Category Archives: Characters

Writing the Good Guys: Give Them Black Hats

A casual exchange in #writechat, Twitter’s Sunday writing discussion, led me to think a little bit more about writing the good guy in fiction. I stated that I found writing a hero more challenging than writing about the villain. Villains are fun. They are people I don’t need to make likeable, honorable, or virtuous, and yet we are all a little predisposed to get a vicarious thrill out of that bad boy doing what we wish we could. The hero might have flaws, even fatal flaws (one that leads to her demise), but we still need to be relating to her and rooting for her.

A good writer friend of mine at Pan says: “People adore Dexter. He’s a serial killer. How can you like him or hope he doesn’t get caught? Because he fights his insights and sticks to his code.” Dexter is a good example of the hero role turned upside down, or an anti-hero because even though he seems to be a prime example of a bad guy, he has an unshakeable code of conduct.

But what about a good old-fashioned hero?

Clementine Proulx (a nom de plume of one of our excellent Pan Historia writers who is also a published author in the real world) advises: “Readers have to care about your “hero.” She doesn’t have to be lovable or even likable, but she has to have something that makes them want to invest in her.”

I write the historical character of Wyatt Earp. I use the historical record to provide him with the flaws needed to make him a believable human being and not a TV show stereotype. The controversy surrounded Earp supplies me with plenty of ways to show that my hero is not just a nice guy. He was a gambler who consorted with prostitutes, but he was also a fearless lawman who was prepared to crack a few heads along the way. He even arrested a judge. His brother Virgil arrested Wyatt once. That kind of single-minded adherence to duty is both honorable and a flaw. Rigidity is not a likeable character trait.

Back to Clemetine Proulx:

Almost all the best heroes are essentially not so nice people overcoming their not-so-niceness. They do it throughout the story which in Hollywood is a character arc. Really “nice” people or “good” people are rather uninteresting heroes unless thrown into a plot driven story. I think of a Stephen King—The Mist—where the decent dad faces unbelievable situations. A hero is always reluctant at first, has character flaws, but eventually makes the satisfying choice. The more flawed the hero, the more he struggles, the more we care for him…so yes, Dexter could be called an anti-hero (like Hannibal who only eats rude people), but he is still a hero because he can’t help who he is, formed by one of worst childhood experiences I can think of, but he struggles against it to do – ultimately – good. Sure we all want to kill bad guys. Actually we all want to kill people in our way. But Dexter follows a code that is essentially the code we all follow…only his is obvious and spelled out.

Clementine really knows what she’s talking about. In the collaborative fiction novel FLESH she writes a character that is notable for being everything you don’t expect in a heroine. She’s old, ugly, pudgy, a fanatic fan of Tom Jones, with few social skills who was overjoyed when her mother was consumed by flesh-eating zombies, but her wit, spunk, and ingenuity gets the reader rooting for her nonetheless. In fact it is her flaws and her history (she was picked on mercilessly in school, had a sad and lonely family life) that causes the reader to love her with a passion.

In the same novel FLESH we have started a new chapter and my personal challenge is to create a hero that is essentially pretty unlikeable and yet, in the end, it is my hope that the readers are rooting for him to succeed. Michael is proud, pompous, prejudiced, and overly rigid in his thinking and actions. He’s about to be thrown into a situation where he has to help the very people he’s been alienating for years: his neighbors. You can check out my writing for this character here on my writing blog. I would love feedback, as the story progresses, about how well I’m doing at creating a flawed hero that you might hate to love.

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Everything I Learned About Realistic Characters I Learned from British Telly

I was watching Torchwood last night and thoroughly enjoying it and not for the usual sci-fi adventure reasons but for the reasons that really make Torchwood and the new Doctor Who stand out from the crowd of usual suspects in TV viewing these days. British TV is perhaps not what it used to be (I wouldn’t know, I haven’t lived there in nearly twenty years) but it still remains sharply differentiated from American TV in some very important ways.

One of the things I was particularly enjoying last night was that everyone was just a bit pudgy. No one was spending regular time at the gym, and it looked like the entire cast had been spending too much time in the pub between series. There were no defined abs and impossible bulging calves. I know this because, of course, there was plenty of semi-nudity because the British, in general, are way more casual about the human body in general. Even our most attractive lead characters were only as attractive as people you might meet at work or at the pub, and the rest of the cast were just as ordinary as you or I.

Stereotypes were played with so each character is believable: Gwen, the attractive spunky ex-police officer, has an adorable chunky boyfriend who spends time cooking beans for the team while they’re hiding from the law; Jack the virile action hero with the mysterious past is gay (and wow, not interested in Gwen). This same attention to the human in characters can be seen in the powerfully funny Shaun of the Dead where ordinary blokes and birds combat the horror of the living dead.

I remember when I was first exposed to British television and I commented on the strange almost washed out quality of the lighting in their shows. I was told that this was because they used natural lighting for many of their comedies and dramas. At first I was put off by the coolness of the tones, but over time I have come to see that it is part of the national aesthetic which seems to favor a naturalness over extreme artifice in contrast to American movies and TV shows. In America’s CSI: Miami everyone is glamorous and too cool for their own skin. Even in shows that I enjoy, like Bones, everyone is gorgeous. In Doctor Who the hero is a skinny charming but flawed buffoon, and his female sidekicks run the spectrum from annoying to adorable.

In Torchwood last night Ianto when to the shops to stock up on supplies. He didn’t forget the TP. In the heyday (sadly past now) of HBO the same attention to detail and naturalness was applied to The Sopranos with its bulky, sometime endearing, but threatening hero, and all the ugly duckling henchmen, and of course the realism of Janice. A character dies on the crapper. Life is what happens to ordinary people every day, and even sci-fi fiction can remember that in the details of toilet paper and chunky cuddly teddy boyfriends who like baked beans.


Other People’s Characters and the Voices in Your Head

As those of you that read my blog regularly know by now I write collaborative serial fiction. I got to thinking, recently, that writing with other author’s characters is not so different than writing solo. It’s certainly not what I would consider the main difference between writing a novel or short story and what I do. One of the most common experiences I have noticed with all fiction writers is that they talk about their characters coming to ‘life’ and having a voice of their own. Often writers will claim that they cannot force their characters to behave in a certain way – that each character has a will of their own.

This is totally true for me whether I write the character or someone else does. The only difference between my characters and the characters of my co-writers is that I don’t hear the voices in my head. I have to have conversations. Since I do all of my collaborative fiction interaction online that comes in the form of e-mails, message-boards, and instant messages so it’s damn near to voices in my head or my general writing experience. Just like when I’m creating my own characters it has its ups and downs. I have to work to be fluid enough to accommodate a writer being true to their character’s personality, and keep us on plot, as well as not make my character the ‘star’ all the time. Just like with any successful living character I can find that they can bring something new to the story that I hadn’t imagined but is better than before, and since this is collaboration their character has equal billing.

It’s the same whether you are writing by yourself, maybe trying to stick to a plot and a synopsis, or whether you are in discussion with another person – sometimes a better idea comes along and you need to be flexible. In the case of a novelist it might be your own inner critic but it could equally be an objective reader, an editor, or an agent. You also have to know when to stick to your guns. Sometimes characters are wrong – what they think is good for them is not good for the overall storyline. It really doesn’t matter who the author of that character is at this point.

My biggest problem with characters written by someone other than myself is not them being true to themselves but when they are out of sync with how my characters are. This doesn’t usually come up with people I write with regularly, but with newer collaborators. When I first started out on this path and style of writing it used to happen far more regularly particularly because my main character was an historical person Wyatt Earp. People had very set preconceived notions of Wyatt based on their previous knowledge of the character whether from fictional accounts like the movie Tombstone or from skewed historical perspectives. More than once I had to ‘buffalo’ a few tough skulls to get it through to them that they needed to be reacting to my version of the character, not one previously written and engraved in their head.

That doesn’t mean that there can’t be a disparity in the way that one character views another. I think that can be very convincingly done in collaborative writing as long as each writer remembers that they might be omniscient but their characters are not. I still write fiction set around Wyatt Earp and I encourage those that write Cowboy characters to view Wyatt as a bully and a pimp, even if Wyatt sees himself as a righteous upright citizen. There is a huge difference in perceiving an event or set of behaviors through your character’s spectacles and another between having characters act out of character.

What I think I enjoy the most about working with other author’s characters is that they often have backgrounds and sets of experiences that my characters have no inkling of. Much as I might be able to imagine a full pantheon of unique characters with interesting backgrounds they all still share one common denominator: me. Other authors bring in their own unique life situations and that gives them a range of choices that can often be surprising to me. Sometimes it’s unpredictable, but after the taste is acquired, collaboration can be a beautiful and inspirational exercise.


The Evolution of a Collaborative Role-Play Character

I recently posted another installment of fiction from my character Red King on my fiction blog and it occurred to me to explain why the character was named the way he was named in a short introductory note, but when I reflected upon the answer it occurred to me that there was a more there than a short sentence could reveal.

My character ‘Red King‘ is quite old. I have been writing him in various collaborative fiction pieces for almost nine years now. He has had various incarnations. The story of his development is a good example of the creativity and fluidity of collaborative fiction characters as well as the various inspirations that lend a hand.

Starting with his name: I always thought the name ‘Red Adair‘ was rather dashing. For those of you that don’t remember Red was a famous firefighter dealing with highly dangerous oil rig fires. Not only was he a real life hero but he had a great name. Naturally I couldn’t just lift it from him since he was a living person at the time that I was inspired so I started looking for a last name that would fit ‘Red’ as well as Adair did. ‘King’ came to mind easily as I am a poker player. At first I resisted the poker/chess connection but it presented such great visuals to my mind it was irresistible.

First Red King avatar

First Red King avatar

At Pan Historia we use ‘avatars’ to visually represent our characters. The sources for these avatars can come from movies, art, advertising, or television, as well as original artwork by those that are graphically talented. I favor movie actors for the diversity of images available. It gives me the pleasure of feeling like I am casting a movie. I have always used Sean Connery for Red. When Red was first created he was a detective for a fun little collaborative game we used to write at Pan Historia called The Marlowe Detective Agency (the less details the better, I always want to revive this one).

After that collaborative novel expired he went on to appear in various other novels that required a detective or cop character with varying degrees of success. He started aging quite naturally and over time the avatars reflected an older Connery. When I had the idea for story behind The Midnight People it wasn’t obvious which characters would fit for it, but I still wanted to use my regular stable. I have a tendency to keep a good character and use him over and over. Other writers at Pan often opt for creating a new distinct character for each novel or story they participate in. I like recycling because I like working on a character over the long term. By placing them in new settings I can explore other aspects of their personality that might not be revealed in one set of circumstances over another. Putting a detective into a fantasy novel was something new and challenging for me.

Current Red King avatar

Current Red King avatar

The premise of The Midnight People is that faeries and the stories about them are real. They exist in a dimension just outside of our own. Their world is fading and dying because of the lack of belief by humans and our negative impact on the environment as the faery kind are closed linked to nature. To solve their dilemma they create themselves as changelings in the human world, and once ‘awakened’ to their true selves they begin a great war against humanity. The Midnight People takes place in two intertwined storylines both before the faery invasion and after it: the waking and the dreaming. The Waking is in the past and the Dreaming (that the wakers dream about) is their future.

In the past, the Waking, my character Red King is Red King a retired detective with tragedy in his past. In the Dreaming he is King Nuada, the Red King of the Tuatha de Danann, once known as The Silver Hand.

For inspiration for his ‘faery’ persona I grabbed some Celtic myths. King Nuada was the first king of the Tuatha de Danann who lost his kingship when he lost his arm. He was able to regain it when a new arm was fashioned from silver for him. I presumed that much of the history from mythology was my character’s back-story, but I then I added a great deal more as there were several thousand years in between until we arrive in our own century where the Waking and Dreaming storylines take place. Thus he has a new younger Queen, Aisling, when the story of The Midnight People takes place, as well as relatively young daughters in faery years. It turned out equally well, for my choice of Connery as avatar, that Connery has frequently appeared in movies with an Arthurian theme.

For the same novel I recycled my Ancient Egyptian villain Itet. Itet was an odd name for twenty-first century character in the Waking half of the story and so it became Ian Itet, but some of the Egyptian influence remained in the Dreaming when I assumed that if faeries were real they existed back in Ancient Egypt too, albeit with different names and beliefs around them. In my mind there needed to be an explanation for Itet’s odd sounding name that didn’t match any known faery belief system. It seems, then, that recycling characters can actually help me find solutions to creative fiction problems that bring new ideas and new concepts to the stories adding a little more originality.

For those of you experienced in collaborative role-play fiction writing I hope I have shed some light on my ideas and inspiration. For those of you new to the genre I hope you will be curious enough to explore it more.


Eating Cheeze Whiz While You Do Your Nails and Other Character Quirks

Real people have quirks. I recently heard a story about a girl that was a nail artist with inch long fake nails and sprayed on designs that was also totally obsessed with the American flag and Cheeze Wiz. They say you can’t make this stuff up – but you can. Writing believable characters might require you to start grabbing all these crazy anecdotes you’ve heard, filing them away, to bring out later and mix and match in your writing. One of my latest collectibles is about a woman that picked the lock when her guest was taking a shower because she thought someone left the water running.

I recently visited the house of someone that decorated their house with a combination of naive art and antiques, while feeding all of the neighborhood stray cats. They spent a fortune on cat food for animals they didn’t own and couldn’t pet. Or the wonderfully casual comment from the rich guy who has a huge house with multiple bedrooms, swimming pool, and a crew of migrant labor to clean his grounds and when you describe your 650 square feet of living space says “oh that’s plenty big enough for two, what more do you need?”

If you want to be a writer you have to start to develop a strong streak of curiosity, a certain amount of objectivity (i.e. be amused by the comment by the rich guy and file it for later instead of popping him in the face), and a good memory – or a good filing system. Remember to avoid clichés. One person might like to bathe every day and moisturize their skin twice a day while another person might forego bathing for days yet they both are obsessed about beauty and aging. Pick the set of character traits that serves your character best, and preferably the one that is less common if it works. The important thing to remember, regardless of the well-worn adage that “fact is more unbelievable than fiction” is that if you can think of it it’s probably true somewhere so just write it with conviction and you’ll bring your readers with you.

Speaking of aging: older characters tend not to be as popular with collaborative fiction writers. Very often writers go for the young and physically perfect. It’s good to remember that young people simply don’t have as much life experience or cumulative time to pick up wonderful idiosyncrasies as older characters (though my example of the nail artist was a young woman). Older characters can provide a level of depth to your writing that might be lacking from your typical young and nubile. Adding just ten years to a character’s age can result in greater opportunities for peeling back the layers of your character’s personality to keep the reader engaged.

A character doesn’t have to be likeable but they do have to be fascinating to keep a reader’s interest.


Gender Role Play and Collaborative Writing

Different Characters at Pan Historia

Different Characters at Pan Historia

Traditionally it’s quite normal for an author to speak for characters of a different gender to his or her own. Gender is usually inferred right there on the cover by the name of the author and then confirmed on the back with an author photo. Once the story is started it’s quite alright for an author to slip on the persona of male or female and we are all quite happy here with our coffee, because we know we’re being told a story. This has not applied equally over all genres however. Romance, deemed to be of interest only to women, often has male authors writing under female pseudonyms or gender non-specific names to leave the reader to make the assumption. The same has applied, in the past, to women writing in the Mystery genre, and I’m assuming it still could happen in the Western Genre.

It’s quite different when an author leaves the safety of solitary authorship and joins the ranks of the collaborative writer, a group that has roots and relationship to role-playing games. Why it should have evolved to be so I’m not exactly sure because I often played a fiery sultry vixen half-elf enchantress who liked to wear skimpy clothes and could use a knife like a ninja assassin, but then a lot of guys got used to playing female back in the early days of D & D when nary a female dared show her face in that pimply testosterone heavy crowd (I see a relationship to Elizabethan theater here). Things are very different now, I know, but I’m talking over twenty years ago. Eventually women were allowed into gaming, I’m glad to say, and the last time I played was Vampire the Masquerade where half the players were women. The Vampire game involved a lot more acting and story telling, which I found even more fun than all that dice throwing and long character sheets and endless discussions of percentiles and weapon weight, but it seemed to involve less cross gender play. Perhaps because you were speaking the lines out loud and didn’t want to appear foolish – but certainly my group tended to stick to their sex with the exception of the game master and their entire cast of thousands.

When a writer or role player comes online and logs into a site as his or her character there seems to be that same sense of gender association, but there begins a merging of the lines between fact and fiction. Without the visual cues all a person has to go are the written words. Thus when a person signs on to Pan Historia, for example, they are free to commit themselves to a fictional persona, of whatever gender, and then be accepted at ‘face’ (avatar, bio, etc) value. Meeting and greeting new people as they explore Pan we move people towards this association with character and discourage the standard sex and age questions that prevail in other forms of online social site.

The association with the character is so strong in the role play and related collaborative fiction world of Pan Historia that people often do not remember that the person playing that character and writing those stories is the author. The convention that the author can do as they please in writing for male or female breaks down and the character becomes the author. It doesn’t seem to cross into other areas of the character like profession, for instance. If I’m writing a ninja mage (going back to my elf analogy here) no one assumes I’m really a ninja mage or elf. But if the first time they met me I was also presented as a female elf, the assumption would rest squarely that I was a woman in real life. I have to admit that my example breaks down a bit when I played a sadistic killer for the first time. I did have online friends decide I must be a sicko. I consider that flattery; I must have done a damn fine job of writing.

The interesting thing is that, quite obviously, lots of people are writing characters that are not their own gender online, or playing them and everyone knows that. The majority of World of Warcraft characters are not male, yet the majority of their players are. Some players are perfectly open in their forum and other out of character communications and some players choose to remain in character. People turn a blind eye until someone is ‘outed’. The whole issue seems to have become less fractious with time as more people realize that it happens all the time online (and try it themselves), but there are still a surprising number of stereotypes and thus a lot of reasons for an individual to prefer not to ‘out’ themselves as one gender or another in their writing partnerships. We think it shouldn’t matter – and it seems to me it really shouldn’t – but gender identification is such a fundamental to the bone social programming that we seldom question our gut reactions.

For instance my female character that I had for many years as taken at face value as a strong woman while people assumed the writer was female, but later on people shifted their views and I found her far less successful to write with, including interactions with other collaborative writing partners. The example that comes to mind was her love affair with a male character where suddenly they were fighting and not having a passionate love affair once the writer realized I wasn’t a proper woman. In effect his discomfort at writing romantic fiction with a male writer altered the way his character behaved to the point that the story changed radically. This was not an isolated incident.

One positive reason, though, that I can cite for total immersion identification with your characters of the opposite gender is what you learn about gender from it. It can only enhance your writing to really start to relate and understand characters of opposite sex. Of course when a male author sits down to write a novel with a female protagonist (or vice versa) they are doing exactly that: slipping into the skin of that character. It should be no different with any form of writing ultimately.

In online writing relationships I guess the best maxim is: do no harm but have fun and explore new things.


Who Will I Be Today?

Who will I be today?

Will I be deputy U.S. marshal in Arizona looking to make a fortune speculating in silver while falling in love with the corrupt sheriff’s girl?

Will I be a degenerate saloon keeper scheming how to make sure I stay top dog in a gold camp in Black Hills?

Will I be a scholarly professor pulled away from my classroom to head up a top secret security team of a top secret ancient society because I’m really a lycanthrope?

Will I be an Unseelie Prince, immortal and fae, that is determined to become King of all, human and fae, Seelie and Unseelie, Dark and Light, no matter the cost as I wage a war across the planet and in and out of dimensions?

Will I be an aging pop singer, suddenly thrust into a world he doesn’t understand, trying to lead a motley band of survivors against a plague that turns people into mindless zombies?

Will I be an embittered and skeptical paranormal researcher and writer who finally finds himself in the most haunted building of his life, and soon will be fighting just for his sanity.*

This is actually a short-list of my characters that I write.  I picked just one from each of my collaborative stories.  I often throw in a villain to play off against if I’m writing the hero and vice-versa.  Playing more than one character in the same story allows me to shift point of view very naturally from post to post and move the story forward in ways that I find more dramatic.  Who will I be today?  The answer is often all of the above as I move a block of the action into place to surprise and hopefully delight my fellow travelers in fiction.

*I swear this only has a passing similarity to the Stephen King short story 1408 which he published in 1999 which I have not read.  The 2007 movie definitely came out well after I started writing my 666 West End Avenue tales of haunting horror with my co-writers.