Running Jokes

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I like running gags in novels. No, I’m not talking about boisterous humor, necessarily, more about having threads within relationships that span time in the books. When done well, I think they not only provide insight into the characters, they draw the reader into the story by allowing them to feel they’re in on the joke. We know what’s going to happen, but that’s part of the fun. We’re inside; they are our friends now.

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In Jeanne Dark, the two lead characters share a robust and complicated relationship that includes a working partnership, romance, and a tendency to get on each other’s nerves. Instead of constantly writing scenes that talk about this, I look for small moments where differing aspects of their relationship come out. Here are a couple.

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I stood there for too long, not knowing how to respond and finding myself getting more exasperated by this crazy woman every second. Then it hit me.

“This freaking crazy magnet. That’s what this is about, isn’t it?”

“How do you mean?”

“That’s why you wanted to work with me.”

Her eyes flashed wide, and I saw her briefly clinch her fists. Calmly, she put her sunglasses back on and stepped backward one pace, rising onto the first step that led to the National Gallery. She signaled for me to approach, waving her free hand like an enraged traffic cop. I did so. Instead of eye to chin, we were now nearly lip to lip. I wanted to kill her … after I kissed her. I could see her nostrils flaring like some mad little French bulldog, and my realizing that I wanted her so very badly only made me angrier.

“Since obviously, we cannot work together, I will talk to Hardesty in the morning for a reassignment.”

At first, what she said didn’t register, as I was staring at her mouth. When it did, I felt a combination of sadness and relief. “Fine. You do that.”

I heard a gasp, and before I could say another word, she gave me what I thought was a smug little smile and spun on her heels, ascending the steps to the museum. I didn’t follow her. Instead, I trotted to the circle and flagged down the first taxi I could find. If she wanted a new partner, that was okay by me. Maybe now the real detective work could start. I’d always done my best work alone anyway.

Um, I meant investigative work.

***

I managed to drag myself off the bed and met her in the hallway outside our room. “You’re really bad at making exits, did you know that?”

“I am great at exiting. I’m just not so good at explaining when I want to go or asking permission like some schoolgirl. It should be obvious I am leaving when I actually put on my coat and leave.”

“You are so strange sometimes.”

“Merci. I love you too.”

I sniffed. “Are you smoking?”

“Non. At the moment, only the cigarette is smoking.”

I reached around her, took it from her, and put it out against the wall. “First of all, this is non-smoking hotel. Second, since when do you smoke?”

“Since I was twelve. Do I need your permission for that too?”

“Way,” I said.

She frowned another smile at me. “I am French. It is my right to smoke.”

“Take it up with the French Embassy.”

“Writing dialogue,” Bill said, “is easy.”

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If you write or read fiction, you know that dialogue can make or break a story. Good dialogue conveys important story points, personality traits, and relationship cues. It is interesting, crisp, and meaningful. The best dialogue is sharp or witty, and though it reflects real life, it isn’t the same thing as real-life conversation.

In fact, I think that’s where a lot of writer’s stumble — they attempt to make written dialogue mirror real-life speech. It should not. Think of all the conversations you’ve accidentally overheard: at work, in school, in a restaurant at an adjoining table. Did you want to join in? Odds are you didn’t. Know why? It wasn’t interesting. Now think of a conversation you had at a dinner party, one that was funny, or tragic, or engaging. Quite a different experience, wasn’t it?

That’s how dialogue in fiction should work. It shouldn’t mirror speech, it should mirror some of the most interesting conversations you’ve had. That doesn’t mean every word has to be a gem. It means every word should matter. If one doesn’t, take it out.

Here are some general rules for writing dialogue that might help:

  1. Dialogue is not your narrator: Don’t use dialogue to lay out your backstory or to reveal major character traits. Writer’s Digest refers to this as “on the nose” dialogue. I refer to it as fake and stilted. For example, “I walked to school with my sister, Donna, who is entering her senior year. It took forever.” Try to separate the character info on Donna from the conversation. Nobody talks like that. Nobody anyone listens to, anyway, which brings us to the second rule.
  2. Write the way people talk, just better. In other words, don’t use stilted speech. How many times have you heard an American say “Do not” in actual speech, unless they are being emphatic? Not many. We are a nation of shortcut takers, and our speech’s life’s blood is the use of contractions. Don’t overdo it, but make it read naturally. The key to keeping readers engaged is having them believe actual human characters are talking to each other. Overly formal or simplistic speech patterns should be avoided, unless you are using it to reveal personality traits. Jeff Gerke wrote an excellent article called “Stilted Dialogue.” I recommend it.
  3. Keep individuals’ speech patterns consistent.  Don’t have your character saying, “Yonda lies the palace of my fodda, da prince,” in one chapter, and “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum,” in chapter three. Trust me, people will notice.
  4. Make sure everyone sounds different. Dialogue is an excellent way to reveal characters’ differences. We are impacted by our lives, and those impacts show up in our speech patterns. Try this quote: “Fascinating,” he said, his brow raised. Did you know who it was? I bet you did if you’re a Trekkie. Mr. Spock’s tag line wasn’t just for marketing, it was a character marker. I suggest this test — read dialogue after it’s written, ignoring the “she said / he saids” and see if you can tell who is talking just from the words they use. If not, perhaps you haven’t differentiated your characters, or their speech, enough. If two people say the same things, one of them is unneeded. Fix the speech, or kill one of the characters.
  5. Be careful with speech tags (said, asked, yelled, etc.) Nobody cares that you know 150 words that means “said.” Speech tags take readers out of the dialogue. Only use words other than the basic ones like said or asked if they are revealing VITAL information. Even then, use the simplest one you can. If you say “he interjected” I may want to smack you. Just say, “Hey!” We’ll understand he interjected it. And avoid those nasty adverbs. If your dialogue doesn’t make it obvious Taco Bob was speaking vehemently, then he wasn’t. Your telling us it was vehement adds nothing. Fix the dialogue, lose the adverb.
  6. If you can take out a word, sentence, or paragraph without changing the story, it’s unneeded. Take it out. Always. By the way, this should be your Rule 1 in all writing. It’s certainly Rule 1 in editing.
  7. If you don’t come from there, don’t try to make characters talk like they do. You’ll get it wrong and piss someone off. Avoid dialects, Spanglish, pigeon English, Ebonics, or Patois. Just don’t go there; it’s not needed. Plus, you are wrong if you think people speak the same way amongst their inner circle that they do in public. I can speak Ebonics with the best of them. You’ll probably never hear it. If you’re in a certain (male-centered) group, you’ll find out I speak fluent “Mufucka.” Again, not with strangers. If it’s absolutely important, use it in key spots, just to remind the reader Uncle Buck is still kind of a Hillbilly. Did you just bristle when you read “hillbilly?” Yeah, that’s why you don’t write in dialect. It’s no longer PC.
  8. Intersperse dialogue with emotion and action/gesture descriptors. Remember, the best writing uses all 5 senses. When someone is talking to their best friend, she is gesturing, she’s frowning, her voice inflection changes. Perhaps you giggle or shed a tear in response. Maybe she habitually mumbles when she’s being evasive. Or, you make a meta-gesture — looking briefly away, for instance — right before you’re about to tell a whopper of a lie. If you use these well, being careful not overwhelm the dialogue, it conveys sort of a three-dimensional exchange that draws your readers in and enhances the work.
  9. When in doubt, act it out. When I’ve “finished” dialogue, I read it back, aloud. I’ll allow myself to act out the words, gesturing as I read. More often than not, I’m doing this as I write. You’d be amazed at how easy stilted speech gets weeded out this way. Plus, it’s a great way to identify your descriptors (step 8).
  10. Don’t make your characters perfect. People don’t always make sense. Sometimes their words get jumbled. Other times, they stutter, or maybe they flat out lie. Some people make jokes when they are stressed; others have no sense of humor at all. Allow the dialogue to sometimes lead you through the scene. Just be careful to ensure the exchange still reveals important plot and/or character points. And remember, if you’re written the best dialogue in the world, but it doesn’t move the story, you’ll probably need to pull it out. This is a rookie mistake we’ve all made, so be careful.

There are probably other rules, but these 10 will get you a great start. Try them and let me know how you make out.

Of Race and Character

From the interwebz - Artist Unknown (but gifted)

Rue and Katniss from “Hunger Games: Take from the interwebz – Artist Unknown (but gifted)

I’ve been reading articles all afternoon on the dearth of minority characters in books. I find that amusing, as I’ve written 4 books and a short story collection rife with minority (and non-minority) characters. Rather, I think, the articles should consider why books with minority characters don’t garner anyone’s attention.

I remember reading the horrified comments left by moviegoers after discovering that The Hunger Games’ character, Rue, was “made black” in the movie. “Oh, my god, she’s, like, totally black.” (Dear racists: LEARN TO F**KING READ!) It amused me, because of how obvious it was that she and the other District (was it 11?) tribute were black. (I spent most of my time assuming her district was ATL.) In fact, the author did everything but name them Shaniqua and DeJuan. The amusing part was that few seemed to notice that Katniss Everdeen is described in the book as having an olive complexion, with words to purposefully leave her ethnicity ambiguous.  The author’s message, in my opinion?

Race is nonsense. Some people are black, some white, some other, most people are mixed … who cares?

I agree, wholeheartedly. Which is, oddly, why I am so adamant I’d never want the race of any of my characters to change.

Awakening

Charlie Patterson – he likes being biracial, but would Hollywood like it?

Race doesn’t matter, except in the real world. I think it’s imperative that writers create a palette of characters that reflects reality. While I pick my characters randomly, including their ethnicity, once it’s selected, I try to weave it into the story. After all, in the real world, race, at a personal level, means family, and family means histories. We are all the result of our personal and familial histories. To change one, as so often happens in Hollywood, trivializes what is beautiful about ethnicity, while subtly encouraging what is ugly. It’s probably fortunate no one is offering to turn my work to movies – I’d never sign the contract they’d want. (“Robin LeBeaux is a Mexindirishfrenchican girl, dammit!”)

We watch characters change race, so the movie-going audience can more readily relate to them, instead of allowing audiences to learn the characters and discover the differences and similarities on their own. We promote divisiveness for the sake of marketability, well-intentioned or not. In so doing, we don’t learn how a character’s Norwegian, or English, or German heritage affects them. We don’t learn whether being a Nuyorican affects the businesswoman’s outlook significantly. We don’t get to revel in the differences that bond a group; we are too busy watching the similarities that often tear them asunder.

Differences do not make for weakness. If you think they do, allow me to point you to Darwin and genetic science.

But I wonder, as I create characters of specific racial, ethnic, or religious heritage – must they be perfect? If I want a female lead to be flawed – to have improper boundaries, substance abuse problems, to be weak or imperfect – must I make her my race so as to not be called “insensitive?” Must she, in fact, be male? After all, I as a black male couldn’t possibly know what being a Native American female is like, can I?

We, as a world society, have painted ourselves in these monochrome corners, and the only way out is for us to paint multicolored exits. I’m writing a serial/book, with a flawed, non-black-male character and wondering if society will believe it to be a good thing or simply another reason to throw bricks. We must be willing to take chances, I think, and hope that we achieve enough of a balance that at the end, the characters’ redeeming qualities are what are remembered and the flaws what allow us to fall in love with them.

In the meantime, I will continue to hope for a world in which Katniss Everdeen looks like the dark-hair ethnic girl you wish you’d been brave enough to ask to the prom.

Writing as the Opposite Sex

I stumbled across an article penned by Michele Willens in The Atlantic entitled, “The Mixed Results of Male Authors Writing Female Characters.” The article made a number of good points, but can probably be summarized with the following:

“By default, women have it easier than men when they attempt to craft characters of the opposite sex,” says novelist Sally Koslow (The Late Lamented Molly Marx), “because our whole lives we’ve been reading vast amounts of literature written by men.” For male writers, trying to navigate the evolving battles of the sexes is more challenging. To their credit, they are not necessarily shying away from tackling women in their work, but are they ‘getting’ them?

Perhaps this is going too far?

Perhaps this is going too far?

The author goes on to state that some male authors are even beginning to write from a first-person female perspective, while fewer women authors are venturing to write as males. She suggests, logically, it is because male leads have had enough of a say in literature, and perhaps female authors feel it’s their turn. I would go one step further, and suggest it’s because women read fiction, and most men do not. Whatever the reason, there is a growing consensus that writing a lead of the opposite sex can be done well, but it is challenging. Ms. Willen closes with the following statement:

While women probably still write their own parts better, cheers for all who are daring to probe the ever-changing state of the sexes. There is reason for optimism, as gender roles become less distinct, more men get in touch with their at-home sides, and more women become action heroes.

Now, the “at-home sides” portion of that statement poked me in the eye, likely because I only know two women who work at home. One is rich, and retired in her forties, and the other is my mom. My mother would laugh at the suggestion that she’s home doing work. Even more disturbing to me is Ms. Willen’s quote from author Betsy King, who states, “I think most writers see capturing the opposite sex as an ultimate goal and triumph.

Perhaps it is simpler than that. Maybe it nothing more than familiarity. As Ms. Willen’s article suggests, writers write characters of the same sex from within; however, we must write the opposite gender from without. Doing so requires no special skill or training. Rather, it requires actually learning how the other sex operates.

I’ve written short stories that are in the 1st-person female POV. I wrote a 3rd-person novel with two female leads. I’ve also written gay leads, and one character who was transgendered. I even wrote my favorite character, a genderless, somewhat male alien living life for the first time as a woman. I don’t think it’s brave, and it shouldn’t be unusual. See, I’m certain people will tell me the bits I’ve “gotten wrong.” With my novels starring 13-year-olds, I had some readers tell me they acted too mature, and others who told me I got them just right. They were too mature, too young, and perfect. Whatevs.

I think all of this popped into my head because of a brief encounter at work. I spotted a female co-worker today, a friend, who smiled and said hello. However, her brow was ever so slightly furrowed, and her body posture was slumped forward. Her face said she was happy, but the rest of her was bummed. She was heading down the corridor toward the ladies’ room, so I wasn’t about to hold her up.

As I passed by, however, instincts took over and I asked, “You okay? You don’t look your normal, upbeat self.”

She paused and looked surprised. “I-I have a few things going … minor things.” Another pause. “I’ll be okay.” She stopped. You don’t stop on your way to the john if you’re okay. Instead of continuing on her way, she turned and leaned against the wall. She stood there for a few seconds, just smiling slightly at me, but saying nothing.

I stopped too, giving her a chance to decide what, if anything, she wanted to let out.

“You know women really well,” she said, catching me off guard. “I mean, really well.” I said thank you, and she continued, relating how I just allow women to “let it out” without trying to help solve their problems.

It’s been my experience that woman can solve problems they want solved. And that’s what framed my decision to write female characters. It has nothing to do with wanting a “goal and triumph.” Rather, it was as simple as theirs were the stories that interested me. I think what writers wanting to create characters different from themselves need to do is spend time watching and listening. Read books on how the other gender operates. Then, forget every damn thing you read. You don’t need a fake Ph.D. from an online, unaccredited school to understand the opposite sex. Try asking them what they’re like. If you’re a guy, ask a girl. (She won’t be as hot as Reese Witherspoon, unfortunately.)

The sole reason I added this is because Reese Witherspoon is cute as hell. The book is crap.

The sole reason I added this is because Reese Witherspoon is cute as hell and it was her birthday last week. The book is crap. Happy birthday, Reese.

I’ve never, ever met two women who were exactly alike. Sure, there are similarities; my young, female, Indian best friend is a lot like my mom. Her husband, not coincidentally, is like my dad. But in general, the gender similarities can be reduced to communication styles, or the way they maneuver in social groups, and the like. I think it’s as big a mistake to try to “create a believable woman” if you’re a man as would be the opposite. Instead, focus on creating consistent, memorable characters.

I’m a straight (very straight; read “i love women”) male. I promise you know not a single guy like me. So, if you wrote me as a character, should you be concerned that someone might say I’m unrealistic? No, I think a better focus should be on whether I’m boring (which I almost certainly am). I am very glad I plunged in and wrote Roxx, and Trent, and before them Robin, Jannet, Charlotte, and the others without worrying whether my uterine deficiency made me unqualified.

I’ve never been a woman, but I’ve had them call me first at 3 a.m. because their life was falling apart. We should write what we know. If you know the other gender, even if the lead is secretly based entirely on your husband, go for it. A hundred years from now, things we know to be feminine will be appropriate for either gender. History, you see, fixes all the small stuff.

The Making of a Woman


I have written before about my process of creating realistic characters. It’s a bit of psychology, human behavioral study, plot-need fulfillment, and witch doctory. However, there is a greater aspect I’d like to discuss: that is, the broader social issues at hand.

When I write, I don’t like pounding people over the head with ideas, except in poetic works whose point is to punch folks in the face with an idea. For a short piece, like a poem, that’s fine. But you don’t want to be smacking someone in the head for 300 or 400 pages. They won’t read it, and if they do, you’ll wish you hadn’t read their review of your masterpiece. Therefore, I try to fold big ideas into my characters’ personality, but subtly. Some ideas, I inject simply by deciding who they are and what they look like.

For instance, all of my books feature ethnically diverse characters. Part of that is the environ in which I live: my area of Maryland, here in the U.S. national capital, looks like the U.N. I like it, and I let my characters experience it too. However, I do that in an organic way. Basically, their ethnicity is arbitrary. I don’t pick them out of a hat, but almost. It’s sort of how it would work if they moved in next door to me here in Maryland. My message is simple: race and nationality are stupid and don’t freaking matter. I don’t think I ever need to write that in a book.

In developing the lead for my next book, Jeanne Camille Dark, I have spent an inordinate amount of time deciding who she is, and what she’s about. Unlike other characters, I don’t want her to be a bundle of personality traits and dialogue. (Although I do like that when I think of her dialogue, I always hear her French accent in my head.) No, Dark is a compendium of women I have admired for a number of different traits. I foresee her being the star of a number of suspense stories, and such an iconic role deserves an iconic start. She is not the perfect woman, for she’s certainly flawed, but that is good. Nature excels in its flaws. If you don’t believe me, shine a light into a flawed gemstone.

So, I thought I’d share a bit of the influences I have for Dark. Please understand, I did not consciously select any of these women. Instead, I thought about who Dark is, and allowed her to simmer over a slow mental flame. Then, tonight, I looked at my Pinterest page of people I admire, and there they all are. And there was she as well.

In creating a woman, I believe she should have richness of attitude. A woman isn’t all sweetness and light, and wouldn’t we be bored if she were? She has moods, some dark, some pensive. There are times she livens up a room, like a pop music riff. Then, other times, she’s a mellow, crooning jazz symphony.

melody-gardot
She has style — not some affectation that reflects current trends, but her own, natural flair. Jeanne Dark is 1960’s, not due to age, but because she likes the way the clothes fit her. She is elegant, even when dressed casually, and can make a pair of jeans evening attire with a simple piece of jewelry or a ruby smile. She is cool and collected, but does not mistake that for being unemotional. And, if the tears come, she lets them because she’s tougher with them out than in. She knows, this woman, that one cannot be emotionally strong without emotions.

Audrey Hepburn

She’s tenacious — not just emotionally, but physically. Her strength is not defined by what she can do, but by what she has overcome. She wears her scars as a warrior wears a badge. Courage, she knows, is not the absence of fear, but the refusal to yield because of it. Likewise, victory is not often determined by how many pounds you can lift, but by how many people you can move to lift them in your name.

Maya Nakanishi

A smart woman embraces the past, because she has learned that anything created, and made efficient,

Sade Adu

can be recreated, and perfected. Let the less confident concern themselves with whether or not they are being derivative. The female alpha is too busy trying to be effective. Simply put, this is because she understands that once she has learned what she needs and created her own version, no one will believe her to be derivative of anyone short of her creator. And she created her damn self, with ample help from God.

Alicia KeysOpinions matter. And the woman, being a social creature, understands and adapts to this. She keeps in mind how she looks, what her behavior says about her. She maneuvers gracefully through the social landmines in her corporate and personal worlds. There are groups, and cliques, and clubs, and covens. She deals with all, but she does not allow herself to be controlled by any. She cares little that those who don’t matter think she is this:

Marilyn MonroeBecause she knows, when the doors close, and she is alone, she is about much more.

marilyn-reads-whitman the-written-world

Finally, because she has a professional persona, to use the vernacular, she keeps her business out of the street. However, being cool, in charge of her life, the head of her household, and manager of a career, does not make her less of a woman or less of a sexual being. She doesn’t wear her sexuality like a badge. She doesn’t have to.

She knows, because she is dark and light, funny and serious, charming and tough, that she can be whomever she needs to be, when the time is right. And then, and only then, will you see the real beauty, the true magic of being a woman.

Elizabeth Taylor

And you will melt.

Background Work

I decided that the main character of the new book, Jeanne “Dark” D’Arc, owns a 1972 Renault Alpine. She is proudly, almost stubbornly French, and the year is special to her. Her personal symbol is the Ibis, which she had painted on her car. It is a clumsy bird, inelegant, until it can take flight. Having been injured by an accident in her teenage years, the same can be said for her.

I’ve learned that I can’t write a character properly until I “know” them. For short stories, that means grabbing the one thing that motivates them through the story. For longer stories (novelas, novelettes) I have a very brief sketch of who the main characters are. For novels, however, I get to channel my inner OCD. I have full character profiles that include any of the following items:

  • Name, date of birth, place of birth, zodiac sign
  • Parents, siblings
  • Genealogy up to 2-3 generations back
  • Full personality profile – Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Brainstyles, psychological profile, quirks
  • Strengths and weaknesses (included in MBTI)
  • Loves, Hates, and oddities

I don’t really like spending years with a character who is exactly like everyone else you meet. Mainly, that is because I’ve never met anyone exactly like everyone else. I don’t reveal most of the above right away, and quite a bit I never include in the stories at all. However, they form the basis of the “personness” to me. Once I have them in my mind, it’s as easy to write from the character’s perspective as it would be to pen an essay about my mom. That’s as it should be. These characters are my kids.

Shouldn’t we be able to tell our kids apart?

Take Jeanne, for instance. In looking for classic French cars, I came across the Renault Alpine (above) and the 1959 Renault Floride. Now, I knew little of classic Renaults, but I knew the character was “created” while I was looking at a jazz video by Melody Gardot, and she would remain cool and elegant. She doesn’t like convention, and is an artist’s soul in a pragmatist’s body. So her choice of car would be something almost no one had. However, her pragmatism means that she rarely drives it, as parts are nigh-unto impossible to get. So, she owns a beautiful car, mainly as an occasional escape. Given it’s mostly a work of art, why not have it custom painted, to make it hers?

Who knows if the car (or her little mostly reproduction Floride) ever make it into the book? But I’ll know what she does on her weekends, and what car she’s in when she needs to head to a New England getaway. That’s what really matters, I think, that we know. It’s like telling a story to friends, where you leave out the “irrelevant” details. They will want to know the stuff you omit, based on the hints you’ve dropped. That’s how you keep them interested.

At least, that’s my theory. Who the hell knows if it works? Still, if you saw a pretty lady with a slight limp, large, dark sunglasses, wearing a hat and coat that looked as if she stepped out of a Humphrey Bogart movie, wouldn’t you be intrigued?

Writing Interesting Characters

I’ve said any number of times that I am a character-centric reader. That is, my interest in a book is largely determined by how well I can connect to the characters. So it’s not surprising that I write the same way – if I can fall in love with my characters, I know I can develop a story worth reading.

Like most writers, I spend quite a bit of time on a novel. It typically takes me two years from start to finish. If I am not tired of my character by the end of the last, tiresome edit, then maybe my reader won’t tire of them midway through the book. Who wants to spend a quiet evening with someone they don’t like?

Now, I am not saying all of your characters have to be likeable. Instead, I am suggesting there should be something about all the major characters that piques the readers’ interest. In my reading — far more so than my writing — I have come across a few simple elements to good characterization.

Nobody (Interesting) is Perfect

In the real world, no one is a saint, thank goodness. That should be equally true in fiction. People can be insecure, quick-tempered, vain, or slutty. They sometimes make bad choices; occasionally, they are not very bright. Even the most accomplished people you know likely have things about them either you or they struggle with. Give your characters flaws; make them need to grow in order to reach their goal.

Wolverine in a good mood.

Wolverine in a good mood.

Let’s examine some of the more memorable characters in literature. Sherlock Holmes, while a brilliant detective, could be arrogant, condescending, and impatient. He suffered from wild mood swings, including dark lethargy that makes one think he was, perhaps, bipolar. When bored, he ingested cocaine or morphine. Harry Potter, according to J.K. Rowling, suffered from occasional arrogance and anger. Others were obsessive (Captain Hook, Captain Ahab), charlatans (The Wizard of Oz), brooding (Batman, Wolverine), vain (Scarlett O’Hara), or just your everyday scoundrel (Robin Hood). Give them something to work with – but remember, you still want them to be basically endearing, like normal people. Well, normal people you want to hang out with.

You're so vain, I bet you think this book is about you.

You’re so vain, I bet you think this book is about you.

Normal is Boring

Interesting characters have unusual interests ... like smoking.

Interesting characters have unusual interests … like smoking.

Why be normal? It’s your world; make your own rules. Shouldn’t that be the mantra of your lead character? After all, you’ve taken the time to write an entire book about them. Would anyone write a book about you if you were just like everyone else? Maybe, but I sure as hell wouldn’t read it. I’m not saying they all have to be quirky (although quirky is good) but they should have something about them that makes them stand out. For instance, my female lead in The Stream loves making people think she’s dumb, just so she can laugh at how stupidly they continue to explain things to her. (It is a talent she inherited from my best friend.) The male lead, Charlie, habitually talks to himself, aloud, whenever he’s nervous, and gives his emotional and logical sides their own names.

Don’t overdo these, however. I think they should be used sparingly, and only in situations where it makes sense. I have seen other writers recommend things like nervous eating, nose-picking, et cetera. One good way to use quirks is as an emotional barometer to the reader. Maybe your character stutters when he’s embarrassed. Perhaps sneezing is a signal to the reader that your lead is lying.

Know More than You Tell

I think all leads in a novel need a backstory: family histories, personality profiles, major tragedies and successes that motivate them, and the like. Reveal some only when needed to advance the story, and never right away. In fact, keep some that only you ever know. In that way, your character will be consistent with your set of rules, adding to the character’s realism. Even oddballs have some sort of internal logic that close friends can discern. Hopefully, your reader weill intrigued enough to try and figure out your characters’ logic. I also use personality profiles, but I’m a quirky, obsessive kind of guy.

Bad Girls Aren’t All Bad

Neither are bad guys. Don’t make them black any more than you make your hero white (metaphorically speaking). Think gray (or grey). Perhaps your antagonist is a despot who wants to take over the world, but he’s driven by the fact that he believes he can make it a better place. Perhaps your female villain destroys your hero’s life or murders her rival. However, does that mean she’s also a bad mother? Maybe, maybe not. What if this psycho is only hateful to your hero, and a doll to everyone else?

Extend the gray, and your reader begins to find the complexity of their villain more interesting. Indeed, if the bad guy is just horrible, but brilliant, that works too. Holmes wasn’t nearly as interesting until Moriarity came along.

Stay the Eff Away from Stereotypes & Archetypes

I’m not talking about ethnic, cultural, sexist, or other abhorrent stereotypes, although those are right out too. I mean, stay away from the overdone characters that are, um, overdone: the hooker with a heart of gold, the star-crossed lovers, the cynical roommate, or the absent-minded professor. We read that book (in high school). We saw the movies. Let. Them. Go.

How about the (male) hooker who is actually a poorly educated, sexually abused, meth addict, who is just trying to figure out how not to die on the street? Not nearly so quirky, huh? Maybe the professor has a mind like a Swiss watch, but she has a penchant for blowing people off, because she’s a fucking sociopath. In the real world, one-dimensional people don’t exist. If they did, no one would give a damn.

It’s Your World

Make it a place people want to visit, and tell their friends about. Tell us about your favorites, so we can come be quirky all over your blog post.