Who the Heck Do You Think You Are? by Pam Uphoff

(Pam is out of town and asked me to post this for her.)


“Wolfson, we’re going t’have a chat when I get done with this job.”

What? What? Look, you’re a bit character, you don’t even have a first name, or a rank. You can’t just stand up and demand a major role.

(Picture steamed author with fingers posed motionless over the keys, mind blank.)

Fine, fine. You’re a lieutenant. Oh, you want a first name? Mortimer.

I suspect all writers have had the experience of a character taking over a story. I was lucky this time, he was satisfied with playing a minor part . . . so . . . how’d I wind up with his backstory as a short story, and how’d he wind up with major roles thereafter?

And it can be worse than that.

. . . Raod and company weren’t the only strollers, but there weren’t many people about. Joggers of both sexes, a grayhaired couple meandering . . .

One young man didn’t look either athletic or relaxed.

He was focused on Rael, scowling.

Young, dark-haired, light complexioned, he could have stepped out of an antique picture of an arrogant young Uruguayan noble from before the nuclear war. His scowl deepened as he stalked toward her. He stopped two meters away from her outstretched legs.

“We know who you are, why you’re here. It won’t work, we’re not stupid.”

Rael cocked her head and thought that over. What? “Good. Now go away.”

He leaned forward, eyes narrowing.

Is he actually trying to look intimidating? Rael looked him over: feet in new high-fashion leather boots, faux combat pants, tight black muscle shirt with almost enough muscles to carry it off. Fuzz on his chin that might be an attempt at a goatee. Gorgeous eyelashes around crystalline blue eyes.

Enough glow to her inner vision to show he was a Oner, not a Halfer. Projecting it as hard as he could. High Servaone, possibly low Clostuone. Hell, as young and untrained as he is, he could be higher.

“We won’t fall for your act.” His voice went falsetto. ” ‘Oh, I’m all depressed and need more pain killers than the doctor will prescribe. Oh, woe is me! What shall I do?’ Well, Chica, you get nothing from us, capich? Nada.”

Rael could feel her smile spreading. “Wow! Three languages in one sentence. Must be wonderful to be multilingual.” She stifled a snicker. “And voice acting as well. Do I know you? Nah, you’re too young.”

He stiffened. “Are you laughing at me?”

“I laugh at a lot of things.” She shrugged her left shoulder. “I get into a lot of trouble that way. What’s your name?”

“Eb . . . None of your business, Cocina.”

She frowned. “Did you just call me a kitchen? I’ve never been called a kitchen before.”

His face went expressionless, blank for a moment. Near panic in his eyes. “No! No, you misheard. So just be warned, we know who you are and you won’t find any drugs on any of us, and we won’t help you at all.” He turned and stalked away. Quickly.

Rael leaned her head back, grinning. Trying to control laughter, because laughing had a nasty tendency to become suddenly painful. Oh, One! I have just met the Empire’s stupidest drug dealer. She sobered suddenly. He can’t have been older than sixteen. Was he clued in enough to know he was disposable? Someone with a few more street smarts was watching from a distance. Probably the same man who sent the kid out here to deliver an ultimatum. Heh. So they think I’m a Narc? I really ought to be insulted. I . . . almost wish I was capable of the work.

Did you see that? He flubbed his lines. Made himself memorable. The stupid wannabe gang member is now the Main Character of six stories of various lengths, at least two of which will be novels when I get around to editing them.

What causes this? Why do some characters suddenly click with a writer’s subconscious and come to life? How the heck do they take over a chunk of the backbrain and take over the writing process? I mean, my MCs take over all the time. It’s these walk-ons that suddenly spring to life that baffle me.

So, fess up. Give us an example of the moment the %$#@ stood up and became real in _your_ writing.

Oh, and Mr. Flubbed his lines can be found here:




  1. I’ve written here before about how Joschka was supposed to show up in one story (now two chapters in _A Cat at Bay_.) Then his wife, Adele, invited Rada Ni Drako to visit. And suddenly they had a past. And then he forced his way into “Where angels fear to tread,” and informed me that he and Rada had a lot more past than I wanted to deal with. it has been dealt with.

    And then there was a quiet, young and gawky, rather awkward beanpole of a corporal named Anthony ‘Tony’ Lee. Who insisted on popping up and hovering around Rada. Became rather protective in fact, in a hesitant, puppy-ish way. He’s rather shy, and won’t put himself forward, at least not at the moment, but still waters run very, very deep. He really should go to university, but he’s too class-conscious (among other things). He’s being groomed for leadership, but has not quite realized it yet. Or so Rada, Rahoul Khan, and RSM Chan (ret) tell me. I’m always the last to know.

  2. I have a set of characters I’ve used in several stories. They’re ex-soldiers who aren’t wanted back in their village. And I’ve known that eventually their local noble would decide he does want to bring them back and prosecute them, because he’s a rat that way. But I couldn’t figure out how to write it without having a Major Diplomatic Incident. Within the last few days, Hugo Grotius went from historical character reading a book in the background of a different story to informing me he has the amicus curiae brief that’ll settle the whole thing. /shrug/ Okay. I guess I’d probably better listen. 🙂

  3. It happened to me twice in my first novel, Nobility Among Us.

    First example was the leader of a specops team sent to assassinate the MC and failed under unusual circumstances. I wrote a short scene about how he reported back to his superiors, which grew into him becoming a major viewpoint character for the next 10 or so chapters as he was thrown out of the military, abandoned in his underwear and barefoot in the middle of gang territory with his faced sliced to mark him as an outcast, where his only faint hope of redemption was to make his way on foot 600 miles through the wilderness to the MC’s castle and throw himself on the MC’s mercy, and he becomes the MC’s closest ally.

    Second example was an selfish baron’s in-house masseuse who casually offered to sleep with a businessman temporarily in charge of the baron’s affairs as an illustration of how decadent and out of touch with ordinary people the baron was. She turned into a devoted wife of the baron once he was stripped of his title, the only member of his staff to stay with him, who after being betrayed and divorced by that selfish baron became the love interest of the first example above, a scene between the two of them where they are drawn together by their shared outcast status is my favourite scene in the book.

    In the end, the two of them got more screen time in the book than the original MCs.

  4. Thanks, Amanda. One of these days I’ll figure out how to have everything I need to do done, or everything I need to do it with me . . . I can only hope my subconscious finds me boring and won’t inflict a scatterbrained character on me.

  5. Oh yes. I had a minor character (Am not!)(You totally were!) who was supposed to just be scenery and the token racist objecting to the barbarian joining the team (He slowed us down, and ate like an ox!)(Your boss told you to shut up. *I* told you to shut up). She insisted that if she was going to be an out-loud-and-proud racist, she deserved a reason for being a racist, and it was all downhill from there. But I got even…she ended up in her culture’s first interracial marriage 😀 (…You are the most twisted and evil deity ever and I hate you)(You want me to change *him*? Any complaints?)(mutterGRUMBLEmutter….no. But I still hate you.)

  6. Had one character who didn’t even rate as a minor one. He was supposed to be part of the scenery. Instead, a few lines of toss-off dialog, and he became a man with a shady past, trying to walk the straight and narrow because it was his last promise to his dying wife. He ended up in law enforcement, first as a token job to watch the river docs, then proved surprisingly adept because of his old life. Third book found him a respected constable called in, as a matter of diplomatic courtesy, to help a neighboring kingdom with a crime. The third book fell apart because it tried to be two things at once, mostly because much of the story was his.

    I mined him for Silas Grimmer, but the character really works better as-is, a detective in a medieval setting with no magic in sight. Have lately been thinking of writing it as a spin-off in the same world, but one for older readers. That would make the story a combination detective/caper tale, with an ending that was really too gritty for juvenile fiction.

  7. OK, not very useful today…

    Oh, yes, in the sense of knowing I’m not alone. But I started out hoping for some way to keep them at bay!

    I managed to convince one “reference” character (not even a single line of dialogue!) to wait until she became a major character in a later book. While I was distracted with her, her spiritual sisters wormed their way into three more chapters of the current one (besides snagging roles in that later book). I’m desperately trying to hold the line at parents and siblings.


    1. Yeah. My second example didn’t have a name. Mind you, he shows up quite sound, distressed by his new nickname. “Kitchen” has turned out to be quite a fun character, once he turned his back on the gang.

      Not only is it impossible to stop these volunteer characters, we ought to be delighted when we hit the right note somehow and find ourselves possessed of a very real character. Ought to be. :: sigh :: this is why I don’t outline. A few bullet points is it. One or two pages. And I rarely make it halfway before I just toss it.

  8. I had a guy in my second Evie short who was supposed to be some random musician who was cute and distracted Evie at the wrong time. He became the main male character in the next short and has been the main male since :). Freaking musicians.

  9. At one point in *The Cunning Blood,* I had the main character in prison and he needed somebody to talk to. So I threw in a spear-carrier, a middle-aged man dying of an immunodeficiency disease, but still being shipped out (with the main character and all the other prisoners) to Earth’s escape-proof prison planet. His crime was that he had spat on an Earth official while carrying the disease. It was early in the book and I was trying to make a point about violence and how it emerges from things like ego, honor, etc.

    My subconscious evidently said, “Screw that!”

    The scene that emerged was nothing like what I had envisioned. I know the precise moment that it happened: The distributed nanodevice living in main character Peter Novilio’s bloodstream (the “cunning blood” of the title) unexpectedly said, “I can cure him.” It came out of nowhere. It changed the direction of the entire novel, and the dying man, once cured, became one of the pivotal characters in the book.

    This happens to me a lot: When I’m in flow, the elements of the story sometimes emerge without any conscious thought on my part, often a bare paragraph or two before I need them–or even understand that I do need them. It isn’t just characters. It can be actions, ideas, or whole scenes that I literally knew nothing about before the moment I actually wrote them.

    It’s a very weird, almost creepy feeling when this happens. Sarah refers to it as “gateway writing,” and it’s been damned useful, though it doesn’t always come when it’s called.

    People who ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” have no idea what they’re asking. Neither, I think, do the writers.

    1. iunexpectedly said, “I can cure him.”

      See, and now you won’t have readers contacting you to say “But why didn’t…!” AND you don’t have to specifically mention that the blood can’t do that.

      What a time-saver!

  10. While plotjackings can be momentarily annoying, I’m happy in the end, because it means that I created a character with a life of their own.

  11. Yup, I had a very minor character (she was on the losing side in a space combat) whose soul purpose was to show that being on the losing side often meant you sat in your ship until the oxygen ran out and you suffocated.
    In her case she survived, which meant she either went to work in the mines, or the company bordello at the mines, until she paid off her ‘debt’ for the damage she did during the combat.
    All of this to show just how rough life could be for the 2nd class citizens who were really not much more than slaves. I don’t think she even had a line of dialogue in that book.
    So yeah, she got her own novel.

  12. Oh, it’s worse. I wrote a phrase about something being “almost as stressful as the ambassador from Erlein,” and my conscious brain said Wait, what? Erlein? Where’n’thehell is that? Who *is* this guy?

    He’s just a minor character. THIS book.

  13. Once upon a time, I had a main character. Of a short story. Maybe a novelette. Main! Character! Wasn’t that enough? But I was plowing through the story and got to the happy ending.

    Said the character — I’m not happy.

    Grumph, grumph, grumph — it was already longer than I liked — but I thought and poked around and came up with a second happy ending. And got to it.

    Said the character — I’m not happy.


    But there was no way out — I had to devise a third ending. After which he was finally happy. After having snuck up in clever disguise to dump a novel in my lap. My first novel. Which meant I had to master the form. . .

    You can read about him here:

  14. I was working on a story where the MC was visited by an old neighbor whose daughter who was bold, brash, and something of a cute little pest when he last saw her. Last time I looked at the story, she had grown into a teenager, still bold, brash, and pestiferous, but scary.

  15. Based on the ‘Kitchen’ character, I decided to go check out Dancer, book #15 (!) in your series. And hey, it’s in KU, so I can read it for ‘free,’ right?

    Well, it started off a little confusing, but I was okay with that, after all, I’m jumping in the middle of a well established series, so I figured I’d pick up the background as the book progressed (which I did, BTW, nicely done). So, yes, the first few pages were a little confusing, but somewhere, and I’m honestly not sure where, I was completely hooked by the story. All I know is that I stayed up an hour later than I meant to, because I just wanted to get to the next development and find out what was going to happen next.

    I have to say that this is really a very good book. I’ll probably read the earlier installments next, but as I haven’t finished this one yet, I don’t know if I’ll want to read the next one before going to earlier books in the series. Which one would you recommend I read next?

    Again, just have to say that this is a very well written book, very enjoyable, immersive, and you’re a great writer. The only thing I might take issue with is that the cover makes it seem that this story is aimed more at a female audience, but it is definitely a story with very broad appeal, I think any guy who is into action and adventure would enjoy it. I’m definitely going to suggest this one on my own readers to check out (well, those that read my blog at least!)

    Again, thank you for a very enjoyable story.

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