Adventures in Genre Writing: Lesson Four – Character Development

By Jeanne C. Stein

I’m in China the rest of the month on vacation. No laptop. No cell phone. Will I survive? If I’m back next month, you’ll know I did!

Since we spent most of last class discussing rules, here are some of NYT bestselling author Jeffrey Deaver’s regarding characters:

1. They must be likeable
2. They have to do something
3. They have to speak realistically (Lesson Six for us)
4. They have to be multi-dimensional
5. They have to be sympathetic—even the villains

In Lesson Two we took a brief look at character development—deciding whose story we wanted to tell. The protagonist. Generally, she’s the first character we come up with when plotting a new book. How do we make her likeable? We give her a name, we describe her physically, we give her a job, sometimes a hobby, and populate her world with friends and family. We make her sympathetic and interesting.

We set her up in her world and then we tear it apart.

In UF, that often involves introducing paranormal characters or if our protagonist is a paranormal character, introducing a personal threat to her or her world. We give the character a problem or a goal—something that will cause conflict. Something that makes her have to do something. We set her on a quest. Same if you’re writing a thriller, a mystery, a cozy, a romance.

Before we talk about the villain, let’s mentions secondary characters. These are different from “throw away” characters—the waitress at the diner, the bag boy at the grocery store. Throw away characters appear briefly, should have only a one or two sentence description, if any at all, and never appear again. You don’t want to yank the reader out of the story with a long, detailed description of a character that is not relevant to your plot.

A secondary character, on the other hand, might be our protagonist’s sidekick or mentor. A romantic interest. A secondary character should never overshadow the main character, but rather reflect something about her. A secondary character might be the object of the conflict—our protag must save him or her from the big bad. It’s often the relationship of our protagonist to this secondary character that makes her multi-dimensional.

As for our villain(s), Deaver reminds us that even they have to be sympathetic. No, that doesn’t mean we have to make our readers like them, but it helps if we can make our readers understand them. Antagonists often have a huge stake in the outcome of their conflict with our heroine. Sometimes it’s the destruction of one world to allow another to take its place, sometimes it’s revenge for a real or imagined crime committed unknowingly by our protag or someone close to her, sometimes it’s simply to save his own skin. Something has set the villain against our protag, his motivation is as important as hers. It may not be moral or just or even reasonable, but without it, you have caricature instead of characterization.

So, how do we develop our characters quickly? And why do we want to?

Simple. The sooner we throw our protagonist into the fray, the faster we hook the reader. How do we do it? Show her in action. The scene may or may not have anything to do with the primary plot, but what she does will define her for the reader. It’s also a good way to introduce the world and secondary characters without pages of info-dump to set them up. Action is always better than words.

What else do we need to know about our characters?

In UF, for example, if they are supernatural, what are their powers? Did they come by them naturally or were their powers thrust upon them? Are they unique even among their own kind? How so? Do they have natural enemies? Does the human population know of their existence? Is the protagonist aware of her powers or does something happen to activate them?

Our villain—is he unique among his kind? Does he target our protag for a specific reason? Why is her after her? To steal her powers? To prevent her from becoming…what?

Think about your protagonist and antagonist. Think about how you want to introduce them to the reader. The antagonist may not show up in that first chapter, but your protagonist will. How do you go about making that character as interesting to the reader as possible?

Now, speaking of characters—our interview today is with Mario Acevedo. He writes the popular Felix Gomez vampire series. If you haven’t sampled a Felix Gomez novel, you need to. He has a unique spin on his UF world.

1. You are often included in lists of Urban Fantasy Authors. How do you feel about the tag and do you like it? Why or why not?

As a tag, I prefer Testosterone-laced Macho Supernatural-Mystery-Thriller. Barring that, Urban Fantasy is okay. Stressing the Urban part, my hero likes his neighborhood cafés and he hates being more than stumbling distance from a bar. For the Fantasy part, he thinks the ladies consider him a hot number.

2. What makes your books fit in the UF genre?

By Urban I mean that as gritty and contemporary. Fantasy, well, I’ve got vampires, aliens, zombies, dryads, and efficient government workers.

3. Did you set out to write UF?

At the beginning? No. I tried the idea of a vampire-detective and it stuck. Like mud.

4. Why do you think UF is so popular with readers?

Given the choice, which would you rather do: work retail or fight vampires? In one you wear polyester; the other, leather and stainless steel.

* * * *

You can tell from his answers (and the titles of his books) that humor plays a big part in Mario’s books. To him, it comes effortlessly. To me, it’s daunting. Infusing humor in your story, though, is a way to add another dimension to your characters. Look for Mario’s next Felix adventure coming soon.

For those of you participating in NaNoWriMo, have fun!! This is the first year in awhile that I haven’t. I’ll miss it. Try to join some of the online groups and attend as many of the local write-ins as you can. There is energy in a group of writers!

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!! Or as they say in China: 感恩节快乐

Jeanne C. Stein
Jeanne Stein is the award winning, national bestselling author of the Urban Fantasy series, The Anna Strong Vampire Chronicles. Anna Strong was named one of Paranormal Fantasy’s Top ten Ass-Kicking Heroines by Barnes and Nobles’s reviewer, Paul Goat Allen in 2013. Jeanne also has numerous short story credits, including the novella, Blood Debt, from the New York Times bestselling anthology, Hexed. Jeanne lives in Denver, CO and is active in Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (where she was honored by winning the Writer of the Year award in 2008.) She has taught at numerous conferences and on-line academies. Her newest venture, The Fallen Siren Series, is paranormal romance written in collaboration with Samantha Sommersby under the pseudonym S. J. Harper. The first book in that series, Cursed, debuted last year. A prequel novella, Captured, is available free on Amazon and the second book in the series, Reckoning, will be released October 7. More about Jeanne on her website.

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