Authors and Characters: A Symbiotic Relationship

My Delilah Bard character cosplay from A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab. I love dressing up as literary characters.

While I was in the spirit of the holidays, I sat down recently and decided to watch The Man Who Invented Christmas with my mother while she was visiting with me. Dan Stevens is irresistibly amazing in it, as you might expect if you follow him at all, but what you might find surprising, or at least I did, was the introspective glance it had in the mind of a writer.

In the movie, Charles Dickens struggles with finding his characters. As I watched the vision of Scrooge appear and start talking, Dickens asked his character questions to help define him more. And my mouth dropped to the floor and I nudged my mother, “This is so true.” The constant interruptions while in a mid-stream of creativity; the name collecting; the environmental influences… all made sense to me.

Creating characters is a strange business, honestly. And writing is solitary, but it’s not. It makes sense to us that we spend time with other people, even if they are the ones in our heads that are informing us about themselves and the adventure they want to take.

It Starts With A Name

In this movie, Dickens states it all starts with a name; once the character has a name, the character comes to him.

I recently was in a class on developing characters, and throughout the class a theme developed for me about emotional connection. There needs to be a reason to care. I think a lot of that starts with a name too. The right name can say so much about your book. Sometimes a character comes with a name and then demonstrates why they have that name.

In this class, I focused on a character named Browneyes. This is a character I created in my series, but felt she had more to say. She came with her name. It was a nickname that I gave my little girl. I loved her brown eyes. I thought it was cool and unusual. I was at the time also in Imagination Training my good friend and fellow writer Michael Jensen was developing (more to come). In this training, he asked me to invite a character to the safe space in my mind and ask questions. This was an amazing experience for my imagination to just play with. One of the questions I asked her was how she got her name. I was not prepared for this answer. I had always assumed it was a nickname, but not until that experience did I understand it. And when I understood why, her story started to come into place. It was Browneyes’ name, or the name she was hiding behind, that told me her story.

I adore names and always have. I collect them much like Dickens did, or JK Rowling for that fact. The right name can set things in motion.

My character in the book Vampire-ish is named Oliver Brixby. What does that say to a reader? Bookishly nerdy? Unpopular? Insecure? A bit lost and hopeless? Springy? (I know, why is that?) I needed him to have the right name in order for the own story to come together. Both names were ones I had collected. Oliver was a name I had always liked but never used (since it didn’t fit any of my girls).

Atticus Finch. Sirius Black. Bilbo Baggins. Sherlock Holmes. A name is a badge that says a lot about a character.

When I first was signed on with my first publisher, they asked me to change the name of a few of my characters. This was hard for me. The character Taren was originally called Ry. I changed it because it was too close to Reynolds. I understand the change but was not familiar with Taren as a character until the later books, because I hadn’t written Taren before, I had written Ry. My perspective of his ideals changed as well. Ry to me was much more selfish and dark. Taren felt more accepting to change. If I would have kept him as Ry, would he have had the same story arch? I’ll never know.

AND ONE MORE THING . . . In authoring, I am Candace – a princessy name that means “Glowing Queen.” It’s my birth name and I think it’s pretty cool. I always have liked it. It’s not crazy popular and it’s sweet sounding. I like the way it’s spelled, and when I meet another Candace, we are immediately in the exclusive Candace Club. I was never called Candace growing up. I went by Candy. Okay. Right? Candy gives you a very different idea of a person. Candy is a name no one takes seriously. This is a sweet, bubbly sounding name, someone that likes to have fun (maybe too much fun), a people person, a drag queen, a hairdresser with expressive eyes and stunning lashes and gorgeous nails. And I won’t lie, the name Candy suits me in specific ways, but not in authoring. To my family and friends, PLEASE call me Candy, but as a professional, I can’t use this name because of how it’s represented.

I’ve always felt that naming someone is one of the most important things you do as an author. Sometimes it comes easy. I know when a great name crosses my path, a story almost immediately comes to my mind just in the name alone. Spend some time on the name you pick for your character and understand why they have that name, why they identify with it. Just like your name means something to you, give your characters the same chance to tell what it means to them.

Slam Books

There are so many guides, character sheets, books, websites, card games. . . on getting to know your character. But I don’t think you really know your character until you put them in a situation where they need to act.

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”

– William Faulkner.

In middle school we had these things called Slam Books. Does anyone know what I’m talking about? A Slam Book was a regular ruled notebook where the person who owns it writes a question on the top of the page and then numbers it all the way down. Then they give it to a friend, the friend selects a number to be, and then answer the question on each page. I would most likely try and write the funniest answers, because at the time my job was to be the funniest person in the room – not the class clown, oh no, just the wittiest, funniest person in the room. (I kinda still try to do that. It was my way of getting over my insecurities.) I look at my GETTING TO KNOW YOU stage as what would they write in a Slam Book. (Post on Slam Books here.)

The characters in my novels feel like people I knew in high school, so it’s only logical to me that they would write in my Slam Book (even though that’s more of a junior high thing). I know them well enough, I never forget their names, we shared experiences. As I start to move through the story with them, I find that they become their own people and that I’m no longer seeking to create them, but more they are telling more about them. It’s a nature friendship like any friendship.

I asked a few different author friends about how a character comes to them. A similar response came from them that they don’t get a huge character talking and dictating how to write the story, like Scrooge did in the movie, but more getting to know them as they go.

Alyson Grauer, author of On the Isle of Sound and Wonder stated, “They aren’t super vocal, but they have opinions. The form kind of is like feelings first or textures or colors… I always put myself in their shoes? I guess it comes from acting. But they start as like a feeling or a combination of feelings, and then once I figure out what they look like and how they move and how they talk and all that, then they can talk to me. But mostly, it’s just they have opinions on things. They don’t like have full conversations with me.”

Ben Ireland, author of the Billy Blacksmith books stated this about characters, “It’s more like sculpting. I know what i’m going to do, but the details reveal themselves as I work.”

Jodi L. Milner, author of Stonebearer’s Betrayal, said when I asked about character sheets, “I find more often than not, if I have to fill out a character worksheet, half the stuff I put on there doesn’t feel right later. What helps me more than anything is to find two existing characters I love and mash them together to create something I can use. It really helps with the voice and mannerisms.”

So many of us have our own way of getting to know our characters, but the best way I feel, is to be with them, spend time with them and see what they will do when put under pressure, when they have to make a decision, and why they would choose it.

Characters Have a Mind of Their Own

I remember having a conversation with a new mother. This was several years ago before I had kids of my own. She was complaining about how hard of a time she was having with her toddler and his behavior. I’ll never forget her saying, “It’s like he has a mind of his own.” Really? Like they exist outside of your body? And have their own pulse and lungs and opinions? I still laugh at this statement.

Characters also exist without the writer. It has to. A writer’s job is to send it out in the world to be shared. These characters need to become real in the mind of the reader. When creating characters they often become so real that I miss them when they aren’t around.

When I was writing my first book Vivatera, the idea was only a stand-alone idea. But during the creative process, I found that I really liked my characters and wanted them to succeed. I became carried away with sending them on adventures, so much so that I turned it into a series, with continuing stories beyond the series, just because of how much I want to explore who they become. My second book, Conjectrix, had an overarching concept, but three separate stories. And all I did in this book was put them in a situation and see how they would react: let’s put them in a den of dragons; or let’s meet Katia’s father; or look I put a bunch of mountain trolls right here . . . whatcha gonna do now? Every chapter was me exploring my characters and how they think and react and communicate with others. And I have to say, it’s my favorite book I’ve written because I had the best time getting to know them.

I liked how Dickens was depicted as having conversations with his characters as real people. I remember reading Harry Potter and knowing these characters so well. I also remember having the briefest sadness that there wasn’t an actual Hogwarts and I couldn’t go see my friends there. I think this is a shared problem and why we now have two theme parks dedicated to him.

Characters should exist beyond the words we write. Just imagine all the shenanigans your characters do when they are not appearing in your book. As part of my writing exercises, I like to do journal entries as part of my research. I like thinking of stories that happen with my characters. And not that this research will show on the page, but it strengthens my voice in telling about them. It makes them more real understanding what they would do or what they have been through. I have had one thing come up in the third book in my series that I wrote in a journal entry for the first. I’m very glad I did that, because it became important later on when I needed that information.

Quirks and Cuteness

My daughter is an artist and is always drawing characters she wants to develop into stories; each one has a little bit of a background and a quirk, like hair sticking up or covering one eye. In drawing them, these characters become real people to her. She is definitely my daughter finding the adorable quirk in everything, but I feel very powerless when drawing characters I imagine.

Cute and quirky Greyson

I highlight her art because of the quirk and cuteness of it. The best characters are ones that have a bit of flavor to them. Characters that look like oatmeal, will taste like oatmeal. Without some flavor, the audience will all have a bit of bland in their mouths.

Some of my favorites characters are those that are not perfect and that have a relatable quality to them. Within the first few pages of Percy Jackson, we already know that he’s not a normal kid. He has ADHD, doesn’t pay attention, isn’t good in school – so relatable to Percy’s audience. not just personality-wise, but physically and mentally too. Those details are important.

I have a friend named “Big Al.” He’s a voracious reader and a rather big guy, like the larger than life type, super jolly and wears his heart on his sleeve. He read my series and liked it, and asked for recommendations. At this time I had just finished editing the second in the Billy Blacksmith series. Billy is a big kid, uncomfortable in his own skin, bullied, but always trying to do the right thing. I told Big Al about it and he gave the first book a try. He LOVED it. He identified with the character of Billy, the trials, the struggles of being young and awkward, the WHOLE thing. He quickly grabbed the next one and hounded me before the third came out. Suddenly, this character wasn’t just a character, but a friend, someone that he identified with. These kind of characters can be life-defining. I think a lot of readers search for these type of characters that through their quirks and imperfections, make them perfect for us to love.

I highlight Delilah Bard from A Darker Shade of Magic. V. E. Schwab really makes her characters likable, relatable, yet complicated. Delilah is not perfect. She is a thief and will always be a thief. She’s dark and mysterious and only looks out for herself. I can’t trust her, but that makes me like her more. She doesn’t turn into someone unexpected; she doesn’t suddenly grow a heart of gold like Darth Vader and throw the Emperor down a shaft in the Death Star. She is the love interest, but not lovable. She will not be the character that takes the bullet – that’s Kell’s job. Delilah stays true to herself the entire series.

And that is not easy. After building a friendship with these characters, one wants them to be in a Happily Ever After. But you know truth of your characters. Not all of them would choose that. Each should have likes and dislikes, but most of all, they should have personality. Make them quirky, imperfect, relatable. Those make up our favorite characters.

Letting Them Go

My job as an author is created believable characters and set them off on an adventure. My characters really do steer the boat. They live so deeply in my head that I know what they need to do when it’s time to act. But once the adventure is over, the characters need to go out on a new, different adventure, one that isn’t hooked to me and my mind, but one that is hooked to yours . They now need to tell their story to readers. Their journey is far from over, even after I type THE END.

If you find those characters that speak to you, much like my friend Big Al did, those character will stay with you forever. They are friends that you are always friends with. It feels like they go away, but you can always revisit them and share them with others. I love it when I share books with others. It’s an introduction to a friend, and hopefully those whom I share it with become their friends too. This journey can be slow, but every encounter with a new fan is someone knew my characters just met. It’s magical and transcending to get a review or message from a fan. My characters are doing their job, inviting these other people to a world and adventure I created for them. It’s wonderful and surreal.

Cover Reveal: Fresh Re-Imagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest

On the Isle of Sound and Wonder is a driven, fantastical, lyrical retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest set in a world just adjacent of our own.

People have been wondering what my “SUPER SECRET” project has been lately, and I’m proud to tell you all about it!

Five or so years ago, Alyson Grauer (Aly) came and stayed with me and my family. This was a fortuitous meeting for both of us, and it felt strange that two people could be so similar yet live thousands of miles apart. This was close to the same time her book On the Isle of Sound and Wonder would be released.

The beautiful book was released in 2014 to tumultuous applause, but with the passing of time has been slowly quieted by the ever drowning sea of books. This little book was all but forgotten until a small conversation this summer planted the seeds of a much bigger adventure.

After some simmering on the idea, Aly messaged me and said she was all in; she wanted her book to get new breath. We worked on it secretly trying to iron out details, giving smallish hints of the rumbles going on. When I spontaneously hopped on a plane to Florida to help her attack some of the critical steps in finalizing everything, I think people started to suspect something was up. Finally, we are in a place to share what we’ve been working on.

Several may recall that I received my publishing rights in January of this year, re-releasing my books under my own indie press. This experience taught me a lot, I mean A LOT, and helped me gain confidence that I can do about anything and ignited my desire to help others with all the things I had learned. On the Isle of Sound and Wonder is Shadesilk’s first adventure in Indie press from an author.

With the independent spirit in mind, I wanted Aly to retain as much integrity with her book as possible. Shadesilk was used as a guiding hand and a launch pad for this magical book to reach a new audience, and hopefully rebuild confidence and renew the beauty it once had.

I thought I would send Aly some questions to help you know more about her and this incredible book. Here are her heartfelt answers.

How do you feel about relaunching your book? 
I am so excited to bring this book back in a new way. On the one hand, it doesn’t feel like it was that long ago that it was first published, but on the other, so much has changed since then, and there were things I had taken for granted in my manuscript that I really, really wanted to change. I didn’t do a complete rewrite and overhaul of the novel, but I made some well-needed adjustments and I am so pleased with how it fit together. I can’t wait to share this stronger, updated version with the world.

What does this story mean to you? 
In many ways, Sound and Wonder was a surprise to me. I had the idea during National Novel Writing Month 2013 to do a rewrite or retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and I kind of just let my imagination run wild with it. Then, in reworking and revising it for publication, I learned so many things about how complicated and challenging I had made it for myself in retrospect. I had never written anything like it: large cast, complex backstories, vengeance and dark magic and a lot of hard emotions woven throughout. Oh wait. Actually. The first long-form work I had ever drafted in high school was a historical fiction pirate story with a large cast, complex backstories, and vengeance charged with difficult emotions. No magic in that one, just a lot of cruel twists of fate. I’ve never realized this parallel before! 

What are some changes we can see in this version?
No spoilers, but there was a specific moment late in the story cut from the original version by editors that has been rightfully restored.
Also, what was I thinking, writing a 25 page prologue that was a flashback-within-a-flashback??? I’ve restructured the opening chapters more sensibly and smoothed out the distribution of flashbacks across the board. 

How has your writing changed over the years?
In the NaNoWriMo community people refer to ‘pantsers’ and ‘plotters’ – that is to say, people who write by the seat of their pants, and people who plot until they can’t anymore and then they start writing. For my whole life I was a pantser, and a lot of Sound and Wonder’s original drafts were pantsed, to a degree. But the thing I forgot was that I wasn’t truly pantsing — I was using Shakspeare’s dramatic structure from The Tempest to guide me. So I was pantsing-with-a-plot? It’s a mess in my head. 
Since the original release of this book, I have read much more widely in fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction, and done a lot more research on how other successful authors hone their crafts. I read a lot of Brandon Sanderson, too, which changed the way I viewed epic fantasy.

Oh, and I married a plotter. So I became one too, much to my chagrin. 

What projects are you most excited by?
I like stories that have high emotional value, stories that connect with people and move them – whether it’s drama or comedy, romance or mystery. I love a sense of wonder and whimsy – magic that isn’t quite what you think it is, or unusual, silly twists on traditional archetypes or tropes. I see things in cinematic scale, and sometimes I have a hard time giving myself permission to zoom in or zoom out to find the right balance for a story, but I love when the action, the feeling, and the characters all join together.

You can find Aly’s book for Pre-Order at the Shadesilk Webstore here! And follow all the @dreamstobecome media on Twitter and Instagram!

Adventures in Audio

I’ve been testing the waters in Audio Books

A few courageous years ago, I thought about performing my own audio books. It sounded like a lot of fun. Audio and voice recording is something I’ve dreamed about doing since I was little – probably since Gurgi in Black Cauldron, after I realized I could do cool things with my voice. 

When the opportunity came to create a studio in my home, this was just the push I needed to get into voice acting… right? I thought about starting a podcast, a vocal art studio, possibly composing the music for the intros, and really expanding my reach as an author. What a WONDERFUL dream. I currently hold all my audio rights for my series and I felt like this was a golden opportunity….

This was two (plus) years ago. And though I still have delusions of recording, different opportunities and challenges took precedence over my starring role as recording artist and composer.

But here is what happened to help branch my books into audio…

My grandmother, who is a personal hero of mine, is blind, Macular Degeneration, where the eyes just slowly lose vision. I fear this will eventually happen to me as well, something to look forward to, I suppose. She is currently in assisted living, but the crazy girl is teaching exercise (within reason) to the other residents. She’s spry and sharp, and a well of experiences. I don’t ever have the time to visit (I’m the worst offender out of all her grandchildren) and she wouldn’t be able to read my books anyway. Around her 95th birthday back in May, the thought came to me that I wished my grandmother knew my stories while she is still here.

Now was the time to get into audio.

A friend asked why I didn’t read Vampire-ish myself, with all my audio talk and whatnot. Very simply… well, I’m not a guy. I can’t even fake this on a good day. The thing about Oliver (Vampire-ish: A Hypochondriac’s Tale), it is told in first person narration. I needed a guy.

I looked into ACX and decided to give it a try. I went for halvies, profit share, and received a lot of incredible auditions, but none were right for Oliver. My main character needed a specific, youthful, yet slightly nerdy voice. All these deep baritones just wouldn’t work out. When I heard Ryan Jeanmaire, I knew immediately this was my Oliver. Ryan not only had the vocal sound I needed, but the comic timing required for the part, and it was a bonus that he studied acting and currently lives in New York City. I’m VERY excited to announce that Vampire-ish: A Hypochondriac’s Tale will be available in audio – Audible, iTunes, and Amazon – at the end of this month, July 31st. (link to come)

 

But, another incredible thing happened.

A few years ago, an author friend and someone I’ve mentioned before, probablyAlyson Grauer (Whimsy and ArtificeDreams To Become), talked casually about recording my books. She loved Vivatera and always wanted to do it, but at the time her life was circumnavigated by change and the timing wasn’t right. Last month, Aly contacted me and approach the subject of recording my books. My series is finished and this was a great chance to get all three done by the same person, and field into another arena of book lovers. A slot had opened in her artistic life to read my books, and I jumped at the opportunity for her to audition.

Salt Lake Comic Con 2015: Aly in the Steampunk cowgirl and me as Honey Lemon. You can tell it’s the end of the con. I was exhausted. Photo credit: Bryan Rasmussen, Chisledlight Photography

I have a lot of professional artistic working relationships, and working with friends, especially the dear ones, can be very delicate sometimes.

Here is some advice:

  • Always draft a contract
  • Follow the contract
  • Remember this phrase – “It’s Business.” (coined while editing the Blacksmith Series) Don’t take it personal, it’s business.

Aly sent me the Prologue and First Chapter for Vivatera and my jaw hit the floor. Unlike Oliver’s 1st person narrative, Vivatera is 3rd person limited view. It spines a vivid cast of characters, all across this world I created. Aly asked several questions about the characters before starting, comprehensive questions about region and dialect, audio samples and word pronunciations. We also audio chatted in :22-ish audio clips, just bouncing back and forth about specifics while I was in my car.

From what I have heard, this will be an audio experience. Aly is an actor, storyteller, a dialect coach, a creator, and for me, a very fortuitous friend to have in my life. Contract is drafted and I’ll have more details later.

I can’t wait to share this with my grandma, and all of you when it comes out. Stay tuned!

**If you are interesting following Aly and her projects, please click on her Patreon link here: Whimsy and Artifice

 

 

Book Review – Storm Front (Harry Dresden #1)

Last year at Salt Lake Comic Con 2015, I had the privilege of attending a panel with some talented authors like Terry Brooks, Jim Butcher, R.A. Salvatore and James Owens. And I was so excited to hear, with my own ears, what one of my writing influences, me being a small time author, had to say… that’s right… Terry Brooks!!!

Cool authors being cool. Jim Butcher is second in – Terry Brooks is at the end. Another cool author Aly Grauer at the end of the question line

 

But seeing Terry is cool, but what about these other authors? I knew of them, and I really liked what they had to say during the panel. I walked back on the con floor and saw the signing line wrap all the way down the aisle for this Jim Butcher guy. Of course, I’d HEARD of Harry Dresden, but figured it’s a guy read. Right? Probably a “Richard Castle” type of read that really doesn’t interest a fantasy girl like me.

A year past – A FULL YEAR – a very busy, hard year of writing, editing, and growing as an author. Finally, the moment I turned in the FINAL edit of my FINAL book in my fantasy series, I thought it was time to start reading again. But, oh, what a dry spell. I feel like I haven’t read in ages. The pile of books had grown so high I felt overwhelmed with where to start.

This is when friends and recommendations come in. An author friend of mine, Ben Ireland, listed Harry Dresden as one of his biggest influences. I knew this already, so when I asked him if he had recommendations for something to read, he nearly screamed, “READ HARRY DRESDEN!”

Okay, universe, I guess I should have listened last year, when my curiositystorm front piqued. So, I went into this blind, not really knowing anything about the stories, only with recommendations and word of mouth.

My answer to the universe, “I wish I would have read this sooner.”

“My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. I’m a wizard. I work out of an office in midtown Chicago. As far as I know, I’m the only openly practicing professional wizard in the country. You can find me in the yellow pages, under “Wizards.” Believe it or not, I’m the only one there. My ad looks like this:

HARRY DRESDEN — WIZARD
Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations.
Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates.
No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties, or Other Entertainment

You’d be surprised how many people call just to ask me if I’m serious.”
Jim Butcher (Storm Front (The Dresden Files, #1))

I must fall for wizards, because Harry Dresden is as bad-ass wizard as you can get. I’ve grown up with Potter, but I’m an adult now and I’m so glad I found Dresden.

Fiction for me needs to have elements of the fantastical. Take Harry Dresden – unabashed wizard, barely scraping by on solving unexplained cases for the Chicago Police. Me, a fan of Castle and Limitless, caught on rather quickly to the story’s energy and format. Intrigued by the supernatural quality and charmed by Dresden himself, I slowly found I was falling in love with this book. It’s witty, smart, visual, laugh out-loud funny, and an all-around great read.

But the thing I picked up the most, and this is the writer in me, is the wordplay in which Butcher used to explain the world and its characters. His eyes were the green of well-worn dollar bills. This line struck me, a clever wordplay and simple description that completely encapsulating everything I needed to know about this baddie. The language was fresh and easy, and the magic wrapped around me, sweeping me away in this fun nod to a detective noir.

Some of my favorite quotes:

“Tequila?” I asked him, skeptically. “Are you sure on that one? I thought the base for a love potion was supposed to be champagne.”
“Champagne, tequila, what’s the difference, so long as it’ll lower her inhibitions?” Bob said.
“Uh. I’m thinking it’s going to get us a, um, sleazier result.”

Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean there isn’t an invisible demon about to eat your face.

Santa is a much bigger and more powerful faery than Toot, and I don’t know his true name anyway. You’d never see me trying to nab Saint Nick in a magic circle even if I did. I don’t think anyone has stones that big.

This book is fun. Plain and simple. It was the little things that delighted me. The sweats and the cowboy boots, the situational comedy with the love potion and the demon and Harry not wearing a stitch, the beloved Toot Toot the fairy, and my favorite – naughty, inappropriate Bob the skull. This book did not pretend to be anything other than a good time. And, though I tend to lean toward YA, it was refreshing to read something Adult, something with legs and arms and confidence, something without angst, and to say this, something with a little spice.

Now I understand the line that wrapped around the aisle at Comic Con. I wished I would have paid more attention to Butcher’s advice.