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?

On Finishing a Trilogy

Last year I managed to start something like three trilogies where the third book had yet to be released. Let me tell you a little bit about how this played out.

Picking up Book #1: Hmm, this looks interesting. I’ll give it a try.

Finishing Book #1: OMG must read more. There’s a sequel?!? YES. PLEASE.

Reading Book #2: Leave me alone don’t talk to me can’t you see I’m reading?!?

Finishing Book #2: NO! Yes, but NO! I must find out what happens next!!!!!

Searching for Book #3: …WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE’S NO BOOK #3??????

Basically, I’ve spent a lot of time this past year refreshing my Goodreads “to-read” list hoping that the release dates of these desperately awaited books has magically been pushed up. But now, a year later, the final books in these series are finally starting to come out. And as excited as I am about experiencing the conclusions to these wonderful stories, I can’t help also approaching these finales with some degree of trepidation.

Because finishing a series can be an emotional thing, especially after waiting months and months for the final book. As a reader, you’ve spent hours with these characters, investing your time, energy, and emotions into their stories and experiences. You’ve explored their worlds alongside them, faced trials by their sides, and celebrated victories with them. And now, eager as you are to discover how their stories end….you also have to find a way to say goodbye.

This past week I burned through the first on my list of trilogy conclusions. And let me just say, I loved it. The important plot arcs found their natural endings, and the characters all got the endings they deserved. The conclusion was thrilling, unexpected, and poignant.

And yet. Even though the writer and logical reader in me knew it was the perfect ending to a fantastic series, and how could I ask for more? ….I couldn’t help but feel a little bit sad. Even though the characters ended up where they ought to be, they didn’t get there without trials, and now, the story was over. As the pages counted down to that final sentence, I braced myself for the inevitable farewell.

It happens. I’ve said goodbye to more characters, worlds, and stories than I can count. And when I’m being honest, I’d tell you that the inevitable goodbye is part of the continuing joy of reading. Every character’s story has an ending…and every ending paves the way for a new story. I will read more books and fall in love with more characters; I will start new series and finish old series and begin all over again.

In fact, I think there’s another series conclusion coming out next month.

And maybe someday, I’ll get the chance to re-read this trilogy, and experience the joys, the sadnesses, and the inevitable goodbye once again.

Do you look forward to (or dread) finishing a trilogy? How do you manage to say goodbye? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!

Nailing Character Voice

vintage_mic“All your characters talk the same,” said my critique partner. “If I plucked a quotation randomly from within the pages, I wouldn’t be able to tell who was speaking without looking at the dialogue cues.”

My jaw dropped. All my characters talk the same? I thought to myself. Impossible! They were well-rounded characters with developed backgrounds and unique personalities. I could practically hear their voices in my head as I wrote! So why did they sound the same to another reader? And more importantly, how on earth was I going to fix it?

When I’m pounding away on the keyboard trying to up the word-count on whatever project I’m currently working on, the last thing on my mind is how my characters talk. Heck, I’m usually happy if I can remember where the quotation marks go! But imbuing characters with unique voices is in fact crucial to making them jump off the pages as memorable individualsIt’s a messy, tricky art. And if, like me, you’re having trouble mastering that art, here are a few suggestions to speed you on your way.

1) Listen to the way real people talk…

not how people in movies or on TV or in the pages of a book talk. Go to a cafe. Ride the subway. Sit alone at a bar. And then listen. It’s okay–I’m giving you permission to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations, just this once. Really listen to the rhythms of sentences, and how different people string words together. Does the severe-looking woman in the business suit use the same language as the hip young dad with junior in tow? I doubt it. The same goes for characters.

2) Remember that character and voice are a feedback loop…

…continuously amplifying one another. Characters’ backgrounds and personalities give cues about how they should and would talk as real people, and the resulting “voice” in turn strengthens the character by reflecting those qualities. Let’s say a rags-to-riches prodigy constantly uses big technical words to explain simple concepts. That tells the reader Doogie Howser still feels like he has something to prove. Maybe an ex-military bodyguard speaks in short words and choppy sentences because she believes actions are more important than words. Voice may be informed by background and personality, but it is also a window back into the character.

3) Add in verbal tics and habitual phrases…

…without resorting to cliché. We humans are creatures of habit, and the way we speak often falls into familiar repetitive patterns. While I’m not suggesting you have your character say “like” every two seconds, sometimes one character’s verbal tics can set them apart from the others. Think of Breaking Bad: Jesse Pinkman’s indiscriminate usage of “yo” and “b***h” throughout the show served to make his voice distinctive from Walter’s or Skylar’s while also giving cues about his personality and background. Just be careful not to repeat it to the point where it becomes a catchphrase, like George R. R. Martin’s character Ygritte’s now-famous line “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”

That is, unless you’re trying to start a meme.

Well, that’s it! Follow these steps and you should be well on your way to mastering the tricky art of character voice. And don’t feel bad if you can’t get the hang of it at first: I’ll still be over here wondering why my uneducated, sullen love interest shouldn’t talk like a poet! “You know nothing, yo!”

Why Should I Care?

Whether you’re creating media or consuming it, there’s one question that needs to be answered. If you want to hook a reader or a viewer or a listener — or if you’re any of those things settling down to give of your time to someone’s art — four little words lie behind everything you are about to do.

Why Should I Care?

It sounds like a rude question. It kind of is, most of the time you might hear it. But when you’re talking about media and art, it’s the single most important question that keeps you as a consumer engaged and you as a creator the ability to captivate people.

You can’t just dump rose petals on the ground and expect everything to be hunky-dory.

Image by D Sharon Pruitt, creative commons free use with attribution, via Flickr.
Image by D Sharon Pruitt, creative commons free use with attribution, via Flickr.

In the past six months, I’ve seen two particularly noteworthy examples of television that answered this question particularly well. As such, this post will contain some spoilers for Doctor Who (Episode 4.08, Silence in the Library and it the following 4.09) and How I Met Your Mother (Episode 9.16, How Your Mother Met Me). You’ve been warned.

Both of these episodes have something major in common: they introduce a brand new character. In the instance of HIMYM, this character has hitherto been ultimately a concept, the M at the end of HIMYM, a barely-faced, barely explored entity who has somehow powered the entire show. Even though we’ve seen her a couple times, this is the first chance we’ve had to really get to know her. In Doctor Who, River Song shows up for the first time in this episode — but we’re working with almost blank slates for both of these characters.

Let’s start with Doctor Who.

River Song, Doctor Who, the Doctor, Silence in the Library
River Song and the Doctor in Silence in the Library.

Silence in the Library

They say you have one page to hook a reader. I think you have 20-40 minutes of television to hook a viewer. Some factors can make that number skew a bit — if you’re watching something everyone has told you to, you might be more prone to give it a few episodes before throwing in the towel. When I read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I gave it 100 pages — and I’m glad I did. But let’s say you have one episode. One single slot of time in which to snag someone’s attention and make them care. Make them feel something.

Give them a question.

When River Song waltzes into the library with her archaeology team, one of the first things she does is give you a question. She knows the Doctor. Her reaction to him is one that makes that question. She knows him. And personally — maybe intimately. But he doesn’t know her yet. Even better, she refuses to tell him more.

Hint at the question’s answers.

Later in the episode, River is seen using a sonic screwdriver that’s more advanced than what the Doctor has. When asked where she got it, she replies that he gave it to her. This is another breadcrumb in the question — why would a future Doctor give River his sonic screwdriver?

When you answer the question, make it breed more questions.

Throughout this fabulous two-parter, the story of River’s interaction with the Doctor doesn’t so much unfold as play peek-a-boo. When it’s revealed that the Doctor gave River his screwdriver, it makes him wonder why…which makes us wonder why. And when we discover that he can use it to save her life, well, my mind immediately went to wondering who this woman was, that he cared enough to make sure she had it. More questions.

Not only that, but River sacrifices herself for the Doctor — something he (and we the viewers) don’t understand. When she answers that question, it makes more. Who is this woman, this woman so determined to make sure the Doctor still meets her in her own past? What happens with them? Why is she so special? Even in asking those questions, she becomes special. She is a fascinating character.

By the end of this two-parter, I was a blubbery mess of tears for a character I’d just met. Even though I knew she’d turn up later, this was a perfect answer to the why should I care question. I cared because she came to life. Because she left things unanswered, yet her story begged me to find out more.

How I Met Your Mother, Cristin Milioti, The Mother, Ted Mosby, ukulele, music, la vie en rose, powerful song, acting, beautiful acting
Cristin Milioti sings La Vie en Rose in How I Met Your Mother season 9

How Your Mother Met Me

The entire basis of the show How I Met Your Mother is the story of Ted Mosby’s journey to finding his wife. For the show’s run, we’ve seen glimpses of her, an ankle here, a yellow umbrella there — but until the final episode of season 8, we’d never seen her face.

This season, we’ve gotten a few more chances to meet her. I’ll be honest and say that I approached season 9 with no small amount of trepidation. Having invested in these characters and this story for so long, I knew I wanted the chance to actually get to know this person. I didn’t want the show to end with Ted and The Mother shaking hands…and scene.

I wanted to see who she was, know she was a person, know she fit in with the others in the group. In short, I wanted to know her. So I am entirely thrilled to be able to say that  a couple weeks ago, an episode of How I Met Your Mother (cheekily titled How Your Mother Met Me — including a redone opening credit montage) was the episode I’ve been waiting for…for EIGHT LONG YEARS.

They made me care as much for The Mother (it’s driving me crazy not to know her name) as I do for all the other principal cast members.

They gave her a backstory.

This is a tricky thing. This doesn’t mean they told us where she went to high school and that she used to hate artichokes and now thinks they’re the bee’s knees. No. They didn’t do that. Instead they showed her at the East Side MacLaren’s (with a charming tie-in to the main group at their West Side MacLaren’s) at her 21st birthday, waiting for her boyfriend to show up.

And he didn’t.

Instead she got a call I think every one of us dreads.

He wasn’t going to show up. Not that night or ever again. Her boyfriend had passed away.

Anyone who has ever gotten a call like that (and I have) probably couldn’t help but feel something at that moment.

Prior to that moment, she wasn’t sad. She was happy. Excited to see what her boyfriend would get her this year because every other year he’d gotten her amazing things. And when she gets home finally after his memorial, she opens the gift he’d gotten her. It’s a ukulele.

We got to see her overcome her backstory.

Losing someone like that hurts like someone blew a hole in the middle of your torso. Two years ago, I was in the car five minutes from work, discussing random things with my husband who was driving — when I saw I had a message from an Ohio number. It was my cousin Andrea. She was calling to let me know that my cousin Nate had been killed in a car accident. It was a week after his 30th birthday. His baby girl (who is my namesake) turned 1 the day after his funeral. I still feel that hole. It doesn’t go away.

HIMYM did a fantastic job of showing how that hole does not go away. As we saw The Mother go through her grief, meet someone new, and be on the response side of a proposal, we saw that hole.

It culminated when she went outside to ask her dead boyfriend Max if it was okay for her to move on. Boy, was I feeling feelings.

She went back inside and told her boyfriend no. She packed up her bags and left. She returned to the hotel where Barney and Robin were to be married (her band was to play the next day), and she took her ukulele out of her case. Then she went out onto her balcony and sang one of the most stirring renditions of La Vie en Rose that I’ve ever heard. I had tears running down my face and goosebumps all over my arms when the camera panned over to show Ted listening in silence on the other side of the wall between their balconies.

And holy explosion of farting German cows, did I care.

These are two examples of how media made me care — and judging by the Facebook comments on HIMYM’s page (for once, positive), I wasn’t the only one. The comments that a few months ago were judging Cristin Milioti on her dentition were now proclaiming how much they loved her.

I look forward to every River Song episode — and now I am sincerely looking forward to the final episodes of How I Met Your Mother. Because the writers restored some of my faith in the show by finally allowing me to get to know this woman I’ve waited eight years to see — and making her fantastic.

As media creators, it’s our job to make that happen — not just answer the question of why consumers should care, but hammer it home and make them feel something.

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.

Casting Call from Hell

When I think what the casting call for my latest work, Shaken, might look like, I start to feel sort of squeamish and guilty.

Almost, but not quite, Eva Green is the closest I can come.

Take the lead character, Mitzy:

Wanted, Caucasian female, early thirties. Must be at least 5’10, dark-haired, blue-eyed, and able to run in heels. Resemblance to Eva Green a plus. Role calls for comedy as well as drama, and lots of action. Ability to fire a gun a must, willingness to consume vast amounts of liquid in order to play an alcoholic also necessary. Some nudity required.

Would you take that job? Who’s going to be willing to play a snarky, alcoholic detective who’s also a little bit nuts because she can see everyone else’s magical aura? That’s a rough gig.

As for the male lead in Shaken, well, that’s easy for me, but rough on potential series-stars:

No question: this is Tom Collins.

Male, mid- to late-thirties, must look like Nestor Carbonell

I’ve had this actor in mind since I first conceived of sexy reporter Tom Collins, and (if you ask me) there is no one else who looks quite like him. Should Shaken ever be brought to life, I’ll be heartbroken, because no one they cast will be quite as perfect.

Happily, the book remains fairly strictly in my head, and I can imagine Tom Collins looking just like this. And if you read my book, you have to promise that you’ll imagine it, too.

We also need to cast Mitzy’s partner, Shannon Li, and that’s another tall order:

Chinese-American female, late-twenties to early-thirties, no taller than 5’6. Must have some resemblance to a fairy and be willing to wear wings on occasion. Ability to shoot a gun a plus. Must be able to portray a tight-ass who eventually develops a sense of humor.

Shannon—better known in the book as Li—is a half-Chinese, half-Sidhe woman from Oakland who worked hard to get to her position, and resents Mitzy for being a privileged white girl who abuses her job by drinking too much and trying to cut corners. She works to hide her wings but never shows any vulnerability. Good luck, actresses.

As for Mitzy and Li’s boss, Emberson, we need a middle-aged guy who acts like a jerk but thinks he’s a great guy:

The expression is correct, but he’s far too dreamy.

Mid-forties to early fifties white male, at least six feet tall, looks like a football player gone to seed. Must convey patronizing sense of superiority within unctuous acts of friendliness. Ability to throw excellent temper tantrums and shout for long periods of time a necessity. 

For this role, I’d love to see a decade-older Nathan Fillion, slightly balding, slightly overweight, channeling his Captain Hammer persona.

That’s probably just because I’d die to have Nathan Fillion in my books. It’s too bad he’ll never be unattractive enough, though we could always do to him whatever they did to Colin Farrell for Horrible Bosses:

Not a good look for him.

Come to think of it, maybe we should just cast Colin Farrell.

There’s a start, folks. Actors of the future: start rehearsing.