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Fixing A Broken Character

Recently someone told me the hero in my story wasn’t heroic and didn’t behave like a hero. He was unsympathetic. Instead of panicking or becoming defensive, I took another look at my hero and, to my horror, found the criticism was justified. While I still liked my character, I definitely needed to do something to make him more likeable to readers.

Most of us want to read about characters that have the qualities we see in our friends and family—the same qualities we like to think we possess. We want to connect with characters and be able to relate to them.

So how do we do this?

In his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass says we should start showing the reader that our character has heroic qualities right from the first page of our book. Even if our character is an average person, in an ordinary job, we need to demonstrate a special quality in them. At the start of a book, it will most likely be something small. They might help an elderly woman cross the road or rescue the next-door neighbor’s cat from a tree, but it will make us, the reader, sit up and pay attention. This is a character we would like as a friend, and we want to follow them through the course of the book, during the ups and downs, to the happy ending.

In my case, I looked at my character’s interactions with other characters. My hero snapped and snarled quite a bit, so I softened his language and the way he interacted with the other characters. I added some extra scenes, which I hope show my hero in a favorable light. I also looked at the inner conflict and checked I’d done everything I needed to in this area.

Fixing unsympathetic characters isn’t easy, and I hope I’ve managed to get the job done. I’m awaiting the verdict at present.

Do you have any hints for changing unsympathetic characters to ones that readers will love? And do you agree with Donald Maass—that we should see the hero/heroine doing something heroic almost as soon as we meet them in the story?

It’s All In The Characters

My guest today is author Jessica Chambers. She has a new women’s fiction release called Voices on the Waves available from Red Rose Publishing. Today Jessica is talking about characters and why she thinks they’re so important.

Voices on the WavesFor me, the most important part of any novel is the characters. This is particularly true of women’s fiction—one of the reasons I love both reading and writing it so much—but I believe it applies to all genres. Why do we continue turning the pages, if not to find out how things work out for the individuals involved? Is there any way for them to disentangle themselves from the mess they’ve gotten themselves into? When will the hero and heroine overcome their problems and find love? Will the protagonists ever emerge from their adventures alive?

This doesn’t mean that a strong plot isn’t also vital. However vivid and memorable the characters, if they don’t have a goal to achieve, a problem to solve or some kind of obstacle to overcome, the novel would simply be a random sequence of events and interactions. However, I don’t feel a writer should ever rely too heavily on the plot to hold the reader’s interest. NO matter how gripping and action-packed the storyline, if readers feel nothing for the characters, why should they care whether or not they reach the end unscathed? In R. D. Wingfield’s novels, we follow Detective Inspector Jack Frost’s bungled investigations under the ever disapproving eye of Superintendent Mullet. Naturally we want to solve the mystery along with him, but if we didn’t like Frost as a character, we’d have no interest in whether or not he succeeds.

Of course, the characters don’t necessarily have to be likeable. They simply have to be real enough for us to feel a connection with them. A prime example of this is Gone With The Wind’s Scarlet O’Hara. There’s just no getting away from the fact that she’s a spoilt brat with far too high an opinion of herself, and who doesn’t give a damn who she hurts so long as she has both the men in her life dancing to her tune. Despite all her faults, though, as the novel progresses and Scarlet discovers within herself a steely determination not to be defeated, we develop a genuine respect for her and end up rooting for her to come through.

So no, characters don’t have to be likable. They do, however, need to be believable. We need to be able to look at them with all their flaws and virtues, and recognize someone we could meet in our every day lives. If we don’t believe in these people, if they don’t leap off the page with a life of their own, we’re hardly going to care what becomes of them. I recently read Beach Coma by Josephine Cox. In fact, the plot shows quite a lot of promise—guy coming to terms with the death of his wife and children, meets girl who shows him he can love again, and all the while a mystery figure wants to ensure the hero never finds out the truth of what happened to his family. The trouble is, the hero and heroin are so sickeningly perfect that I just didn’t believe in them, and as a result, was completely indifferent to either the peril facing them or their budding romance.

So, to sum up. A strong plot is vital to give a novel its structure, but without lifelike characters the reader can relate to, the whole thing will more often than not fall flat on its face.

These are my thoughts, for what they’re worth, but I’d love to hear what you think. When you pick up a novel, is it the plot that captures your interest, or is having an instant affinity with the characters more important ? Are there any novels you feel combine these two elements particularly well?

CONTEST: Anyone kind enough to leave a comment here, or at any point during my blog tour, will automatically be entered into the draw to win a $15 gift voucher for either Amazon or Barnes & Noble, so don’t forget to provide an email address in case I need to contact you. I’ll be announcing the five winners at the end of my tour on October 31st over at my blog so good luck!

Thank you so much, Shelley, for inviting me on your blog today, and for all of you for stopping by. Tomorrow, the Voices On The Waves Blog Tour continues with an interview at the home of Savannah Chase. Hope to see you there!

In the meantime, my debut women’s fiction novel Voices On the Waves is available now from Red Rose Publishing

Can Murder Be Cozy?

I have a special guest today–author Amanda Lee who writes cozy mysteries. Amanda is the lady next to you in the grocery line or car pool. She has twins: one boy and one girl, she’s a baseball fan, she likes to decorate cakes, she rocks at Guitar Hero…oh, and she likes to think about murder. But it’s OK! She only writes about murder—a lot.

So what exactly is a cozy mystery? That’s what I asked Amanda…

Amanda Lee Cozy mysteries take place in a small town or confined setting where all the characters know each other. Think Desperate Housewives meets CSI.

Characters are integral to cozy mysteries. Cozy writers use hobbies, professions and even obsessions to make their characters unique. I have an interest in cake decorating, so I infuse my hobby into a profession for my character. Even though I’m a novice cake decorator, I have the knowledge to make my character an expert.

Judith Skillings and her husband own and operate a Rolls-Royce and Bentley restoration shop. Not surprisingly, her cozy mystery heroine works in a classic automobile restoration shop. Ellen Crosby introduces readers to Virginia’s wine country in her mysteries. Camille Minichino has a Ph.D. in Physics. She writes the periodic table mysteries. Sheila Lowe, a graphology expert, pens cozy mysteries wherein the heroine is an expert handwriting analyst.

Some cozy writers add a paranormal bent to their books. Alice Kimberly, author of the Haunted Bookstore Mystery series, employs the ghost of a murdered P.I. to help the heroine solve crimes. Madelyn Alt writes the Bewitching Mysteries, and Victoria Laurie writes the Ghost Hunter Mysteries.

Since many cozy mysteries are series books, the reader has time to develop “relationships” with the books’ main characters. The reader watches the characters grow and interact from book to book. While these might be the most unlucky people on the planet—murder victims are turning up around practically every corner—they’re still falling in love, making new friends, caring for pets and pretty much happily going about their lives. Diane Mott Davidson’s character Goldy has gone through quite a lot of changes since her first book, Catering to Nobody. There we met a divorcee with a young son. Now Goldy has remarried and little Arch is all grown up. In that way, cozy mysteries are rather like a soap opera; only you have to wait a long time between installments. Which reminds me of Lost . . . although my series doesn’t have a dark cloud monster or a plane crash. At least, not yet. :-)

One reviewer said of Murder Takes the Cake, “I could identify with Daphne’s relationship with her family. I think this was the part I liked best. Daphne has a cautious and teeth gritting relationship with her mother, a loving warm one with her father and her sister.” I was surprised that this is what she “liked best” about the book. I’d intended to give the characters depth through their relationships, and I’d tried to make those relationships realistic. In fact, the publisher even asked me to tie up the heroine’s relationship with the stray cat at the end of the book. I couldn’t do that and remain realistic. The cat in book is based on a real cat, and it took me months to establish a relationship with her. The fictional relationship will progress in the next book, as will all of Daphne’s other relationships.

It is really cool how readers of cozy mysteries become attached to characters and loyal to authors. In fact, every year cozy readers gather in Arlington, Virginia for the Malice Domestic “Fun Fan” convention to celebrate cozy mysteries and their authors. It’s quite a coup for an author to win an “Agatha,” the teapot awards given by Malice Domestic. And the convention is a terrific experience. As a fan as well as an author, I was thrilled to meet Dorothy Cannell and Harley Jane Kozak at the Malice Domestic convention a few years back. Both are delightful ladies with great senses of humor. Naturally, I told them I love Ellie Haskell and Wollie Shelley, respectively. And I do. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do next.

The Quick and the Thread

The Quick and the Thread by Amanda Lee

Marcy Singer has big plans: a move to the breathtaking Oregon coast, opening an embroidery shop called The Seven Year Itch, a fun grand opening. What she doesn’t plan on is the shop’s old owner showing up—DEAD—in her shop. Some people think Marcy killed him. Some people think she’s the next victim. All Marcy knows is someone has to uncover the murderer before she’s forced to flip the sign on her shop door to CLOSED permanently. And it looks like that someone might be Marcy.

Purchase The Quick and the Thread: An Embroidery Mystery today!

Just Thought You Should Know:
Amanda Lee is also Gayle Trent, author of the Daphne Martin Cake Decorating Series that includes Dead Pan and Murder Takes the Cake. To learn more about Amanda you can visit her website or blog.

CONTEST: Win a copy of The Quick and the Thread – comment on this post, ask Amanda about cozy mysteries or a question about her book and you’ll go into the draw to win a copy of Amanda’s book. Note – contest is only available to those who live in USA or Canada.


Women on Writing

Click to find details of other stops in Amanda’s blog tour.

Dear Author – A Note From Your Heroine

This post is inspired by Heather at The Galaxy Express and her post, Attention, please! This is your heroine speaking.

Dear Author,

I salute you. You sit for long hours in front of the computer as you labor over our stories. Without you none of us would be here. Mostly, you do us proud but I’d like you to consider the following:

1. Please, please don’t make me go down to the basement when there is a killer on the loose. Credit me with a little common sense and help me do something intelligent. Heroine
I don’t want readers to snigger at me and call me Too Stupid To Live. I deserve more than that, don’t you think?

2. I know popular opinion says heroines are slender and pretty, but how about making me stand out from the crowd? Make me sexy–sure, I like sexy as much as the next girl, but I can be sexy and an average size. Give me a few curves. Don’t you know I enjoy food? Oh, and if you give me curves, don’t go on and on about my size. I’m happy, really I am.

3. Please don’t take a stereotype and foist it on me. I’m not a hooker with a big heart. I’m not an ice princess. I’m not a geeky librarian. Give me individuality.

4. I like alpha men–really, I do, but at least give me a spine so I can stand up to them. No wimps should apply here.

5. I’m not perfect. I know that, but do you know it too? Give me some flaws and balance them with some of the good stuff. Make me human because readers will like me better that way.

6. Give me a snarky voice. I’m cool with that, but don’t make me snark all the way through the book. Readers won’t like me if I do that. They might call me a bitch, you know, and wonder what the hero sees in me.

7. Likewise, if my hero is going to be a bastard, let him fall off his high horse at some stage. Make him see the error of his ways or at least let me use my knee in his private parts. It might hurt him, but it would make me feel better after all the verbal abuse.

8. And finally, if you’re gonna make me have anal sex, please, please, please give me some lube.

Yours faithfully,
A Heroine.

What would your heroine write in a letter? Readers, what do you think the heroine should write?

A White Box

A book is a sum of things—characters, setting and description, dialogue, pace and plot. It’s the combination of all of these elements, done in the right way that makes a book exciting and sought after by readers.

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It takes a lot of work to get a book to a standard that’s saleable. My first drafts are like white boxes. People inhabit the white box—my characters that is, but they’re quiet and in shock from the lack of scenery. It’s all white in there, after all.

During the first stages, my characters are a bit superficial and half the time they have no idea what they’re doing, what their purpose is in the box. It’s almost like the first run through of a play where the cast are strangers and feeling their way into their parts.

It’s during the second and third run through that I add the color and turn my white box into a real world, complete with real people. Adding setting and description is a skill I’ve fought to learn—it certainly doesn’t come naturally.

Not so long ago, it was normal to read very flowery descriptions in books. These days descriptions in fiction are briefer and spare at times.

Here’s a paragraph from Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer.

The Apparition wore a coat of the palest apricot cloth, with a flowered vest of fine brocade, and startling white small-clothes. Red-heeled shoes were on his feet, and his stockings were adorned by sprawling golden clocks. He carried an amber-clouded can and a jeweled snuff-box, while ever and anon he raised a cobwebby handkerchief to his aristocratic nose. He minced down the street towards the market-place, followed by the awestricken glances of an amazed population.

That’s a lot of description for one person, although I have to say I’d love to see him in person. You probably won’t find this amount of description in a modern romance, not focused on one person. We’re more likely to add it in more sparingly in bits and pieces.

This snippet is taken from Dark Lover by JR Ward.

When she was finished with the Twinkie, she flipped open her phone, hit speed dial, and put in an order for beef with broccoli. As she walked along, she looked at the familiar, grim landmarks. Along this stretch of Trade Street, there were only bars, strip clubs, and the occasional tattoo parlor. The Chinese food place and the Tex-Mex buffet were the only two restaurants. The rest of the buildings, which had been used as offices in the twenties, when downtown had been thriving, were vacant. She knew every crack in the sidewalk; she could time the traffic lights. And the patois of sounds drifting out of open doors and windows offered no surprises either.

With this paragraph, we get a little characterization along with a feel for the neighborhood. We learn that although the district is run down, the place is home for our heroine.

In another book, that shall remain nameless, the description of a room sounded like a shopping list. It mentioned an antique rug, hardwood floors, a Victorian sofa and the color of the brocade, a coffee table and the type of wood, the silver tea service on top, two Victorian chairs, a gas fireplace, silver-framed photo frames, the photos inside them, the mantelpiece, a cherry and glass counter and quite a few other things.

The actual story wasn’t too bad, but this description, done list style, made me roll my eyes. I’ve edited the list quite a bit. The descriptions took up over half a page.

What I try to do is show the character experiencing the setting, give sensory details. I show them walking across a thick carpet and wondering if their shoes are going to get lost in the pile or holding out their hands to catch snowflakes, feeling the cold and dampness or tasting it melt on their tongue. They might notice the cars buried in snow or hear the chains on the tires as they fight for purchase. I try to involve the character’s senses of sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing to make the description come alive.

Here’s a paragraph taken from Tea For Two by Shelley Munro

“I see a line of dots.” Hayley Williams peered solemnly into her customer’s white china teacup. Outside her colorful curtain-partitioned area of the tea tent, children shrieked with excitement as they lined up for the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round. Her assistant chatted to one of the ladies in charge of the tea, extolling the high points of a reading by Madam Deveraux. Somewhere in the distance, a toddler howled and a brass band played “Rock Around the Clock”. Closer, touts shouted spasmodically about the exciting things available at their stalls. The clatter of china and the muted gossip of the ladies in the makeshift café added to the cacophony of fairground sounds.

For me this is actually quite a long description, but I hope it plops you right in the middle of a fairground.

When it comes to describing characters, I’m typically very brief because as a reader, I like to imagine myself as the heroine. If there’s too much description I think it gets in the way of my imagination. Just a brief hair color, eyes, build etc is all I need. You might think differently.

How much description do you like to read in your books? Do you like lots of description or a bare minimum? Do you like detailed description of characters? And writers: what approach do you use when it comes to description? Do you have a white box like me or is your world colorful from the start?