Monthly Archives: March 2012

Creating Complex Characters

One of the common complaints authors hear is that their characters are “one-dimensional” or simply “dull.”  This is usually the result of falling back on simplistic character archetypes:  the stalwart hero, the “spunky” heroine (not that I run into that much in my neck of the woods), the witty serial killer, the parent who appears to hate his or her kid but turns out to be loving and supportive, etc.  The list goes on and on and can be found nearly anywhere you look.  The reason these characters are dull is not simply because they’re overdone.  They also have no depth.

So the author responds by mixing things up and coming up with “realistic” characters — a hero who loves dogs, but hates cats, likes his brother’s kids, but otherwise can’t stand children, because he was once tormented by the neighborhood children when he was boy and they locked him in an abandoned shed for three days, until the police found him and put him in a jail cell with a drunk guy who made a pass at him (so now he can’t deal with sexual issues) and then his mother died in a car accident when he was twelve, so he has abandonment issues and….

And he’s a complete mess.  He’s become so complicated that few readers will care to sort out all of his past traumas and what his motivations are.  And if we can’t make some kind of sense out of a character, we won’t fall in love (or hate) with him.

Fiction is not real life.  Real life is complicated and real people are confusing.  This is why ten different biographers can paint ten different pictures of the same person.  But even “complicated” fictional characters are really fairly simple, when you look at them closely.  Conrad Jarrett, in one of my favorite novels, Ordinary People by Judith Guestis torn between wanting to live again and wanting to kill himself.  But when all is said and done, he really only has these two warring elements in his psyche.  And even when the Deep Dark Secret of his suicidal tendencies is revealed, it turns out to be (*SPOILER ALERT*) because he fought to live, when his brother did not, and he can’t handle the guilt.  In other words, it’s because those same two aspects of his psyche came into conflict in the past and now he’s dealing with the consequences.

So it’s a mistake to overly complicate a character.  Although minor details do help to flesh out a character and make him interesting, it’s best to start out with one primary motivation for the character — the reason he is trying to achieve something in the novel.  Here are some examples from my own work:

  • In The Christmas Wager, Andrew is in love with his friend, Thomas, and wants to be with him, even if it means he must keep his love a secret forever.
  • In The Meaning of Vengeance, Geirr wants to accept Ari’s offer of peace and stay with him on his cozy farmstead.
  • In Seiðman (accepted for publication, but not yet released), Kol wants to remain with his childhood friend, Thorbrand, especially as their friendship begins to blossom into a romantic relationship.

You’ll note that all of these primary motivations are romantic, because they are, when all is said and done, romance novels.  Obviously, that wouldn’t be the case for a novel that wasn’t, at its core, a romance.

So, I could easily have constructed plots around these characters which consisted of nothing but external obstacles thrown at them to delay them on their way to their goals.  The first story takes place in Victorian England and the other two are based in Viking Age Iceland and Scandinavia, so the cultures would provide ample opportunities for this.  But it wouldn’t have made the characters interesting.  To do that, I had to give them secondary motivations that were at odds with the primary motivations:

  • Andrew, being a Victorian gentleman, believes that his desires are perverse and, when Thomas begins to respond romantically to him — something that should make Andrew deliriously happy — he is horrified that his base nature is somehow corrupting the man he loves.  This leads him to push Thomas away, while simultaneously longing to accept Thomas’s advances.
  • Geirr’s brother has been killed by Ari, as a result of the feud that has destroyed both of their families.  He is duty-bound to seek vengeance against Ari, or he will not only shame the memory of his family, but himself.
  • Kol has been called by the gods at a very young age to fulfill his destiny and he knows that he can never do this, so long as he remains in Thorbrand’s shadow.

It’s the internal conflict that gives the characters depth and makes the characters interesting and memorable.  But whereas it might seem that adding a third conflicting motivation would enhance this and make the characters even more interesting, the net result is usually confusion.  The reader may think the character is behaving randomly, without any motivation at all, or against his own character.

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Jake Mactire’s *Twisted,* M/M romance from Dreamspinner Press

Meet author Jake Mactire, and take a look at his summer 2011 release, Twisted. I’m doing things a little differently this week, presenting Jake’s bio and the blurb for Twisted, and immediately following you’ll find the author interview. Check back later this weekend for some entertaining and enticing excerpts. As always, the buy links for Jake’s novels are the cover images—just click for the Dreamspinner Press store. Enjoy the feature, and feel free to leave questions or comments. Thanks for reading!
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Despite the celebrity their recent cracking of a cattle rustling ring has brought, Jeff Connelly and his partner, Mike Guidry, are ready to settle down and start the dude ranch they’ve always dreamed of. Following your dreams isn’t always easy, though—between a troubled new ranch hand who propositions Jeff and Mike’s past suddenly confronting him, emotions are already running high.

Then a sadistic serial killer nicknamed the West Coast Cutter starts slicing a trail though Jeff and Mike’s territory. As the body count rises, they begin to suspect that the killer may in fact be someone they know—a suspicion that is only strengthened by a sudden rash of threatening notes addressed to Jeff. Can they escape the West Coast Cutter before the worst happens?
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Jake Mactire’s inspiration for his writing is based on some of his experiences in rodeo and travel. He does his best work coming up with storylines when hiking or cross-country skiing. Writing is Jake’s escape from his boring day job. In addition to writing, Jake loves rodeo, the outdoors, and travel. He’s visited over fifty countries, ridden the Trans-Siberian Express, taken a riverboat down the Mekong, and hiked the Inca trail in Peru. Closer to home, Jake enjoys hiking, kayaking, and cross-country skiing. He currently lives in Seattle.

Visit Jake at http://wwww.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001519012715. You can contact him at jake(dot)mactire(at)gmail(dot)com.

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Jake Mactire author interview (cowboy romance from a guy who knows)

LS: Jake, welcome to the blog! I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to feature your writing, and I’m looking forward to some interesting Q and A.
JM: Thanks Lou! It’s great to be here

Q: Before we talk directly about your novels, Jake, I’d love to hear a little bit more about you. Your bio certainly piques interest. You now live in Seattle—close to my adopted home, incidentally. I always give a bit of a cheer when I run across another Puget Sound author. Is this where you’re from? Have you lived many places? Maybe you can talk a bit about how “home base” affects your writing, whether that’s Seattle, or wherever?
A: I’m originally from the Midwest. I grew up on a ranch just outside a small town of 2500 on a good day. I’ve lived in Seattle for eighteen years now. I love it, including the rain! I really enjoy the outdoors, and Seattle is great in that I can be by the ocean in about 15 minutes and in the mountains in about 45. The Methow Valley, the place which has inspired the Jeff and Mike books is about three and a half hours away. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. The laid back, live and let live atmosphere of Seattle has been a big influence on my writing. I have some of my best inspirations when I’m outside, kayaking, skiing, or hiking.

I’ve lived in quite a few places. I was an exchange student in Finland, studied in Mexico, worked in both Ireland and India, and in the US have lived in Michigan, Arizona, California, and Washington.

Q: Do you care to say what your “boring day job” is? Tell us anything about it, or how it affects your work as an author? Do you plan to be a full time writer, and if so, have you progressed in that direction?
A: Sure, I’m a software test engineer. I worked for quite a while for a very large software firm headquartered in Redmond WA. The sixty to eighty hour weeks took their toll, and I left several years ago. During my ‘break time’ from work, I wrote. I really enjoyed it and want to continue to write. Now that I’ve gone back to work (still testing software, but at a much more relaxed company) I don’t have all the time I’d like to write. I would love to be a full time writer. I am thinking of buying property in the Methow Valley here in Washington and that would give me the perfect place to write.

Q: You’ve done a lot of wonderful travelling, and you’ve found that to be a boost for your writing. What travel destination has most influenced you as a writer, whether it be the scenery, the people, or something less solid—a feeling, or attitude? Explain, if you would, please.
A: I’d have to list a couple of places. One was Phoenix, Arizona. I went to grad school there and I was dealing with coming out at that time. I had participated in high school and college rodeo for a while and most of my friends knew it. One of my friends had figured out my story so to speak and asked me to take her country and western dancing. She picked the place; it turned out to be Charlie’s, a gay honky- tonk. I remember standing there with my mouth open watching all the cowboys and some guy came up and asked me to dance. We got to the dance floor and he asked me “Lead or follow?” I asked “What do ya mean, follow?” Being from a small town and never having been to a gay bar, it didn’t even occur to me men could follow in dancing. Well, one thing led to another and I got involved in gay rodeo. I kept on rodeoing in the IGRA in California and Washington too. The friendliness and camaraderie of Charlie’s really has influenced my writing. The Methow Valley has also influenced me quite a bit. It does have places like local artist’s galleries, bakeries manned by guys in tie dyed clothes with pony tails, and rodeos with cowboys. As far as foreign places I’d have to say Scandinavia. It was really refreshing to see how accepted gay folks are there.

Q: Before I ask about Twisted, your latest release, let’s talk just a bit about the book that came before it—Two Sides of the Same Coin. It’s set in the Methow (for the unfamiliar, that’s pronounced like the two words, met + how), a broad valley that perhaps epitomizes wide-open western beauty. In it you’ve dropped these two men, gorgeous, different, capable, grieving, and needy, and mixed up for them what, judging from the excerpts, promises to be a memorable romance. Enduring, I hope. Sexy, I’m absolutely certain. Considering these elements, the plot or story line, the main characters, and the powerful setting, what came first when you got your idea to write this? How much did the characters control or fight for the storyline you had planned? How strongly did the Methow influence the events, or the characters’ emotions?

A: One weekend I went camping in the Methow Valley, in the eastern part just outside the North Cascades National Park. While I was hiking the idea for the story for Jeff and Mike came to me. I ended up hiking about twenty miles in the three days I was there and by that time I had a pretty good outline. I was surprised when I began to write as the characters really had to have their say. I hadn’t planned Jeff to be so ‘act first and think next’, but it is in character with a lot of cowboys I know. Mike ended up being a lot more stable and grounded than when I first envisioned him. When they meet, there’s an instant attraction, and the sparks begin to fly pretty quick. They compliment each other very well, and that came up as I was writing them. Jeff’s super self confidence is balanced by Mike’s mild insecurities. On the other hand Mike is very grounded while Jeff is impulsive. The characters actually controlled and wrote much of the story. I found that a bit surprising, but it worked out well. The Methow was the inspiration and the perfect setting.

Q: Paul Richmond’s unique style graces both of these covers, identifiable as his work from first glance. How much input did you have into the elements, colors, or other considerations for the covers? What was your reaction when you first saw them?
A: When I first saw the sketches for the covers, I was just blown away by how good they were, especially the first cover for Two Sides of the Same Coin. Paul really seemed to capture their personalities in his cover art. I had described what I thought would be the ideal cover in both scenarios and he brought it to life.

Q: Now, in Twisted, we meet back up with Mike and Jeff a couple of months down the line. Everything about the life they’re building together seems to balance, from their roping skills (the header and the heeler), to who dominates their kisses. They have a happy Christmas, they’re looking forward to the start of their dream dude ranch, things are good. But, oops, there’s one big problem in paradise: a serial killer. OMG! How did this idea come to you?
A: Good question! A few years ago I took the Trans-Siberian Express train from Moscow to Beijing. I broke the journey in Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, and Ulaan Bataar. In preparing for the trip I went to a second hand book store in Moscow which had a section in English. In that section there were two true crime books about serial killers. I bought them and there were chapters on the gay serial killers Larry Eyler and Randy Kraft. That gave me the idea. I had a lot of time to think about it; the train trip was seven days.

Q: Presumably, you sound like an authority on the cowboy stuff because you are—you’ve lived it. But hopefully, you had to research serial killers, and/or catching them? Anything special that you did to make sure your writing about this was authentic? Do you find in general that you do a lot of research for your writing, and how do you go about it?
A: I do quite a bit of research for my books. The serial killers was one area I really knew nothing about and ended up spending a lot of time online doing research. I also read several books by crime profilers who study serial killers. Other things I’ve researched are things like bronze casting. Since Jeff is an artist, I wanted to make that part of the book realistic. In Twisted, Jeff suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I ended up talking with a friend who is a Psychiatrist several times at length about PTSD, the symptoms, and therapy for it. The cowboy stuff is the easiest for me, I really don’t have to research that. I end up talking with friends and beta readers quite a bit too as part of my research. Occasionally I have to laugh, in a review on Amazon, someone said the books were unrealistic in that Mike came out after meeting Jeff, and someone that closeted would never come out. I’d talked to about ten guys who had come out like Mike did, after meeting someone special. So I tend to do quite a bit of research about things in the books prior to and while writing.

Q: Time for my famous, unavoidable question, Jake—I ask everyone, the rules are always the same, and they’re simple. 1. You must really choose. Waffling and hedging are okay, but in the end you must name a single name. 2. This is an essay question. No one-word answers. Choose, and explain. Here’s the question: Who is sexiest, Mike or Jeff?
A: LOL, I reckon I can’t leave that one up to the reader, can I? That’s a tough one since they are a lot alike. As part of the hemming and hawing prior to the selection of just one, I’ll have to say that I find both very sexy. I like Jeff’s self confidence and the way he walks around in various states of undress and is a bit unpredictable. I find the easy rapport he builds with people, like the kids in the bakery in Winslett, and the guests of the ranch very appealing.

That being said, I’d have to say to me, Mike is the sexiest. According to my friends and rodeo buddies who’ve read the books, I’m quite a bit like Jeff. I imagine that when thinking up the ideal man for Jeff, I envisioned him according to my tastes. First of all, I imagine Mike to have a beautiful smile. Jeff describes it as ‘lighting up his face’ when they’re out riding fences. I have a huge weakness for a guy with a captivating smile. I like the fact that Mike is willing to go after what he wants (in this case, Jeff). I think the fact that Mike can be submissive to Jeff and not feel he is giving up his masculinity is very hot. (Am I revealing a bit too much about myself?) Physically, Mike has hair on his chest and backside (not back!) which I find very alluring. Envisioning Mike, while he and Jeff are two-stepping or ‘rubbin’ belt buckles’ as they call it, is another big thing for me. Mike follows and there is just something really special about having a hot, hunky guy in your arms as you guide him around the dance floor.

I hope that answered the question!

Q: Do you have any upcoming releases, or things in process that your readers can look forward to? A longer range plan? Also, if you have any guest blog appearances, contests, chats, or other promos your readers might enjoy, let us know!
A: I have a third Jeff and Mike novel, Stickmen, which is being read by my beta readers. Then some editing, they’ll look at it again, and I’ll do some more editing and then submit it for publication. Keep your fingers crossed for that. I also did an outline for a spin off book featuring a character from the Jeff and Mike books. One of the guys there has a story that needs telling. I occasionally think about writing a hard boiled detective novel set in prohibition era Detroit, and also have a fantasy novel in mind. So it looks like I may have to write full time just to tell all the stories I have!

LS: Jake, thanks for coming and sharing your work. It’s been a delight. I hope you’ll come back.

JM: Thank you, Lou! It’s been a pleasure and I would love to come back sometime in the future. One of the greatest things about writing is meeting readers and other authors like you! Thanks again!

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