Building Characters, One Verb at a Time

Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees…

Last October I heard Damon Suede speak at the Emerald City Writers Conference. He’s a terrific speaker who wraps a lifetime of knowledge and experience in an entertaining – like, LOL funny – presentation.

Damon could explain this a lot better than I will, but the basic premise to his master class was this: a reader gets to know a character by the character’s actions. Period. And those actions make it on the page in the form of verbs. So, rather than spend hours developing a detailed character biography, pick a handful of verbs and a few adjectives and make that the template your character grows from.

(If you’re curious, you can read about his approach in Verbalize: Bring stories to life and life to stories.)

And you know what? It works!

I recently wrote a holiday novella, the first piece I’d started from scratch since hearing Damon’s presentation. Over the years I’ve done my share of character biography worksheets – the more detailed, the better – but this time I came up with names, chose half a dozen verbs and the same number of adjectives, and wrote simple goal-motivation-conflict statements for each of the two main characters.

Here’s the beginning of my character worksheets for Bo and Jon, the heroes in my holiday novella:

Bo Barone – the crafty one: Adjectives & verbs: bright, shiny, quick, glittering, smiling, laughing, glowing, self-assured, patient, detail-oriented, crafting, inspiring, protecting, intimacy issues, performing, caring

Background: big family, Italian, local Seattle, Midnight Mass at St. James

Jon Cunningham – the artist: Adjectives and Verbs: dark, deep, methodical, dedicated, passionate, reserved, commanding, distancing, consider, create, observe, listen, measure, perform, practice, reflect, teach

Background: Seattle family, missed out on much of high school, studied at Juilliard, Dad had a stroke

Can’t you just picture them? Instead of pages of detail, I had a few lines, yet I felt it took me less time to get a handle on Bo & Jon than just about any of my other characters. I’ll admit things morphed a little during the writing process, particularly in terms of their goals/ motivations/ conflicts, but the characters’ essence, who they were, was pretty solid.

That essence was captured in the verbs and adjectives I chose for them.

Happy Hydrangeas!

Whenever I wasn’t quite sure how a character would respond or what they’d do next, I had my list of verbs and adjectives to guide me. Even though both my heroes changed over the course of the novella – because that’s what the plot is for – still, their core remained constant.

You’ll have a chance to see how well I did, because Dreamspinner offered me a contract for the novella, so A Holiday Homecoming will be released ~ 12/1/19. If you have the change to hear Damon speak, do it. You’ll learn a lot. And the next time you’re stuck with on a character, focus on their verbs and see if it helps.

Hybrid Tea Rose Tequila Sunrise. Cheers, mate!

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.

8fsf

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?

The Nouvelle Vampire


Eric with fangs

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.

Eric giphy

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.

Eric n Sookie

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