The Art of Character.

An admission about my tastes: I’ll excuse a lackluster plot for a character I can fall in love with. This is how I justified reading Anita Blake books for years. I had a soft spot for one of her vampire characters (Asher) and would pretty much read any steaming horse pile Hamilton shoveled at me just to get snippets of my scarred love dumpling. To this day when I think about his angsty vampy self I sigh and my eyes glaze over, because Asher was and is one of my favorite characters.

There’s a handful of characters that stick out that much for me, and fortunately, not all of them are forced to keep their heads above a tide of fictional dribble like poor Asher. Julian from Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour comes to mind, as does Shadow from American Gods. I’ll never fall out of love with Gus McCrae from Lonesome Dove, and Morgause from Mists of Avalon remains my all time favorite bitch. Pocket from Chris Moore’s Fool is far too lovable, and Death from Good Omens is just spectacular (and he has the added bonus of making appearances in a bunch of other Discworld novels). There’s more, of course, so many more, but those are a few examples of characters that ran away with my imagination. They came, they saw, they conquered, they linger.

The goal of any writer is to create characters that memorable, I think. Trying to pinpoint the magical recipe of awesome is difficult, though. Sometime back I issued myself a challenge: to see if there’s a formula to crafting a lovable character. Was there a checklist that’d help me construct something spectacular, and if so, could I mimic it? I pawed through my list of favorites and tried to pick out any common traits. Did they all have strong personalities? Were they funny? Were they smart? Did they smell good? WHY IN GOD’S NAME DID I LIKE THESE CHARACTERS ENOUGH THAT I CAN READ THE BOOK FORTY TIMES? The problem, of course, was that each one was so different, I could see no pattern at all. Sometimes the character was witty, sometimes tough, sometimes clever. Not all of them were even particularly likable people, as in if I met them in real life I’d probably want to punch them, but on the page they worked and without them the story would fall epically short.

Conclusion: there is no cheat sheet way of making a “Character Keeper”. Dang it.

So I’m left wondering how to make something stick with a reader. I know it’ll be different for everyone because it’s a taste thing. Some people will want “cool”, some people will want funny or hyper intelligent and socially awkward. As a writer looking at a 35,000 word work in progress, though, I’d be curious to know who sticks with you and why? What was it that drew you into a character and kept you, or was it the amalgam of the character’s parts? I know when I write I tend to adopt a character here and there, essentially choosing them as my favorite and I think it shows when I do, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to everyone else loving them as much as I do.

So, help a writer out and get a nerdy character discussion going. What characters do you love/love to hate? Which ones will always be on your shelf, and which ones will you always champion? Share with the class, folks!

Against All Odds.

Did I make you think of Phil Collins? I bet I made you think of Phil Collins.  Ha!  Joke’s on you!  I’m not writing about Phil Collins /suckers/.

When asked as a little amoeba Hillary what I wanted to be when I grew up, I think I’ve always said a writer.  There were phases of veterinarian (but mom pointed out I’d have to put cute fuzzy animals to sleep and that depressed the crap out of me), doctor (way too much school involved and I didn’t want to give a six-year-old goblin a shot) and coroner (it was my way of dealing with my disdain for my fellow man, stop judging me) but I always came back to “I wanna be an author!” in the end.  Writing’s been something I’ve always loved doing, something I’ve done since I was a wee little Hillary watching my grandmother henpecking on her old fashioned typewriter, and it felt right.  From the time I won a short story contest in fifth grade, to a writing award against hundreds of other students at a summer program called PCC, I knew.  And lo it was that the heavens spoke unto me and said “HILLARY, THIS IS WHAT YOU SHALL DO, GO FORTH AND PLAY WITH YOUR IMAGINARY FRIENDS ON PAPER.”

Kay, heaven.  Whatevs homie.

Slight problem with this whole “being an author” plan, though.  A few problems, actually.  The first?  Is it’s not the  glamorous lifestyle of mocha-chinos and flashy cars people think it is.  The ugly reality is only two percent of writers make it on their own paycheck, which includes authors.  Unless you’re James Patterson (one out of every seventeen books sold in the US is one of his titles, that lucky SOB) you don’t make a ton of cash.  It’s extra money you shouldn’t count on at best, and incremental after the initial pay out.

The second problem is once your book is bought, it will rarely sell to its advance, so don’t expect the incremental royalties to come rolling in to save you.  I think I read an author blog last month where the woman said it took two years for her to see any royalty money from her debut novel going onto shelves, and she’d beat the odds.  She became a mid-list author after that, meaning she’d get on the extended NY Times bestseller list with her various releases, but even then after taxes, moneys sent to her agent, and all other expenditures associated with getting the book into print, she made approximately 40,000 bucks on her writing that year.  She can stay at home and make it on her writing?  But not to excess.

The final problem is, of course, people don’t read as much as they used to.  This isn’t a surprise, but at least with the presence of Kindles and other E-Readers people can find a reason to get back into reading if they fell off the path.  I will say I’ve felt a lot of warm fuzzies hearing people talking about books they’ve picked up recently, so not all is lost, but hearing that a lot of kids today just can’t get through a whole book is disheartening.  (I’d digress and talk about the study that says Sesame Street’s thirty second blips of information before wandering off to something else is responsible for short attention spans, but it’s sort of unrelated.)

So yes.  Being an author is a long, ugly road but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying, nor does it mean the stories will stop coming.  Just today I found out my agent liked my new manuscript, The Legacy.  It’s the first solo project I’ve handed over to her, so I’m encouraged that she “loved it”.  We’ll see what kind of editing it’ll need, and what she thinks needs to change.  Perhaps that will warrant its own write up in a few weeks!

It’s The Abominable Snow Terror!

As I’m far, far too broke to properly celebrate Christmas this year (and in my mind, properly means hiring Dickens style British children to stare into my front windows with chimney soot smudged across their cheeks – oh and when I catch them there, to make them carol like a church choir) I figured I’d make a lame attempt at recapturing some of the Christmas spirit by rewinding to a smaller, less jaded version of myself.  No, I don’t mean last week.  I’m talking four or five year old Hillarys.  Laren day Hillarys.

So today I’m gonna visit one of my holiday favorites:

I still watch Rudolph almost every year, and for some really screwed up reason, I still love it even though I can appreciate how fucked up it is now that I’m an adult.  “It’s Rudolph, Hillary!  How can you say that?!  That’s like saying Santa’s going to crap down my chimney this year!”  Before you get your Rudolph-loving pants in a twist, let me state up front:  it’s a wonderful sort of fucked up, no need to get offended.  This special is marvelous, grand, great, and I actually resent that I’m not watching it when it’s on broadcast TV, ads and all, because it loses some of the nostalgia factor on dvd or dvr.  That said?  Something stinks in Elf Town.

For starters, this dude:

Hermie Or Hermey? The Web Cannot Agree!

Let me lay the scene for you.  Everything in Rudolph Land is as it ought to be barring a few setbacks that seem comically banal in the vast scheme of Christmas chaos.  Santa’s too skinny and Mrs. Claus is force feeding him spoon fulls of Crisco so he fits his suit.  Dancer and Prancer are off coaching Reindeer games, and they’re being total sports-dick dads about it (typical Reindeer dads are typical).  The elves are tinkering away in their shop.   Sure one of the does dropped a red-nosed reindeer, and that’s kinda “whoa” in its own right, but then our attention is pulled away from Rudolph to the elf that hates making toys and wants to be a dentist.  Yep, a dentist.  All Hermie wants to do is ditch this toy gig and rip your teeth out.  It’s so random.  “Okay so Reindeer Games, Santa, Rudolph, Red Nose . . . check, check check aaand check.  LET’S ADD IN A DENTIST FOR FUN.”  Nowhere in the song is there a line about a dentist.  In fact, everyone I know hates going to the dentist, so why would we want to remind children that they exist when they’re dreaming of Sugar Plum Fairies and Tonka trucks?  For that matter, why would we terrify them with the notion that their dentist may be one of Santa’s former elves?  Hermie’s inevitably got rage issues that he wasted his formative years working in the cheeriest sweat shop in history.  He’d probably use a chainsaw to pull your teeth.

There’s also the matter of Yukon Cornelius to take into account for “why Hillary thinks Rudolph is a psychotic Christmas special”.  He’s a random gold prospector wandering around with the most ragtag group of sled dogs he can find.

"Grats Guys! You're Sled Dogs! Let The Pug Lead!"

He has absolutely no purpose other than licking an axe to see if he can find silver and gold which – HEY, YEAH, I LICKED THE POLE WHEN I WAS A KID – his tongue doesn’t stick to.  Magical Christmas Magic is Magic!  My small squishy brain automatically jumps to “Magic > Science” . . . and would account for me living in La La land most of the time.  But I digress.  Yukon Cornelius is just some greedy guy who wants to get rich, so he straps a beagle to the front of a sled because he’s too cheap to get Huskies, tells them to mush, aaaand . . . that’s it.  That is pretty much all he contributes to the story beyond introducing Rudolph to a few random folks.  Who happen to be on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Oh right! Leper-Toy island!  Have you ever listened to the song that goes along with the Island of Misfit Toys?  The introductory bars are the most depressing thing in the world behind Charlotte’s “I’m about to die” song in Charlotte’s Web.

I hear the song start and I immediately go for the Drain-O because I was a horrible child that didn’t ask for a train with square wheels and I deserve to die.  Island of Misfit Toys was Shutter Island before Dennis Lehane dreamt it up.  One of the first things we witness is Charlie-In-The-Box’s breakdown that everyone wants Jack-In-The-Box (Charlie’s older, prettier, more emotionally stable brother) and that he’s going to rot unloved for the rest of his existence thanks to a crappy name.

So let me do that tallying bit again.  Rudolph, Santa, Snow, Reindeer games.  Check, check, check, check.  Freaky dentist, gold prospector, sled Yorkie, abandoned island of broken toys?  Check.  Check, check.  Check?  Things have gone from typical to really bizarre really fast.  I’m totally okay with that, mind you, but Rankin & Bass were screwing with us when they put this together.  And hey!  They must be doing something right if I’m still watching the special thirty years in and loving it.  I sing along with Burl Ives as the snowman, I cringe when I see the Abominable Snow Monster, and will forever remember that “BUMBLES BOUNCE”.

Rudolph is – to me, anyway – the epitome of everything that’s right with Christmas.  It conjures images of me hiding against my mother/grandmother whenever the Abominable came on TV, but knowing that enduring meant Santa was near and all I had to do was make it through.  I associate it with sitting in Lauren and Greg’s living room at our annual Christmas party watching shows we know by heart together.  So while I may not be having the flashy, London street urchin filled Christmas of my dreams, I’ve still got Rudolph.  And Leper-Toy Island.

The High School Ho-Hums.

I think my brain works funny.  Anyone turning on a TV, radio, or computer knows the media is having a field day with the BULLYING IN HIGH SCHOOL cause.  It’s everywhere, with stories of kids who’ve been bullied until they committed suicide, or tales of the underdog student speaking out against his tormentors.  On one hand, I’m thrilled to see people taking note of what I see as a very real problem in our schools today.  On the other hand I have to ask where the HELL were you when I was in school, Media.

Now, let me state up front I do not consider myself a bullied kid.  I was made fun of for a bevy of reasons, some of which I will relate later, but not really bullied.  I honestly can’t say why I escaped most of it.  It may have been that I had enough “Cool Kid Friends”,  it may have been that most of it was done behind my back and I just didn’t have to deal with it (my guess), it may have been because somewhere along the line I said something funny or clever and it got me excused from the “To Torture” list.  Whatever the case, I’m thankful it didn’t go any further than it did, because to this day?  I still look back at high school and cringe.  It wasn’t a fun place to be.

From where I sit (and sat), those who say high school is/was the best time of their lives are/were a combination of the following personality traits:

  • Good looking & Thin
  • Athletic
  • The “friend” of an A-lister
  • The funny guy
  • The booze/dope hookup guy
  • Smart
  • Super talented (musician, for example)

Sometimes one of those traits (ex good looking) would be enough to get you a pass on the bullying all together, but usually you had to have a combination of things, especially if you happened to be in the weak position of “friend of an A-lister”.  I sort of pitied that particular subsect, because they didn’t really have anything remarkable going on for them beyond  the ear of someone popular.  Their entire social circle depended upon nurturing that relationship so they didn’t find themselves on the outs.

Of course there’s the opposite list of the first, too, and that’s the “things you didn’t want happening to you/traits you didn’t want to have because it’d get you nailed by your peers” list.  That includes:

  • Fat
  • Unattractive
  • Nonathletic
  • Unremarkable
  • Stupid
  • Smart
  • Being different

You’ll note smart is on both lists, and that’s done quite on purpose.  I don’t know if it was just WB that had this particular dynamic, but big brains could either be a boon or a curse depending on who you were.  We were the “Nerd Herd”, yes, but if you could overcome your hyper-intelligence with other traits . . . well, then all of a sudden your smarts were a good thing.  If you didn’t have anything ELSE going for you, heh.  All bets were off and the large pile of quivering gray matter in your skull wasn’t so fuckin’ keen.

I look at both of those lists and I kind of scratch my head, wondering where I fit into the mix.  Probably somewhere smack dab in the middle of “popular” and “unpopular” – just like most high school students.  I wasn’t a fat kid, funny enough, but I’ve always had a huge frame.  Even Ethiopian thin I’m a size ten thanks to big bones like bull, so I wore a 14 in high school and was “average”.   I didn’t get outright chubby til probably senior year when I was sporting a 16/18 but even then I wasn’t huge enough to launch into orbit because I carried the weight well.  That didn’t mean I avoided the fat insults, though.  Being a big girl got me slammed because I looked different – I wasn’t a size six and I never will be.  I remember early on, maybe fifth or sixth grade, someone photocopied a hippopotamus and wrote “To Hillary, a portrait” and had all of the popular kids sign it.  It was the Valentine’s Day card from hell.  I was devastated and took it home to my mother, crying all the while that I was a disgusting fat cow and wished I’d die.  Mom went into the principal’s office and raised hell about it.  I think if she’d gotten her hands on the kids responsible, she’d have killed them.

I’m sure the parents of those kids chalked that event up to kids being kids, and my reaction as “dramatic” . . . but the fact is, it was cruel.  If I remember that particular thing what, twenty-something years later?  It was a trauma.  I’m sure some of the kids that signed that paper went on to become wonderful adults, but you have to wonder what went through their young, formative brains to think this was a good idea in the first place.  I suppose some of them signed it because their friends had, and herd mentality is fucking terrifying.  One of them probably thought they were clever for coming up with the idea, and someone else snickered, and . . . bam.  Cruelty was born.

Strangely, to this day I remember most of the names that signed that stupid hippopotamus card.  I can’t remember where my car keys are, but I remember that.  Shit like that sticks with a person.

Note:  most of the kids signing that paper were in the honors group.  Academic smarts does not equate to social awareness.

I also remember one girl in particular having a field day “whispering” behind my back in English class, but I could hear the whispers every time she spoke, and I’m pretty sure that’s what she wanted.  I’m half REALLY WHITE (Welsh, Irish, English, Swedish) and half NOT AS WHITE (Portuguese, Spanish, Italian).  This means I’m pale, so any amount of hair on me at all?  Shows up.  I apparently had peach fuzz on my lower back or something, and she decided she’d point it out to her friends/boyfriend in class and snicker about how hairy I was.

Note:  she became our valedictorian.  Again, academic smarts does not equate to social awareness.

Another doozy of an incident was at a pool party I went to.  I’d gotten a new bathing suit that was white, and yeah – shoooould have done the “is this transparent” test before getting into the pool, but I was young and stupid.  One of the girls there wouldn’t hand me my towel to spare me the embarrassment of having to get out of the pool.  She wanted me to humiliate myself by climbing out with a see-through bathing suit in front of my peers.  I was saved by another girl at the party I’d never met before, because no one I knew would help me despite my blatant panic.

Note:  last I heard, the girl that wouldn’t hand me my towel was working as a bigwig at a charitable organization.

I’m not going to be naive and claim that I was completely innocent of being a high school douchebag, but having been on the receiving end of shittery meant I kept most cruelty close to the chest.  It was hard not fitting in with everyone all the time, but thanks to a great group of friends (some of which I still talk to occasionally fifteen years later), I survived it mostly intact.  I know some folks would say that my less-than-pretty glimpse back at high school comes from jealousy that I wasn’t an A-lister, and if they’d like to look at it that way, sure, go nuts.  But the truth is I certainly don’t feel very jealous.  I feel like a kid that muttled her way through the grades, hoping beyond hope that it gets better when you get out.  It does, mostly because there is nothing more fucked in the head than a kid between the ages of 12 and 18 save for serial killers and people who lick toads.

The point I’m trying to make in this long-winded retrospective is that everyone has a horror story or twelve from high school, and hopefully public awareness of bullying and grade-level cruelty will make parents take up the cause to prevent other kids from experiencing the anguish of being picked on.  Maybe they’ll sit their little spawnlings down and relate why it’s bad to be mean to others who aren’t like them.  Cause really, you never know who they might be one day:  a president, an actor, a CEO.

A writer who can forever immortalize them as a cockburger in print.

Just saying.

Writing Hath Destroyed My Reading.

I was once A READER.  We’re talking hardcore Olympic level “digest a book every other day or third day” scale reader.  And now I’m not.  Don’t get me wrong, I still read, but not nearly as much as I used to, nor as much as I’d like.  I still love books, still love stories and worlds pieced together through a well told tale.  The problem is, I became A Writer.  See, I have this phobia of inadvertently lifting material from things I read and putting it into my own work.  I don’t do it consciously, but one time a very long time ago, I finished reading a book I loved and promptly went to sit down and write.  I got this “FIT OF BRILLIANCE” and produced a chapter I thought was epic, awesome, and wonderful.  It took the third re-read to see that I’d literally just reworded and spit out a huge theme from the book I’d just read.  I freaked out, deleted my chapter, and probably hyperventilated into a cat.

Since that time, I’ve not been able to mix reading and writing.  Between every major writing project, I have this stack of books I want to get through, but  I never get as far with them as I intend.  I end up picking up two or three, plow through them, and then get back to my computer, plunking away at a manuscript of some sort and going on hiatus.  I usually make my “between writing project” choices based upon which one Lauren beat me over the head with most recently (see:  Mira Grant’s Feed and Stephen King’s The Dome).  Joe Abercrombie was supposed to be in that last mix, but then the Lydie story came around, and I had to put him on the back burner despite a few wonderfully engaging first chapters.

Now, there are certain authors I’ll take a forced break from writing for.  Christopher Moore is one, Stephen King is one, Neil Gaiman is one.  They drop a book, I drop my project and sit down to read, getting my swerve on with someone else’s prose.  I used to do that with Laurell K Hamilton (she was my popcorn fic-chick guilty pleasure, stop judging me) but then I moved away from her as I noticed a few too many orgies and very little plot.  The point is, I’ll make exceptions for things I love, but it takes a lot to break me away from my projects.

I’m sort of hoping one of these days I’ll be able to balance the reading and the writing. I  miss being a bookworm.  I used to be one of those people that when folks started book-talk, I’d contribute a lot.  Now I find myself listening more than talking, and that actually bothers me quite a bit.  I think mayhaps I’m going to break my own rule soon and settle down with some Abercrombie and a cup of coffee.

So, got any good books I should check out?