Why I Write the Broken Character

Why do we decide to write the characters we do? Lots of reasons I imagine, and I can only speak for myself, but my education is a big reason I lean in the direction I do. I have a B.S. in Psychology and a Master’s in Social Work. I also got a certificate in Women’s Studies to go along with that. A lot of my studies revolved around issues of violence against women.

I was involved in a speaker’s bureau for the local domestic violence shelter where I lived while going to school. I gave speeches to everyone from middle school to adult about the issues around power and gender, date rape, domestic violence, and all of the dynamics involved. It was a very important issue to me then, and still is, but I’m not involved in the public sphere of it anymore.

Thus, I’ve read and heard a lot of stories around abuse toward women and children. It’s heartbreaking, anger-inducing, mind-boggling, and after twenty years, still seems to be as prevalent as it’s always been. It’s a horrifically damaging problem, not only physically but emotionally as well. My education makes me particularly interested in the psychological side of things. Trauma, in all of its various forms can be ruinous and life-altering. Working through issues of abuse and violence is incredibly difficult for people. It is damaging not only when it occurs but continues throughout the course of life.  It also provides great background for character conflict.

When I wrote Deadworld, I wanted to have a character that had been shaped by traumatic events that altered her psyche with damaging results. Too often, I think, stories don’t give a real accurate portrayal of violence and the kinds of effects it can have on a person. It’s used simply as a basis for making a character problematic, tough, and gives the hero or heroine an obstacle to overcome. In some ways I guess you could say it’s a token backstory in order to make a character “difficult.”

While it does do this, it’s far more complicated than that. Damaged people don’t always behave in a productive manner. It makes relationships difficult. It makes self-image/esteem difficult. Issues of fear and trust are always at the forefront. While time and work do a lot to heal and recover, this doesn’t always happen in a timely manner. Too many stories make light of the fact that it is extremely difficult for some people to heal from the damage caused by violence. When I created Jackie for Deadworld, I knew right away that she would be a hard character and she would take more than one book to get back to any semblance of healthy.

Damaged characters don’t always behave nicely. They can be self-destructive to themselves and others. They can be self-involved, emotionally stunted, walled off from the world, uncaring, and even violent themselves. In short, very difficult people to know and love. Jackie is one such character.  Personally I find it very challenging and rewarding to try and bring a character from the depths of this personal kind of damage back to some sort of emotional health.  Perhaps most challenging, is the effort to present a character who is not overly likable by that one can still sympathize with. Who hasn’t known someone who they thought was a good person but their issues got in the way of anyone really seeing that? It’s tough to love them. You want to, but they make it so hard on you to do so.

I like these kinds of characters. Likely a lot of my own background and interests plays into this, as I enjoy playing therapist to my characters through the development of the story. I want them to heal, but it’s never an easy process. You want to smack them upside the head for being such an obstinate bitch, for turning away from that which can most help, for hating themselves and believing they deserve the horrible things that have happened to them.

Deadworld and the main characters of Nick and Jackie is my first effort at writing in this emotionally tumultuous soup. I’ve had a number of readers who just don’t like Jackie or think Nick is too weak. Emotional baggage does this to people. It’s hard to grow from it, and I want to give it the justice it deserves by showing just how hard it can be. I’ll continue to write the damaged, broken character in most of my stories. My own personal make-up makes me want to delve into them and “fix” them. It can be a long and difficult road, however, and the challenge will always be to get the reader to want to go along for the ride.

Juggling Characters In One Scene

Often times, when writing stories, you have a main character who interacts with another character while doing their thing to advance the plot. Sometimes you have situations where they are interacting with more than one other person. Occasionally you have several at once. In general, it’s my opinion that the more characters you have on stage at any given time, the more difficult the juggling act becomes.

In real life, conversations among groups of people are a hodge podge of broken sentences, half replies, and a myriad of physical reactions. You don’t typically get one person talking, and then another person talking, and then another, and so on. This would be nice for writing if it were so, but sadly, if you want to be realistic at all, you have a constant interchange, bouncing back and forth, hand waving, shrugs, frowns, laughs, and the list goes on. There’s a wealth of information to pick up on if you are observing multiple people interacting at once.

Writing character interaction though, is a careful selection of words (usually not how we really speak) and actions that bring important character and story details to life. In my series, multiple, simultaneous character interactions are pretty commonplace. Jackie, my mc, is frequently paired up with someone else while moving through the story. In book three (still working on this one) a good deal of the story is a team effort. Three or four people are often going around together doing things. Needless to say, it’s quite easy to forget all of the people in the room at any given time.  The trick is, to give the reader an indication that you have not forgotten about someone. Readers are very good at filling in the blanks. The mind is handy that way. This is one reason why you never have to give extensive descriptions of things. It’s a good skill to develop as a writer, the ability to pick out the one or two details of something or someone that allows the reader to color in the rest of the picture on their own. Character interaction can be thought of in the same way.

The main character’s pov drives whatever interactions are going on in a scene. Not only do you have to consider what you as the writer wants the reader to see/hear/feel/etc., you need to filter the scene through the character’s pov. People pay attention to things that interest them and ignore those that don’t. You can use this fact to selectively pick out what happens and what is said. Readers know that having every detail from every character in a scene would not only be chaotic, but would do little to show what interests them the most, the main character.  So, no you don’t have to make all conversations a round-robin affair that includes everyone’s opinion/response to what was said. That being said, you can’t just ignore the other characters in the room either, otherwise what’s the point of having them around?

People interrupt in conversations all of the time. You can’t do this a lot with dialogue because it creates conversations too difficult to follow, but it should be used. Otherwise you will have what amounts to a chain of two-person conversations, and a lot of characters doing, “I wanted to respond to what the mc said at the end of the previous page.” Make use of the interrupt to add in other thoughts that the mc might want/need to hear. Don’t wait because it disrupts the flow of conversation. Make use of the — or the trailing off … Conversations stop and start and pause all of the time, and writing dialogue is a strange method of speaking unrealistically (for the most part) while maintaining enough hints of structural balance so the reader can fill in the blanks that would otherwise be there in real life. As always, the trick to doing anything well in writing is making the reader believe what you are doing is realistic and believable, even if it’s not.

The same can be said for action, and while I’m not going to reiterate all of the above for physical action scenes with multiple characters, the same basic rules apply. Don’t forget that people beyond your mc are doing things. Always be aware of what everyone is doing, so that when appropriate interaction needs to happen, it makes sense to do so. If another character is there and never mentioned for any reason, then there’s no point in them being there. It takes surprisingly little for the brain to be able to fill in information. It’s very good at it, and everyone fills in those blanks in different ways, which is one of the reasons why stories are so utterly subjective. The way we fill in is unique, and as a writer, you won’t like the way everyone does it, but you can’t do anything about that. All you can do is write in such a way that makes it easy for the most people to do so, in a believable and realistic manner.

On a side note, I’m happy to announce that book three will be titled, The Lingering Dead, which means I’m now likely stuck creating titles with the same format, but such is the way of publishing. Happy reading/writing everyone.

In Writing, Consistency Rules.

The mood/tone of a book can be and should be a significant consideration in any book you write. It’s a background aspect to the story that helps shape the reader experience and expectations within a story.  It’s also one of those things as a writer, where a little bit goes a long way. You don’t need to swamp the reader in it for it to have an impact. Now, while one might typically think of setting as the most likely source of material to establish this, it’s just as important to consider it in all aspects of the storytelling, from action to dialogue.

My writing style does not include a lot of description. I’m not eloquent in the details. I might go far as to say that I’m a pretty sparse writer. I rely a good deal on action and dialogue to drive my stories. As much as I love the notion of setting as character, I have not developed a knack for it. Perhaps one day I shall, but for now, I have to rely on what I already do with relative competence in order to set the mood and tone of my stories. For the type of story I write, which tend to be on the darker and grittier side, I must look at lot at what my characters say and what they to achieve this.  If one word could sum up the best way to do this, it would be consistency.

I suppose this goes without saying, but consistency is paramount to good storytelling, in all aspects of writing. A story falls apart without it. Nothing throws a reader off more than characters or plot or tone suddenly changing for no apparent reason. If your mc is a brooding, swearing, prone to violence character, you can’t have them suddenly acting all bright and bubbly. In Deadworld, the world is not a cheerful place. Bad things happen, life is a struggle, people die, and circumstance conspire to leave any sort of HEA in doubt. How the characters talk, what they do, the results of their actions, who they interact with, all need to consistently portray a world that is not a joyful place to be in (which is not to say there isn’t hope, because stories without hope are just depressing).

So, when you’re writing, pay close attention to the details of what your characters say, what they do, and how they do it. Staying consistent within this will go a long way toward keeping the tone of your story believable and the reader immersed.

Happy reading/writing  everyone!

Great Protaganists

I’m over at the internatial thriller writers roundtable this week talking with others about the greatest protaganists of all time.  http://www.thebigthrill.org/2011/02/coming-february-21-27-who-is-the-best-protagonist-of-all-time-why/#comment-528. This is a discussion open to great debate and subjectivity as you can imagine. What do I look for in a great protaganist? Personally, I like characters who struggle as much internally as they do against the outside world. I want the impediments to success to arise from within as much as from without. Like that old adage, “You’re your own worst enemy.” If a writer does this well, I’m hooked. This is probably one of the main reasons why King’s “Dark Tower” series is one of my all time faves, and Roland one of my all time fave characters. His struggle is epic. I do love me some epic stories. Anyway. What about you. What are some of your favorite chars and why? Chime in, and certainly check out the discussion at the above link.

Take care folks, and happy reading/writing!

The Subtle Art of Endings Both Small and Large

The other day when I ran my little cliffhanger contest to give away an arc, one of the commentors suggested I speak more about how to do this. While I do not profess to be a pro or have all of the answers, I can discuss what I do or try to do, and open up discussion here for others to chime in. As we’re all here to learn, right?

So, what is a cliffhanger? The term typically brings to mind the hanging ending of a story, like the classic dangling over the cliff, fingers losing their grip one by one, until just before tragedy strikes, the story cuts off, to be continued. Sometimes it’s the big surprise reveal, which television is notoriously good at. “The good guy is actually a bad guy? Wait, wtf?” Cut to commercial and see you next week. The question you are always left with is, “What happens next?” It does not have to be huge and dramatic. The point is to leave you wanting.

This is the key to pacing in any type of story, whether it be a literary family drama or an end-of-the-world thriller. Every chapter in the story should end up leaving you wanting to read more. I think a lot of writers worry about making the end of every chapter in a book like a bomb waiting to explode. This isn’t true. You want the entire story to create this effect, building up throughout the course of the story to the ultimate climax, but it’s pretty much impossible to achieve this effect on a chapter by chapter basis. So, don’t try to do it. You’ll end up frustrating yourself.

Being left wanting can take many forms. When I wrote Deadworld, I had several threads to weave together. There was the major action thread involving catching the villain. How are they going to be able to catch him? Will they be able to? There was the individual character threads. What is it that motivates these people? What are their personal problems? How will these issues effect the story and will they be resolved? Then there was the relationship thread. Will the hero and heroine get involved? Can they handle it or will it all fall apart? Will they fall in love or not?

You have a lot of questions right there to deal with. When I plot (yes, I”m a major plotter), I take these questions and figure out what the answer will be. Then I figure out the important steps along the way to get to these answers, some of which may not end up completely resolved. To achieve the cliffhanger on a chapter by chapter basis, you need to leave the reader wondering about some aspect of your story questions. This does not require to be left dangling on the precipice of danger. The key is to leave the reader feeling like things are about to change or that a particular change is going to take the story in an other direction. It can be very subtle or highly intense.

In Deadworld, my heroine, Jackie, has some serious personal issues, and these gradually reveal themselves and come to a head in a dramatic crisis moment that makes (hopefully) the reader wonder if she will be able to ultimately succeed in not only catching the villain, but as a person in general. There are chapters where particular elements of this get revealed. They aren’t crisis moments necessarily (some are, some aren’t), but just things that should have the reader thinking, “Oh, that’s going to cause some problems down the road.” Using the thread analogy, you want them to get woven tighter and tighter as the story progresses, tugging on each one, sometimes softly, other times with a good yank, so that overall, tension builds in steps until it peaks at the end.

Yes, I know, easier said than done. But honestly, you don’t have to stress over the endings of every bit of story. Every chapter doesn’t need an “oh, my god!” moment. Cliffhangers come in a wide array of emotions, the only common element being to leave the reader interested in discovering more about whatever element you are leaving them hanging about. I’ll even provide a little example here. This is the ending of one of the early chapters in Deadworld.  Jackie and her partner, Laurel are discussing the new case over lunch. There’s no huge reveal here, just a sense that things are going to get problematic.

“Promise me, Jackie. Be very careful with this one.”

Jackie could feel the heat of the finger pointing at her chest. The seriousness of Laurel’s voice tightened her stomach. “Ok,” she said, laughing off the tense moment, but she knew better. Laurel was never wrong about these things. “I promise.”

What did we get here? Laurel worries about Jackie. It’s implied that Jackie doesn’t always go the safe route on things. Jackie doesn’t like conflict between them. She laughs off the moment. Why does Laurel’s ire stress her so much? Finally, Laurel is never wrong about these things (something supernatural), implying that trouble is surely around the corner. Several questions raised, and very little answered. What answers there may be raise other questions. It’s not complicated, but it does involve some planning. It’s difficult to leave off at the right moment in a chapter if you have no clue what you’re building toward down the road. To me, this is the danger in “pantser” writing (which still works mind you, but to me, involves more editing down the road). I’ve tried writing without excessive plotting, and I have a very hard time with it. That’s just the way my mind works.

Ok, I’ve rambled enough here. Hopefully, I’ve expressed my thoughts on the topic clearly, so that you have a decent idea of what I mean. To sum it all up: know the key elements in your story, both character and plotwise, and leave every chapter with the reader wondering about one or more of them. Simple, right? :-)

Tip of the Day:  Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too. –Esther Freud

Happy writing everyone!