Saturday, November 12, 2011

When Character(s) Presents Itself

Scott D. Parker

I enjoyed the Da Vinci Code. I dug Jurassic Park. I like network crime dramas, and I rock out to KISS.

Deep thinkers? Weighty tomes? Gritty television? Not at all. I'm simple that way, for better or for worse. I love story, a something that propels me to read, watch, or listen. I find character studies for the sake of character studies to be, well, boring. My recent experience reading Lev Grossman's The Magicians made that loud and clear. I was bored through almost the entire book and, at the end, when I read rave reviews about the depth of character in the book, I realized what the book was really about. Oh, thought I, so that's what he was trying to say. That's cool, but couldn't there have been more action?

Perhaps it's my ability to check my brain on page 1, the door of the movie theater, or when I flip a channel. Maybe I'm okay with eating pablum every now and then. It's easy to digest and doesn't taste too bad.

Take Robert Langdon, the hero from the Da Vinci Code. Did I care about his childhood or what made him tick? Nope. I wanted to follow him through the maze and find out the truth. But, and this is key, he revealed his character through his actions. As Jay wrote on Thursday, "plot reveals character." Granted, Langdon's still not very deep a character, but the ride sure was fun. And, when I pick up a book or watch something, most of the time, I'm just in it for the show.

My Own Characters

Except for the characters I write. That's when I want to know all there is to know about them. Here, too, is where Jay's point is made abundantly clear: plot does indeed reveal a character. And it is in this arena where I follow the opposite advice I give for plotting.

Last week, I revealed myself to be an avid plotter. When it comes to characters, I am the wait-and-see guy. Take, for example, Carl Hancock. He is the co-star of my Harry Truman mystery. When I came time to write this book, I knew that I could not have Truman in serious danger so I needed a cast of fictional characters, primarily a partner for the mystery Truman investigated. I'll freely admit that, when I wrote page 1, Hancock was cardboard. I did exactly the same thing Russel mentioned yesterday: I described Hancock--slightly with a Texas caricature--and just put him through the story. What happened during the next few weeks and months surprised me.

Hancock started living and breathing on his own. He started doing things I never anticipated or planned for him. The deeper into the novel I got, the more I started to notice about him. Little things he did revealed his nature and the way he thought. My fellow readers picked up on it, too, and told me that the Hancock character was was the most fully formed of my fictional characters. It happened all because I let him breathe and gave him space to flex his muscles.

Calvin Carter, my railroad detective, nearly transformed himself over the course of three stories. When the first story started, he was merely the avenging son. By the end of that tale, however, he had transformed into the showy actor he was. The second story brought him a new set of character traits I hadn't even considered, while the third one solidified the ways in which he conducts his investigations and his actions. He's best with an audience and, if there isn't one, he'll wait.

The Biggest Obstacle to Overcome

Characters and their traits might just be the biggest obstacle I face when I write. With my insistence on knowing an entire story arc before I set pen to paper, there is mounting evidence that I subconsciously want the same for my characters. I want to know how they'll react to *every* situation before I even get to it. And it can paralyze me. Which is why Russel's post from yesterday was such a nice thing to read. He reminds us writers that we don't need to know all that stuff. Know a few things and let the story show you how your character will react. They'll be less like cardboard and more like real people if you do.

Playing Adam

Last Sunday, Joelle wrote about how she picks names. One of her characters found her name when Joelle scanned Facebook. I do something similar but much more analog: I look around my writing room.

I have two main bookshelves in here. The one my grandfather built contains paperbacks, the other one, an Ikea model, has the trade paperbacks, my annotated Sherlock Holmes, and my old tabloid-sized comics from the 1970s. So, when it comes time for me to come up with a name, I merely look around my room and put two names together.

Mrs. Hurley, the lady proprietor who runs the hotel in which Truman and Hancock stay during their investigation? The chancellor of the university from which I earned a Masters in history (the diploma's on the wall). Thomas Jackson, the partner of Calvin Carter? Play on a historical figure that one. And Carter himself. Originally, I thought of calling him Collins (because I have Max Allen Collins novels on the shelves) but scraped it on account of the possessive problem (Collins' or Collins's). Carter came from the ether or the subconscious, I don't know where, but "Calvin" emerged from one source: my Calvin and Hobbes collections. Plus, you've got the John Calvin influence, but, c'mon: Calvin Carter was named after a six-year-old boy. It's just more fun that way.

Album of the Week 1: Songs of Mirth and Melancholy by Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo. How does one describe this nine-song collection? Yes, there are jazz elements, but those only take up 1/3 of the album. Taking a cue from the chamber music of the 19th Century, Marsalis (saxes) and Calderazzo (piano) basically make 21st Century chamber music with jazz influences. These are songs, not merely templates for improvisation. Marsalis's tone on these tracks is simply gorgeous, rich, full, broad, dripping with emotion. Calderazzo's piano is, at times, Chopinesque and Monkish. I love albums that are difficult to classify. This one is my new favorite.

Album of the Week 2: The Good Feeling by the Christian McBride Big Band. On the other end of the spectrum is this first album by McBride's big band. Brash yet moody, audacious yet subtle, this is a group that modernizes the type of ensemble that flourished in the 1930s but is fresh as now, and brings with it echoes of all the decades in between. Whether you want the fast, loud propulsion of hard bop, or the soundtrack-ish influences of the mid 1970s, there is something for every taste. As a member of a local big band here in Houston, I'm always on the look out for fresh takes on this kind of ensemble. McBride writes over half of the tunes here, so you can rest assured that the tradition of the big band is alive and well.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Show Me What You're Made Of

By Russel D McLean

When it comes to character, its easy to believe that just by telling the reader their characteristics that you’ve done the job. Your big protagonist walks on the page and you say, “Jason was a big man, who was friendly when he needed to be but in the end always did the right thing even if it meant having to push someone out of his way. He had a temper that flared up but underneath that lurked a loving heart that regretted having to use force.” I’ve read a number of stories down the years during my years as a short story editor that described such characters before going on to have a story where the aforementioned Jason did nothing to show these characteristsics. At all.

Character is about specificity in portrayal.

Don’t tell us what your characters are like.

Show us.

Make them unique in action and dialogue. You don’t need to know their life history in detail, but you do need to know least some of the following:

1) What word(s) would they never use?
2) Do they externalise or internalise anger?
3) How would they react to a sudden shock? Ie, would they make a joke? Flinch? Punch the nearest person?
4) What is their favourite joke? Do they even know any jokes?
5) Where/how do they drink? Eat?

Think on these points. Dramatise these points. Take your characters out of their comfort zones. Write a couple of little scenes that may not necessarily have to do with your plot that show your character dealing with situations where they display these traits. Perhaps you have them forced into a restaurant where they would not normally eat. How do they react? How do they look at the menu? Deal with the service? The other diners?

If your character “values friendship above all else” howsabout you show us how he does this? Make it important to the story. Show me Jason sacrificing something he wants for the sake of a friend. And show me whether he boasts about that fact or keeps quiet. Because even that shows his character in one way or another.
What happens if their best friend has betrayed them even in a small way? How do they then confront this other person?

Get to know your character in action. Get to know their specificity and show it on the page. If they conform to a genre type, find out what makes them stand out from others of a similar type. Indiana Jones is a great example of a hero who conforms to type and yet has a specifity in the way he talks, the way he reacts differently to teaching a university class and hunting for treasure and especially in her very unique fear of snakes (and the way in which his need to find the “fortune and glory” trumps this fear).

But always, always show us these traits being employed in the services of the story. In the services of drama.

The advice I always give to would-be writers about their characters is this:
Dramatise them, don’t summarise them. If you tell us what a character is like, it often means they are about to display none of these traits. But if you show us what a character is like, we will believe in them. We will come to love them.

And so will you.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

This guy's a character

By Jay Stringer

Character week, huh? I'll have me some of that.

When it comes to craft, many writers talk of character like some magic, alchemical thing. There's a point when this mysterious creature takes over in the writers head and leads the story. It sounds mystical and exciting, and I know I'm guilty of that kind of talk too. But sometimes I talk to people who are really intimidated by this. They'll sit and write, and wait for that moment when the character will appear fully formed in their head. When that moment doesn't come, they wonder if they're doing it wrong.

So let's take a step back and burst this myth. There's nothing magical about this process, and you're not doing it wrong. Well, you might be, I don't know. You might be doing it with crayon in the dark. Probably wrong. But then, you're also a visitor at DSD, which means you have taste, so that's another vote for not doing it wrong.

First things first, what is character? We all know this one, right? It's the person in your story. Well.....kinda. Well....yes. Well......shut up. Sure it's perfectly acceptable and standard these days to use the word in that sense, but it's something more.

If I type it into google I get this definition;

See, to my mind we're already making this easier here. Character isn't some magical person that will leap fully formed from your head and onto the page. Character is a trait, or a collection of traits, that are revealed about a person. They are shown in how your super spy reacts to adversity as he tries to defuse a nuclear bomb, or how your sexy forensic scientists deals with her crisis in faith (while defusing a nuclear bomb.)

Character isn't something that you need to have pinned down at the start of the story. It's something that is revealed at the story progresses. This is what story telling does. Plot reveals character. We know virtually nothing about Indiana Jones at the start of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, except that he needs to shave and he's wearing the fuck out of that leather jacket. But after 115 minutes of seeing him get beaten down, shot, bruised and bloodied, but still finding a way to climb back up, we know everything we need to about this guy's character.

So, don't sweat it. There is no secret formula that you're not aware of. There's no magic circle of writers who are forbidden from sharing their secrets (though that would explain the hooded man stood behind me as I type this, reaching for his swor......brb.)

Where was I?

Right, so. Plot and character go hand in hand. More than that, plot and character are the same thing, if you boil it down and do it right. There are beats in the plot that will face your spy/sexy scientist/monkey with a choice, and the way they react to that choice tells us a little more about who they are.

See those times when writers talk about the character taking over? That's what that is. It's that point when, partway through a first draft, we get a handle on how our spy/sexy scientist/monkey/superhero has been responding to choices, and we can take educated guesses on how they will respond to the ones that are yet to come. And then, being people who are revealing their character page by page, they go and surprise us. They make a different choice. The reader will be shocked, but that's nothing compared to how the writer feels.

Creating Characters (and see, now I'm playing fast and loose with the rules, because I've switched back to the other usage of the word) is pretty simple. In fact, my key to handling this bit is the same as my key to all writing -which probably blows my whole month's worth of useful comments right here- is ignore the big things. You build a plot one beat at a time. You build a character one piece at a time. You write the novel one page at a time. If you ever stop to think of the big things, you're just giving your brain an excuse to freeze up.

Think of your first chapter as an outline for a short story. For that, you only need a few aspects of character, and a few basic details of their identity. Start telling your story. At the end of the first chapter -the end of the short story- face your character with some choice that they were not expecting. Are they going to get in that car? Are they going to pick up the phone? Are they going to hide that dead body or call the cops? Do they like coffee with cream? From that reaction, you reveal your first layer of character, then you build from there.

Plot informs character and character informs plot. If I start a murder mystery with a guy who does the wrong thing when he finds a dead body, thats cool, but why does he do the wrong thing? I'm not a fan of "just because." I need a reason why my guy won't simply pick up the phone and call the cops, as most of us would. So then I realise, well, he's got a reason to run away from the cops. But what would that be? What reason would be so ingrained in a person that even knowing that they are innocent is still not enough for them to override their fear and call the cops? Well, hey, what if he was an ethnic minority. What if the reason it was ingrained in him was generations of alienation and rivalry? Bingo. And hey, this new found aspect of his character will have an impact on every decision he makes for the rest of the book. Bingo bingo. And now he has opinions, he has a voice, he has a family history and he's not afraid to tell me about them. And, hey, try making him a woman. Or a child. Or an alien.

As I said last week, I'm going to try and hold myself to giving some practical tips each week. last weeks list works for both plot and character, since they're the same thing. But here's a few simple things you can do, and it involves a little more work that last week.

-What single event or trait makes your character different to everyone else?
-What single thing does your character see in him/herself that others don't?
-What single thing does everyone else see in your character, that he/she doesn't?
-What is the most honest thing your character has ever done?
-What is the least honest thing your character has ever done?
-For each one, write a paragraph of dialogue, of your character answering the questions.
-Then think of the simplest way to show each one in a story.

Add what you've gotten this week to what you came up with last week, and if you've not gotten a story by now, you're really not trying.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Character With Style

By Steve Weddle

Gus Flaubert wanted to write a novel without plot or characters – just using style. Maybe he did. Hell if I know. I just remember reading that somewhere probably twenty years ago.

Not sure I’d be in favor of that. I mean, no plot, sure. Sign me up. I’m not much of a plotter. I like the characters. The creating people aspect of writing.

Recently I had the following conversation with another writer:

Him: Man, I envy you.
Me: Well, duh.
Him: Oh, haha. No really.
Me: Howzat?
Him: Just reading that story you sent.
Me: Yeah? Is ok?
Him: I wish I could do that?
Me: Yeah. I get that a lot.
Him: Oh, haha. I mean the way you write.
Me: ?
Him: I wish I could have two people sitting there not doing anything.
Me: Screw you
Him: No. It’s a compliment.
Me: K <Logs Off>

But he was right. That’s what I do. Put a couple of people together and see what develops. I don’t have a giant mythos I’m trying to spread. I’m not trying to prove any kind of point. I’m not pitting the forces of good against evil. I’m not solving Da Vinci’s code or figuring out why some old man in Sweden is getting pressed flowers from his dead relative. I’m just making characters and putting them in rooms and watching them talk. Or, you know, not always with the rooms.


“The stars,” she said. “See how close together they are? Almost touching? Look.” She took his fingers, pressed them together to hold a star. “You can almost touch one to another. Feel the light, one against the other. The fire.”
He said okay. Sure.
She rolled back into the dark field.
“But then you get close,” she said, “and it turns out they’re millions and millions of miles away. Did you know that?”
He said he didn’t.  
“The closest star, I mean one to another, the closest one is like a hundred million light years from the next one, like in the whole universe. And the closer you get to a star, like they look close together now, but if you were to fly up there, all that way, the closer you get to the stars, the further away you are from the next one. The further away everything is.”
He said he didn’t know that. He closed his eyes, thought about the tips of her fingers on his, pressing together. The flat of her thumb against the knuckle of his. The tip of her index finger guiding his. He’d seen a movie, maybe a documentary, and a soldier had stepped on a land mine in the desert darkness. Had blown both his legs off. And he woke up, still feeling the legs. Still feeling the weight. It was called a “phantom” something. Feeling it pressed against you. He wondered how long that could last.
He heard something. Something deep. Something throbbing. Then a little light in the distance. Like stars on the ground. Only not stars. Not stars, at all. He looked across to see wavy shadows moving in and out of the light as people were coming toward them, getting bigger the closer they came.
“Staci,” one of the guys said.  They were all wearing their red football jerseys, jeans, boots. “You all right?”
“Yeah,” she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “I think—” She swallowed. “I think those Jello shots put me over the edge. Somebody oughta check those.”
Rusty sat watching. No one said anything to him.
One of them reached a hand down for Staci. Then they walked away, toward the house, their football jerseys shining in the moonlight, the stars, the house lights. Everything reflecting off them.
Alone in the field, he watched everything move further away. 


That’s the opening to one of the stories in my Country Hardball collection.  Just a couple of kids lying in a field outside a party. The story doesn’t have much of a plot at all. You watch things develop, but there ain’t no ticking time bomb of world plague. The world that falls apart is entirely Rusty’s. I don’t care as much what happens to the isle of Manhattan as much as I care about what happens to this character.
I have a number of characters in the collection. I don’t if you can have a dozen main characters, but that’s kinda what’s going on.

Roy Alison is in there. You may remember him from “The Ravine.” He’s got a hefty backstory.


“I know who you are, shitface.” He raced the barrels of the shotgun to my face. “Everybody knows who you are. You’re the piece of shit who killed his parents. “
That stopped me. I guess I’ll never get used to that. Never get away from it. Which is fine. I did kill my parents.
I was sixteen. Sitting in my room. Not bothering anyone. Put on some Blue Oyster Cult. Dropped a couple tabs of pumpkinhead. An hour later my mom busted into my room. My dad had been having kidney trouble a while and had passed out. She didn’t want to wait for an ambulance because we were out in the country. And she hated ambulances. Said they were a rip-off. So she loaded my dad into the backseat of the Impala and I was supposed to drive them to the ER. Yeah. Funny story. I thought the oncoming headlights were calling to me. Calling me home. So we all made it to the ER in ambulances. Of course, my mom and dad didn’t need ambulances by the time they got there. 


That’s from “The Ravine,” the first Roy Alison story I wrote. That’s who he is. Who he’ll always be. The boy who killed his parents. You don’t just walk away from that. That defines who you are. Roy spends years trying to get his shit together, going in and out of various types of jails. Finally, when we really get to meet him in Country Hardball, he’s essentially moved in with his grandmother. If this were a made-for-tv movie, her influence would help save him. He’d learn some crap. You know, how he has to devote himself to creating a Seatbelt Foundation For Children. But that’s not who he is.

Put that character in a situation. It’s not about the situation. It’s about the character.

To me, that’s what writing character is all about. You’re not starting with a situation and finding characters to push the action forward. You’re starting with characters and putting them in situations that push the characters.

That’s what happens in “The Ravine.” Roy is trying to be a good guy. He’s trying to keep the violence under control. And then he’s placed in a difficult situation. If I’m doing my job properly as a writer, you’re full of hope for him. You’re not worried that he can’t defuse the bomb and therefore Manhattan will explode.

You’re worried that he can’t defuse himself and all he’s worked for, those little steps he’s taken each day to get his life back, that they’ll all be gone in the swing of a bat.

Just a couple of people in a room. Talking to each other. Because I’m not interested in stories about a nuclear explosion leveling Manhattan.

Like the old saying often attributed to Stalin: "The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic."

Or like the song says:
The way we fight
The way I'm left here silent
Oh, these little earthquakes
Here we go again
These little earthquakes
Doesn't take much to rip us into pieces

Just a couple of people talking. A couple of people falling to pieces. A couple of people trying to hold it together. Or, as Flaubert said in HISTORIE DE JOUET, someone falling with style.

Chris F. Holm on character

Dave White's out today, but Chris F. Holm has some things to say about character and writing over at the Crime Fiction Lover site.

That said, I didn’t think of myself as a crime writer until I first put pen to paper. What really fascinates me is character. The problem is, well-behaved characters are dull. We’re all raised to behave to societal norms, so when we do so, it speaks little of who we really are. If you want to know what someone’s really made of, you’ve got to strip all that away. Crime is by nature transgressive, and as such it affords a truer glimpse into the hearts and minds of those who commit it than damn near anything else I can think of.

More this way --

Monday, November 7, 2011

Character Sallis-Style

By Sandra Ruttan

I tend to say I'm more character-driven than plot-driven in the writing of my novels.

However, if I were to say that I am a character writer, it wouldn't be true. Not really. I think most people who claim to be character writers aren't. Not exactly.

The reality is, my characters drive their own actions by their behavior, which is defined by their character. However, when I start any particular novel, there is an idea of a story I want to tell. I don't simply sit down and say I'm going to write another book with Ashlyn, or Tain, or Lara and Farraday.

Before I can revisit any of my characters in a work - be it short or long - I need a story idea that fits with their character that I believe can work together.

For me, the reality is that I see character and plot as the two horses pulling the carriage. For some writers, character might be stronger than plot, and for other writers it's the other way around. However, both are required to complete the novel.

For my money, the man who is writing character novels in the truest sense is also one of the most overlooked authors writing and publishing today, and for any writer serious about learning what it is to write a completely character-driven novel, they must dive deep into the works of James Sallis.

I didn't know what to expect when I first read Sallis. And because the reading experience was unlike anything else I'd experienced before, at first, I wasn't sure how to formulate my response to the book in any way that made sense. I was used to picking up books that were about this murder or that police investigation, or this kidnapping, or that assassination plot. Books that had a goal. A defined focus. Stop the killer before he strikes again, catch the killer and bring peace to the family. Prevent global chaos and political instability. Lofty goals with high stakes.

If you bring those expectations to a Sallis book, you won't know what hit you. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people are confused as a result, and move on to more familiar territory again.

For me, I was fascinated. I recall saying that as a bass player, Sallis demonstrated he knew exactly which notes to leave out, which is at least as important as knowing which notes to put in a story.

Read the Turner books, read the Lew Griffin books, and what you will be reading are books that are about them. About Turner, about Griffin. Not about any one particular case or revelation or defining moment in a career. With the Griffin books, in particular, the character is revealed one piece at a time, the layers stripped away. This was my original review of The Long-Legged Fly.

Sitting down with James Sallis’s The Long-Legged Fly, I had no idea what to expect. I knew it was the start of a series and, in keeping with a recent trend, it was yet another PI novel to make its way to the top of my TBR pile.

From the Turner books, I was aware of Sallis’s unrivaled storytelling skills. Sallis has mastered the art of painting with words, and maximizing the effectiveness of each word chosen. A typical Sallis novel runs close to 60,000 words, and yet the words I’d use to describe the writing are lush, evocative, potent.

The Long-Legged Fly is no exception. We begin with Lew Griffin in 1964 and follow his life, in segments, until 1990. The two hundred pages highlight defining moments within Griffin’s journey, and some might argue some scenes are fictional excerpts from Griffin’s later life as a novelist. However you interpret the story, it’s impossible to deny the originality of Sallis’s approach.

When I pick up a crime fiction book, I generally have some idea of what to expect. The PI genre has its own tropes, yet has certain similarities to police procedurals. In most novels within these subgenres a crime is committed. A detective is either sent out (in the case of the police) or hired (in the case of the PI) to investigate. The story unfolds from there.

The Long-Legged Fly is not about the investigations. Anyone who picks up this book expecting to sink their teeth into a prolonged investigation centered on one case, with secrets to be unearthed as the investigation unfolds, will be disappointed. Sallis effectively turns the genre on its head, making the protagonist the mystery. The book is an investigation of him, his motives, his inability to form meaningful connections with the people around him, how he justifies his actions or lack of actions, how he lives.

I’ve recently read several PI novels, including The Price of Blood by Declan Hughes, Trigger City by Sean Chercover, The Good Son by Russel D. McLean and The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay – all solid offerings by talented writers, up-and-comers who have debuted in the past few years. Following those books with The Long-Legged Fly made me wonder if part of Sallis’s secret, what makes him so distinctive, (forgive me Mr. Sallis) lies in his age. We now live in a hyper-psychoanalytic era, where we’re constantly scrutinizing behaviour and trying to uncover motives and work out issues. At this stage, I’m unwilling to make a blanket statement, but the more I’ve considered the works of Sallis in general, and The Long-Legged Fly in particular, I’ve noted my own tendency to scrutinize motivations within my own writing. Sallis avoids this type of self-indulgence, which perhaps speaks to the era he grew up in. Griffin may be self-absorbed much of the time, and is clearly self-destructive, but he isn’t on a mission to heal himself. When his father is dying and asking to see him, he does not rush to his bedside to have that one last moment where all things can be forgiven. You get the sense with Griffin that once a door’s been shut, it’s shut for good, and even if it’s been slammed or knocked off its hinges in the process, Griffin feels no obligation to go back, undo the damage and try to have a happier ending. He’s unable to sacrifice, or to change to sustain the few positive relationships he has, and appears content to move through the cycles of good and bad in his life. At the very least, he’s unwilling to invest a lot of energy in changing the outcome.

We finished the meal without talking. As Verne fathered up dishes, she said, “I’ll be going after I’ve done these, Lew.”

“But you just came back.”

She shook her head. ”A visit. That’s all you allow, Lew. Whether years or a couple of days, always only a visit to your life.” She began drawing water into the sink, squirting in soap. ”You’ve never asked me to stay with you, not even for a night.”

“But I always thought that should be up to you, V.”

“‘Up to you’. ’Whatever you want.’ How many times have I heard that all these years – when I heard anything at all? Don’t you want anything, Lew?” She turned from the sink, soapy water dripping onto the floor in front of her, hands curled back toward herself. She closed one hand and raised it, still dripping, to chest level. ”I could be anyone as far as you’re concerned Lew – any woman.” The hand opened. ”People are interchangeable for you, one face pretty much like any other, all the bodies warm and good to be by sometimes.”

Another exit from his life, and Griffin never allows himself so much as a sentence of doubt or regret, or consideration of what Verne has said to him.

When reviewing Salt River I said myself that as someone who played bass guitar, I felt Sallis had applied the skill of a musician to his writing; he understands that often, what you leave out is as important as what you put in. This holds true for The Long-Legged Fly as well. I’ve also said that the worst crime a book can commit is to be completely forgettable, and that’s a charge that can’t be leveled against Sallis. At the end of the book, despite the number of years covered within, Griffin remains a mystery, the motives behind his actions often unstated, his feelings unanalyzed much of the time. The character is himself the curiosity, and he lingers on the brain long after the last page, asking uneasy questions, presenting the possibility of realities that make most of us uncomfortable. Griffin may not be very moral, but he’s undeniably memorable. Perhaps the only bigger mystery is why Sallis is not wider known to the American reading audience.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

What's in a name?

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Welcome to DSD theme week #2. This week we are discussing characters - the good, the bad and the fabulously interesting - at least we hope!

I think we can all agree that characters are a driving force for us as both writers and readers. So many mysteries and thrillers are continuing series, which means the character must grow, change and still remain compelling from book to book. Readers look forward to the next Jack Reacher or Stephanie Plum book. Love of the character has readers pre-ordering the next book and reading it the week it hits shelves.

As writers, we try to make our characters relatable to the reader. We also want them to be memorable in hopes that our family isn’t the only one that wants to see the next book arrive in stores. We want our characters to be smart and have issues that everyone will understand. But before our characters can grow into the next Myron Bolitar, we have to give them a name.

Yikes! How do name a character that you hope will one day will be remembered by readers everywhere? The name has to be memorable, but not inaccessible. If you make a name too unusual, readers might find the name off-putting. That would be bad. When writing SKATING AROUND THE LAW, I specifically tried to create a name that had a musical lit to it. I wanted the syllables to trip off the tongue. To me, Rebecca Robbins had the cadence I was looking for. I thought Rebecca was a name that people could relate to.

With MURDER FOR CHOIR, my new series coming out on July 3rd from Berkley, I used my favorite method of picking a name. I trolled Facebook. To me, Facebook and social media are great name resources. I don’t tend to use anyone’s first and last names (unless I ask first!), but scrolling the names gives me a source to view names that I might not have thought of while sitting alone at my keyboard. Because MURDER FOR CHOIR is a musical series, I found myself looking at the names of people I have performed with in my past. Also, for this new series, I was more aware of the fact I’d have to live with the name I picked for 3, 6 or hopefully more books. So I worked hard to find a name that I thought fit the heroine and was something I loved enough to write over and over and over again. With that in mind, Paige Marshall was born.

I’m not sure if I’m the only one who uses Facebook as my source for name inspiration. And not all names I come up with are driven by my Facebook experience. But it is the place I go to when I’m stuck and looking for inspiration. Which makes me wonder – how do you come up with your character names? Do you borrow from your family? Do you troll phone or baby books? And more important – who are your favorite recurring characters and why do their names strike a chord with you?