My Character, the B-Word

The main character of my urban fantasy series is an alcoholic.

Specifically, she’s an attractive, wealthy, privileged alcoholic with a snark problem and an attitude. She’s definitely not the nicest character in the library, and to use the b-word to describe her might be just.

Okay, I’ll just say it. She’s kind of a bitch.

Why on earth would I write such a person, you say? When the role of the novelist is to inspire reaching minds to wondrous heights? When, in the truly good novel, the good must end happily and the bad unhappily?

The truth is, unlikable characters are just more fun.

We don’t live in the 1700s nowadays (in case you hadn’t noticed). The role of the novel is not to teach and inform—unless, perhaps, you’re writing for children. Even then, a moral is worth about as much as the time we spend listening to those who preach at us: very little. Main characters are no longer role models, inspiring us to act as the moralizing hero of a three-volume novel would have done.

Nope, memorable main characters are those we can identify with, those who make us laugh, those who shock us and make us cry. Think about it: Macbeth, Becky Sharpe, Scarlett O’Hara, Jay Gatsby, Harry Dresden, Starbuck. We love characters with flaws. If they’re too perfect, they’re a snooze.

But that still doesn’t answer the question of why I would ever write a bitchy female protagonist—and why in all reason I would describe her as such.

I’m going to fall back on a quote from Anne of the Island, by L.M. Montgomery, a book about a character who (heaven forbid) actually serves as a role model:

“Anyhow,” resumed the merciless Mr. Harrison, “I don’t see why MAURICE LENNOX didn’t get her. He was twice the man the other is. He did bad things, but he did them. Perceval hadn’t time for anything but mooning.”

“Mooning.” That was even worse than “pitching!”

“MAURICE LENNOX was the villain,” said Anne indignantly. “I don’t see why every one likes him better than PERCEVAL.”

“Perceval is too good. He’s aggravating. Next time you write about a hero put a little spice of human nature in him.”

“AVERIL couldn’t have married MAURICE. He was bad.”

“She’d have reformed him. You can reform a man; you can’t reform a jelly-fish, of course. Your story isn’t bad — it’s kind of interesting, I’ll admit. But you’re too young to write a story that would be worth while. Wait ten years.”

Poor perfect Anne had to learn that a too-perfect character is a nuisance to your readers. (Of course, while Anne herself could be a role model, she also has her flaws and quirks.) We all like a little spice of human nature. But why get so spicy that even I, her creator, refer to my main character as a bitch?

It’s much as good old Mr. Harrison said: when you start at the bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up. Reform is far more interesting than bland acceptance. A flawed character must grow and change. She has the most to learn from her struggles, and while her journey is rocky, it’s all the more suspense-filled.

I’m not writing to suggest that my readers should become my main character. No, I’d rather my readers see that even the most addicted, smart-mouthed, struggling detective can transform into a strong, powerful woman who can overcome her own demons. Is she worthy of emulation? No. Is she worth reading? I think so. Is she entertaining? Hell, yes.

It’s amusing to watch her struggle. We can laugh at her outrageous snark. We can feel frustration at her bad choices. And we can see a little of ourselves in the things we would never do but wish we could and in the adversities we hope to conquer and never will.

The lovable rogue. The antihero. The bitch, the jerk, the ass. We don’t want to be ’em, but we sure do love ’em.

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Role Models? My Characters? Not so much.

It sat there, staring at me. It was…a challenge, etched within a lousy review of my book. “And what is it with that Lola girl?” it said in letters made bigger and bolder by my irritated brain.  “She’s not a role model at all.

And I thought….a role model? My characters? Why do you want them to be role models? They’re characters in a STORY.

I stayed disgruntled for maybe an hour, my feathers ruffled completely. But then I remembered something. Something important.

That Lola girl? The battered, beaten, downtrodden third narrator of my zombie series? She was never meant to be a role model. Like at all. Because that Lola girl? She’s actually a cautionary tale.

See, Lola came about because I had this vision of a girl surviving the zombie apocalypse not because of her own wits, or even her own dumb luck, but simply because someone else made the choice for her. A mean someone. A someone who hurt people, but tried to protect his sister, his baby. His punching bag. I pictured a girl, small and skinny, from a poverty-stricken background, who doesn’t know how to take care of herself at all.  Who has no idea that people can be kind, that some can be trusted. Who winds up on the wrong side of good vs. evil after zombies have decimated our entire country, and who doesn’t even realize it.

I pictured a girl whose self-esteem has been so shattered by years and years of systemic abuse, she has no idea there’s better people out there. Nicer people. Non-violent people. And when she meets them, she has no idea how to be around them.

Becoming Lola is the last thing I’d ever want to do. I faced a scary dude once, a boy who I think would have hit me if I’d let him come to my house on a particular summer day, and it still haunts me. The what-if of it all. What if I’d let him come? What if I’d let him hit me? What if that became my life?

And seriously, haven’t we all been in bad relationships? Where we think it’s the best we’re going to get, the best we deserve? Where we look in the mirror and see something ugly staring back at us? Something we never wanted to become?

It happens, and it’s life, and I wrote Lola to reflect that side of things. She is not a role model, at least not in the first book of the series.

Writing Lola was hard. It’s hard to write someone you don’t admire, not even a little bit. For whom redemption seems, at times, impossible. But look at the world around us. It’s full of good people, sure, but it’s also full of sad ones. Beaten ones. Downtrodden ones. Real ones.

I feel like our responsibility as writers is to not shy away from characters such as Lola, to tell their stories, even if they’re hard to tell.  I don’t want to spend my time writing only happy tales with happy characters who always triumph.

That’s not how life is.  Some of the books I’ve most enjoyed in the past year have extremely flawed characters.  Miriam Black in Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds and Mockingbird is a disaster of a human being. She steals to survive, lives in seedy hotels and on the street, and when push comes to shove, she runs away…at first. Cat in Cassandra Rose Clare’s The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is selfish and self-centered. She uses people to get what she wants in life.

MadScientistsDaughter-144dpi (1) blackbirds

These women aren’t role models…but they are great, strong, dynamic characters.

So no. Of course Lola is not a role model. It’s not my job to write role models. It’s my job to write stories with characters that reflect reality, not a perfect world with perfect people. 

Hero(in)es with Issues

crazyladyWho doesn’t love a hero or heroine with issues? I know they’re my favorite kind of protagonist. There’s nothing more annoying or off-putting than a perfect caricature character because they don’t exist in real life. We read to find out more about the world, and there’s not much to be learned from unbelievable perfection.

In my upcoming paranormal romance serial novel, Possession, Cara Beaumont is the protagonist who falls in love with a man with issues of the otherworldly kind. But even though Dax Allard has his share of issues, Cara’s far from squeaky clean. She has a past she’s been running from–something that was really fun to write (er, in a weird “writers like to torture their characters” kind of way).

One of my favorite shows of alllll time is The Walking Dead. I was heartbroken when Shane became a bad guy because I thought he really had a lot of potential as an anti-hero. He truly loved Lori, but we automatically wanted her to get back with Rick because he was her husband and the father of her child. Still, we could understand Shane’s point of view as well. I would’ve loved to have seen that dynamic play out further.

So, what about you? Who’s your favorite damaged heroine or anti-hero?

Characters, role models or pure fantasy?

As a writer, my main purpose is to tell a story. Hopefully an entertaining story. But is it my job to make sure my characters are role models? Some would say yes and others would just shrug. I wrote a young adult series, wherein the three main characters are teens with extraordinary, magical abilities.

My main character, and narrator, is a young, teenage girl named Shay. Shay gets good grades, she has a couple of honors classes (not math and science, bleh), she’s an Earth Elemental who can act as an anchor for her elemental friends, and is a particularly strong empath (she can literally feel what others are feeling). Because of that last power, she’s not super interested in dating because teenage relationships are tumultuous enough.

On the other side of the coin, Shay also ditches school occasionally. She lies to her parents and sneaks out in the middle of the night. Shay is stubborn and sometimes hard-headed. In short, Shay has flaws, like any real person does.

Because of all of that, I have heard many mixed reactions from readers. Some love her; they love that she’s not a lovesick, “too-stupid-to-live” girl who is only concerned with boys. (Yes, that quote came direct from a review, a review that I loved.) Others call her a “goody-goody,” or a “know-it-all,” or even just bossy. Some complain that she’s too mature for a high school girl. Some complain that she’s too hard on the love interest and don’t care about her reasons for being so.

So, should a teenage girl be perfect? Should she lack any and all flaws? Or should she be entirely flawed? The answer is: your character should be who they are supposed to be.

You’re never going to please every reader – it is an impossible goal.

When I first sat down to write the Elemental Series, I fully intended to write Shay as a girl who reflected my teenage friends and even me. My female friends and I worried about our grades, because if we got bad grades, we got punished. My friends and I did extracurricular actives, because we planned on applying to colleges. My friends and I dated boys, but relationships weren’t the be-all end-all of our lives. Often, after a particularly bad breakup, we would refrain from dating anyone for long periods of time. But my friends and I suffered from flaws as well. We ditched school occasionally. We went places that weren’t where our parents expected us to be. We were stubborn and jealous and spiteful on occasion. We were teenagers. We were human. We tried to be good people but we made mistakes. My characters make mistakes.

So, should characters be role models? Maybe. If you think characters should show people that it’s okay not to be perfect. Or if you think it’s okay for characters to strive to be good.

I think it is more important to write an entertaining story with characters that feel like real people and if not every single person loves your characters, then I think you’ve succeeded because not every person in the world likes every other person in the world.

The Science of Magic

Can magic exist without science?

I love that my first post here with the beautiful Spellbound Scribes is part of the magical-theme.  I love that, when I thought about it, I realized don’t do magic very well at all. This is forcing me to take a look at what I do write, and how it relates…because man, when you write paranormal, horror, or sci-fi, no matter what: magic is everywhere.

For me as a writer, magic will always be science-based. Although I love to read about magic that is not (George R.R. Martin is and always will be my hero for his portrayal of Arya and the changing faces at the guild, because the idea of changing my own face to something completely different has always appealed to me), I prefer to think about why something would happen, and how to make it reality-based.  That means that, though I love to read about characters like Pennywise the Clown, I prefer to write someone like the Swamp Thing…because, you know, with a little bit of toxic sludge, or even some Gamma rays, anything can happen.

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Just look at what toxic sludge can do! Swamp thing! (Photo credit: examiner.com)

Right?

Right.

For me, this meant deciding the zombies created in my first book came from a virus.  This isn’t a new or original way to handle zombies by any stretch of the imagination, but it was the way in which I could take a supernatural creature and ground it in reality. It also gave me a way to establish some rules: zombies don’t live forever, at least not in my world. The virus eventually leaches so much from the body, the body can’t go on. It gives my characters hope for a zombie-free future…and there’s nothing more fun to do when writing than to give your characters hope, and then to shatter it…again, and again, and again.

Keeping my magic based in science also meant writing a novel about a modern-day Frankenstein instead of about a ghost. It meant researching chemicals which could be used to conduct electricity throughout a human body if that body was powered by a central battery instead of a heart.   It meant reading about decay, and how a body would fall apart without constant maintenance and upkeep, assuming that body ran on chemicals instead of food and blood.

chemicals_toxic
Mmmm…I spent a lot of time researching chemicals with THIS for a label

But I do have to face facts: nobody’s coming back to life strictly based on science. There has to be magic at play, even for me, writing sci-fi. There’s a bit of a giant step to take from using plausible chemicals, to having a walking, talking corpse.

And it’s in that blend where I am happiest.  A little bit of science, a lot of supernatural giant steps – it helps me create worlds that I find interesting, and that I am terrified to actually inhabit.

And if you think about it: when Thomas Edison first invented the light bulb, didn’t people think it was magic? Didn’t electricity seem like magic, back when Benjamin Franklin first flew that kite with that key?

And don’t we all need a little more excitement – a little more magic – in our lives sometimes? I know I do.