Showing posts with label characters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label characters. Show all posts

01 March 2022

The Importance of Emotional Motivation in Fiction


Writers know their characters should be real, distinct, and engaging, but that's easy to say. How do you go about doing it? Focusing on voicewhat and how a character speaks and thinksis an important part of the process of making your characters come alive off the page. Another is understanding what drives the characters. This latter element played a key role when I wrote my newest story, "Beauty and the Beyotch," which was published last month in issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. Here's the teaser:
"Beauty and the Beyotch" is a story about three high school girls told from two perspectives about one thing: their struggle to make their deepest desires come true. What happens when those dreams collide?
These girls' motivations drive all the action in the story and make them who they are. So, who are they deep down?
 
Elaine is an insecure spoiled girl who yearns for acclaim and fame. She is afraid that Joni (her best friend, Meryl's, new pal) will get the starring role in their school's upcoming musical, Beauty and the Beasta part Elaine not only craves but believes is her due. Elaine is desperate to avoid such humiliation, which she fears would undermine her long-term goals.
Joni is shy, an introvert. The idea of auditioning for the show scares her. But she also badly wants to please her mother, who starred in her own high school productions and who keeps encouraging Joni to spread her wings and make some friends. So, despite her anxiety, Joni decides to try out for the spring musical.
Meryl is caught in the middle of her friends. More than anything, she wants to be a menscha good, kind person. It's what prompts her to befriend Joni, even after she learns Elaine doesn't like her, because she can see Joni needs a friend. Because of incidents from Meryl's past, being good and honest means more to her than anything else. But when Elaine's and Joni's goals collide, Meryl is forced to make heart-wrenching choices that strike at the essence of who she wants to be.
So, we have three distinct characters, each driven by something different. But are their goals substantial enough to justify their actions? To make them believable and to make readers care about what happens in the story?
 
The answer for Elaine is an easy yes. Her dream of becoming an actress is something people can understand, if not relate to. The longing for celebrity is well known in our culture, and Elaine believes getting the starring role in the school musical is a key part in her path to fame. In contrast, Joni's and Elaine's deepest desires are quieter. Joni wants to please her mother. Meryl wants to be a good person. I wonder if readers might be skeptical about these goals. Are they important enough to warrant being described as the girls' deepest desires? Are they strong enough to drive Joni's and Meryl's stories?
Thinking about crime fiction brings these questions and their answer into stark relief. When crimes are committed, we know that there can be a superficial reason driving the perpetrator as well as a more meaningful reason. For example, Bob Smith robs a bank because he needs to pay for his mom's nursing home. His reason is practical, but deep down, it's also very personal. He cannot allow himself to be the son who lets his mom down again, and he will risk anything to be a better person for her, even if it means being a bad person in the eyes of the law. What's driving Bob is personal, all about how he sees himself and wants to be seen in his mother's eyes. Yet I'm sure readers would think these needs are meaningful enough to believably drive his actions and could lead readers to become invested in what happens to Bob, even if they think his actions are wrong. 
 
With that in mind, let's return to Joni and Meryl. Just like Bob is driven by a personal reason, so are Joni and Meryl (and Elaine, for that matter). Each girl's past has turned her into the person she is as the story begins, be it a fame-seeker, a mother-pleaser, or a mensch. They're all desperate to get what they need emotionally, and those needs, those passions, those deepest desires, are believable, even if they aren't what many would think of as big dreams. They've set these three girls on a collision course, and the result is a story that I hope readers will find compelling.
So, when you are crafting your stories, think about what drives your characters deep down. It doesn't matter if their needs involve careers or more personal desires. It only matters that you make the characters feel real. Basing their actions on their emotional motivations will hopefully enable you to bring the characters to life in complex, compelling, and engaging ways.
 
Want to read "Beauty and the Beyotch"? You can buy issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine by clicking here. It's available in ebook form and trade paperback. 
 
The magazine is now edited by Carla Kaessinger Coupe, following the death last year of longtime editor Marvin Kaye. This issue also has a story by fellow SleuthSayer Janice Law as well as stories by Keith Brooke, Peter DiChellis, Hal Charles, Rebecca K. Jones, V.P. Kava, Rafe McGregor, Mike McHone, and Jacqueline Seewald; a reprint by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; and features by Martha Hudson, Kim Newman, and Darrell Schweitzer.

06 December 2021

No Longer the Golden (Age) Standard...


A few days ago, I read the newest issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and realized something I've been aware of for some time but never thought through. 

Few of those stories met the old Golden Age definition of a "mystery." Yes, there was a crime, which Otto Penzler cites as the crucial requirement for a mystery, but few of the stories provided clues to help the reader solve the puzzle. A lot of the "detecting" happened off-stage. and some stories showed the "bad guy" getting away with something in the name of "real" justice.

I've always had trouble writing a mystery puzzle as they existed in the time of Van Dine, Christie, Sayers, Gardner, and the other "Golden Age" writers. I have been told that my right brain is more active than my left, which means that my conscious thought process recognizes patterns or similarities more easily than it does a linear "logical" patter. Clues involve deduction, and I could do it for plane geometry, but not so much in real life. 

That's the major difference between modern mysteries and the Golden age. The older plots were complex as rocket science, but many of the characters were chess pieces moved around a generic landscape in the name of the puzzle. Newer mysteries tend to examine character more deeply. The needs and foibles of people with more depth drive the story.

With that in mind, I looked at my own published work. Only two of my novels involve following clues that appear along the way to lead to the final solution. Both of those were early books, too. None of the Woody Guthrie novels work like that.

Roller Derby Book 1

When I turned to my published short stories, only a dozen fit that "Golden Age" template. Two of those were novellas, and I worked hard planning those out, which I seldom do with a short story now. I used to plan them out carefully, but it felt like overkill, especially with my right-brain running things.

More than twice as many of my short stories show someone getting away with a crime for one reason or another, and some of those are my very favorites. Plots are difficult for me because I care less about them than I do about the characters. 

Originally, I had no idea what The Whammer Jammers would be about except that it would involve roller derby. My daughter captained the Queen City Cherry Bombs in Nashua, New Hampshire, and she helped me develop a questionaire to send out to skaters online. But my main source of information was interviews with local skaters, coaches, referees, announcers, and spectators, usually the women's partners. Those gave me different perspectives that book "research" never would have shown me. I understood the people more deeply.

The interviews constantly resonated with the idea that the women loved the sport because they found it empowering. They gained a sense of self-worth and found supportive comrades. The confidence carried over into their work or personal relationships, and they felt more complete. That idea became the foundation of the book, both the main plot and the subplots.

Roller Derby Book 2

That's still the way I work. I usually start with a character who wants or needs something, and the plot develops around the obstacles he or she faces. This shows me why the person is doing something and, more importantly, it shows me why it matters, which means why I (and readers) should care. 

If I can't figure out why a reader should care, I stop right there.

I'm not sure what to call the Post Golden Age (Bronze? Aluminum? Digital?), but it's how I plot.

Which matters more to you? The story or the people living it?



30 August 2021

Where Do Characters Come From?


Last week, Barb Goffman talked about how your best characters are desperate. A character who doesn't want or need something  serves no purpose in your story except to drag things down. If nothing is at stake, why should we keep reading? 

Only days before Barb's post appeared, a friend at the health club (Yes, I have friends. I pay them.) asked me if I've used any real people in my stories. I said I had, but that he wouldn't recognize them.

Interviewing classmate, later to be Megan Traine

High school classmate Susie Kaine Woodman, whom I met at a reunion, inspired Megan Traine, the female protagonist in the Woody Guthrie series. I changed her appearance, but the important music details made her recognizable. She's the exception. Real people inspired characters in many of my other stories, but not as they really are.

A character is a combination of yourself, people you know, and stuff you make up. Someone told me once the ratio should be about 1/3 for each facet, but I disagree. I make up more details than I copy.

Using yourself helps you understand how a character might react to certain issues and situations, and you know your backstory and quirks. But nobody needs to know about 99% of that. Using yourself has two dangerous traps, too. First, you will take many details for granted and not explain them to readers even if they are important, which means the reader might not understand something. 

The other problem with a selfie character is that we often demonize people who disagree with us. If "We" are the hero, the villain becomes an ogre instead of a fully-developed foil or antagonist. I only use myself for a reality check. Would this situation shock or upset me? Would a particular injury handicap me (At my age, a hangnail is a major concern)? The character's reactions might be different, but would that be believable?

Somerset Maugham had a stammer. When he wrote Of Human Bondage, which was thinly-disguised autobiography, he gave his main character a club foot instead. I play guitar, but Woody Guthrie plays much better (We share musical tastes). It didn't occur to me until years after creating him, that he nearly lost his left leg in a shooting, and I blew out my left knee playing football. Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into The Night is his own family, which explains why the play was not produced until after his death.

People you know, the second part of the equation, can include relatives, childhood friends, teachers or coaches, and colleagues from work. They can supply physical mannerisms, speech tics, and maybe quirky behavior. Be careful, though. Sinclair Lewis used people from his home town in Main Street, and they recognized his portrayal of them as narrow-minded idiots and wrote angry, and in some cases, even threatening letters. Change enough so the person won't see himself or herself. It also prevents lawsuits, which is another reason not to base a villain on someone you know.

If it won't affect the plot--or will enhance the conflict in some way--I change the character's gender. If that's not possible, give him or her a different hobby, or job. I gave one character glasses and another one became left-handed. Give a single person a spouse, or vice versa. Many of the real people I've used have been composites of two or three people, too. 

Made up details are best because that is where you can create what you really need. If your character struggles with guilt, it's better to make it up. Woody Guthrie survived a shoot-out as a cop--that leg injury I mentioned above--but his partner, who had a wife and two children, died. Guthrie met the widow and the kids, and his survivor guilt is part of what drives him as a PI.

Give your character a fear of heights, dogs, or speaking in public. Karin Slaughter's Will Trent has severe dyslexia that he tries to conceal from everyone else while finding ways to investigate cases. Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder is an alcoholic. The protagonist in Chuck Palahniuk's Choke is a sex addict (Who doesn't see that as a problem).

I usually begin building a character with Barb's advice. She or he must desperately want or need something. It's life or death. Once I know what it is, I can explain why it's so important, and it's better to make that up, even if something in real life inspires it. If you can't manipulate a detail in service to the story, you need a different detail. 

The need builds the character because it dictates action and behavior. That drives the plot. I seldom describe characters in any detail. Readers won't remember the character's physical appearance unless she's seven feet tall or has six fingers on one hand, but they will remember that Megan Traine loves children because she miscarried several times, and the last time nearly killed her. 

Characters are looking for something that they think will make them "whole." That's why villains need money or power and why protagonists must fix a problem this time that they failed to fix before.

It all sounds so easy…

10 August 2021

Pay It Forward


I owe the existence of one of my recurring characters to the kindness of a famous mystery writer.

Dennis Lynds, writing as Michael Collins, received his last Edgar Award nomination for “The Horrible, Senseless Murders of Two Elderly Women,” which I published in my first anthology, Fedora: Private Eyes and Tough Guys (Wildside Press, 2001).

Not long after the release of Fedora, in a letter dated April 17, 2002, Jeff Gelb wrote, “Dennis Lynds suggested I contact you to see if you’d like to submit a story in consideration for the erotic mystery anthology series I co-edit with Max Allan Collins, Flesh & Blood.” (I already knew of Gelb from his work on the Hot Blood horror anthology series he co-edited with Michael Garrett.) Gelb provided some general guidelines as well as the pay rate and deadline. Toward the end of the letter, Gelb notes: “I’m sorry to say I’m unfamiliar with your work, but if Dennis recommends you, that’s a pretty strong nod in your direction!”

This was, shall we say, a big break. A famous mystery writer had recommended me to the co-editor of an anthology series published by a major publishing house.

I submitted “Feel the Pain,” a private eye story featuring Morris Ronald “Moe Ron” Boyette, and, after making minor revisions at the request of Gelb and Collins, the story appeared in the third book in the Flesh & Blood series: Flesh & Blood: Guilty as Sin (Mysterious Press, 2003).

“Feel the Pain” became the first of my stories to be selected for a “best of” anthology when Maxim Jakubowski included it in The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 4 (published in the UK by Robinson, 2005, and in the US by Carroll & Graf, 2005).

I followed up with “Pumped for Information” (XL Girls, 2004), a sequel to “Feel the Pain” that put more emphasis on erotica and less on investigative work, before writing a string of Boyette stories where the erotic content was significantly reduced in favor of solid private eye work: “My Client’s Wife” (Thrilling Detective Web Site, Summer 2007), “Breaking Routine” (Hardluck Stories, Winter 2007), “News Flash” (Untreed Reads, March 2011), and “Yellow Ribbon” (Needle, 2012).

Then, nothing. I moved on to other characters and other stories...until a Boyette story I’d been toying with since 2003 caught my attention again. “Itsy Bitsy Spider” (Tough, April 2018) was named an “Other Distinguished Mystery Story” in The Best American Mystery Stories 2019, and I followed up with “Dirty Laundry” (Tough, April 2020).

I have notes written in 2003-2004 for three additional Boyette stories, but they don’t catch my attention when I reread them. So, I expected Boyette to again go quiet.

Then Michael Pool contacted me about his new publishing venture. I had previously contributed to his Crime Syndicate Magazine, and he received his first Shamus Award nomination for “Weathering the Storm,” a story in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down & Out Books, 2019). Pool has started P.I. Tales, a new book publishing venture dedicated to private eye novels and the Double Feature series of paired private eye novellas.

Pool invited me to contribute to the second volume of the Double Feature series, where my novella is paired with Hallmarks of the Job, written by Frank Zafiro, a writer who contributed to and played a key role in the launch of Guns + Tacos, the serial novella anthology series I co-edit with Trey R. Barker.

I considered creating a new private eye and then thought better of it. So, Morris Ronald “Moe Ron” Boyette returns in Aloha Boys, the longest story I’ve ever written about him.

In Aloha Boys, Boyette is still adjusting to his new digs above Millie’s Tattoos and Piercings when a homeless woman hires him to find her missing half-brother. Searching for the young man sends Boyette through the depraved underbelly of the local university, reunites him with a mob boss best left in his past, and leads him to question everything he thought he knew about families.

Hallmarks of the Job/Aloha Boys releases August 17 but can be preordered now.

Is this the end of the road for Boyette? I doubt it, but I don’t know when or where he will next appear.

RELATIONSHIPS

Though I originally intended this post to be about a series character and how I continue to write about him, while researching Boyette’s history I was reminded of something more valuable: The importance of relationships within the writing community.

Boyette exists because Dennis Lynds connected me to Jeff Gelb, and the new Boyette novella exists because Michael Pool and I have worked together on other projects. In between, I’ve worked with editors such as Rusty Barnes of Tough, who once suggested I write a novel about Boyette, and his suggestion was on my mind when Pool approached me about writing a private eye novella for Double Feature.

While I’m loath to conclude that who you know is the key to success, it certainly plays a role in the opportunities that come your way.

Most of us break in the same way: by submitting manuscripts via slush piles, submitting our work on spec, hoping that editors will select our stories from the dozens/hundreds/thousands of other submissions. But once that happens, it’s up to us to act professionally, to develop relationships, and to share opportunities with one another.

And always, always, always, pay it forward.

Morris Ronald Boyette and I are forever grateful that Dennis Lynds did.