lazy.  :)

Today’s follow-up question:  What sign are you?  Do you find its traits fit you or not?

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