Tag: character

character

What a Bunch of Characters

 Meet the nominees for the 2018 Best First Novel Agatha Award.  Ever wonder which character they most enjoy writing? Join the conversation to find out! Who is your favorite character to write and why? Micki Browning:This is a bit like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. I certainly like spending time with my protagonist, Mer Cavallo. She’s wicked smart, which means I have to stretch to keep up with her. She’s someone I’d like to have as a friend—and dive buddy. But sometimes I want a little more levity than Mer provides, and that means it’s time for Captain Leroy Penninichols. I love his Southernisms. If he had to describe someone as small, he’d bust out with “Well, she ain’t bigger than a bar of soap after a hard day’s washing.”  His gruff exterior hides a tender heart and he dotes on his wife. He always cheers for the underdog, and took Mer under his wing when she first arrived in the Keys. They constantly banter, and one day Mer asked how his wife put up with him. In typical Leroy fashion, he responded, “There’s a lid to fit every skillet.”  Leroy reminds Mer (and me) that there’s always another way to look at life. V.M. Burns:I love writing about my protagonist’s grandmother, Nana Jo and the sleuthing seniors. Nana Jo and ‘the girls’ are older and less inhibited than Samantha. They take martial arts classes, hang out at the bar, and enjoy spending time at the casino. They are honest, funny, and courageous. Each one has a zest for life which I find refreshing. Samantha is cautious and reserved, but Nana Jo and the girls are helping her see that life can be exciting and unpredictable, which is something I often have to remind myself. Kellye Garrett:I love writing all my characters for different reasons. One because she talks only using acronyms. Another because he never uses apostrophes. My main character, Dayna, because she has the exact same sense of humor as I have. However, my favorite character to write is Dayna’s best friend/roomie Sienna. Sienna is determined to set a Guinness World Record for only wearing red and says whatever she wants, whenever she wants. My fave exchange is from when Dayna and Sienna are trying to tail a suspect:“We should take turns following her so she’s not suspicious. Whatever we do, we don’t want to get burned,” Sienna said.“What the fudge does that mean?” I asked.“No idea, but it can’t be good. STDs. Forest fires. Freshly baked cookies. Burning is never a good thing.” Laura Oles:While my protagonist, Jamie Rush, has been wonderful to write, I have to say that her partner, Cookie Hinojosa, has been the most fun.  His charisma and sense of humor play so well off her deadpan demeanor. His love for Hawaiian shirts is second only to his loyalty to Jamie and their crew. I tend to hear his voice first in my head, and his words come easily.  Cookie seems to be a reader favorite, and if I’m being honest, he’s at the top of my list with Jamie.  Kathleen Valenti:I have a feeling that the answer to “Who is your favorite character to write” is supposed to be my protagonist. After all, Maggie O’Malley is the hero of not only my debut novel, Protocol, but the entire series from Henery Press. But if I’m honest, the answer has to be Constantine, Maggie’s best friend.A goofy cutup with a fondness for Lucky Charms and Star Trek memorabilia, Constantine does more than act as a sidekick or play comic relief to Maggie’s straight-man routine. He’s a complex character who brings his own story and his own personality, with all of its attendant strengths and foibles, to the page. Like Maggie, Constantine is smart, loyal, and funny. However, Constantine’s funniness, his predilection for gallows humor, and his knee-jerk reaction to cover discomfort with wit, is at the very core of his personality. He’s fun to write, and because he’s handsome and sweet, he’s fun to imagine as the perfect BFF or life partner. I’ll always love Maggie, but when it comes to writing dialogue, Constantine has my heart. And my pen.  Surprised? Which of their characters do you most love to read? Let us know in the comments or over on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/missdemeanorsbooks  Bios:  A retired police captain, Micki Browning writes the Mer Cavallo Mystery series set in the Florida Keys. In addition to the Agatha nomination for Best First Novel, Adrift has won both the Daphne du Maurier and the Royal Palm Literary Awards. Beached, her second novel, launched January 2018. Micki’s work has appeared in dive magazines, anthologies, mystery magazines, and textbooks. She lives in South Florida with her partner in crime and a vast array of scuba equipment she uses for “research.” Learn more about Micki at MickiBrowning.com.  V.M. (Valerie) Burns was born in Northwestern Indiana and spent many years in Southwestern Michigan on the Lake Michigan shoreline. She is a lover of dogs, British historic cozies, and scones with clotted cream. After many years in the Midwest she went in search of milder winters and currently lives in Eastern Tennessee with her poodles. Receiving the Agatha nomination for Best First Novel has been a dream come true. Valerie is a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and a lifetime member of Sisters in Crime. Readers can learn more by visiting her website at vmburns.com.  Kellye Garrett writes the Detective by Day mysteries about a semi-famous, mega-broke black actress who takes on the deadliest role of her life: Homicide Detective. The first, Hollywood Homicide, was recently nominated for Agatha, Lefty, and Barry awards. The second, Hollywood Ending, will be released on August 8, 2018 from Midnight Ink. Prior to writing novels, Kellye spent eight years working in Hollywood, including a stint writing for the TV drama Cold Case. The New Jersey native now works for a leading media company in New York City and serves on the national Board of Directors for Sisters in Crime. You can learn more about her at KellyeGarrett.com and ChicksontheCase.com.  Laura Oles is a photo industry journalist who spent twenty years covering tech and trends before turning to crime fiction. She served as a columnist for numerous photography magazines and publications. Laura’s short stories have appeared in several anthologies, including Murder on Wheels, which won the Silver Falchion Award in 2016. Her debut mystery, Daughters of Bad Men, is a Claymore Award Finalist and an Agatha nominee for Best First Novel. She is also a Writers’ League of Texas Award Finalist. Laura is a member of Austin Mystery Writers, Sisters in Crime and Writers’ League of Texas. Laura lives on the edge of the Texas Hill Country with her husband, daughter and twin sons. Visit her online at lauraoles.com.  Kathleen Valenti is the author of the Maggie O’Malley mystery series. The series’ first book, Agatha- and Lefty-nominated Protocol, introduces us to Maggie, a pharmaceutical researcher with a new job, a used phone, and a deadly problem. The series’ second book, 39 Winks, releases May 22. When Kathleen isn’t writing page-turning mysteries that combine humor and suspense, she works as a nationally award-winning advertising copywriter. She lives in Oregon with her family where she pretends to enjoy running. Learn more at www.kathleenvalenti.com.  

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The Emotional Craft of Fiction

“The sad truth is that television commercials can stir more feelings in thirty seconds than many manuscripts do in three hundred pages.” So writes veteran literary agent Donald Maass in his spellbinding book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction, and he goes on to explain how writers can learn to help their readers feel.  As someone who has spent a fair amount of time crying over commercials, I found his advice compelling, and I’ll certainly apply it to my next book.  Meantime, here are some more quotes: “Why is it important to look at fiction writing through the lens of emotional experience? Because that’s the way readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own. You are not the author of what readers feel, just the provocateur of those feelings.” “Who your characters are, how they behave, what they believe, how they think, what they do, and the ways in which they feel are in your control. Why create characters who only raise shrugs?”  “What makes them classics? Artful storytelling, sure, but beyond the storytelling, classics have enduring appeal mostly because we remember the experiences we had while reading them; we remember not the art but the impact.” “When a plot resolves, readers are satisfied, but what they remember of a novel is what they felt while reading it. Hooks may hook, twists may intrigue, tension may turn pages, and prose may dazzle, but all of those effects fade as quickly as fireworks in a night sky. Ask readers what they best remember about novels and most will say the characters, but is that accurate? It’s true that characters become real to us but that is because of what they cause us to feel. Characters aren’t actually real; only our own feelings are.”

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Next Stop: Dysfunction Junction

  One of my favorite TV series is “Midsomer Murders,” the British cozy-cum-police procedural set in small town England, now in its twentieth season. Other, newer favorites include “The Brokenwood Mysteries,” a darker cozy-cum-police procedural set in small town New Zealand, and “Hinterlands,” so dark it’s actually Scandi-noir masquerading as village fare, set in small town Wales. All three shows share commonalities. They focus on police investigation of crimes in rural areas with adjusted per capita murder rates that rival Chicago’s. The biggest difference between the three is the degree of dysfunction in the main characters. Midsomer’s DCI Barnaby is an ordinary guy, a well-adjusted everyman with a well-adjusted wife and daughter. His home life is ordinary, if not outright idyllic. The drama and trauma occur on the job. Brokenwood’s DSS Shepherd, on the other hand, is a man with a complicated past that includes several ex-wives and at least one dead one. You get the sense he’s experienced a lot of unhappiness in a life accented by the show’s country/alt rock soundtrack. Hinterland’s (the darkest of the shows) DCI Mathias makes Kurt Wallander look like the president of the pep club in comparison. Devastated by the death of one of his children, he’s lost his wife and home and spends as much time battling inner demons as he spends tracking murderers.

Dysfunctional protagonists seem to be the “thing” in modern books, TV, and movies. The damaged hero is often as “messed up” as the villain. It’s gotten to the point where you wonder if there’s an unofficial competition to create the world’s most broken protagonist. I’ve heard authors admit to “piling on” the trauma, going out of their way to load down their character’s pasts with as much tragedy and affliction as possible. I’ve read some books where the author went so far with the dysfunction device, the protagonist (and most of the supporting characters) ended up being a walking collection of problems that bogged the story down more than advanced it. The dysfunctional hero trope is so common it’s now used to comic effect. Wreck-It Ralph, a hilarious movie about the secret lives of arcade game characters, explicitly describes one as “being programmed with the most tragic backstory ever”. The Ref, a hilarious movie about a home invasion, plays on the idea that the victims are so screwed up, the “bad guy” ends up becoming their counselor.

I’m not opposed to dysfunction in film and literature on general principle, as long as the dysfunction is an integral part of the story and not just something glommed onto a character in an effort to be trendy. Some of my favorite characters have issues. I’ll add Det. Bobby Goren to the ones mentioned above. A schizophrenic mother, a uninvolved stepfather, and a serial killer biological father certainly put the quirky star of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” high on the screwed-up life list. But I do think dysfunction has been overdone. It’s so prevalent, it’s become humdrum. Take a pill, already, see a therapist. Some authors (including authors of screenplays) don’t even try anymore. They grab a psychopathology textbook and saddle their protagonists with a laundry list of complexes and personal problems, occasionally throwing in a physical issue or two for variety, and call it a day. They assume that’s all that’s required to create a character worth sticking with for a couple hundred pages or a couple of hours in a theater or past the first commercial break. But “effed up” is not a synonym for interesting. I admit syrupy-sweet, “perfect” characters with charmed lives are annoyingly Pollyanna-ish. Average characters, however, are not. At least they don’t have to be. Don’t we all know at least one “basically normal” person who interests us? A dysfunctional background is not a prerequisite for drama and conflict. And well-adjusted doesn’t mean nothing bad ever happens. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Look at the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. James Stewart and Doris Day epitomize middle-class normality on vacation. Then they witness a murder. Then their daughter is kidnapped. Bad things. Not boring. In Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, an average, well-adjusted girl must confront the fact that seemingly normal, well-adjusted Uncle Charlie may not be. The ordinariness, bordering on banality, of the people and the town heighten the suspense and terror in the film. The devil comes to visit Norman Rockwell. In Suddenly, Frank Sinatra’s hitman holds an average family hostage in their ordinary home as part of his plot to assassinate the President. Nothing dull about that. The Slender Thread offers “regular-guy,” college student Sidney Poitier as a crisis hotline volunteer who must locate the suicidal woman who calls him before the pills she swallowed have their intended effect. Plenty of drama. Normal is not a synonym for snooze-fest.

Unbroken heroes can carry a story as well as broken ones. They can confront the same danger, conflict, and obstacles. What differs is how they handle those things. A protagonist from a happy, or at least functional, background is already out of her comfort zone when she’s unexpectedly faced with a crisis or put into dangerous circumstances. Instant drama. A character from a dysfunctional background is used to trauma, expects conflict, approaches the world from the assumption that rotten things are more likely to happen as not and life kind of sucks. They’ve developed survival skills to get them this far, survival skills they can call on to help them through the next trauma, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise in their hyper-vigilant existence. But a character who’s never experienced adversity, never had to learn to cope? Someone who, like the subject of the Mighty, Might Bosstones’ “The Impression That I Get,” has “never been tested”? They have no survival skill set to fall back on, no ingrained coping mechanisms. The “untested” hero faces a steep learning curve in the “deal with it or die” game. How would someone who led a charmed life cope when that charm wears off? What does someone do when their basic assumptions–that life works out the way you want it to, that the world and people in it are basically good, that terrible things only happen to nonspecific “others”–prove wrong? When life which seemed so pleasant and harmless rears up without warning and smacks them upside the head? Then kicks them in the teeth? Do they crumple, unable to dip into their reserves and find a way to fight back? Do they rail against the injustice about to crush them, angry that they did all the right things and got sucker punched anyway? Lose faith because they didn’t get what they thought they deserved? Or do they rise to the challenge? Show their resilience? Draw on strengths they didn’t know they possessed–or borrow strength from others–and overcome the obstacles? How do they change, knowing the world isn’t really the warm, safe place they once believed it to be?

Which side of the dysfunction junction do you fall on? The more problems the better? Enough with the traumatic backstory already? Somewhere in the middle? No preference as long as it’s a well-drawn character involved in a gripping plot?

 

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