Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Denise Verrico: Creating Memorable Characters

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. 
Denise Verrico

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 characters.

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 romance.

Amazon Page:
Servant of the Goddess Trade PB:
Servant of the Goddess Kindle:
Barnes and Noble: Servant of the Goddess Trade PB and Nook:

About the author
Ms. Verrico is an Urban Fantasy author and New Jersey native who grew up in Western Pennsylvania. She attended Point Park College 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

For insider information on the series visit


Thanks for reading The Writers' Lens. Comment to enter this week's Winner's Choice giveaway contest for a copy of a book by Sandra Saidak.
This is T.W. Fendley. You can find me at and on Twitter @twfendley.


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  4. Thanks for having me here today! I'm going to send a link and free coupon code for my ebook, Annals of the Immortyls, to anyone who leaves a comment and a contact email or url.

  5. My Nook posted my comment multiple times. It's possessed. LOL.

  6. Who knew we'd have possessed Nooks to deal with, too. LOL.

    Welcome to The Writers' Lens, and thanks for sharing your insight about creating memorable characters. My main POV character has been always been female, but maybe I need to reconsider that. You've given us lots to think about!

  7. Denise, I enjoyed the interview and found many interesting points, but the one I have believed for years that "the journey is the thing." This is so true. If a writer fails to honor the journey, then...

    Thanks T.W. for giving us Denise's interview.

  8. Great blog, Denise. I liked reading about your vampire Kurt. His background gave him wonderful motivation ... and I love tortured heroes, too. LOL Thanks for posting, T.W.! :)

  9. Keeping a character notebook is a great idea for a novel or a series. We tend to forget things and then make mistakes. I think we do have to venture out of our personal experience in creating character, just as you suggest, Denise.

  10. Awesome post Denise! :) I can't believe you're already on book four. Seems like just yesterday for Cara Mia.

  11. An interesting piece, Denise. I have a little theater background, and appreciate the connection you make between acting and writing.

    I've sometimes found it helpful to create a photo gallery of my characters--especially those I have trouble visualizing. I use newspapers rather than magazines because I want ordinary people rather than models.

  12. A well written and informative post, Denise. I believe characters are what makes a book stand out from all the others in the mind of a reader. The best plot in the world can't do anything unless we breath life into the characters we create.

    Keep up the good work.

  13. A truly brilliant blog on creating characters, Denise. I'm not a vampire fan, but I'd love to read your novel of a bisexual Scottish vampire male! How wonderful to put yourself into his head and heart. I, too, use the Stanislavky method in both acting and writing, so your essay resonates with me!

  14. Great information on characters. I agree that acting experience helps. It never ceases to amaze me that readers who know me will say, "Neev reminds me of you; is it you?" Ah, if only it was: Neev is young, exquisitely beautiful, smart and talented with a camera. However, if I had a daughter, she might have some of Neev's personality..." From another book, I was asked if I was Mel. My answer is always, "If I was Mel, I wouldn't be here; I'd be with Jack." I always say my novels are rich in very real places and emotions, but the people are composites who live between the book covers only. author of Ghost Orchid & more dkchristi at yahoo dot com

  15. Thanks to all for your great comments! I've been away for a few days because my mom passed away. Talk about a character! My mom was such an interesting and complex woman. I learned a lot about human nature from her insight.