Thursday, August 30, 2012

September Characters: Your Main Character

You all remember my post on "normal" characters, right? Let's get a little more nitty gritty. These aren't by far all of the character archetypes you can have, but these are the ones that strike my fancy. Don't mind the rambling. The first two are female main characters, the second two are for the males. You'll see I sort of just put them in two different categories: strong and not so strong. The key, of course, is a good character arch. No one wants to read about a character who learns nothing on their journey.

The Strong Female Lead: Or, as I like to call them, the Spice Girls of the literary world (girl power bands, get it?). These girls start strong, are independent, self sufficint (enter Bella, page two, before she meets Edward). Definitely the type of character mothers want their daughters reading. They don't need a boy, or help. They sneer at the damsels in distress. All well and good, but if you're writing a strong female lead, don't forget to make them fallible. One of the biggest mistakes I see in YA is the girl who starts strong but either remains too strong throughout and therefore doesn't have a big enough character arch, or doesn't stay true and falls too hard or makes mistakes that are out of character--these are allowed of course, but remember their motivations must be warrented. A SFL (you get it, it's an acronym!) is very succesful in Adult Urban Fantasy (a must really, unless you're writing the cozy stuff, which I love). And a SFL in Paranormal Romance is guarenteed to be a burr under a strong male's saddle. These SFLs must have a character arch. They must start from somewhere and journey to another place (become softer, learn to let another person in, drop their guard, etc).

The Weak Female Lead (or WFL): These are the timid girls, the wall flowers, the girls who don't want to attract the vampire or lead a revolution (I could argue for Katniss to be in this category). But by a twist of fate or Shakesperean ploy, are thrust into the limelight, sink or swim, taken under a boy's wing and turned into a beautiful swan, bitten and turned into a werewolf. They turn into a strong character, or at least, a brand new shiny version of the original. I mentioned cozies above, which have female leads that are a fun mix of strong and weak (The Underworld Detection Agency, How to Host a Killer Party series, even the Sookie Stackhouse novels), with thirty-something women who aren't all the way put together but can stand on their own two feet.

The Badass: Leather, tattooes, misunderstood, brooding, quick temper, dark past, deep eyes, tortured soul. You know what I'm saying, ladies. The reason I love Paranormal Romance. They might be all dark and dangerous, but when it comes to that one girl, their soul mate, they're putty, they turn into a better version of themselves, while remaining true of course. Hold their girl's hand with one hand, pummel the bad guy with the other. They can't remain stoic throughout. They have to change, perhaps fight the change, but change nonetheless. In YA, you have to remember that no teenage boy is actually able to perfect this image of badassed perfection. They'll crack eventually. And man, do we love when the badass is vulnerable.

The Softy: Also known as the geek, the poet, the musician (who can also be a badass), the nerd (different from geek, of course). This is the boy who takes our expectations and spins it on its head. They're smart, funny, the boy next door, but do not underestimate him. A well done softy can be a really fun read. In YA my favorite is Cricket from Lola and the Boy Next Door. Very smart, great dresser, sensitive. Susan Elizabeth Phillips does a great job with the softies (Adult Romance). Dex from Lady Be Good (okay, Dexter is actually a secondary character) sneaks right in there to just charm your pants off.

Happy writing!

Monday, August 27, 2012

August Characters: Secondary Characters

Unless your novel centers around one or two people, you will have secondary characters. Come on, even Tom Hanks had Wilson in Cast Away.

So what purpose do secondary characters (any characters who are not the main character, love interest, or antagonist) actually serve (besides adding to your word count)? Plenty!

Comedic relief: Especially in a serious novel, or heck, in a funny novel too, comedy is always important. Think Harry Potter; Ron had his share of light moments, Fred and George definitely did too. When Harry was going on an angsty rampage, Ron, the twins, even Luna and Neville (Crookshanks, Pigwidgeon, you get the point) gave us moments of light-hearted respite. But don't think that the funny character is only a funny character--Ron had character archs same as Harry. Comedy characters can't just jump into your scene whenever you need a punch line. They serve purpose, texture, occasional wisdom, plot device. You name it, a comedy character can deliver it. If your ms is too dry or imbued with too many characters, consider rolling several characters into one--the right one can provide you everything the main character can't alone.

Romantic Subplot: I'm thinking specifically of Paranormal Romance here, but you can apply to many genres. These are the characters that might appear in several books in your series. They might have a very large role much later on, but again they provide texture, occasional relief from the main story line, but they always intersect with the main plot and must serve at some point as critical to moving the story forward. JR Ward Black Dagger Brotherhood fans know exactly what I'm talking about. John Matthew shows up early in the series and his importance pulls him through many books until he gets his own book. Quinn and Baylock also demonstrate this principle; vital to the emotional grid of the Brotherhood, key players in the plot, show up early and appear in each book in the series. As far as I know, this couple won't get their own book, but we know them as intimately as any Ward characters.

The Snitch: No, not an inanimate flying object. We already discussed Harry Potter. I'm calling it the snitch, because this character might be confused, unintentionally hurt, might even betray the main character. This character goes through their own transformation, perhaps redemption from the main character, or from the self. I'm obsessed with the TV show Suits, so I'm going with Louis Litt for the snitch. Louis fluctuates from friend to enemy depending on the plot and situation. He is a very sympathetic character; he only wants to be valued by his peers, which anyone can identify with, so when he betrays Harvey or Jessica, we don't hate him. Contrare, I want to pat his head and feed him ice cream. The Snitch is going to be invaluable to your plot, going as far as being a major plot point and perhaps turning around to aid the main character in the conclusion.

The Mentor: Obi Wan anybody? This might be one of the most important characters in your story. Perhaps even more important than your main character because, what else does a mentor do, he has shaped your main character into the person they are or become in the story. The key to a mentor character though, is to remember that they are fallible, destructable, mortal, prone to the same mistakes and falls as any real person. And, at some point, they have to step aside (die, in Obi Wan's case) to allow the hero to fulfill his hero quest. Ooo, that sounded important, didn't it? Well, it is! But that's plot, and another discussion for another day. Or read The Writers Journey, anything by Joseph Campell, and/or screenwriting books. Many of you may not have read it yet (I haven't reviewed it yet) but Origin by Jessica Khoury has many mentor type characters. Since the others double as many roles (including Antagonist), the newest member in the community, Aunt Harriet teaches Pia things she was always forbidden, even helps her break rules and expand her perfect brain beyond the limits she was taught.

Aunt Harriet might also be considered a catalyst--her arrival changes Pia, and thus the plot. As I hope you've figured out by now, secondary characters can double as plot points. Without them, you have no plot, or at least, a much less interesting one. A very interesting conversation of plot vs character driven stories will be reserved for another day. But bicker amongst yourselves.

It isn't necessary to have all these elements to make a good story. And having all these elements does not guarentee a good story either. It's how you use them that's important. In many novels, you might not have a mentor, or the mentor might be implied. Fantasy definitely has more use of a mentor than say YA contemporary. For a YA character, their mentor character is probably going to be their parents. And if they're driving, on the cusp of adulthood, their parents are absent, the mentor character is definitely implied and out of the character's way. That's the idea of YA, afterall, characters who are not equipped with all the tools are thrust into life to fend for themselves, and you can hardly do that with your mother right there fixing your mistakes.

Remember, secondary characters are different from background (or incidental) characters. Secondary characters serve your plot, impact the emotional well being of your main character. Background characters might also provide comedic relief and occasionally vital information, they might be quirky and memorable, but if you take them from the story, the plot and main characters should be fairly unchanged (albeit a little less colorful). In The Hunger Games, these are the character Katniss comes into contact with every day in District 13, or meets breifly at the Capitol, or the contestants who aren't given names. Pay attention though to how much weight these characters are actually given; they can be the difference between blah world building and a spectacular world every one wants to read.

Homework! Next time you watch a movie or even a TV show (comedies are fantastic for this--I just watched Bridesmaids and had to eat a lot of popcorn to keep from geeking to my friends about the character archetypes and plot devices) see how many secondary characters you can spot and how each role is vital to the plot.
My favorite secondary character of the movie

Happy writing!

Friday, August 3, 2012

August Characters: Intro

Let's celebrate this lovely weather (ha, not--Seattle thinks April Fools is ALL summer long) by talking about characters. And I mean EVERYTHING characters. Main characters, love interests, villains, parents, siblings, the funny friend character (or as I like to call it, the Ron Weasely character), historical characters, contemporary characters, the after-school-special character, the rebel without a cause character. But what I really hope to achieve this month is to really demonstrate what it takes for us (the agents, editors, readers) to fall in love with a character, and what it will take for you (the writer) to build such a character.

When considering a project off the query or pitch, I often ask myself (or the writer during a live pitch) "What makes this character unique? Why will a reader fall in love with him/her?" If the query or the writer cannot answer this question, I have doubts that the character is fully developed. I get such answers as "her mother dies and she has to learn how to care for her four younger brothers" or "she never thought she was special before she got her powers" or "she's really snarky."

Sorry, but yawn. And, also, you didn't answer my question. That's all plot (except for the last one and seriously, who isn't snarky these days?). I want to know what makes your character her. (Executive decision made, I'm referring to characters as shes, sorry guys). Does she have daddy issues that make her incapable of forming trusting, true relationships? Is she so one track minded towards a goal that she doesn't care who she steps on to get there? Is she incapable of watching Free Willy without crying?

Have you ever gotten a rejection along the lines of "I just didn't fall in love with the character"? Character building might be your issue then. The plot might be fantastic, the writing solid, but your character is lacking spark. On Monday I'll talk about "normal" characters.

(You may recall my March Madness post "It's not me, it's you" in which I talked about characters. A few of my posts will be borrowing heavily from this, as I've been wanting to go in depth about characters for some time. You can read the post here to catch up/get ahead of the class.)

Happy writing!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Wednesday Reads: Premonitions

I have a very special Wednesday Reads for you guys. And a little story to go with.

Every so often, an agent finds a manuscript that is remarkable. That, every time you read it, you fall in love with it all over again. That, when you tell people about it, you get excited and bouncy and scare people away. That the mere thought of other people not falling in love with it breaks your heart.

I actually found this when I was an intern. I believe I had requested a hundred pages and when I got to the end I didn't wait, couldn't wait, and I asked for the full ms immediately. It was one of those that I was constantly refreshing my email wanting to read it. If not for that little break, I read it in one sitting. I immediately sent it off to Andrea (my boss, come on guys, keep up!) and she read it in one sitting (at night, lost sleep--for more than one reason).

So we worked with Amber to polish, beautify, and make it more profound, scarier (even though it already was all of those things!). Then we started to pitch it to editors. This went on even as I began my own journey as an agent.

Alas, earlier this year, we had to concede a minor defeat: editors just didn't know where to place it. Where does one put a Die Hard from a mother's perspective trying to protect her children? So we encouraged Amber to self publish it because the idea of it not ending up in readers' hands was devastating.

Catch up with Amber on her author page here, buy it from Amazon here, and follow her on Twitter @amber_colleen. With no further ado, my utterly biased and very enthusiastic review of Premonitions by Amber Colleen.

This is NOT a story about a parent’s worst nightmare.

Nightmares you wake up from...

How far would you go to save the ones you love?

When unspeakable violence threatens a secluded North Carolina town, suburban mother, Mallory Carpenter, must ask herself this very question. For years, she has attempted to escape the darkness of her past by devoting herself to her beloved children. But this peace is shattered when a terrifying group of masked gunmen on a deadly mission invades an elementary school full of innocent children. Soon the school is under lockdown, and the children, parents, and staff are firmly held hostage with no chance of escape.

Cut off from the outside world, Mallory manages to uncover the unbelievable connection between the intruders, the tragic murder of a renowned scientist and his family, and a strange young boy who does not speak. She realizes, too late, her little world was never as safe as she thought it was.

Mallory is forced to confront the twisted past she thought she left behind and use her wits to fight for her life and the lives of others around her. She and the children must band together to defend what is theirs in this gripping psychological thriller debut from author Amber Colleen that will keep readers turning page after page, hoping against hope that everyone will make it out alive.

First Line: (from the prologue) "Crouched here on the cold title in a puddle of blood, I think about the thousands of tiny decisions that brought me here: to this day, to this place, to this moment." The journey Mallory takes is as much an emotional one as one of action and danger and split second decisions. Right here we're seeing into her mind at a crucial moment that will come up again in the book.

(From chapter one) "This typical school day morning, my big challenge is footsteps. Little six-year-old footsteps clad in lavender socks, moving at the speed of still water." Chapter one brings us to the beginning of Mallory's day, which is very suburban, very normal. Any mother can identify with Mallory. I love the levity of this passage, the "woe is me and my challenges as a mother that I absolutely love and can't live without." I'm not a mother myself, but I identify with Mallory 100% anyways. She's just that likable and relatable a character.

Brownie Points: How many am I allowed? Because there isn't one part of it that I like more than the others. I've already said how much I like Mallory. You'll have to read to figure it out yourself. But my other brownie point has to go to the sheer terror going on in this novel. It's so real, so tangible, the love of a mother for her children, the courage of a group of people, no matter their age, trapped together in a nightmare. And of course, there is one thing, one awesome AH! moment that you'll know when you read it. I can't even hint. Can't.

Beefs: This is not a bedtime reading book. One, it might give you some pretty interesting dreams. Two, you might not sleep at all because you need to read it all at once. No matter how many times I read this, I always block out a few hours from my day to get it done, because I know from experience I can't leave it in the middle.

Recommendation: It's the sort of book that will appeal to all sorts of people. It has love (general, non romantic love), action, a beautiful character arch, children that will steal your heart, evil villains that will speed your heart. Seriously, read it. And I realize I might have emphasized the nightmare terror point above, it's not that scary, so accessible to anyone.

Represent: There really is no telling what I'll fall in love with. Would I represent something like it again? Perhaps. I'd have to read and see. I'll be more inclined for something heavier on the romance. But for just a straight women's thriller, Andrea would be the person to go to for that. But I am hella glad I plucked this one out of the slush pile.

Happy reading!