Friday, January 30, 2015

Flaws and All

Many readers say that they prefer a protagonist with flaws to a model of perfection. Did you intentionally give your protagonist flaws, and if so, what are they? What flaws are you uncomfortably with (i.e., substance abuse, misogyny, etc.)

by Paul D. Marks

                        ...get rid of my flaws and there would be no one left.
                                                           ―Sarah Vowell, Take the Cannoli

philip-marlowe-private-eye-blackmailers-dont-shoot-red-powers-boothe-vhs-cover-artMany of my characters are flawed one way or another. Some of them with major flaws like racism, others with everyday flaws like vanity or envy. I think we’re long past the days where the good guys wear white hats, don’t cuss, don’t smoke and don’t throw people off the tops of buildings. And if you look at the examples below I think you’ll see that I’m not “uncomfortable” with much in terms of flaws. Not because I like these traits, but because I think they’re real. And if I want my characters to ring true they have to have real flaws because no one is perfect.

Phillip Marlowe, the quintessential knight errant private eye, was misogynistic, racist and more, just as a matter of course. But he was also a product of his times. We notice it today when we read Chandler, but I’m sure many people reading those stories when they first came out wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Nor do I think Chandler would have given it a second thought or consciously put it in his stories. It was just the zeitgeist of the times (if I’m not being redundant). But today, when most of us write characters with these traits we are doing it on purpose to make a point of one kind or another and to round out the character.

White Heat cover -- Paul D Marks -- D26--smallThe two main characters in my novel White Heat are both seriously flawed. Duke, the main character, is a screw-up in more ways than one, only that’s not the word he uses to describe himself. His partner, Jack, is majorly flawed. He a racist – at least on the surface. He says things that maybe other people only think. But a lot of them do think those things. If you only listened to Jack talk you’d think he was a really bad guy, but if you watch his actions, you see that it’s not that simple. Jack is also a good guy. He may say the wrong thing, but he pretty much does the right thing. In Jack’s case actions definitely speak louder than words.

White Heat takes place in and around the 1992 “Rodney King” riots in Los Angeles. And, though it’s a mystery, it deals with many racial issues and concerns – which are still relevant today. So the book is sort of a prism on today, though set in the not-too-distant past. I was so concerned by the raw nature of some of it that I put a disclaimer in the beginning of the book. I put the disclaimer in, but I also left in the raw language and actions of the characters. But I was still nervous about how people would react. Luckily the reaction was pretty positive on all fronts and the book ended up winning a Shamus award.

I also see Jack as the little devil on Duke’s shoulder, like you would see in the old cartoons. Jack is sort of Duke’s alter ego, the bad side of Duke, the nature he must fight. And he does. But why, one might wonder, would Duke even be friends with Jack? Because, besides their personal history, Duke sees beyond Jack’s  posturing to the real Jack underneath and maybe that person isn’t quite what the surface person comes off as. We all say things we regret, and sometimes do things we regret. Jack pretty much does the right thing, even if he spouts off the wrong thing. And ultimately we are all flawed and can relate to the flaws in others. It makes the characters more human, more accessible. And more real.

51-50 Psycho Noir ZeltsermanThe main character – a cop – in 51-50, a story first published in Dave Zeltserman’s Hard Luck Stories – Psycho Noir edition (so the edition title alone might tell you something about the character), now in my LA Late @ Night story collection, shoots a gang banger out of sheer frustration, not because of a life-threatening situation. The cop is unraveling throughout the story, the pressures of life on the street are too much for him to deal with anymore. The story was written and published some years ago, but again is relevant in light of what’s been happening in the country today. The cop is not a bad guy. He wants to do the right thing. But dealing with the stress of the streets and the thugs he has to deal with just wears him down.

Ray Hood (Last Exit to Murder anthology) is an aging rocker in Dead Man’s Curve, his glory days as a road guitarist for Jan and Dean are long behind him. He’s selfish, he does bath salts (not the kind you put in the tub), he doesn’t appreciate what his sister is trying to do for him. Definitely not a model of perfection. And he wants to get back in the game. To that end he will do just about anything.

In Poison Heart (Deadly Ink 2010 anthology), Winger is a crime beat photographer, who can’t adjust to the modern world and has become jaded by all the violence he sees in the real world. So he decides to take things a step further and goes way beyond the bounds of the law to get a good pic, selling his soul (so to speak) in the process. Another desperate character who will do desperate things to stay on top and be a modern-day Weegee. Again, his flaws are the petty flaws we all have, but he takes them to another level. A more personal level of envy and the desire to be on top and what he’s willing to do to be there.

My Enemies Have Sweet Voices features the “typical” noir-guy flaw – he falls under the spell of a woman who convinces him to kill for her. But his real fatal flaw is that he betrays the trust of his best friend by asking him to help him hide the body.  His weakness is that he picks lust over loyalty to his friend, while his friend is loyal and helps him with the body, no questions asked. But there is a bigger price he has to pay for it later. (Coming later this year in the Coast to Coast: Murder From Sea to Shining Sea anthology from Down and Out Books. Anthology title is tentative.)f08bdd34413d865ac5b973afddeacf4d

Howling at the Moon (November 2014, Ellery Queen): This one’s a little different in that the character is not a bad person. Not selfish or suffering from envy or any of the other seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride  But he is disaffected and has separated himself from his American Indian roots, especially after coming home from the war in Iraq. He ultimately does something we might think is immoral, but we empathize with him and understand why he does it. Nonetheless, he becomes a flawed person by the actions that he takes.

Most of my characters are flawed because people are flawed. I don’t necessarily set out to write a character with this or that flaw, but the character comes to life in the writing and develops those flaws, just as people do as they go through life. Ultimately, I think the reason most of us like flawed protagonists is that we can relate to them more.  They are more like us. Not perfect, not saints, more like real people, just trying to get by in a flawed world.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Flaws for the Flaunting

I'll start by answering the second bit of the question: what flaws would I shy away from?

Ignoring the kind of flaw that's really sociopathy - I mean, you couldn't introduce someone with "This is Crispin. He stamps on kittens but he has a lovely tenor singing voice"- I think the only flaw I'd find it hard to write would be if someone was boring.  It's difficult to show boringness properly without actually just *being* boring.

(In real life, a crushing bore can be hilarious if you've got someone's eye to catch and you're both thinking the same thing; then you actively *want* the bore to keep going until you know what kind of replacement showerhead she had to get in the end, or whether the journey was longer or shorter taking the freeway; or how many touchdowns there were at the bottom of the ninth innings at the last Knicks game.)

Dandy Gilver (my 1920s detective character) has quite a dull husband, but I only ever show short snatches of him and it's more that he's excited about unexciting things than that he drones on.

Dandy herself has flaws and foibles that are more fun to write. I always get a kick out of people who don't have much self-awareness: snobs who think they're approachable; spoiled brats who think they're stoical; dictators who think they're solid members of the team. Dandy Gilver's total lack of insight about herself is one of her main flaws, but it's also pretty authentic for a character of her class at that time, when inward reflection would have been seen as feeble and shaming.

The other flaw that I think is central to Dandy Gilver - and probably saves her from being insufferable - is not at all authentic for a toff in the 20s. (This is the first time I've thought about it; I'm grateful to whoever asked this question and forced me to).

A key feature of very powerful people is their incredible self-confidence and, no matter how silly they look to us now, the British upper classes of the 20s and 3os had a great deal of power.

No doubt if Dandy had stayed in her own world - a pretty empty world of house parties and charity work - her confidence would have grown as she grew older and she'd have turned into a splendid old trout.

But she took up detecting and more is now asked of her than her upbringing equipped her for. She has to think on her feet and make it up as she goes along.  She regularly gets it wrong too and so she has learned the value of caution and has even - unheard of! - learned to doubt herself sometimes.

I've always been clear that Dandy Gilver is not me, but we have the self-doubt in common. I'm right now having a minor panic because I've just discovered something I didn't know about her and I'm currently writing the first draft of her latest story. What if this knowledge make it impossible to write about her anymore without it being clunky? What if answering this question is the equivalent of looking down from the high wire? What if me realizing that she's making it up as she goes along stops me being able to the same?

Writing: it's not a short-cut to serenity.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

No Characters Allowed

by Clare O'Donohue

Question of the week: Many readers say that they prefer a protagonist with flaws to a model of perfection. Did you intentionally give your protagonist flaws, and if so, what are they? What flaws are you uncomfortable with?

I don't write characters - at least I try not to. Characters are fictional things that exist to serve a plot. They can be (as Susan pointed out) the goody-two-shoes with a moral center so pure that they are never tempted; a P.I. with a drinking problem, an ex-wife he still half loves, and an issue with authority; or the infamous hooker with a heart of gold.

Characters may have flaws but they are imposed on them, a device to make them appear interesting. They are trompe l'oeil, only realistic at a distant glance.

A Star Called HenryWhat I try to write, what we all try to write, are people. And people are complex - filled with contradictions, prejudices, problems, the baggage of flawed childhoods, and broken relationships, as well as dreams, and plans, and hopes for the future.

So, in writing, I don't intentionally create flaws - as in "that guy will be a gossip" - I focus my energy on creating a person, a real person. In writing the first draft of a book, those flaws appear when these fictional people make choices, they screw up, they lie, or laugh in the wrong moment, or cover up a murder.

When it works, it's really cool - as a writer, and as a reader. Jay Gatsby, Raylan Givens, Tom Ripley, and Lisbeth Salandar are a few fictional, and flawed, people that come to mind. I'm just finishing Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry, a lyrical poem of a book, inhabited by people so real, so flawed, that they break your heart.

While we might aspire to self-improvement in life, the truth is, our flaws seep out from us, like sweat or blood. They are essential to our nature, the thing that makes us interesting to know. And to write.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Character Flaws: Equal and Opposite

by Robin Spano

Question of the week: Many readers say that they prefer a protagonist with flaws to a model of perfection. Did you intentionally give your protagonist flaws, and if so, what are they? What flaws are you uncomfortable with?

My Answer:

When I was kid, maybe twelve or thirteen, I remember my mom telling me that a person's strongest trait would almost always be her weakest point. I forget the context. My best guess is that she was about to begin a sentence with, “While I admire your stubborn individuality...” But after that conversation, I started studying people like they were flip sides of the same coin.

Much to my annoyance, I found that she was right. My best friend at the time could be very superficial—but her superficial side was a lot of fun. Another friend could be oversensitive, take things wrong—but, not surprisingly, this was the friend who was most sensitive in a time of need.

When I'm developing a character, I don't consciously add flaws. But if a character has a strength, it usually follows that they have a flaw that's in counterpoint to that strength.

One of the most dramatic examples I've seen is Natalie Portman's character in Black Swan. She portrays a young girl so desperate to be the top ballerina that she channels all of her energy obsessively into that goal. And she makes it. But the very obsession that drives her to achieve greatness has driven her insane.

My writing is not this dramatic, but the same principle applies. Clare Vengel's strongest skill is the ability to go undercover convincingly—to dive into a cover role, immerse herself into the suspects' world, and quickly become accepted into their inner circle. But, like a method actor, she has a tendency to dive in too well. She begins to live the life of the character she portrays, and often needs her handlers to remind her to focus on clue-gathering, not just taking a vacation in someone else's skin.

Secondary characters are the same. A brilliant musician might have a tendency toward alcoholism or addiction because of their sensual love for getting lost in another world. A genius at the poker table might treat their real world friends like adversaries in a game. Someone who is steadfastly honest might alienate herself by speaking the truth indiscriminately.

So while I don't intentionally give a character a flaw in first draft mode, I know that for every strong point they have, it should be matched by a weakness that's equal and opposite. And if it's not there, then the second draft should hammer that in.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Ophidiophobia, Anyone?

Q: Many readers say that they prefer a protagonist with flaws to a model of perfection. Did you intentionally give your protagonist flaws, and if so, what are they? What flaws are you uncomfortably with?

-from Susan

Was Nancy Drew perfect? I don’t recall, but I do remember even at 10 thinking she was a little too Goody-Two-Shoes for me. I write about human beings and human beings aren’t perfect. I’m also an avid reader and I want even silly protagonists to be flawed. In fact, the silliness may BE the flaw.

What does get a little old is the lonely P.I. with a sour attitude, a half-empty whiskey bottle and a serious smoking habit. It’s more fun to think up unusual flaws like phobias no one’s heard of, or addictions we can relate to, or peculiar passions. As a reader and writer, I may not be able to slip entirely into the protagonist’s skin as she stares quivering out the window at the pouring rain (Pluviophobia) or runs screaming from the kitchen when her host opens the white refrigerator door (Leukophobia), but I’m not wild about snakes (Ophidiophobia)* so I have some idea of what the poor person is going through. And, if you’re a writer, can you imagine the scenarios possible with problems like these?

What don’t I like? Sexual sadists, serial killers, child killers, sociopaths, pedophiles, hit men, the cruelest in the human race. 

Remember the killer in the backseat of Marge’s patrol car at the end of “Fargo”? She looks at him in the rearview mirror, from the safety of her sanity and embedded place in society and can’t fathom him. I feel like Marge. I do read and watch some pretty scary stories, partly because the writing or filming is so good, and partly because I don’t want to be a wimp or so far removed from what’s popular that I don’t understand the market or the times. But I can’t write those characters because a) I don’t know what goes on in their heads; and b) I don’t think I want to know.

Dani O'Rourke is a modern woman with problems a lot of us can sympathize with: Her divorce left her insecure; she struggles with 10 pounds that refuse to leave her waistline; she is a little cynical about some of the situations she finds herself in at work; and she can't seem to find a loving partner. Nothing earthshaking, but enough to keep her off balance and distracted when trouble pops up.

There are so many flaws that make people vulnerable, that can drive them nuts or cause them to lose all perspective and yet not make them monsters. Those are the flaws I hope to uncover and use as a writer, and read about and enjoy as a reader.

With thanks to:

Friday, January 23, 2015

Themes, Trends, and Other Topics

By Art Taylor

This week's question is: "Have you ever tried to incorporate a popular trend (such as zombies or vampires) into your own work? Have you ever felt pressure to do so to increase sales/circulation?"

As a short story writer, I probably have a different take on this than others. On the one hand, my primary publisher, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, doesn't really give me any instruction at all; instead, my editor considers the stories I send and whether or not they're good stories, they'd be a good fit for the magazine, etc. But at no point has she ever approached me with an idea about what she wants me to write next or instead. (If only she would!!!) 

On the other hand, I have submitted stories to various themed anthologies—and in those cases, the stories were either written from scratch or revised from earlier drafts in order to accommodate/address the themes and restrictions. For example, I've had stories in the last two Chesapeake Crimes anthologies, and I've had another story accepted for the next one. The respective themes in these cases are reflected by the subtitles: This Job Is Murder, Homicidal Holidays, and Storm Warning. What's fascinating is that even with these themes, the range of the stories from the various contributors usually proves remarkably diverse; each writer's own stylistic approach or thematic interest almost inevitably shines through, no matter what.

These are themes, of course, and not trends—like the trend toward vampires and zombies that the question above mentions. But clearly there could be overlap, and clearly the process might well be the same.

While I've not written or submitted a story with vampires, zombies, werewolves or others, I really enjoy the works I've read in that direction. I just recently finished and very much admired Dana Cameron's standalone story/novella "The Curious Case of Miss Amelia Vernet"—which draws both on elements of her Fangborn books and on the world of Sherlock Holmes. While it could be argued that Sherlock Holmes has been renewed in recent years as a trend of its own, Dana hardly seems to be jumping on any bandwagon but instead just pursuing her own interest in each of these directions, playing, exploring, seeing what might happen, where such a story might go. In a similar way, I've long enjoyed the anthologies put out by Toni L.P. Kelner and Charlaine Harris—beginning with Many Bloody Returns and continuing most recently through Dead But Not Forgotten. The contributors there have represented a wide array of writers—some already writing paranormal/supernatural, some not—and even in the case of authors who might not already be writing in this vein (pun, sorry), it seems like they're having fun with the challenge of trying something new, of putting their own spin on it all. All of this, perhaps inevitably, produces a broad range of subject matters, tones, and approaches—none of it feeling "pressured," all of it a real pleasure.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Hey, Get Off My Lawn!

by Alan

Have you ever tried to incorporate a popular trend (such as zombies or vampires) into your own work? Have you ever felt pressure to do so to increase sales/circulation?

Some people have referred to me as Mr. Anti-Trend.

To wit:

When bell bottoms and flares were all the rage (way back when), I would only wear straight leg pants. Five years after that, when straight leg jeans were in, I was sporting flares.

I do not own a smartphone (I refuse to get a phone smarter than me).

You know those skintight leggings that runners have been wearing for a decade? I don’t own any. Instead, I run in baggy sweatpants (the same ones I’ve owned for probably a decade). spinning

Don’t own any Apple products. My MP3 player is a Sansa.

I never rollerbladed or went to spinning class. 

I didn’t start watching Breaking Bad until the series had already ended.

I’m not on Instagram or Pinterest or Tsu or Reddit or StumbleBumble or whatever.

I don’t know the difference between a mocha, a macchiato, an espresso, a frappuccino, a cappuccino, a whatheheckuccino, a latte, and a flat white (although that last one sounds like the paint color I used for my wife’s dressing room). I think there’s coffee involved, right?

I still own luggage without wheels.

When I read a newspaper in the morning, I read a newspaper.

Sometimes I wear a watch on my wrist. One whose only function is to tell time.

In fact, I’m so untrendy I don’t even know what the current trends are!

I guess my answer to this question is obvious: No, I don’t write to any current trends. I write what I want, and figure if I like it, there must be someone else out there, somewhere, who might like it too.

Now, can anyone help me program my Betamax?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Another Fad Missed

By Tracy Kiely
My first four mysteries were loosely based on some of the themes and character traits found in Jane Austen’s books. As such, the only request I ever got from an editor was to “add more Jane stuff.”
The very idea of adding zombies or any of the undead to an Austen inspired book was laughable. I remember when Pride Prejudice and Zombies came out. I thought it was a ludicrous concept.  That didn’t stop me from buying the book though. After all, it was Jane Austen.
Seriously. Who Knew?

I thought it was terrible. Horrible, really. Absurd. For those of you unfamiliar with the plot, it’s basically the original story of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy (boy meets girls, boy is haughty and proud, girl thinks boy is a jerk, boy grows to love girl, boy finally convinces girl he is FREAKING MR. DARCY, FOR GOD’S SAKE and they marry).  The only difference is that in this version, Regency England is crawling with zombies.
I just stopped and re-read that last sentence. It took me seven times to get through it without giggling.
As the blurb on Amazon explains, Pride Prejudice and Zombies is “a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield.”
I will admit that some parts of the book were clever. Charlotte Lucas agrees to marry the insufferable Mr. Collins only because she has been infected with the zombie disease. Charlotte reasons that as a clergyman, Mr. Collins will ensure she receives a proper Christian burial when it is time for her to die (or have her head lopped off).
However, then we came to the part where Lady Catherine forces Elizabeth to battle one of her ninja guard. Elizabeth not only bests the man, but rips out his heart. From there, she proceeds to eat it; without the proper knife and fork.
That’s about the time when I lost it. Like Downton Abbey creator, Julian Fellows, I am a firm believer the proper use of cutlery. (Go to 2.30 minutes in the clip if you are rushed for time: Julian Fellows and cutlery
I finished the book with a sneer and tossed it aside. Actually, I lent it to a friend and never asked for it back. I dismissed it as a gimmick and not a very good one at that. It would be nothing more than a flash in the pan, I thought smugly.
Fast-forward to today. The movie comes out next year, and the author, Seth Grahame-Smith now has more money than God (which begs a whole other question: do we need money in heaven? ‘Cause between saving for the kids’ college and our retirement, I don’t see how I’m going to swing it. But, I guess someone has to pay for all those roads paved with gold. Do you suppose there’s an EZ Pass system in heaven?)
"Welcome! That will be $4.50 please."

But, back to the topic. No, I never thought to add the undead to my books, nor did anyone ever ask me to. And you know what? Honestly? I’m a little ticked off by that. Had someone done so, I might have written this from a yacht in the Mediterranean rather than a desk off my kitchen. And I certainly wouldn’t have to worry about being homeless in heaven, because let’s face it; H.L. Mencken was right, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Call Me Stubborn…..

By R.J. Harlick

"Have you ever tried to incorporate a popular trend (such as zombies or vampires) into your own work? Have you ever felt pressure to do so to increase sales/circulation?"

A book signing immediately comes to mind. I can’t recall which Meg Harris mystery I was promoting, but it was a few years ago, when vampires and the like were the rage. Maybe they still are.

I was sitting up front in a local bookstore waiting for the clamouring hoards to approach, surrounded by tables of the latest vampire best seller. A woman came up to me and asked if I had vampires in my book.

It was one of those questions you aren’t sure how to answer. Do I obfuscate and hint that teeth dripping in blood and innocent white necks lurk somewhere in the story or do I just tell the truth and lose the sale? She by the way was the first customer to approach since I had taken up my station.

I let honesty prevail. “No,” I said and waited for the fallout.

“Good,” she replied. “I’ll buy it. I can’t stand vampires.”

She pretty well summed up my feelings about vampires and other popular trends. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a rebel and tend to shy away from the latest and greatest.

Along a similar vein, I have also never been persuaded to change the setting of my books. The push is very real and very strong for Canadian crime writers to set their books anywhere other than in our country. Publishers and agents have deemed Canadian settings not sexy enough to bring in the big bucks. As a result few Canadian crime writers actually set their books in the country where they live. I’ve known many a writer who was forced to change a Canadian setting in order to sell their manuscript to one of the big international publishers.

Fortunately for those of us stubborn enough to stick with our Canadian settings, there are good independent Canadian publishers who are very happy to publish books about Canada. My own publisher, Dundurn, is one of them. A terrific publisher, by the way.

To say I have not been tempted would be a lie. I have dallied around the idea of setting my mysteries elsewhere, but invariably I come back to the fact that I want to write about the country where I was born, grew up and have spent my entire life. We have fabulous settings, exciting stories. I want to tell them. So, I won’t make the big bucks. I don’t care. I am writing about what I want to write about. And hope my readers want to read about them too.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Zombies and sea monsters and vampires--oh my!

Have you ever tried to incorporate a popular trend (such as zombies or vampires) into your own work? Have you ever felt pressure to do so to increase sales/circulation?

Um, no.

That's the short answer, anyway. No one has pressured me to "sell out" or do anything I was uncomfortable with in my mysteries in order to increase sales. And I haven't tried chasing the latest fad.

I have certainly watched the latest trend of taking whatever is hot (vampires, for instance) and putting it in whatever story you're writing with a mixture of interest and disgust. Vampire Regency romances or whatever. I think it's short sighted and I can't imagine that any of the books are going to stand the test of time. And I really think it's despicable to take someone else's work (Jane Austen in most cases) and just add something in like sea monsters and call the thing done. I think Jane would protest and she would have a right to do so.

But there's no harm in writing about vampires or zombies if you love books that feature them. And just because everyone else is writing dystopian YA novels doesn't mean that you can't, too. It probably means they're selling or have an audience right now. Just don't make it a gimmick. And write it really, really well so the rest of us will enjoy it, too.

That is all.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Walk a Mile in my Shoes, Just Don't Fall Down

Most male authors create male protagonists and women create female protagonists. Have you ever tried to write a main character of a different sex?

by Paul D. Marks

Yes. In fact, I just recently finished two short stories, both of which have female protagonists. Neither is published yet so I can’t turn you onto a place to read them.

But a little side trip before I get to those and other stories. For me the question is not so much have I written things with female protagonists, but whether we can put ourselves in the head of the other gender to be able to write them.

The proverbial “they” tell us to “write what you know,” but if we did only that we couldn’t write
about much since we all only have a limited frame of reference and personal experience. How could we write about an astronaut, a Frenchman (if we’re not French), a Wookiee*, if we haven’t had those experiences. How could we say “je suis Charlie” if we are not Charlie Hebdo? We use what knowledge we’ve gained from living our lives and from the people we know, and fill the rest in with imagination.

Trite as it sounds, we all have experiences as human beings. And, though men and women are different, there is a lot of crossover in our experiences and our shared humanity—how’s that for high-minded pretentiousness? Plus we have empathy for other people if we’re not psychopaths (I’m not naming names here...), including those who are not necessarily just like us. As the saying goes, we have to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes to see what their lives are like...which, in some cases—like writing about the opposite gender for a man—might be a bit of a problem if they’re wearing six inch spiked heels.

So for me it’s more about knowing your character than it is about just having a protagonist from the opposite sex per se. The main thing is to try to avoid stereotypes. But whatever gender, the questions are the same: what do they want, what are their desires, what choices do they make, and that is the character, not whether or not they wear red nail polish or drink beer and watch football.  Would you expect a guy like Rosie Greer, former defensive tackle for the LA Rams, part of the “Fearsome Foursome,” to do needlepoint? But he does. Oh, and he’s called Rosie.

*       *       *

Besides the two new stories with female protagonists, I have a couple of golden oldies that have women as their leads. One of them, Graceland, a humorous mystery, is about a female detective hired to find the missing King’s (Elvis Presley’s) body. The main character introduces herself this way: “My name is Van Jones, short for Vanessa.  My mother wanted to name me Priscilla, after the King's Queen.  My father wouldn't hear of it.  He wanted to call me Johnna after John Wayne.  My mother wouldn't hear of that.  They settled on Vanessa – I don't know why, probably 'cause neither liked it – and my father calls me Duke anyway.”

And taking a trip into the Way Way Back Machine. One time a producer optioned a screenplay of mine. He had the brilliant idea to change the male lead to a female and the female lead to a male.  So I went through the script and did that, but found I had to change very little besides the names and pronouns to make him happy. The upshot being that men and women are human beings and human beings often have similar emotions, motivations and manners of speaking. We are different, that’s for sure, generally men are less emotional, at least on the surface and/or express our emotions differently. Women tend to be more expressive, but not all women are the same, just like not all men are the same.  But we are also not as different as we think sometimes, so changing the script in just minor ways seemed to work.

Both new as yet unpublished stories, hot off the presses, have female leads, but are very different in tone. One is a satire, told in the first person by a woman who may or may not be guilty of the crime. And the other is set almost completely in a jury room, where the protagonist tries to sway the jury’s vote for her own personal reasons. I had fun writing both, but in different ways. And for both I had to research various external things such as fashions and trendy gourmet foods and car makes and models. I also had to imagine what it would be like to be a teenage girl, now the woman lead of my story, and think about what experiences and feelings would shape her personality—I had to put myself inside her head as best I could. Something I would also have to do if I was writing about that astronaut or Wookiee, neither of which I am.  I also had to research murder kits, not having had a lot of real-life experience with them other than to know that you must always include duct tape.

Whatever and whoever we’re writing, we do our research, we rely on our experience, and we try to walk a mile in the character’s shoes and hope we don’t fall down and break our necks.


*Yes, that’s how it’s spelled. No, I’m not a Star Wars nerd – I had to look it up.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Writing Beyond Your Self

By Art Taylor

Spurred on by a very generous Christmas gift from my wife, I've just started rereading Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley—part of a New Year's resolution to read the entire Ripliad (four more novels) over the course of the year. In his introduction to this boxed set of the first three books, John Banville writes:
Patricia Highsmith identified closely with her creation. Almost all her friends commented on the intense and intimate manner in which she used to speak of him, as if he were really alive somewhere in the world, and on a least one occasion she inscribed one of her books "from Tom (Pat)." This sense of duality runs throughout her life like a crack athwart a mirror. Commenting in her journal on a dream she had, in which she set fire to a young woman who had yet survived the flames and whom she thought must represent herself, she wrote: "In that case I had two identities: the victim and the murderer."

This week's question on Criminal Minds—"Most male authors create male protagonists and women create female protagonists. Have you ever tried to write a main character of a different sex?"—called both Highsmith and that passage above to mind, and not just because Highsmith's greatest creation is of the opposite sex or because she identifies so clearly with him (her version of Flaubert's famous "Madame Bovary, c'est moi"). Equally interesting to me—equally appropriate—is that last part about being both the victim and the murderer.

The question about writing on the other side of gender lines seems to be a common one, as if writing from the perspective of someone whom you're not is a struggle at best, a no-no at worst. But isn't that a bigger question than just sex or gender. How could a law-abiding author inhabit the thoughts and decisions of a cold-blooded criminal? How could a civilian author accurately recount the musings and actions of a police officer, a military agent, a government spy? Much of this seems to be simply the very nature of what we do—inhabiting the perspective of someone other than ourselves: different sex or gender, different race, different occupation, different political persuasion, different moral compass, whatever.

To answer the question more directly, however, I'll not only say "yes" but also add that my most successful stories have, in fact, been the ones whose protagonists are women, usually stories told at least in part from those characters' perspectives. "The Care and Feeding of Houseplants"—which won last year's Agatha and Macavity Awards and was a finalist for the Anthony—alternates between three third-person perspectives, including the woman at the center of the love triangle driving the plot. "When Duty Calls," a finalist for the previous year's Agatha and Macavity, follows the perspective of a young woman who's become a caretaker for an aging veteran. And among my three most recent stories, "Premonition" (from the latest Chesapeake Crimes anthology) embodies the dreams, fears, and perhaps overactive imagination of a woman waking up on a stressful Halloween night, while one of the two narrators in "Precision" (from the latest issue of Gargoyle) is a woman with a hidden past and secret plans for dark moves in the near future. Looking further ahead, my novel-in-stories On the Road with Del and Louise, due out in September from Henery Press, is told exclusively from Louise's point of view.

I'm not sure why I fall back so frequently on women protagonists or female perspectives, and I certainly can't comment objectively on whether I pull it off well or not. Answering the former would likely be a much longer post; answering the latter would fall on the readers to decide, of course. I'll just hope that my characters—both the ones I've mentioned above and all of them really—are ultimately judged not just on whether the gender is a match or a successful mimic but instead on whether they come across as real and compelling and multi-dimensional, projections not of myself but reflections of the wider world, the wider cast of folks within it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


by Clare O'Donohue

Q: "Most male authors create male protagonists and women create female protagonists. Have you ever tried to write a main character of a different sex?"

The main characters in both my Someday Quilts and Kate Conway mysteries are women, probably because I just think first about telling a story from a woman's point of view. 

Someday Quilts is pretty estrogen heavy, but there are guys in the book that, I hope, are fleshed out. Jesse Dewalt, the police chief in Someday, is both a romantic and investigative partner to Nell. And Nell's grandmother, Eleanor, got involved with Oliver White, an artist with a shady past. Oliver was meant to be in only one book, but I liked him, so he stuck around. He's a complex guy and his presence has brought out things in Eleanor that I hadn't considered.

In Kate, Andres and Victor, Kate's camera crew, are central figures in the story. They are her closest friends, but they are very different from each other. Andres is a family guy, strong, low key, not easily rattled. Victor is mostly bluff, but he is loyal and kind, and open to life in a way that neither Kate or Andres dares to be. I have been complimented on getting their "guy talk" right - by men - so I'm thrilled about that. 

Admittedly, despite having all these male characters - the point of view in both series is decidedly female. However, in a new series I'm writing, I have two leads - one male, one female. I think I have pretty good insight into the male mind (which isn't that different from the female one anyway), but I am paying attention to how I write his thoughts.

For me, the big challenge in creating any character is making that person real - male or female, killer or cop. I don't want clich├ęs or stereotypes to creep into my writing regardless of the person, and I hope I'm being as respectful of that in my men as I am in my women. 


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

On Writing Men

Question of the Week: "Most male authors create male protagonists and women create female protagonists. Have you ever tried to write a main character of a different sex?"

My Answer: Yes.

I write multiple points of view in each story, and while my lead character has so far been the same female undercover cop, each book in the Clare Vengel series has at least two men out of its four or five POV characters.

In Dead Politician Society, the most controversial character was Matthew Easton. He's a misogynist professor who sleeps with his female students—prefers first years who are still naive enough to think he's brilliant. He's also an inspired teacher who truly cares about empowering his students to effect change. I had a lot of fun inside his conflicted head.

In Death's Last Run, I really enjoyed the world from behind the eyes of Richie, the drug smuggler trying to go legit. Paradoxically, he was probably the most ethical character in the book. I gave him my love for snowboarding on easy cruising runs with dance music blasting in his earbuds. I often found myself physically grooving to the beat inside Richie's head.

But the most fun I have ever had crawling inside the skin of a man was when Wattpad asked me to write Rob Ford fan fiction.

I was intrigued by Ford. I liked his politics, the person not so much. I thought he was being unfairly demonized by the Toronto Star reporters. After all, Winston Churchill was drunk all day when he saved the world from Hitler. Was a crack habit so significant when his policy was working?

So I used fiction to throw down my thoughts on the world from inside Rob Ford's head. I didn't paint him in a saintly light, but I tried to figure out where his human side might come from.

Inside Ford's head, he wasn't an alcoholic—he just drank vodka like most of us drink coffee. He loved his family, he hated socialists, he said outrageous things that did not befit his job (but would have been effing hilarious if someone you liked said them at a party).

So yes to writing men. (Though I admit I find it faster and easier to get complexity into a female character!)