Recently, I’ve been rereading a series I discovered when I was younger. It’s a five-book middle grade fantasy series based on Welsh mythology entitled The Chronicles of Prydain. Since I’ve become a writer myself, I can’t help but noticing the author’s craft. Something really jumped out at me this time. The author, Lloyd Alexander, is a real master of character voice.
Each of his characters has his own unique way of expressing himself, and that voice helps them leap off the page. You get an immediate sense, through a character’s dialogue, of who that character is.
Take, for example, Eilonwy, the heroine of the series. She’s a secret princess, a bit of a motor-mouth, and one of the first feisty heroines I read about. Oh, and she often showed more sense than many of the male characters. I loved her. I wanted her to be real so I could be her friend. One of the ways the author sets her speech apart from the others is her penchant for spouting similes and metaphors—and they’re often just this side of implausible.
Have you ever gotten so involved in a world of characters that you feel like you could sit down for dinner with them? Well, I had the privilege of reading fellow Ruby Sister Vivi Andrew’s new addition to the KARMIC CONSULTANTS series, FINDER’S KEEPER (Book 6). And I could swear that this Sunday I’m having dinner with the Corregiani family so I can watch even more of their antics! But instead I’ll just have a lovely little visit with Vivi – and y’all get to join us!
Dani: I’ve yet to see 2 characters so diametrically opposed to each other as Mia and Chase—the workaholic versus the slacker—who appear on the surface to be opposites in every way. Yet their happily ever after feels very right! Did the nature of their differences make finding their common ground harder?
Vivi: I love opposites attract stories. Who better to open our eyes to a new way of seeing the world than someone who looks at it from such a completely different viewpoint? Chase and Mia do have a lot of ground to cover to find a way to meet in the middle, but the fact that they’re able to fill in the gaps in one another’s lives makes them the perfect team. Some readers have compared Mia to Brennan from Bones or Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory and Chase is able to be her bridge to a less intellectually focused world, while Mia is able to ground him.
Dani: For a book written in your trademark humorous style, this story tackles a pretty heavy subject: the opposition between scientific and magical belief systems. The woman who wishes she could make her family forget their dependence on a “charmed” watch, and the man who will use his psychic powers to find the watch after she loses it. Where did the ideas for Mia’s way of thinking and Chase’s rebuttals originate? Any real life experience thrown in there?
Vivi: You know, I wasn’t consciously pulling anything from real life, but my sister (to whom I dedicated the book) is a fiercely serious scientist and my brother was the kind of smooth-talker who could make the most skeptical among us believe in magic (not unlike Chase). I suppose hearing my siblings bickering all those years growing up has finally paid off in Chase & Mia’s banter.
Dani: The characters in FINDER’S KEEPER are delightfully unique – a true scientist who views the world on a detailed, analytical level and an extremely laid back hero. Yet the more we get to know Chase and all he’s been through, the more his choices make us fall in love with him. Then we have Mia’s crazy Italian family and the traditions that keep them close. Characterization is an incredible strength in your stories! Any suggestions for the writers out there on how to make those characters come alive?
Vivi: Thank you! My characters always feel like real people to me, alive inside my head, so I’m delighted to hear that some of that translated to the page. Unfortunately I’m not sure I have any fabulous tips on characterization. I guess the trick is to never make your characters do something in service of the plot. To always let them be themselves and build the story around that truth.
Dani: Our readers might be familiar with your wandering lifestyle (we Rubies get to live vicariously through your frequent travels). Will you share a little about your most recent trip? What was your favorite part?
Vivi: I am a certifiable travel junkie. My latest trip was actually pretty close to home (compared to Egypt, China, New Zealand, and some of my other adventures). I recently spent a good chunk of time in rural New England and Quebec – hiking and enjoying the fall foliage people had been telling me so much about – but my absolute favorite part of the trip was my very first ever flying trapeze lesson! There’s a trapeze school in Bostonand I treated myself to a lesson as a reward when I finished my latest manuscript. I flew! (And afterward I ached in muscles I didn’t remember I had.) The experience was amazing. Highly recommended. You can bet I’ll be back dangling from that bar soon, jumping off the platform when they yell “Hup!”
Dani: You are an incredibly prolific writer! With 3 novels, 12 novellas, and 1 short story on store shelves, I know you have even more in the works. What’s on the horizon for you? Any chance we might get to see Karma’s story (head of Karmic Consultants in the Karmic Consultants series)?
Vivi: Funny you should ask, since I just heard (breaking news!) that Karma’s book, Naughty Karma, will have a Fall 2013 release to close out the KC series. (Woot!) Now that I’ve delivered the last Karmic book, I’m exploring some new series ideas and considering heading in a shiny new direction. On to the next adventure!
Today let’s talk our favorite “opposites attract” stories! What are the two characters whose banter and push/pull interactions you’ve most enjoyed? What did the author do to make their relationship funny or sexy without simply being antagonistic?
About FINDER’S KEEPER:
Love isn’t a science. It’s pure chemistry.
Karmic Consultants, Book 6
True love? For neuroscientist Dr. Mia Corregianni, it’s just an unproven hypothesis. But when she loses the heirloom watch her family believes is enchanted with a potent love spell, she fights superstition with superstition by hiring a psychic finder to track it down.
Chase Hunter is a human compass, homing in on whatever the seeker wants most—that is, when he isn’t surfing or actively avoiding anything resembling a real human attachment. Such has been his life since an accident took his family.
Unfortunately, Mia’s case isn’t a simple insta-Find. The catch? To disguise his real mission from her romance-crazy family, he has to pretend to be her boyfriend. He could deal with that if her complicated emotions weren’t blocking his abilities—or if her innermost desires weren’t walloping him upside the head every time he opens himself to his gift.
As the case wears on, their fake romance begins to feel all too real. Scary stuff for a man who’s reluctant to let himself live again. And a woman who doesn’t believe in magic…or love.
Warning: This book contains meddling grandmothers, magic watches, and a surfer with a body so hot it can teach any scientist the true meaning of chemistry.
Okay, I admit it; I am a Science Fiction geek, and I loved Farscape. The whole premise excited my imagination —which is normal, considering I write futuristic Sci-Fi Romance when not dealing with lords and ladies. However, as much as I enjoyed the show, it’s the beginning—available in the music video above—that really spoke to me.
“Look, I can’t be your kind of hero.”
“No, you can’t be. But each man gets the chance to be his own kind of hero. Your time’ll come, and when it does, watch out. Chances are, it’ll be the last thing you ever expected.”
Nobody wakes up one morning and says, “I’m going to be a hero today.” Heroism tends to be the product of unforeseen events, unplanned incursions of circumstance, or simple happenstance (being in the right place at the right time). When any of those things occur, ready or not, the truth of a person’s character is revealed. There is no time for prevarication, dissembling, or projecting the desired image. There is only now. And a hero does what the now demands without regard for anything—or anyone—else.
In the now, a true hero has but one goal: Save the maiden. Rescue the colonists. Protect those within the fort. Brave the fire. Face the bullet. Find the threat and eliminate it—or die trying.
Heroism is about risk. Whether that risk is physical, psychological, or emotional is irrelevant. Whatever the root, the perception must be one of threat or danger.
Heroes put themselves in harm’s way for others. Were there a handbook for heroes, that would be Chapter One.
As writers, we write all kinds of heroes, and in doing so, must escalate the risk, elevate an ordinary man to heroic heights. How much is our hero willing to give? What is he willing to lose? His life? His heart? His beliefs? To be a hero, he must be willing to disregard something he believes necessary to his existence. The numismatist who has dedicated everything to procuring a unique coin only to sacrifice it to ransom a kidnapped child, or the accountant who, despite fears of professional suicide, ferrets out the truth about his crooked boss so the innocent bookkeeper won’t go to jail is just as much hero as the brawny Scot swinging his bloodied claymore to defend the lady he is sworn to protect.
It’s how we write him that gives him his chance to be his own type of hero.
Of course, most of us would prefer the brawny Scot—at least between the covers (that’s book covers, ladies). Still, the most unassuming person, given the right circumstances, can be a hero, while those to whom our perception ascribes innate heroism can turn tail and run.
Along those lines, the first movie that comes to mind is The Incredible Mr. Limpet—which could easily be subtitled Casper Milquetoast Saves the World. No, I’m not kidding, and here’s the original movie trailer so you can see for yourself.
Among types of heroes, one can’t forget the unwilling hero, thrust into a situation better avoided but doing what’s necessary because there’s no alternative. Atticus Finch is a good example of an unwilling hero. A quiet man, he goes about his life without raising much dust until he’s forced to choose between his preferences and his principles. Principles win, and as a result, he, his daughter, and his entire community discover his innate strength, courage, and conviction.
Then there’s the anti-hero, cynical and self-serving, forced by circumstance to do the right thing. Rhett Butler anyone?
There are other types of heroes, of course, but I’ll let you fill in the blanks while I give you one more video. (You really didn’t think you’d get away without something historical did you?)
Now it’s your turn. What’s your favorite type of hero? Alphas? Betas? Gammas? What do you think makes a good hero? Have you ever read a book with an unexpected type of hero? Is there any one thing that makes you fall in love with a fictional hero? Do you have a favorite hero? Anything you want to share about heroes, feel free. Let’s celebrate heroes!
If you’re thinking this blog is about setting, you’re totally wrong. Maybe I should’ve changed the title so you wouldn’t have thought so, but after I started brainstorming ideas for a blog it actually fit.
My original idea was to write about two lessons I learned many years ago from my creative writing professor which, yes, would’ve pertained to setting, but then two of my Ruby sisters had also mentioned on our private loop that they planned blogs about the subject. Although I knew we’d approach the subject matter from different angles, I kind of figured our readers would say enough already. So I’ll save my thoughts on setting for another time.
Anyway, going back to my creative writing classes— since I know you’re all dying to know what they were—the first one was free writing. We all know what that is, right? You just write whatever comes to mind without stopping for a length of time and the writing doesn’t need to follow rhythm or reason. It’s a way of freeing your muse. Thinking about that lesson helped me put a twist on the second lecture, which was setting sense and had to do with experiencing your world, and ‘Wala’ I think I came up with unique tutorial for our awesome followers.
A few years ago, my dad wrote a non-fiction manuscript (all about science and politics and the manipulation of data and public perception) and asked me if I would take a look at it. It was a fascinating read and my reaction was largely positive, but his reaction to my feedback was more or less “Well, crap, you called me out on all the places I was cutting corners. I have work to do.”
There are a lot of different ways we can be lazy writers. We can fail to get our butts into the chair to write the book in the first place. We can try to take short-cuts and cut-corners, looking for the writing equivalent of the easy way out when it comes to the hard parts of our manuscript. Or we can fail to put our butts back into the chair and do the work necessary to fix our POS first draft when we’ve realized our short cuts aren’t going to fly.
Don’t be a lazy writer. As has become a Ruby mantra: WRITE FEROCIOUSLY. And revise ferociously too. Decimate those short cuts.
Obviously fiction short cuts and non-fiction short cuts look different. Today I want to talk about what I find to be some of the most common cut corners when it comes to romance manuscripts – glossing-over-the-good-stuff writing. Shallow POV & generic characterization. That skating-over-the-surface style – which can be expedient in a first draft when you have plots to figure out – can be downright lazy in a final work. (And I’m not just pointing fingers here, I’m just as guilty of lazy writing as the next scribbler. But if we are aware of the areas we short-shrifted the reader, we are better able to add an extra level of shine to our finished works.)
Here are some tips to take your reader deeper: (as always, these are just my opinions, your mileage may vary)
Bring your reader INTO your character. We’ve all heard about Show Don’t Tell, but I think truly engrossing writing takes it a step beyond even showing. Don’t tell. Don’t show. Be. Use language that talks about how it feels to be inside the emotion. To be the one who is happy or sad or lustful. Not just the actions that demonstrate our emotion, but the sensations that come over us when we are overcome.
For example, telling would be: She was happy. Showing: She beamed at him, delighted. Being: Her cheeks ached from grinning but she couldn’t stop. Those sensations can make your reader remember that feeling, empathize, and connect with your character from point of shared emotion, not just be happy for their happiness from the outside. I think those characters we feel with are the ones we can’t walk away from – the books we can’t put down.
Have you ever read a book or manuscript where the characters didn’t seem real not because their reactions were wrong, but because they were too right? Sometimes we can forget that our characters are human (or human-esque aliens/shifters/vampires) with human flaws. Letting your characters be conflicted (sure they do the right thing, but damn if they don’t secretly wish they could escape that hard choice) can add nuance and reality to the characterization. The Perfect Pollyanna heroine is lazy writing, IMHO.
What we do and what we wish we could do don’t always match. Let your reader in on that dissonance. Especially if a reaction isn’t a particularly PC one. We don’t always react to things internally the way we should. A flicker of spite that the character squelches before doing the right thing. A tide of sympathy for a villain. Or maybe even relief when something bad happens because the other shoe has finally dropped – all of those can make the reader connect with your character because they are INTERNALLY honest at a time when we are externally PC. We, as the reader, get to see the real, human side. Not the tough face our character shows the world. We connect with that weakness – and then admire the strength to overcome it even more.
One way we can be lazy as writers is by going straight for crying, shouting or laughing. We want our reader to see the extreme emotion our characters are dealing with, but resistance – trying not to smile, trying not to cry – can be much more powerful. I am much more likely to cry when a character is doing everything she can to stop herself from crying than I am to cry along when she’s bawling at the drop of a hat. When she is fighting not to, it’s almost like I have to. Like oneof us has to let that emotion out and if she resists it’s gonna be me. It’s the same with laughter.
Those are the extremes of emotion the character doesn’t want the rest of the world to see, the things that are personal, intimate and internal. Those moments when the character is trying to hide, trying to suppress what they feel, trying to master their emotions, are when the reader gets to truly see our protagonist. From the inside.
Whether we employ these techniques to bring a reader deeper or look for other ways to strengthen our writing, we can’t be lazy. We can’t gloss over and take shortcuts. Our readers will know. So get out there, butts in chairs, and revise ferociously.
What are some cut corners and short cuts you find in manuscripts? How do you overcome them?
Everybody knows THE HUNGER GAMES has a terrific premise: the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, must survive a futuristic-dystopian reality TV show that forces children to fight one another to the death.
Trapped in the arena, Katniss is hunted ruthlessly by professionally-trained competitors called “Careers.” (Talk about built-in GMC.) She tries to avoid hurting other competitors, and risks her own life to protect a younger, more vulnerable player. Only a heartless bastard could fail to see the injustice of her situation, or fail to sympathize with her.
But Suzanne Collins, the author of the mega-popular trilogy, had another trick up her sleeve.
Collins could have launched Katniss’s adventure by having Katniss’s name drawn directly from the jar full of lots that determines the competitors. We’d still have felt her shock and horror, and rooted for her to survive.
Instead, Collins gave the inciting incident one extra little twist, and it’s one of the most effective characterization strategies I’ve ever seen: Collins doesn’t have Katniss’s name drawn out of the jar….the name that’s drawn belongs to Katniss’s sister.
Whump. It’s a hit in the gut for Katniss. Her little sister, Prim, is the one person in the world Katniss truly loves. The whole focus of Katniss’s life has been keeping Prim alive and safe.
So she has no choice: she volunteers for the arena. Because the only thing more horrific for Katniss than facing the Hunger Games would be standing by while Prim was taken.
Damn, it’s brilliant.
With that one little twist, Katniss goes from being a fairly run-of-the-mill innocent victim of evil to being a DEEPLY-LOYAL, TOUGH-MINDED, SELF-SACRIFICING, HEROIC innocent victim of evil.
We don’t just sympathize with her, we respect her. And we know she’s got a powerful heart, and a fierce humanity, and a dedication and force of will that just might actually let her survive this thing….
Like I said, brilliant.
And it’s so economical, writing-wise. Having Prim’s name drawn didn’t require a single extra paragraph of backstory. But with that one small plot move, Collins opens up layers of emotional depth for Katniss.
Watching the new movie version, I was completely bowled over by the scene in which a weeping Prim runs to Katniss after she volunteers for the Games, and Katniss repeats over and over, “I’m sorry—I’m so sorry.” Far from being self-pitying, Katniss feels guilty for frightening Prim and leaving her unprotected at home.
When Katniss says goodbye to her mother before being dragged off to the arena, we skip the predictably sappy, tearful scene of mama-comforting-daughter in favor of Katniss shaking her mother by the shoulders and telling her she can’t go catatonic again like she did when Prim’s and Katniss’s father died because Prim has no one else to care for her.
And with Gale, her best friend (who just happens to be madly in love with Katniss), there’s no cliché romantic farewell. Katniss’s only concern is Prim, and her last words to Gale are “Don’t let them starve!”
The whole time she’s in the arena, she’s focused on doing what Prim begs her to do: “I just want you to come home. You will try, won’t you? Really, really try?”
And she does. For Prim.
If you hear someone say Katniss as a character kicks the self-involved and whiny butt of Bella Swan, this is why.
Apologies to Twilight fans, but I really, really want to learn from Suzanne Collins’s brilliance here. I’d love to think of other examples. What other stories can you think of that have gotten this kind of mileage out of such a small plot move?
It’s December, and I’ve been doing a lot of eating lately.
How many of you tiptoed in here today with a guilty glance at that slab of leftover pumpkin pie on the plate beside you? Relax! I’m not talking about dieting. At least not our own. This is all about the characters who inhabit our books. It’s seems we, as writers, have put them on a starvation diet.
I was watching an episode of the Walking Dead a week or two ago that made me think. The characters were eating, of all things. And no, the zombies weren’t the ones chowing down, but the living people. As I watched, aghast, I realized there was so much you could tell about the characters as they sat around the table sharing a meal. The uneasy silence, broken only by the clink of knife and fork as they scaped against the plates…the furtive glances from one of the characters who was guarding a secret. The distance between the two “clans” of survivors. And the young lovers who passed a note back and forth under the table.
Today, the Ruby-Slippered Sisters welcome guest blogger Arlene Hittle, 2011 Golden Heart® finalist. Her manuscript,”Beauty and the Ballplayer,” is a contender in the Contemporary Series Romance category. Her heart-warming and funny stories feature down-to-earth heroes, or average Joes.
Power of the Average Joe
A certain type of man populates the pages of our favorite romances. You know the guy I’m talking about; The rich, powerful CEO. The dashing nobleman. The stunningly handsome enforcer (cop, FBI agent, Navy SEAL). The charming doctor. The studly cowboy.
All these heroes are thrilling to read — and fantasize — about. But they leave me wondering one little thing: Where are the average Joes? Surely not every hero needs to have muscles of steel, a fat wallet, an ego the size of Alaska, and an insistence on getting his own way.
Okay, maybe he does need to be used to getting his own way. That way he can butt heads with an equally stubborn heroine — even when he’d rather be making other forms of full-body contact.
I still maintain that he can — perhaps even should — be at least a little ordinary.
Maybe that’s just me. I write about heroes — and heroines — with whom I can imagine sitting down to drinks and dinner. They’re journalists, teachers, artists, counselors and ballplayers. I admit that last one’s a cut above the ordinary, but even then they don’t pull in multimillion-dollar salaries with a big league club. They play ball for the fictional minor-league Arizona Condors.
Of course, just because characters are average doesn’t mean they’re average-looking. My witty, affable heroes still manage to possess abs you could bounce quarters off. Some of them — Mike James, I’m looking at you — would even be able to hold their own in the WWE ring, against the likes of John Cena and Randy Orton. (Mike’s a sportswriter who moonlights as a male stripper.)
Strippers and wrestling superstars provide a bit of eye candy, but when it comes to heroes, it’s not big muscles I’m attracted to — much, anyway. Well-oiled pecs and six-pack abs help, sure — but what really makes me fall for a hero is what goes on in his brain.
And, since it’s fitting to borrow from Shakespeare on the day Wills and Kate tie the knot, there’s the rub: How do we create characters that readers can fall in love with?
How do we make sure they’ll cheer when our hero and heroine kiss for the first time — or when she tells off her creep of a boss? How do we get them to understand why he accepts that job halfway across the country — or at least ask “what the hell are you thinking?”
I’m sure there are as many tips for character development as there are writers creating characters. I’ve listened to talks about categorizing characters by personality type. I’ve filled out worksheets listing everything from the type of car they drive and favorite foods to their hospital stays and political beliefs.
Whoever gave me that questionnaire must subscribe to the Noah Lukeman school of thought. In “The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life,” he writes, “ To even begin to accurately bring a character to life on the page … you must quiz yourself fastidiously about every last detail of your character’s inner and outer life.” To that end, his book begins with 50 pages of questions covering every aspect imaginable.
Along that same vein, after reading a post here on the Ruby blog by Autumn Jordon, in which she writes about a visit from her villain, I was inspired to sit down at Starbucks and have a chat with a couple of my characters, the hero and heroine from the WIP I’d intended to finish sometime this year — before I got the GH call. It was great fun and I learned, among other things, that they both were pretty mouthy. (That always makes things more interesting, if you ask me.) If you’re interested, you can find an excerpt from that interview here.
I’m not completely convinced that knowing the name of your hero’s kindergarten teacher contributes anything to a MS — besides creating the potential for a giant, unwanted info dump. However, details like the fact that he crossed the street to save a puppy from some bullies at age 6 — and got his butt kicked in the process — might come in handy at some point. Of course, that’s something I didn’t quiz myself to find out; it emerged while I was writing.
Guess that means I’m still trying to find the best way to breathe life into my characters. Even Average Joes need to leap off the page and into readers’ hearts.
What makes your favorite hero so lovable? How do you make sure readers will remember him long after they finish reading the story?
Recently— Actually, two months ago, I read a story in which one male character, an ex-marine, was so in-tune with the heroine’s wants and needs that I found him totally unbelievable. I know good guys, I’m married to one, but in all my years, I haven’t met one man who totally understands what it means to be a woman, especially a pregnant one.
Yes, I understand we’re writing romantic fiction and we have the right to create our fantasy men in our heroes, but we also have the obligation to our readers to write characters they’ll buy into. Men are different than women, it’s a fact.
Alpha, Beta and Gamma males don’t worry about cleaning the house because company is coming. It’s his cave. If they don’t like his cave, it’s their problem. Men certainly don’t worry about choice of pillows for his guests.
A meal is a slab of meat (bread optional) not a four course dinner. Setting the table means putting the meat on it—(silverware optional).
His idea of organizing is to pile items somewhere on a shelf in a specific 10’ X 10’ area. His hope to find the item later is to ask his woman where she put it.
Men don’t remember to pick-up the dry cleaning unless it’s the only chore on their to-do list, which is pinned to their shirt, and there is not a bar, hardware or sports store on the direct route to the cleaners.
In conversation, they tend to use simple words and less of them. Women rationalize, offer direction or explanation while men just get to the point. Men also use lots of fighting four letter words and more often than women.
Men don’t bond with other men by sharing. They bond by competing with each other.
Men zoned out when resting and they fall to sleep faster than women. Our minds continue to work—probably wondering what they will do or not do next.
Men saunter, swagger or strut. They don’t pad across the floor.
They scratch and it not always their heads above.
They hook their leg over the other, not cross them. If he sits with his legs wide, he is interested in you.
When asked to describe a car, they don’t start with the color. It’s usually make, model and engine size.
The Crayola® eight pack contains their realm of color descriptions. No man says teal or fuchsia. Exception; they might, however, say cherry.
Watching a baby, means he needs a babysitter.
They’re particular about their razor, jeans, footwear and choice of alcohol. Anything else, they’ll make do.
My brief list is not meant to bash men. They’re known facts. The point I’m trying to make, I read this story written by a NY Times author two months ago and still the fact that she dropped the ball in a big way disappoints me. Faulty characters, written over the top, cardboard or totally off can and will cost you readers.
Research your material. Watch the guy who thinks he has the power over the TV remote. Remember you know where he stored the fresh batteries.
Okay, I bet the second you read my blog title an EX-significant other popped into your mind, and you’re recalling what it was about him or her that caused conflict between the two of you and ended the bond. Think back–not to the beginning but to the turning point in your relationship. What made you decide to say, “Okay this person is not meant for me” and sent you on the run.