Tag: characters

characters

In fiction as in life

 Yesterday, I posted about authors getting into shape. That got me thinking about the physical fitness habits of fictional characters. “Person versus nature” is a classic literary theme. A character engaged in an outdoor activity like backpacking, skiing, or trekking might find themselves combating nature’s fury in the form of a landslide, earthquake, or avalanche. A character might undergo physical training as preparation for battle against their antagonist. Even if you’re not a fan of sports films or boxing, when someone says, “Rocky,” you imagine Sylvester Stallone’s triumphant run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Dr. Strange” features several scenes of Benedict Cumberbatch enduring physical as well as magical training. Superheroes require physical toughness to fight the forces of evil. Two my favorite movies, “Stripes” and “Private Benjamin,” present the rigors of military physical fitness as both a literal antagonist to overcome and as metaphorical antagonist for the characters’ battles against themselves and others who are betting on them to fail. Christine Sneed, one of the authors interviewed for the article, “How the bookish stay in shape,” (William Hageman, Chicago Tribune, November 11, 2015) includes college athletes and distance runners as characters in her novels. Author Philip Brewer wrote a 2013 blog post, “Fictional characters getting in shape,” describing how he enjoys scenes showing the protagonist engaged in fitness activities. He lists Man on Fire, Wise Man’s Fear, Critical Space, and, of course, “Rocky,” as examples. Commenters on the post mentioned the Travis McGee, Doc Ford, and Elvis Cole series as others. What about you? Are you a fan of physical fitness in fiction? As a plot device to put a character in jeopardy? As preparation for the ultimate battle? As a metaphor for a battle against self-doubt? Or as a way to show that characters are as human as we are? Leave a comment on the blog or come over to Facebook to share and discuss. 

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What's her name today?

 Every writer, and many readers, have heard stories about character names. One famous example is how Scarlett O’Hara was Pansy before the final printing. I’m not saying Gone With the Wind wouldn’t have survived this, but Scarlett certainly set the tone for the character in a way Pansy wouldn’t have.  I’ve working on names for book three of the Agnes Lüthi mysteries and I’ve already had a few naming issues. Since this is a continuing series the main characters are established. The Vallotton family plays a prominent role in each of the first two books and will in the third. So why did I think Veillon was a good last name for an important character in book three? To me, Vallotton and Veillon are two distinct names. To my Beta readers, evidently not. (To make matters worse, I hastily changed Veillon to Langren before sending to my writers’ group…. except I didn’t really. I substituted a misspelling. This meant that when I tried a auto substitution to the final name (Rochebin) I only had one instance to change. For a moment I thought: how is it possible I used the name of one of the most important characters one time in the entire manuscript.) For me, names carry connotation. My books are set in Switzerland which means the name can have a regional association. Do I want to emphasize their linguistic affiliation? Or the fact that they are a foreigner? (Smythe, for example.) Beyond a sense of historical place or ethnicity, names carry connotations that are personal or cultural. Trendy names, classic names. What does a nickname say about a person?  Any favorite or least favorite fictional names?   

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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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Good Bad Guys

 I binge-watched “American Greed” on Hulu tonight. The show, in its eleventh season, airs on CNBC. Stacey Keach narrates each episode which details a fraud investigation. The show doesn’t focus as much on the law enforcement officers and prosecutors who pursue the fraudsters as it does on the con artists who commit the crimes. That’s what fascinates me about the show—the look inside the mind of a criminal, what motivates a person to lie, cheat, and steal. I remember someone in one of my writing classes asked about creating an antagonist. I don’t recall the exact wording of the question but the gist was, how do you create a believable, relatable villain? The answer was, make sure the villain is the hero of his or her own story. Every villain has a reason for their actions. Their motivation for doing what they do makes sense to them even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else. When I’m plotting a mystery the first things I figure out are whodunit, howdunit, and whydunit. Literature has given us spectacular villains, some as remarkable as the heroes they oppose. Professor Moriarty,  Mr. Ripley, County Dracula, The Joker, Cruella DeVil. In 2013, The Washington Post published a list of “best” literary villains.https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-greatest-villains-in-literature/2013/09/12/fa7dd6c6-0e74-11e3-85b6-d27422650fd5_story.html?utm_term=.f6f39f348116 Who are some of your favorite bad guys? 

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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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Where do characters come from?

 Since I’m writing fiction, they are invented. Let’s make that clear. On the other hand: what does invented mean? I was trying to explain this to friends over the weekend and they had the inevitable questions about names and physical descriptions and other particulars that define a character. The easy answer is that my characters are amalgamations of people I’ve known. Someone’s eyes are mixed with another mouth and yet a third’s hair color. Voila, a fictional character. After all, I need my characters to do what I need them to do. We can skip the whole ‘my characters led me….’ discussion here. Yes, characters develop their ‘own’ personality and there are moments when you realize that what you’ve written doesn’t sound like them. But, trust me, I’m ultimately in control. They do not seize the keyboard (although if they would, that would be lovely. Ah to wake up and find that next scene written!). Back to the point… and the question posed over the weekend. A friend suggested I include one of our mutual friends in my next book. It was meant as a nod to someone we both admire, something he would think was fun and flattering. But wait. Does that mean I use his name and he’s a one-line character, a waiter in a passing scene, for example. My friend is most definitely not a waiter so it would be a fictional part, but he would read the name and know that I’d included him. Later, I jokingly asked if he would want to be the killer or the victim. He picked victim, specifically requesting a glamorous demise to start the book off in style. Now I have to draw the line. You see, I might not be able to separate the character from the person. I would want the real person to identify with ‘their’ character and, guess what, that would mean I’m no longer in control. I could drop the name of a contest winner in with no problem. I create the character and then assign the name. Both are ‘fictional’ to me. But to blend the fiction with the reality could be tricky. Anyone ever named their victim after a good friend? How’d that turn out?  

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Atmosphere and Authenticity

Setting the scene… in my case Switzerland. How much is too much; how much is not enough? I have several friends who don’t ever finish their great American novel, often because they keeping digging in for more detail, more perfection, just more! (Even more editing, which often means ‘less,’ then they need ‘more’ again. Argh!) There is no magic formula to finding the balance between setting the scene and overburdening with detail, a writing reality that I am contemplating today as I develop several minor characters. (Confession here….. they develop in situ, meaning the draft is well underway but the characters are shifting as the plot develops). Because Switzerland draws residents and visitors from around the world each of these characters very deliberately comes from a different country and a different culture.I have the good fortune to be in India for the moment and am concentrating on a character from that country. I’ve visited India many times and have a sense of ‘my man’ but each time I speak with someone a little detail is added, or a detail is questioned. It is easy to slip down the rabbit hole and have more backstory than is necessary and I feel myself asking: is this enough?  In the end, the magic formula is likely all the details that we as writers think of before mentally paring to just enough for the reader to visualize. This allows the reader room to insert their own experiences and dreams. That said….. maybe I should go speak again with my hosts, learn a little more, and add a few more details to ‘my man’!  Follow me at www.traceedehahn.com  

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