Tag Archives: back story

Don’t Love My Characters, Please by L.V. Gaudet

where the bodies areI do not want you to love my characters.  I am quite serious about that.  I do not even want you to like them.  They are all fallible creatures who do not always do what they should.  They are full of idiosyncrasies, flaws, and sometimes downright poor judgment.

Revile them and admire them.  Root for them to win and cheer when they fall.  Get passionate about getting angry with them.  Pity them and feel vindicated at their suffering.  Share their emotions and their troubles, love them, hate them, and empathize with them.  But please don’t just love them.

A character who seems endearing, drawing you to their side in their pursuit of evil, might just reveal their true driving force is not entirely for purely good reasons.

The victim who you might sympathize with, rooting for when things get rough and cheering them proudly when they rally their strengths to pull him or herself out of trouble, may prove to be more the cause of the trouble than the antagonist is.

The bad guy, committing atrocious behaviors, pulling you into his web of evil until you despise him and want only to see his downfall come to him in a most inglorious way, might throw you with a show of tenderness.  He might just make you sympathize with him when you know you should hate him.

Making characters that draw the reader in is not about making the reader simply love or hate them.  They need to feel what the character feels.  They need to love, hate, and sympathize with that character.  Root for them even as they want to see them fall because you are supposed to want to see the bad guy lose.

Characters do not have to be all good or all bad.  In fact, I would say they should never be all one or the other.  They should be a complex layering of traits that include both.  Even the vilest creature has feelings; dreams and desires, loss and sorrow, loneliness and love.  They have a flaw and that flaw is their own emotions.  The gentlest of characters, pure of heart and soul, have a dark side beneath.  They are capable of anger and resentment, even of acts of revenge.

Every character should have a hidden back-story.  This is what gives them life.  Even the smallest bit player should have one.  That waitress who served the coffee looks tired, but really, she is sad.  You don’t have to reveal why she is sad.  That is just one more mystery that gives a little more depth to the scene where the true focus is your protagonist or antagonist.  Make the mystery of the waitress’s personal life draw on the personality of the character who is the true focus.  After all, your character did notice the lines of exhaustion hide a deeper sadness.

Drop hints and clues about your characters’ back-stories.  Make the reader feel they are slowly drawing the character out of their shell and learning just a little bit about them as they progress through the story.  Let the reader be drawn a little at a time into your character’s life, their personality.  Let them yearn for more, drawn to dig deeper into your character’s psyche as you see fit to reveal it.

The reader becomes more familiar with the character with each revelation, feeling a little closer to them like a new friend, wanting to know more.  As you draw out a little more back-story, those secrets add to the drive that pushes the story forward.  That simple story is no longer so simple.  What other secrets do the characters have?  What flaws?  What strengths?  What new lines of drama will wind into the story, adding more layers of sub story?

MEET THE CHARACTERS

WHERE THE BODIES ARE (available now in paperback and eBook)

Detective Jim McNelly is perhaps the hero of the story, if anyone can be described as such.  He works with missing persons and homicide cases, taking each case personally as his own personal failure for not stopping the victimization of the victim before it could happen.  For a hero, he has a lot of flaws.  He is obese by as a result of his own failings, which is the cause of additional health problems and exacerbates his insomnia, which in turn causes him to feed his obesity.  He is no people person and doesn’t much like most people.

And yet, Jim McNelly honestly cares about his job and the victims.  He has a lot of back-story that has not been revealed, including hints dropped about his wife.

Detective Michael Underwood is a likeable kind of guy.  He is described as being the kind of guy who is just as at ease at grandma’s quilting group as watching sports with the guys.  Even the nervous and suspicious nurse Molly can’t help but feel a tingle of excitement at the idea he could possibly have an interest in her, as impossible as she knows it is.

Michael Underwood is perhaps a bit too obsessed with protecting their victim, an obsession that itself has its own back-story, almost a personality of its own.

Lawrence Hawkworth is an investigative reporter with the InterCity Voice, who is described as being a man of less than moral morals.  And yet he and Jim McNelly have a shared back-story.  He is the one person McNelly would trust with his life, despite McNelly’s dislike for the man.  It’s kind of a love-hate friendship, like unrelated brothers.

Jane Doe, the victim and the sole survivor of the killer’s madness doesn’t even know her own back-story.  Her own weakness, her amnesia, puts her directly on a path to her own destruction.  Or does it?  She has a surprising reserve of personal strength, something gained from her own unknown past.

Kathy Kingslow is a train wreck of a woman.  She is a weak creature who knows only one thing, how to survive an abusive relationship.  She does not even know how to escape one, if she could get up the courage to.  She also has the potential to become one of the most powerful characters in the story, if she can pull herself up off the floor and put a little courage into her spine.  She has a hidden strength, the killer’s own inexorably being drawn to her.

The Killer is nothing but evil, right?  The killer is driven by a compulsion, his reality blurred between past and present, with a dark secret locked in a fractured mind.  But he is also tormented by his own actions and desperate to stop killing.  The search for the killer will lead to his dark secret buried in the past.

The appearance of the mystery man is the embodiment of the ultimate back-story of Where the Bodies Are.  He enters the story just at the moment when the as yet unidentified killer is reaching a plateau of temptation by the dangling bait that is Jane Doe, the one victim who escaped alive.  He quickly becomes McNelly’s prime suspect in the kidnapping and murders of multiple women.   His arrival embodies the pivot point where the story climaxes and the killer is being drawn into the readers’ sight from the shadows of the story.  That back-story is revealed when you take a step back in time with The McAllister Farm to learn the secret behind the bodies.

THE MCALLISTER FARM (coming soon in paperback and eBook)

William McAllister is a hard man.  He demands respect from everyone he encounters and absolute obedience from his family.  His children respect him with the fear of a harsh disciplinarian.  He keeps his family apart from the community around them, not allowing them to have friends or participate in the community.  Visitors to his farm are threatened off, and his children know well the sting of his hand.  William is also absolutely dedicated to the safety and well-being of his family.  As stern as he is, nothing matters more to him than his family.

The entire community is distrustful and hateful towards William for his strange ways, but that does not stop him from doing what he thinks is the right thing to do without hesitation.

Marjorie McAllister is a frightened deer of a woman, always nervously wringing her hands.  She silently disapproves when William strikes the children, not brave enough to stand up to her own husband.  She leans on his strength too.  As desperately lonely as she is, his keeping her apart from her family and community is like a safety net for her.  She does not have to face awkward situations if she never leaves the farm.  But, when push comes to shove, Marjorie finds a hidden well of strength to stand against the hostility of the townspeople against her family.

Jason McAllister is the oldest child of William and Marjorie.  He has the expected problems of a ten year old who is different because his family is different.  He takes the brunt of the community’s sense of his family’s strangeness through his difficult interactions with the kids and teachers as school.  Jason is expected to be more man than child and it weighs heavily on him.  He is a troubled youth, something that his father comes to realize just how deeply troubled in the most disturbing way.

Sophie McAllister is the youngest child and as such has the childhood freedoms and innocence her brother Jason envies and is not afforded.  Naturally, this breeds some resentment in Jason.  She also in a way symbolizes the need each family member feels to protect the family as a whole.  Her very innocence acts as a contrast to the events surrounding her family.

Sheriff Rick Dalton certainly is not a favorite of the community when he fails to both catch the killer stalking young women in the area before another body turns up and listen to the needs of his frightened community.  A man of the cloth is threatened, the school principal is sent scurrying, and everyone except the sheriff seems to know just what kind of a monster the McAllister man is.  Or, Rick Dalton is simply a wise sheriff who knows that what appears to be is not always what is.

Book three, which is still a work in progress, will bring both of these stories together, finally revealing answers to some of the questions left hanging as the characters of both books are brought together in a disturbing conclusion that may very well leave a new trails of bodies.

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Link to reviews of Where the Bodies Are on Angie’s Diary

https://angiesdiary.com/bookoftheweek-web/081-botwoct262014.html

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How To End a Story by Lazarus Barnhill

What about a good ending? Here are the final paragraphs of Charlie Cherry’s Ninth Step, a work that will be coming out in the spring of 2014 from Second Wind:

Susan answered the door, barefoot and wearing the clothes she had worn to school that morning, her shirttail out.

“Charlie!”

“Hi.”

“Uh—did you—did you find her?”

“Yep.” He nodded. “I did.”

“Are you—did she—”

He shook his head. “She’s remarried.”

“Oh.” She tried not to show the relief that spread across her face. “What about Sloan? What about, you know, your amends?”

“Well,” he said slowly, “I can tell you all about all that. But that’s not really the reason I came back.”

Susan slouched against the doorframe. There was a hint of anger in her voice. “Just looking for a cheap place to spend the night?”

“Not really.” He looked over his shoulder at the Mazda. “You have a week-and-a-half off beginning now, don’t you?”

“Yes,” she replied cautiously.

“Well, I got my doings done and I’ve still got the better part of two weeks myself. I have a few hundred bucks just burning a hole in my pocket, and I was wondering if you’d like to go down to San Antone and walk the river with me.”

For a moment she hovered in the doorway. She stepped toward him and leaned forward, looping her arms around his neck and pressing her lips to his.

She breathed at length and said, “Do you want to leave in the morning?”

“Well look. We kind of rushed into things last night. Surely we can slow down and do thing a little more romantically.”

Her expression was curious. “More romantic than last night? Like how?”

“Well, let’s go pack your stuff, and I’ll take you for a moonlight ride with the top open on my rocket. We’ll cruise on down to this barbeque house I found in Dallas. Best pecan pie I’ve had in fifteen years.”

She was smiling, her arms a swing and her face moving gently a few inches beneath his. “Then what?”

“Well, then we’ll drive on down the road ‘til we find just the perfect spot to spend the night.”

“Salado.”

He shrugged. “Wherever you want, darlin’.”

They kissed, a deep, sweet kiss. He straightened.

“Come on now. I’ll help you.”

She turned and went inside. He watched her graceful steps. “Pack light. I imagine I’ll be picking you out a few things. How do you suppose you’d look in one of those white senorita dresses?”

“A senorita with freckles?”

“I love freckles. . . . Susan?”

“Yes?”

“How do you feel about stepchildren?”

Before we talk about what’s right (I hope) with the passage above, let’s talk about what can go wrong with the ending of a story. If we put our heart’s blood into writing a manuscript, we need to make sure we don’t bleed out before we reach the end of the story.

First, there is no “happily ever after” if we are writing for adults. In this sense, Margaret Mitchell did a better job of ending Gone with the Wind than Shakespeare did with Hamlet. At the bittersweet ending of GWTW, Scarlett is torn with grief and guilt, and yet clinging to hope. The story has come to an end, but the reader is left yearning for more. Indeed readers immediately and constantly clamored for a sequel. There could never be a sequel to Hamlet—everybody was dead. Killing off your main characters is often (as demonstrated by the current most popular male romance author) just another way of not having to deal with the complexity of human life. Hollywood movies, of course, are the land of “happily-ever-after-pat-ending-where-the-good-prevail-and-the-bad-get-what-they-have-coming.” But if you decide your story is going to be more real-to-life than a Hollywood blockbuster, you as an author have to decide to give your readers what the story allows you to give them.

In the passage above from Charlie, I give my readers multiple resolutions to several issues the main character faced throughout the story: what became of the girl he loved and was violently separated from in high school; what will he do to the vicious adult who beat him mercilessly when he was a teenager; what will happen between him and the girl who secretly loved him in his youth? In each case the result was not what the reader might have suspected. My intention is that the reader find the ending surprising, hopeful, plausible, uplifting and fun.

Another huge, disappointing mistake authors make is that the ending does not live up to the buildup of the narrative. There is a famous horror author who does a splendid job of building suspense and anticipation throughout his overly long novels, only to have them fall flat time and again because of really lame endings. Your ending has to be as big as the story that precedes it. When readers hear Charlie, above, promise Susan he’s going to tell her what happened to him that day, they know that she will be astonished—just as they were surprised—to hear what he found out in the previous few hours.

Finally, leave your readers wanting more. All of the major questions and issues Charlie Cherry faced at the beginning of his story have been resolved by the end, but the resolution is intended to make the reader want to know what happened next in the characters’ lives. I’m not suggesting that you leave yourself an opening for a sequel—although books do sell better if they are part of a series. Rather I’m saying that you want your readers, after they finish that last line, to keep wondering what will become of these characters they’ve come to know, with whom they’ve experienced adventures.

So a good ending 1) is plausible, realistic and complete enough to satisfy all the main themes of the story without solving all the world’s problems, 2) has an ending that is as big and satisfying in its resolution as the story that precedes it, and 3) leaves your readers brooding about the characters and events and feeling sorry that the story has ended.

And that, I think, is a good place to end the essay.

***

This article is anthoNovel Writing Tips and Techniqueslogized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

***

Lazarus Barnhill is the author of Lacey Took a Holiday, The Medicine People, and Come Home to Me, Child (with Sally Jones).

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How To Begin a Story by Lazarus Barnhill

Novels, novellas and short stories are very distinct literary forms. O. Henry’s short story The Gift of the Magi is hugely different in its construction from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. One would be tempted to say that, as different types of literature, they have virtually nothing in common.

The longest epic and the shortest tale, however, can have two enormously important things in common: they can engage the reader from the beginning and they can leave the reader satisfied but wanting more at the end. In this brief essay I’d like to share my ideas about what makes workable beginnings and endings. I think these ideas are universal in that they apply to creative fiction regardless of its genre, setting or length.

A key idea expressed to me repeatedly by the folks at Second Wind is that my story should grab and hold the attention of the reader from the very first line. As one of the editors expressed it to me, the first line should seduce the reader deeply into the narrative. I’ve been told that a good example of this is the first line of my novel Lacey Took a Holiday:

She woke up realizing she had been sleeping in a bed smaller and softer than the one in which she made her living, and that she was wearing the sort of flannel nightgown she hadn’t worn since she was a little girl.

What’s good about this sentence? It begins a story with no build up (back story). Another way this is described is in media res (“in the middle of things”). Speaking for myself, I find that introductions, forwards, preludes, prologues or whatever you want to call them tend to slow down the process of a story. True, there are a lot of great novels with prologues (Brad Stratton’s White Lies is one; so is Nicole Bennett’s Ghost Mountain. These two novels, however, each use their prologue to describe a crime and they do so with no back story whatever. In this they are exceptions that prove the rule).

In the text above, the reader immediately knows something about the character being described, the setting and even a little of the history of the character. An author should be able to weave back story into the narrative as it moves along. By the bottom of the first page, the reader knows a lot more about the woman being described, but not because the author has blatantly explained it. I have found that readers will be quite attentive and sleuth out the things they want to know about your characters, which will further draw them into the story.

This leads to the concept I call “introductory mystery”: the beginning paragraphs of a story, regardless of its length, deposit curiosity in the mind of the reader so that she/he will be drawn along into the narrative at least long enough to discover why a character said something or reacted in a certain manner. One example of this appears in the opening pages of Come Home to Me, Child, the crime/mystery novel I co-authored with Sally Jones. Within half a page the main character, Elaine, is interrupted and overwhelmed by her new neighbor, Police Chief Larry Daughtry. As the narrative continues after Daughtry abruptly walks away, Elaine asks Tim Starling, her contractor, to explain this intrusive man with whom he has long been acquainted:

“What about the chief?”

“He went into the Marines. Became a military policeman or shore patrol—whatever they call ‘em. Did three or four hitches and came back to work in law enforcement around here. He started as a Cochran County deputy and, about five years ago when the chief’s spot came open in Veil, he was the natural choice. I guess.”

“He seemed happier to see you than you were to see him.”

Starling chuckled. “I always thought Larry was a kind of a thug. He bullied me. Not that he was the only one.” He began to stretch his tape measure along the yard. “It’s the divine right of football players to torment band guys.”

Although the contractor’s explanation satisfies the introductory mystery of what sort of person has just barged into Elaine’s life, the story proceeds to plant more elements to hook the reader’s curiosity: why does the officer know so very much about her family; why is he so interested in her recent medical problems; and why is the police chief so interested in Elaine’s plan to move her gazebo twenty feet across the yard? These seeds of mystery blossom through the course of the narrative in ways intended to gratify the reader’s curiosity, but also to draw him/her ever deeper into the story.

As the police chief in his oppressive manner reveals to Elaine just how much he knows about her and her family, the reader is also learning the back story of what brought the main character to this place at this time and what is happening in her life. If, as an author, you can keep the pacing and dialogue smooth and natural—allow subject matter to emerge as it would in the flow of normal conversation—the narrative will give ample opportunity to simultaneously reveal the back story of the characters even as you develop them and their relationships.

So a good beginning 1) seduces the reader further into the story, 2) begins with narrative at the expense of back story, 3) plants elements of mystery in the reader’s mind—some to be quickly revealed even as seeds of greater mystery are planted, and 4) reveals back story through the narrative process so as to introduce the reader to the characters without impeding the process of the story itself.

***

This article is anthoNovel Writing Tips and Techniqueslogized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

***

Lazarus Barnhill is the author of Lacey Took a Holiday, The Medicine People, and Come Home to Me, Child (with Sally Jones).

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A Novel with No “Front” Story

cigaretteheartI just read a novel by a best-selling author and not to mention names, but most of the book was “back story.” By the time I was 25 pages in, a huge irritant was the word “had.”  The plot almost immediately evolves  into a long chase scene inhabited by characters who the reader gets to know primarily from their past experiences. They’re too busy running away in real time to give you any insight. I like learning about a character from how the character lives in the story as well as from the past.

I don’t quite know why the author chose to construct a story that relied so heavily on past events. Sadly, these events had to be “explained” to the reader for pages and pages and pages—you get the idea. Surely, there are more interesting ways to give character information to the reader.

There are always going to be events or emotions based on an earlier time and the reader needs to know them.

Yes, hard to avoid, that “had” word. I thought that a famous author would have a more creative way of packaging character back story. What are your favorite tricks?

Mickey Hoffman is author of School of Lies, published by Second Wind Publishing.
visit her at www.mickeyhoffman.com where you can take the quiz “Can you spot a Liar?”

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Cultivate Subtlety: Throw Out Your First Chapter

What is the first thing you should do when you finish your novel? Celebrate, of course. Though there are millions of us worldwide who have written a novel, there are billions who haven’t. When we try to break into print, however, we enter a different dimension where everyone has written a novel, and we begin to feel as if we’re facing impossible odds in the publishing lottery. And it is a lottery, no matter what the insiders want us to believe. The right book on the right desk at the right time is the name of the game unless you are an extremely talented writer. But if you are that talented, you would be reading your contract, not this blog.

So, for us normal folk, what is the second thing to do when when the novel is finished? Start the editing process. And the first thing to do is throw out the initial chapter. Beginning writers tend to tell too much too early, thinking that’s the only way a  reader is going to know what’s going on, but by not telling, we add a little mystique and perhaps some subtlety to our writing. Being subtle is the sign of a great writer. Not everything needs to be described; not everything needs to be explained. If you let your readers create part of the story, they become part of the story, and they will remember it. (And you, too, the next time they are looking for a book to buy.)

I can feel you cringing, thinking that you need that first chapter, that it contains information necessary to the story. Don’t worry. If that vital bit of information is not mentioned elsewhere, simply add it to a later chapter. But if you are like me, you probably already have a second mention of that information in the body of your work, in which case it won’t be missed when you get rid of that first chapter. Don’t get delete happy though; be sure to save the chapter. You will need it for future reference as you revise the book.

One other reason to throw out the beginning: when you wrote it you were a neophyte. By the time you finished the entire first draft, you were a writer. You learned how to put words together to create an image, you learned how to make characters come alive. That experience needs to be exhibited at the start.

If you don’t like the idea of throwing out your first chapter, do what Margatet Mitchell did. She wrote Gone With the Wind from back to front.

Pat Bertram is the author of More Deaths Than One, now available as an ebook download from Second Wind Publishing, LLC.

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