Characters We Love

Last weekend I had the opportunity to meet with Ann Cleeves (at Crime Bake), which was a treat on many levels, one of them being that she has created one of my all-time favorite characters, Vera. Of course, when I tried to tell this to Ann Cleeves I felt like one of those babbling brooks, but I did mean it quite sincerely. Vera has been a good friend to me. So my question is, do you have any fictional characters who you connect to powerfully, and if so, who?

Read more

Shonda Rhimes: Compassion For Characters

For more than a month, I walked the dog with Shonda Rhimes. Ms. Rhimes’ MasterClass is one of the longer and, in my opinion, more informative courses for writers on the podcast service. She demystifies breaking into television, discusses writing in general and also gets specific with the structure of various types of television episodes. She’s also has an amazing work-ethic, approach to her craft, and incredible talent. Plus, she’s funny.

Read more

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. 

Read more

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?   

Read more

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.

Read more