Characters: Creation or Inspiration

Most writers will admit that their characters are, in some ways, mirrors of themselves. You’ll give your main character (MC) your likes and dislikes, like, say your preference for how they take their coffee, a distaste for foods you hate, their clothing choices reflect your own, etc. etc. Many author’s first books’ MCs are basically their ideal version of themselves.

Then, as your writing progresses, you’ll branch out and make your MC’s tastes the opposite of your own. Do you like cream and sugar in your coffee? Well, then your MC takes theirs as black as their bitter heart. So deep, so different.

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But really, it’s totally cool to let your characters like the things you like and hate the things you hate because you can really put some real feeling and depth into those descriptions. But have you ever found yourself being influenced by your characters rather than the other way around?

If you’re doing your job, you’re creating fully formed, fleshed out people when you develop characters. Which means giving them preferences, skills, and hobbies that maybe–probably–you don’t have. But to make it real, to make it good and believable you need to learn a lot about those skills and hobbies.

I have done this with a fair share of my books. I know a lot about how vaccines are made now that I had to research it for my Ash & Ruin Trilogy. I know quite a bit more about different magic systems as I developed my own for the Matilda Kavanagh Novels. I learned a lot about ancient Judaic beliefs as I wrote The Brimstone War Novels for my pen name. When I write a witchy book in winter, they inevitably brew hot chocolate and bake goodies and you know, within hours of a writing session, I’ll be in my kitchen doing the same even though I don’t really like to bake. But somehow, these characters make me do these things.

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And now, with the New Book, research has turned to cards.

The women in my family have always read Tarot, but I never seemed to get the hang of it. I read a few spreads for friends in high school and didn’t do too bad, but the idea that I with BOTH dyslexia and dyscalculia could ever memorize the meanings of 78 cards–upright and inverted–and all the different types of spreads and what the card placement in any given spread means was just too impossible a task. But I knew, in my gut, that this MC was going to be a gifted Tarot reader. So it was time to pull my decks back out and try again.

It took a few weeks but I finally gave myself permission to not memorize 156 card meanings and just use my books and note pads to keep track so I could interpret the spreads without the added stress. And you know what? It works for me. And I don’t think I would have tried again had it not been for this character. Which is kinda cool. I’d always wanted to carry on this tradition and felt crappy that I hadn’t. But here I am, thanks to a character influencing me rather than the other way around.

Of course this witchy chick is also going to be pretty good at playing cards too, which, if I do say so myself, I happen to be. So, it’s definitely a two way street.

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How about you? Have you ever created a character so real that you find yourself taking on their hobbies beyond just research? Have your characters changed some aspect of you life you weren’t expecting?

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Edits in 3…2…1…

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The other day I had a guest post over at the Rainbow Romance Writers blog. As often is the case, whatever I’m struggling with in my writing ends up in a blog post. It’s like my mind needs to process through my fingers before I can move forward .

The guest post was about editing, and described some of the strategies I use when I’m moving from rough draft to polished product. I have a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo that I’d like to send to my agent, but it needs revision first. I sat down, made my plan, and sent off the post.

But I’ve spent this whole week spinning my wheels, which tells me that no matter how good my intentions, I was heading in the wrong direction.

I’m working with a rough (rough!) draft that has some good moments and characters I like, along with comments from my writing partner and alpha reader, Irene Preston. Irene and I have written two novels and two novellas together, and there’s no one on the planet who knows my writing better.

And let’s just say I’ve come up with stuff she’s liked better.

My grand plan involved writing a synopsis to help sort out the plot threads, then revising scene-by-scene based on a complicated set of steps that I won’t bore you with here. After that, I’d planned to send it out to beta readers, and with their feedback in hand, start grinding down on the words themselves, looking for repeats and crutch words and passive voice.

Yeah, you know, I’ll still probably do most of that, but the synopsis thing was tripping me up. I got talking with my friend Kelly Jensen (who’s also the blog mama for the Rainbow Romance Writers) and she suggested I use a spreadsheet, with lines for each scene and columns for plot points and other assorted details.

And you know what? That’s what I needed to unstick myself. Here’s a quick screenshot of what I have so far…

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It’s not much, yet, but it’s a step in the right direction and such (SUCH!) a relief. If you’re interested, hop on over to the RRW blog for a more detailed look at my editing process. Otherwise, I’ll send you a virtual high five, and TGIF!!

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Oh, and before I go, Irene and I have a new novella that’ll be available as a giveaway this Valentine’s Day! Haunted is set in our Hours of the Night world but features different characters, and a lighter paranormal tone. I’ll put the blurb & Goodreads link below, and if you’re interested, come hang out with us on our Facebook page – After Hours with Liv & Irene – because for sure you’ll get the link for the free download!

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Haunted on Goodreads

Noel Chandler had a good reason for leaving the L.A.P.D. for New Orleans, but when he walks into a burned out Garden District mansion, he discovers there are some things he can’t outrun. The spooks can find him anywhere.

As the resident historian for the cable show Haunts and Hoaxes, Professor Adam Morales keeps an open mind about the supernatural. Or that’s what he tells himself, until he meets a man who puts that principle to the test. Noel’s smart, sexy, and has killer cop instincts. One glance from his bedroom eyes has Adam ready to believe anything.

But is Noel haunted, crazy, or just another hoax?

Spiderweb Thoughts–the first stages of a new book

Last we met I talked about how I wanted to start working on the outline of a new book. Well, I’m not quite to the outline part yet, but I am figuring out the book. I’m world building and character building. I’m figuring out where this book wants to go. It’s both fun and incredibly frustrating.

Every book I’ve written has been set in modern times and in Southern California–for the most part. But this book is going to be set in some make-believe world, which means I have to make this world and name it’s places and things. Holy crap that is hard. I’ve never appreciated how difficult it is to figure out names. No wonder people named places after kings and queens and no wonder there are so many First Streets and Main Streets and the like.

I’m cheating a little bit because I happen to have a very large, paper map of Ireland and I am using it to help me visualize this world. After all, I did go on a exploratory trip there last year to get into the pagan, witchy vibe of the story.

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I’m also figuring out my main character. I can see her in my head and she’s awesome. She’s a witch and she reads tarot. So I’ve dusted off my tarot cards to re-familiarize myself with that only to realize I’ve forgotten how much I enjoy doing it. So much so, I might start doing it a lot, for real people. Kind of a scary idea, but exciting too.

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I already had two decks, which I laid out a couple of spreads with, but they really weren’t doing it for me. So, I got a new deck and I am in love. It’s amazing how writing can bring new and old things into your life. I’ve missed reading tarot. It’s something the women in my family have done for years, my mother was quite adapt at it, but I sort of fell out of doing it before I gave myself the chance to see how good I could be at it.

But this new deck has inspired me and I’m giving myself permission to go at it my own way and it’s really working out for me.

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I’m excited to see where else this book will take me. But I also just want to start writing. I’m impatient to put words on the paper and see my word count start ticking away. But I want this to be good. I want it to stand up with the other fantasy books I love to read. I have to give it room to grow.

One thing I’m struggling with is deciding if it’s YA or Adult. I think it’s Adult, but my main character might be on the young side of adult, which might be what’s tripping me up. Though, I may be too hung up on that and just need to plot the book and figure that part out later.

I’m trying very hard to think this one through. I am a plotter-pantser, which means I take the time to loosely outline a book so I know the plot points and the beats I want to hit, but often when I’m writing and I get into a groove, things will morph and improvise and then I have to adjust the outline to work with the changes. I like this way of writing because I don’t limit myself, but with this new book, I want to make sure I have a really strong outline, a clear map, that helps me get through to the end. When  a book is a bigger, more epic fantasy you want to make sure you know where you’re going so you don’t get lost.

And, normally, by this point I know the ending of the book. But this time? I’m not sure yet. Usually I can see a still of the last, big scene in a book. It’s a perfect freeze frame and I know exactly what is happening in that moment so I just have to figure out how to get there from the start, but I don’t have that picture in my head yet. I think this book might be an ass-kicker.

I had no idea where this post was going when I sat down to write it, so I just started typing. I guess this is kind of a window in to the mind of a writer when we’re first figuring out a new project. It’s a little crazy, a little messy, but things connect. Like a spiderweb.

Books, man, they are strange, living things that really take over your world if you let them.

The Nouvelle Vampire


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So my last Spellbound Scribes post listed some great m/m vampire books. That post came about because I’d been researching the subgenre (sub-subgenre?) so I could add to it. And now I am. I’m co-writing an m/m vampire story with my friend Irene Preston, and hallelujah! It’s honestly the most fun I’ve ever had writing.

The co-writing thing is like having an extended (very extended) (like 75,000 word extended) conversation, not counting the evening Facebook chats to work out plot points. As a result of all of that discussion, I recently had sort of an a-ha moment.

I really owe Charlaine Harris BIG for how I think vampires should behave.

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Which is actually kind of a problem. I took the time to explore what had already been written so that I wouldn’t outright duplicate anything, though I’ll admit that one of the reasons I went four years between vampire projects was my fear that I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything unique.

And despite my best intentions, I keep making pronouncements, like, OUR vampire should be THUS & SO, and Irene will be all, “um, why?” Then I pause long enough to realize my reasoning has more to do with Eric Northman than with any truly creative thinking on my part.

The whole game in romance is to take something that’s been done a bazillion times before and make it the same, but different. For this project, I started with a vampire who’d been a monk before he’d been turned. Fresh premise, right? Except maybe not so fresh if everything I layer on top (fabulous wealth, orgasmic bite) is lifted thoughtlessly from somewhere else.

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Last March I took a class from Kerri-Leigh Grady on Strategies for Writing Fresh, offered through SavvyAuthors.com. If she ever offers the class again, you should totally sign up. In the class, the first thing Kerri-Leigh had us do was pick out some of our favorite familiar story elements, arguing that our readers needed something to relate to before we blew their minds with our ingenuity.

(She then had us do a bunch of really fun exercises twisting familiar tropes, which have already gained me one finished project – and I may yet write that Heathcliffe as a biker in contemporary L.A. thing, too.)

So maybe my first step was okay. I mean, a “vampire story” has certain expected, familiar components. My attempt at ingenuity – a vampire who started life as a monk – is likely something readers can connect with. It may be that my vampire should retain those Eric Northman elements, too. (Especially the orgasmic bite thing, because who wouldn’t benefit from that?)

Except the thing Irene’s questions made me realize is that my vampire only gets to keep the parts of the vampire myth that make sense for his character. Monks aren’t notoriously wealthy, so maybe that’s not an element we end up keeping. Developing the vampire character has become a process of picking and choosing which pieces of the trope work for HIM.

Perhaps – and this is my real a-ha moment, which I may have actually had while writing this post – just maybe coming up with a truly fresh premise isn’t about the thunderbolt that sends you scurrying to your laptop. Maybe it’s more about making a couple of tweaks to something familiar, then informing them with real, live (or undead), characters.

If you’ve got a process for tweaking a standard trope or character type, leave me a comment. Would love to learn from you!

Eric n Jason

Is Kit Harrington Right?

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In the article Kit Harington Has A Point About Women Objectifying Men, writer Eliana Dockterman describes how the actor is “sick of being called a hunk”, and when members of the media asks him how he feels about being described that way, he generally says, “That’s not what I got into it for.”

The guy’s an actor, and he’d prefer to be asked about, well, his acting.

Ms. Dockterman cites other examples of actors who are constantly being asked how they feel about their “heartthrob” status. Actors like Benedict Cumberbatch whose legion of fans refer to themselves as Cumberbitches.  And John Hamm, for whom there are whole Tumblr blogs dedicated to the bulge in his pants.

I’ll take M. Dockterman’s word for that one. I haven’t looked. No, seriously. Mr. Hamm can get pretty harsh when he’s asked about those blogs, and I can’t really blame him.

While Ms. Dockterman makes it very clear that women are subject to the same kind of “you’re famous because people want to have sex with you” crap, part of me wants to greet Mr. Harington’s complaint with a big ol’ BOOHOO.

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Is touching a standard part of the interview process?

 

In protesting treatment that focuses on his looks, it seems to me Mr. Harrington is complaining all the way to the bank.

Objectification is part of the Hollywood game, and women have been played since the beginning. The news that 37-year-old actress Maggie Guyllenhal was told she’s “too old” to play the love interest for a 55-year-old actor demonstrates how endemic the cult of youth and beauty is. Women are held to a different standard than men, and most of the time it seems that the sum total of their contribution is tied up in their appearance.

BCumberbatch might get asked how he feels to be a sex symbol, but only after reporters ask him  about his work. And pretty much only fashion bloggers care who made his suit.

Name an actress who is accorded the same level of respect. There aren’t many.

“And though it’s tempting to even the scales by caring as little about men’s feelings as misogynists care about women’s feelings, that attitude doesn’t help to stop misogyny or advance feminism.” E. Dockterman

The thing is, this level of objectification isn’t limited to actors and actresses. When I look at my on-line presence objectively – true confession here – most of my social media sights would fall under the category ‘NSFW’. (I blogged about it HERE a couple weeks ago.)  Maybe it’s an occupational hazard of being a romance writer, but my Facebook and Pinterest streams, in particular, are pretty much full of lovely masculine images.

Lovely, mostly naked, masculine images.

And some of them forget the mostly.

Which begs the question: After years of feminist bitching about the way men ogle young women, why is it right or fair to objectify young men?

And that’s where the guilt comes in. (Eldest child of an Irish-Catholic family, right? I can find guilt just about anywhere.) I do like to look, although it does bother me, and I try hard not to forget there’s a person attached to those abs. I don’t see following photographer Michael Stokes as some kind of feminist victory. He makes pretty pictures, and I like to look at them.

What’s wrong with that?

Does the power differential between men and women make a difference? Does the ubiquitous standard of youth and beauty applied to women matter? Is it somehow more wrong to objectify women, because so much of who they are is limited to how they look?

Yeah, I don’t know, either, but I expect M. Dockterman is right when she says we shouldn’t be dragging each other down to the same level, but rather lifting each other up.

So I’ll concede Mr. Harrington his point. He’s a serious actor practicing his craft, and we do him a disservice by focusing primarily on his appearance, regardless of how distractingly handsome he may be.

What do you think? Are beefcake photos as popular as cat pix in your Facebook stream? Can we really separate any performer’s appearance from their craft?

Cheers,
Liv

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Honestly, if I met this guy in RL, basic functions – like speech – would desert me.

 

Character Appearances: To Specify, or Not To Specify?

I’m a extremely visual reader and writer, which means that I picture very vividly the characters that I’m either reading or writing about. Ask me to share my vision of a specific character, and, even if I didn’t invent her, I will be able to describe her physical features in great detail, as I imagine them. If I were a better artist, I’m sure I could even draw them from my head.

Unfortunately, my idea of what a character looks like doesn’t always line up with what the author intended. Last week, I read a YA novel where the male love interest was described very early on as “tall and olive skinned, with dark hair.” Not super specific, but clear enough. However, the author doesn’t refer to his specific features at all throughout the rest of the book, describing the character only as “beautiful,” or occasionally, “gorgeous.” This lack of specificity gave my forgetful brain the leeway to imagine him quite differently than the original description. I pictured him with golden tan skin and waving chestnut hair.

I imagined him like this. SO SUE ME.

Which is fine. It’s my brain. But when I picked up the sequel and the author reiterated how the character actually looked, I was in for a shock. “He looks like what?” I said, while combing furiously through the first book for the original description.

Describing characters is something every writer does differently. Some authors go into great detail, enumerating freckles and glints of green in hazel eyes and lopsided smiles and crooked noses. Other authors choose to describe their characters very broadly, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations. Each method has its merits, but also its drawbacks.

Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, sketched her protagonist Bella’s appearance, but didn’t get into specifics. In an interview, she explained that she “left out a detailed description of Bella in the book so that the reader could more easily step into her shoes.” By leaving a character’s appearance open to interpretation, she hoped to make her more relatable to readers.

But this method can have a darker side. Many of you will remember the disturbing furor that arose when a young black actress was cast as Rue in the movie version of The Hunger Games. The author, Suzanne Collins, describes the fragile 12-year-old in the books as having “dark brown skin and eyes.” While this may seem explicit to some, the broadness of the description resulted in many readers whitewashing an ethnically diverse character. Similarly, while Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame has been universally portrayed as a young white woman, Rowling only ever described Hermione as having bushy brown hair, brown eyes, and prominent front teeth. There is nothing to say Hermione isn’t a woman of color, yet everyone assumes she must be white.

Personally, I prefer specific descriptions. When reading, every nugget of information about a character’s appearance helps me flesh out the imaginary person in my head. And when writing, I want my readers to be able to clearly see the characters I’ve invented.

To a certain extent, everyone’s vision of fictional characters will always be different than the person who authored them. But deciding to describe every feature of a character or electing instead to broadly sketch a general appearance can have ramifications on how your readers ultimately interact with your fictional world.

Do you prefer specificity in your reading/writing? Or do you prefer to imagine the characters without relying on the author’s description? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!

My Newest Obsession: 1950s Fashion

Dovima in red velvet for Balenciaga - 1950s magazine spread
Dovima in red velvet for Balenciaga – 1950s magazine spread

While this blog generally has a paranormal theme, I find that it’s been a while since I had a project involving vampires or magic or any of the other things that go bump in the night.

Okay, well, there’s some bumping in the night, but it’s the kind brought on by a much more ordinary magic.

My most recent WIP is set in the 1950s, and that era has me under it’s spell, particularly the fashion. The designers! Givenchy! Dior! The models! Dovima! Suzy Parker! I’ve dedicated a whole Pinterest board to my obsession – jump HERE to check it out – so I thought I’d share a few images with you so you can fall in love too. And, because we all just survived Valentines Day, I tried to choose images that were seasonally appropriate.

1950s party dress - designer unknown
1950s party dress – designer unknown

A couple of trends helped shape 1950s fashion. One of the most important was the end of World War II. Women had been working outside the home and material goods had been strictly rationed during the war. When it was over, you see women wearing yards of fabric cut to conform to an identifiable – and artificial – female shape.

This was in part influenced by Dior’s New Look, a fashion phenomena dating from 1947. The look was softly structured, with sloping shoulders, a narrow waist, and a full, romantic skirt. Here’s a snippet from the Dior website, describing Christian Dior’s motivation…

…in designing “flower women, soft shoulders, blossoming bosoms, waists as slender as creepers and skirts as wide as corollas” (he) only wanted to make them happy. Which he succeeded in doing.

Dior’s New Look gown, 1954

Mamie Eisenhower was a huge proponent of the New Look, and while she did a great deal to support American designers, the Europeans still ruled. If you’re into the minutiae of fashion analysis from that era, you’ll see how the details changed over the years. Waistlines dropped and rose. Hemlines rose and dropped. Later in the century Balenciaga created the sack dress, which got rid of waistlines all together.

Balenciaga sack dress, year unkown; sorry I couldn't find one in red or pink
Balenciaga sack dress, year unkown

So women were flowers. They were allowed – even expected to be feminine. To be pretty. To be elegant. And this is where my infatuation turns into full-blown lust. The models of the era were slender, all stylized angles and curves, and the photographers who worked with them elevated their look even further.

Suzy Parker, 1955
Suzy Parker, 1955

The images are often boldly graphic, the colors and poses chosen to highlight the architectural details of the look. Their hair is all about control, the curls set and sprayed, and the model’s make-up is always perfect: high arched brows, dark liner, and strong lips.

1950s make-up, looking like something a real woman could do
1950s make-up, on a model who looks like a real woman
Suzy Parker from 1955. She did her own make-up  for photographs.
Suzy Parker from 1955. She did her own make-up for photographs.
Marilyn Monroe, demonstrating her iconic make-up
Marilyn Monroe, demonstrating her iconic take on ’50s make-up

As we lift ourselves from our Valentine’s hangovers, I hope you appreciate this flashback to one of the most beautiful eras in fashion, where woman were graceful, classic, and chic – and confined to the home and prepared for marriage and babies and severely underpaid when they did work and not expected to worry their pretty little heads about anything too important.

But damn they looked good.

Cheers!

Liv

Suzy Parker in a dress by Givenchy, 1954
Suzy Parker in a dress by Givenchy, 1954
Dovima for Modess, 1953
Dovima for Modess, 1953