A couple weeks ago, I lent my husband one of the adult science fiction books I read last month. To my delight, he enjoyed it as much as I did.
“It had a lot of characters,” he said, “which usually frustrates me, but the author did a great job of introducing only one at a time. That made it easy for me to get to know them and keep them straight.”
Then he gave me the look.
And I sank down in my chair.
‘Cause I know I have a problem. I’m a New Character Addict. Why bring in one new character when I can have three? Or five? It’s a problem that runs rampant through all my first drafts, and it’s definitely attributable to my being a pantster at heart. (I bet people who outline don’t have this problem.) But when you’re making up the story as you go, with only the barest glimpse of your target ending, a lot of unexpected and uninvited characters turn up along the way.
Some of them end up being important — maybe even show-stoppers — so it’s essential that I let this process run its course, even if it’s frustrating to my CPs. I try not to worry because I know in later drafts I’ll put on my Grim Reaper robe, get out my scythe, and start slashing characters.
Sometimes, I see the solution even earlier than that. For instance, last week I wrote a chapter in which three new characters appeared – a mother and daughter we’d heard about before – and a scientist. It occurred to me afterward that if the mother wasalsothe scientist, three characters could be reduced to two. Now that I’ve seen the solution, it’s hard for me to go on writing this soon-to-be-merged-with-another-character scientist, but I feel compelled to do so for my own first-drafting brain, as well as the sanity of my CPs. He’s doomed, but he’s part of the first draft.
Any well-rounded character should have flaws, I think. It makes them more realistic, for one thing, and it gives them room for growth as well. If a character starts out perfect, how can they change over the course of the book?
Yet, I’m noticing a trend in reviews of books – especially reviews written by YA readers – that complain about characters with perceived flaws. Recently I saw negative reviews of Hold Me Like a Breath that called Penny, the protagonist, “whiny and self-pitying” because she had a rare illness and her parents were too over-protective to let her live a normal life. I was almost swayed into not reading Cruel Beauty because of numerous negative reviews saying Nyx was so consumed with hatred and jealousy toward her sister it was all she ever thought about.
My books aren’t immune from this criticism. Some reviewers of The Caged Graves said they disliked Verity because she was “snobbish” when she first arrived in Catawissa, and some reviewers called Jax from The Eighth Day “an angry little complainer.”
But here’s the thing: Penny had a reason to be unhappy about her parents and her life. (I didn’t find this whiny, just normal) But she grew and changed and showed astonishing strength and bravery at the end of the story. As for Nyx, yes, she was hateful to her sister, but her attitude changed as the story developed – and the nasty thing she did to her sister in the beginning was a turning point for the sister and crucial to the plot. I believe Verity and Jax changed too. I intended for them to change when I wrote them with flaws in the first place.
Why do you think YA readers are so intolerant of characters who are flawed and make mistakes? Do they expect perfection from page one? I’m reminded of this passage I wrote in The Caged Graves where Nate’s sisters describe him for Verity, thinking (incorrectly) that she hasn’t met him yet and wanting him to make a good first impression:
They adored their younger brother and were eager to regale Verity with all his positive traits: he was hard working and loyal and earnest and kind. Oh, he had his faults, too. The sisters agreed that he could sometimes be too hard working – and probably too earnest – and kind to a fault. Annie confessed that no one had ever been able to get Nate to eat carrots, as if this were the most terrible thing she could say about him.
Have YA readers progressed to a point where a dislike of carrots is about as much as they can tolerate in the way of a flaw? What flaws does Harry Potter have, after all? A tendency to break school rules to fight evil? How about Katniss Everdeen? Does that girl even have a flaw? She starts off the book being a dead-eye shot with a bow and arrow, sacrifices herself for her sister – and continues her heroics from there.
What do you think? Have you seen reviews that slam protagonists for their flaws without recognizing that they are bound to change? Do YA readers understand that character arcs usually involve self-discovery and growth? How about you personally? Do you prefer a protagonist with an Achilles heel – or a Harry Potter who’s basically just as brave and loyal and good at the beginning as he is at the end? I’m not saying I don’t love Harry. I do. But … did he change? Discuss!
In a little less than 2 months, The Inquisitor’s Mark comes out. Traditional publishing is strange in that the gap in time between the writing of the book and the release of the book is SO LONG, I can hardly remember what it was like. In fact, when I sat down to write this post, I had to go back and check the beginning date on the first draft to remember when the heck I even wrote it. I was surprised to discover that I started the first draft exactly 2 years ago today. (I wrote this post on 12/4, btw.)
Then I went through all my blog posts from that time period. These are the things that I recorded in my blog about the process of writing my first sequel (my blog being the closest thing I have to a diary):
Writing the second book in a series presents a new set of issues to be insecure about. Your cool premise is no longer original. Readers are familiar with it from the first book, and they want to know: What else have you got?
For each of my characters, there is only one way to go. It may seem as if they have choices, but they don’t. Not if the story is to move forward. They (and I) have to keep following the path that’s open until we all get to the bottom of the hill.
My WIP has me by the throat and will not let go. Even at work, I walk around muttering to myself in the voices of my characters, drawing little maps on scraps of paper, and choreographing action scenes.
Over the 3-day President’s Weekend, I wrote 9,000 words. My feet finally touched the ground around noon on Monday when I typed THE END on the first draft of THE EIGHTH DAY #2.
I started the draft on December 4. Seventy-seven days from beginning to end. I know that might not seem like a feat to anyone who’s succeeded at NaNo – producing 50,000 words in 30 days. But this is the fastest I’ve ever written a manuscript.
I had an outline for this book. But I realized, right before I hit SEND and zapped the manuscript to my editor, that my favorite parts of Book 2 were never in the outline at all.
I had a new character sharing POV with my MC, but I didn’t know anything about his personality and motivation when I started writing. I didn’t discover it until halfway through the first draft, and the revelation, when it came, required the addition of a subplot that wasn’t in the outline. (PS – I didn’t know it then, but that unplanned sub-plot ended up being crucial for Book 3.)
One of my very favorite scenes in the book (involving a garbage chute and a fire ladder) is an event that was never planned.
The climactic action scene was plotted out right before I needed to write it – at a restaurant in the Pocono Mountains during a ski trip. “Listen everybody,” I said, commandeering all the forks and knives and a few condiments to make a diagram on the table. “I need to know how these people can fight this creature in this confined space. And since there’s an exit right over here, why don’t they just run away instead?” My husband and daughters were nonplussed by this demand. My daughter’s friend looked kind of surprised, but also vindicated – as if she suspected all along that Gabbey’s writer mom was a nutjob.
Overall, I think the writing of The Inquisitor’s Mark was one of my most intense writing experiences yet. It was fun to look back at how I experienced it at the time, to remember all the really neat things that were never in the original plan for that book.
I hope readers enjoy the finished product!
Two new characters in THE INQUISITOR’S MARK — Dorian Ambrose and Sloane Dulac. (Character sketches by Rachel Gillespie)
Hi, everyone! I’ve been trying to get around to everyone’s blog — which includes more than the usual number because I participated in a blog hop this week. But I’ve been battling a cold which would like very much to turn into a sinus infection and my motivation to do anything but lay around watching TV and reading books has been low.
I’m wondering what is new with you and want to share what’s new with me!
I commissioned a few more character drawings from Rachel Gillespie, who is — yes — a high school student with aspirations to some day work for Disney or Pixar. I think she’s got the talent, and I’m delighted to help her build her portfolio of work as she applies to art schools. These character designs are for use on my website and promotional materials. My talented daughter Gabrielle is also using them in a 2015 calendar that will be available for download by January. There will, of course, be eight days in every week.
If you’ve read The Eighth Day, you might recognize the Donovan twins, Thomas and Tegan, who cause Jax so much trouble. They will return — much to Jax’s annoyance — in The Inquisitor’s Mark.
And this is Jax’s best friend, Billy Ramirez. Poor Billy gets left behind in The Eighth Day, but he’s going to have the adventure of a lifetime in The Inquisitor’s Mark.
Finally, the big thing that’s new in my life is an addition to my family! Meet my new office assistant, Luna.
She has definite opinions on my reading selections.
Recently, I was asked whether it was difficult to write non-MG characters into a major role in The Eighth Day without fear of losing my audience. The answer was NO, although before the book sold, I was worried about losing potential publishers.
If you write MG or have even considered it, you’ve probably heard that the story must revolve around characters under the age of 14, adult characters are to be kept in the background, and you should never, ever, ever have an adult POV.
Art by high school student Rachel Gillespie
The thing is … this seems to be a publishing industry rule that a) is ignored when the story is good enough and b) gives no credit to MG readers. Kids know when the story is good. They are completely unaware of industry standards, and they couldn’t care less about them!
There are three main characters in The Eighth Day:
Jax, the protagonist and primary POV, age 13
Riley, his guardian, age 18
Evangeline, the alternate POV character, age 16
That’s right. Two important YA characters in a MG novel. Luckily, the editor who acquired my novel saw no need for me to change their ages. She called them aspirationalcharacters, and I think that’s the perfect name for them. I’ve read this book out loud to two reading classes for two years in a row now, and all four groups of MG students LOVED Evangeline and Riley. In fact, the #1 question they all had about Book 2 in the series was: Will Riley and Evangeline be in it?
The fact is, MG readers are not as narrow-minded as some publishers/agents might think. Take Brandon Mull’s wildly popular fantasy series, Fablehaven, and oh yeah, his other wildly popular series, The Beyonders. In each case, there are only 2 MG characters in the books – one boy and one girl. The rest of the cast is composed of adults.
But oh, what adults! Fablehavenhas a crossbow-wielding Grandma, and The Beyonders features the displacer Ferrin, who can disassemble his body parts, send them on errands, and then call them back together.
Consider also the Hero’s Guide series by Christopher Healy, where ALL the main characters are adults. There are four adult Princes Charming, not to mention their four corresponding Princesses. Prince Duncan and Snow White are actually married! (Gasp!) But the reason this works in MG is that all these characters have childlike qualities. MG readers relate to their endearing playfulness.
Perhaps that’s the key – whether its playfulness, outlandishness, or aspirational-ness – all characters must bring something to the story that appeals to young readers. Age doesn’t really matter as much as you think.
My CP Krystalyn Drown worried a lot about including an adult POV in her MG book, Tracy Tam: Santa Command (Month9Books, Oct 2014) Tracy is a child and the protagonist, but Phil, an adult, provides an alternate POV. In fact, Phil’s POV opens the book. Krystalyn wondered if she should change that, and I encouraged her to leave it. Her opening is brilliant. Phil works at Santa Command, and he has a crisis with Santa. Who cares how old Phil is?! He has to save Santa!
Luckily, Month9Books felt the same way. They had no problem with Phil, his point of view, or opening the book with him. They told Krystalyn that readers will “love and cheer” when Tracy proves Phil wrong during the climax of the story.
So, I think, when industry professionals tell MG writers to stay away from adult characters, what they really mean is stay away from characters who make adulthood look boring and stodgy. Awesome adults (and young adults) are welcome!
Dear Characters of my WIP (working title: VOLTAGE):
You are hereby invited to attend the climax of the book, expected to begin approximately 20,000 words from now. I wanted to give you plenty of advance notice, because I am anticipating the climax will consist of several climactic scenes which may require rigorous activity, convergence of multiple plot lines, and the death of one of you.
At this point, I can’t give you a precise timeline for the event(s). I’m not sure about the order of the planned activities, nor even if they make any kind of logical sense. I am pretty sure I have some of you booked in multiple locations at the same time. However, I’m hoping we can work that out as we go, and I know you’ll all improvise as needed. (Heaven knows, you haven’t followed the script so far, and I don’t expect you’ll start doing so now.)
As for the death, I cannot name the victim, but I’m sure you all can guess who it is. At this point, I have not worked out a method of dispatch, so I am open to suggestions from all of you. Please feel free to pester me with possible scenarios while I am trying to concentrate on my day job.
I know we had a rough beginning and re-wrote the first 20,000 words three times before we took off running. But, in the end we persevered and even had some fun along the way. Remember the Just Kiss Already Blogfest?
Anyway, with the light at the end of the tunnel a dim twinkle in the distance, I’d like to say that I enjoyed working with you – and look forward to revising your story in the future – multiple times.