Writers will tell you there are three types of writers:
Pantsers, those who write extemporaneously (by the seat of their pants.)
Planners, those who write using outlines and by planning ahead.
Plantsers, those who utilize a combination of the two.
I’m a plantser…but not by choice.
Although a lot of my character development happens when the characters start talking to each other, I begin by planning them, and I like creating a skeletal outline for the plot that I fill in as I go along. I also answer a set of questions before writing each scene.
But with every book, all of that planning falls apart at some point.
Maybe instead of a skeleton, I’m creating outline spider webs. It’s frustrating and frightening. Sometimes, it’s a characters fault. (Thomas Carillon, don’t look away. You know who I’m talking about.)
Often, however, it’s simply because I forgot to look at my notes and got carried away. It’s like swimming in the ocean, looking back, and realizing you’re a lot further out than you intended. You’re out with the sharks now. Land looks faraway and your blanket and cooler are barely visible.
I’m treading those waters now. My throat is clenched with fear, and I’m worried about that thing that just bumped against my leg.
I hate feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing. Out of control. The bones all nothing but wispy fragments. I know I’ll work through it and find my way back to the story I had planned—to those scenes I was waiting eagerly to write and the Happily Ever After that has kept me going. By the time I finally get to that HEA and do a few revisions, I should have something a little different than I had planned, but better.
Sometimes being a writer means clutching spiderwebs in your hands and swimming with the sharks.
I enjoy giving my characters gifts to help them through the story. I don’t mean wings or magical abilities—although sometimes I give them those, too. I’m talking about in terms of backstory and friends. Other writers probably do this; they simply might not recognize it as a gift they give to their characters.
My mother died recently. She was an abusive narcissist, and our relationship was complicated. I suppose because of this, it comes naturally to me to write characters with abusive parents or guardians.
I consciously chose not to do that with Thomas Carillon of Carillon’s Curse, my Western gothic paranormal romance, and the sequel to it I’m writing. I had already made Thomas’s life difficult. I gave him clubfoot in the 1800s, when it wasn’t easily—or successfully treated, a sensitive nature, and the sometimes troublesome ability to talk to ghosts. He’s also gay at a time when this could have landed him in prison in Texas and could have possibly resulted in his death
How awful would it be to give him bad parents on top of all of that?
Thomas is a sweet character, and I love him. I gave him a gift I never had—two kind, loving parents who wanted only the best for him. I gave him wealth and privilege. I gave him, as an adult, a staff of servants who cared about him and Gracie, a cat who senses ghosts. (They didn’t have emotional support animals in the 19th century, but that’s basically what she is.)
In Lover, Destroyer, my m/m fantasy romance, I cursed Kite with a terrible, destructive power that separated him from other mages and made people fear him. When the book opens, he’s a child who has destroyed an entire city at the emperor’s behest. Nothing is left behind, not even a baby’s shoe. An army of mages takes him back to the emperor—all of them fear, even despise, the boy in their care. Kite is a sad, scared, lonely little boy.
So, I gave him a gift. Cinder from my only m/f fantasy romance, The Inquisitor’s Gift. It’s the same universe, the same land. Cinder, at this time, is about to become a teacher at a prestigious magic school in the capitol. He’s good-hearted and fearless with a silly sense of humor. He takes Kite under his wing, and does what he can to help him through a frightening period.
This doesn’t mean that Kite grows up to be a healthy adult. He’s twisted and dark. Sadistic. Mercurial. A secretive, haunted man who thinks love isn’t meant for him.
Although I enjoy plunging characters into the depths of despair, I always like to give them special things that I wish I’d had when I felt alone or desperate. For me, it’s one of the joys of writing.
I’m writing about Thomas and Hadrian again. They’re on a new case, searching for a new killer and running into a number of ghosts. What I’m having the most fun with is their relationship. It’s fun to write about the first bloom of love, but what I really enjoy is writing about how couples make a partnership work.
Falling in love is easy. For me, anyway. I always laugh when reviewers say a couple seemed to get together too soon. When I was single, I could fall head over heels for someone after knowing them a few hours. I love being in love. I guess I’m a free spirit. And I don’t make small talk. Even now. I’m intense and like to get to the nuts and bolts of a person. People often tell me their darkest secrets. I’m not sure why, but I always fall in love with them a little when they do. If there’s any chemistry there, as well—
Staying together is the hard part. I’ve been with my husband longer than some of my readers have been alive. Every day, I make the decision to connect and understand. Loving another human and sharing your life with them isn’t easy—especially if you’re both passionate, damaged, and sensitive. We’ve never broken up, but there were a few times that were close.
In this book, Thomas is trying to assert his independence. He’s madly in love with Hadrian, but he doesn’t want to be smothered by him. He’s trying to figure out his boundaries so he can set them.
Hadrian is dealing with a diagnosis of “soldier’s heart” (PTSD), which he sees as a threat to his strength and manhood. He’s worried about adequately protecting Thomas—and doesn’t really hear when Thomas rejects his protection.
I’m setting them up for a collision, but they’ll find their way out of the wreckage and be stronger for it. If two people are truly committed to making a relationship work, they find a way.
And that’s why I love writing romance—and love writing these “how they stay together” stories most of all.
If you want to read the first book in this series, a standalone, you can find it on Amazon and free with KU.
If you’re curious about another paranormal series I wrote where the characters’ relationship grew over a three book series, you can check out Love Songs for Lost Worlds, also on Amazon and free with KU.
I love when a character tells me something new about him. When I’m constructing a main character, I make notes about his physical features, emotional make-up, his past, his great “wound” or “ghost,” KM Weiland’s “Lie,” and various other things about his life and surroundings.
But I don’t know everything. I never know everything. Once I’m done with all of that construction, the character comes alive. He’s no longer completely under my control then. He’ll often surprise me in the middle of a scene that I painstakingly outlined, tossing his lines to the floor and ad libbing. Characters are horrible things sometimes. Maybe it’s because I don’t pay them. I can’t fire them, either. I suppose I could delete them, but that would be very rude.
I’m busy writing the sequel to Carillon’s Curse. In 1889, Thomas, a medium, and Marshal Hadrian are investigating a murder in Corpus Christi, Texas. They are about to talk to Father Bardales, the priest of a small Catholic church with a mostly Hispanic congregation. As Hadrian and Thomas enter the castle-like building of rustic, blonde stones, Thomas whispers to me, “I was raised Catholic. This is quite bittersweet for me. It reminds me of my parents. You know how much I loved my parents.”
“No. You’re an atheist. I already said so in the last book, Thomas. Don’t be difficult.”
“That boarding school you said I went to? It was a Catholic boarding school. I’m a lapsed Catholic.”
“I don’t think they say ‘lapsed Catholic’ in your time.”
“We’re talking in your time. I’m attempting to communicate with you. One would think you would be more gracious.”
“If that’s the backstory you want, then fine.”
He coughs, affronted. “It’s not the backstory I want. It’s what happened.”
Hadrian chimes in. “Why are you picking on Thomas?”
“He’s adding to his backstory without consulting me. He says he was raised Catholic. And I’m not ‘picking on’ him.”
“Oh,” says Hadrian, turning to Thomas. “I like that.”
Thomas beams. “Yes, it adds another layer to this scene. We’re here simply to see if Father Bardales knows Eduardo’s last name, but being in the church—the soft glow of the stained glass, the odor of waxed wood—it will make me feel sentimental. It will be yet another thing in this story that reminds me of my parents and that loss.”
“Is this scene in your POV?” asks Hadrian, tipping back his Stetson. “It should be. It’ll be more sentimental if it’s from your POV.”
“This was supposed to be from Hadrian’s POV,” I tell them.
“Given my backstory, it would be much more poignant from my POV,” says Thomas. “It will take a rather flat and boring police procedural sort of scene (why was that there in the first place—this is a romance!) and makes it more personal and emotional.”
“Firstly,” I say, “this is a dark paranormal romance with a murder mystery thrown in, and we need scenes where you actually investigate the murder. Don’t roll your eyes, Thomas. And stop it with the side-eye, Hadrian. Secondly, yeah, okay. We’ll do it from Thomas’s POV and let him be all emotional.”
Thomas sniffs. “I’m sensitive, and I have a touching backstory.”
“That’s right,” says Hadrian, crossing his arms over his chest. “Thomas is sensitive, and I’m rough. That’s why we compliment each other. So, he’s going to go in there and be all sentimental, and I’m going to be brooding. Then I’m going to lose my temper!”
“No!” Thomas and I say in unison.
“Father Bardales is proud but kind. You’re going to be respectful. He will have some news for you that will be critical to your investigation. It’s the First Plot Point. So, I need you two to listen to me and not screw this up.”
Hadrian huffs and transfers his hands to his hips. Thomas tilts his pretty head to one side as he stares at me. I set his ever-present, ghost-sensing cat, Gracie, on his shoulder. “You can trust us,” Thomas says with classic Thomas gentleness.
And I do. Most of the time, the characters are right. Part of writing is listening to them. The rest, really, is fighting to represent what they’ve told me in a way other people can understand.
I hate negative reviews. I suppose no writer likes them. My latest book, Carillon’s Curse, doesn’t have many (so far) but the one it has on GoodReads has proven more of a blessing than a curse. Not only does it do a great job at warning people like this reader to avoid my book, something in it has ignited a spark of creativity for the next book in the series. (Yeah! I’m making it a series!)
The reviewer accuses Hadrian of being bipolar. At first, this was deeply hurtful. One, I have bipolar disorder. It sucks the way people throw this word around, usually with little understanding about what bipolar disorder actually is. Two, I wrote Hadrian as having PTSD. I didn’t spell it out because I couldn’t find exactly what it was called back in 1888, but I thought I wrote the symptoms well enough that people could recognize it.
I have PTSD, and forget that most people don’t know the things I know. Somehow, I thought PTSD symptoms had become common knowledge. I didn’t even intend it as an Easter egg. (I had a similar experience with Frank’s ADHD in the Love Songs for Lost Worlds series. No one ever mentions it, so I’m not sure if readers see it.)
Before I read this unflattering review, I had already decided I was writing a series and was stumbling around in the dark trying to figure out what Thomas’s and Hadrian’s wants and misbeliefs (or Lies, as K.M. Weiland calls them) would be. And then came this wonderful, horrible review! After I got over being butt hurt (that took a day or so), I realized that the reviewer had unwittingly given me a gift of writer’s gold.
I’m going to full on embrace Hadrian’s PTSD, name it, have the characters talk about it, and involve some of the (probably horrendous) treatments of the day. There will still be a gruesome murder—or several—to solve, but Hadrian’s internal struggle is going to be with his PTSD and how it affects his and Thomas’s relationship.
Thomas, my beloved, oft troublesome Thomas, has clubfoot. His disability is physical and visible. Hadrian’s disability, being mental, is invisible—and possibly even less understood during the time period in which they live. The whole thing really pleases me, and my fingers can’t type my thoughts fast enough. I’m no longer struggling with the gears of this plot, I’m heating the pavement.
So, if you get a negative review of your work, look for anything valuable in it. Not necessarily, as some people say, constructive criticism. I’ve rarely found anything constructive in a negative review. Those people aren’t your beta readers, they’re often people simply bent on being nasty. But see if there’s anything that sparks an idea. When something is painful, the best, most productive thing a writer—or any artist—can do is use that pain to fuel your next creative endeavor.
If you’re a writer, you’ve probably run into this hideous monster—the bland scene. I woke up to that sucker this morning. You know the one I mean, right? That ho-hum scene you don’t feel like writing? The one that needs to be there because it conveys some information or does something that moves the protagonist forward but is just…blah. Have you been there? I struggle with at least one of those in every book.
The hard truth is, if you’re bored writing a scene, chances are high your readers will be bored reading it. There’s an easy remedy for this. Before I start writing a scene, especially one I’m anticipating will be boring, I ask myself two questions:
1. What does the protagonist (or POV character) want in this scene?
2. What is the problem? Or what is the obstacle standing in the way of the character getting what he wants?
These two questions help me develop the conflict in the scene (if I don’t already know it.) Friction is the fuel of writing. Without it, everything is easy and perfect, and there’s really no story.
Who cares if Mr. Perfect with his perfect life goes to his favorite cafe and gets a latte with a perfect foam panda in it? On Facebook or Instagram that might be fine. In a book, it’s horribly boring. What if Mr. Painfully Shy goes to the cafe he kind of hates because that’s where his ex dumped him, but he’s there because he has a crush on the cute but arrogant barista who works there? Or maybe he’s being chased by the mob and needs a place to hide, but the barista is giving him a hard time for not buying something before locking himself in the bathroom? Maybe the barista turns into a flame-breathing dragon and starts cooking everyone in the cafe?
Okay, so those are really stupid examples, but you get the idea, right? By declaring to myself what the character wants and identifying what is standing in his way in that particular scene, the scene becomes more fun to write.
In the scene I’m writing today, my protagonist (yes, that would be Thomas if you’ve been reading this blog) must help his lover question the victim of a crime. The protagonist’s scene objective is to get information on the criminal, so he and his lover can bring him to justice. That’s pretty straightforward. And boring. Hello, ho-hum scene. Why? Because I haven’t identified an obstacle. If the victim is cooperative, and everything goes smoothly, what’s the fun in that? Why should I expect a reader to care?
So, the problem is the victim is severely intellectually challenged. He’s traumatized and getting him to talk is difficult. To make matters worse, my protagonist’s lover is impatient and brusque. His bad cop style isn’t useful in this situation. Now, my protagonist has two problems: getting information from an especially vulnerable, traumatized victim while protecting him from his hot headed lover—and getting that lover to cool down. (Really, I guess, that’s three problems.) Another monkey wrench I threw in here is that Thomas, being physically disabled, identifies with the disabled victim more than the average person might. This makes his internal reaction to his lover’s insensitivity especially painful.
Not only is this scene much more interesting to write, it will be, hopefully, more interesting to read. Is Thomas up to the task? Of course he is! But making it difficult for him is what makes writing the scene and reading it interesting. Making Thomas solve problems and giving him difficult things to do makes him a better person. He becomes more real, both to me and, hopefully, to readers.
There’s a scene where the protagonist, Frank, tries to get back with his ex, Jovan and fails. Earlier in the day, Jovan offered to stop by the restaurant where Frank works to help him with a problem. (Frank understood the demon they summoned in class and is deeply confused.) This could be a simple scene where Frank asks Jovan out on a date, and Jovan declines. After all, getting back with Jovan is Frank’s scenic goal, and failing is what I need to happen. But that’s a big snorefest.
So, Jovan doesn’t show up at the restaurant alone. He’s there with his new girlfriend. And Frank is busier than normal because he offered to take a large, hopping section of the restaurant for his sick friend. Frank has ADHD (something I don’t reveal in the series, but is sort of an Easter egg) and doesn’t always deal well with high stress situations. Basically, I’ve set him up for failure and taken away his ability to meet his scenic goal. He accosts Jovan in the men’s room and ends up punching a wall and hurting his hand. Jovan takes care of him, but doesn’t simply tell him he doesn’t love him—he says he feels sorry for him. Ouch.
This plunges Frank into the depths where I need him to be before something happens that changes his life forever. A setup scene that could have been pretty mundane ended up being an intense dramatic scene that I enjoyed writing.
With a little spice, bland scenes can become some of your favorites. So, spice it up and have fun!
Sometimes writers feel like gods. At the moment, I feel like a fiend. My favorite character this time is Thomas, a shy gentleman who happens to see ghosts. He’s also a virgin when the story begins.
Plots are like roller coasters. With each scene I’ve been writing, I’m ramping up to a pivotal scene (the Midpoint) that will plunge my characters into a huge, stomach-flipping dip. It’s going to devastate Thomas. In the mean time, I’m watching him grow more in love, watching him venture farther out of his comfort zone and into a bigger, wider world than he has dared to imagine.
And I’m there, barely discernible in the shadows, whispering lines into his ear, telling him things that aren’t quite true. He’s such a gentle, good character. He has no idea I’m fattening him up for the kill.
It’s not, of course, an actual death—and I’ve already hurt him quite a bit—but this scene is going to wound him deeply. I’m not looking forward to it. I’m actually writing this blog to avoid it just a little longer. Unlike some writers, I don’t relish hurting characters—especially characters I love. And I love Thomas to bits. I hope readers love him at least half as much as I do.
I guess it’s time to slink away and break poor Thomas’s sweet heart. What’s worse, perhaps, is I give him the terrible advice afterward. Like some cruel, sabotaging friend, I’ll turn him in the wrong direction and give him a push. I feel sickened just thinking about it.
But I’m doing it because it wouldn’t be much of a story if everything was perfect. ( I suppose there are stories like that, but I don’t care for them.) If you, like me, enjoy riding an emotional roller coaster, check out some of my gay romances! None of my HEAs come easily.
Today, I saw a post in a writing group in which someone was stuck on whether his MC (main character) would move onto a new relationship following the disappearance and possible death of her lover. Obviously, one should consider the depth of the relationship in question, but why not look to the character to solve this problem? If you have a well-developed character who seems like a real person to you, problems like this aren’t problems at all.
For instance, take veterinarian Dr. Garland Sands from my latest M/M historical romance, A Little Sin. After his lover commits suicide, he is able to move on and find love again. However, if his lover had vanished, I don’t believe he would ever stop looking for him. He’s an idealist and an optimist. He’s a hopeful character. Not only would he be unable to give up hope of finding his lover again, he would probably go to the ends of the Earth searching for him.
A very different character in my epic fantasy novel, Under the Shadow, Mylinka, is separated from her childhood love. Although he has only disappeared, evidence suggests he was killed in a purging of mages. Mylinka is a pessimist. She’s a war orphan with some nightmarish experiences. It’s easy for her to believe the worst. She’s also a highly adaptable pragmatist, so she moves on to other relationships.
So you can see how two very different characters will react to the same circumstances in extremely different ways. If you’re stuck on whether or not a character would do something, just ask the character. If your character won’t talk, maybe you need to develop him more.
How? Fill out some character worksheets. There are tons out there! My favorite character questionnaire is in Will Dunne’s The Dramatic Writer’s Companion. It asks questions like ‘what is your character’s greatest achievement so far? What is his greatest failure?’ Rather than spending a lot of time on your character’s hairstyle, it delves deep into the character’s interior life. It’s my favorite writing book despite the fact that I don’t write screenplays. Another fun way to learn more about your characters is to take online personality tests as if you were them.
Once you’re really in touch with your characters, you won’t need to ask how they’ll act. You’ll just know. And if you’re still not sure, just ask them. I often have trouble getting mine to shut up. I’m trying to write a paranormal romance, and Garland from A Little Sin and Ward from Zen Alpha keep bugging me. They want me to write more about them. That’s the only drawback to creating characters that become real people—they don’t always do what you want.
Probably my favorite part of writing is developing characters. It’s like meeting new friends. There’s an indescribable, magical element to it that is thrilling and unique. I enjoy writing about characters that are very different from me. I like the challenge and, well, it’s exciting! But when you’re working in deep POV (also called third person close or third person limited), it can be tough getting inside the head of a character who’s so different. Here’s how I do it:
I start by leaving myself a backdoor. Computer programmers will sometimes leave a “backdoor” in their code, a way to sneak in if they need to. I do this with my characters. I build a character with various physical and emotional attributes, a unique personality (Myers-Briggs can be helpful with this!), and a suitable back story. I try to make these true to the character and let him develop in a way that is different from me.
But then, I add a backdoor, sometimes two or three, but at least one. I add something that the character and I have in common. So, Bradley from my m/m contemporary romance, Zen Alpha, is a tall, beautiful, twenty-five year old redheaded openly gay man who lives in a suburb of Dallas, is a tech support specialist, has expensive tastes that are beyond his means, and is intent on having an alpha male boyfriend. Bradley Evans and I have nothing in common. Like, squat.
So, I gave him a narcissistic mother. Being the child of a narcissistic parent changes a person in fundamental ways. I know, because my own mother is a narcissist. I used this fact to shape and highlight certain aspects of his personality. It even explains why he is so fascinated with his emotionally abusive boyfriend, Jackson, and why he holds himself at a distance from his sexy neighbor, kind, authentic Ward.
His mother was my backdoor into his character. In essence, I gave him a piece of myself. It’s sort of like molding a clay golem, then bringing it to life with a drop of your blood. Sometimes giving a character a piece of yourself hurts, because you have to confront something of yourself in the manuscript. Sometimes that’s difficult.
However, once you crawl inside your character, you’re in! The rest kind of falls into place. You end up with an interesting, round character that is fun to write about. So, bring your character to life and enjoy slipping into deep POV.
If you’re interested in reading Zen Alpha, you can read it for free with Kindle Unlimited, or buy it on Amazon. If you would like to review it, contact me at: email@example.com for a reviewer copy.
No. There isn’t. There are as many ways of doing something as there are people on the planet. I hate writing instructors (or reviewers) who act as if there is only one way of writing or one kind of book. (I know, I know. You’re not supposed to get upset with reviewers. They are entitled to their opinions, and I believe that wholeheartedly. That doesn’t mean I can’t feel butt hurt when one doesn’t understand the difference between a character-driven story and a plot-driven story.)
But back to writing tips. Years ago, I was in a writing group where one writer berated another for saying she couldn’t control her characters. I knew exactly what the ‘I can’t control them’ writer meant. To some extent, that’s how I write. My characters come to me in an organic fashion. Writing often feels more like an archeological dig than a creative process. I feel like I’m discovering the characters, discovering the story. There’s something profoundly Jungian about it.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to step in more. I’ll have a flash of inspiration for a plot point or an attitude shift and insert them and watch the story reorder itself. Or I’ll give the protagonist a nudge in the ribs. I can’t even fathom the sort of rational mind who views the characters as chess pieces and feels in control of everything. I’m not arrogant enough to think that person is wrong. I realize they are different. It’s okay for people to be different. Why do so many of us have a problem with that?
I was thinking about Kite from Lover, Destroyer today. I pick on him a lot, but I feel deeply sorry for him. As soon as I thought that, I wondered what the Vulcan from that writing group would have said. “You created his backstory! You created him–how can you feel sorry for him? That’s insane?”
Well, yeah. But I didn’t intentionally create him. He came to me that way. Damaged, possessing a frightening power, manipulated into doing something that preys on his conscience for the rest of his life. Technically, I created him. But I swear, he was broken when I found him.
There are many ways to do the same thing. Mine just happens to be a bit insane. And I’m perfectly fine with that.