Tag: character development

character development

I Can't Go For That, No, No Can Do…

   I read a blog post a few weeks ago about a novel that had celebrated—or notorious, depending on which side of the debate you fell on—twist ending. Comments on the blog lined up in one of two columns—loved it or hated it. The haters complained the book had run afoul of one of their pet peeves: cop-out/too-convenient endings, genre switching, unconvincing characters, etc. The reactions to that novel prompted me to ask my fellow Missdemeanors:  What do you hate most in fiction writing, mystery or otherwise? What’s your pet peeve? Alexia: I hate it when a mystery author conceals a fact from readers when that fact is critical to solving the puzzle, then has the sleuth produce the fact out of nowhere, leaving readers saying, “Where’d that come from?”. For example, Snuffy Smith’s long-lost identical twin is revealed as the murderer but his twin was never, even once, mentioned/hinted at/alluded to–not even the suggestion of the possibility Snuffy might have a twin–before the big reveal.  That’s cheating. To paraphrase the rules of the Detection Club, a detective can’t have out-of-the-blue hunches that turn out to be right, can’t withhold clues from the reader, the solution to the crime can’t be chalked up to “divine revelation, feminine intuition, mumbo jumbo, jiggery pokery, coincidence, or Act of God”.(I’ll make allowances for “Act of God” if it’s a paranormal mystery and God is the sleuth.) Michele: Since you asked, and since I recently ranted about this on Facebook… I hate it when an author pulls a cheap trick at the end of a book so that the reader is unfairly surprised. It’s a variation of what Alexia has said. Instead of spinning a plot that thrilled the reader, in a book I recently read, the author purposely deceives the reader about something not central to the plot and uses it as a cheap “thrill” at the end. If it weren’t on my Kindle, it would have been the third book I’ve thrown across the room in my entire life. The author used the deception as substitute for an exciting plot twist. Years ago, I read a book while sick with the flu that had fabulous writing, a good plot, likable characters. There was no hint that it was going paranormal until at the very end, a character walked through a door. I mean THROUGH A DOOR. And don’t get me started on the one Anita Shreve pulled. At a conference, she told livid readers that she still gets complaints on what she did in one of her books, years later. (No spoilers here). Come on, guys. Play fair! Cate: I hate it when the villain is just evil. Bad people typically have a way of justifying their actions or they weren’t fully in control when they did the bad thing and now feel remorse. I HATE the sociopathic gun-for-hire killers. Fine if the writer explains how the killer got that way—a lá Grosse Pointe Blank. But I refuse to accept the bad-just-because explanation. Robin: I have 2 pet peeves in all genres:1) “Was.” I stopped reading a best seller on page 2 after counting 26 instances of “was.” Used sparingly it can be appropriate but not 26x in the first 2 pages. Whenever I see “was,” I rewrite the sentence in my head to make it active rather than passive. Overuse just exhausts me and irritates my inner editor.2) “Fortunately” or “unfortunately.” This kind of echoes your sentiment, Alexia. These statements of coincidence dropped out of thin air with no prior context will make me stop reading. Show me the build-up as characters arrive at their opinions of good or bad circumstances, or lead me to draw my own conclusions as the story unfolds. The only time I kept reading past the repeated use of “unfortunately” was Gone Girl. It fit with the character’s voice (no spoilers so I’m not saying who said it). Susan: I hate it when I get to the end of a book and can’t remember who on earth the suspects are. You could insert any name and it wouldn’t matter. Then comes the big reveal and I think, Oh. Nice. Who? Paula: I’m not a big fan of ambiguous endings. Nor endings which play out the theme of “Life is shit.” I don’t mind “life is shit but it’s all we’ve got so enjoy what you can,” but the “life is shit, we may as well all slit our wrists now” endings I find intolerable. I don’t need a happy ending, but I at least want a hopeful one. Tracee: Can I simply agree with you all? My pet peeves are variations on your themes, although the ‘life is shit’ one is really a no-go for me. Purely evil character with no deeper meaning is probably second. Honestly, I’m so fixated on making Michele tell us which Anita Shreve pulled the ‘character out of the air’ trick that I can’t focus on anything else. I haven’t read all her books, so don’t think I simply don’t remember it. I’m going to take Michele out for drinks at Malice and force her to tell me. Then maybe that will be my top pet peeve.

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PUB DAY!!!! An interview with Swiss Vendetta author Tracee de Hahn

 Publication day!!!! For my first book, it was the fulfillment of a dream, the culmination of years of work and the validation that I had not been crazy when I’d quit my journalism job to get “serious about writing fiction.” It was also terribly unnerving to know that my baby would now be out there, inviting judgment. I was uncharacteristically touchy the whole day, like a raw nerve. Today is fellow MissDemeanor Tracee de Hahn’s publication day for Swiss Vendetta, the first in her Detective Agnes Lüthi mystery series. Award-winning author Charles Todd called the mystery  “a true page turner” and the novel has been hailed as “tense, atmospheric and richly detailed.” She answered a few questions about her writing process and feelings about her big day for today’s blog.  Q. What was your inspiration for writing Swiss Vendetta? A. My husband is Swiss and we lived there for some years. It is a fascinating country. Incredibly beautiful and peaceful and orderly… until you notice the undercurrent of energy expended to keep it that way. The contradiction is fascinating and made me think of the elements of a mystery. There were a few other pieces that had to come together – the winter setting was inspired by the memory of a devastating ice storm some years ago in Geneva. The famous Château de Chillon on the shores of Lac Léman above Lausanne was the inspiration for my Château Vallotton (Lord Byron was also inspired by this location). After I had the location in mind, the plot and characters evolved. The crime at the center of the book came easily. Q. How do you come up with your characters? Are they modeled after people that you know? A. They certainly contain bits of people that I know, but the elements of the individuals are transformed into something wholly of my imagination. For example, one of my favorite characters in Swiss Vendetta is the aging Russian, Vladimir Arsov. His voice, his manner of speaking, and his confidence were all inspired by an Italian architecture professor I had the good fortune to know. Arsov’s life story was all my invention, but the reader will understand how the man’s presence – based on my friend’s – helped created the rest. Q. Do you picture the actress who would play your protagonist in a movie?A. I’ve thought about the cinematographic dimension of the book, but I haven’t thought about the actress who would play Agnes. Hopefully I’ll need to one day. Q. What was the most surprising thing about the book publishing process to you? A. The collegiality of the writing community, particularly those in the mystery and thriller genre. Writing is a solitary endeavor and they make it less so. I imagine that before the internet, authors wrote to one another. Now the immediately of the internet and the growing network of conferences mean that we can connect daily. There is much to be learned and this group is always willing to share. Q. Now that it’s launch day, are you happy, sad, relieved? All of the above? Why?… A. A combination of happy and relieved. I know myself too well, and while writing is solitary, a book is a shared experience. I wanted to be out and about at launch time. My publishers lined up a tour of several cities and I’ll be distracted for a few weeks. For the actual launch date, I am signing at one of my favorite book stores, in a city I love – Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington, KY. If you want to join me on tour, the events are all up on my website at www.traceedehahn.com Q. What is next for you?  A. Finalizing the second in the series and then starting the third! I think that the second is a psychological hurdle. I have a dozen ideas for the next one and hopefully the ones after that. Really, can’t wait to get started! 

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In Praise of Difficult Women

I like difficult women. Females unafraid to say exactly what they are thinking. Girls willing to bend the rules to do their version of the right thing. Strivers. Overachievers.People who will go to battle for what they want and who they love.  I like sensitive women. People who get insecure and jealous and angry and sad–the host of negative emotions that we all feel at some point and, too often, are encouraged to compact into our guts and cover with a smile.  Above all, I like complicated women. The kind of people who can be forthright, giving and kind in certain situations, but have days when stress makes them dismissive, selfish and dishonest–maybe even with themselves. I like women with chips on their shoulders and things to overcome. Vengeful and forgiving. Kind and selfish. Open-hearted and cagey.  These are the women that I write. And, they’re not always likable.  There is much debate over what makes a heroine in thrillers. Should the good girl be someone with whom the largely female book reading audience can root for the whole way through? Should she be a paragon of morality that has to fight through a dire situation? Or, should she be an amalgamation of positive and negative qualities? The kind of person complicit in her own misfortunes?  The recent success of books like Girl On A Train and Gone Girl have shown that readers will relate to fundamentally flawed female leads. Rachel Watson, the protagonist in Girl On A Train, is a raging alcoholic who drinks to the point of blacking out on a regular basis. She throws up on the stairs in a house she shares with a generous friend and is too drunk the next morning to clean it up. If that isn’t the roommate from hell, I don’t know what is. While author Paula Hawkins gave us some reasons to excuse Rachel’s behavior, it’s not until the end of the book that we have a full picture which, I think, would make even the hardest hearted readers forgive the main character. Until then, though, Rachel is a hot mess that few people would bother to befriend in real life.  For those who haven’t read Gone Girl, I won’t explain anything about Amy. But I think Gillian Flynn created a truly amazing character who isn’t particularly likable in either stage of the book (pre-reveal or post).  Plenty of people disagree with me. They want their heroines to be people morally worthy of their emotional attachment. If they’re rooting for them to win it’s because they are unequivocally deserve to.  What do you think?   

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Substitution For Difficult Scenes

I write domestic suspense. The bad people in my books are philanderers and emotional abusers, financial manipulators, unreliable narrators with horrific back stories and, in general, people who play fast and loose with the rules. As a helicopter mom of two young kids, I’m kind of a stickler for rules. So how do I write these characters?  One way is through emotional substitution. I try to get into the feelings driving a character’s actions by thinking of a time that I have felt similarly, albeit not to the same degree. Though I can’t relate to the anger my character may be experiencing stalking her husband’s girlfriend, I have had times when I’ve felt betrayed and angry in my life. I overlay these experiences to write my character’s emotions in a believable way.  The danger of not using such substitution, I think, is that characters’ actions can read false. I end up writing a lot of   “he nodded” and “she grimaced” in scenes where the person would more likely be either standing dumbfounded or attempting a smile to cover her disgust. It’s too easy to forget how I and other people actually behave in difficult situations without connecting to how I have actually behaved in my own life when under stress.  So, while I don’t advocate going out and doing drugs in order to write a scene about a person out of control on drugs, I do recommend meditating about a time when life has felt out of control and then substituting in those very real actions and words when writing.   

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Method Writing: Getting Into Character

To play Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman in the The Pianist, actor Adrien Brody learned how to play piano, practicing for four hours a day. He also gave up his apartment, sold his car and drifted around Europe so that he could identify with Szpilman’s isolation.  To write a memorable character, I think authors have to be just as willing to lose themselves in their protagonists. A main character’s actions and words, the way he or she handles problems and the thoughts that run through his or her head, can’t be a thinly veiled version of the author’s own responses and musings. Authors must become “method” writers.  The Method was developed by famous acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski. It’s a way of getting into character that involves an actor doing things in his own life to allow greater identification with a part. Actors playing dancers learn to dance. Charlize Theron gained a bunch of weight and changed her appearance for Monster to get into the head of her hard living, serial killer character. Nicholas Cage walked around the street in facial bandages to understand how isolating those kind of wounds can be to get into his wounded veteran character in Birdy. I tried to employ the method with my first book, Dark Turns. My protagonist was an injured ballerina who takes a gig teaching at a ritzy private school in order to heal and get some distance from a bad breakup. Best laid plans blow up when she discovers a body on campus her first day. I took ballet for over a year to get into my character, Nia Washington’s, head. I had never danced–unless you counted calypso and grinding to reggae music at parties. To write her, I needed to do more than imagine myself as in my early twenties and feeling bummed from a breakup (that part didn’t require much research). I had to understand what it was like for a person to push themselves physically to the point of pain for a goal. How does doing that change who someone is and how they respond to things? How does a hyper-awareness of your own muscles alter how you respond to physical stimuli? Nia, as a result, is hypersensitive to body language. She picks up on things about relationships in the way people move, how close they stand to one another, whether their weight is inclined towards a person or moving away, that inform how she goes about solving the mystery. She also misses clues that I’d never miss as a much more cynical, thirty-something ex-journalist who spent most of her professional life examining the things people said and their motivations for doing so.  Obviously, in a year, I didn’t become a ballerina. Three classes a week and I was barely standing like a dancer by the end. But, I did get a taste of performing on stage and a small sense of Nia’s world: the nearly myopic focus she had to have for much of her life and the reactions she would have as a result.  For my second book, the protagonist, Ana, is a thirty-one-year-old mom facing extreme financial stress after her husband loses his job. The mom part wasn’t a stretch for me, but the financial pressures were more difficult to picture. While I could imagine how I’d feel if my house was underwater and there wasn’t enough income coming in for the mortgage, I’d never had the stress of being unable to pay a bill. (I’d worked since sophomore year of high school and had been afraid of debt) So, for a few weeks, I gave myself a taste of that stress. I stopped using my credit card and tried to live on twenty percent of my usual amount. I didn’t, I’ll admit, stop sending my kids to activities–mommy’s dedication shouldn’t impact their life like that. But I did change how I grocery shopped, stopped entertaining, and tried to go through multiple days without spending a dime. It was extremely difficult.  Some writers can get away with not using The Method because they have personally had a life that makes for good storytelling. My friend Brian Thiem is a 25-year-veteran of the Oakland Police Department who retired as commander of the homicide department. He writes about a homicide detective who confronts cases reminiscent of the worst ones he faced on the force. Brian’s background is interesting enough to serve as fodder for a compelling series character. He doesn’t have to get into the head of a homicide detective. That’s who he is.  For relatively boring me, though, I need the method to help create richer main characters. To create villains or unreliable narrators who may do worse things than I could ever try out with the method, I use another acting trick called substitution. But that’s for another post.   

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