Monday, March 30, 2009

How to write an evil character

My subject today is how to write a really, really evil character.

When I say evil, I'm talking about nature, not about motive. Evil goes beyond the normal catalysts that drive human beings to commit murder and mayhem--those catalysts can include jealousy, anger, rage, fear, even a distorted kind of love.

When I think of evil-doers (and I have to credit the former Prez for that phrase), I'm talking about psycho-killers. Cold-ass weirdos. As writers, sometimes we need to create those kind of unabashed, dead-at-the-seams, evil characters. We especially need to create this type of character when we are writing a big, breakout book.

Back in August, we had a week of
posts on this blog about our favorite villains. But now I'm wondering, how do you write that evil? For example, who could forget the moment when Jack Torrance's nonsensical pages of writing were finally revealed to his wife in The Shining? That one moment showed both his insanity and his being overtaken by the evil of the Overlook Hotel.

Just because it's true, doesn't mean it works on the page

One of my greatest frustrations in writing group is when someone defends their not-so-convincing work by saying, "But it's true. It really happened this way." So the f'n what? If it doesn't work on the page, it doesn't work, period. Writing what is true is not always convincing.

Here's a true story that would be hard to convey in fiction: A successful, apparently-happily married scientist, the mother of an adorable toddler, one day decides to poison her husband with a massive dose of arsenic. She'd been building up with "test" doses for months, giving him flu-like symptoms. No one could believe she'd done it. Even the man's parents didn't believe she'd killed him. She was visiting them in their house when she was arrested by the police. Even when the husband was dying of the last dose of poison she'd injected into him while he was in his hospital bed, he still thought that they were a happily married couple.

It turned out that this woman was a true psychopath. She didn't want the shame and perceived social failure of a divorce, so she decided to off her hubbie and start over as a "grieving" widow. There's evidently no stigma to being a widow in a psychopath's mind.

How do you write that in a convincing way?

Right now I'm struggling to write such an evil character, one of those people who on the surface seems to be a caring, warm pillar of the community. And even though this is one cold, unsympathetic creature, I am trying to wiggle inside her head through the writing. Right now I'm researching the type of emotional disorders that might have given rise to her pathology. And (as Joe points out in the comments section), a well-written villain-psycho needs strong motivation beyond mere pathology. Even Hannibal Lechter had that going for him. So I am also going to give her a powerful motivation to kill for what she wants, in addition to her psychosis.

And I'd love to know, what are some techniques you use to convey a character's evilness?

Stay tuned for upcoming guest appearances at the Kill Zone:

April 5 P.D. Martin

April 12 Eric Stone

Real Men Read Fiction

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

As I rushed to finish my current book club book over the weekend (which is, by the way, the terrific Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See) I could sense my husband getting antsy - he kept asking me what I had to 'do' each day and, when I remained vague, he catalogued all the errands and chores that he would be doing. I felt I could hardly confess that apart from playing with the boys, cooking and the like my only plan was to read...because let's face it in my husband's world that was tantamount to doing pretty much 'bugger all'.

So what is it with men and reading?! I did a quick google search before writing this blog and the statistics were depressing - basically the death knell for the male fiction reader has well and truly been rung. I only have to look at most of the men I know to be convinced of this- sure they read (well sometimes) but when they do it's usually non-fiction, and the mere suggestion of forming or joining a book club is met with stony-eyed suspicion. As all the surveys indicate, women are the major purchasers of fiction, they consistently read more books and participate in book groups to the almost complete exclusion of men. So what does this mean for the publishing industry and, is it in part the fault of the industry that men don't want to read much fiction anymore?

The exception to the fiction-free zone for men is (apparently) what some of the articles termed 'manfiction' - you know, the full blooded male adventure thrillers by the likes of James Patterson, Clive Cussler or John Grisham - the kind of stuff that some of my fellow bloggers might write (though I have to confess I doubt any of my stuff would ever be called 'manfiction' by any stretch of the imagination...) When it came to most other forms of fiction, however, (particularly that written by women) the gap soon widens up and this started me wondering: who failed whom? Was it the industry? Writers? Or was it just all the men's fault :)?

I certainly know that when it comes to historical fiction everyone in the industry always says that a strong female protagonist is essential unless you are writing military historicals...Romance, which commands a whopping percentage of the market is pretty much solely for women and when it comes to that dreaded term 'literary fiction' , I think women are also the primary target - for they rule when it comes to book groups (and book groups are probably the only way literary fiction can become commerically successful). So what are you blokes out there going to do about this situation? Do you even care?

If you are a writer, does the fact that so few men read fiction affect your writing? For me I confess I have always assumed that women will be my main readership base (I'm always amazed when I get an email from a male reader who loves my books!) and I probably (though not deliberately) write accordingly. But it depresses me nevertheless - so will one of you endangered male fiction readers out there try and explain to me why you think this is the situation and tell me (reassure me perhaps?) - do you think it's ever going to change?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

How "green" is your book?

Today we're pleased to host Sunday guest Killer Liz Jasper, an award-winning mystery author and avid eBook reader. Liz is blogging this month for All Romance eBooks' Go Green/Read e Campaign.

How green is your book, Dracula?

Earlier this week Michelle Gagnon blogged about Internet promotion for authors. The fact that I'm guest blogging here today is a good illustration of another common type of internet promo: authors popping in on one another's blogs to "meet" new readers. The fact that I'm mentioning this supports another of her very good points: that it's a small world in the author community. I know two of the bloggers here at The Kill Zone--Kathryn Lilley invited me here today. (Nonetheless, I'm using Michelle's name at the top of my blog because I've seen her shoot a Glock. Okay, it was at a gun range for a Sisters In Crime event, but still. Girl's got aim.)

I am spending my promotional time guest blogging rather than Twittering (not that an author can't do that simultaneously) or updating my MySpace and Facebook pages because I hate doing those things. Hold on did I type that out loud? Ahem. What I meant to write is that I'm a Go Green/Read-E (book) ambassador. Which means I'm blogging to help promote ebooks as an eco-conscious alternative to the traditional paper book format.

Being green is important. Especially if, like me, you live in the sort of city where if you forget to bring your own, reusable, organic ink, fair trade, recycled material grocery bags to the supermarket, the collective laser beam of guilt focused on you is so awful you find yourself buying a fresh new set of reusable bags. To add to the pile you have at home big enough to form into a meditation yurt in the backyard.

However, as I researched things like how many trees a reader would save if he/she read 20 books and two newspapers electronically (one tree a year, which adds up to a lot of forests given all the readers in the world) I ran across a study that had already done this. (If you'd like to run across it, too, head for:

Fortunately, my native eco-sensitivity awarded me plenty of time to ponder what else I could blog about. I thought long and hard during my eighteen trips back and forth from car to kitchen to unload groceries. ("You're out of reusable grocery bags? Someone's been buying them all up? Who would do that? Of course I don’t want plastic ones. Just load everything back to the cart.") And what I realized, during a break on trip ten to protect the Chunky Monkey by carefully siphoning off the melty bits with a soup spoon, what I really should be assessing is my own contribution to global warming. Forget the paper versus electronic publishing format debate. What about the book itself?

As an eco-conscious paranormal mystery writer, what I need to know is this: Are vampires bad for the environment?

Think about it. Unless they have the bad fortune to collide chest first with a sharp stake or (in my books) step out into a lovely, sunny, existence-ending day, they live forever. Longer than Styrofoam. Or Twinkies. Or broccoli on my niece's plate (unless I happen to look away, in which case the stalks magically disappear in a puff of air that curiously also makes the light fixtures above the table swing…).

It seems pretty obvious Vampires take up more than their fair share of resources, don't you think?


On the plus side, and this is a big plus they don't eat human food. And if you ever read the statistics about what's trashing our environment, the resources we use to grow food are a big part. There's methane from cattle (a discreet way of saying cow farts) polluting our air, fertilizer polluting our streams, etc. etc. Major eco points for Dracula!

Also on the plus side, the undead don't commute. Not in cars anyways. Granted any vampire worth his sex symbol status will own a nice set of wheels, but it's not as if he's stuck in rush-hour traffic every day. No vampire with the least bit of brains would spend an hour or two a day battling road rage on the freeway when he could just turn into a bat and fly where he needs to go. (I assume any technology that would allow him to drive a car during daylight hours could also be used to protect his batty little wings. Excuse me. Very sexy, uber-masculine man-vamp wings.)

This is sounding pretty good for a vampire's carbon footprint, except for the fact that for most vampires, one person equals one meal. Tsk. Tsk. Really, vampires of the world, do you have any idea how much it takes to get a pretty young maiden to eighteen in this country? In purely financial terms, estimates range from $38,027 to $104,532. Do you know how many McDonald's Happy Meals the average eighteen year old has eaten? I don't, but I imagine it's a lot. Let's face it, puberty, is one long Fry Emergency. In cow farts alone, the cost of producing one young maiden must be astronomical. No wonder cow methane is such a big pollutant!

Clearly, vampires need to get on board with the eco message of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. I know it will be hard--like telling a writer to lay off the chocolate near a deadline. But it's important! Everyone must do their part. Including readers, especially, it seems, those who like vampire stories. Why not do your part to help the planet and make you next book an ebook!

You can find out more about the Go Green/Read e Campaign at To learn more about Liz Jasper and to read excerpts and reviews of her books, visit her website at

You can find Liz Jasper's Underdead mysteries and thousands of other eBooks on-line at


Stay tuned for upcoming guest appearances at the Kill Zone:
April 5 P.D. Martin
April 12 Eric Stone

Through The Fog

By John Ramsey Miller

"View From My Studio"

I am sitting in my writing studio, a converted feed shed I renovated, and I was looking out the double-pane window at my long driveway through a thick fog, and listening to one of my dogs on the porch chewing a ham bone and gentle rain pattering on the roof. As I peered down my driveway, I saw a deer silently move from the tree line and stand on the gravel. She turned her head as though she could see me and stayed frozen for a few minutes, and the dogs (I have three) never knew she was there. She decided (maybe she smelled the dogs) to stamp her front feet, which got my dogs’ attention and they began running toward her, blasting her with a cacophony of uttered threats and promises. As they approach the three ribbons of electric wire that encloses three acres, they stopped. I watched her reaction, which was to stand and stare at the approaching animals. Somehow she knew they would or could not cross the wire to make good on their threats, and I knew she somehow intuited this. But how? After a few minutes, she walked into the trees, and they lost interest and returned to the porch. I wonder how many times this has happened when I was not watching, and I thought about all the times my dogs seemed to be at the fence barking to beat the band, and I had no idea what they saw or heard that had them there. Now, after watching this, I will assume it is the same doe once again playing with the dogs for her own amusement. I know animals do things for their own amusement. My Australian Shepherd does not chase balls I throw for my Labradoodle to retrieve, but he will chase the Labradoodle down and hold him by the scruff of his neck, or by his tail, to keep him from getting to the thrown ball. This has to be because it amuses the shepherd, and because he knows that his holding action frustrates his playmate.

We writers are observers and we record our observations and add our own spins to what we see and hear. At the moment I am concocting a story of some length. My novel begins with a man and his dog on a boat. In this tale, my protagonist is propelled unwillingly and unknowingly into a conspiracy involving very powerful men and women. In the opening chapters he is visited by four men in search of something my protagonist has that they want and something they have come to retrieve. They also plan to kill him, a man they have never met and to their misfortune underestimate. In the first few scenes a secretary of state is assassinated, and the connection to that event and the man are as unknown to the reader, as to the man. The visitors shoot the dog, and my dilemma was whether or not to let the dog die trying to protect someone he cares about. I thought about this for weeks as I went about my daily routine, and I finally decided the dog’s instincts, loyalty, and nobility had to be rewarded, so I let him live. It wasn’t because some readers freak when we kill animals, but because I liked the creature I created based on my experiences with my own animals. Like the animal who is mismatched by professional gunmen, so too is my protagonist, who is an older man with no knowledge of, or use for high tech understanding. That old man is me to some extent, but he has neither phone (cell or land-line) much less a computer. Retired from the military, and estranged from his family due to his life choices, he spends his days fishing the lakes near Therio, Louisiana, and minding his own business, surrounded by neighbors who do not know him, but admire him for his qualities. He is the man I wish I could be, and I write him knowing that I fall miles short of him. But he is a man of integrity who is called on to face enemies he is inferior to (skill wise), but superior to morally speaking. He is a man with violence in his history, with right on his side, and who doesn’t have a chance as far as the reader knows. I’m having a blast writing him, and his enemies, who come to respect him even though they want nothing but to kill him and retrieve something he has been given. I think it’s the best story I’ve ever stumbled into, but others may disagree.

The creative process is so difficult on so many levels, but nothing is more rewarding when the process bears fruit, or more frustrating when it fails. Each time I sit down at this black box to start a new story I don’t have any idea whether or not I will be able do it all over again. So far I’ve been lucky, and hopefully the quest will only end when I am no longer able to sit here and think and dream. We talk about marketing, and building an audience, so we can be successful by the ways that are measurable, but what this is really about is the battle between us and filling the blank page.

One of these days I will write the doe I saw, and of her playing with the dogs, her sworn enemies. I will know when I need her and she will serve to make a point, and advance the story I’m wrestling with. I will continue to write characters with traits I wish I possessed and putting them through paces I can only imagine while I’m sitting at this laptop or gathering eggs or playing with my wonderful and complicated grandchildren. I hope someday those grandchildren will read my books and see something of the best of me in the pages they turn, and feel the awe and excitement I feel for my characters. To me, that hope is far more important than the checks that come in the mail, what my editor or publisher thinks, or just about anything else my overtaxed mind can imagine through the fog.

"My Writing Studio"

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Query Quandary

By John Gilstrap

Before getting to this week’s real topic, I thought I’d preen with a bit of shameless self promotion. A while ago, I revealed that I had optioned the film rights to my nonfiction bestseller Six Minutes to Freedom. I can now announce officially that I have signed on to write the screenplay as well. Hoorah! For details, please visit my website (see above). I am thrilled beyond belief.

We now return you to our originally scheduled blog . . .

I was chatting the other day with a writer-in-waiting who was distraught that “no agent wants to represent me.” Ah, the angst. She moaned, “I’m never going to be published.”

At that point, she’d collected 7 rejections. Seven. As in one less than eight. And they’re just cold-hearted form letters to boot. Can you imagine? Oh, please.

I wager most of us have a collection of blistering rejection stories. My favorite of the 27 rejections I accumulated before I finally landed an agent was the New York publisher whose rejection consisted of my own letter sent back to me with a stamp—you know, one of those rubber things that you pound on an ink pad—that said “No.” As if it would have broken her hand to actually hand write those two words.

Okay, I have another favorite, too: the one who sent me my rejection letter two months after my book had been published.

Rejections are a constant in this business. I know more than a few authors whose rejections numbered in the triple-digits before they finally made a connection. It’s just the way it is.

During this rejection stage, you often hear dejected writers complain, “Nobody wants my book.” Self pity aside, such is never the case. Nobody’s rejecting your book; they couldn’t possibly be. That’s because nobody’s seen your book. They’re rejecting your query.

In my experience, the vast majority of query letters suck.

They’re flat, lifeless bits of business correspondence that get lost in the shuffle of the hundreds of other bits of flat, lifeless business correspondence that litter an agent’s desk or email inbox every day. It’s astonishing, really, when you think that after spending months or years crafting a novel, a writer would quickly pound out a query letter and launch it into the world where creativity and originality of voice means everything.

At the moment when a query letter matters, it is the most important document of your creative life. It’s the only tool you have. It needs to be carefully nurtured. Carefully crafted. If you’re interested, I wrote an essay on query letters a few years ago. You can read it here: .

What about you? Have you got any inspiring (or frightening) rejection stories you’d like to share? C’mon, spill. We’re all friends here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Social Networking Showdown

by Michelle Gagnon

At Left Coast Crime a few weeks ago, I was part of a great panel on utilizing the Internet to market your book. This is a bit of a double-edged sword: now that much of the marketing burden falls on authors' shoulders, being able to reach people without an insanely expensive direct mailing is invaluable. However, online networking can also become a tremendous time suck, drawing valuable hours away from what writers should primarily focus on: their manuscripts. Today I'll discuss which sites I've found most valuable in a head-to-head match up, as well as sharing how I stay on top of them without losing my mind.

facebookFacebook vs. MySpace

I confess to being one of the "old people who joined up and ruined Facebook." I now have more than a thousand friends, and probably post something to the page once or twice a week. I'm also on MySpace, but have found Facebook to be far more user-friendly to someone as technologically challenged as myself. (However, if I was working on a YA novel, MySpace would probably be where I devoted more of my focus). A couple of things to bear in mind when using these or other social networking sites:

  • Public vs. Private: I keep my pages public, and will friend anyone who asks. So anything that's truly personal, such as family photos, etc, doesn't get posted there. And if anyone tags me or mine in such a photo, I immediately remove the tag. myspace
  • In order to maintain my sanity, I go onto each site once a week (Facebook on Mondays, MySpace on Tuesdays). That's when I accept friends, answer emails, and respond to comments. If I stumble across an interesting article online, I have the "share on facebook" tab incorporated into my browser, which makes it oh-so-easy to post it to my page (another clear benefit of Facebook over MySpace).
  • The cocktail party rule: I rarely post anything political on any of my pages. Again, this is a matter of personal preference, but I would rather discuss my books or interesting developments in publishing than who I voted for.

Shelfari vs. GoodReads

shelfari The trick to these is joining groups that read books similar to yours. I've generally found Shelfari to be more useful, although I do get updates from GoodReads discussions as well. The Shelfari groups just seem to more active, especially the "Suspense/Thrillers" one, which graciously invited me to lead a discussion of Boneyard last August. Every so often I'll remember to log in and update my home page with the books I've read recently.

  • One caveat: if I don't like a book, I don't review it, period. Other authors have no problem posting negative reviews, so it's largely a matter of personal goodreads preference. But I know authors whose feelings were hurt when one of their peers negatively reviewed their book on these sites, and figure it's better to follow the, "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" rule. The crime fiction writing community is a small one, filled with people who possess an encyclopedic knowledge base of how to kill someone and get away with it. Bear that in mind when you're considering giving a book one star out of five.
  • I join in whenever people are discussing a book I really enjoyed, or an author whose work I admired. After all, I'm a reader as well as a writer.
  • Be careful in how you participate. When someone I've never heard of joins one of the discussions and proceeds to blatantly flog their own work, it's a huge turn off. Probably better not to participate than to do that. This isn't to say that you should never mention your book- but other members will be more receptive if you're someone they're already familiar with.


twitter I'm not a big tweeter. I post links to my Kill Zone posts (and guest posts,) and occasionally link to articles or posts that I found interesting, but I simply don't have time to announce what I had for lunch every day.

siamese Crimespace et al

I know other crime fiction authors love Crimespace, but I haven't used it much. Most of the Ning circles (and I'm part of five) don't seem very active to me. This could be my own failing- I find them challenging to navigate, and frankly my other pages are so easier I forget about these. Same goes for Gather, Bebo, Linked In, etc. You might have better luck. If you write books with a Siamese Cat sleuth, and there's a Siamese cat appreciation group on one of the social networks, by all means take advantage.


I have a pet peeve. Say we met at a conference and chatted about marketing. I offered to continue the discussion by email. Then, I find myself getting a deluge of newsletters from you, none of which I signed up for. Or worse yet, you mined my email address from a mass email sent by a mutual friend (note: always bcc people on those emails). This has happened to me more times than I can count. DO NOT add people to your newsletter unless they have specifically asked to be included. Have a sign up sheet on your website, and make it easy for people to unsubscribe.

And that's my two cents. So what have the rest of you found to be useful? Any tips to share?

The Rules for Writing Fiction

By Joe Moore

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that the only rule we should apply to writing fiction is: There are no rules; do whatever you want as long as it works. Okay, if you pressed me to the wall, I would have to add two others: don’t bore the reader, and don’t confuse them.

When I speak of fiction writing “rules”, I don’t mean the basics of spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, split infinitives, daggling participles, and the other stuff we learned in school. As artists, let’s move beyond the assumed knowledge and manipulation of the English language to the aesthetics of writing. The rules that apply to the art of storytelling.

vonnegut When dealing with the art of storytelling, the great Kurt Vonnegut declared 8 rules to write by. If it makes you feel better, let’s call them suggestions. But we should all take them to heart because they go directly to the heart of telling a compelling story.

Here they are:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

The reader’s time is not only valuable, it’s sacred. There are a million other things demanding his or her attention. We should repeat that every time we sit down to write.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

The worst reaction that a reader can have is that they don’t care if the protagonist makes it or not. Let the hero or heroine see the goal line, then put a big wall in their way and hope the reader cheers for them to climb over it.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

This goes for all characters from the main stars right down to the single-scene walk-on.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

If it doesn’t, delete.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

This is my all time favorite rule to write by. Whether it’s a scene, chapter, or the entire book, get to the point. Anything that happens before that, delete.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Our characters are judged by their actions and reactions. Have them work for it.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

Picture the typical fan that comes to your book signings. That’s who you’re writing to.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

This one sounds contradictory at first. But it’s not. It’s just another way of saying, cut the fat and get to the meat.

No one wants to slap a set of rules on creativity. And I don’t think Mr. Vonnegut meant to do so. But he called them rules because he wanted writers to pay attention. He wanted all of us to become better artisans. Read them each time you start to write. And when you finish for the day, read them again.

How about you? Do you follow his rules? Do you have others that help you in advancing your craft?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

When it comes to writing, what's your point of view?

God, how I hate having to deal with point of view. Whenever I'm writing, POV feels like a technical constraint that limits expression. It forces me to make choices, to rein myself in and be disciplined. I really hate that.
And yet it's critical that you set up POV correctly for your story. When you lose control of POV, you lose control of your story. And that's when you lose your reader. (For an earlier discussion about POV, see our February Sunday writing blog.)
At one of my writing groups this week, we spent some time debating how to handle point of view in one of our member's stories.

This particular story jumped in and out of the point of view of two characters within the confines of a two-person scene. On first reading, nothing seemed really wrong with the scene; I had to reread it several times to figure out why it lacked suspense and kept the reader at a distance. I finally decided that the real problem with the scene was its POV. In other words, there was way too much head-jumping going on.

So here's a general guideline to help you avoid a POV trap:

Use only one POV per chapter or section (Sections separated by asterisks or a space).

The story we were reading in group had a POV that shifted between paragraphs (aka omniscient POV). That constant shifting created a confusing overall effect. I think it may be possible to present POV this way, but it probably takes an extremely skilled writer to pull it off. So why even play with POV fire?


The omniscient POV lets the writer enter each character's head during a scene, and even lets the narrator provide direct observations. The story in my writing group is an example of a story that used an omniscient POV. It suffered from the same fate that omniscient POV stories usually do--the reader failed to engage with the characters or the story. Suspense was nonexistent.

Now that I've dissed the omniscient POV, however, I will admit that I'm considering using an omniscient narrative opening for my WIP thriller. In this case, the omniscient POV will function as a garnish, like the paprika sprinkled on top of the baked chicken to draw in the eye and make the dish look tasty.

First Person

Favorite of detective novel series (to the point of being cliche), the first person POV has decided pluses and minuses. It's a very intimate POV (you know everything going on in the character's head), but you can only know and see what that character learns and sees throughout the entire story.

It's tempting to use first-person POV, but trust it from a writer of first-person POV mysteries, it's incredibly awkward to try write your character into every single scene.
It's also awkward to make sure that your character doesn't "know" anything in the story that he or she hasn't seen, read, or been told.

Limited Third Person

Similar to the first person POV, only it uses he/she instead of "I". My sense is that this POV is getting less popular, but it may just be me.

Multiple Third Person

Lets the writer switch from character to character. This is probably the best choice for most thrillers. This POV lets you roam free on the range with the buffalo.


This is a mixture of first person with multiple points of view. For example, some thrillers use a first-person POV for the bad guy while everyone else is presented in third person. This approach can help build suspense.


This POV is so rare I forgot about it until Joe Moore reminded me about it in the comments just now, so I'm adding it back in. Second person POV is where the writer talks directly to the reader. No wonder it's an unusual POV--I find it completely annoying.
To wit:
You're walking along and then you realize someone is following you. You spin around and then...Blam-o!

So I'm wondering how you make your POV choices for your novels, and are there any POVs that you love? Loathe?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Too Close for Comfort?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I was a little disconcerted when I read in my old local paper from Melbourne Australia, The Age, online about the weekend's shootings of four police officers in my current home town of Oakland, California. It wasn't the incident (tragic though it is) that was the cause of my disquiet- sadly Oakland is all too frequently associated with violence and crime these days - it was the fact that the news had travelled thousands of miles across the Pacific to become a headline there. No doubt we will have to fend off worried phone calls from family in Melbourne as they lament (as they always do) the current state of America...but it also reinforces the global reach of news these days and how fear, like tragedy, is imported day after day till it's firmly embedded in our psyche to the point that we become either overwhelmed or inured to it. This made me consider why I write what I write and what is for me 'too close for comfort'.

Why, for instance, do I write a historical series rather than a modern day crime series dealing with the very real fears we all face? On one level I like the sheer escapism of writing about another time and place and I love immersing myself in historical research but on another level I think perhaps I'm also avoiding writing about things that cut too close to the bone. Call it 'dread avoidance' - the art of skirting around the very essence of fear itself. Stephen King I believe once said that he wrote 'horror' because at some level writing it protected him and his family from it ever happening to them. I think for me the opposite is true - not writing about it a kind of protective measure (which seems a slightly pathetic admission doesn't it from a mystery writer?)

There is obviously plenty of room in the world of books for stories that both confront fear and those which provide a heady escape from those fears. For the development of my own craft, however, I know that one day I will have to set aside my inhibitions and face 'the darkest dread' in my stories. What I want to know is how you as a reader or a writer feel? Are there some things too close for comfort that you could neither read nor write about? How do you face the challenge of confronting these issues as well as these fears? If you write about them does it make it easier or harder to confront?

How Much Can You Put a Character Through?

neil-plakcyToday the Kill Zone blog welcomes our guest, award-winning author Neil Plakcy. Neil is the author of Mahu, just re-released in trade paperback by Alyson Books, and its two sequels, Mahu Surfer and Mahu Fire, which won the Hawaii Five-O award for best police procedural, and is a finalist for the Lambda award for best gay men’s mystery. His fourth book, Mahu Vice, comes out August 2009. Neil is the Vice President of the Mystery Writers of America, Florida chapter.

A few years ago, as he was getting his breakout novel Mystic River ready for publication, Dennis Lehane spoke at the Miami Book Fair. He’d just published the fifth Patrick and Angie book, Prayers for Rain, and he said that he’d put them through so much that they had just stopped talking to him. He thought he’d give them a break and write something else.

That idea really resonated with me, and I started to think about all the other fictional detectives, and their families and friends, who’d been put through the wringer a few times. In Les Standiford’s Deal series, Deal’s wife Janice leaves him after she’s been kidnapped, nearly drowned, and who knows what else.

The king of putting a character through hell, as far as I’m concerned, is John Morgan Wilson. Poor Benjamin Justice has lost his job and his reputation, been raped, infected with HIV, and had his eye put out. Just thinking of all that stuff makes me shiver. My hero, Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka, is my alter ego, and I can’t imagine putting him through so much—it’d kill me, if it didn’t kill him!

Not to mention the complications you set for yourself, as a writer, when you make such a major change to a character. If you shoot your protagonist in book one, then the effects of that shooting are going to resonate for a while. Kill off a girlfriend or fiancĂ©e, as they used to do regularly in the James Bond movies, and your hero’s got to get a little shy of entering a new relationship. Zoe Sharp’s Second Shot begins with Charlie Fox getting shot—and the effects of that shooting resonate through not only that book, but Third Strike, the book that follows, as well.

mahu The same goes for the supporting players. Kimo’s best gal pal since high school, Terri, loses her husband in Mahu, the first book in my series. And then, in Mahu Surfer, the poor thing ends up in a firefight at her uncle’s house. In an early draft of the third book, Mahu Fire, I put her on the mountainside among the others Kimo needs to rescue.

Then I stepped back. How could I do that to her? And more important, would she ever talk to Kimo again after being traumatized in three books? I believe in recycling characters—but I knew that I couldn’t keep putting Terri in jeopardy, or she just wouldn’t remain a convincing character.

When I was in graduate school at FIU, our teachers, including Les Standiford and James W. Hall, reinforced to us that what happened in our books had to matter to our characters. It wasn’t enough for a detective to investigate a case; he had to have a personal stake. In Mahu, Kimo was fighting to restore his reputation at the Honolulu Police Department, and then in Mahu Surfer, he struggled to prove that he could be as good as any cop on the force, if given the chance. I added an extra bounce by bringing in an old nemesis and then putting his close friend at risk.

As I’ve written more books, it’s getting harder to find that personal connection for Kimo, without incurring what I think of as the Cabot Cove Syndrome. I used to wonder why anyone would associate with Jessica Fletcher, since her neighbors, friends and colleagues died so regularly. How much could Kimo’s friends and family take before they would get the hell away from him? And how to avoid the coincidence factor? Fortunately I write about an island, where there are lots of personal connections, where the cops either grew up with the crooks or are related to them, but it’s still important to maintain credibility.

In Mahu Fire, I brought back a sympathetic teenager from Mahu, who’d gone through some hard times, and made things even tougher for him. I teamed him up with a new character I hoped readers would care about. People care about kids, right? And then in Mahu Vice, which is coming out this August, I threw Kimo’s gay pal Gunter into danger, along with Kimo’s troublemaking brother-in-law.

But I try and remember, especially with these supporting characters, that they are civilians, not police officers, and then when they go through trauma, it’s going to take them a while to recover. Kimo’s a tougher guy; by the time we meet him in Mahu, he’s been a cop for nearly six years, three of those as a detective. He’s still got a soft heart, but his skin has been toughened by what he has seen and experienced on the street.

I’ve been shaking up his personal life, though, moving him in and out of romance, but to me that’s all part of his emotional growth and development. Getting dumped isn’t quite as life-threatening as getting shot at, but it’s still pretty painful.

For now, Kimo and his friends and family keep talking to me. Maybe some day, like Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro did with Dennis Lehane, he’ll stop. But for now I’ll keep on throwing him curve balls and seeing how he, and his loved ones, react.



Mark your calendar for the following guest blogger at the Kill Zone:

Liz Jasper, March 29

Saturday, March 21, 2009


By John Ramsey Miller

I have been guilty of having the smell, or swirling of, Cordite in the air after gun play. The other night watching TV I heard one of the techs on CSI (someplace or other) saying that she smelled Cordite in a room, which is more than unlikely since Cordite hasn’t been around since WWII. There is no Cordite whatsoever in modern ammunition. With modern ammo you can smell the pungent Nitroglycerin after firing. Modern powder is basically sawdust soaked in nitro coated with graphite. In very simple terms, the shape and coatings control the burn rates.

To smell Cordite you’d have to have people firing very old ammunition. According to a quick check under Cordite on Wikipedia: “The smell of Cordite is referenced erroneously in fiction to indicate the recent firing of weapons.” So from now on, unless I am writing a period piece, it will be “The pungent smell of nitroglycerin, sawdust, and graphite swirling in the air.” Or I'll just say, "the smell of gunpowder."

We’ve discussed accuracy in fiction here before, and maybe it’s worth a second go-round. There are more mistakes made about guns than most other subjects in modern fiction. Maybe that has to do with the fact that the majority of authors are not gun familiar, or comfortable with guns. I’m sort of a gun fan as I’ve been buying, handling, and shooting them all of my adult life. I am hardly an expert on the subject, but I know several (Scotty Boggs, Jason Parr, and Gary Reeder) and never hesitate to ask them for technical advice.

Modern gunpowder is slow burning and non-explosive until it is put into a confined space to allow compression and a spark is introduced by a primer. If you put black powder into an ashtray and put a cigarette in there, your fingers will throb for a very long time and the blackening will be burned into the skin. It explodes without being compressed when a spark is introduced, or rather it burns so fast it seems to explode. John Gilstrap can write here about explosions as he is an expert in energetic materials. When I was in college I put a cigarette into an ashtray I’d poured black powder into.

Here I present a few basics, and probably as much information as an author really needs to know to keep gun owners from laughing out loud and maybe never reading that author's books again. The two handguns depicted below are my own: the revolver is a Smith & Wesson K-22 Model 17 in .22, and the semi-automatic is a Colt 1911 Model 80 in .45 ACP.

REVOLVERS are guns with cylinders that turn (clockwise or counter-clockwise depending on the manufacturer, model, and date issued) to allow a new bullet to present itself before the firing pin in its turn before the barrel. They are also called “Wheel” guns, and may or may not have an exposed hammer. Some hammers are shrouded so the hammer won’t get caught on clothing. They will hold from five to nine rounds depending on caliber and model. Revolvers do not usually have safeties. Not being cocked and/or not having the trigger pulled back is the revolver’s sole safety method. Older guns may be fired if the hammer is struck by force and the firing pin hits the shell’s primer. That is why most cowboys carried the cylinder under the hammer empty. Modern revolvers have a block between the pin and the primer unless the trigger depressed when the hammer falls. There are two types of revolver: the DA, for double action and the SA, for single action. With an SA you have to cock the hammer to move the cylinder (think cowboy gun) or the DA, whose cylinder turns as you squeeze the trigger, or when you cock the hammer.

A SEMI-AUTOMATIC handgun has no cylinder, but is fed cartridges (bullets are the nose of a cartridge) from a magazine (housed in the handle), which holds the cartridges in a stack under pressure from the spring. As each bullet is fired, the receiver slides back from the pressure of the explosion and the extractor grabs the rim of the casing to pull it from the chamber, and flip it out to the right. (There are a few left-handed 1911s whose casings flip to the left). The receiver then moves forward under spring tension and, as it goes, it pushes the next cartridge in the magazine into the chamber and leaves the hammer (or striker assembly in the Glock) cocked for the next trigger pull.

All handguns have some safety mechanism. Some have magazine disconnects (won't fire without at least an empty clip in place) or some firing pin block (to prevent firing when dropped) is usually incorporated. Most semi-automatics have one or more safeties, and some have none to speak of except a lack of trigger pull. A Colt 1911 (They come in several calibers including .45 ACP, .38 Super. 9MM, and .22 LR) has several including a thumb safety, a grip-strap safety, and on some a half-cock, and one that involves pushing back the receiver a fraction of an inch to prevent it from firing. The latter would be a last ditch to keep the gun from going off, and if you miscalculate and the gunman is lucky, the bullet will pass through your palm. When semi's last bullet is fired and its case ejected, the receiver locks open to let the user know the weapon is out of ammunition. Slap in a mag, release the receiver, and there's a new round in the chamber.

You will hear over and over that "Glocks do not have safeties." But they do. Glocks do not have "external" safeties, but they have the two-part "safe-trigger" which actually is a safety. On a Glock the "Striker" (no internal hammer) is half cocked by the first 1/4" of slide retraction while chambering a cartridge. The other "half-cocking" of the striker is the first stage take up of the trigger pull. On a Glock you get ONE SNAP, then you have to jack the slide resetting the half cock on the striker to have another snap. With some practice you can only pull the slide back just enough to reset the action without ejecting the "dud" round for another try. Interesting isn't it? There may be exceptions to what I’ve written, but I think it is accurate enough to get a writer around in a shootout. And probably more than most of you want to know.

A cartridge is made up of four parts: Casing, Bullet, Primer, and Gunpowder. The bullet is the projectile that is seated in the casing, but the cartridge is never accurately called a bullet. A shotgun round is referred to as a shell. A shotgun shell (or round) that has been fired is often called a hull. A shotgun shell holds either pellets or a single slug.

A magazine can hold as many rounds as its length and width accommodates. Some mags hold bullets in a straight line and some are wider to allow staggered rounds. Low capacity factory magazines hold from six to eight rounds. You can keep one on the chamber to add an additional round to the gun’s capacity. Hi-capacity magazines hold more shells than a standard mag. I have had fifteen round mags, and some handgun magazines hold twenty or even thirty rounds. Some handgun drum magazines hold more …a lot more.

A magazine can be called a clip. In the military a rifle or machine gun has a Magazine, handguns can have clips. People rarely say clip any more but it was once common to call any magazine a clip. There are clips that hold .45 ACPs in a half moon for use in .45 LC revolvers, and to shoot 9MM rounds in a 38, but they are rare enough that an author shouldn’t need to concern themselves with those.

There’s lots more to know like available calibers, shotgun gauges, How a barrel length’s effects powder burn and velocity, range, knock-down values, recoil, and trajectory. There are enough bullet types and weights to fill several books. And every author who writes weapons should buy a copy of Gun Digest so they can read about and look at the weapons they write about. Write it off as reference material. Get the latest one you can find because they add new gun models yearly, but anything in the past ten years is plenty for most applications. Any bookseller has them and EBay has lots of them used. Here’s the link:

You can study guns for the rest of your life, but the truth is, authors don’t need to know very much to keep from writing someone shoving a clip into a revolver, playing Russian Roulette with a Glock, or just writing convincingly about what a character has in their hand, handbag, or holster, or how that gun works.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Been There, Been That

By John Gilstrap

I’ll be honest: This is not the blog entry I’d intended to write, but given the posts over the last two days, inspiration struck while I wasn’t looking.

I think Ol’ Cap’n Sully is worth every dime of the $3.2 mill his agent was able to squeeze out of William Morrow. He’s worth twice that if that’s what Morrow was willing to pay. That’s how the game works. Agents pitch books, publishers make offers and authors accept or decline. I know for a fact that if Pinnacle, my current publisher, had offered ten thousand dollars more than they did for my next book, I would have accepted it. Ditto a hundred thousand or a million or even five million. I’d be out of my mind not to. I’d expect nothing less (more?) from someone as sharp as Sully.

I think Mark Combes had it right in his reply to Michelle’s post yesterday. Publishing is not a zero sum game. The fact that Sully got big bucks does not mean that someone else won’t. I heard on the news yesterday that Crown is paying $7 million for President Bush (43)’s book on his most important decisions. That’s $10.3 million in a single day from two different publishers. Will they earn out? I’m betting they come close, but I’m sure that from the authors’ perspectives it doesn’t matter.

I’m equally sure that as authors competing for shelf space in the same stores, it’s none of our business. I find the sniping about such things off-putting.

Fourteen years ago, I had the honor to be one of the seven-figure first-novel news items. After decades of writing for my desk drawer, I’d achieved my lifelong dream--in spades. I think I’ve written in this space before about the thrill I feel being in the company of writers, of calling myself a member of the club that I’ve always dreamed of joining.

Unfortunately, my newsmaking advance barred my immediate entry to the club because I was assumed by some of my “colleagues” at the time to be a talentless hack who happened to bamboozle gullible publishers (23 of them worldwide) out of money that they could never earn back. Because I hadn’t paid my dues, some of the authors I admired most wouldn’t even speak to me.

Most notably, I was in New York attending an event when a well-respected midlist mystery writer introduced me to one of the Great Names as “John Gilstrap, the guy who made X on his first novel.” The Great Name glanced at my outstretched hand and walked away.

Even though all of these authors understood how the game is played, their prejudice (jealousy is too loaded a word, and is too self-elevating) was focused on me—not on my agent and not on the publisher, but on me. I guess no one wants to burn bridges with agents or publishers. I have it on good authority that my advance in and of itself made NATHAN’S RUN dead on arrival as a possible nominee for a first-novel Edgar Award. (I’m not saying that I would have won, or even should have; only that I was told that the fix was in from the beginning.) That’s tough stuff.

As for there being no zero sum game, I think it’s interesting to note that one of the popular and woefully underpaid writers at the time—and one who always treated me very well, in fact took me under his wing—recently signed a reported $10 million book contract. Good for him.

Every year brings a new crop of newsmaking advances. Some of the recipients are celebrities, some of them are short-term headline darlings cashing in, and some of them are real authors beginning what they hope will be a long career. Each of these newly-anointed rich folks triggers a new round of behind-the-back sniping. I understand where it comes from, but I can’t bring myself to participate. Been there, been that.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What's Wrong with Publishing

sully So last Sunday morning as I was drinking my coffee and scanning the book review section of the Chronicle, I stumbled across this little nugget:

Chesley Sullenberger of Danville, the US Airways pilot who safely landed his jet in the Hudson River in January, has signed a $3.2 million deal with William Morrow for two books, reports The first will be a memoir; the second a book of poetry.

I nearly spit out my coffee.

Now, don't get me wrong. I have as much respect and admiration for Captain "Sully" Sullenberger as everyone else. Safely landing a plane on the Hudson and sparing all lives? Amazing. If possible, I'd like to have him at the helm of every future flight I take.

But a 3.2 million dollar book deal?

I don't fly planes, and have no aspirations to learn how to when I retire. I think Sully has probably led a fascinating life, perhaps even one worth reading about. But let's have a show of hands: do any of you think that William Morrow is going to be able to recoup this advance, especially considering the attention span of the average American?

Maybe. We do love heroes, and there's a chance that if this book gets cranked out quickly and makes it to market by Christmas (which I'm guessing is their target release date), people will still consider springing for the $25 purchase price. But will enough do so to earn back that advance? Or will there be another hero on our radar by then whose story is equally compelling? (And I'm just going to throw this out there: unless there's a whole bestselling sub-genre of airline poetry that I'm unaware of, I'm guessing they were planning on throwing 3.2 million at him for the memoir, and he asked for the poetry book as an add-on. I'm just saying.)

As the midlist slowly shrinks and more and more authors are being offered advances that amount to less than minimum wage for their efforts, discovering that the octuplets mom, or Joe the Plumber, just signed a seven-figure book deal is octupletsincredibly disheartening. I'm not saying that these people can't write- who knows, maybe Nadya Suleman is the next Zadie Smith. But the implication is that anyone can write a book, that it requires less effort than other fields of expertise. When I meet a physicist at a cocktail party and they invariably announce that they're planning on becoming a writer as soon as they retire, I smile and nod encouragingly, when what I actually want to say is that when I retire, I'll be working on cold fusion. Of course many authors have a second job to support their writing career (hell, with what we get paid, we have to). And when I was a personal trainer, I drew plenty of raised eyebrows at the pronouncement that I was working on a novel. But then, no one ever offered to throw a huge advance at me in a crass attempt to cash in on my fifteen minutes of fame.

So when the publishing industry bemoans the fact that no one is buying books anymore, and that they need to lay off staff and cut expenses to keep themselves afloat, I'm increasingly unsympathetic. Perhaps they should take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask themselves if it's really worth spending the bulk of their energy and finances chasing the public's tail. Maybe it's time they got back to supporting good books by people who have devoted their lives to the craft of writing them.

Now you'll have to excuse me, I'm off to find something that will draw me praise or scorn in the public arena, hopefully enough to raise my profile. While I'm gone, take a stab at an airline poetry haiku. Here's mine:

Stuck in the middle seat

No food, no water, on the tarmac

Oh my God someone farted.

Building a Writer’s Platform

By Joe Moore

As the responsibility of marketing and promotion falls more and more on the shoulders of the author these days, one of the questions that agents and editors ask novelists is “What is your platform?” With the economy putting extra pressure on publishers, they expect writers to come to the game bringing a ready-made audience. They not only want but expect authors to already have established a fan base or at least a group of potential fans—and for new writers, this is BEFORE your book comes out. Even veteran, multi-book authors must have a solid, established platform. It’s part of the “new” business plan.

So what is a platform?

platform1 In a single word, your platform is your “brand”. Having a platform helps your relationship with your publisher, and it can assist you in selling more books.

So how do you establish or build your platform? The quickest way is to start with the Internet. Here are a couple of methods to begin nailing that platform together.

Website. There was a time when a website was only for the rich and famous. Those days are long gone. A writer without a website is about as logical as an author without a telephone. Outside of the bookstore, the author’s website is the “first impression” a potential reader gets of your brand. It’s truly a no-brainer. Your website is your billboard, your advertisement, your calling card. And the potential for delivering a creative message is only limited to your imagination. Essential elements on your website must include: a method for contacting you; a method for purchasing your book(s); a method for the press to gain information (digital press kit); an incentive to linger or return such as a contest or free sample chapters; a method to track your website traffic. Other considerations include continuity in your site colors and design that are in sync with your book covers or other branding elements, and a reasonable amount of interactivity such as a method of leaving comments or subscribing to newsletters and publication news.

Blogging. You obviously know about blogs or you won’t be visiting this one. A blog is an online method of expressing your thoughts with a means for visitors to leave a comment or opinion. As a writer, your blog will probably be about your writing, your books, or some other connection to your craft and career. Some authors like to venture away from their books and discuss other topics such as politics, religion, economics, etc. A word of warning: You’ve worked hard to establish and build your “brand”. Don’t blow it by pissing off your readers. At some point they just might reject your next thriller or mystery because they don’t agree with your position on unrelated issues. A blog can easily turn into a slippery slop.

Newsletter. As previously mentioned, your website needs a method for your visitors and fans to subscribe to a newsletter or news bulletin. If they’re a fan, they want to know about you and your books. When is your next book coming out? When are you going to do a signing in their area? Will you be at a particular writer’s conference? They want the news. And the best and most economical way to get them what they want is an electronic newsletter. There are numerous email-generating newsletter sources that you can use to put together a value-filled publication. A few suggestions are Constant Contact, MailChimp, and Vertical Response.

Write some stuff. Any writing credit is a good writing credit, and it helps build your platform. No matter what you write, whether it’s for the local paper or a national magazine, you’re byline will contain a mention that you are a novelist. So if the reader likes your article or how-to piece, and they see you also write thrillers or mysteries, that’s a potential plank in your platform.

Book forums. There are a ton of forums out there dealing with readers and writers. A good resource to begin finding them is Others include WritersNet, Helium, Backspace, and Absolute Write. Make yourself known on these and similar forums and you’ll be adding to your brand and platform.

Social Networks. Sites like,,, and countless others are perfect for building your brand. The only potential risk is the time you might spend on these sites instead of writing your book. But they are a terrific source of finding your dedicated or new fans. A word of caution: see the note on blogging above.

Additional platform building tools include professional publicity photos of yourself and a strong press-ready biography. Also, memberships in writer organizations such as the International Thriller Writers or Mystery Writers of America help build your brand and platform among your colleagues and fans. The networking and connections made within these organizations and their subsequent writer conferences are invaluable.

How’s your platform coming? Any other suggestions on building a strong brand?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Thriller writing 101: Creating an atmosphere

Every successful thriller begins with a distinctive atmosphere. The thriller writer must establish an atmosphere at the beginning of the story, to ground the reader in the story's place and time.

Note: Atmosphere, while related to setting, is not the same thing as a setting! The atmosphere is what draws the reader in until he or she has time to engage with the characters and plot.

As an example of atmosphere, let's say your story starts off at a hotel. Is the hotel located along the strip in Las Vegas, is it a no-tell motel along I-95 in South Carolina, or is it a beachfront motel in a party town in Southern California? Each locale would provide an opportunity for a completely different atmosphere. It's your choice as the writer to create an atmosphere according to the needs of your story.

What works: Trilateration (I have no idea where I came up with this term; probably Star Trek)

One check list I use when creating atmosphere is the five senses. Of the five senses, writers tend to seriously overuse sight and hearing. We forget all about smell, taste, and touch. When creating atmosphere, it's helpful to roam back through your paragraphs, weaving in references to the other senses. That's what I call trilateration.

For what it's worth, here's a link to an ehow article about creating atmosphere.

What doesn't work: Generic settings, laundry lists, overdescription

Introducing characters with description dumps is boring, and so is introducing settings with laundry lists of description. You need to bring the setting alive by infusing it with mood, in the same way that you inject your characters with life and attitude (For the how-to about that, see Robert Gregory Browne's post about bringing characters to life).

So I'd love to know, how do you go about creating atmosphere in your thrillers? What techniques or tricks of the trade can you share with us today?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

New Characters Wanted

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Jane Austen was a vampire...Pride & Prejudice meets Zombies or Predator...

What next - Charles Dickens as a serial killer? Charlotte Bronte as a transgender PI? I've had enough of people ripping off famous authors, famous characters and famous historical figures. Create your own bloody characters I say!

Inspired by yesterday's blog post on creating powerful characters that jump off the page I simply had to vent today (yes, it's my Monday rant!) about the use of what I call gimmicks rather than characters. I know that in today's commercial environment, the publishing industry (just as the movie industry) wants name recognition but really...WTF???

In Australia we used to have a segment called 'what cheeses me off' - and here's mine for today - a list if you will of character gimmicks that drive me nuts.

  1. The rehash of past literary detectives - enough with Sherlock Holmes already! The only one who has pulled this off (in my mind) is Laurie R King and she created her own terrific character in Mary Russell on top of pulling off the aged beekeeping Holmes with aplomb...but for everyone else - enough!

  2. The 'other perspective' gimmick - Does the world really need Mr Knightly's diary? What next - Uriah Heep's peeping tom memoirs? Confessions of a rake by Mr Willoughby?

  3. The never ending sequel - Once a classic is done, it's done as far as I'm concerned - so I don't need to read Mr. Darcy's Daughters or Pemberley the sequel (the latter was particularly bizarre I felt, though I confess I did read it!). The only 'sequel' I appreciated was the two books written by Jill Paton Walsh based on Dorothy L. Sayers unfinished notes.

  4. Real life historical figures as sleuths....I'm just not buying the King/Queen who can sneak out of court and go sleuthing...

Now don't get me wrong, some people have managed to pull off these things and more power to them if their book sells. Jasper Fforde has a hilarious series featuring Thursday Next that spoofs all sorts of literary figures (I particularly loved the therapy session for the cast of Wuthering Heights in which Healthcliff [now a porn star known as the Black Stallion] arrives and then the session is disturbed by a bomb thrown by the pro-Catherine faction) - but unless you can achieve that level of sublime satire, I say, leave well alone.

In this environment, however, everyone seems to want the easy fix - the 'hook' that will draw in the sales without having to do the hard work of creating new 'jump off the page' characters. Call me old fashioned but the classics of tomorrow are not going to be reheated leftovers from previous classics - or are they? I sometimes wonder and despair...

So what 'cheeses' you off when it comes to rehashed characters...any others to add to my list?

Creating Characters that Jump Off the Page

Rob-Toughguy Today our guest blogger is Robert Gregory Browne, whose latest work WHISPER IN THE DARK received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and is currently available in stores everywhere...

Imagine, if you will, The Fugitive with Ace Ventura as the lead.

While much of the plot of this exciting movie could remain intact, the entire flavor of it would be radically different. Scenes would change, dialog would be altered… and, despite the plot similarities, chances are pretty good these two versions would wind up on completely different shelves in your local video store. Which isn’t all that surprising.

Because when we watch a movie or read a book it isn’t really plot that we invest ourselves in. It’s character. The characters set the tone, and our acceptance or rejection of those characters is essential to our acceptance or rejection of the story itself.

Great characters make us laugh and cry or even frustrate and infuriate us. Great characters make us squirm in suspense and excitement. Great characters take us on an emotional rollercoaster ride and are absolutely essential to our suspension of disbelief.


Whenever I spout off about the all-important need for great characters, someone invariably disagrees. True writing success, they say, lies not only in great characters, but in your ability to come up with a great plot and structure, compelling dialogue and so forth.

And they aren’t wrong. In fact, I couldn’t agree more.

But the simple truth is this — and I’m not the first to say it: your characters define all those things. They are your story. Even if you succeed in giving us a wonderful plot and structure, you’ve got nothing unless your characters jump off the page. In writing fiction of any kind, characters are everything. Everything.

It is impossible to imagine Gone With the Wind without the feisty, self-centered yet courageous Scarlett O’Hara. Or Citizen Kane without the domineering presence of Charles Foster Kane.

But not only are these lead characters all-important, every character that surrounds them seems to be full-bodied and alive. The authors have somehow managed to pump life into every single character that occupies the page.

Now the question is this: how do you and I do the same thing?


WHISPERTruth is, I can’t tell you how to do this, but I can tell you how I do it — and I’m often complimented on my great characters. But my method, like any other method taught out there, is not surefire for everyone who tries it. In fact, many people will reject it out of hand as being far too simplistic. And they may be right. Yet it works for me. And, who knows, it might just work for you.

There are writing gurus who will tell you that the only way to create a great character is to sit down with a legal pad or a bunch of note cards or a character chart and start filling in the blanks.

How old is the character? What’s his occupation? What are his likes and dislikes? What school did he graduate from? Where’s his hometown? Who were his best friends in grammar school. What kind of parents does he have? Does he have any siblings? The list goes on and on and on.

All of these questions are designed to help you get under the skin of your character. To help you understand him or her to the fullest extent possible so that when you write your scenes, your character will be alive in your own mind. And if he’s alive in your own mind, then surely he’ll be alive in the minds of your audience.

Well, yes. Of course. But, I’m sorry, call me lazy, call me stupid — I just can’t bring myself to sit down long enough to answer all these questions.

Oh, I’ve tried. But halfway through I find myself wondering, what’s the point to all this? I may say my main character attended Dartmouth — but how exactly does that bit of information help me unless it’s directly related to the story at hand?

I have yet to figure it out. Instead, I approach the task in this way:


Let’s go back to Scarlett O’Hara for a moment. How did I describe her? Feisty, self-centered yet courageous? You could throw in flirtatious and childish as well. These are all attitudes that our audience can immediately latch onto and understand. We don’t need to know that she comes from a pampered Southern background and a rebellious Irish father to understand — and perhaps identify with — that attitude. Her attitude alone is enough to draw us in.

Why? Because attitude is action — the character in a state of being. Giving your character an attitude — preferably one that conflicts with the other characters in your story — is a great way to help you and your audience understand who that character is.


Adding emotion to your character can help your audience identify with him or her. Looking at Scarlett O’Hara again, when Gone With the Wind opens we see the flirtatious and selfish side of Scarlett’s personality. But as the opening scenes continue, we discover that despite all the attention she’s getting from the men in her world, she’s actually in love with another and has been rejected by him. Scarlett is wounded by that rejection yet hides the hurt from all but the object of her affection.

This is an emotion/reaction we can all identify with. If we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we have seen it in others we know and love. The emotion is what gives depth to… the attitude.


Every character must have a goal. Not just the main character. This is a given. Without a goal, your main character will wander aimlessly and your audience will disappear.

But every character that inhabits your story should have a goal. The character’s goal is often what defines both attitude and emotion.

Let’s take a relatively minor character for example. A grocery store clerk. The hero is buying a carton of milk. For a beat of conflict in an otherwise innocuous scene, we might give the grocery store clerk a goal: she wants to go home. She’s been on her feet all day long, the new shoes are killing her and all she wants to do is punch that time clock (and maybe anyone who gets in her way) and get the hell out of there.

This goal can help you define the character’s attitude. Is she weary? Is she grouchy? And how does this affect (read: conflict with) the hero?

Giving such a minor character a goal and an attitude/emotion may seem silly, but the result is a much richer story with much richer characters.


Defining an attitude/emotion and a goal are all wonderful, helpful things. But none of them mean squat if we don’t see these things in action.

Sure, we can have Joe Blow say our hero is a selfish, manipulating bastard, but that means nothing unless we see this for ourselves. The way your character acts and speaks is what finally defines her/him.

When I describe Scarlett O’Hara as flirtatious and self-centered, these attributes are defined by what Scarlett says and does. She flirts with just about every man who enters her world, she manipulates them into paying attention to her despite the unhappiness this brings to the other women around her. By seeing her in action and hearing her words, we quickly understand the attitude and emotion she brings to the story.

The cliche, Show Don’t Tell, couldn’t be more true here. We must always show our characters acting and reacting — not simply talking about their motivations and desires.


Defining a character’s goal/attitude/emotion/action are all wonderful things, but how exactly do we go about doing that without resorting to those cards and charts and character sketches the writing teachers tell us we so desperately need?

Again, this works for me. It may not work for you. And it’s deceptively simple:

Every character I write is me. From the hero and heroine down to that grocery store clerk, every single character I write is… me.

Yes, you say, but isn’t that a bit limiting? Doesn’t that make for a rather monotonous set of characters?

Maybe. But I have yet to hear any complaints. If my lead character is a divorced father of three who finds himself unwittingly involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the government, the first thing I ask myself when approaching a scene (even though I’m happily married and wouldn’t know a conspiracy if it jumped up and bit me) is this: how would I react in this situation.

Then I add the color (read: attitude/emotion). How would I react, if… I was a self-centered bastard… a no-nonsense cop… an officious political hack. And I apply this technique to every character I write.

In short, I’m like a method actor playing all of the parts. By using myself and a healthy dose of imagination, I can approach characterization from the inside out. And once I’m able to get into the skin of my characters, it’s much, much easier to create someone whom I, and hopefully the audience, can identify with.


If you still feel like you have to drag out the cards and charts, then so be it. If knowing every single little detail about your character is important to you, then by all means write them all down, cover your entire wall with important tidbits of information. I would never belittle anyone for doing what feels right for them.

But while you’re at it, take into consideration the things I’ve talked about here. Remember attitude, emotion, goal and action.

Because these are the things that will make your characters leap off the page and propel your audience through the story. The key to success is to get your audience to say (and I’m cringing as I write this):

Frankly, my dear, I do give a damn.

Rob Gregory Browne was an award-winning screenwriter who rode the Hollywood roller coaster until severe motion sickness forced him to retire. He has now settled comfortably into his new life as a thriller writer, producing the books KISS HER GOODBYE, the just released WHISPER IN THE DARK -- which received a starred review from Publishers Weekly -- and the upcoming KILL HER AGAIN. Rob lives in California.



Mark your calendar for the following guest bloggers at the Kill Zone:

Neil Plakcy, March 22
Liz Jasper, March 29