Backstory Fatigue

Maybe it’s just my own declining attention span (thanks Jim for another reminder of the issue in yesterday’s blog post!), but I’m increasingly growing weary of complicated, anguished backstories in crime shows. I admit I haven’t been reading much in the way of mysteries lately, as I’ve been focusing on research for my latest WIP, but I often turn to TV crime shows (usually of the British variety) to relax. Lately, however, I’ve found my interest waning as the backstories in the latest crop of shows I’ve started (but not finished!) have become increasingly overwrought and intrusive.

I like to watch as characters take shape slowly over many episodes, evolving alongside their cases, rather than having a backstory thrust upon me right from the get go in a way that I find intrusive and (often times) underwhelming. The current show that’s got me peeved the Netflix original series Paranoid. In the first few episodes we get an intriguing murder but also (in my opinion) a rather heavy handed introduction to the backstory for each of the main protagonists – a panic attack ridden investigator, a know-it all junior officer with a lying alcoholic lying mother, and a female investigator who goes from cocky to crumbling wreck after her boyfriend dumps her (she wants children, she’s in her late 30s. etc. etc.). While I will probably persevere with the show, I feel like I’m already experiencing backstory fatigue and I’m only up to episode 3!

The best crime/mystery shows and novels allow the protagonist’s backstory to unfold and inform the story as well as intrigue the reader. I wonder, given the crowded marketplace, whether we’re currently experiencing a bit of ‘backstory overload’ as a means of trying to differentiate the show/story/characters. For me, however, this often feels like a character’s backstory is being foisted upon me right from the start in an effort to either impress or unnerve me (neither of which usually work!). In Broadchurch, I was willing to buy into the multitude of character ‘issues’ because their stories evolved alongside the case and thus felt organic. I’m not sure the same can be said for Paranoid (for me the jury is still out).

So how does this help inform the writing process when it comes to character development and backstory? For me, my current irritation has helped solidify the following advice…

  1. A character’s backstory needs to evolve rather than be rammed down a reader’s throat. That means no huge exposition dumps or digressions too early on and no ‘overloaded’ backstory for a character that feels imposed rather than organic.
  2. The ‘iceberg’ approach works best – let the reader know there is far more beneath the surface of the character than the tip that the reader sees initially. Let the water recede to reveal the extent and depth of the backstory as the plot/story unfolds.
  3. Make sure to consider the multifaceted nature of human beings. Sometimes genre characters can feel too ‘one note’ (the classic depressed, alcoholic loner as a detective for example) but sometimes they can also feel way too overwrought and unnatural…so make sure you feel like you’re creating a real person.
  4. Don’t try too hard to create the world’s most anguished or unusual detective. Again, this seems to be evident in TV shows more so than novels, but after a while, backstories can start to feel like gimmicks rather than genuine human foibles.

So what do you think about when creating your characters’ backstories? How do you approach backstory development? Which TV shows or novels do you think have explored backstory well, and which have given you (like me) a bit of ‘backstory fatigue’?

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Anti-Heroes: Why We Love Them & Keys Ways to Give Them Depth

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

After John Gilstrap’s post yesterday on The Code, a nostalgic reflection on storytelling in his lifetime, it got me thinking about my favorite type of protagonist – the anti-hero.

One of the first “in your face” anti-heroes I remember came from the small screen – HOUSE. He said things we might secretly wish we could and get away with it, but when TV audiences saw how deeply flawed he was, coupled with his vulnerabilities and quirky sense of right and wrong, he became endearing and very watchable.

Here are a few outstanding anti-heroes for your consideration:
Michael Corleone from the Godfather
Walter White & Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad
John McClane from the Die Hard movies
Don Draper from Mad Men
Tony Soprano from the Sopranos
Ray Donovan from the show by the same name.
Jack Bauer from 24
George Costanza from Seinfeld
Patrick Jane from the Mentalist
Dexter Morgan from Dexter

These amazingly memorable characters have introduced a broader use of gray into classic Hollywood’s black and white world of storytelling where the bad guys literally wore black hats in early films. Anti-heroes aren’t pure heroes in the classic sense. They have flaws and baggage that make them borderline villain, but not quite. It’s up to the author who creates them to infuse something redeemable, even if the author simply gives them a dog, like JOHN WICK.

So why the change toward anti-heroes and why have they become so intriguing?

You’d have to look at how much our world has changed, the complex nature of our lives has shifted our moral compass and made resolutions ambiguous. The simple white hat cowboy may appear weak unless he’s willing to confront dark villains who aren’t hindered by a moral code. Anti-heroes are “over the top” strong in their field and are willing to break conventional rules to save the day once they commit to the fight and cross the point of no return. They right the wrongs that seem insurmountable because they are larger than life and don’t let rules or laws get in the way of justice.

Why are we drawn to anti-heroes?

For me, I see them as flawed. They’re not perfect, like classic heroes in Hollywood or in literature were portrayed. I can relate to them better because it makes me feel as if, given the right circumstances, anyone can rise to the level of hero if they have a cause worth fighting for. We also want to see if they are redeemable. Give your anti-hero a chance to grab at redemption in your book and see if he takes it. Or will he find love from a strong woman? Once we get hooked on an anti-hero, we root for them and feel their pain more when they fall. We want them to get back up, because they’re “every man.” And the fact they are not cookie-cutter, and do surprising things and are unpredictable, they make the storytelling fun.

Who would have rooted for a high school teacher turned drug dealer if we hadn’t learned of his cancer, his concern for his family in the face of his financial meltdown, and his rising medical bills. He’s bucking a broken health care system like David standing before Goliath. He’s more worried over his family than his own recovery. He’s got nothing to lose.

Anti-heroes change our way of thinking about confrontation and empowerment. The right anti-hero can give voice to our frustrations and give us an alternative reality to find justice.

Below are tips to add depth to your anti-hero/heroine & make them sympathetic:

  1. Give Them a Reason—A reader will lose interest if your character is a complete jerk for half the book. Sprinkle in the valid reasons for them being who they are and clue the reader in on these reasons early so they can buy in, even if the other characters don’t know their motivations.
  1. Does Gender Make a Difference? In general, I’ve noticed that readers accept bad boys faster than they embrace a female lead character who isn’t perfect. I don’t know why this is, but it can make crafting your female characters a challenge.
  1. Make them human—Give them a code they live by or loyalties a reader can understand and empathize with. Even a dark anti-hero/heroine has a softer side. In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter was Clarice’s protector with his peculiar brand of loyalty.
  1. Give Them a Soft Edge—If you give even the toughest brooding character a pet or a soft spot for a kid, they will be endearing to readers. Write the darkest character and match them up with something soft and you’ve got a winning combination.
  1. Show Respect—Everyone looks up to a good leader. Show that others admire or respect your dark character and the reader will too.
  1. Stick Redemption under Their Nose—Give your anti-hero a shot at redemption. What choice will they make?
  1. Make Them Vulnerable—Pepper in a back-story that makes your anti-hero vulnerable—betrayed by love, lost an important person in their life, or other tragic experience. Make them fearful of something, perhaps even themselves.
  1. Forge Them from Weakness—Alcohol or drugs, adrenaline addict, insurmountable grief, or fear of the dark. Force them to battle with their deepest fears, making them worth someone’s struggle to win them over.
  1. Make Them Corrupted by Life—Have them see life through personal experiences that we can only imagine but they have lived through. Make trust an issue because they have been betrayed. They must be much more vulnerable than they are cynical to deserve the kind of significant other that it takes to open them up to someone else.
  1. Make Them Real—To be real, they must have honest emotions. That means you, as an author, must delve into the murky corners of your own mind to get into their heads. It’s not always an easy thing to do.

DISCUSSION:

1.) Who are some of your favorite anti-heroes and tell us why? (from TV, movies, or books)

2.) Do you have any other anti-hero crafting tips to share?

My anti-hero – Mercer Broderick as Mr. January. Preorder ebook for $2.99 at Amazon.

Zoey Meager risks her life to search for her best friend in a burning warehouse, only to cross the path of Mr. January, a mysterious man with a large black dog completely devoted to its master.

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First Page Critique: the Silencer

Happy Monday! Today we critique the first page submission entitled The Silencer. As always, kudos to those brave enough to submit. My comments follow.

The Silencer.

Friday, 9:45 a.m.

But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.

James 3:8

The worst part about waiting to testify is I spend the entire time terrified the lawyers will uncover some huge mistake that screams how lazy and incompetent I am. I tell myself a hundred different ways that I always do the best I can … but I don’t really listen.

After so many appearances in court you’d think I’d have no problem when it comes time to testify. But it never fails. Every time the bailiff comes to get me from this small waiting room, the cycle begins. My therapist once told me my fear in court had more to do with my lack of control then my ineptitude as a witness. I disagree. Then again, she also said I joined the police in an effort to stop for others what I couldn’t stop for myself when I was younger.

The door swung open and a big woman with a horsey face and short gray hair stepped inside. Her uniform hugged her well-nourished figure. The web belt is off-center and sagged to her right, the holster almost resting on her thigh. She looked directly at me and I’m waiting to see if her voice sounded like John Wayne.

“Detective Rebecca Watson?” she asked in a soft voice.

“That’s me.” Like clockwork, my stomach twists into a knot, pushing its contents toward my throat as I stand and follow her into the courtroom.

The courtroom is overflowing with spectators and media. Knees trembling, my high heels echoed off the marble floor as I approach the witness stand, carrying a red binder, also known as a murder book. Today is going to be a very tough day. This is no ordinary case. The Florida Supreme Court awarded Leonard Lee Lucius a new trial or whatever verbiage they used. Some crap about tainted evidence. Anyway, his new defense team argued a crucial piece of evidence, the knife used to kill his girlfriend, Teri Goodson, was exposed to foreign fibers after being collected from the crime scene and before being signed into the evidence locker.

Apparently, neither the jurors nor his lawyers saw fit to argue this point during the previous trial. The jury found him guilty. The District Attorney sought the death penalty, but Lucius ended up with life.

All eyes in the courtroom focused on me. I kept my head straight to avoid their stares. As each foot stepped in front of the other, it feels like I’m the one on trial. This isn’t true, but I can’t wrap my head around the fact they’re judging me, even before being sworn in.

My comments

Overall I enjoyed this first page, but there were a few critical elements that held me back from being fully engaged or invested in this story. I’ve summarized these under two main headings: Character Development and Dramatic Tension. I’ll deal with each in turn.

Character Development

  • The main protagonist, Detective Rebecca Watson, seems in the first paragraph at least, to be a rookie who is understandably nervous about appearing in court. The second paragraph, however, indicates that she has appeared countless times and it sounds like her anxiety is more of a deep-rooted issue (one she sees a therapist about) based on a traumatic event in the past which is what drove her (at least in the therapist’s opinion) to being a police officer. This sense of inconsistency, makes it hard to get a handle on Rebecca as a three dimensional character . By the end of this first page I have to admit, she seems rather generic and her anxiety makes her feel less believable as a seasoned detective. This meant I wasn’t totally invested in her as the main character.
  • I also felt like I needed some action and drama rather than merely exposition about Rebecca as a character. I wanted to feel like I was in Rebecca’s head hearing her unique voice but also seeing her in action.
  • Although I feel like the writer knows his/her character, as readers we aren’t on a firm foundation (I don’t quite buy Rebecca as a detective yet). Why does she feel like she’s constantly being judged? Why does she lack confidence in her abilities – is it this case, or part of her own neuroses? If I’m going to like Rebecca and root for her as a main character, I feel like a need more depth even on this first page. This may come more in the form of intriguing specifics that can be fleshed out later but at the moment there’s not enough that goes beyond the standard ‘cop’ genre to really draw me in. Action demonstrates character far more than mere description or background.
  • Also, there seems a few contradictions on this first page – she seems nervous and anxious, yet she’s supposedly experienced. She is a detective but she says ‘new trial or whatever verbiage they used’ when speaking of the Supreme Court when, as a detective she would know exactly what was ordered.
  • We also get far too much detail about the bailiff when compared to the protagonist – If Rebecca was a detective wouldn’t she already know most of the court staff? We also don’t know whether Rebecca was involved in the initial investigation or her role in the tainted evidence question that is the reason for her court appearance (we assume).

Dramatic Tension

  • A first page is first and foremost a powerful lure that draws a reader in. It has to set the scene as well as the main character and, most importantly, it needs to have dramatic tension to ensure a reader is immediately invested in the story. At the moment this first page seems more of an introduction than a dramatic entry point to the story. We learn about Leonard Lee Lucius’s new trial in a rather cumbersome way with details that should come later or should be used in the first page to greater dramatic effect (perhaps by way of a scene in which the police are confronted by the tainted evidence).
  • Overall, it felt like there was too much time spent on Rebecca’s worries/feelings of inadequacy that on establishing a dramatic scene that confronts and intrigues the reader. I was left wanting more ‘oomph’ to keep me going and a stronger, more consistent main character that had flaws as well as depth but who felt ‘real’ from the get go.
  • I also wasn’t sure how the biblical quotation at the start of the page relates to the story – while we don’t need an answer per se, I think readers would like to get a sense of how it illuminates the story to come.

So TKZers, what are some of your comments and feedback? How can we help this writer punch this first page up to the next level?

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Give your manuscript a running start

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Whenever I disclose to someone that I’m an author, the response is pretty much the same: “I’ve always wanted to write a book.” Or “I’ve got a great idea for a novel.” Despite all the would-be authors out there, not every potential novelist actually gets to the writing stage. And even fewer produce a finished product. But for the ones who not only have an idea but are burning up with a desire to put pen to paper, I’ve put together a basic outlining technique that might help get things started—a simple list of questions to kick start a book. Answering them can give writers direction and focus, and help keep them going when the wheels sometimes come off the cart along the way. To continue my Writing 101 series, here goes:

  • What distinguishes your protagonist from everyone else?
  • Does she have an essential strength or ability?
  • How could her strength cause her to get into trouble?
  • Most stories start with the protagonist about to do something? What is that “something” in your story, and what does it mean to her?
  • Is that “something” interrupted? By what?
  • Is there an external event or force that she must deal with throughout the length of the story?
  • How is it different from the original event?
  • How will the two events contrast and create tension?
  • Does she have a goal that she is trying to achieve during the course of the story?
  • Is it tied into the external event?
  • Why does she want or need to obtain the goal?
  • What obstacle does the external event place in her path?
  • What must she do to overcome the obstacle?
  • Does she have external AND internal obstacles and conflicts to overcome?
  • How will she grow by overcoming the obstacles?
  • What do you want to happen at the end of your story?
  • How do you want the reader to feel at the end?
  • What actions or events must take place to make the ending occur the way you envision?

This outline technique has less to do with plot and more to do with character development. Building strong characters around a unique plot idea is the secret to a great book. Once you’ve answered the questions about your protagonist, use the same technique on your antagonist and other central characters. It works for everyone in the story.

These are general questions that could apply to any genre from an action-adventure thriller to a romance to a tale of horror. Answering them up front can help to get you started and keep you on track. Armed with just the basic knowledge supplied by the answers, you will never be at a loss for words because you will always know what your protagonist (and others) must do next.

Can you think of any other questions that should be asked before taking that great idea and turning it into a novel?

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Diversity, Micro-Aggression and Cultural Appropriation

One of the main themes of the recent SCBWI conference I attended was diversity in children’s literature (or rather its lack thereof!). Even though all the sessions I attended were directed towards children and YA authors, the key issues and concerns are  applicable across genres and age groups – namely how to incorporate diversity in the books we write, and how to do so in an appropriate way (that is, in ways that avoid cultural appropriation as well as what the editors termed ‘micro-aggressions’ in the books we write).

I hadn’t heard the term ‘micro-agression’ before when it came to books but the term is really about the cliches, characterizations or expressions writers can fall into (often without thinking) that perpetuate cultural stereotypes. In one of the first-page sessions the editors pointed out some of these ‘micro-aggressions’ in phrases such as sitting ‘Indian style’ and ‘Indian giver’. I’m sure in both these instances the author used these unwittingly rather than maliciously but the editors were quick to point out that, in an industry increasingly concerned about the lack of diversity in the books they publish, authors need to be especially mindful of how they incorporate diversity in their books and avoid using terms, phrases or characters that perpetuate stereotypes or inflict ‘micro aggression’ against particular cultures.

In another session I attended there was a great discussion about the issues writers face when writing about cultures or characters different to their own. The key take home message? If you write cross-culturally you MUST do your research! This includes having beta-readers from that culture to ensure that the kinds of ‘micro-agressions’ or cultural appropriations that the editors identified, did not occur.  I wholeheartedly support an increase in diversity, particularly in children’s literature, and acknowledge that writers, when tackling cross-cultural issues, must do their research to ensure that they approach the issue in an appropriate and sensitive way. I must confess, however, that after this session, given the sensitivity and complexity of the discussion, I felt more rather than less reluctant when it came to writing cross-culturally. That isn’t to say I don’t feel strongly that I should have the freedom to write whatever I chose to write about without any gender, racial or cultural constraints but, after the discussion, I did feel like the issue was more fraught than I had realized (or rather, I clearly hadn’t thought through the issues enough).

So TKZers what do you think? How do you approach the issue of diversity? Do you endeavor to write cross-culturally and if so, how do you navigate the issues raised when doing so? Do you see  ‘micro-agressions’ or cultural appropriations in the books you read?

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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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The 30-Minute Character Generator

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 8.15.22 AMI know some artistes rebel at the idea of systematization. But if the system is designed to unleash your imagination and send it running in productive directions, I say go for it. All the time.

You don’t want to be sitting around waiting for a Muse to start dancing.

Before I can begin to write anything, I have to know who my story is about. I’ll have a concept. I need a character. A Lead.

But I don’t want to take a lot of time doing so. I don’t want to spend weeks creating a whole history of this character’s life. I’ve never found that effective.

So I’ve come up with a 30-minute character generator. It’s a system. It gets me excited enough to start on that story journey. The system is made up of three things: a visual, a voice, and a vision.

  1. Visual – 10 minutes

Start with a look. For me, a character does not begin to take shape until I can see him.

I want to look at my character’s face and see some mystery and a suggestion of stuff happening below the surface.

There are two things I do.

First, I spend several minutes on the internet looking at images. I find a few that set something off in me, drag them to my desktop, and look at them later.

I use Google Images. I find it has more variety than, say, iStockphoto. Since I’m not going to be using these except for my own reference, there’s no copyright issue.

When I put in a search term, I use an emotional tag rather than something generic. Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say my Lead is a successful businesswoman. If I just search for “businesswoman” I get all sorts of publicity style photos––smiling, confident and posed. Nuts to that.

My novel is a thriller, so I want my Lead to be troubled.

Thus, I might type “unhappy woman” or “stressed woman.” (You’ll notice that when you do this, Google Images suggests other types of searches in their top bar. Nice of them to help!)

Find faces that stir something inside you. The best is when you think “Aha! That’s her!”

The second thing I do is use my love of classic movies to think of my Lead being played by any actor from the past I choose.

For my businesswoman, suppose I think of her as Bette Davis? Or Kate Winslet?

If I like that, I can always find a head shot of that actor and use it for my model. The reader will never know.

I usually find my headshot in under ten minutes. Then I put it into my character file on Scrivener. The nice thing about Scrivener is that you can look at all your characters on a corkboard when you’re ready to roll.

  1. Voice – 10 minutes

Next, I spend at least ten minutes creating a Voice Journal. This is a free-form document in the character’s voice, talking to me. Sometimes I prompt the character with questions. Other times I let the character ramble.

I just keep typing until the character sounds like someone other than me.

Which is the key. This is where the character begins to “take on life.”

Here is a bit of the Voice Journal for Sister Justicia Marie, the Lead in my Force of Habit series:

I don’t go around looking for bad things to happen. They just seem to. Yes, I live in L.A., I know all about it, oh yes, you know my story. I was supposed to be living the dream. I was making five million a picture when I was ten. Somebody told me I was the new Shirley Temple and I Force_1looked at him and said, “That curly-headed little snot can eat my shorts.”

I actually said that. Dear Lord, forgive me for that. Forgive me for the whole of my teenage years!

But now am I in the grip of another sin? Am I wrong, my Lord, for wanting to stop bad thing from happening? Even if I have to kick in somebody’s face?

Are you calling me, Lord? Am I Joan of Arc or Joan the crazy lady who shouts in the park?

Ten minutes of voice journaling always brings happy surprises. I may continue to add to this journal from time to time during my writing or planning, fleshing out more of my character if I see the need.

  1. Vision – 10 minutes

Finally, I want to get to the heart of my character. I want to know what the character thinks most deeply about as the story begins. What is her trajectory? Her yearning? Her vision for her life?

No character in your novel should start as a blank slate.

We know that Luke Skywalker, like most farm boys, yearns for a life of adventure. He looks out at the sky, dreaming of becoming a Jedi. But the practicalities of life with his Aunt and Uncle prevent it.

Scarlett O’Hara’s vision is to become a fine, Southern lady married to a noble Southern gentleman named Ashley Wilkes. Boy, is she in for a shock.

The vision is not always a pleasant one. Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games sees no hope in the future. Her vision is for survival in the daily, dismal world of Panem. Her daily life is taken up with the care of her mother and sister. She tells her friend Gale she never wants to have kids. Will anything in the story change her outlook?

Spend ten minutes exploring your Lead’s vision just before your story begins. Ask yourself how the story will frustrate, challenge, or redeem the vision.

You can do this same 30-minute exercise for your other main characters, too.

The result will be a full-blooded cast. You can start writing now, letting the characters grow organically. Or you can do more planning and backstory if that’s your preference.

Either way, the 30-Minute Character Generator will give you a solid foundation for bringing original, unforgettable characters to your novel.

Which is kind of a nice thing.

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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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Character Development from the Heart

Welcome to guest author Joanna Campbell Slan. Joanna is the creator of three mystery series and winner of the Daphne du Maurier Award for Literary Excellence. She has been a television talk show host, an adjunct professor of public relations, a sought-after motivational speaker, and a corporate speechwriter.

Tell Me Who You Love: Character Development from the Heart
Joanna Campbell Slan

Here’s the Test

There’s an old adage: “Tell me who you love and I’ll tell you who you are.” It’s a great test to apply to our characters. Ask yourself, “Who or what does my character love?”

What Characters Are Driven to Do

Love is not only powerful; it also makes fools out of most of us. As authors we can use this primal drive to explain situations that would otherwise seem absurd.

Think back to Gone with the Wind. In the book, it’s Scarlett’s love for Tara that compels her to marry one unsuitable man after another. It’s her love of family that sends this fragile flower out into the fields to work like a common laborer. And her love of Ashley Wilkes forces her to remain beside his wife, Melanie, even as the Yankees approach.

Love Causes Conflicts of All Sizes

We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet, but love for life’s small pleasures can also cause our characters problems. Kiki Lowenstein loves food. Especially desserts. In many of my Kiki books, this amateur sleuth’s attention gets side-tracked when someone waves a particularly luscious treat under her nose. In one book, a nasty crafter ruins Kiki’s artwork while Kiki is too busy eating a gingerbread cupcake to keep an eye on her materials.

Telling Versus Showing

Of course, it’s not enough to tell our readers that our character loves someone or something. We have to show this emotion in practice. One way is by forcing our characters to make tough choices. When Cara Mia Delgatto adopts a Chihuahua with a broken leg, she doesn’t need one more complication in her life. However, she’s willing to adjust her world to accommodate the ailing pup because he’s a rescue dog, and Cara is all about second chances.

How our characters spend their time is another way we show what they value. If a character doesn’t spend time with his children, readers might assume they aren’t an important part of that character’s life. However, if a tattered family photo falls out of the character’s wallet as he pulls out a dollar bill, we have to believe his children matter, but something keeps him away from them.

Characters can demonstrate their love by their reactions. Perhaps your character’s voice changes when he’s talking to his wife. Or maybe your protagonist gets teary-eyed when coming across a man’s jacket in her closet. These responses show the reader a powerful emotion at work.

The next time you create a character, ask yourself who or what this particular player loves. Make a list. Using what you learn will help you build a more realistic, well-rounded character that readers will relate to.

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JoannaSlanJoanna Campbell Slan is the national bestselling and award-winning award of twenty-books, both fiction and non-fiction. She has taught writing at Illinois State University, to executives at large corporations, and through Internet courses. She currently writes two mystery series.

Contact her at http://www.JoannaSlan.com or http://www.fb.com/JoannaCampbellSlan

 

 

TearDownandDieThe first book in her newest series is Tear Down and Die (Book #1 in the Cara Mia Delgatto Mystery Series/4.8 out of 5 stars). http://www.amazon.com/Tear-Down-Delgatto-Mystery-Series-ebook/dp/B00H5R8LK2/ref=pd_sim_b_5?ie=UTF8&refRID=1PBTAGS96KEWBVZ3TNB7 or http://tinyurl.com/TearDD

 

 

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. http://nancyjcohen.com/fun-stuff/contest/

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Internal Conflict

Nancy J. Cohen

When developing your characters, you’ll want to give them internal conflicts as well as external ones. What do we mean by this? The internal conflict is an emotional struggle that inhibits your protagonist from moving on. He could have trouble taking the next step to get a job promotion, making a commitment to his girlfriend, or deepening his relationship with his estranged father. Often something in his past has caused this crisis of confidence, and he can’t see his way past it. Adding these internal conflicts gives your characters added depth. It’s not only about fighting the bad guys. It’s also about fighting one’s inner demons. For examples, look at popular movies and TV shows that have captured your attention. Take notes on what bothers each of the characters. Here are some examples:

Outlander

Outlander3

Claire is forced to hide her knowledge in a land ruled by superstition.
Jamie is torn between his gentler instincts for Claire and his cultural expectations of a husband’s role in marriage.
Claire is torn between her love for two men.
Claire wants to go home but that means leaving Jamie.

Outlander1  Outlander2

Dig

Dig

The main character wrestles with guilt and grief over his daughter’s death while trying to prevent Armageddon. The bad guys exploit this weakness by luring him with a woman who resembles the dead girl.

Lord of the Rings

Lord Rings

Son seeks approval and recognition from father who favors his brother.
Man struggles against the pull of corruption.
Woman wants to fight in a world that belongs to man.
Woman loves man who loves another woman.
Woman must give up her station in life (or special power) to be with the man she loves.
Man fears he will succumb to the same weakness as his father. (This also applies to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. He fears turning to the dark side like his father.)

Battlestar Galactica

Galactica

Man blames father for the death of his brother. He’s unable to forgive.
Female hero has had to work hard to prove herself. This means hiding her vulnerability.
A man who traded sex for secrets discovers he’s responsible for the world’s destruction.
A woman who is dying from cancer is forced to take charge.

It helps in determining a character’s internal conflict if you examine their past history. What happened to motivate their present behavior? What is inhibiting them from emotional growth? How will your character overcome this hang-up? Layer in your motivation, and you’ll have a richer story.

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