“So where do you go to…

My lovely, when you’re alone in your bed…” Peter Sarstead, Where do you go to

I always heard it as alone in your head, which probably says more about me than I ought to admit to.

I suppose if your story is all action, could be performed by automatons, there is no back story. Nothing in the character’s head… or bed. But we humans are social animals and we’re fascinated by characters, by the interaction between them, by what goes on in their heads. And beds.

That is what makes us tick. (or in one of Misty’s novels tock. and tock. and tock. Like most men I find a little conversation appealing, and a little more action pleasing after a while, I’m afraid. Is that a stereotypical reaction?). Still, it is those motivations that make the action take the direction it does. The author needs to know it all, down to the last gory gruesome detail that no one ever admits to, even if the reader doesn’t.

I’m sure there are people who are stereotypes in real life. But in fiction, well, they get old quite quickly. If I read another white male carbon copy villain I’ll probably do what I did with the last 10 – write that author off, give up the book. If anything this is what is killing sf/fantasy. It’s as predictable as a date with your right hand, but much less satisfying. Of course, the white male makes a perfectly good villain… sometimes. But not if he’s a carbon copy stereotype.

And if your villain or hero, or poor old red-shirt is not going to end up being a stereotype, they need a convincing, complex, plausible backstory. More so than ever if they’re going to be standard NY publishing type villain or hero, because you’d have to go through some pretty weird formative experience to be either, that or be stupid enough to accept the stereotype pap as a life-model, which for the average hero or heroine would – applying any reader logic – end a dreadful and terminal mess at about page 4. This has the plus of keeping the piece of drekk short, but little else to commend it to readers – unless they’re part the minds-of-pap, feed us more stereotype pap brigade. They exist. They even, the ones that can read, believe the stereotypes. But as the dropping numbers of NY publishing sales indicate, there are less of them than NY publishing believes.

So… this a writers blog. What do I do to make my characters not be stereotypes? Because, darlings, I’ve had white male hetero villains, gay villains, pagan villains, Christian (at least supposedly) villains, black villains, female villians, Chinese villains, Arab villains… etc. etc. And pretty much the same for heroes/heroines. It occurs to me I have had two orthodox Jewish heroes and they haven’t a villain go, but I daresay I might do that too one day. For me it starts with getting to know the character, getting inside their heads, and my own heartfelt belief that unless whatever the feature is is a driving motivation which over-rides everything else (Elizabeth Bartholdy – her vanity) people are far too complex to be good or bad and fit neatly into all the stereotype boxes. So I try to work them back, work out what the crucial, shaping bits were, work out what added to that architecture, and what will make them behave as they will when I play G*d in the story and toss circumstances at them.

So what do you want to know about your characters, before you write them?


  1. There is always a Why? involved. I can imagine all kinds of characters, and I can have them do whatever is necessary for the plot, but after that basic decision, I can’t go further until it somehow makes a twisted sense.

    I read history – and newspapers – and I know people do appalling things to each other. So far I haven’t been compelled to write a truly despicable character, probably because I’m not ready to spend twelve years in close contact with that kind of mind, but I believe people get where they are after a lifetime of choices made, each choice logical (if misguided) under the circumstances, as you said “crucial, shaping bits”.

    Add in temperament, and family of origin, and physical characteristics (beauty – or lack of beauty – is shaping, attitude comes largely built in) – so many lovely knobs to tweak.

    Maybe this is the place to speculate why writers choose particular characters to write – what makes someone write love stories, or thrillers with Nazi villains. Each character is going to take a chunk of our lives to write – how do we choose who is worthy?

  2. I sometimes think it’s our subconscious that does the choosing. _Especially_ the Bad Guys. All those repressed remarks and unkind thoughts and deeds.

    My husband and I did a “Dinner Mystery” once. You go to dinner and live role play solving a mystery. _Everyone_ there has a motive to have killed the (off stage) victim. In this one, I was a high society news reporter with a history of public clashes. Swear to G-d. I read my character sketch. Opened my mouth and this totally catty remark (about the victim) came out. It was a total blast. I got to be snippy and rude, stick my nose up in the air . . .

    When I write villians it’s the same. Or just secondary characters. It’s rather appalling that I can get so into a boy mad teenager’s POV. Swap to a vindictive B***th. Sneer. Murder someone.

    I don’t think I choose them. I think I open the door and let them out.

        1. The DH is happily oblivious – and much too busy with teaching to worry about me. Just wait until he retires! Meanwhile, I build my word and my blog presence and do my writing without anything in my way except the housekeeping, the paperwork, the gardening, and the children’s concerns and the (you name it – all except food shopping, which he does magnificently).

          May be I can unload some of these chores on him when he does retire – that would be heavenly.

          Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to get to where you are by then, ‘in the middle of a rape-torture-murder.’ Lucky not because of the subject matter, but because of the ability to DEAL with the subject matter.

          1. Well that was a bit of an exaggeration. I don’t think I’ve ever actually written a torture scene with or without other embellishments.

            So it’s safe for everyone to come back.

            1. You just made me remember something: I started a story that had a character who had been traumatized by rape – and my writing partner was very uncomfortable. I need to go back and see if there was a reason for me to tackle that particular story – and why I gave it up (other than have too many things I’m working on).

              I’m getting to the point that I am no longer put off by other people’s reactions, but explore them instead. I suppose that’s good – now someone manufacture me enough time and energy to write these stories!

              1. I know it’s “usual” to do the worst to one characters, but there’s a point where one must ask “What plot point does this support?” If you need a character to act like a traumatized rape victim, then that’s what happens, on or off page, again, for a reason. I’ve had that reason, therefore . . . I tried to think of other ways to get the character to act as she did, and it was all contrary to the personality type I’d made her.

  3. Like ABE, I need to know “why.” The background bad guys want to kill the MC because she is a half-breed. Why is being a half-breed so bad? (“Because it is.” BLAAAAT. Sorry, here are your consolation prizes.) Because the bad guys, before they developed very advanced medical nanotech, had to be terribly careful about genetics and not interbreeding too closely after they became permanent interstellar migrants. That’s not in the books or stories, but I need to know it.

    Why is the MC so touchy about child abuse when she has no children of her own? Why is she interested in Earth? And how come the MC even exists? Everyone knows that two species cannot interbreed, especially those as different as her parents were. Is she really the natural child of her parents, or something else . . . ?

    1. Exactly. You can ‘because-it-is’ it and create a new, quick-and-dirty explanation every time you need something new, or you can have all of these little bits and pieces tied in underneath creating a virtual, self-consistent life for the character.

      The second method also has the advantage of being something that can be re-read time and again with pleasure, as the reader discovers new interconnections and hidden depths with each pass.

      1. Yeah, in my SF/F series I’ve got some stellar examples of bad parenting producing different and sometimes bad results. But sometimes just insecurities, hot buttons or sensitive spots, or a non-standard teenage rebellion and so forth. I don’t tend to write from the POV of the Evil Emperor, so I just have to motivate the petty bad guys that have fallen into his orbit.

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