Characters

Driving Forces

I learn more about my characters by letting them hang out in my real life, even if it’s nothing like their own world.

Dalvin, for instance, likes to blare pop rock music and take the wheel when we’re in the car. She’s a surprisingly competent driver, for a girl from a world in which mills and magic are the height of technological advancement.

When I ask her why she likes it so much, she answers, “It’s a lot like battle, isn’t it? One wrong move and you’re dead or injured, and there’s nothing for it but to let your body outpace your mind and do what you’ve taught it to do. It’s very relaxing.”

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Relaxing? To think that you’re one wrong move away from injury or death? I certainly don’t want to think of driving in that light… How on earth do you find your looming mortality relaxing?

Rarely interested in self-reflection, she only shrugs. “Everything’s too immediate to be fussed with thinking about it. I don’t like thinking.”

Huh. That’s an odd thing to say. Why don’t you like thinking?

She gives me a dirty look. “I don’t know,” she says slowly. “Do you want me to think about it?”

Ah. Looks like I’ve used up her introspection for the day.

*****

Check out Grace the Mace

In which Dalvin is forced not only to fight for her life… but to think about it.

We’re Mostly Mad Here

I was standing at the stove with my friends lounging around me as I poured pasta into boiling water, laughing at an exchange between Will, Sy, and Gilbert, when a sudden worry flashed through my mind.

How am I going to feed so many people with just one box of mac-‘n’-cheese? I frowned.

Then sanity resurfaced, and my face went red as I realized it was just me and my best writer friend Danielle standing in the kitchen. The hilarious Will, Sy, and Gilbert were our characters and muses.

I revealed my lapse in mental acuity, and they laughed at me—three imaginary, one present on the common plane of reality, and all four mocking my madness.

That's right, keep laughing at the chef. That will never have any consequences.

That’s right, keep laughing at the chef. That will never have any consequences.

But this madness—while entirely laughable—stems from a very important part of my writing process: taking my characters seriously.

Now, you don’t have to slip that far down the rabbit hole to be a good writer. But whether or not you consider your cast to be real, you must consider them valid.

Even if you think your characters to be players in your plot, not friends hanging out in your kitchen, their truths (not just their mutable facts) must be given due consideration. Avid readers can smell a cardboard cutout character an aisle away. Even side characters are better for having an underbelly. Even if it’s never shown in the story you’re telling, it will influence the visible surface, lending depth and truth.

Writing Grace the Mace, I considered the forces that had formed each character, and the impact each one would have on the others–in shaping, motivating, and provoking.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the title character herself. Dalvin Grace is shaped by two opposing forces—her mother, and the rest of the world. She resembles both her caring mother and her cruel environment. She resents both her “weak” mother and the buffeting world of the Great Graves mountain nations. Her feelings are spurred by—you guessed it, both her mother, and the world around them.

Had I treated Grace as simply a cog in my plot, I might have decided that she would defend her mother—another cog, a porcelain figure in maternal damsel-ish distress, serving the plot much as love interests commonly serve. That would have left me with an action-adventure novel that read much like an old, two-dimensional video game. However elaborately I plotted the “levels,” the main character would move through them, and collect the prize—mother’s safety—at the end.

But Weylah, the mother, is a valid person in her own right. Sweet, feminine, naive, and near-magically buoyant—those facts I knew from the first brush. I delved beyond the ultimate image of maternity, looking for personhood behind those soft, amber eyes. I asked a lot of questions. What were her fears? Regrets? Strengths? Worst memories? Doubts? Faiths? Worldview?

I can’t say a bell rings in my head at the precise moment a character goes from being an idea to being a person. But usually, the change is near the moment I understand their deepest, greatest why. Writing is an art, not a science, and the artistic process is never entirely predictable, but if they haven’t made that transition from pile of facts to true person, I know I’m not finished. If the people aren’t true, neither is their story.

If I didn’t understand Weylah, I wouldn’t understand the unique tensions between the flowerseller and her mercenary daughter, and how the push-and-pull of that relational tide shapes Dalvin’s very existence, for better and for worse—and for the plot.

Some authors are of the opinion that characters only serve the plot. But characters known in their own right will serve a plot far better than dress-up dolls sewn for the part ever could.

People are the heart of any story, and if you don’t write it with pumping blood, the best you’ll ever get is the interesting corpse of an idea.

You hardly need to go so far as to mistakenly make dinner for five, but a character that inhabits a writer’s head is, of course, that much more likely to stick in the head of a reader.

I think of fiction as a happily catching madness.

*****

If you’d like a disgruntled, paranoid mercenary rattling around in your head,

Check out Grace the Mace, available on Kindle in paperback.

 

 

 

Less Than True, Greater Than A Lie: Writing what your characters think vs. what they do

Have you ever created a scale of values for your characters?

Grace the Mace would say hers looked something like this:

Strangers < Friends < Comfort < Pride < Ambitions < Survival < Mum

The truth, interestingly enough, looks a little more like this:

Comfort < Strangers < Pride < Survival <Friends < Ambitions < Mum

The differences between a character’s self-perception and their true values is often as telling as the scale itself.

That said, it can be tricky to portray a difference between perceived values and actual values within your writing, especially in first person or third person close. The narration must strike a balance between being true to the truth, and being true to the character’s perception of the truth.

The best way I’ve found to stick to both sides of the story at once is to set the opposites right next to one another—as I did with Dalvin’s coin and discourtesy in this passage, and again later with one of my favorite lines in the book:

Dalvin scowled, dug in her purse for a silver dragon, and flung it at the girl. “Get a pair of shoes, and stop being such a worthless friend.”

Grace constantly outs herself by what she’s willing—and unwilling—to give up. While neither her words nor the narration will admit to it, she proves her scale of values again and again by what she sacrifices.

Of course, the same can be done with a character who thinks themselves benevolent or benign, and proves, without a hitch in the narrative’s self-assurance, to do entirely cruel or thoughtless things. One need look no further than The Children of the Light in The Wheel of Time, The Shepherdess in The Legend of Eli Monpress, or Eli Ever from Vicious to find characters of that stripe.

These sorts of internal discrepancies are not just allowable in fiction, they’re to be expected! Cognitive dissonance is a very real part of the human makeup, and a character with impeccable self-perception is an incredible rarity—and I’m not just talking about the female lead who thinks herself plain or ugly when everyone else considers her gorgeous. Don’t take your characters’ word on who they are and what they value. See what they sacrifice when push comes to shove—and let the reader see the truth for themselves.

What do your character’s value scales look like? Do they know themselves as well as they think they do? Leave a comment!

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Bonus scale:

The values of Weylah, the Mum in question, would go something like this:

Comfort < Pretty Things < Plants < Animals < Strangers = Friends = Lovers = Family

Her self-perception… doesn’t exist. She’s like the opposite of a narcissist. When she reflects, it’s never on herself except in terms of how she could better serve her values–i.e., people.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Grace the Mace now available for sale on Kindle and in paperback.

 

A Vicious Tribute

A cosplay shoot depicting V.E. Schwab’s novel, Vicious. Modeled and photographed by Tirzah Duncan (me!) and Danielle E. Shipley (the bestie!).

Blackout 05

The marker hissed as he drew another line, blotting out several sentences in the middle of the page… He skimmed the words and smiled as he found another section to ink out. By the time the first bell rang, signaling the end of Victor’s art elective, he’d turned his parents’ lectures on how to start the day into:

Be lost. Give up. give In. in the end It would be better to surrender before you begin. be lost And then you will not care if you are ever found.

He’d had to strike through entire paragraphs to make the sentence perfect after he accidentally marked out ever and had to go on until he found another instance of the word. But it was worth it. The pages of black that stretched between if you are and ever and found  gave the words just the right sense of abandonment.

Ice 04_best

Victor perched on the tub, clutching a drink as he stared down at Eliot Cardale’s corpse.

Eli hadn’t screamed. Pain had been written across every one of the forty-three muscles Victor’s anatomy class taught him twisted together in the human face, but the worst Eli had done was let a small groan escape between clenched teeth when his body first broke the surface of the icy water. Victor had only brushed his fingers through, and the cold had been enough to elicit a spark of pain up his entire arm. He wanted to hate Eli for his composure, had almost hoped―almost hoped―that it would be too much for him to bear. That he would break, give up, and Victor would help him out of the tub, and offer him a drink, and the two would sit and talk about their failed trials, and later, when it was a safe distance behind them, they would laugh about how they’d suffered for the sake of science.

Knife 01

But he needed a sign. God had seemed, in the past few days, like a match-light next to the sun of Eli’s discoveries, but now he felt like a boy again, needing sanction, approval. He pulled a pocket-knife from his jeans, and clicked it open.

“Would You take it back?” he asked the dark apartment. “If I were no longer of Your making, You would take this power back, wouldn’t you?” Tears glistened in his eyes. “Wouldn’t you?”

He cut deep, carving a line from elbow to wrist, wincing as blood welled and spilled instantly, dripping to the floor. “You’d let me die.” He switched hands and carved a matching line down his other arm, but before he’d reached the wrist, the wounds were closed, leaving only smooth skin, and a small pool of blood.

Cards - Eli, back

“Wouldn’t you?” He cut deeper, through to bone, over and over, until the floor was red. Until he’d given his life to God a hundred times, and a hundred times had it given back. Until the fear and doubt had all been bled out of him. And then he set the knife aside with shaking hands. Eli dipped his fingertips in the slick of red, crossed himself, and got back to his feet.

Cards - Victor, back

Eli was like a thorn beneath Victor’s skin, and it hurt. He could turn off every nerve in his body, but Victor couldn’t do a damn thing about the twinge he felt when he thought of Cardale. The worst part of going numb was that it took away everything but this, the smothering need to hurt, to break, to kill, pouring over him like a thick blanket of syrup until he panicked and brought the physical sensations back.

Cards - Eli, front 01

“―Self-righteousness,” Victor said. But when Sydney looked confused, he added, “He heals. It‘s a reflexive ability. In his eyes, I think that makes it somehow pure. Divine. He can‘t technically use his power to hurt others.”
“No,” said Sydney, “he uses guns for that.”
Victor chuckled.

Cards - Victor, front

The paper had called Eli a hero.

The word made Victor laugh. Not just because it was absurd, but because it posed a question. If Eli really was a hero, and Victor meant to stop him, did that make him a villain?

He took a long sip of his drink, tipped his head back against the couch, and decided he could live with that.

Cards - Eli, deuces

She wrapped her arms around Eli’s waist and kissed the back of his neck. “You know I don’t want this kind of control,” she whispered. “Now put the gun away.” Eli’s hand slid the weapon back into its holster. “You’re not going to kill me today.”

He turned to face her, wrapped his hands, now empty, around her back, and pulled her close, his lips brushing her ear.

“One of these days, Serena,” he whispered, “you’re going to forget to say that.”

Cards - Victor, deuces

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Thirteen,” she lied, because she hated being twelve. “How old are you?”

“Thirty-two. What happened to you?”

“Someone tried to kill me.”

“I can see that. But why would someone try to do that?”

She shook her head. “It’s not your turn. Why couldn’t you become a doctor?”

“Because I went to jail,” he said. “Why would someone try to kill you?”

She scratched her shin with her heel, which meant she was about to lie, but Victor didn’t know her well enough to know that yet. “No idea.”

Wineglass 04

The air was crisp and he relished it as he rested his elbows on the frozen metal rail, clutching his drink, even though he ice made the glass cold enough to hurt his fingers. Not that he felt it.

Graveyard 21

Truth be told, Victor didn’t care for graveyards either. He didn’t like dead people, mostly because he had no effect on them. Sydney, conversely, didn’t like dead people precisely because she had such a marked effect on them.

Graveyard 15

He hardly felt the cold through his coat. He was too busy trying to picture what Eli’s face would look like when he received their message. Trying to picture the shock, the anger, and threaded through it all, the fear. Fear because it could only mean one thing.

Graveyard 17

Victor was out. Victor was free. And Victor was coming for Eli―just as he’d promised he would. He sunk the shovel into the cold earth with a satisfying thud.

Graveyard 12

Thud. Thud.

“Are you one of the bad ones?” asked Sydney. Her watery blue eyes stared straight at him, unblinking. She wasn’t sure if the answer mattered, really, but she felt like she should know.

“Some would say so,” he said.

Thud.

Shovel 11

She kept staring. “I don’t think you’re a bad person, Victor.”

Victor kept digging. “It’s all a matter of perspective.”

Thud.

“About the prison. Did they… did they let you out?” she asked quietly.

Thud.

Victor left the shovel planted in the ground, and looked up at her. And then he smiled, which she noticed he seemed to do a lot before he lied, and said, “Of course.”

Shovel 01

There was a moment of silence, almost reverent, before Victor’s hand came down on her shoulder.

“Well?” he said, pointing to the body. “Do your thing.”

Shovel 08

“Oh, sure I can,” he said pleasantly. “I can shut the lid. Put the dirt back. Walk away.”

Frenemeses 01

Hate was too simple a word. He and Eli were bonded, by blood and death and science. They were alike, more so now than ever. And he had missed Eli. He wanted to see him. And he wanted to see him suffer. He wanted to see the look in Eli’s eyes when he lit them up with pain. He wanted his attention.

Frenemeses 02

“You can’t kill me, Victor,” said Eli. “You know that.”

“I know. But you’ll have to indulge me. I’ve waited so long to try.”

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Cards - Schwab

Eli: Wha…?

Victor: Who?

V.E. Schwab: It’s great to be the one pulling the strings. 😉

Grace the Mace: Now Released!

Grace has always been there for her mother, ever since she was old enough to bite the legs of those thugs and leeches that called themselves lovers. Ever since she was old enough to understand the world in a way her mother never would.

Now, she comes home every winter with blood money from a year of running with a band of sellswords. No more scrounging in midden heaps and cutting purses for a low court lord to survive the lean months.

But this year, home is as dangerous as the battlefield. Tensions are running through the street courts of her old slums, while a new and daunting lover has confounded her safeguards and gotten at her mum–and now they’re all tangled in a vicious turf war.

Is one lone mercenary enough to protect her own? Can she trust anyone else to do the job?

Grace the Mace Cover

Now available for $2.99 on Kindle and for $5.99 in paperback!

My Five Favorite Things About This Book

(Sans Spoilers)

1.  I finally get to introduce a bit of the world I’ve been building for the last eight years! This isn’t the story I expected to be sharing first–I thought that would be Sy’s story, Ever the Actor, but the story and world grew so complex, with each new draft trying to catch up to my latest revelation, that I had to take a step back from the manuscript. What better way to do that than to write an entire novella set over two centuries earlier in the same world?

2. Grace herself. She was an enigma of a character for several years, angrily stewing in the back of my mind. When I finally unlocked her, I was delighted by her (often hilarious) contradictions–chill and passionate, self-serving and selfless, stubborn and flexible, cruel and kind. It’s been a fun challenge, trying to show the truth of her dual and tangled nature throughout the narrative.

3. The swearing. That girl’s got the most interesting, varied, and versatile curses I’ve ever heard, borrowing indiscriminately from the filthiest sentiments of four different cultures. All my other characters have been pretty basic– “Chance damn it,” and “Seed of man and beast!” and “Early frost, woman!” and “What complete rot,”–but this chick’s on a whole new level.

4. The cover. Yeah, I’ve got to admit, one of my favorite things about my book is the picture on the cover. The sum total of my contribution to the cover was, A, a detailed commission request, and B, the all-too-necessary but faintly detracting addition of the title and author’s name. The talent behind the art is DarianaLoki… But I spent a whole other post gushing about that!

5. It’s a book I’d want to read. I’d enjoy the characters, the voice, the themes, the plot, the setting… It can be hard to step back and look at a work objectively after months spent immersed within it, but evaluating it as accurately as I can… I think Reader Me would love this even more than Writer Me. That’s partly because Writer Me has an anxious ego at stake, but mostly because this is exactly the sort of content Reader Me pores over shelves in search of. And that, my friends, is sweet success.

My Five Least Favorite Things About This Book

(Sans Spoilers)

1. It’s got hardly any magic, so I don’t get to show off my awesome system! Bah!

2. It’s a little tough to categorize. My instinct is to call it fantasy, but I don’t want people thinking there’s more magic and mythical creatures in it than there are. But they’re there! They’re just… fringe. But it’s still got a very fantasy world feel. Should I call it Fantasy Lite? Diet Fantasy? Low-Mana Fantasy?

3. It’s a novella! No hate to novellas, but I’m more of a novel fan, and I was sort of surprised when it didn’t come out longer. Still, I’m not going to force it full of fluff to fulfill some arbitrary page-count ideal in my head. She is what she is.

4. Oh, this had me banging my head against a wall: trying to write dialogue for a major character who’s reluctant to say anything. At all. Who has a lot to say, but likes to talk like a minimalist, if he must be more than a mime. Oh my gooooooosh. Just taaaaaaalk like everybody else, man. But! That struggle is in the past. I think I found the balance for him to express what had to be expressed without violating the truth of his character.

5. Writing blurbs and short pitches for it! Trying take the central themes (“Uh, sacrifice, mommy issues, bitterness, and trust?”) and the more concrete aspects of the story (“Oh, lots of snark, warriors doin’ macho stuff, ye olde inner city gang wars, death and struggle, some sex, some flowers, and tense family dinners,”) and fit them together–and to do it in two to four tight paragraphs? Impossible. But that’s ever my aim, nonetheless.

Now available for $2.99 on Kindle and for $5.99 in paperback!

I look forward to hearing about your five favorite–and yes, even your five least favorite–things about Grace the Mace!

Excerpt I

Excerpt II

Excerpt III

 

Grace the Mace: Cover Reveal!

Grace has always been there for her mother, ever since she was old enough to bite the legs of those thugs and leeches that called themselves lovers. Ever since she was old enough to understand the world in a way her mother never would.

Now, she comes home every winter with blood money from a year of running with a band of sellswords. No more scrounging in midden heaps and cutting purses for a low court lord to survive the lean months.

But this year, home is as dangerous as the battlefield. Tensions are running through the street courts of her old slums, while a new and daunting lover has confounded her safeguards and gotten at her mum–and now they’re all tangled in a vicious turf war.

Is one lone mercenary enough to protect her own? Can she trust anyone else to do the job?

*****

Now to meet the face of the franchise, a word I here use in its loosest sense:

Grace the Mace Cover

My thoughts, numbered, but in no particular order:

1. Give me those boots. Give them to me. And throw in that breastplate while you’re in a generous mood.

2. I feel like if you zoomed in on the shield and enhanced, you could spot the photographer. (You can’t. I tried. The CSI shows lied.)

3. YES. That’s my girl, alright. That’s her attitude, all over her face, which is totally her face! Maker take her, what a bitch! 😀

4. Ooooooh, colors and lighting and framing! Ooooh, stone textures! Yeah background!

5. This art is way better than most fantasy cover art. Imma be real; most actual paintings (not talking about the airbrushed photos) on fantasy covers look kind of… weird. Someone’s face always looks stupid, some basic physical proportions are always off. Not here. Not with this. This baby is perfect.

6. A thousand and one thanks to DarianaLoki, the artist responsible.

Grace’s thoughts:

1.  “It’s a good likeness.”

2. “My gear isn’t horribly misrepresented. Thanks.”

3. “What, am I supposed to come up with six things, too? It’s nice. It’s good. It’s, what’s the word, professional. What do you want?”

Guess I’ll have to rustle up three more thoughts somewhere else.

Grace’s Mum’s thoughts:

4. “Oh, what lovely work! Isn’t she beautiful? And so… fierce-looking.”

5. “Are those chrysanthemums? I can’t tell, but they brighten the place up nicely, don’t they?”

6. “Grace isn’t in… trouble, is she?”

Ohhhh, my sweet summer child.

*****

Excerpt I

Excerpt II

Excerpt III

 

 

The Muse Valentine’s Day Partyfest

The author-muse cohorts over at The Faux Fountain Pen issued an open invitation to The Muse Party Blogfest: (Anti)-Valentine’s Day Edition. We took her up, my Sy and I, and here’s our contribution.

  1. Who did you bring to the party? Is he/she your Valentine or anti-Valentine?

Honestly, Sy brought me, telling me it would be good for my blog. I said okay, because it sounded like fun. That’s a good glimpse into the way of things, actually: he thinks “advantage,” I think “cool!”

As for Valentine or anti-Valentine? Neither. He’s basically my big brother. (For the best, what with both of us being married.)

When I first found him, I had a crush on him, and then we had a massive power-struggle, and then I feared him and he resented me, and then we came to cautiously respect each other. Five years into this relationship, and I’m his lazy little-sister writer-person.

  1. Which one of you is the more romantic person?

“Probably me, by a hair,” Sy admits. “Although neither of us are especially romantically inclined, at least not in the Valentine’s Day sense. The more original definition, the romance of adventure, battle, and life’s great balladry, appeals to us both.”

  1. What gift are you giving to your (anti) Valentine?

“If I can wrangle it out of her, she’ll be giving me the gift of making something nice out of the inspiration I’m giving her. It’s an uphill battle, getting her to write.” He grins. “Nevertheless, as I’ve already pointed out, I’ve a fondness for glorious battles.”

  1. Are you guys wearing red or pink (or black…)? 

“Theme colors are for military affairs. I’ve put all that behind me.”

I’ll be wearing a snazzy (yes, black) suit jacket over some fandom t-shirt. As for him, I can hardly say. He jumps around from one style, era, and world however he likes, sometimes drawing on fashions I haven’t fathomed yet and so can’t see.

“I’ll make it easy on you this time,” he says, straightening the tie on his three-piece suit with a green velvet cloak over it. “A bit of your world, a bit of mine.”

The guns and knives hidden about his person also serve as a good demonstration of the principle.

  1. Did you bring any Valentine’s Day treats? 

I’ve baked brownies, one of the few baked goods I’m semi-confident about. Sy has doubtless cheated and pulled any number of ready-made confectionaries out of the air, catered to perfectly suit whomever he’s offering them to…

  1. Name a song for our Love Playlist or Anti-Love Playlist (or both)! 

My Immortal, as covered by Gregorian Chants,” Sy says at once. “I think that qualifies for both, actually.”

The Impossible Dream. Maybe it’s not a love song so much as madman’s glorious and passionate assertion, but–oh hey, wait. Yeah, I guess it’s a love song.

  1. Got a great anti/Valentine party game? 

“How about ‘Spin the Broken Bottle’?” Sy suggests, grinning. “Whoever it points at, you’ve gotta decide whether you two are going to kiss or brawl.”

Never heard of that one. Sounds like a promise of chemistry, that’s for sure.

  1. Feeling the love or just feeling nauseous? How will you have fun at the party?

Given Sy’s input, I might well have a fine time here.

He lifts his glass in toast. “I live to serve.”

I can’t tell whether he’s being ironic or earnest. Probably a little bit of both.

  1. Has your muse been a good Valentine? 

The perfect gentleman, depending on your definition of “perfect” and “gentleman.”

“I’m just glad she’s here with me today,” the insufferable perfect gentleman says, voice dripping high fructose corn syrup as he pats my head. “That’s really all I can ask, given she sometimes treats that as too much.”

Club Photo_Tirzah

Club Photo_Sy