Monday, September 26, 2016

What Makes Characters UNlikable... and What Doesn't

With some authors, the plot line of a story comes first. What's going to happen? What is at stake? How will it all be resolved?

With me, characters come first. Something happens to someone. Someone has a great deal at stake. Someone must fight to get what they want.

Who is that someone?

For me, the "someone" doing the "something" matters a lot more than whatever the "something" may be. I have to like the characters in the story or, at the very least, find them interesting. There are many ways to kill my interest in a character.

I hate whiny characters, in real life and in fiction. Whining is a habit, not an endearing character trait. There is a reason why I trained my children out of this habit at a young age--I didn't want to hear it. Nobody likes to listen to a whiner, so if a character has this unpleasant habit, the writer better have a good reason for it. And never let that character be the main character! The main character may have reason to complain, but he or she should be more focused on getting things done rather than bewailing the way things are.

I also dislike characters who are in complete control of everything. Their life, their jobs, their emotions, even their hair, is always perfectly in order and runs smoothly. Now before everyone jumps on me and says, "Hey, what about...?" Yes, I know, it seems that my character, Sheriff Rick Sutton, has it all together, BUT... yes, if you've read "At the Crossroad", you know it's all a facade to hide a lot of pain. He's not a robot; he's human and he's trying to protect himself. A lot of people can relate to that.

It's easy to understand why boring characters can be unlikable. We all have met someone who goes on and on and on about everything and nothing at all. A boring person is one who focuses almost exclusively on him or herself. While it's necessary to know things about a character, focusing solely on that one character--especially a character focusing on himself--and nothing else, makes for a story that is very easy to put down and walk away from... especially since most of us who come into contact with boring people feel trapped and unable to walk away.

I really dislike villains who have no reason for being a villain other than... well, the hero needs someone to fight. All villains, like heroes, have a goal and it has to mean enough to them to make it worth their time and effort to achieve it. True, it's very likely not a good goal--after all, they are the villains--but it has to mean something to them, something important.

What creates an interesting character is that they remind us of real people, of ourselves, even. Real people have real reasons for the way they act. We can't always delve deeply into the lives of the people we interact with in the real world, but a writer can and should do that with the characters in a story. A character with a motivation rings true, is relatable, even if not likable, and makes a story more interesting.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Pantser vs. Plotter? In Writing and in Real Life

Before I go any further, let me clarify what I'm talking about, since this seems to be a question that makes sense mostly to writers.

"Plotter" is pretty easy to decipher--it's someone who plots out their stories before they begin to write. Details, such as the characters' names, eye color, backstories, motivations, and their exact roles in the story are carefully noted. Timelines are mapped out to the exact minute (especially in murder mysteries) and charts are drawn up to show exactly what direction the story will take, including the "unexpected" twists and turns.

"Pantser" is short for "flying by the seat of your pants"--someone who just sits down, with only an idea for a story in their mind, and starts writing. They might know who the characters are, what they look like, and why they do what they do, but the details will be ironed out as the story gets down on paper. They know what the story is about and what's going to happen, but it might take a 38-hour day in the first draft to tell it (that's what editing is for, right?)

My style of writing falls somewhere in between. Of course, I have to know who  my characters are and what's going to happen in the story, but plotting a novel down to its every detail would drain me of energy and creativity. I'm not a recklessly impulsive person in real life--I do like to think ahead--but when it comes to having fun, I like to give myself a little freedom to "wing it". And writing is fun!

My husband and I are planning a long weekend getaway in a few weeks. I have often said that, for me, it's not a vacation if I have to look at my watch. Having an itinerary for every moment of a vacation seems to suck the joy and excitement out of the experience. If a vacation is meant to give me a chance to relax and recharge, then being on a schedule won't help. However, there are times when it's important to think ahead to what one might want to do on vacation. Certain things--a train ride, a whale watching tour, a special dinner event--do require planning because they are being arranged by someone who isn't on one's particular schedule. It's possible to take a chance and go on vacation and just hope everything falls into place--tickets won't be sold out, reservations aren't required, etc. If you don't really have your heart set on doing this particular activity, that won't be a problem. But if you do, then some planning is sure to be involved.

Just like we have planned out a grape-picking party at an estate vineyard, a lunch time train ride, and a VIP tasting at a winery during our long weekend, a writer has to plan key events, elements, and situations in a book. The fun, unplanned things can connect those points and eventually, they will all make sense and flow into one another to make a story work (with a lot of editing to take care of those 38-hour days!)

In a way, an author is like a cruise director. We have a lot of planned activities and interesting people to meet, but not all of them necessarily contribute to the story. So take some "planned spontaneity" and enjoy the unexpected. It makes for a better story and vacation!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Why do you write Murder Mysteries? A guest post by Marilyn Meredith

Today I'm hosting fellow Oak Tree Press author, Marilyn Meredith, author of the Rocky Bluff P.D. and the Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series. She is set to release the 15th book in her Deputy Tempe Crabtree series, "Seldom Traveled", and she graciously slowed down long enough to sit on the Back Deck and talk about why she writes murder mysteries and to tell you about a contest she is sponsoring for readers who comment on her posts:

My host, Amy, posed this question as it’s one she gets asked a lot. I haven’t been asked that much, but I think the difference is, Amy is young and appears to be sweet. (And she is.) I’m old, and probably appear a bit more on the grumpy side, the type of person who might like dipping into the darker side of life.

Since that’s not really the right answer, I’ll give you my motivation for writing murder mysteries.
Our world today is full of evil—people are killing one another for all sorts of reasons. Some of the bad guys get caught and are killed or punished, but some get away with what they’ve done.

When I’m writing a murder mystery I know from the start that my villain will be caught, no if, ands, or buts! This is one place I know justice will be done, because I’m in control.

Another reason I write murder mysteries is I like the puzzle. Yes, it’s a puzzle for me too because though I think I know who the murderer is from the beginning, sometimes as I’m writing, I know I’ve chosen wrong. When that happens, it means a bit of rewriting to make sure it will all make sense to the reader.

I can understand why people might ask the above question—it might have a hidden meaning, like why don’t you write sweet romances instead? (Or whatever reading genre they prefer.) When you think about it, that question is better than someone asking you where the restroom is, something that happens a lot in a book store signing.

No matter what anyone might think, I’ll continue to write (and read) murder mysteries until I’m no longer able and I hope that’s a long, long time from now.


Seldom Traveled Blurb:
The tranquility of the mountain community of Bear Creek is disrupted by a runaway fugitive, a vicious murderer, and a raging forest fire. Deputy Tempe Crabtree is threatened by all three.

Marilyn Meredith’s Bio:
Marilyn has had so many books published, she’s lost track of the count, but it’s getting near 40. She lives in a community similar to the fictional mountain town of Bear Creek, the big difference being that Bear Creek is a thousand feet higher in the mountains. She is a member of Mystery Writers of American, three chapters of Sisters in Crime, and is a board member of Public Safety Writers of America.

New contest:

Winners will be randomly picked from those leaving the most comments on the blog posts. Each winner can choose one of the earlier books in the series as either a print book or e-book.

You can find me here tomorrow: