Today I'm very pleased to offer a guest post by Denise Verrico, who I met through our publisher L&L Dreamspell's writers' group.
I thought I might share some thoughts on creating
characters. Writers are often told to stick to the familiar in creating
characters. This is true in some senses and a good starting point for the new
writer. However, I write speculative fiction and this genre is always stepping
outside of the norm of experience. The author’s task is to build a believable
world out of the alien, and this includes characters that are often vastly
different than human beings.
In writing my vampire novels, The Immortyl Revolution series, I had to stretch the creative
muscles in bringing to life characters far outside of my personal experience.
This is the kind of challenge that makes me tick as a writer. The first two
books have an Italian-American female protagonist. She is a young actress in
New York City. Her ethnicity and profession are somewhat similar to my
background, but she was born in 1930 and becomes a vampire. Whoa, now the imagination
must kick in. In the third book, out of nowhere, another character was born in
my head and begged to step into the spotlight. He took me on a pretty wild
ride. I’m a heterosexual, American,
all-too-human female, yet in this third book I write from the first-person POV
of a bisexual, Scottish, vampire male. Is this too far out of my sphere of
experience to write? Well, I don’t know any genuine vampires. That one is
probably out of nearly everyone’s experience. Can an American truthfully render
a person from another country? Do I, a female, have the right to get inside the
male psyche? Does a straight person understand how a gay person feels?
The answer is yes. Every character written is part the
author, part research and part pure imagination. I happen to think “typical”
people don’t usually make for interesting characters. It is the extraordinary
person that often becomes the hero or heroine of the book, even if he or she
appears to lead a rather ordinary life. Jane Austen wrote about acerbic, critical
Lizzie Bennett, not sweet, obedient Jane Bennett. Tolkien chose to write about
the restless Frodo and Bilbo, not the peaceful Hobbit folk of the shire. The
writer must find that person who for some reason stands out from the pack. I was thrilled this spring to serve on a
panel with the amazing fantasy writer, Tamora Pierce, who wrote the Song of the
Lioness series. I had proposed a panel
called “Writing What You Don’t Know”, which dealt with creating characters different
from one’s circle of experience. I never
expected the guest of honor to be on this panel. It was my first time as a moderator, and I
was so nervous! However, Ms. Pierce was
a lovely person and had some interesting insights to bring to the table. She believes that writers should step outside
of their experience, and to do this they must research thoroughly. One her favorite sources of information about
a culture is their cookbooks. This
Italian girl loved that.
My training is in acting. The master acting teacher,
Stanislavski, speaks of something called the “Magic If”. In other words, what
would I do in if thrust into this character’s given circumstances? All people
share common experiences and desires that allow us to empathize. Even if the
writer is dealing with a fantastical creature like an elf, alien or an android,
the character must be approached as a person with an internal conflict.
The trick in writing someone so “different” from oneself is
to thoroughly think out what this character is all about. Stanislavski also
said, “generality is the enemy of all art.” Make your character’s traits,
likes, dislikes and deeply held beliefs very specific. A character’s religion
or lack of it tells a lot about that person. Give him or her a ruling passion
or obsession, a family history and lots of emotional baggage. Everyone
experiences these things.
First off, I create back-stories for all of my major
characters. All of this is for my personal use and only bits will show up in a
book. How the personal history impacts the character is the important thing.
For example, I have a character in my vampire series, Kurt Eisen, who as a
teenager was in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. He lost his entire family
and did some unsavory things to survive. His vampire master ultimately gives
him immortality. This all adds up to a heavy burden that Kurt carries with him
for a half-century. It fills him with a sense of wanting to right wrongs and
spurs him to fight injustice. Readers
told me they were intrigued by Kurt and wanted to know more about his
journey. Later, I wrote a short story
about Kurt’s experience that is now in the collection, Annals of the Immortyls.
There a many good exercises for developing well-rounded
characters. I tend to fall back on those I learned in acting and keep a
character “notebook”. This is always fun for me. I ask myself all sorts of
questions about my character, even if the information never ends up in the
book. It helps to do a lot of research. I also look for images, art, mythology,
poetry and music that relate to this character. These I keep in a file, along
with my research notes. Research need not only come from books. For Cedric in My Fearful Symmetry, I watched several
TV shows featuring British teenagers to get the slang and rhythm of the speech.
I then had an English beta reader check my manuscript for accuracy of British
syntax and terms. You may not want to keep a detailed character notebook on
incidental characters, but they deserve to be given a thorough look to give
them some interesting traits in a brief appearance.
There are some who feel what a character looks like isn’t
important. Wrong. While long descriptive passages of narrative slow down a
story, a hint of the physical appearance of a character and his garb can speak
volumes about who he or she is. Mother Teresa didn’t dress or behave like Lady
Gaga. The way other characters treat your heroine because of her appearance
says a lot about character relationships and informs conflict. A beautiful
person takes for granted advantages that a plain person would love to have.
Conversely a beautiful person may feel his mind and abilities are
unappreciated. These hints come out in dialogue or action. Instead of saying
the hero is very tall, let him drop that information by having him looking down
to talk with a friend. Attitude is important.
The way a villain speaks to a woman he desires will be very different
than one he hardly notices. The words they choose have impact.
Another important consideration to keep in mind is gender,
sexuality and race. These come into play in a person’s development through both
nature and nuture. From birth, we all experience the difference in how the
sexes are socialized. There are differing views on how men and women are hard
wired, but as a writer it’s important to remember that not every man or woman
will behave in the expected way. Every character, like every person, is an
individual. Does he or she accept the socially conditioned role or do they
rebel against it? A person’s sexual and
racial identity is also very important in determining that person’s place in a
culture. Sexual and racial minorities face daily conflicts that the majority
doesn’t. Experience will affect how a person of a different race or sexuality
responds to conflicts. Things a heterosexual person takes for granted, like
holding hands with a lover in public, becomes a taboo in many places. How a
minority is treated in a given environment may highlight the prejudice of
Another interesting way to define your characters is to give
them a “job”, even if they are creatures of fantasy realms. This can add a lot
of texture to the story and uncover conflict. Say you’re writing historical
fiction or fantasy, if your character is a servant or courtesan in the royal
court, it gives him or her obstacles, etiquette and attitudes differing from
the king’s closest advisor or a general of his army.
One final point I’d like to touch on is the character’s
flaws and weaknesses. Don’t be afraid of a few warts. A character can be
sympathetic and yet sometimes behave cruelly or like a complete ass. He or she
can show poor judgment at times. Nobody is perfect. Don’t forget odd quirks and
pet peeves. Remember that you want to show your character’s growth. I had a
writing group member read an isolated, early chapter in my third book. She
commented that she hated the hero for acting stupid and immature toward a woman
who was teaching him. Well, in the chapter she’d read, this nineteen-year-old
boy was acting like a spoiled brat. He was definitely cruising for a bruising.
But I took the reader’s comment as valid and amended the chapter to show the
teacher dealing the boy a well-deserved comeuppance. Yes, this character,
Cedric, can be an ass, but this group member hadn’t read an earlier chapter
where we see the boy suffering through a low point in his life, scrambling to
survive on the London streets as a prostitute. Cedric garners reader sympathy
in the previous chapters through his struggles. There is a learning curve in
the book where this character faces obstacles and starts to care about the
plight of others around him. The young man with a mission at the end of the
book is very different than the vain, selfish boy in that early chapter.
Remember, in a story, the journey is the thing. Getting
there is the fun part.
SERVANT OF THE GODDESS is the fourth novel of the urban fantasy vampire series written
by Denise Verrico. This installment follows up her debut novel, CARA MIA, which
introduces the characters and world of Immortyl Revolution and its sequel,
TWILIGHT OF THE GODS and MY FEARFUL SYMMETRY.
Set in 2001, Verrico’s MY FEARFUL SYMMETRY introduced a new vampire
hero, Cedric MacKinnon, a temple dancer in service to the Goddess Kali, who
learns his beauty and speed render him a lethal weapon. “My vampire society
originates in India.
In my third novel, MY FEARFUL SYMMETRY, I delve deeper into the origins,” says
Verrico. “In the fourth book, I unite
heroine Mia Disantini and Cedric in a way that raises some sparks. It takes place in NYC in 2001, so there will
be momentous events my characters must deal with.” As in all her novels, SERVANT OF THE GODDESS maintains
a science fiction twist on the genre, action-packed thrills and a touch of
About the author
Ms. Verrico is an Urban Fantasy author and New Jersey
native who grew up in Western Pennsylvania.
She attended Point
and majored in Theatre Arts. For seven seasons, she was a member of the Oberon
Theatre Ensemble in NYC. Denise has loved vampire stories since childhood and
is a fan of the Dark Shadows television series. Her books are published by
L&L Dreamspell Publishing and include: Cara Mia (Book One of the Immortyl
Revolution Series), Twilight of the Gods (Book Two of the Immortyl Revolution
Series), and My Fearful Symmetry (Book Three of the Immortyl Revolution
Series). She currently lives in Ohio
with her husband, son, and her flock of seven spoiled parrots.
For excerpts of the Immortyl Revolution Series, character profiles and the
Immortyl Lexicon visit www.deniseverricowriter.webs.com
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This is T.W. Fendley. You can find me at www.twfendley.com and on Twitter @twfendley.