Tag Archives: character building

Pigeon-holed or typecast? It can happen to any writer

By Mary Gillgannon

I know how picky readers can be, but I never realized it would affect me until I was analyzing the sales of my indie published books. I have twelve books available, and sales of those titles vary widely, and always have. Some of my books I’m lucky to sell five a month. Others sell several times that. The books that sell well are the same ones each month. Even though I have other titles in the same sub-genre, there is very little carryover to them.

I started to think about what qualities my better-selling books share and realized that they all have alpha heroes and intense conflict between the hero and the heroine. (An alpha hero is an old-fashioned, macho, larger-than-life, domineering male.) When I was first published, I got plenty of criticism from my critique group, reviewers and sometimes readers for my ultra-masculine heroes and conflict-ridden storylines. (As one reader put it, “If I wanted to experience a couple fighting all the time, I could have just stayed with my first husband.”) Because of that, and also because I wanted to explore different types of characters, I started to write books with more external conflict and more complex and subtle heroes.

Those books were never as popular as my earlier ones. Initially, I blamed my declining sales on the fact that historical romances in general were in a slump. But now the sub-genre seem to be doing well, and I can no longer ignore the cold hard figures of my sales reports. There is a definite type of book that appeals to my readers.

It’s pretty frustrating. Like the writers I mentioned above, I don’t want to write the same story over and over. And it doesn’t help that lots of successful writers write books with beta heroes who don’t clash dramatically with the heroine. Why does it work for them and not for me? Maybe it’s my voice or writing style. Or that I get so deep into my heroes’ viewpoints that if I make them too nice they come off as wimpy.

At the same time, knowing what appeals to “my” readers is useful. I’m planning extensive rewrites of the last two of my backlist books this summer, and now I have a clear direction. I need to make my heroes more forceful and larger-than-life, and increase the conflict between the hero and heroine.

The irony is that I’m rewriting these books because I wasn’t happy with the way they turned out the first time, mostly due to editorial input. Now, once again, I can’t simply “follow my muse” as I revise them. It would be foolish to ignore what my readers apparently want. But I’m not about to give up on writing different types of stories. Maybe if I keep exploring I’ll find a new formula that will attract new fans. And even if that doesn’t happen, I have to keep growing as a writer or it wouldn’t be any fun. And I’m at the point in my life where fun is more important than selling books.

Collecting People

By Liesa Malik

How many books have you read recently on building characters? Not building character—as in developing your own moral compass—but building characters that you can write about in your next novel? A quick search on Amazon recently pulled up over 100,000 titles when I searched for "books, characters in fiction." Whew!

As commercial fiction writers we know that good characters are some of the most important ingredients to any story. Where would we be if Scrooge weren't such a delightfully well-rounded reluctant hero?

We've often been instructed on how to build characters, but today I want to talk about collecting them through real life adventures. Characters are in the people all around us. If we learn to use our powers of observation, and note people continuously, our stories will have a real boost up when seeking publication.

Here are some ideas for your "collecting" process:

  • Have a place to keep your collection. This could be a spiral notebook, a file on your computer, or a binder with tabs for collecting and sorting your observations. Thing is, try to keep this collection in one place. Mobility simply gives you opportunity for losing precious work (I still have a poetry book out in Atlanta, Georgia somewhere. Grr!)
  • When you're in a restaurant, look around. Find the most interesting or the most boring, cutest or ugliest person in the room and jot down a quick biography of him or her. So what that you don't know them? You're working on fiction. Pretend you're Sherlock Holmes and note things like the way they use their flatware, whether they're glued to their phone or are looking about, how they sit, how they chew, how they interact with the room around them. Give them a name that truly suits them. Bingo! You've just "collected" your first person. Here's an extra tip. If you go to a bagel or coffee shop each morning, as I do, you'll see the same people over and over. In the course of a week, you could build quite a lot of notes and history about your character. Pop them into your collection file. When you need that character, he or she will be ready to polish and run with.
  • Make a list of lists. Sitting around for fifteen minutes? You could play a game of Sudoku, or you could make a list of lists. Pull out your trusty notebook and jot down lists of people to remember. Start with the phrase "My favorite ___ is . . ." The favorites is a list of occupations or roles of people in your life: teachers, neighbors, relatives, movie stars and so on. At a later time you can choose one of these favorite roles and list actual people, or choose one favorite person and write about them.
  • Drive around and snap a photo of a house you've never been in. Okay. Got this idea from the July/August issue of Writer's Digest, but I just love it. They didn't say to take a photo, but what the heck? Live dangerously. You could only be accused of stalking, prowling, or "casing the joint." Once you have the photo or a clear image of the house, write down the story behind it and the people who live there. Bonus! You're learning to describe setting as well as build characters.
  • Be a busy body. Whenever I go to get a haircut or chat with someone on my street, inevitably people tell me stories from their lives about relatives I'll never meet, or bosses who only get worse with each retelling. When I get home I try to jot down at least part of my friends' story. It's good for building a character. One word of caution. When it comes time to retell any true tale, try to change something significant about the person gossiped over. I mark these notes with a phrase like "true recollection" and the name of who told me this, so that I know how much needs to be changed around.

This is such a fun topic that I could brainstorm all day with you. Bet you have some great ideas too. Why not comment here and let everyone know your best character-collecting tip?

Or join me this Saturday at the Lakewood Art Council's Art Gallery, 85 S. Union Street (behind the Wendy's) from 1:00 to 2:30. I'll be talking about repurposing books into arts and crafts and signing my book, Faith on the Rocks. Bet the place will be full of characters.