I admit it. I’m an animal person. I love them all but am partial to dogs and have had many and still do. I’ve read many “animal” books and find them endearing. Today’s blog, though, is not about writing animal stories, but about integrating animals into your novels to give your humans depth, compassion and vulnerability.
Comic relief is one reason writers insert animals into their stories. I recently watched (again) Lonesome Dove on television and laughed (again) at the scenes of the two pigs following the wagon out of Lonesome Dove to embark on a journey north. The journey would be fraught with drama and trauma, and the pigs added a light aspect to ease the tension. But they actually did more than that.
These two sweet little pink creatures gave us insight into one of the main characters of Lonesome Dove, Augustus McCrae. Sure, he hollered at them, kicked dirt at them, spit at them, but he also smiled at them, enjoyed their antics and encouraged them to join the entourage to Montana. What did that say about Gus, a former Texas Ranger who would hang an old friend for breaking the law? He had a definite soft side.
Characters that have a seriously dark job, like a cop or detective, need to have a way to show their human side. Relationships with the opposite sex, kids and family, even friends and colleagues can work. But so can animals. Take my NYC homicide detective, Frank Mead, in The Triangle Murders. In a dialogue, with his sergeant, Mead explains how he came to own a blue and gold, extremely noisy killer macaw named Dexter.
“What’s with the bird?” Jefferies said.
“Dumb move.” Frank sighed.
“Brought my car into a garage out in Canarsie. The bird was in the back of the shop squawking up a storm. Real nasty place, they didn’t give a shit about him. He was covered in grease. So I took him. Fifty bucks. They sold him just like that. I figured I’d clean him up and give him away, to some good home or something.” His face reddened.
“Kinda got used to the company. He’s incredibly smart, talks and, well, never mind. Stupid ass bird.”
Mead, a hard-boiled homicide cop, has a gruesome murder to solve, a dead wife always on his mind, an estranged daughter he feels guilty about. And yet he saves this kooky parrot. Would you have expected that of him? Or are you surprised?
Animals have played similar roles in mysteries for decades. Think Raymond Chandler’s The Thin Man. I can never forget the first movie and my introduction to Myrna Loy as the character, Nora Charles. Picture the scene: Nick Charles is in a nightclub bar being asked by a young woman to take a case, when Nora bursts in carrying Christmas packages and trying to hold onto Asta, her mischievous terrier, by the lead. Asta barrels into the room and Nora winds up face down on the floor, packages strewn everywhere. Unfazed, she gets up, brushes herself off and carries on.
Her dog was the perfect device to show us Nora’s personality. And it was dead-on. Nora is generally unfazed by embarrassing moments like these. But how would you know that without tedious narrative? By using Asta.
Other well-known authors use animals in similar ways. In Robert Parker’s Spenser books, you meet his dog, Pearl, and can picture her lying on the floor on her back with four feet in the air. How many of us are familiar with that pose? She’s entirely comfortable, not fearful or concerned in this position about any danger. What does that say about Spenser and his relationship with Pearl and the environment he provides for her? Safe, sheltered and most probably well-loved.
Elizabeth George, another dog person, has inserted a Longhaired Dachshund, Peach, into her stories. How does she integrate Peach with her characters to give them depth and breadth of human qualities. Yes, this is a quiz.
I know I will personally continue to use animals in my books. I encourage you to consider doing the same. They can add a sympathetic, sensitive and loving element to your humans . . . in ways other humans simply can’t.
One of the most important, but often most difficult part of writing a novel is selecting names for your characters. When you begin you might already have some in mind. But as the characters morph during the writing process, that name might no longer fit. If you’re writing a series and the same characters reappear, you still need to name new characters.
Villains’ names are particularly important to get right. Common sense tells you that “Melvin Fuddrucker” is probably not the best handle for a serial killer. Or is it? Do you want to throw the reader off and let him like or sympathize with your bad guy? Do you want the reader to think: Melvin, hmm, an accountant or a store clerk, when in reality, Melvin is a triathlete, computer genius, and serial killer? Obfuscation may be a good thing.
The good guys shouldn’t be shortchanged either. You want your characters to be memorable and to have your readers calling them by name six months after they’ve read your book. I have a hard time remembering names six hours after reading some books. But characters from other books stay with me for a lifetime. LONESOME DOVE by Larry McMurtry comes to mind. How can you forget Augustus, Call, Newt, or for heaven’s sake, Pea Eye?
So how do you choose names? One thing to remember. Try not to have too many characters with the same first initial. So, Bob, Bill, Binky, Belinda, and Bruce would probably be confusing. A couple are okay, of course. My two main characters are Maggie and Mead. Duh. One’s a first name, one’s a last. But I’ve avoided other “M” names unless they are historically necessary.
Also, unusual names are okay but too many are dicey. Throw a few Jenovas in with the Jennifers. Don’t make them too hard to pronounce, either out loud or in the reader’s head. It’s frustrating. Of course, if many of your characters are from countries other than the States, throw that idea out the window. But, perhaps, giving them a nickname will make them easier to recall.
One problem with historical novels is that using the real names of people involved can present problems. For instance, in some books by Sharon Kay Penman, one of my all-time favorite writers of historical England, she explained that the spelling of some characters had to be changed to distinguish one Maud from another Maude. (Lots of Henrys, Johns and James as well. Yoiks!)
Timing is very important. Names fall in and out of favor over the years, so take care not to use a very modern YA name like Aisha or Brandon in a book about merry old England.
When you’re creating a character name from scratch, consider these: personality, looks, age, ethnicity, stature in the community, occupation, attitudes toward politics, etc., values, whether the character is single, married, gay. Does the character remind you of a good friend, a bad friend, a worker, colleague, television or movie character (Dexter? Miss Marple? Morse? Lynley? Zen?) Does the character have a sense of humor? Is the character always depressed, upbeat, brutally honest, or unbearably shy? What are their quirks, flaws, hobbies, passions, hates? Does he carry around a blue plastic bag instead of a briefcase like Tony Hill?
Do you want the character’s name to conjure up something in the reader’s mind? Like Charlie Parker in John Connolly’s books makes me automatically think of the jazz musician.
I had a difficult time giving my villain in TIME EXPOSURE a meaningful name. He was, by profession, a Shakespearean actor in disguise on the battlefield as a sutler (a guy who went around selling goods to the foot soldiers.) What name would this actor choose for himself? He selected the name Jack Cade for his cover. Why?
Jack Cade was actually a real person who led the peasants in the Kent rebellion of 1450. He was also a character in Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 2. In the play he talks to his friend, Dick the Butcher, whose most famous line is “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” I thought my villain would get a kick out of that, and since he probably didn’t want to be called Dick the Butcher, Jack Cade he became.
Don’t underestimate the importance of your character’s names. If you want your readers to love a character, naming him Hitler or Attila would be a tough sell. Find names you like as you read books or newspapers, watch movies, or meet new folks at a party, and jot them down for the future. You might even try the phone book, but then you don’t have the advantage of seeing the name in action on a real person. Make something up, but explain in the novel what the name means to the characters involved.
While Shakespeare said “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” it would be hard to conjure up a picture of a beautiful flower if you called the rose, Skunk.
As I write this, I’m listening to Antonio Vivaldi’s “Violin Concerto for Violin, Strings and Continuo.” I have a hard time writing to music with lyrics – the words tend to wind up on my page — so I opt for background music, usually classical.
Music is a terrific way to bring your characters to life. Let’s take a peek at a fictional guy, Ray Salvo. He’s eighty-five, fought in two wars, a widower with four kids, nine grandkids and two great grandkids.
Ray’s at home now, a small craftsman in southern California, dusty, threadbare, mostly because he can’t see well enough to care. He’s alone, as he often is. How can we paint a more vivid picture of Ray? Use music.
He rises stiffly from his old recliner, ambles to the record player, an old Kenwood turntable, and his large assortment of record albums. His kids want to get him a CD player, his grandkids, an iPod. He’ll stick with vinyl. As he sorts through his albums, memories blow in and out of his mind. Is he thinking of his dead wife? Good place for a flashback.
The albums are sorted by date, decade, actually. The 30 and 40s, when Ray was a kid, he was one of the lucky ones to have a radio. The sweet sounds of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. Maybe Ray’s picturing his old family home in his mind?
The 50s. Elvis and Buddy Holly. The Isley Brothers, twistin’ and shoutin’. Ray picks up a photograph of his wife – ahh, she could dance the lindy.
The 70s brought the Disco craze: Bee Gees, Gloria Gaynor and the Village People. Ray gives a few hip lurches as he hums “Y.M.C.A.” Ouch. He remembers watching Saturday Night Fever with his kids.
He flips some more. Classical albums: Ravel’s “Bolero,” hmmm. “Scheherazade,” by Rimsky-Korsakoff. Mozart, not his favorite, actually. He loves the Russian composers better. But classical is not the choice for today. Too maudlin. Good opportunity for description here. Maybe Ray’s worried about his finances, his son’s cancer?
He smiles when he gets to some newer recordings stacked on a side table — CDs that his grandkids have given him, in hopes he’ll upgrade from his turntable. He reads a jewel case label: “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. Or is it “Imagine Dragons” by Radioactive? Argh. Now he really feels old.
Which record will it be? This is the defining moment for the character. Is he locked in the nostalgic 40s? 50’s? What does he want to listen to? What is he thinking about, what is his mood?
Ray flips back to earlier albums and after a few seconds finds exactly what he’s looking for. Not swing or jazz or blues. His fingers grasp the music he loves best. Classic Rock. The Rolling Stones. Yea. Now, he can get some satisfaction. So can you. You have a better handle on this character, just through his music.
The dictionary defines conflict as “a struggle or an opposition.” Conflict comes from the Latin word for “striking,” but it isn’t always violent. Conflict can arise from opposing ideas. But conflict, in any form, is essential for your story.
Characters must struggle with conflict, even in a simple form. If your character is torn between two different desires, say, marrying a woman who lives in Boston, but dying to take a job offer in Saskatoon (where is that, anyway?) he’s conflicted.
Conflict is key to your characters’ relationships. If everyone gets along beautifully and there are no differences of opinions, arguments, debates, fisticuffs . . . no screaming, pulling hair, beating up or murdering someone, well, there’s not much conflict. And not much interest.
Conflict can occur within a person’s mind. This is the most interesting of conflicts and defines the character’s character, if you will. When a character confronts another character, there is drama. When a character confronts his/her own self, there is drama plus. Now, the stage is set for future interactions with everyone he/she meets.
In The Triangle Murders, my protagonist, Frank Mead, is overwhelmingly conflicted about his relationship with his daughter, whom he feels he has abandoned after his wife’s suicide. The daughter feels similarly. However, circumstances bring the two of them together, creating not only conflict, but often tension. There is great strain between them and the reader must wonder if it will ever be resolved.
Emotions play a large role in portraying a character’s conflict. If a character keeps his emotions hidden, any conflicts he faces may stretch these hidden emotions to a breaking point. As a reader we need to know what’s happening in his head–how this conflict is affecting him. We also need to see how it manifests itself in his behavior. Do serious money problems cause him to drink more, beat his wife and kids, or retreat further into himself? How your character handles conflict makes him unique . . . or not. Unique is better, by the way.
Conflict between characters can take many forms. It can be job-related, school-related, socially-related, sexually-related, family-related, or other-related. Often all. However, too many conflicts in too many places can cause the reader to get worn out. Give your character, even a cranky one, at least one amiable relationships, even if it’s with another cranky character, please, or we won’t like him very much.
I like to find new ways to help my characters resolve their conflicts. For instance, in Frank’s case above, he enlists his daughter’s help to solve an ancient murder. They form a tentative truce to accomplish this, which may, or may not, last into another book.
My advice is to maximize the use of conflict in your story. It is a great tool to keep readers turning the page.
As always, I welcome your feedback.
I read a lot. I also watch movies and occasional television series. Recently I got to thinking about how novel writers and screenwriters differ.
In some ways a screenwriter has an easier job than an author. Take, for instance, “painting a picture of the scene.” When describing a scene, the screenwriter essentially “takes a snapshot,” something like: “you are looking down the beach, with huge cliffs off to the left, surf to the right, and a body down at the far end.”
He/she does not use too many adjectives such as azure sea, turquoise ocean, foamy waves, or 60-ft cliffs, ragged rocks, sandstone hills. No need. The snapshot, the images on camera of the actual place, capture all that for the viewer.
The scene I’m describing, by the way, is from a BBC Series called Broadchurch, one of the most well-done, intriguing and dark stories I’ve seen. Instead of spending myriad words to let the reader “see” the image, the stage is, essentially, pre-set by reality.
Rather. the screenwriter spends considerable time on the characters and, probably to a lesser extent, on the plot. In Broadchurch, the plot is riveting, starting with the murder of a young boy. And it twists and turns its way through the episodes with skill and bravery, to end with a, pardon the expression here, a cliffhanger.
You always want to return to the next episode. You always want to turn the page.
Chris Chibnell is the screenwriter of Broadchurch, and no, the book (written by Erin Kelly, along with Chibnell) came after the screenplay–isn’t that interesting? Chibnell’s past credits include Doctor Who and Torchwood, but Broadchurch catapulted him to screenplay stardom.
What Chibnell does so masterfully, and we authors need to take a lesson, is character development, growth and change. The Broadchurch characters start out one way, they grow through the series and, somehow, almost magically, are transformed by their experiences. They have learned and matured; they have gained strength and resilience. And they continue to change, giving the viewer hope they will survive no matter what the future holds.
This is a concept we novel writers need to infuse in our own work. Character development, however little, is BIG. Don’t minimize it and its effects on the audience (reader.) Without being a spoiler, I suggest you watch Broadchurch, and, in particular, the character of Ellie Miller.
See if you don’t agree that this device can make you a much better writer.
One of the major characters in my book, “Time Exposure” is Alexander Gardner, a famous, and real, Civil War photographer. Gardner hailed from Paisley, Scotland and arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1856 with a thick Scottish accent. How was I to handle dialogue? I wanted to make sure that the reader knew Gardner was from Scotland. So, I added a bit of dialect. Check this out:
“I must speak to ye, Joseph.” Gardener took a deep breath. “I’ve had a special offer I must consider. Mind ye now, it doesna preclude my maintaining an association with Brady. But, I want ye to be part of me decision.”
I also sprinkled in lots of dinnas, shouldnas, couldnas, ayes, me for my, etc. Ugh. The reader couldn’t possibly forget that Gardner was from Scotland. Or care. He’d already given up on the book.
Thanks to my critique group my eyes were open to this dialect dilemma. I began to notice it in other novels. Too much of an accent: “How vould you vant me to wote?”
Or overuse of slang: “He needs to mellow out, he’s bonkers and that’s too dicey for this girl.”
Or clichéd idiomatic expressions : “Once in a blue moon, we see eye to eye, but you’re usually on the fence, which only adds insult to injury.”
Eeek. The use of “casual” spelling such as lemme, or gimme, can be used . . . sparingly. Dropping “g” for a word ending in “ing” gets tiresome too if used every other sentence. We have to give the reader credit and assume that by dropping a slang word, accent or expression in, they’ll get the point and as they continue to read that character’s dialogue, they’ll naturally hear the dialect.
Some of the worst examples of overusing dialect can be seen when characters have southern or New York accents. Like the use of “Ah” for “I” or “y’all for, well, you know. Then there’s the exaggerated Brooklynese – “toidy-toid and toid street” or “poils for the goils.” (These may actually need translation!) I grew up in Brooklyn and, frankly, you do hear this. It’s one thing, however, to add it to a movie, where you can hear the character say it. It’s another to read it in a book ad nauseum.
So how do you get the character’s geographical location, or educational background across? The best way is through the rhythm of the dialogue and the words you choose. One “aye” from my Scotsman and the reader hears his accent through the rest of the dialogue. To portray a well-educated German you might avoid contractions and use the full words to make the speech more formal sounding: “I should not bother with that if I were you. Do you not think so?”
In the end, you need to do your homework. Learn the true dialect, accent, slang expressions of the region your characters come from, both geographically and historically. Depending upon the time period, speech was often more formal than we’re used to today.
Practice on yourself. Once you know how the dialect really sounds have your character try it out in dialogue in a scene. Read it aloud. Very important, to really hear the effect, you must read it out loud. You’ll find you will most likely want to eliminate all but a smidgen of the dialect. What will be left is the essence of your character.