Ann Voss Peterson: A while back, I moaned to Joe about the lack of good story craft discussions on the Internet, and he challenged me to do what I could to change that. So to that end, I am hijacking Newbie's Guide to Publishing for a day to focus on an aspect of storytelling. And because I find discussions about craft more interesting than lectures, I invited an author friend to join me.
When Joe and I launched the Codename: Chandler Kindle World, we asked author Linda Style if she would like to contribute a launch story. She came up with STREET, a prequel to her new suspense series featuring her crusading lawyer Charlie Street and Heathcliff from Codename: Chandler.
Linda Style is the author of fifteen romance and romantic suspense novels for Harlequin. She has just released her sixteenth novel independently. DETROIT RULES (currently on sale for $0.99) is the first book in her new Street Law suspense series.
In addition to penning her novels of romance, suspense and intrigue, Linda co-founded Bootcamp for Novelists, an online writing school where she taught the advanced novel writing courses. Linda has several Bootcamp for Novelists writing craft books from her classes available as well, and she’s been a speaker at various writers’ meetings and conferences.
I’ve known Linda Style since the days before either of us published our first novels. Over the years, we’ve had a lot of fun discussions about creating characters (among other things), so I thought it might be fun to bring the discussion into blog form and invite all of you to share helpful things you've picked up along the way.
So to kick off the discussion, Linda, using your character Charlie Street as an example, explain how you go about building a character.
Linda Style: First, I’d like to thank you for inviting me here today. Next to writing, one of my favorite things to do is talk about writing and, perhaps because of my background in behavioral health and investigative journalism, I believe character building is one of the most important…and fun…parts of writing a novel. For me, building a character begins the moment an idea for a story begins to percolate. As I think out the story line, another part of my brain is deciding on what types of characters will inhabit this new world.
My stories ideas can come from most anywhere, a place, a character, a situation. STREET began with a setting I found intriguing—Detroit, a city that was crumbling in around itself. Crime was so rampant, the famed Motor City moniker jokingly became Murder City. Detroit was bankrupt in more ways than one, and to live in the heart of this city, I knew my heroine was going to have to be strong and determined and live with the conviction of her beliefs.
Ann: So you start with at least an inkling of your premise and your setting. This is the way it works for me as well, although I know writers who come up with a character first, before they start to think about anything else.
So what comes next for you, Linda?
Linda: From this point, I pretty much do what I’ve taught my students in the Bootcamp for Novelists classes I used to teach. I can do nothing until I have my protagonist’s story goal and the story question. From there I start with the theory that we are all basically three people. The self we present to the world, the self we believe ourselves to be, and who we really are in our core.
So, first I nail down my protagonist’s external characteristics: job, defining character trait (aggressive, shy, perfectionist, etc.), physical attributes, family…basically who this person is as he/she presents to the world. Next I hone in on the character’s conscious wants, needs and desires…the person he/she believe they are, and/or want to be. And finally, underlying both of these facades is the real person, the one in whose core lies his values and beliefs, his deepest needs and deepest fears. It’s from this last part that I find my protagonist’s internal motivation. The most important part of my protagonist’s character is his/her motivation to achieve the story goal, so that has to go deep and it’s almost always based on a deep, unfulfilled emotional need. My characters will always be flawed emotionally in some way…because we all are.
For example: Charlie’s goal in STREET begins with the external need for money to start her own law firm so she can do pro bono work and help those who would likely get screwed by the legal system because they cannot afford the high-priced, powerful attorneys people with money can afford. It’s Charlie’s experience and belief that justice is always more just for the rich and powerful. But her goal isn’t simply a bleeding-heart altruistic goal. It’s based on fact and statistics. It’s also based on personal experience. When Charlie was eight-years-old, her father was arrested, convicted, and murdered in prison.
So, based on the three faces of Charlie:
Charlie’s external persona tells herself…and the world…that her need to do this based on the fact that some people can’t afford the same justice as others.
The second part, the person she believes she is and who she wants to be, sees herself as someone who can actually help others. She wants to save the world and believes she actually can.
But the third persona…who she really is inside, and the most important part of her motivation, is based on a deep internal belief about herself (correct or incorrect doesn’t matter as long as she believes it). In Charlie’s case, she believes something she did contributed to her father’s arrest (and subsequent murder), and she has a soul-deep need to atone for her guilt. This is her internal need…the true motivation driving her external goal. And to dig even deeper, her need to atone is based on a subconscious belief that because she betrayed the one person she loved more than anything, she’s a bad person, irreparably flawed…and not worthy of love.
Her external self tells the world one thing and her middle self denies/ignores it by becoming a crusader for justice. And the part that’s really motivating her is the deep (subconscious) need to deal with her guilt…and feel worthy of love. Her internal belief that she’s a bad person becomes an internal fear that she will always betray those she loves. This will be a huge conflict for any romantic relationship she might have. I did the same level of character development with Heath. And you thought it was all just fun and games.
Ann: It IS fun and games!
And I'm glad you brought up Heath. It was fun for me to read your take on him. And I'm curious. Except for you (in STREET) and Joe himself (in RESCUE – a Codename: Chandler Kindle Worlds book featuring Hammett and Tequila), all the authors chose to use Chandler in their Kindle Worlds story. What was it about Heath that made you choose him?
Linda: I already had a story in mind…the prequel to DETROIT RULES. So, while I could have used most anyone in the Chandler series, I chose Heath for several reasons. The first was that I really liked Heath from reading HIT.
Hey, any guy who loves women gets extra points right off.
Additionally, I saw Heath as one who could work with Charlie but be at cross purposes. Heath’s intelligence and sense of humor were two important qualities I felt would mesh well with Charlie. But even more important, I was drawn to Heath because I saw the layers in his character. On one hand, his love of women is good, but on the other, it’s a flaw for his job. I saw how I could use this character trait in my story to make it work on a deeper level to create conflict, bring out his protective instincts and, even though he’s an assassin, his humanity.
Two, (or is that three) I needed an antagonist who could awaken Charlie Street to some of the things she was going to need to learn before DETROIT RULES and who could also teach her a few of those things.
Three, (okay, it’s official…I can’t count) I needed a viable love interest for Charlie…and Heath most definitely was more than capable in that department.
And last, they had a common background…poverty, which makes him even more drawn to Charlie, a crusader for the underdog. And, oh, yeah…did I say Heath is hot?
Ann: Heath is hot. The first story we wrote with him was THREE, and I originally created him to challenge Chandler in much the same way as you used him to push Charlie in STREET. Of course, Heath grew into much more than a love interest for Chandler and turned out to be his own larger-than-life man.
I use a similar three-layered system for coming up with a character. Since for me a story is about character in conflict, when I first begin to build a character, I define him/her in terms of goals, needs, and fears.
The external goal – This is the external, physical outcome the character wants in the story. It must be urgent (why must s/he attain it now?), important (to the character), concrete (a physical, external thing, no peace and happiness goals), and measurable (s/he must know when the goal is achieved or lost). This goal drives the plot of the story, and it is the physical symbol of what drives the character on a deeper level.
The emotional need. The character can be conscious of this need or not, but it is what s/he really longs for. It is not concrete but emotional. And the emotional need is the character's reaction to his/her greatest fear.
The greatest fear. The character is not conscious of the fear, not until the plot forces him/her to face it. In fact, the character will do anything to avoid facing the fear, including lying to him/herself. This fear is something very basic that the character feels makes him or her unlovable.
The way I frame my system for character building is different from Linda's, but the process of building character is similar.
So if I used my frame for Charlie, deep down she fears she is a bad person (because she caused her father's death). That leads to her emotional need for justice. And her emotional need is symbolized by helping someone in need find justice (and this external goal would be very specific depending on the story).
I've found that once I have that basic skeleton nailed, I can add as many layers and contradictions and conflicts as I want. It will work, because all my decisions will be based on the core character, and the choices I make will be deliberate. As long as that core is there, the possibilities are endless.
This also brings up another interesting aspect to character building. We never build a single character. To write a story, an author –usually- must build a cast that works together and/or challenges each other.
Linda, you have a different male lead in DETROIT RULES. Describe to us how you built him and how he and Charlie challenge/enhance each other.
Linda: Ah, I love my heroes and Remington (Remy) Malone is no exception. Remy’s character developed as a counterpoint to Charlie Street’s needs and the challenges she was going to have to address in order to learn and grow throughout the story. Remy had to be almost her polar opposite.
Like Heath, Remy’s intelligent, has a great sense of humor, and has many layers to his personality. He’s Charlie’s opposite in that she grew up on the mean streets of Detroit and he grew up, the son of a judge, in Grosse Pointe, one of the wealthiest suburbs of Detroit. He’s a cop and she’s an attorney. On the surface, cops and defense attorneys have no love lost between them. At a deeper level, the bad blood between Charlie and the Detroit PD goes back to her father’s arrest. This would feed a romantic conflict if they were to have a relationship. On the surface, Remy’s fairly conservative and Charlie’s the exact opposite. So, when Remy needs her help, almost everything about their relationship is at odds and the challenges they face, while seeming external, actually challenge each of their core values and beliefs about the world and about themselves.
Ann: Anything else you'd like to add about character building/development/whatever before we continue the discussion in the comment section?
Linda: Sure. I’d like to add that while I do a lot of digging to ensure my characters, even my antagonists/villains and secondary characters have this depth of character, it may not always be played out on the page. But knowing who my story characters are on the deepest level keeps them on track and they will never act out of character unless they have good reason.
I’d also like to say that while I may have an idea of all of the above when I begin a story, I have to just sit and write for a while before I can start examining who my peeps really are. Generally one to three chapters. For me, those three chapters are the hardest and also the most fun part of writing a story.
Ann: Fun is the key. If the author is having fun, it shows in the story.
Joe and I have talked a lot about character building over the years, as well as building a few characters together. So I'd like to throw the question to him. Joe?
Joe: Way way back in the day, when I was still a Big 6 cheerleader, I used to run workshops and teach an adult ed class at a local community college. One of my two hour classes was How To Create Salable Characters, meant for genre mystery writers. I dug up one of my decade-old worksheets and dusted it off to see if it still applies to how I currently feel about writing. Here were the bullet points:
UNIQUE-What makes this person different from anyone else? Why is this hero the ONLY ONE who could be in your story?
GOALS-What are your protagonist’s goals? Dreams? Fears? Things they desperately want?
FLAWS-What personal, internal problem will get in the way of the hero reaching his/her goals? Addiction? Illness? Disability? Neuroses?
QUIRKS-What are the strange, bizarre, personal, or human traits this hero possesses? Habits and rituals?
PERSPECTIVE-First person or third person, and why?
SUPPORT-Who are the supporting, returning characters that assist your hero? Friends? Coworkers?
ENEMY- Your villain should have all of these traits as well. Who will make a worthy opponent for your hero?
EXAMPLE-LT. JACQUELINE “JACK” DANIELS, CHICAGO VIOLENT CRIMES
featured in the novels WHISKEY SOUR, BLOODY MARY & RUSTY NAIL, and the EQMM short stories ON THE ROCKS & WITH A TWIST by JA Konrath
UNIQUE-Jack is 46, divorced, unlucky in love, but a good cop–she had to be to become a Lieutenant in the male-dominated fraternity of the CPD. Jack has dedicated her life to the Job, but is now at an age where she’s regretting never starting a family.
GOALS-Jack needs to do well in her career; that’s the only time she feels good about herself. But she also realizes, for the first time, that there’s more to life than work, and she wants to broaden her personal life.
FLAWS-Jack has insomnia, due to her fixation with her job. She constantly questions her own actions, wondering if she could have done better. She doesn’t think she’s worthy of love.
QUIRKS-Her insomnia causes her to max out her credit cards watching the late night Home Shopping Network. She worries too much about fashion, and is envious of those who dress better than she does.
PERSPECTIVE-First person for Jack, third person for the villain.
SUPPORT-Overweight partner Det. Herb Benedict, accountant boyfriend Latham Conger, mother Mary Streng, ex-husband Alan Daniels, criminal friend Phineas Troutt, ex-partner PI Harry McGlade, hellspawn cat Mr. Friskers.
ENEMY-In WHISKEY SOUR, a serial killer called The Gingerbread Man is making snuff movies in his basement and wants to make one with Jack. In BLOODY MARY, a maniac is dismembering people and leaving accessories of Jack’s at the crime scenes.
Joe sez: This worksheet was interesting to see again after so many years, and I think it still applies to character creation, albeit in a very rudimentary way. This is a starting point, and a way to describe traits that a writer might already intuitively know, but not be consciously aware of.
My workshop would then delve into how to create suspense, conflict, and keep moving the story forward.
Right now I'm writing RUM RUNNER, the 9th Jack Daniels thriller, and Jack is at a different point in her life. She's given up being a cop because she came to the inevitable conclusion that it was hurting her and those she loved. But she finds her past continues to follow her. She also finds that maybe she isn't as suited to being a wife and mother as she'd always hoped to be.
Over an eight novel story arc, I've gotten Jack to where she thinks she needs to be. But rather than let her be happy, I'm making her question every single decision she's made.
Over the course of the narrative, Jack is struggling with external conflict (an old enemy who wants to kill her and everyone she loves) and internal conflict (second-guessing her life choices). My goal is to make the reader care just as much about if she gets divorced as if she gets tortured to death.
So I start out making Jack sad, then proceed to make her miserable by terrifying her and those she cares about. As she resolves the mystery/thriller aspect and triumphs over the bad guy, it will also lead her to solving her personal problems.
At least, until the next book, when I make her unhappy again.
While Jack's insomnia makes her do quirky, likable things (more on that in a moment), it also is a cheap and easy way to convey personal resolution; when Jack sorts all of her problems out, she's finally able to sleep again.
When I say "likable" I'm referring to the things that make the reader identify with and root for your protagonist. There are some tried-and-true methods for doing this. Give your hero a pet. Have them be kind to someone less fortunate. Give them a universal problem that readers identify with (we've all dealt with insomnia at some point in our lives). Make them funny. Give them unique skills. And make sure the goals keep getting harder and harder to attain. We want to see the hero suffer, struggle, and fight to overcome.
Both Linda and Ann mentioned Heath, who happens to be my favorite of the characters Ann has created, and one I really enjoyed writing for when I did NAUGHTY.
Heath is a spy and assassin. He's well trained and very formidable, in the classic mode of Bond. The reason he became a spy is tied into his childhood, and his parents, and his longterm goal is revenge against his illegitimate father, who happens to be POTUS.
Heath tightrope walks between his cultural upbringing, growing up in the slums of Mexico, and thriving in the uniquely Anglo-Saxon/jetset/flashy world of espionage, where he's as much of an interloper as participant. He also loves women. He REALLY loves women, to the point where the mission often becomes secondary.
In broad strokes, Ann has crossed Jason Bourne with Pepe Le Pew streak.
As a result, Heath is an absolute joy to write for. I love this guy. He's self-deprecating, funny, sexy, and even preposterous, but he's also incredibly competent and lethal. And, like many superheroes, he's haunted by his past and on a quest to make things right.
He's a male ideal, like Bond, but created from a female perspective. So he's funnier than Bond, as every woman loves a sense of humor, spends more time in bed than Bond (and his scenes are explicit), and is every bit the bad boy that romance readers enjoy. Ann created a character that is equally at home in male-dominated espionage thrillers, and female-dominated romantic suspense.
Good characters drive the story, because the story is uniquely suited to them. The problems that Charlie Street, Jack Daniels, and Heathcliff face stem from who they are and how they got to be that way. Their pasts, and environments, and jobs, sync with their personal and story goals to the point where they're inseparable.
And remember to have fun. That's why we started doing this, remember?