By Kym O’Connell-Todd and Mark Todd
This is the third in a three-part installment on strategies we’ve found successful as collaborative writers. In the first part, we discussed things to look for in a compatible partner as well as examples of how that plays out in practice. In the second, we started to explore how plots and characters develop from a weird shared writing space. This time, we’re going to talk about how stories – and especially characters – turn into something we never expected and lead to some unexpected collaborators.
And we like it.
Characters that authors like can turn a good story into one that’s great – especially for readers. But that doesn’t mean those characters have to be nice “people.”
Grady O’Grady from our Silverville Saga series is a character we especially like. There’s a little bit of all the ranchers we’ve ever known in him. Not too surprising since we’ve both lived in rural America most of our lives (Kym in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Montana, Mark in New Mexico and Texas, and both of us for the past twenty-plus years in western Colorado). So Grady’s take on things was easy to capture. Right before the first Little Greed Men hit local bookstores, we worried about how our neighbors would react to the way we portrayed the ranching lifestyle. But our daughter laughed at us, saying something like, “If a book doesn’t have pictures, they’re not going to read it!” She was joking, of course, but we bravely laughed along with her and waited for the novel to circulate. Several of our neighbors did read the book, and whew! they liked the way we’d described Grady. Kym had a real knack for capturing his style of speech, but she’s always had a penchant for old ranchers. So Kym took the last word, literally, on what he said – and what he didn’t.
Grady also rides a horse we know very well, ‘Ole Moss. We modeled the mare after one we used to own named Belle. She was a bitch from the day she was born in our barn. At three weeks, she almost broke a neighbor’s knee with a well-aimed kick, and when we turned her over to a professional trainer at age two, she charged her new teacher with bared teeth and flattened ears. We include in the story one of Belle’s real antics when ‘Ole Moss strikes out repeatedly at a hot wire fence once it shocks her. Belle would have been the perfect fit for Grady and she made it into our cast.
In the sequel, All Plucked Up, Mark took a shine to a character named Maurice LeVieux, a by-product who emerged from Mark’s pretentious professor side, and Kym let him run with it. Maurice is the octogenarian arch nemesis of that story’s protagonist, Pleasance. He’s stuffy, pompous, and fastidious:
Maurice surveyed the row of tidily arranged ascots that filled the upper compartment of his suitcase. He selected one with just a blush of apricot to match his socks. He chuckled at his propitious talent to once again outmaneuver Pleasance. How careless of her to repeat Grady’s name over the phone that fateful day he overheard her conversation. Poor child. Had she learned nothing from his example? By the time he had arranged to travel to Silverville, he already had Mr. O’Grady’s phone number and address in his pocket.
He adjusted the ascot, tucking it neatly inside his collar and around his papery throat. He sat on the bed and reached over to snap the garters to his socks.
From the very beginning, we knew Maurice was going to be a fun character to work with. But you’ll have to read the story to find out that he’s not a typical anal-retentive guy. We hope he has quirks that catch readers off guard.
Even though characters help authors turn good stories into great ones, some characters have their own ideas about what’s going to happen next – regardless of what the authors’ story outline says.
Case in point: April Schaures, a personality in the third novel of the Silverville Saga series, The Magicke Outhouse. Created as an afterthought to complement the story’s protagonist, April pushed her way into the plot as one of the most colorful characters who’s ever visited Silverville. It was creepy, like she was waiting in the wings for a casting call. Creepy because she “possessed” us both at the same time, with surprising flair that seemed to come from nowhere. April really challenges our notion of where we thought characters originate. Even stranger, neither of us has ever known a character like April. But there she was on the page. In the passage below, she’s shining her new supervisor:
April climbed the stairs and opened the heavy door of the Silverville Public Library.
An older woman standing behind the circulation desk looked up. Had to be Miss Brumbelow, head librarian. The woman smiled and said, “Can I help you with anything?”
April marched to the desk and thrust out her hand. “I’m April.”
The smile melted into a frown. “Your internship started yesterday.”
“Didn’t you get my message?” The one I never sent.
“No, I don’t recall any messages from you.”
April forced a cough and drew a tissue from her pocket. “Really? You didn’t get my note about my recent relapse?”
Miss B appeared to wait for more of an explanation, which April was happy to provide.
“The Uruguayan Flying Worm Syndrome. It flared up again.”
“Excuse me? Uruguay? I understood you were from Placer City.”
“That’s where I grew up, after a traveling circus brought me into the United States and my parents adopted me.” April blew her nose long and hard into the tissue. “I caught the worm before that, when I was only six. Most people die from it. I was lucky.”
The librarian’s eyes narrowed. “Is it contagious?”
“Not once the worms work their way out of your system. Mine have.” April offered a long-suffering shrug. “But once you get it, it stays with you the rest of your life.”
“Is that why your pupils are so … so pink?”
April bent her head and plucked a small disk from one eye and held it up on her finger for the woman to inspect. “Colored contacts.”
While April replaced the theatrical lens, Miss B heaved a disappointed sigh and retrieved a sheet of paper from under the desk. “Here are the responsibilities I’ve typed up for you.” She handed it to her new intern and motioned her to follow.
We didn’t write April’s dialog; she did. In fact, she just sort of grabbed the reins and ran. We often find that a particular character will determine the direction of a plot. Characters tell us what they need, what they have to say, and where they will and will not go. Unlike April, most of our characters need fleshing out, but once we get to know them, we trust them to guide us to the end of the story. All three novels in the Silverville Saga have taken various twists and turns we hadn’t anticipated as the characters took on lives of their own. We almost felt like spectators rather than writers, our job merely to record what was going on in their universe.
Sometimes characters tell us what their names are. More often than not, surnames pop out about the same time a character shows up in a story. Last names occasionally stem from ones we’ve heard in our past or they’ll relate to the personality – or the just the opposite. In Little Greed Men, Howard Beacon isn’t exactly a bright light, Billy Noble is anything but, whereas money preoccupies Buford Price. Same thing in All Plucked Up: Madame Pompeii is as disastrous as her namesake, Maurice LeVieux plays an old geezer (“LeVieux” is French for that), and the “three fools” are our hat tip to Moe, Larry, and Curly. Whether or not readers catch our wordplay, the name puns are amusing to us. In The Magicke Outhouse, we named our protagonist Micah Musil because it sounds funny, its accentual syllabics imitate the corresponding anti-diuretic we’re punning, and it fits a person who encounters visceral turbulence – in a black-comedy sort of way.
In the long run we discovered that, for us, collaborative writing is about the give and take of authors in synch enough to be willing to trade off on who takes the lead. But a lot of the collaboration comes from the page itself -- allowing our characters to contribute an active voice to the writing conversation. And that’s a kind of collaboration any author can have, regardless of how many actual eyes are looking at the screen.
At the beginning of this three-part series, we asserted that collaborative writing is like good sex. Do any of our projects lead to hot rendezvous in bed? Ha! We’ll never tell. Like we said before, we can’t write love scenes, which might seem a bit ironic. Let’s just say our passion is private except when it comes to crafting good tales together.
* * *
We’re still a sentence or two away from finishing this article.
They stare at the screen, rereading the last paragraph, looking for any momentum they can use.
Boy, I sure can’t think of anything else to say. Can you?
Co-authors Kym O’Connell-Todd & Mark Todd are co-authors of the Silverville Saga Series, paranormal adventure comedies that take place in an “ordinary” community sitting on intersecting ley lines – punching holes in everyday reality, causing extraordinary coincidences and the random UFO, an occasional curse, a ghost or two, and even a bit of time-travel now and then.