Q&A: Character Development

Q: How do you tap into your own experiences and memories when writing characters?

A: I don’t deliberately scan my memories or experiences for character traits or actions, although there have been times when something interesting happens to me or someone says something in conversation and I make a mental note of it, “I should use that in one of my books.” I’ll make notes of it in Evernote to save for later use. I also keep a paper notebook and pen nearby to jot down ideas.

Q: How do you write characters that are very different from your own personality or values?

A: There are times when a writer has a character do or say something they personally find reprehensible or ill-advised. If a character isn’t very bright, you make them do and say things that you know will produce a bad outcome. Although I’ve never taken acting classes, I think actors would make good authors because they have the ability to put themselves into a role that is dissimilar to their own personality. Those without acting experience, like myself, must simply use some creativity and ask, “What makes sense for this type of character to do in this situation?”

Q: Do you have a specific or formal process for developing your characters?

A: The initial genesis for my characters is based on pure creativity or chance. But once I have the seed idea for a character, I flesh out their background and personality using a formal process. In the Research section of Scrivener, I create a new card for each main character with sections for appearance, goals, background, personality traits, fears and motivation, etc. I even make notes about where the character lives, who they’re related to, and so forth. It’s similar to making a character sheet in a role playing game, minus the stats and equipment. I often refer to these character cards while writing

Q: Is there a method or formula you use to differentiate your characters and make them unique and memorable?

A: Once I have character sheets for each main character, I read through them to make sure they aren’t too similar to other main characters. I even make sure the names of main characters don’t start with the same letter as others, or share too many physical similarities.

Q: Do you live vicariously through your characters?

A: I think it’s human nature for authors to do this to a certain extent. One of the joys of being an author is I get to create an entire world and fill it with characters that are exactly what I want. That gives me a certain feeling of power and control. There have been times when I’ve given my characters certain lines of dialog that is witty or brave. I’m a witty guy, but not until well after the fact, when it’s too late. Through my characters, I can have them do the cool thing at the best moment. In the end, however, my characters are their own individuals that are separate from me and have their own set of problems. I’ve yet to write a character that truly was an extension of me.

Q: Do you have a process to test your characters and their personalities? Do you read them like actors or play-test them at all?

A: Reading character dialog out loud, preferably with someone else acting out the other characters, is a fantastic technique for giving the book life. It also helps the author make sure the dialog flows and isn’t disjointed or out of touch with the action at the time. I, however, never take my own advice and only read their dialog in my head, alone. I also rely on the feedback of my editor and beta readers and modify dialog accordingly.

Q: Do you ever create characters specifically to be matched in some way to other characters? Or do you create them individually and let the chemistry happen organically?

A: Although I don’t think characters should be too similar to each other, I don’t create one character and then think, “I really need another character to counter this one or play sidekick.” My characters are created individually. Having said that, however, I do give my characters some traits or personality quirks that are unique to them with an eye toward what my other characters are like. I prefer to let the chemisty between my characters happen organically, as it would in real life.

Q: Are you drawn to characters more by what they say or by what they do?

A: I enjoy writing dialog, especially friendly banter between characters, more than writing action. However, I don’t like to spend too much time reading a character’s thoughts. To me, Moby Dick was one of the worst books ever written because it is needlessly verbose compared to the action that’s actually taking place. I like books with a lot of stuff going on, at a fast pace. So I guess my answer is I’m more drawn to what characters do than by what they say.

Q: What makes a good villain?

A: To me, a villain has to be evil, but not necessarily in a direct way. Sometimes villains are good from their own perspective, and the definition of what makes their actions evil depends entirely upon the perspective of who’s affected by it. I think Vilos Abbelard, a key villain in Ohlen’s Arrow and Ohlen’s Bane, is that way. When you read about what happened to him as a boy, his actions as an adult make sense. I like the idea of the reader being able to sympathize with the villain, at least to a certain extent. Perhaps the villain takes their reasonable motivation a few steps too far, but deep down they’re people just like us.

Q: What makes a good hero?

A: Have you ever known someone that was really good at everything they tried? To me, those type of people are the most annoying to be around because their ubiquitous success only makes me feel like my flaws are highlighted even more. For that reason, I like heroes that are flawed, perhaps very flawed, and their success in the story requires the help of a lot of other people. I don’t believe in the success of the story’s hero simply by virtue of being good or pure. In fact, I’d argue that the best heroes are the characters that are more flawed than the villain. It’s uninteresting, however, if the hero succeeds by virtue of mere chance. They have to struggle to get their success, but in the end, they earned it honestly.

Excerpt from Chapter 10, “The Dead Man Speaks”

As Merrick Stonehorn stood in the back of the crowd gathered in the courtyard, he watched Hadrick Burgoyne emerge onto the wooden dais erected before the Keep’s main entrance. An entourage of sycophantic advisers and attendants surrounded the fat, grey-haired man whose clothes were needlessly regal beyond the occasion. Despite Burgoyne’s physical size, Merrick considered him to be the smallest man he’d ever met.

The ruler began speaking to the assembled crowd – it was a monthly ritual. His speeches were flowery and puffed up civic decrees that had little substance but were intended to remind the citizenry that he was still in charge.

Merrick sensed someone was watching him. A short, wiry man with brown, expressionless eyes emerged from behind a food vendor’s cart, stood next to the giant innkeeper, and said, “His speech is especially interesting today, don’t you think?”

Both men kept their eyes toward the fat man on the dais as they conversed. The big man shrugged his shoulders and said, “‘Interesting’ isn’t the word I would choose.”

Rinn discretely glanced around to make sure no one was within earshot. “I’d say he’s doing a good job for a dead man.”

 

“I don’t like the guy, but that doesn’t mean I want to see him dead.”

“Too late.”

Merrick gazed nonchalantly toward the shorter man standing next to him. He caught a glimpse of a rare smile from the rogue.

“We need to talk. You know where,” Rinn muttered before fading back and disappearing amongst the vendor carts.

Ohlen’s Arrow character study: Mella

This is the next installment in a series where I introduce key characters from my new novel, Ohlen’s Arrow. Rather than doing the predictable thing — focusing on Ohlen, the main character — I’m introducing the other key participants, his friends and enemies.

Mella and Ohlen grew up together in the village of Tarun. Whereas Ohlen was orphaned at a young age, Mella had a wonderful childhood growing up with her twin sister, Ranael, until tragedy struck. At the age of six, Ranael went missing without a trace.

Perhaps because of this, and in general because of the harsh nature of living in a remote village with all the dangers that presents, Mella grew into a strong-willed woman nearly fearless in her devotion to her husband, Scarn, and her two children, six-month old daughter Mirra and nineteen year old son Therran.

Mella has deep brown eyes and long, straight sandy blonde hair unlike most residents of Tarun that have dark brown or black hair. She stands 5′ 6″ tall and has a fit body. She has a ready smile and a joyous laugh, but can also take on a stern and no-nonsense demeanor when she or her family are threatened.

Most adults in Tarun learn to use at least one weapon because of the constant threat of attack from cru’gan, and Mella excelled at the use of a bow. She’s not quite as accurate as Ohlen, but few people are.

Mella is intensely loyal to those she loves, and being a mother, is also capable of great tenderness and kindness.

Character studies from Ohlen’s Arrow

I’ve decided to introduce the key players from my book, Ohlen’s Arrow, through a series of character studies.

Reading a book is like taking a road trip with a group of people you may have just met for the first time. As you travel along through the pages, you get to know the crazy adventurer sitting next to you and the evil villain sitting in the back seat. By the time you reach the end of the book, you may be best friends or the worst of enemies. Either way, hopefully by then you’ll be intrigued enough to know what happens during the next road trip.

I’m kicking of this series with a study of Merrick Stonehorn. He and Ohlen go way back and have shared several adventures together. He is one of my favorite characters from the book and even though I’m the author, I find myself eager to learn more about him.

Ohlen’s Arrow character study: Merrick Stonehorn

This is the first installment in a series where I introduce key characters from my new novel, Ohlen’s Arrow. Rather than doing the predictable thing — focusing on Ohlen, the main character — I’m going to introduce you to the other key participants — his friends and his enemies.

Merrick Stonehorn and Ohlen go back more than a decade. In appearance, they couldn’t be any further apart, but in spirit they share much that would be familiar to brothers.

Merrick is a big man in both stature and personality, standing six and a half feet tall and weighing at least three hundred pounds. He’s in his late 40s and has long red hair with a few streaks of grey, and he keeps it tied into a single braid that reaches the middle of his back. He wears a large gold loop in each ear. His face, arms and hands show many scars from more battles than Merrick himself could count.

Despite his large physical size, Merrick moves about with a deceptive ease and grace. The way he moves isn’t the only deceptive aspect of this larger-than-life man. His mood can jump from friendly to deadly in the blink of an eye when he feels threatened. His trust is hard-earned, but once obtained, Merrick is loyal to his friends to the bitter end.

Merrick Stonehorn began adventuring while still a teenager and quickly gained notoriety for both his bravery and his cunning. Still in his mid 20’s, he singlehandedly infiltrated a cru’gan stronghold, killed the tribal leader, and escaped not only alive but carrying gold equal to his own body weight (which was substantial, to say the least!) This, and other adventures like it, soon made him rich.

In his late 30’s he used his spoils to purchase the Inn of the Three Fans in the lakeside town of Eeron. Despite appearances that he has settled down and given up his adventuring ways, Merrick still finds time to get into the wilds, often accompanied by his second-in-command, a beady-eyed rogue named Rinn.