Shhh, don’t tell anyone but I think she’s gay

“Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … unless they’re, like, gay or something.” — Not the Statue of Liberty

“My being blind doesn’t make me stupid.” — Justice

Egalidad

Some of my characters end up being lesbian, bisexual, gay, or transexual. Some, like Trint in my novel Hard as Roxx or Peyton in my novelette* “Days of the Never Was” were born that way. Others, like headliners Roxx, from Hard as Roxx or Luce, in the novelette “Manhattan Transference” discover their sexuality as an integral part of the plot.

In some instances, I created a character’s sexuality somewhat randomly, like Trint, and allowed it to impact the story in accordance with how the characters’ personalities mesh. In fact, in Trint’s instance, I eliminated a planned major character because Trint and Roxx’s energy supplanted what I’d intended to be a main storyline. In “Days of the Never Was,” which follows three pairs of friends as they have their identities shifted due to a mysterious fog, I created a character in order to write a relationship that touched on how gender and sexual identities affect relationships, and then allowed it to flip.

Initially, I hesitated to do so, since I’m not gay, but then I realized I don’t have a vagina either, so … I’m guessing what creating characters requires is understanding more so than personal experience. I’m not particularly a fan of story lines like the old TV show “Will and Grace,” whose primary characters seemed to be saying, “Look at me! I’m gay! Isn’t that funny?” Well, not so much, no.

Still, one of the reasons I didn’t release Roxx, although the book is finished, is that I wondered about people’s acceptance of a gay relationship. After getting feedback from various readers, I still wonder. Not a single person so much as mentioned the relationship, even though it is the central relationship to the story. Is that indicative of how far society has progressed, or is it that people aren’t comfortable saying they weren’t comfortable? The initial publisher I’d lined up to market the novel read it, had plenty of praise and few critiques, but didn’t seem interested in selling the book. Maybe he’d decided it wasn’t his cup of tea, or maybe the industry discouraged his marketing anyone’s book, or maybe he secretly thought it was a boring story. Who knows?

I suppose I’ll never know, which is fine, because I don’t believe it’s my job to care about whether things I write cause readers discomfort. My job is to write the story. The reader’s job is to decide how it affects them. Still, it would be pretty cool if it turned out no one has mentioned any of my LGBT characters because they didn’t think it was something worth mentioning.

*Definitions:

Novel: a work of 40,000 words or more
Novella: a work of at least 17,500 words but under 40,000 words
Novelette: a work of at least 7,500 words but under 17,500 words
Short story: a work of under 7,500 words

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 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. 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 will be 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 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 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.

Crazy Magnet, Part 2

See Part 1 here:

What first made me wonder if I was attracting crazy folks was the abrupt way that Holly – my ex – changed. We had known each other as friends for two years, mostly online at first. Then, we started hanging out, and soon thereafter, we were a couple. She was an amazing girlfriend: funny, creative, even-tempered, not a trace of jealousy. Then we got engaged, and boom, a complete personality change. I initially chalked it up to wedding jitters. I guess her hitting that poor guy with her car should have been my first clue. But, in fairness to me, accidents happen all the time, right? I found out later that Holly hit his car in the parking lot at work six times because he had taken her favorite parking space. His little convertible didn’t stand a chance against her SUV. At the time, Holly told me her company laid her off because business was slow.

Well, that and the fact that you sent the owner’s son to the hospital with two broken legs and a steering wheel indentation in his chest, you psycho bitch.

Sorry, I digress. Anyway, that was my first inkling. It was not so much that crazy women like me – plenty of people experience that particular joy. It was the length to which they would pretend to be normal, just to become a part of my life. And it’s not just women. I attract crazy men too; turns out it isn’t a sexual thing. For whatever reason, the mentally ill want to be my friend. They stop me at airports. They accost me on sidewalks on my way to the coffee shop. They flag me down in traffic, follow me to stop lights, and try to climb in the window … just to chat. They share their imaginary friends with me. And lately, they make me a lot of money.

Oh yeah, I guess I probably should have opened with that. My name’s Foster Cain, Foss to my friends, and I’m the sole proprietor of Moonstruck Assurance, LLC. I thought about adding another word to the name, like “Detection,” just so my business cards could read “MAD, LLC,” but I decided that would be too much. My clients know what I do. They pay me buttloads of cash to make sure the people in their lives aren’t nuts, whacko, meshugah, non compos mentis, barmy, or just bug nuts. Sometimes, the cops pay me to find psycho killer types. I owe it all to my darling ex-wife, for pointing out my gift, and sending me into therapy. It was there I met my mentor, who pointed me to graduate school in psychology and criminal anthropology. Foss Cain, Nutbag Detector, PhD, that’s me.

My jackass brother calls me the Psycho Whisperer.

By now, I probably come off as a bit of a jerk. I know it isn’t exactly politically correct to use terms like “bug nuts,” and I don’t in real life. On the job, I try to stay professional, which isn’t the same as empathetic, but it requires me to treat all the crazies … rather, subjects, with dignity and respect. You know, it’s like how the military is supposed to treat prisoners of war. I’ve been regular army, so I get that. I have to tell you though; it is draining to constantly be pulled into their little psychoses. So, while I treat them with dignity on the job, mostly I just wish they would all go away and leave me the hell alone. Until the next mortgage payment that is. Then, they are my best buds.

Yeah, I figured you would understand my dilemma. I reckon most people think the people they work with are crazy. In my case, it just happens to be true. Maybe I figure if I’m insulting enough in my head, God, or whoever, will take this particular “gift” back. It is not the crazies I hate, it’s having my entire life tied to dealing with them, but not in a way that would enable me to help them.

Thanks, Jesus – good looking out.

So, that’s the brief on my world. “Security Consultant” for hire, aka Nutbag Detector, on my way to meet a brandy-new potential client that could pay enough so I can ditch all the “Is my new girlfriend crazy?” jobs and focus on the real stuff I’m trained to do, which is, mainly, catch bad guys. After grad school, I spent ten years in Army Intelligence, profiling the bad guys, and another five as a consultant for some pretty high-end customers. The big money is in being a SME, but the “girlfriend” jobs keep the bills paid. Oh, I should mention, we in Government work throw out a lot of letters; you’ll get used to it. SME is Gov-speak for Subject Matter Expert, pronounced “smee.” It sounds more impressive than it is.

Interesting Enough to Develop?

Crazy Magnet, Part 1

Oh good, my crazy magnet is still turned on.

I can tell it’s working by the looks I get from the homeless lady seated mid-sidewalk, taking a leak. Her smile would be sweet under other circumstances. I smile back, as experience has shown it does no good to pretend not to see them. Crazy people do not like to be ignored. Odds are that’s why she’s watering the sidewalk, in hopes one of the people frowning as they dodge her little river might stop to notice she’s not dead yet. No such luck. I give Crazy Annie a couple of bucks and tell her to go buy some clean skivvies. Cops will arrest her for smelling like piss in a business district. I think she will; they usually do what I ask … wish to God I knew why.

Maybe it’s the smile; I’ve been told I have a nice one.

My little donation is self-serving, to be honest. I’m on my way to a client meeting, and the last thing I need is a thirty-minute delay while I scrape another angry schizophrenic off me. The last one, Barbara, is why I’m running late in the first place. See Barb and I were absolutely drawn to each other, which, experience has shown, is a very bad sign. I try very hard not to date women who are into me. Darling Barbara, however, tricked me – twice.

We woke up together this morning after an absolutely wonderful evening. Barb’s a writer, as it turns out. Yeah, I know; the crazy alarm should have been ringing as soon as she told me. But she also a corporate lawyer, so I figured the two things cancel each other out. Contract pushers usually don’t have sufficient imagination to be too batty. Besides, she’s beautiful, long, smart, and curvy – my type, you know? I picked her up in a bistro in Georgetown last night. I was having the vodka soup, served in itty-bitty glasses. At first, she wouldn’t give me the time of day. That’s my first test – the crazy ones come to me, normal girls, not so much. We spent a long time chatting over too many drinks, and after some major wheedling, I finally convinced her to let me take her home. Even then, she only consented because she was no longer in a condition to drive. Too many drinks stopped affecting my ability to drive years ago. Besides, I had a cab waiting; this wasn’t exactly the first time I went to dinner and skipped the food.

I probably shouldn’t be proud of that.

Anyway, the thing that fooled me was that this woman had no interest in getting involved with me – which, in my book, made her sane. She must have told me five times she wasn’t looking for any kind of relationship. So, I took her home; we chatted some more, and next thing you know, I’m crashing on her couch. It was nothing sexual – just me being sleepy and her being sweet. We have a really cool, platonic friendship budding. Then, at three in the morning, just like that, the magnet switches on. I wake up with her lips all over me. She’s buck naked, and she’s ohmyfreakinggod fine. By three-fifteen, I no longer care about friendship. It’s more than a one-night-stand; it’s love, sort of, with a normal girl.

Well, normal for me, as it turns out.

By nine o’clock, I’m dodging kitchen knives as I try to make my way out of Psycho Barb’s apartment. According to her, I’m somewhere between a rapist and a philanderer, despite the fact that all I did was fall asleep on the damned sofa. Between shrieks, she tells me she dreamt I cheated on her, and suddenly she’s I-knew-you-would-cheat-because-that’s-what-no-good-bastards-like-you-do-as-soon-as-a-lady-gives-herself outta her damned mind. To make a short story long, that scared me because she was A, nuts, and B, not really into me, at least initially. I thought maybe my crazy magnet wasn’t working anymore.

The magnet is the most reliable thing in my life, which is pretty unfortunate, if you think about it. Crazy people are drawn to me like alley cats to a bowl of cream. Psycho Barb was insane enough that she should have been all over me from the start. I guess it just takes a while in some cases. Or maybe she was just shy, because Crazy Annie proves the magnet still works.

I first discovered my affinity with the emotionally disturbed shortly after my first marriage, at age twenty-four. Well, not so much after the marriage as after the wedding. At the reception, my darling bride – still dressed in her gown – poured scalding coffee over my head. It really put a damper on the party. She claimed she didn’t like the way I was looking at the minister – her mother – during the wedding. I spent our wedding night at the hospital’s ER, getting treated for second-degree scalp burns. My dear, remorseful bride was at my side. Thankfully, there were no female doctors on staff that night, and the male nurse on duty was straight.

I may attract crazies, but I’m no fool. I had the marriage annulled a week later.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Sure, plenty of people have issues with jealousy, and yeah, I did end up having an affair with her mom a few months after the annulment, but that was unplanned. Her mom’s a little nuts too, but at least not in the violent, possessive way. Besides, I figured somebody in that family owed me a conjugal visit, especially given how badly those burns jacked up my afro. I consummated the hell outta my relationship with my sexy ex-mother-in-law.

Developing Characters a Reader Could Love

I confess. When it comes to books, I am a people person. No matter how unique and interesting the story, if the characters don’t hold my interest, I will likely never finish the book. For one thing, I am not a particularly fast reader. If I invest 400 pages of my life in a novel,  I want it to be about characters I care about, if not love.

And there it is. The “L” word.

We want to love our characters, don’t we? When you think of Moby Dick, do you think of a story about a bunch of sailors, or do you remember the obsessed Captain Ahab, in pursuit of his personal demon, the white whale? We remember the book, because we love how insane the good Captain is. Unlike real life, we don’t even have to like our characters in order to fall in love with them. Few would admit to feeling warm fuzzies about Hannibal Lector, yet we devoured books and movies about his exploits as if they were served with fava beans and a nice Chianti.

So how do we do it? How can we create characters that are memorable? How do we make readers fall in love?

In my series, The Stream, I feature two main Characters, Charlie Patterson, a shy 12-year-old struggling with internal conflicts, and Robin LeBeaux, his quirky best friend, who is outgoing if a bit odd. Now it is my belief that characters that carry the lead in a book need to be larger than life.  If they are ordinary, frankly, why should anyone read it? We see ordinary people every day. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to read 250 pages about my accountant.

However, we have to be careful that while making them “interesting,” they remain believable. This is the thin line we writers must walk, or risk our leads become comic book characters, or worse, stereotypes. Even comic book characters, when well-written, have traits that seem real to us. This is the balance we need to create.

Let’s take Charlie, for instance. His initial goal in life is to fit in, preferably to disappear. Sadly for Charlie, and happily for us, in order to fit in, one has to be “ordinary.” He is not. In order to make my lead memorable, I used Myers-Briggs Type Indicators to build a character profile that was consistent and believable. Then I twisted it. I gave him two distinct personality types that are in conflict with one another. He has a constant inner dialogue going between his preferred logical side, and his equally strong, but unwanted, emotional side. Finally, just for fun, I let the readers listen on this dialogue, even giving each side their own name – Chuck vs. Charlene.

For Robin, I took a different tact. She is trying to overcome personal tragedy – the loss of her sister and father in a car accident. This is the source of her inner conflict and dialogue. Again, I used Myers Briggs to choose a personality type, ENFP in her case. Now ENFP’s have, according the experts, “what some call a silly switch.” So in order to make her memorable, I turned Robin’s silly switch way up. And voila, you have a girl with a dark past and personal demons, in balance with a bubbly, outgoing, playful personality.

Being a visual person, I find it easier to write “my peeps” when I know what they look like. So after deciding whom they are, I search the internet for photos of them. By now they are real enough that I’ll know them when I see them.  At home I use a 27-inch Mac, and the only things on my desktop are a full-screen photo of my WIP’s current scene, and thumbnails of my main characters.

It’s love, I tell you, love!

Once the characters are defined, all that’s left is placing them in interesting situations. I recommend battles with warm-blooded dragons in a vivid world of dreams, for a start, as in The Stream: Discovery. (*cough* Shameless plug *cough*)

Obviously there are different ways to do this. My suggestion for writers is simply to remember that people don’t come in carefully chosen categories. In real life, “strong silent types” have friends they’ll talk their heads off to. That distinguished-looking Indian gentleman in the next office loves to play soccer on the weekends with the grandkids – and cheats, because he hates to lose. Real people, like good characters, break molds. They are fun, and flawed, and a bit inconsistent. Use that, and don’t forget to give them small details. Those are the ones people will remember.

For readers, my advice is simpler. If the book develops a tad slower than you expect, but the characters are rich, and full, even quirky, hold on and see where the author is going. You may just meet one of the loves of your life.

Keeping It Real

My characters are real to me. No, I’m not schizophrenic, to my knowledge. I can separate reality from fantasy, and do so, as it suits me. I mean, in my writing and editing, I go to great lengths to make my characters seem like real people. If they aren’t real to me, there’s little chance they will be real to a reader.

A book is a brief encounter with a character set. By definition, unless you are writing a biography, readers will be with your characters only for portions of their lives. Their stories, therefore, must be richer than what is painted in the book, or they are parts of people, not whole beings.

I often write short scenes or even stories involving my characters. A few of these make it into a book during editing. More often, these stories serve to cement the characters’ personalities in my head. I usually don’t even bother to write  them down. As I fall asleep, or awakening, characters often filter into my thoughts. I have characters from different books interacting there. As a result, I can contrast and compare characters, and ensure I’m not repeating a favorite character with a different name.

When I edit, reading my hardcopy printout, I often have my representative photos of the characters in the scene displayed. The photos are never perfect, but they are close. I do spend quite a bit of time finding the right photo after the character is in my head. Their photos help me to envision the scene, and keeps them real people.

I am sometimes criticized for my work “lacking polish,” but I’ve yet to have someone tell me a character was underdeveloped. I guess keeping it real works for me.