Running Wild — when characters misbehave

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Post-it notes! Trying to organize my characters…

The other day I was chatting to my daughter about my Blade Hunt Chronicles series, and the conversation went something like this:

Me: I have this headcanon about one of my characters.

Daughter: You DO realize you’re the author?

Daughter: And anything you decide about a character is actually canon?

It made me laugh at the time. But that little snippet of conversation stayed with me. It suggests that writers are in charge of their characters and keep them on a tight leash at all moments. Which… isn’t really the case at all. How often do we read online posts where authors jokingly complain that their characters won’t do what they’re told? That they downright refuse the plans their creators had for them, sometimes with a big Hell No? WHY ARE ALL THESE CHARACTERS RUNNING AMOK?!!

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I can’t speak for other writers, but I’m a plotter. I like my outlines, and knowing where my story is heading. Of course, I leave room for detours and surprises, but my plots tend to mostly behave. When it comes to characters, however, I like to wing it. I start out with a rough idea of what they look like and how they act, but their personalities develop as I write my first draft. That leaves a lot of space for ‘misbehavior’.

Planned romances sometimes go in the opposite direction, while others turn up where I least expect them. ‘Strong’ characters break down in tears that make sense when I write them but were nowhere in my original outline, bullies turn vulnerable, and quiet throwaway characters stand up and demand page space, taking charge. It’s a wonderful crazy voyage of discovery, where I’m surprised over and over again, and often it isn’t until I reach those final pages that I truly know who my characters are.

Going back to that conversation with my daughter, I think I’ll stick to calling my character theories ‘headcanons’. Because once I get to writing them down, who knows what my characters will have to say about them? And that’s just part of the fun.

Writing Boys, Part 2

*contains mild spoilers for Heart Blade and Night Blade*

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Some of my boys: Alex, Ash, and Ben, art by Corinna Marie

There are a LOT of articles and blog posts floating around out there at the moment about how to write great female characters. This is clearly an important discussion: YA fiction has a lot of amazing ladies, but otherwise female representation in science fiction and fantasy is…not always great.

The first two books in my urban fantasy Blade Hunt Chronicles series, Heart Blade and Night Blade, have a lot of strong female characters. I have warriors, and leaders, and healers, and yes, even villains. I have women who rule with their heart, women who use their brains, and women who depend on sheer grit and determination. They have different sexualities, different backgrounds, and a variety of motivations. I was pretty happy with my ladies as I wrote them, and I like the way they turned out at the end of the process.

That left the male characters. I was determined to do a good job on my boys, and try and give them the same nuances I gave my ladies. This meant taking them to dark places sometimes, or throwing them into the emotional deep end.

One of my main characters, Ash, suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. No wonder, poor lad: his mother was killed in front of him when he was a young teen, and that led him to question the path his father set out for him. By Book 2, he’s having recurring nightmares, and carrying a lot of anger to go with that self-doubt. With Ash, I wanted to show readers that our book heroes are also allowed to be insecure about their place in the world, to crumble and break down at times, and just be a little fragile despite broad shoulders and a sword in their hands.

His father, Deacon, is dealing with the distance he allowed to grow between him and his son, and the feeling that he’s let his child down by not being there for him. He’s doing his best to bridge the gap, but this means that Deacon has been forced to rethink his own path in life and make friends in unlikely places. Deacon (and Ash) are descendants of angels, brought up as warriors and protectors. So Deacon’s unlikely friendship with half-demon Camille is emblematic of the sort of changes Deacon goes through.

Alex is probably one of my least complex male characters so far, even though he’s an almost-1000-year-old vampire. Alex is a leader with a cause, a former knight of the Crusades who took a vow never to drink human blood and is currently a Catholic monk, although he certainly wasn’t always celibate. I have plans for Alex for Book 3, though, and hope to dive into some of his backstory and his own internal struggles. No one lives 1000 years without a heck of a lot of baggage!

Ben is my new guy, who only joined my cast of characters in Book 2. Ben is one of my favorites; he’s a witch and an outcast, with a forbidden romance to top that off. He’s been banned from seeing his love — a witch from a powerful coven — in part because his boyfriend Gabriel is expected, as heir to his line, to carry on his family’s blood legacy by marrying a woman and having children. But also because Ben was punished for his parents’ crimes and is persona non grata in witch society, even though he was innocent and barely thirteen at the time. Ben is a mess of insecurity and low self-esteem, despite his amazing magical powers, but his heart is in the right place: he’ll always do the right thing no matter how hard it is.

I have a favorite bad guy, too. Half-demon Jude Raven is a bit of a bastard, really, but I love writing him. His bottom line is ‘how will this benefit me’, and he’s a sneaky, devious, cold-hearted genius. But what I like about him is exactly his utter selfishness. He can do good things, but only if they’re more useful than the bad things. He’ll analyze a situation and find the best way out of it — for himself. He’s got big choices to make in Book 3 and Book 4, and I can’t wait to see how I’m going to make him handle them while still remaining Jude.

There are plenty of good male characters around in fiction; my favorites are the well-layered ones who give us something to think about. If you’d like to read my thoughts on some of my favorite YA boys, check out my original Writing Boys post. And here’s the counterpart, Writing Girls.

Character Intro: Meet Finn

Over the past week, I’ve introduced some of my characters from NIGHT BLADE, Book 2 of the Blade Hunt Chronicles. Here’s the last one! I hope you’ve enjoyed the lovely artwork by Corinna Marie. (Used with permission.) Also, check out the ones Corinna made for Book 1, HEART BLADE, here.

FINN ELMSON

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Finn by Corinna Marie

Finn Elmson is a pixie and a member of the Guild of Saint Peter. Always ready with a wink and a joke, Finn is also incredibly resourceful, and has wriggled out of many a sticky situation thanks to his sharp mind and even sharper teeth. He’s a valuable ally, and the Guild was lucky to recruit him.

Buy Night Blade.

Add to GoodReads.

 

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Would you like to win a full set of Night Blade character postcards? I’ll be randomly drawing three lucky names from my mailing list to receive Corinna Marie’s adorable artwork. All you have to do to participate is sign up for my newsletter.

Character Intro: Meet Lix

It’s character intro week! I’ll be introducing some of my characters from NIGHT BLADE, Book 2 of the Blade Hunt Chronicles. The lovely artwork is by Corinna Marie and used with permission.

ANGELICA REIS

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Lix by Corinna Marie

Angelica Reis has been leading her small band of thieves since her early teens. The black sheep of the Reis witch clan has a knack for crime, and an iron grip on her crewmates. Don’t even think of stabbing Lix in the back: she has a talent for potions and can be absolutely ruthless when it comes to getting her way.

Buy Night Blade.

Add to GoodReads.

nightblade_front

Would you like to win a full set of Night Blade character postcards? Once character intro week is over, three lucky names from my mailing list will be drawn randomly to receive Corinna Marie’s adorable artwork. All you have to do to participate is sign up for my newsletter.

Character Intro: Meet Ben

It’s character intro week! I’ll be introducing some of my characters from NIGHT BLADE, Book 2 of the Blade Hunt Chronicles. The lovely artwork is by Corinna Marie and used with permission.

BENJAMIN KELLEY

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Ben by Corinna Marie

Benjamin Kelley has been surviving on his own since he was thirteen, when his witch parents were executed for treason against their own coven. It’s been a grim sort of life, stealing for a living, but now that Ben’s turned eighteen it’s time to turn over a new leaf and try to keep things legal. If only his former crew would let him go…

Buy Night Blade.

Add to GoodReads.

nightblade_front

Would you like to win a full set of Night Blade character postcards? Once character intro week is over, three lucky names from my mailing list will be drawn randomly to receive Corinna Marie’s adorable artwork. All you have to do to participate is sign up for my newsletter.

Character Intro: Meet Raze

It’s character intro week! Over the next few days I’ll be introducing some of my characters from NIGHT BLADE, Book 2 of the Blade Hunt Chronicles. The lovely artwork is by Corinna Marie and used with permission.

ROSA PIETROWICZ

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Raze by Corinna Marie

Rosa Pietrowicz, known as Raze, is the seventeen-year-old orphaned daughter of a witch and a werewolf. She was hidden away as a baby by the Guild of Saint Peter for safekeeping – except Raze has never been one to enjoy playing it safe. Climbing walls to sneak out at night? Now, that’s more Raze’s speed.

Buy Night Blade.

Add to GoodReads.

 

nightblade_front

Would you like to win a full set of Night Blade character postcards? Once character intro week is over, three lucky names from my mailing list will be drawn randomly to receive Corinna Marie’s adorable artwork. All you have to do to participate is sign up for my newsletter.

Taboo Or Not To Taboo

A guest post by Jo Zebedee, author of Abendau’s Heir, Sunset Over Abendau, Abendau’s Legacy, Inish Carraig, and the brand new dark fantasy release, Waters and the Wild.

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When I started my first book – which eventually became Abendau’s Heir – I had nothing more in mind than writing something that had been floating around my head for a number of decades. What I intended was to confront the concept of the ‘chosen’ one and challenge it. Which meant the poor main character had to go through an ordeal. That ordeal turned out to be a lengthy torture regime, including a rape.

Now, in genre novels rape is the great taboo. It is often used for weak plot reasons. It brings about accusations of gratuitousness quicker than practically any other trope. And, to add to the fun, torture isn’t that far behind it… And all in a debut novel….

I’ve often asked myself if I would have the guts to write something just as hard hitting as Abendau again. If I’d have known then what I know now (that many people would find the book too dark, that it might define me as the dark little bunny in the writing group), would I do it again?

On the face of it, Waters and the Wild, my latest book, is a million miles from Abendau. There is no torture. There is no rape. The darkness within it is subtler and less confrontational to the reader. But there are still themes within it which will challenge a reader and which were not the easiest to write about.

Firstly, the book has a main character dealing with the day-to-day reality of coping with a mental illness. Whether she is mentally ill or whether fairies really do speak to her is largely irrelevant – because, whichever it is, it causes compulsions in her, bring anxiety and fear, causes her confusion and disassociation. That Amy has had these thoughts, or has heard these voices, since she was a child, is redolent of our modern era – where teenage mental health problems are growing and our services (where I am, at least) are stretched and support is often patchy.

But the thing that Waters and the Wild does (which has been picked up in even the earliest reviews) is question what that does to a wider family. The repercussions of mental health difficulties – not just Amy’s – reverberate through the book. No one is unscathed by it – because we are not islands and when someone we love struggles, we can’t just close ourselves off from it.

Up to this point, I’m on safe ground, I feel. I researched. I got feedback from people who were more knowledgeable than me and acted on it. I researched some more. I drew on whatever personal knowledge I have, or have been privileged enough for people to share. As with Abendau, I’m confident the themes that have arisen have been dealt with carefully, with thoughtfulness and honesty.

That’s before the book is released, however. Once it goes out as a published book, I no longer own that book.

With Abendau, I hoped I’d be recognised for writing a thoughtful trilogy about a character’s journey. Mostly, though, I’m known as the lady who writes great torture. Those 3000 or so words in a sea of 250,000 are what define the trilogy. With Inish Carraig, my Belfast-based alien invasion novel, I’ve had to come to terms with people reacting to a reflected Belfast in the book. It’s not why I wrote it, but that’s okay. It’s what resonates with so many readers.

What, then, for Waters and the Wild? I hope the dark mythology will stand out but, looking at early feedback, the character interactions in all their quirked and strained ways, are coming to the fore. The mental illness themes, too, are resonating. We’ll see where they all settle down and what the book’s identity becomes.

What I do know is that, for me, it’s only by writing challenging themes that a multi faceted book emerges. Which I suppose answers my question. Would I tackle hard themes again, knowing they might cause discomfort, and put some readers off?

Yes. Yes I would. Because I should be honest to the story, the characters and their theme. And I hope readers will find that I have been.

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You can buy Waters and the Wild here.

Add Waters and the Wild on Goodreads.

Follow Jo on Twitter @jozebwrites, and check out her wonderful blog posts on writing and publishing at her website, www.jozebedee.com

Villains We Hate To Love (Part 2)

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“I am Loki, of Asgard and I am burdened with glorious purpose…You WILL kneel before me!”

Yeah, yeah. I know they’re the ‘bad guys’. I KNOW, all right? Sheesh, stop shouting. It’s just…why did they have to be so darn awesome? The fact is, some villains are too cool for school, and although we know we’re supposed to hate them, we end up loving them instead. I’m not talking about ‘grey’ villains, ones who have redeemable qualities, who deserve understanding even if ultimately they still do All The Wrong Things. I’m talking about characters who are clearly bad to the core, but who we can’t help adoring anyway.

An example is Scar from Disney’s The Lion King. It’s hard to find a villain as delicious as Scar, voiced by the amazing Jeremy Irons. His particular brand of suave yet petty nastiness blew everyone away when the movie first came out. Scar telling Simba that his surprise is “To die for”? *shivers*

I haven’t seen the Lion King musical. But if we were casting Scar nowadays, he would have to be played by Tom Hiddleston. And speaking of Tom: Loki, in Marvel’s The Avengers. We’re supposed to dislike him – rather intensely, I imagine – but come on, that’s hardly fair! The character’s quiet yet supreme arrogance is played so beautifully by Hiddleston that Loki quickly emerged as one of the highlights of the star-studded movie.

Another character I can’t help rather liking is Bellatrix Lestrange from Harry Potter. In part, perhaps, because on-screen she’s played by the inimitable Helena Bonham Carter. But book Bellatrix is also fabulous. She definitely fits in the ‘hate to love’ camp. I think, with Bellatrix, the attraction is her completely unapologetic devotion to evil. She’s not just old Voldy’s right hand lady, she truly enjoys being horrible. With crazed giggling pleasure.

I think it’s easier to find ‘bad guys’ that we love on TV and in movies, than in books. In visual media, a dashing portrayal by a charismatic actor can be enough to make us fall for a villain, however heinous their crimes. (Hannibal Lecter, I’m looking at you.) In books, once an author starts adding charm and depth to an evil character, that character risks ending up in the ‘grey morality’ zone, where we know they’re bad but we understand their motivations and sympathize with them. Which is not really what I’m looking for here: I’m going for characters we KNOW are evil, but can’t help falling for anyway.

Take CW’s Supernatural, for instance. Over the show’s 12 seasons, the audience has embraced outright evil characters such as demon Crowley, played by Mark Sheppard, and Lucifer himself, played primarily by Mark Pellegrino. Both characters are fan favorites, and Sheppard and Pellegrino are for sure the reason behind this. In Arrow, also a CW show, recurring character Malcolm Merlyn is a slippery, self-centered jerk. But actor John Barrowman consistently woos the audience, over and over.

Sometimes I wonder what it’s like for an author or show creator when a villain suddenly takes off as a fan favorite. I imagine it goes something like this:

Fans on Twitter, Tumblr, etc: WE LOVE THIS CHARACTER.

Creators: No, they’re actually the villain, you’re not supposed to like them.

Fans: LOVE.

Creators: I don’t think you understand, see, they’re bad?

Fans: *Fan art everywhere. Make a million gifs. Write thousands of words of fan fiction.*

Creators: But…

Fans: Looooovvvveeeeeee………………..

 

 

 

 

Villains We Love To Hate (Part 1)

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A few great villains from my bookshelf

What makes The Ultimate Villain™? Now, I’m not necessarily talking about the Big Bad in a story; for instance, we all know the Emperor is the puppet master behind everything in Star Wars. (Gaaasp, spoiler alert!) But the Ultimate Villain in the original trilogy isn’t the Emperor, it’s Vader, with the all-black ensemble and the heavy masked breathing. He’s the one on all the t-shirts, the one who sells the action figures and LEGO kits. True, he had his moment of redemption at the end of Return of the Jedi, but for the majority of screen time in the trilogy, he was fabulously and unapologetically evil.

Darth Vader got me thinking about some of my favorite screen and page villains, and what makes them so fun to hate. In Vader’s case, I think his utter calm and coldness, allied with the distancing his black outfit, gloved hands, and mask produce, makes him a frightening on-screen presence from the moment he appears in New Hope showing off his Force choke.

The Narnia series was my childhood passion, and you don’t get any nastier than the witches that C.S. Lewis came up with. The scene in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe where the White Witch throws Edmund into her dungeon was one I always found chilling: Edmund trusted her (okay, he was also partially bewitched. And an idiot), and she treats him worse than dirt until he’s eventually rescued. The Green Lady in the Silver Chair was also a great villain, with her poisonous sweetness and terrible hidden schemes.

Like Star Wars, the Harry Potter series is another where side villains are often more compelling than the Big Bad, Lord Voldemort himself. Take Dolores Umbridge, for instance. (No, really, please take her, she terrifies me!) She’s tremendously effective as a villain, I think perhaps because most of us have come across that particular brand of petty nastiness at some point in our lives. A schoolteacher, a supervisor at work, an authority figure. Not someone with the power of life or death over us, just someone who can make our lives acutely miserable if they choose. The Harry Potter books have many ‘evil’ characters who we can’t help but understand, at least a little (there’s no way NOT to feel sorry for Draco Malfoy by the end of the series!), but Umbridge certainly isn’t one of those. And oh, boy, do we love to hate her.

Children’s and teen books do this sort of irredeemably nasty character very well (look at Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda, or President Snow from The Hunger Games), but even in adult fiction, you can’t have a decent fantasy or sci fi novel without a great villain. Or villains, plural. Sauron may have been the Big Bad in The Lord of the Rings, but I always particularly loathed Saruman for his backstabbing, tree-slaying, self-centered behavior. The sequence where the ents take down his fortress will always have me cheering wildly, no matter how many times I read it.

I know the trend nowadays is to have villains that readers/viewers can understand, with tragic backstories and deeper motivations that place them in a sort of moral grey zone, rather than the old-fashioned black-or-white of older stories. And I’m all for that, don’t get me wrong. It makes for a hugely compelling story. But sometimes it’s just so fun to be handed a character we’re unabashedly allowed to love to hate. So authors, producers, creators: grey zone your villains as much as you like, but please, please, please toss us an Umbridge every now and then? Go on. You know you want to.

Cha-Cha-Cha-Changes

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Oh, hey! It’s another character naming post! (And here’s one I made earlier… *gestures like chef on cooking show*)

This time, it’s about naming difficulties I ran into while working on Heart Blade.

Changing a name after a first draft is done is always tricky. A new name can change a character in unexpected ways. But sometimes, it’s unavoidable. Here are three naming hurdles I came up against while revising my novel for my publisher.

1) Sometimes the character shifts and outgrows a name. Take Alex, who first emerged from my odd little writer brain as Brother Jerome. Jerome was originally supposed to be a sort of Old Master type character. The name was perfect at the time. He’s a vampire, almost 1000 years old, and he used to be a knight in the Crusades. But Jerome insisted on, well, not being Jerome. He’s perpetually eighteen years old, ruggedly handsome in a shaggy blond, broad-shouldered-from-sword-work sort of way. He’s covered in tattoos. And despite being an honest-to-goodness monk (though ‘recently’ ordained, I should add – only a couple of hundred years ago!), his penchant for wearing jeans, black tees, and an old pair of converse sneakers under his robes were a dead giveaway that I had the wrong name.

I renamed him Alexander of York and the poor guy got a whole new lease of immortal life.

2) Sometimes a character is too close to another writer’s character with the same name. I had this problem with Rose, née Lila. I have big plans for Rose in book 2! She’s a little edgy, and a little angry, with a lot of abandonment issues to work through. Her original name was Lila, which I loved. But then a couple of my critique partners had a Lyla in a co-authored story, and after a while their Lyla began bleeding into my Lila. They’re very different characters, but there are also a few similarities, and the name just stopped working. I needed my Lila to be 100% mine. So I ditched the name. It took me forever to find a new name I liked, one that showed her as she is in Heart Blade, but could be changed slightly by Rose herself to suit who she starts to become in book 2. I won’t tell you what she renames herself – you’ll have to wait for Night Blade for that. But I’m happy with Rose, and I’m glad she’s made the name her own.

3) Sometimes everyone just hates the name you pick! My main guy, Ash, was originally called Jimmy. It made sense to me: his full name in that first version was James Arthur Deacon III, after his father and grandfather. Jimmy matched the sweetness inside him. But although – interestingly enough – the guys who beta read the story for me were fine with the name, it got a resounding NO from all my female readers. This one took me a long while to puzzle out. I still wanted the family legacy thing to go on: Ash/Jimmy carries a pretty hefty family burden on his shoulders. So I decided to keep James Deacon and change his middle name. The men in his family would all have the same first and last names, but different middle names. The catch: it had to be a bible name. Ash’s family is descended from angels and they have an important role in policing the preternatural community. I went through a gazillion naming websites before I hit on Asher, a beautiful Old Testament name that just sounded right. (Kudos to my daughter, who suggested it in the first place.) I tried it out on a few female friends and relatives and everyone agreed it was a keeper. Jimmy was out – Ash was in.

I love the three new names, and can’t imagine my characters being anything else now. And the time I spent agonizing over the changes meant time spent thinking deeply about who those characters were and what really made them tick. That’s the light at the end of that particular tunnel: once you find the right shiny new name, you’ll feel you know your character even better than you did before.

May all your character naming problems be easy to solve! And now (because how could I not!), the gentle reminder that maybe get a second opinion if you’re in doubt. Courtesy of Friends and the inimitable Phoebe Buffay.

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