Ask the Authors 2022 Book & Blog Series: Character DevelopmentPosted: May 28, 2022
Welcome to Segment 4 of the “Ask the Authors 2022” blog series, where we’re offering up a little taste of what you’ll find in this hot new writing reference of the same name. Ask the Authors 2022 features writing tips and advice on craft, publishing, and book marketing from ten talented authors and industry experts.
In case you missed some of the previous segments:
Segment 1: Introductions for Kaye Lynne Booth & Kevin Killiany – Writing Life Q & A session
Segment 2: Introduction for Bobby Nash – Pre-writing Rituals Q & A session
Segment 3: Introduction for Roberta Eaton Cheadle – Plot/Storyline Q & A session
This week we meet bestselling horror author Paul Kane, who shares his love of the horror genre in his essay, “Writing Monsters”, and bring you a Q & A session on character development.
Meet Paul Kane
Paul Kane is the award-winning, bestselling author and editor of over a hundred books, both fiction and nonfiction. Some consider him to be a master of the macabe. He has been a guest at numerous writing events and conferences, and he was the keynote speaker at the 2021 WordCrafter New Beginnings Virtual Writing Conference.
A former British Fantasy Society Special Publications Editor, he is currently serving as co-chair for the UK chapter of The Horror Writers Association. His work has been optioned and adapted for the big and small screen. His audio work includes full cast drama adaptations, he has also contributed to the Warhammer 40k universe for Games Workshop and writes thrillers for HQ/HarperCollins as PL Kane. Paul lives in Derbyshire, UK, with his wife Marie O’Regan and his family.
Find out more at his site www.shadow-writer.co.uk which has featured Guest Writers such as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Charlaine Harris, Robert Kirkman, Dean Koontz and Guillermo del Toro.
And now, on to the Q & A.
Nancy Oswald: This whole section was hard for me because I’ve never been good at planning a character. Lists aren’t helpful to me. What is helpful is to put your main character into the middle of their world and write from there. I usually have an ending or a direction in mind before I start writing, but there have been times when the character determines the story and not the other way around.
Do your characters ever surprise you?
Mario Acevedo: I never thought I’d be a writer who said that my characters have taken over the story, but it has happened. Big surprise, it was female characters. I’d have in mind a script for them, which they would rip to pieces and tear off on their own.
Paul Kane: Oh, all the time! If you’ve made them ‘real’ then they’ll suddenly do something that you don’t expect. That is to say, it’ll momentarily surprise you and then you’ll say: ah, of course that’s how they’d react because of… whatever it is you’ve seeded in their past. It’s really your subconscious putting things like that in, things you’ve set up and forgotten about, then when a character does something unexpected it’s only that you’ve forgotten how apt it was in the first place.
Chris Barili: Yes, all the time. If a character is predictable to me, it will be the same to a reader. So, I let them surprise me in whatever way they seem to need. Those surprises don’t always make the story, though.
Bobby Nash: All the time and I love it. In one story, a character let me know that I had the villain wrong. This character was the villain, not the one I had planned to be the villain. The kicker is that the story worked so much better once I realized that this character was indeed the villain.
Robbie Cheadle: No, my characters follow a pre-determined path decided by me upfront.
Kevin Killiany: Not exactly. I’m the only person living in my head—my characters only look like they have free will. That being said, the longer you work with a project, the more time your subconscious has to compost or ferment or percolate the ideas you’re building with—and that can lead to unexpected discoveries that give texture and dimension to the character. Sometimes my characters evolve over the course of writing and rewriting to the point that they person they’ve become wouldn’t do what the story required. Usually that’s an indication there’s something wrong with the story, not the character.
What makes a character interesting?
Paul Kane: I think it goes back to believability once again, which most things do. They have to be well-rounded, living and breathing people. If I get it right, the characters feel real to me. When I talk about them and what they go through, I talk about them as if they exist. You have to think that way in order for other people to believe them and believe in them. A lot of that means knowing your characters inside out, how they’d react to certain situations – in particular the ones you put them in. Would your character run away from a monster or just get stuck in, have a go, even if it meant dying to save others? That kind of thing. A lot of writers think giving characters quirks makes them interesting, but if there’s no reason for that to be there it just stands out. If you give your character gardening as a hobby, unless he’s fighting a giant plant then it’s not really something that should crop up in your story. The character of Alex Webber in Before was a lecturer, so that meant he was interested in making sure the next generation were educated and could make well-informed decisions. So when the future of the world is threatened, of course he’s going to fight against that; it’s just something rooted in his DNA. Those are the kinds of things that make characters interesting, not whether they sleep on the left or the right in bed.
Chris Barili: They have to be flawed. No one wants to read about perfect people with perfect lives and no conflict whatsoever. It is our characters’ flaws that make them realistic, and that set up most of the conflict in the story. After that, it is the act of exaggerating the characters, making them larger than life. Again, no one wants to read about normal people with normal lives. They want heroes and villains who are large and in charge. Would Dirty Harry have worked if he were a normal cop carrying a .38 special? No, because being a six-foot-four rogue cop with a .44 magnum in gleaming silver makes him stand out.
Bobby Nash: I don’t know. Interesting is like art or porn, I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it. I need to have something to connect to with a character. Once I have that connection, I understand the character.
Robbie Cheadle: My characters all must overcome a lot of adversity in their circumstances. I believe that the growth in the characters as they play the cards which they are dealt by life makes them interesting.
Jeff Bowles: I think I have an answer to that question: idiosyncrasies, idiosyncrasies, idiosyncrasies. The thing about real people is that we all have our strange little quirks that make us who we are. And these are behaviors and beliefs it’s taken us a whole lifetime to accrue. It pays to think of your characters as being a little odd under the surface. The problem with a lot of storytelling out there is that too many authors figure their characters exist to serve the story. They don’t, it’s the other way around completely. Let your characters speak for themselves. Let the breath a little, see where they really want to go next. Don’t push them into situations that don’t serve their full expression. Let them tell you who they really are.
How do you make a character likeable?
Paul Kane: Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you shouldn’t. I get reviews sometimes that say ‘the characters weren’t very nice’, but then look at some of the things they’ve been through. My psychologist Dr Robyn Adams went through a trauma at the hands of a serial killer, so is addicted to pain killers and drinks too much, leaps straight in with guys too often – because of something else revealed towards the end of Her Husband’s Grave. But you know what, she’s doing the best she can. Her flaws make her human, like all of us, and they make the moments of bravery stand out all the more. I think if you’re always trying to make your characters likable, you’re missing the point of making them believable. Not everyone’s nice all the time, there are grey areas – and that’s totally where your characters should be operating.
Chris Barili: You don’t have to make them likeable, just relatable. Thomas Covenant in White Gold Wielder (Stephan R. Donaldson) is not a likeable character at first, just a relatable one. He almost loses that with a deplorable act early in the book, bit manages to make it through, at least for most readers. I do know some who could not handle it and left the series behind.
Bobby Nash: I start with a likeable person as their base and build the character up from there.
Kevin Killiany: I never consider likeability. I try to make my characters as real as possible—which means complex, with parts some folk will like and parts some folk can’t stand.
How do you make your characters feel real?
Chris Barili: What are their fears and flaws? Read my article, “Character Blueprints” (Ask the Authors 2022) for the tools I use to do this.
Bobby Nash: As I mentioned above, I get to know the characters. Once that happens, they become real people to me. They have their own quirks, foibles, fears, flaws, strengths, and weaknesses. Just like real people.
How do you create a villain readers can love to hate?
Mario Acevedo: Readers must have empathy with all of your characters and understand why they do what they do. Their motivations must be consistent and compelling. One of my best villains was a female mad scientist who at first you cheered until you found out what she was up to.
Paul Kane: I don’t think there’s any magic formula, but the key thing with villains is again that they aren’t just cardboard cutouts. They can’t just be evil for evil’s sake, there needs to be reasons for what they’re doing. My bad guy for the Hooded Man books, De Falaise – essentially my version of the Sheriff of Nottingham – was motivated by the fact that he’d been kept down before the A-B Virus hit. He was a small bad guy in a big pond. The apocalypse gave him the freedom to create a kingdom of his own, so that was his motivation – and Robert, my Robin Hood, stood in his way. You got the impression with some Hood stories in the past that they just hated each other because one was bad, and one was good. In my books, just as Robert has his failings as a leader – for starters, he doesn’t want to be a leader and would much rather hide out in Sherwood waiting to die – so too does De Falaise have his good points, like his loyalty to companions like Tanek, his second in command. I mean, he is evil when you get right down to it, because some of the things he does are reprehensible, but there still needs to be some good in there. Having said all that, the most fun I’ve had writing a bad guy was The Infinity in Before. He’s a version of the Devil, essentially, and likes to meddle in human history. Writing lines for him, simply because he was a stereotypical big bad, was wonderful. It allowed me to put myself in the head of someone who has very few redeeming qualities, if any at all.
Chris Barili: I find that a couple of things can pull a reader into a love-hate relationship. First, a sense of humor. Even if it’s macabre or inappropriate, the ability to make us laugh endears even a harsh villain to us. You can also give that villain a good side by having him or her save a puppy or show some other admirable trait. Intellect combined with arrogance are a nice set of offsetting traits. But most of all, make them flawed like the hero. If they are invincible and pure evil, no one will want to read their stories. Take The Governor on the AMC series The Walking Dead. We find out early on that this otherwise despicable villain lost his whole family to the walkers and thus has them all locked up in his home as he hopes for a cure.
Bobby Nash: Same way as with a likeable character. I get to know them and understand why they do what they do. No villain thinks of themselves as the villain. Most villains believe what they are doing is right or justified. Very rarely is anyone evil just for the sake of being evil. Let the readers see the multiple facets of your heroes and villains.
Robbie Cheadle: Characters that do sadistic and unkind things are easy to make readers dislike. However, my characters all have redeeming features so the reader will end up conflicted, even when the character is behaving at his/her worst.
Do you ever create characters based on people who you’ve actually known?
Paul Kane: I think by necessity characters are mish-mashes of people you’ve known and other characters from books, film or TV shows, plus bits of yourself sometimes. I’ve never based a character wholesale on someone, as that way lies being sued, but I include certain traits from people I’ve known or still know. I was brought up with a lot of strong women around me, so I write a lot of tales with strong female protagonists. RED, my horror reworking of Little Red Riding Hood, is an obvious example of that. Rachael Daniels is someone who fights the wolf rather than running away from it, isn’t frightened to go up against a challenge. Her love-life might be a car crash, but she’s someone you want around when there’s trouble for sure.
Chris Barili: I will plead the fifth on this question, and all writers should, whether they have done this or not. Admitting that you have sets you up for legal action by others.
Bobby Nash: Oh, sure. I have many characters where the basis is a real person that I then built on top of to create a new character.
Robbie Cheadle: Yes, some of my characters are modelled off people I know. Grandfather Baker in Through the Nethergate has a lot of my father’s personality and characteristics. Michelle Cleveland in A Ghost and His Gold has some of my personality and characteristics, but she is more forgiving and generous towards her partner than I would be in the same circumstances.
Some of my characters are model on several people I have come across in a similar situation. For example, Tom Cleveland in A Ghost and His Gold is based on a combination of men in senior positions I have worked with in my own life.
Kevin Killiany: Every character is a composite of people I’ve known. Let’s face it, the only way to research people is to hang out with them a while. I never drop a whole person into a story—it’ll be A’s speech pattern, B’s fascination with baseball, C’s gestures, etc. Of course, those are just the starting points. As I know my character better everything will change, evolve.
Do any of your characters share traits with you?
Paul Kane: You can’t help but put bits of yourself in stories. I’ve talked about Alex Webber from Before being a lecturer, which I was for a while at college, so I could write about him with a degree of confidence and make sure it was authentic. I’ve always been scared of the dark and nighttime, which comes across in a lot of my stories. The little boy at the beginning in Of Darkness and Light – recently reprinted in the collection Darkness and Shadows – is very much based on me as a kid. Staring out into the darkness at bedtime and imagining all kinds of things lurking inside. But I think the writing also helps with tackling your fears, and in that particular story I could make the ‘creature’ in the darkness someone who was actually watching over the character of Lee Masterton, someone who would protect him from harm. He just didn’t know it at the time.
Chris Barili: All of them, of course. We cannot create characters without at least a little dash of ourselves in them.
Bobby Nash: Absolutely. There’s a little something of me in all of them. Some, more than others.
Robbie Cheadle: As mentioned above, Michelle is similar to me in some ways, but very different in others. She is a better me.
Kevin Killiany: Never the main character. But if there’s a plucky sidekick who alternates puns with sardonic commentary, that’ll be me.
What methods do you use to introduce readers to your characters?
Mario Acevedo: One of the techniques that F Scott Fitzgerald used to masterful effect was that he introduced his major characters in terms of their personality rather than merely describing their looks. I keep that in mind as I write my stories.
Paul Kane: I think it helps to show them doing something that defines them, so perhaps through their job. Most detectives are introduced through a crime scene for instance, and then we learn how good they are and what it means to them to be a cop. I introduced my main character Mitch Prescott – who at the start of The Family Lie is a PC – via a riot scene. He’s tried to tell the powers that be that there will be trouble at a demonstration, but they’ve totally ignored him, and of course – surprise, surprise – a riot breaks out in which one of his closest friends is injured. It forces Mitch to question what he’s doing on the Force, which leads to his dismissal when he confronts a senior officer about what happened, which in turn makes it easier for him to just go off and investigate what occurred with his father’s death in his hometown of Green Acres. But just from this one chapter, you realise he’s a man of integrity, a man who’s loyal to his friends, and a man who doesn’t like it when people don’t listen to his warnings – so you set up conflict for later when he reaches Green Acres and he’s being blocked at every turn.
How do you motivate your characters?
Paul Kane: I think that’s the same thing as what motivates us as people. We look after our friends and family, because we love them, and are sometimes motivated to do things we might not otherwise do because they’re in trouble. What motivates characters is the same as what motivates people in real life, because, remember, we’re trying to make those characters real. So, the father of murder Jordan Radcliffe – Jake – is motivated to find out who the killer is, not only because he loved his daughter, but also because he feels like he failed her. Failed her in life as a father, so he doesn’t want to fail her now in death. That’s a powerful motivating factor for any character. In my short novel The Storm, out through PS Publishing, the main protagonist Keegan is all about keeping the woman that he loves safe, even if it means battling giant monsters to do so. Love’s a big motivation for anything, I find, just like in real life. So are things like revenge or jealousy, the usual big ones.
Chris Barili: They are self-motivated by the situation into which I drop them. Usually, it is the will to survive that motivates them, but it can also be love, hate, rage, longing, and more.
Bobby Nash: How do I stop them? I usually have trouble keeping up with them.
Robbie Cheadle: My ghostly characters are motivated by the chance of redemption and moving on from their existence as spirits.
My physical characters are motivated by compassion and empathy for others and a desire to assist the spirits achieve the redemption they seek.
What kind of adversaries and obstacles do you create for your characters and what purpose do they serve?
Paul Kane: It depends very much on what the story is. Creating adversaries tends to go very much hand-in-hand with creating heroes. Myself and my wife Marie O’Regan – a terrific writer herself – do a workshop on this subject, and that’s one of the key elements. The hero or heroes dictate the villain or villains. Both are probably striving for something but pulling in opposite directions. In Arcana our protagonists are just trying to get freedom for magic-users, whereas the M-Forcers are trying to stop them, hunt them down and either kill them or put them in prison. Both have aims, but they’re the exact opposite of each other. The obstacles they face are very much dependent on the story you’re telling. It could be a man vs nature tale, in which your heroes are just trying to stay alive, so the setting would dictate what happens there. If it’s a shark, then you need to be at sea, if it’s snow then you need to be in the Arctic or Ant-Arctic, or you set it at a time of year when it’s snowing… My short story ‘White Shadows’, for example, is about a girl battling living snow in the middle of winter.
Chris Barili: Since most of the opposition to my characters comes from the antagonist, I always try to think, as I close a scene, “what could the villain do that would completely thrown the main character for a loop?”
Bobby Nash: Stories would be boring if there was nothing for the main character to overcome. Whatever the obstacle is, a villain, a test not studied for, a traffic jam, or whatever, gives the character(s) something to overcome or solve. Hopefully, your character comes out stronger on the other side of the obstacle.
What methods do you use to introduce readers to your characters?
Bobby Nash: We meet the characters in story. I let different characters be out POV in different chapters so we can understand them.
How do you give each character a distinctive voice?
Paul Kane: I think that just comes down to their personality really, who they are and what they do. How they respond to things, whether it’s trouble or something nice, will dictate their voice. So it’s all to do with character creation, and that believability factor again. If they respond in an authentic way, that will give them their voice. If you’ve created a strong female character, for example, they’re not likely to take a man bossing them around lightly. Indeed, they might even knock them out, depending on whether they’re a violent sort or not, or whether the provocation was bad. It’s things like that which give your characters a distinctive voice.
Chris Barili: This seems to come naturally for me. And I think that come from listening. I did twenty years in the military and traveled all over the world. So, I have had the chance to listen to many different conversations in many different cultures, and all of that goes into giving a character their own voice.
Bobby Nash: Once I get to know the character, they tell me what their voice is and that’s what I write. It all comes down to creating a fully formed character.
How do you feel about killing off your darlings?
Mario Acevedo: I am ruthless. There’s a vacant lot in my neighborhood where I’ve left my darlings rotting in shallow graves.
Paul Kane: Do you mean editing, like killing off your words? Or killing off characters? I love editing, chopping bits and refining, making scenes better. That’s the part of writing I like most, apart from being finished and having written. Killing off characters you love is hard, but all part and parcel of being a good writer. If it serves the story, no matter how you feel about the character, then you need to just get on with it. I always knew that I’d kill off Jack in The Gemini Factor, even before I started, which was difficult because I really liked him. He became like a friend. It gave the ended weight though, gave it an impact that would not have been there if I hadn’t just bit the bullet.
Chris Barili: When it becomes necessary to the story, I have no problem doing so. Sometimes, they get in the way. Other times their story line needs its own story because it is taking over. Other times, the main character has learned to depend on them too much.
Bobby Nash: I do it all the time, so I guess I’m okay with it. Ha! Ha!
Robbie Cheadle: I was advised to kill off a few of my darlings in Through the Nethergate by my developmental editor. It was a little hard to let those scenes go but it was the right thing to do. Listening to good advice is the best thing a writer can do.
What methods do you use to evoke emotion in your readers?
Mario Acevedo: Writing fiction gives you the wonderful opportunity to present what characters are thinking or feeling, either through internalizations or visceral reactions. I use these inner experiences to ground the reader in what the character is feeling and what is important in the story.
Paul Kane: There are all sorts of ways to do that, from killing off people readers have grown to love – as mentioned before – to putting them through the wringer, or even having them fall in love. If you’ve done your job properly, a reader will feel the emotions characters are going through. So when a character hates or loves something, or someone, a reader will feel that too. I once wrote a story about two ghosts falling in love called ‘Kindred Spirits’. The girl ghost has only just died, so she doesn’t know what she is, and the guy ghost is trying to help her because he’s been dead for some time. Hopefully a reader feels the sadness at the start that he feels, being alone where nobody can see or touch him, then the joy at finding someone else he can talk to and touch, even hug. To be able to cover the range of emotions like that in a short space of time isn’t easy, but it’s incredibly rewarding when it works.
Bobby Nash: It’s all in the characters and setting the mood. The emotion comes out of the performance of the character.
Kevin Killiany: Honesty
Which of your own characters was the most fun for you to write? Why?
Paul Kane: I enjoyed writing the character of Nick Skinner in Lunar, because he’s just your average guy in a bizarre situation, having to think on his feet and react to all these weird things that are happening to him. That was fun. And The Infinity, the bad guy in Before, as I’ve said. It was fun to write someone so evil that he’s verging on pantomime level, but that’s just how he is. There’s a scene where someone tells him to stop stirring, and he replies with: ‘I f**king enjoy stirring!’ Because he does. That’s what he’s all about. It was fun creating and writing him, especially writing his lines. The criticism I got the most about that book was The Infinity wasn’t in it enough, so you know you’ve done something right at that point. I’m toying with bringing him back in a short story or two, because you could go back in time and show him at any point – he’s been there at all the major turning points in history. It might be fun to do that…
Chris Barili: I really enjoy writing Frank Butcher, and most of his posse members. They’re some of the most complete characters I have built, and each has their own voice, their own flaws, and their own motivations. And each has a weird past that helps flesh out their personality, so writing the is easy.
Bobby Nash: That’s like asking me to pick a favorite child or parent. They all have their fun moments for different reasons. I love writing Archer Snow, the surly, but funny grandfather in the Snow series. Tom Myers is also fun to write.
Robbie Cheadle: I have enjoyed all my characters. During the writing process they all become very real and important. Once the book is published, they are quickly replaced by different characters, which is why I haven’t attempted a sequel.
Kevin Killiany: Cadet Fatima Kielani. [I jotted her last name down several years ago when I was watching a news report on Syrian Kurds fighting ISIS—it was on the screen briefly. I assumed it was Kurdish (and have a major supporting character in Life on Dirt identify it as such) but I was wrong. I’ve since learned it’s most common in the United Arab Emirates (with about half as many in Jordan) and is also found in both Austria and Benin, but no one knows its origin.] [It is not the Hawai’ian girls’ name Keilani.] Fatima is a seventeen-year-old Spacer, first generation, born and raised on Tombaugh Station, who volunteers for an experimental program on Earth, even though (or perhaps because) she’s terrified of the place. My background is special education and mental health services, and I gave Fatima a condition that has fascinated me since before it had a name: Social Communication Disorder (Pragmatic Communication Disorder in the UK). In many ways it resembles the Autism Disorder Spectrum, but is in no way related. People with SCD are blind to social norms and nonverbal cues, and must work their way through everyday interactions. I also, because I am cruel and unusual, gave her a rare dissociative disorder: she has trouble recognizing, or feeling, her own emotions.
I have attached an entry from Fatima’s journal to illustrate both how she sees the world and how she interacts with others.
Which of your antagonists is your favorite? Why?
Chris Barili: So far, it’s a tie between Annie’s ghost of a mother in Smothered, and John Wesley Hardin in the Hell’s Bucher-based short story “Witch’s Kiss.” The first because I got to make her up and have her interrupt an intimate scene between her daughter and a man. The second because I researched him thoroughly and felt like I knew him well enough to write a story where this very real gunfighter did some very fictional things, and I feel like I did so without compromising his character.
Bobby Nash: The Controller in Suicide Bomb was a lot of fun to write.
Robbie Cheadle: I enjoyed Lucifer in Through the Nethergate. He was a young, good looking man with an interesting plan to manipulate modern trends and technology to invoke a third world war. I also enjoyed the hell he created.
That’s all for this week on the “Ask the Authors 2022” blog series . Thanks for joining us. Drop by next Saturday, when the “Ask the Authors 2022” blog series introduces award winning multi-genre author, Mario Acevedo and offers a Q & A on Action, Pacing & Dialog.
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