Make Your Characters Memorable

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

From Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever noticed that as a writer, you rarely can sit back and simply enjoy watching a TV show or a movie without thinking about plot or character development or pace? As authors, we “see” how the writers disguise plot twists or change direction. We may see behind the curtain of the Wizard of Oz, but on those rare occasions when you can forget you’re a writer and utterly enjoy the show, that’s when you truly are watching something special.

So the next time you watch a memorable movie or TV show, observe the traits of the main characters, the ones you can’t take your eyes off of. What makes them unforgettable? For most of us, it’s not the high-octane action that sticks in our heads. It’s usually what makes that character human, something we can relate to.

Here are some ways to make your characters memorable:

1. Add Depth to Each Character—Give them a journey

• With any journey comes baggage. Be generous. Load on the baggage. Give them a weakness that they’ll have to face head-on by the climax of the book.

• Make them vulnerable by giving them an Achilles Heel. Even the darkest street thug or a fearless young girl with magical powers should have a weakness that may get them killed and certainly makes them more human.

• Whether you are writing one book or a series, have a story arc for your character’s journey that spans the series. Will they find peace or love, or some version of a normal life? Will they let someone else into their lives or will they be content to live alone? Will a villain have a chance at redemption? Do what makes sense for your character, but realize that their emotional issues will cloud their judgment and affect how they deal with confrontations. By the end of a book, they should learn something.

2. Use Character Flaws as Handicaps

• Challenge yourself as an author by picking flaws that will make your character stand out and that aren’t easy to write about. Sometimes that means you have to dig deep in your own head to imagine things you don’t want to think about, but tap into your empathy for another human being. You might surprise yourself.

• Stay true to the flaws and biases you give your characters. Don’t present them to the reader then have the actions of the character contradict those handicaps. Be consistent. If they have strong enough issues, these won’t be fixed by the end of the book. Find a way to deal with them.

3. Clichéd Characters can be Fixed

• If you have a clichéd character, you may not need to rewrite your whole story. Try infusing a weird hobby or layer in a unique trait/quality that will set them apart. Maybe the computer nerd writes porn scripts for a local indie film company or the jock writes a secret blog under a girl’s name giving advice to teens on love and romance for the local paper. When that hobby is surprising and unexpected, that’s what will shine about the character and that’s what editors will remember.

4. Create A Divergent Cast of Characters

• Portray your characters in varying degrees of redemption—from the innocent to the “totally vile” characters.

• As in real life, not everyone is good or bad. They are a mix of both.

• Sometimes it’s great to show contrast between your characters by making them do comparable things. How does one character handle his or her love life versus another character?

5. Flesh Out your Villains or Antagonists

• Villains or antagonists are the heroes to their own stories—Spend time getting to know them.

• Give them goals.

• Give them a chance at redemption—will they take it?

• Give them a unique sense of humor or dare to endear them to your reader.

• The better and more diabolical they are, the more the reader will fear for the safety or well-being of your protagonist.

At the end of a TV show or a movie or your next book, characters that linger in your head are a gift that can help your writing. Examine what works in movies or TV shows as an exercise to tapping into your own creativity.

For Discussion:

1.) Do you have any personal tips for making your characters memorable?

2.) What characters have you been drawn to and find hard to forget – in TV movies, or books? Why have they stuck with you?

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READER FRIDAY: Give your main character the third degree with these questions.

How would your current main character answer the following questions? (For an added degree of difficulty, write your answers in the voice of your character.)

1.) Who is your closest friend?

2.) What is the worst thing you did as a teenager?

3.) What would you die for?

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Show Your Baddie R-E-S-P-E-C-T to Make Them Memorable

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

By Hasaw öztürk – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58145267

It’s easy to focus on the main protagonists of our stories. Heroes and heroines usually pop up in our heads from the start, but have you ever been taken over by your bad guy or your femme fatale? In my latest series, Mercer’s War with Mr. January book 1, I’m obsessed with Keiko Kayakova. She is the devil personified, a remorseless killer, yet she constantly surprises me with her contradictions and what she truly cares about.

A great character is complicated and it can take time to develop them. Why not explore your antagonist with as much zeal as you would for your protagonists? You need to hear them in your head, maybe especially when they are their nastiest, or if they niggle your ear in the middle of the night. Flesh them out.

Questions to ask about your current work-in-progress:
1. What’s your villain’s back story?
2. Why did they turn out the way they did?
3. What motivates them in the present? What are their goals?
4. Have you explored gender for your antagonist? Would your bad guy be more frightening and unexpected as a woman?
5. Have you given them a chance at redemption in your story? Do they take it?
6. What makes them vulnerable? What are their flaws?
7. Have you created a bad guy or gal’s bible, like you did for your good guys and gals?
8. Does your bad guy/gal have virtues the reader might find it hard to argue against, like an extreme respect for the law or a need to establish order in a society he or she controls for the greater good?
9. Do they have an unexpected hobby?
10. In the vast sea of literary villains, what makes your antagonist stand out?

Villains want top billing and for their name to be first on the marquee. Have you shown them enough R-E-S-P-E-C-T? Even if you’ve already got a first draft, it’s never too late to add depth or bone chilling traits to your characters. A flat character on the page is never satisfying.

Don’t waste good villain potential by making your character a two dimensional cardboard cutout or a mere roadblock to your good guys. Dare to give them humor or a peculiar hobby or a back story that explains their motivation. Develop a conflict between your antagonist and protagonist that is deliciously enticing that makes it harder for the reader to choose sides.

Here are a few tips on how to get started:
1. The best villains are the heroes in their own stories. Make them real and worthy of their own story line. Develop them with the same care and don’t resort to making them obstacles in the way of your main characters. Even if they’re a train wreck, make the reader interested in what drives them or make them so diabolical that the reader will fear more for your good guys. Do they have a journey in your book? If they have a chance at redemption, do they take it? These types of questions can add depth.

2. Dare to make your villain an anti-hero in his or her own story, giving him or her solid motivation to perpetrate their crimes or cover their backsides. If your antagonist and protagonist are both thwarted by the same bad weather, for example, how do they each deal with it? Do their minds work the same? Of course not. Their reactions can shed light on how their mind works. Bend the norm. Think out of the box to surprise the reader, but that plot twist comes from knowing each of them as their creator.

3. Match or counter the skills between your antagonist and your protag. Where one might have an intellect, make the other one have a diabolical brute force that can overpower your hero in confrontations that showcase their strengths. Make them worthy of each other.

4. Escalate the tension between your antagonist and protagonist by making them have a relationship that used to mean something. Imagine your adversary is your own father or someone in a foreign country with the same ideals as you (except they are your enemy). If under normal circumstances, your two characters might be friends, what horrible situation will keep them apart and what makes things worse between them?

5. Give your villain a face. Don’t hide behind a secret organization or an evil entity? The Hunger Games would not be the same without President Snow. Silence of the Lambs would be FBI’s Clarise hunting serial killer Buffalo Bill except for the memorable diversion of Hannibal Lecter, her white knight.

DISCUSSION:
1. Who are some of your most memorable villains from your own work? Tell us how you made them memorable.

2. What literary villains have stood out in your reading and have those books influenced your writing?

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All You Need To Know About Character Transformation

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

God was not pleased.Ocean-Storm-Waves_Free_Desktop_Backgrounds_chillcover.com_

The special creation he had lovingly shaped, and into which he breathed the breath of life, had gone off the rails. God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

Things went south from the very start. He placed man and woman in this beautiful garden with plants and animals and a Starbucks, and said there was only one rule: Do not eat the fruit of this one tree, okay? Is there any part of Do not eat you don’t understand? No? Very good.

But then the first politician the serpent whispered a sweet lie, and Eve took a bite, then Adam chomped, and it was bye-bye Eden. In the outside world Adam and Eve scraped up enough to buy a little starter home, had kids. But tragedy ensued–Cain murdered his brother, Abel.

Things only got worse. After several generations God decided it was time to clear the table, wrap it all up. But there was this one man, Noah, who was perfect in his generations, and … walked with God.

You know the story. God tells Noah that judgment is coming, so he is to build a big boat according to certain specs. Then he must bring in pairs of animals for the repopulation project. Noah obeys, gets the animals and his family on board. The flood arrives.

And Noah becomes the greatest financial planner in the Bible. He floated his stock while everyone else liquidated.

Ba-dump-bump.

So there is Noah, inside a stinky animal pen for over a year (when you do the math), and what is he thinking? We have a clue. The ancient Hebrew style of writing is minimalist, and leaves a lot “between the lines.” At one point we read this: And God remembered Noah.

This tells me that sometime during his voyage Noah began to wonder if God had forgotten him. Was he a sap for listening? Was this all a cosmic joke? Was he going to die out here in this watery wasteland?

What Noah experienced was his “mirror moment.”

Yet he keeps the faith, does not curse God. The flood subsides. Noah and his family and the animals step out into the new world.

And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the LORD smelled a sweet savour… 

Noah is the same righteous man he was before the flood, but now his faith has been tested, and has become stronger.

This is Noah’s arc.

Discussions about character arcs can sometimes get overly complicated––complete with graphs that look like transcranial Doppler readings––or too simplistic (“Not every story needs a character arc!”)

But as I argue in my book, Write Your Novel From The Middle, it’s not really complicated at all once you nail that mirror moment.

And every story must have a character arc–or as I prefer, transformation–because, wait for it, you can’t have a story without one. You can have good writing. You can have distinct style. You can have quirky characters. But without transformation, friend, you will not have a story, and that’s what 99.9% of readers are looking for, consciously or not.

Your character’s mirror moment tells you what kind of transformation guides your story. It will be one of two types:

  1. The Lead character changes inside, becoming a different person at the end than at the beginning. In this type of mirror moment, the character is forced to look at himself and “ask” if this is who he really is, and wonder if he’s going to stay that way. The story question then is: will he actually transform into a different person at the end?
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Martin Riggs

This transformation is from one pole of existence to another. From one kind of being to another. It’s a fundamental change.

Examples of this type of transformation include: Rick Blaine in Casablanca; Scout Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird; Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon.

Note: This transformation does not have to travel from negative to positive (though most of the time it does). It can also be from positive to negative. A prime example of this is Michael Corleone in The Godfather. He transforms from good American soldier to soulless gangster.

There is even a type of transformation where the character is “offered grace” (as Flannery O’Connor put it) but turns it down. This is a tragedy. The character actually transforms backwards, becoming even worse off than before. Two of my favorite films of all time, both starring Paul Newman, are examples of this––Hud and The Hustler. 

  1. The Lead character realizes, right in the middle of the struggle, that there is no way he can win. The odds are too great. He is “probably going to die.”
Jodie-foster-clarice-starling

Clarice Starling

This transformation goes from stasis to strength. The character remains the same person fundamentally, but grows stronger in order to survive the “death stakes” of the conflict.

Examples of this type are: Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs; Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games; Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. 

Are there any examples of characters without any type of transformation? What about James Bond? Jack Reacher? They’re always the same, aren’t they?

They are the same fundamentally, but in those stories the transformation is of the second type, because the case or intrigue they are involved in challenges their powers and threatens them with physical, professional or psychological death.  

If the story doesn’t have death on the line, it’s going to feel flat.

The easiest way to find the transformation that is right for your story is to brainstorm your mirror moment.

Pantsers, you can brainstorm that anytime you like. If you’re lost in the middle of a draft (and I know you will be), the mirror moment will become the beacon that lights your way out of the thicket.

Plotters, you can determine your transformation at the beginning of things and know precisely how to outline from there (in my book I describe the “Golden Triangle” as the basis of a solid outline). Or you can put a moment in provisionally and change it later on as the story grows.

The point is that once you have it, it will illuminate the rest of your novel, from beginning to end. It will guide you in the formulation of plot, scenes and the ultimate meaning (theme) of the story trying to get out.

I’ll be in travel mode today, but will try to drop by if I can. Please continue the discussion!

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How to Bring Characters in From the Cold

 

Cold CharacterVirtually all books on character creation contain a list of questions, a “dossier” to fill out which starts with how a character looks, where he was born, and so on through his family circumstances, education, likes and dislikes, etc.

I have not found such forms helpful. It may just be a personal quirk, but I’m never excited about filling out answers to questions.

First of all, too many answers too soon might hinder the development of a character. A book is a living, breathing entity. If I have a long list of facts for a character before I begin writing, it hamstrings me. I may want the character to do one thing or another, but the dossier is set and works against me.

Characters I create using the dossier method seem cold and distant. I want characters who are hot and close.

Consequently, I’ve come up with my own way of bringing story people to the page. It starts with my protagonist and finding a visual (a head shot) that resonates with me, that says to me, This is her! I copy that image and paste it on a character card in Scrivener (this way, I can look at a corkboard of all my characters at once).

Next, I want a unique voice, and that comes from a Voice Journal, a free-form document of the character talking to me. I let the character go on and on until I hear a distinct and surprising voice. It always happens, bubbling up from my basement without me being overtly conscious of it.

From here I usually go to my “mirror moment.” I brainstorm it by making a list of possibilities, until one clicks. Then I let the character talk to me in the Voice Journal. When I nail that moment, I know my pre-story psychology (and can brainstorm that, again with the journal) and the transformation at the end (I try to visualize a scene to prove the transformation. All this is explained in my book, Write Your Novel From the Middle).

I’ll spend almost as much time with my antagonist, but relatively little with the other characters I’ve cast in the story. Why? Because I want to be able to manipulate them as needed. God complex, don’t you know?

As I write to my “signpost scenes” I’ll be creating characters along the way. Instead of stopping for each and filling out a form, I just ask the character to tell me what I need to know!

For example, let’s say I’m writing a scene about a lawyer interviewing a witness. The lawyer is the main character, a female public defender. The witness is an old man who used to be a … I’m thinking about it … I want him to be blue collar … how about a machinist?

I know my Lead pretty well. Now I’ve come to this old man. He’s going to be an important player, so I start by giving him some basics—age, looks, vocation. I’ll find a head shot to match.

Now to the scene. My lawyer is questioning him in his home, and he doesn’t want to talk to her at all. Why not? So I can have conflict, of course. But the question now is why? Why would he refuse?

I asked him.

You wanna know why I don’t want to talk to a lousy lawyer? Well I’ll tell you. The minute you start flapping your gums is the minute you’re going down, because the whole system is rigged against you. I was going good there when the aerospace boom was on in L.A., out there in the San Fernando Valley, and I was good at what I did, I could operate anything, and I had a friend, Buck Franklin, that was the scum sucker’s name, he took me to a couple of meetings where a guy wanted to know if I could use some more scratch, and of course I could’ve, we all could’ve, and before I know it I’ve got a couple of Gs in cash but this guy wants me to give him some information about what’s going on inside Rocketdyne, and I say sure, but instead what I do is go to the FBI, right to ‘em, and tell ‘em what’s going on. But before I can say Jack Robinson, they turn around and arrest me because of some evidence that got planted, because the agent on the case was dirty, but I was never able to prove it, not even to the L.A. Times who wouldn’t touch my story. And I end up out of a job and out of a pension, and can’t get hired, and Buck Franklin ends up farting through silk. So yeah, I’m not talking, I’m clamming, I don’t care if I see the Queen of England walk up to a drug dealer and blow his brains out and take his money. You’ll get nothing from me.

This all just came out as I wrote. I kind of like it. I can tweak it as I will. But the big thing is this: I now feel this character. When I render him on the page he will alive for me––and thus, I hope, for the reader.

So there’s my tip for today: Don’t fill out forms. Let the characters tell you about themselves. And if what they say is Dullsville, dig deeper. Make them reveal a secret to you. Ask them what the one thing is they don’t want anyone to ever know about them.

That’s how you bring your characters in from the cold.

So what about you? What is your process for character creation? Do you like the dossier method? Or are you more of a “character pantser” who creates on the fly?

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Key Layers to Writing a Solid Characterization

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Image purchased from iStock by Jordan Dane

Image purchased from iStock by Jordan Dane

Characterization is the way an author conveys the important (and hopefully memorable traits) of their main character. An author should have a vision for how their character looks, speaks, thinks, and interacts in their world. A writer can directly state what their character is all about by saying, “George is a rigid man, both in posture and judgmental temperament.” Or an author can convey key elements and paint a picture of their character by more subtle means, such as in their actions or manner of speech or even body language.

A first person narrative provides an intimate voice for a character, as if the reader has found a personal diary of private thoughts. A third person (Deep Point of View) can be compelling if the voice of the character gives insight into who they are and allows for a colorful and distinct dialogue and internal monologue.

Excerpt from The Last Victim (First Person POV):

My mind acted like a hard drive of stored random facts, especially at stress times. Sometimes they hit me hard and I blurted them aloud. That made dating a challenge. I’d always been drawn to intelligent women, but once I let them into my world, crossing that line usually ended any relationship. I simply had no interest in hiding who I was.

In this excerpt, I envisioned FBI profiler Ryker Townsend as socially awkward yet highly effective at his job. He’s a man with secrets, even from his own team. To be good at his job, he removes any filter he has over the way he speaks so he can access key elements stored in his brain. He trusts his instincts and his team to be himself, and in his personal life he is unapologetic for his peculiar mental leaps. His work is everything to him.

In The Last Victim, I portray Ryker’s life at home where he’s still living in boxes after a recent move, yet his work life is well-ordered. He’s charmingly clueless about his affect on women and very serious minded. He’s a case solver and a high achiever because of how his mind works, yet his mental gymnastics become a challenge in a social setting, where he’s out of his element most of the time. His highly focused approach to his work (and his secretive personal life) becomes the very weakness that could get him killed when he chooses to follow a lead alone. The clues force him to cross paths with the ruthless serial killer he’s hunting, a psychopath who knows how to hide in plain sight.

It’s important for an author to have a picture of the character in their mind’s eye. I often create a storyboard of images to reinforce my ideas. Or I imagine how the character will speak (perhaps by picturing an actor I see for the character). I also give the character baggage that will challenge them with conflict. Often their weakness can get them killed or become a major crutch. Above all, a main character needs to seem real and believable to the reader with a full life on paper.

Here are questions an author might ask about their main character(s) in order to flesh them out:

1.) Who are their friends?
2.) How do they dress? What do they look like?
3.) How do they live at home? Is their work life different?
4.) Do they have hobbies or interests outside of work? What do they care about? Their passions?
5.) How do they interact with others? How do others react to them?
6.) What makes them angry?
7.) What would they die for?
8.) What are their weaknesses?
9.) What do they fear?
10.) Which adjectives would the author use to describe the character’s personality?
11.) What does the character think inside their head? What do they share?
12.) How has their past shaped their life? Is there a traumatic incident that changed everything? How is this manifested in their present?

Once an author has a solid image and characterization in their mind, a writer can set up conflicts to give that character a starring role. Can they overcome their weaknesses? Give them a journey throughout the book that will exploit their deepest insecurities or force them to deal with their worst fears. A compelling characterization is like the foundation to a building. The more solid and well-thought out it is from the start, the stronger the story will be when you build onto it.

For discussion: Please share any tips you have to creating your characters. Do you storyboard images? What resources have helped you?

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The Last Victim now available in print and ebook. Sales links HERE: “When FBI profiler Ryker Townsend sleeps, the hunt begins.” Townsend has a secret he won’t share with anyone–not even his own team–that sets him on the trail of a ruthless psychopath alone. 

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Evolution of a Bad Guy

Maggie Toussaint

When I began plotting my second paranormal mystery, Bubba Done It, I knew one thing for sure. All the suspects had the nickname of Bubba. Other than that, I didn’t have a clue.

Bubba Done It

Before I could cast men in the suspect roles, I considered my setting and the types of characters I needed. I’m familiar with the setting as I use a fictional locale that’s similar to where I live in coastal Georgia. We have townies and imports. We have people with plenty and people with nothing. We have blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, even Native Americans. We have a stalled economy and our share of foreclosures.

All of the top suspects needed a motive to kill the banker. Some motives I considered were previous criminal record, financial trouble, and love.

The sheriff immediately adds four Bubbas to his suspect list. Since seafood is the main industry around here, it would be good to have a fisherman Bubba. I also wanted someone who’d moved to the county as a retiree, someone who didn’t quite get locals or their customs. That worked. Two Bubbas down, two to go.

Drugs are a universal problem in today’s world. I decided upon a Bubba with a bad track record as a crackhead, but who had allegedly reformed into an evangelist.

Lastly, I wanted to ensure my sleuth Baxley Powell had a definite call to action. She’d taken the heat in Book 1 as the top suspect, so for Book 2, I found a patsy in her brother-in-law. Why would he want to kill the banker? Baxley knew her Bubba was a dreamer who often needed money for get-rich-quick ventures. Baxley and her husband had bailed Bubba Powell out of financial scrapes for years.

With her husband dead, the task of saving Bubba fell to Baxley. She’s certain he couldn’t have done it.

Or at least she feels that way at first. With each layer of story revealed, she discovers more reasons for the Bubbas to have killed the banker. Her challenge is to sort through the evidence, in this world and the next, to finger the killer.

To summarize:
Populate your suspect list with characters fitting to your setting and situation.
Give the suspects motives to kill your victim.
Layer the suspects’ relationship with the victim to create complex characters.
Make sure the sleuth has a clear call to action.

Buy links for Bubba Done It:
Kindle
Amazon hardcover
B&N hardcover

Connect with Maggie on the web:
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Blog | Goodreads | LinkedIn | Pinterest | Booklover’s Bench |
Amazon Author Central

MaggieToussaint_LargeSouthern author Maggie Toussaint is published in mystery, romantic suspense, and science fiction (writing as Rigel Carson). The third book in her Cleopatra Jones mystery series recently won the Silver Falchion Award, while her romances have won the National Readers’ Choice Award and the EPIC eBook Award for Romantic Suspense. Her latest mystery is a book two of her paranormal cozy series about a psychic sleuth, Bubba Done It.

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Religion in Mysteries

While at Malice, I was on a panel about Religion in Mysteries. It’s a topic I really hadn’t thought about before. So how do mystery writers handle this subject? Fellow panelists were authors whose protagonists included a hospital chaplain (Mindy Quigley), a minister (Stephanie Jaye Evans), a rabbi (Ilene Schneider), and a Scotland Yard Detective (Anne Cleeland).

clergy  priest  rabbi

What made my series different was that my sleuth Marla is a hairdresser. As I told the crowd, women see their stylists a lot more often than their clergymen. They willingly confide in their hairdressers and overhear juicy conversations in the salon, whereas people confess to priests or to chaplains on their deathbeds. So while people approach the ministry to be absolved for their sins, Marla has to worm their secrets out of them. Thank goodness she’s a skilled conversationalist.

The moderator posed some interesting questions. If those other protags were not clergy, would it matter to the series? And if my heroine was more religious, how would that change things? Ask yourself this question about your main character. In Marla’s case, it would make a big difference. She’s not particularly religious but she has a basic belief in Judaism and follows the traditional holidays. As the series progresses, so does her romantic relationship with Detective Dalton Vail who isn’t Jewish. This probably wouldn’t happen if she were more devout. They enter into an interfaith marriage where they respect each other’s traditions and beliefs.

Here’s another question to pose to your characters: How does their view of religion color their view of the world? Marla’s outlook is more expansive. She encompasses other viewpoints with tolerance and understanding. A priest or rabbi’s attitude will be focused on their own kind, while a hospital chaplain has to minister to patients of all faiths.

What role does religion play in your books? Is it a central or peripheral part of your plot? Does religion influence your protagonists’ search for justice?

How important are your protagonists’ careers to the stories? Would the slant be different if they were police professionals or hairdressers or members of the clergy?

Do holidays play a role in your stories? I’ve had Passover, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and New Year’s in my series, if you count the book I just turned in. Holidays in my books are where friends and families gather and where their ties are strengthened. But you could easily have a contentious family gathering where tensions escalate instead.

seder table    seder wine

Perhaps this thematic content is something you haven’t considered before. But as a writer, your views of religion and sense of right from wrong color your perceptions. Do they influence your protagonist’s view as well?

Read my report on Malice 2015 here: Malice 2015

Contest Alert!
Enter May 7– 21 to win a signed copy of bestselling author Joanna Campbell Slan’s historical mystery, Death of a Dowager, and a $15 FANDANGO gift card to enjoy a movie this summer. Two runners-up will each win an ebook copy of Hair Raiser (Bad Hair Day Mystery #2). http://nancyjcohen.com/fun-stuff/contest/

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Exploiting Strengths and Weaknesses

Hawk

(Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

I never really paid much attention to birds until I met and married my wife Lisa. She is — and there is no other way to put it — obsessed with birds. We have hard drives figuratively bursting at the seams (and backed up, of course) with photographs of grackles, canaries, yellow whatever’s, and red these or those. While I have been observing her interest, and the subject of same, the area in which we live has experienced a marked increase in the presence of hawks. The reason doesn’t take an understanding of the nuts and bolts of nuclear propulsion to understand. We have what I will politely call more than our fair share of Canadian geese in our locale (which is not, I hasten to add, in Canada). The eggs of Canadian geese are considered by hawks to be a delicacy, in the same way that I regard the presence of a Tim Horton’s, Sonic, IHOP, or Cracker Barrel. The attitude of a hawk toward a goose egg could best be summed up by the statement, “If you lay it, I will come.” Or something like that.

Hawks will of course eat other things as well, and I’ve had opportunity to see them in the act of catch-and-not-release prey on a number of occasions. What they do is fairly highly evolved. If they catch a ground animal, they immediately take it into the air, where it is helpless and cannot run away. If they catch a bird, they bring it to ground, where it is at a disadvantage, and pin it so that it cannot fly away, while they kill it. One could say that a hawk is at a disadvantage on the ground, but I haven’t noticed squirrels, chipmunks, cats, or even other birds coming to the aid of one of their fellow and less fortunate creatures as the hawk goes about its business. No, things get really quiet for a while as the hawk exploits the weakness of its dinner.

Successful genre fiction utilizes the exploitation of strengths and weakness to succeed as well. This is particularly true when the author takes a personality trait that might, and indeed would, be considered a virtue and exploits it. We have a real world model for that, as well. Think of Ted Bundy. Those of us who are raised to be kind and polite and to assist others in need instinctively hold a door for the elderly or the infirm or pull down a top shelf grocery item for someone in a wheelchair. Bundy knew this and would wear a cast or walk on crutches while carrying a package to attract unsuspecting women. There’s a word for that: monster. But he was very, very good at it, and turned a virtue into a fatal weakness. Those who prey on children frequently do so with the premise of seeking assistance with locating a lost dog. What could be more heartwarming than reuniting a dog lover with his pet? Children are inclined to help, especially when it comes to dogs and such, and it’s a virtue that a parent would want to cultivate, but also to curb.

In the world of fiction, however, exploiting weaknesses of this type makes for a great story, and not just for mysteries or thrillers, either. Many science fiction novels and stories sprung from a seed of an advanced civilization bringing advancement to a primitive, or weaker, one with the best of intentions. Disaster inevitably ensued, for one side, or the other, or both. James Tiptree, Jr., was a master of this type of situation, as was the original Star Trek series. Romance novels? Think of a woman who is physically attractive to the extent that no one will approach her, out of fear of rejection. That idea has launched a thousand books and will undoubtedly launch a thousand more before this sentence is completed. As for mysteries and thrillers, the possibilities are endless and replicable: think of a strength, or a virtue, and find a weak spot to exploit. Create an antagonist to probe it and you’re on your way.

Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley comes to my mind most immediately as someone who was excellent at exploiting the best of others. Who comes to yours?

And…I would be remiss if I did not wish a Happy Mother’s Day tomorrow to those among our readers who celebrate the event . Bless you. You are the best.

 

 

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