Saturday, December 22, 2012

See You In 2013!

The Criminal Minds blog will be on vacation from December 22nd through January 6th.

See you back here on January 7, 2013, with new questions and discussions.

We thank you for your continued support and wish you and yours a lovely holiday season and a Happy New Year.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Naughty... Or Nice?

It's so interesting to contemplate the question of good and bad characters the week before Christmas. I always thought Santa was a pretty forgiving guy. I mean, one year you might be on the list destined for coal in your stocking, but next year--who knows? It's never permanent. At least that's not what I heard...

When I write a new book, it takes me a while to get to know characters. They might be good or bad people, but I don't know. They haven't run over my foot with their grocery cart or given me a bit box of Godiva chocolates--yet. So they have the potential to switch around. But once I know them better, it's hard for me to imagine them doing something out of character.

I've been working on a book lately where the main character is a thief, but is a Robin Hood-type. And the "good guys" trying to track the thief down may not have very good intentions. So yes, I like thinking about moral ambiguities and I enjoy writing characters with the potential to change. It's also important to me that characters go through some kind of transformation in my books, even if it's not going to the dark side or finding redemption.

I have to admit I've had a hard time writing this week. The tragedy in Connecticut and the coming holidays have all distracted and obsessed me in very different ways. I tried to sit down and write but I had to stop when I came to the  description of a character pulling out a gun. It all seemed to horrible and fresh. I had to step away from my computer and concentrate on spending time with loved ones (hugging my child extra close), making cookies and getting ready for the holidays.

I hope everyone has a happy holiday filled with peace, love and joy! See you next year.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Who's a Friend of the Big Bad Wolf?

What an interesting question.  I managed to avoid nearly an hour of horrible first draft production, staring out of the window, thinking about it.

And the answer is . . . well, sort of. 

I write seatopants-style so very often the one I thought dunnit turns out not to have in the end and I suppose you could say switching a character from "murderer" to "non-murderer" is a bit of a moral upgrade.

One time I really did turn someone from a moustache-twirling, cape-swirling baddy (bwah-hah-hah, all that) to a bunny-hugging (well, bunny-shooting since it was the 1920s and this person was a countrydweller but let's not quibble) poppet.  But I did it after the character was dead so there wasn't much in it for them.

Usually though, it's a question of ever-increasing complexity.  I can't decide whether it's a drawback or a side-benefit of writing a series that minor comic characters grow and deepen over the course of a few books so that you can't use them for cheap laughs any more.

Dandy Gilver's husband, Hugh, was pretty much a stuffed shirt in the first book or two, but as I've written about his childhood, his reaction to his wife being in danger, his fears for his teenage sons as the clouds of war begin to gather, I've grown fonder of him and developed a grudging respect.  In the last two books I've given him a moment of glory to off-set the fact that I still laugh at his fossilised take on the world.

And actually,as I write this I remember that a few years ago, in a different frame of mind, and under a pseudonym (although not very far under: it was Catriona McCloud) I wrote a slightly cross-genre, tricky to decribe and therefore tricky to keep in print, puzzle novel called Straight Up which had a massive shift along the scale of sympathy for one of the characters.

I'm being cryptic because tis is the season and so I've decided to give a couple of copies of Straight Up away (should anyone want one).  In short, if you'd care to read a crime/road/buddy caper about lies, fibs, whoppers, tall tales and total bull in which a depressed florist takes on Hollywood and wins (kind of), just comment and I'll draw names  at the end of today. (With regret, US only.)

Whatever you're reading on the days off next week, though, have a wonderful feast/rest/holiday, won't you.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Redemption Song

by Chris F. Holm

Given that my Collector series is centered around a decent man condemned to hell for sins committed in the service of saving his dying wife, it should surprise you not a whit when I tell you I consider redemption to be one of the major themes in my writing. The funny thing is, it surprised me plenty, because like all good (read: not preachy or ham-fisted, two bars I hope to God I've cleared) themes, I didn't put it there on purpose. I just told the story I wanted to tell, and again and again, there it was.

In fact, looking over the twenty-odd short stories I've written in my career, it seems the twin themes of consensus "good" people doing bad things and consensus "bad" people doing good ones are pretty much my whole damn bag o' tricks.

I think the reason I find such situations fascinating is because, as Hilary mentioned in her post, much as we'd like there's a clean divide between good guys and bad guys, the world just isn't wired that way, nor are the people who live in it. As my protagonist's handler, the not-entirely-Girl-Scouty Lilith, says to him: 
"Oh, Collector, when are you going to learn? For all of your moralistic hand-wringing – about your role in this world, your perceptions of my actions, or the origins of your precious Maker – existence is not as simple as all that. There are no good guys, no bad guys – just a giant fucking mess, and a bunch of damaged beings trying to muddle through as best as they can... We're each of us nothing but frauds and liars. I mean, look at you! You fancy yourself a decent man, but if that's the case, then how did you wind up here? How did any of us?"
Lately, I've been preoccupied with the question of how dark a character can be, and yet still be redeemable in the audience's eyes. In fact, I daresay that's the accidental theme of the third Collector book, THE BIG REAP, which (knock wood) I'm a couple weeks away from finishing. Oh, and speaking of, it has a pretty, pretty cover already: you can see it here, and read a brief interview with me besides.

Now, since the topic at hand has had me humming this tune all day, I leave you with some thoughts on redemption from the inimitable Bob Marley:

And, since the holidays are soon upon us, may your days be safe and merry, however you choose to spend them. It's been a pleasure hanging out with you these past ten months, and I look forward to doing so for many more to come. Catch you all next year. Until then, be well, and may your nog be appropriately eggy or whatever.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sympathy for the Devil

Jim Butcher once wrote, "No one is an unjust villain in his own mind." I believe those words, and I keep that maxim in mind as I write. I don't believe heroes or villains ever really define themselves as such. Humans are too complicated for that — and characters are, too.

When I was writing THE DAMAGE DONE, the character who most embodied this complexity to me was Tariq Lawrence. The book's protagonist, Lily Moore is forced to deal with Tariq, her sister's longtime on-again, off-again lover, as she searches for her sister. Of all the characters in the novel, Tariq is the one who truly gets under Lily's skin, making her question her own impulses and her willingness to do things she knows are wrong in the name of ultimately doing what's right.

Their conflict comes to a head after Lily and Tariq go to Long Island to, ah, talk to a woman who may be connected to the disappearance ("talk" is definitely a euphemism here). Afterwards, Lily believes that she sees Tariq for what he is: a villain willing to do anything to get what he wants:
Tariq and I didn’t speak for most of the drive back to the city. Just before the driver took us into the Midtown Tunnel, Tariq spoke. “Are you so appalled that you cannot even look at me anymore?”
I watched his reflection in the window. “Why did you kill that woman in Claudia’s apartment on New Year’s Eve?”
In the glass I saw his full mouth tighten into an angry line. “Now you think that I murdered her?”
“I’ve just seen you in action. I know how far you’ll go to find Claudia. You’d kill anyone who got in your way. It may have been an accident,” I remembered what Bruxton had said about the woman’s weakened heart, “but it was you.”
“How could I do that, Lily? I was out of the country.”
“Maybe you had one of your thugs do the dirty work. To make it look like she killed herself.” I turned to look him in the eye.
“That is really what you think?” He watched me, the reflection of the tunnel lights shimmering in his eyes like ghosts. It was uncomfortably intimate to sit next to him, the knowledge of what we’d both just done hanging in the air between us. “I suppose I cannot blame you, but I promise you, I do my own dirty work.”
“You’ve killed people,” I blurted out before I could censor myself. “Claudia told me.”
“Did she?” His voice was quiet but flat, without any trace of emotion. “Did she tell you the reason why?”
“Anyone in this world could kill, in the right set of circumstances. The question is, what circumstances?” I didn’t answer, and Tariq went on. “For profit? For passion? For revenge? To protect those whom you love? Tell me, Lily, are all of those reasons equivalent to you?”

Tariq's question to Lily reverberates throughout the book. So many of the characters in THE DAMAGE DONE do the wrong thing for what they believe are the right reasons. Every character has their justifications for what they do. Even if they're filled with regret afterwards, they tell themselves they had the right reasons at the time. None of the villains in the book — and there are several — look in the mirror and see themselves for what they are. But, then again, neither do the heroes.  

Monday, December 17, 2012

No Big Thing

By Reece Hirsch

When I write a character that might be considered a villain or antagonist, I like to think that he or she isn’t necessarily “bad.”  Instead, they’re just the hero or heroine of a different story.  To my way of thinking, the world view of that story may be selfish, greedy, sociopathic or even psychotic, but it should be understandable and relatable – even if we’re relating to our darker impulses.

Some characters are crippled by guilt and remorse, and that can make for an interesting story.  But, in my experience, most people (and most memorable villains) do not believe that they are bad or have done wrong.  They have their reasons for doing the things they do, whether it’s robbing, cheating or killing.  They find ways to live with themselves.  And, while they may start out by justifying those actions with a rationalization that is so transparent that even they can see it, over time those rationalizations calcify into a belief system of sorts.

The lawyers that I write about are masters of argument and rationalization, so this goes double for them.  Even if they behave despicably or criminally, they usually can find a justification.  As one character in THE INSIDER put it:  “It just came down to a choice between him or me, and I chose me.”

In Mystic River, one of my favorite books, Dennis Lehane does a masterful job of taking an initially sympathetic character, a protagonist, and allowing the reader to slowly follow him over to the dark side.  I am now going to engage in a SPOILER ALERT, but if you haven’t read Mystic River, then you should not be wasting your time on this blog post – you should leave now and go read Lehane’s masterpiece immediately.

When the realization comes for that character that he has crossed a line that he can’t uncross, he puts it this way:

“He left the window and splashed warm water on his face, then covered his cheeks and throat with shaving cream, and it occurred to him as he began to shave that he was evil.  No big thing, really, no earth-shattering clang of bells erupting in his heart.  Just that – an occurrence, a momentary realization that fell like gently grasping fingers through his chest.

So I am then.”

As Lehane demonstrates over the course of that novel, the difference between good and evil isn't a big thing -- it's a lot of little things. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Standing at the Crossroads

In this week’s post I’m going to tackle two tasks.  I promised my good friend Gar Anthony Haywood over at the lovely Murderati blog I’d answer some specific questions passed onto him by fellow writer Naomi Hirahara as part of the “The Next Big Thing” blog-chain.  So I’ll do that at the end of this post while initially tackling the current question here on Criminal Minds.  But hey, it’s all about the writing, so it’s all good:
In my recent novel, Warlord of Willow Ridge, I arrived at a couple of different crossroads in the course of writing the novel.  It was always about this guy, this career criminal, no longer a kid, who finds himself as the book open at this down-at-its-heels planned sub-division.  He stays, squatting in a house that is underwater, where the owner walked away from the mortgage that was burying him.  Yet as I progressed, despite what I’d written in my outline, I felt there was another way to go.  This because once you’ve lived with your characters, had them interact on the page and in your mind, they had a presence I couldn’t ignore.
There are times new aspects are revealed to me in the process jjst by how the dialogue flows.  For instance there’s a character in the book who is well-off and leases a private helicopter he flies himself.  That’s fairly ordinary to an extent.  But, and this only occurred to me about 3/4 into completing the draft, what if this same character had a fear of flying in planes but could handle being in a chopper?  For him it’s an issue of control, being at the helm and all that.  I didn’t know this psychological trait detailed in my outline or my mental mini-bio about this guy, but it was after so many pages that the notion hit me.  That if I took this guy in that direction, that kind of underpinning to him, then that told me how to go back into the book and nuance previous passages I had with this character.

And speaking of characters -- how’s that for a segue? -- that brings me to my short and hopefully sweet answers to “The Next Big Thing” questions.
The working title of my next book is The Essex Man

Where did the idea come from? -- The idea it’s the first in a e-book then eventually print action-adventure novella series – check out this piece by Keith Rawson on the new output of e-book pulp.

The genre -- The genre of the book is action-adventure but not ignoring the need to have dimensional, grounded characters.

What actors to play my characters -- I’ll get back to you on that one.

The one sentence synopsis is “Millionaire philanthropist Luke Warfield rights wrongs to redeem a past steeped in blood and failure.”

Self-published or rep’d by an agency? -- The book is from a small but social media savvy imprint.  I rep’d it myself as the young man who runs the outfit comes out of the hip-hop music biz and is a cool cat – how’s that for dating me?

As this is a novella of 25,000 words, it took me about a month and half to write and edit the work.

What other books would you compare this story to? -- This Essex Man riffs on those wild paperback vigilante series of the ‘70s like The Executioner, The Destroyer, et al. but infused with modern sensibilities.

I was inspired to write this book because I’ve always wanted to riff on the vigilant sub-genre and the e-book format, as mentioned previously, is perfect for that.  The new age of pulp as it were.

What else about the book might pique readers’ interest? --  I hope that fans of this kind of story will dig it as well as those who want more complexity to their characters and also providing a hero – in this case an African American – not often seen in this type of fiction.  And for the political crowd, there’s some elements of that in the Essex Man as well.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Let’s Do the Twist

by Alan

What do you do when the story/characters/etc. bring you to a spot where you can go one way or another and both are great twists? How do you choose?

A writing instructor once told me that a book is simply the result of an infinite number of choices a writer makes as he/she tells his/her story. (To which I replied, “Simply?”)

plinkoTo visualize that concept, I sometimes picture a giant pachinko machine (or the Plinko game on The Price is Right) when I outline my story. As the idea “ball” drops through the story, it encounters thousands of junctures where the story could go one way or the other. Unfortunately, this complexity usually freezes me up, and I’ll have to lie down for a bit to recover.

Seriously, though, that’s exactly what I do when I’m faced with a significant choice, a Path A or Path B kind of decision. I’ll step back and really think about the ramifications of each option. I’ll try to noodle through how the story will go under Scenario A, and then I’ll do the same with Scenario B (and C and D, etc.).

After I do that, I’ll flip a coin go with my gut.

Let me say that I do most of this “What Iffing” during the outline process, which makes it less likely I’ll face a significant decision point during the actual writing. But it happens once in a while (I welcome those flashes of inspiration with open fingers), and when it does, I’ll go lie down for a bit to think it over. Ah, the possibilities.

Of course, if the chosen twist turns out NOT to work out in the end, I’ll go back and revise my story until I get it right.

Pachinko, anyone?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What Brand of Toothpaste Did Sherlock Prefer?

by Tracy Kiely

Years ago, I took a writing class called “Creating Memorable Characters.” I was just starting my first mystery, and I was worried that some of my characters were somewhat one-dimensional.  At the first class, the teacher handed out a thick packet of questions that we were to complete for each of our characters. This exercise, he promised, would enable us to create real, believable characters. I remember holing the packet as if I’d been handed the Holy Grail of Successful Writing. Here, I thought, was the key I needed to write the book that would land me on the coveted spot on Oprah’s couch.
Then I got home and started to read through the questions. They ranged from what brand of toothpaste did the character use to what was their favorite subject in high school. All in all there were over fifty questions for each character.  I began copying the questions out and creating a kind of excel spreadsheet of answers for each of my book's ten characters. I created separate folders for each of them and clipped pictures from magazines of people who resembled my characters. Months slipped by, and I realized I hadn’t written a damn thing and also had no space left on my desk. I decided then that I just needed to start writing and stop preparing.
Don’t get me wrong – a good character does have a background and details and a life. They can’t just be a prop that delivers your lines. But I think you can exhaust both time and yourself on background detail that no one will ever know. Once you have a general idea of your character, you can start writing him or her. If they are real to you, then most likely they will be real to your readers. As you write, little things will come to you. They might chew gum when they are nervous or pick their nails. They may get headaches before storms or have an irrational fear of ferrets (sorry, those things freak me out). For me, I can always find a million reasons to procrastinate on the actual writing (or just about any task, really. Don’t even ask about my Christmas card progress).  Spending months deciding what brand of toothpaste my heroine prefers is just another reason for me to procrastinate.
Once I finish the first draft, I’ve spent enough time with my characters to go back and add any details that might have revealed themselves to me along the way - their likes, dislikes, political leanings, etc... For me, it’s easier to add to what is already written than to add to what is still in my head.
But, for the record, my protagonist Elizabeth Parker, prefers Crest.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

An Unusual Dilemma

By Vicki Delany

What do I do when the story/characters/etc. bring me to a spot where I can go one way or another and both are great twists? How do I choose?

As if that ever happens.  It would be wonderful if it did. I can’t say I’ve ever been faced with two excellent plot twists. More often I’m not faced with one.

I usually have a rough idea of where I am going before I begin the new book, i.e. who done what to, and sometimes if anyone actually did anything to anyone, but the twists and turns have to present themselves as I go along. And it can be rather frightening when they do not present themselves promptly as required.

So, if any of my fellow 7 Criminal Minds is ever in the situation described above, where one of your great plot twists has to go – send it my way.

Merry Christmas

I won’t be back until the new year, so let me take this opportunity to wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the New Year.

Oh, by the way, if you like reading Christmas stories at this time of year, I’d like to make a suggestion. The third book in my Constable Molly Smith series, Winter of Secrets, begins on Christmas Eve and ends on New Years Day. Turkey is eaten, egg nog is drunk, snow falls, Molly Smith goes skiing, families fight and a young man is killed in a tragic accident when his car goes off the road into the frozen river.  But sometimes an accident isn’t as it first appears. Click here to have a look

Winter of Secrets is currently only .99 for your Kindle or other e-reader. 

Merry Christmas! 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost Too!

by Sue Ann Jaffarian

  Two roads diverged in a murky book
And sorry I could not take both,
long I sat, scratching my head, looking for a hook.
With apologies to Robert Frost

Since I don’t outline before I start a book, this happens quite often. Not with every book, not even with half of them, but frequently enough for me to be prepared.
The problem is, manuscripts do not come with a GPS. You just have to trust your gut and if your gut is confused, have a plan.

When it’s decision time and one path doesn’t present  itself as the best, I simply resort to drawing a simple flow chart on the huge white board fastened to the wall next to my desk. I draw a path of “what ifs” following it until it meets up with the resolution I’ve already decided upon.  Next, I draw the other path, complete with new scenarios, character behavior, and outcomes until it meets up with the other at the resolution.
Next I examine both paths for plausibility and story complication. If it shows too much of the resolution too early – buzz – not good. I want readers to be able to follow the story and work it in their own minds, but not too early or make it too simple.  Same goes with plausibility. If one path seems too unlikely and might cause too much suspension of belief and eye-rolling among readers – buzz – not good.
If after careful scrutiny, both roads are still in the  running, I view each for entertainment value.  After all, I (supposedly) write humorous mystery novels.

But no process is fail proof. I remember one book where I choose what I thought was the best story path, only to dump five chapters and go back and take the road I'd discarded.  It put me way behind schedule but in the end it was the best pathway.  I just didn't see it until I'd fought my way down the other road for several miles.

Lesson to be learned: logic isn't always the best. Sometimes you gotta trust your gut ... and take a machete.

Friday, December 7, 2012

How a Listmaker Learned to Relax--and Wing It

by Meredith Cole

I like to write lists. I like to cross things off lists and feel organized. So when I first started to write, I thought I needed color coded index cards, lists of character traits and extensive bios. I spent a lot of time organizing myself and not enough time writing. But I was prepared, darn it!

And then a funny thing happened. Once I actually started writing my book, I forgot all about my "plans." My characters grew and changed and became real people to me. The story became their story and it grew and expanded. And one day, cleaning out my files, I came upon the original bios of my first book. Many names were different, and many defining characteristics were different. They were almost unrecognizable to me. And it didn't matter.

I don't believe in totally winging it--don't get me wrong. I think writers (especially on their first book) will do better (and actually finish) if they think through a general story line and figure out their characters in advance. You don't have to make lists or a formal outline, though. You can think through your plot and character as you go jogging, or take a shower or drive to work (be careful with the last one--they haven't outlawed thinking and driving, but I'm sure it's next...). This process is helpful to make sure you have enough of a story to drive a whole novel and complex enough characters to carry it through. It's important also to make sure it holds your interest.

But when you sit down to write, don't be surprised if many of the details change. (He's an orphan--wait, why did his bossy older sister just call him? She's in trouble!) It's part of the writing process. You may be trying different hats on your character to see what fits. Don't worry, you have plenty more drafts to go before you have to settle on something. And then slowly the story and the characters emerge from the fog, perhaps different than you first envisioned them, but clearer all the time. And it's better than anything you could have imagined before you began your journey.

I still write lists (revise 40 pages today, etc.) and I still sketch out character notes. But I don't bother with the bios on the index cards. I have too much actual writing to do. And as long as my story is flowing, that's okay with me.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Imaginary Friends

“How much do you know about a character’s back story before you write word one?  Or do you just wing it?”

Any question along the lines of “How much careful, painstaking, industrious _____ do you do or do you just _____?” is always going to go the same way with me.  “Just” is the operative word.
Some call it organic; some call it shambolic; I call it the Benny Hill method, as I’ve said before.  Brakes off at the top of the hill and go (bathtub optional).

And it’s so organic/shambolic, the bathtub goes whizzing down so fast, that very often I can’t answer questions about method at all.  I really don’t know. 
At the moment, however, it’s all quite fresh in my mind because I’m 1500 words into a new story, not part of my series.  So since a week past Monday I’ve invented three main characters and thirteen minor ones.

Here’s what I know about the big three, five pages in. 
I know their first and last names, no idea what middle names if any.  I know roughly how old they are but I’ll need a perpetual calendar of the 20th century at some point to work it out properly.   I know where one of them lives in precise detail, floor plan of her house, all that.  I know what city the other two live in and that one has a house and one a flat.  I’ll need to go out for a stroll with Google’s wee orange man later. 

I don’t know where any of them were born, but I know they crossed paths in their youth, so I’ll need to sort that out too.   I know the marital status of one, have got a bit of a clue (the name of an ex-girlfriend) about another, have got not the first clue about the third.   If his wife turns up while I’m writing, I’ll know then.   I do know what jobs they do; none of them is a cop, detective, sleuth or pathologist.

How did I find out?  By writing their evolving names over and over again on sheets of scrap paper and thinking about them.  I’m riffling through the heap of paper now and it really is just names.  This is the first time I’ve realised that.
One final thing: I know exactly what they look like (found out by repeatedly writing their names (does this sound as bonkers as it feels to me?)) and by about 30,000 words it’ll start to annoy me that I’ve never seen them.  Then I go looking for pictures of them.  Since this is a modern story I’ll trawl the internet, magazines, newspapers, yearbooks, anywhere I can think of, until I find them.  (When I’m writing Dandy Gilver, set in the 1920s, I have to use old photos. )

And I’ll know them when I see them.  I’ll recognise them.  Then I’ll photocopy or print out the pictures, staple them to pieces of card and prop them up on my desk while we all write the rest of the story together.  Writing isn’t lonely if you’re not actually alone. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Ready the Canon

by Chris F. Holm

"How much backstory do you write or know about your character before you put word one to page?"

Man, that's a tricky question. Or, rather, it's two separate questions smooshed together, which for me have wildly divergent answers.

First, let's tackle part one. How much of my main character's backstory do I write down before I first put fingers to keyboard? Um, none. Does that mean I'm free to go? I'm on deadline, after all, so I could really use the writing time.

But wait: there's still part two to deal with. And here's where the wicket gets all sticky-like. How much of my main character's backstory do I know? Um, all of it. Except for when I'm wrong. Which I often am. Only not really, because I can't be wrong unless I write it down, which, as I mentioned in my answer to part one, I never do.

Perhaps I should explain. And because I'm an enormous nerd (Editor's Note: Chris' nerdity is enormous; Chris himself is rather on the scrawny side), I think the best way to do so is with Star Wars.

Unless you're a total Star Wars geek like me, you may not realize the Star Wars universe is broken down into a hierarchical series of canons. There's N-canon, where all the goofy "what-if" stuff, like Yoda showing up as a playable character in Soulcalibur IV, gets slotted. Then S-canon, which includes semi-canonical stuff like Star Wars role-playing games. C-canon is where all the expanded-universe books and comics go; T-canon includes any and all television series. G-canon is the absolute canon, which Lucasfilm defines as "...the movies (their most recent release), the scripts, the novelizations of the movies, the radio plays, and any statements by George Lucas himself. "

Personally, I've no interest in all the secondary canon stuff. I'm a purist: as far as I'm concerned, if it didn't happen in the movies, it didn't happen. (Heck, there's even stuff in some of those I'd just as soon forget.) But you'll note there's no enumerated canon up there for me, because any crazy crap George Lucas decides to say falls under some kind of Jedi equivalent of papal infallibility. Meaning when Lucas told an inquiring Jon Stewart that Obi-Wan was from the planet Stewjon, POOF: it became true.

Stupid, right? (Unless, of course, you're Jon Stewart, in which case it's holy-shit cool.) I mean, it wasn't in the movies. Or even, for that matter, in the books, comics, or role-playing games. But George Lucas said it, which apparently makes it so.

As an author, I live in fear of wielding such power. And for whatever reason, once I write something down about a character, it is (in my own mind, at least) incontrovertibly true. Even if it's stupid, or useless, or worse yet counterproductive to the story. So, even though I know my main character pretty well before I begin writing, I never commit anything to print until such time as it becomes essential to the story. I mean, I'd hate to think my badass soul collector protag's a lousy day of backstory-spitballing away from having a secret My Little Pony collection.

Oh, hell. I just wrote that, didn't I? Sorry, Sam. Maybe I could make it up to you with some X-ray vision...

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Don't I Know You From Somewhere?

By Hilary Davidson

I wish I could describe the process of creating a character without it sounding completely abstract. I never write character sketches and I don't work out a character's background details in advance, so you could say that I wing it... except that I know a great deal about my characters upfront, before I actually start writing.

Here's the best way I can explain it: have you ever met a person you instantly connected with? You didn't know that person at all, so you had no sense of their history or their character. Even so, you instantly picked up on their sense of humor. When they told a story, you had no difficulty reading the nuances that spoke volumes on how they felt about a certain person or issue. You didn't necessarily share their sentiments, but you understood where they were coming from. It might take weeks or months or years to truly know this person, yet on some instinctive level, you "get" them from the start.

It's like that for me and my characters. When I started writing THE DAMAGE DONE, I knew what Lily Moore was running from. I knew the push-pull dynamics of her family and the ways she had of not dealing with the truth. I knew that she was embarrassed by her family problems, and that a combination of loyalty and pride would get her into trouble. I also knew that she would [un]happily stay in the same vicious circle until the day she died unless the pattern was broken; by the end of that book, it was. At the beginning of THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, she's trying to pick up the pieces of her life with little success. There's a dark, obsessive side to her personality that was mostly under wraps in the first book, but it surfaces in a big way in the second one. Did I always know it was there? Yes. The details of Lily's life took a while for me to piece together, but I had a strong sense of her character from the start.

This isn't about sharing experiences with your characters, though it can be. You don't need to walk the same path to understand the journey. The third book in the series, EVIL IN ALL ITS DISGUISES, will be out on March 5, 2013, and it will add another dimension to Lily's character. In it, she's had more time to process the losses she's suffered, and she's made peace with parts of her past. But she's never confronted her craving for revenge, and she's finally forced to.

*          *          *

If you're interested in winning an advance copy of EVIL IN ALL ITS DISGUISES, all you have to do is sign up for my newsletter. I'll be holding a couple of drawing for the book, as well as one for a complete set of signed first editions of the Lily Moore series. Don't worry about me spamming you. As Lily could tell you, I'm much too lazy to actually write a newsletter.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Character Is Destiny

By Reece Hirsch

How well do I know my protagonist before I start writing? 

I’ve tried doing elaborate character profiles before getting started, listing a character’s personality traits, education, job history, family, musical tastes, etc.  But while a laundry list of traits and likes and dislikes may stand in for character, it isn’t really character.  Anyone who’s gone on a date based on a profile could tell you that.

For me, character profiles inevitably end up being a little lifeless.  While a profile can be a useful way of setting down the broad strokes, my protagonist usually only starts to come to life for me until after I’ve experimented with a few scenes and tried out some dialogue.

Hopefully, by the third or fourth chapter of the first draft, the character has started to speak in a distinctive voice that I can recognize.   Once I reach that point, it usually means going back through the initial first draft chapters and rewriting that character’s dialogue and interactions.

Once I’ve found that voice in a character, then I can start finding ways to take some of the elements from the character profile and building a protagonist who starts to feel like a real person who makes sense – to the extent that anyone makes sense.   I think it’s important that a character not be too schematic.  Although biographers do their best to explain a life and turn it into a coherent story, no one is a mathematical product of their traits and experiences.  There are always contradictions, loose ends and weaknesses, and that’s where a character begins to get interesting.

Maybe it’s the lawyer in me, but I tend to think of chapters as transactions.  In most effective chapters, someone wants something and someone else is standing in opposition to that desire.  In THE INSIDER, I found that in the scenes between lawyer Will Connelly and Yuri, a young wannabe Russian mobster.  In my next book, there’s a scene between another lawyer protagonist and a slimy online pornographer that served the same purpose for me.  It’s always interesting to observe two characters who can’t stand (or understand) each other.  Those are often the scenes where I really start to find a character, and what I discover is usually something that wasn’t in my character profile.