When it comes to the worlds I’ve created, my general rule is to make sure the emotions are true to the characters rather than have every action and reaction be based in reality.
What does that mean?
It means that it’s more important to me that Landon and Bay sit down for a serious talk if they’ve had a misunderstanding than worrying about the fact that real witches don’t curse people to smell like bacon.
Yes, I’ve had a message complaining about that. For the record, I know. I know there’s not a bacon curse and that it doesn’t really exist – so there’s no reason to keep messaging me about it. That’s not the point of the story.
I want the emotional bonds between the characters to ring true. The other stuff – the ghosts, curses, wraiths, pouting reporters, and magical mages with glowing hands – isn’t as important to me.
Don’t get me wrong, I adore the action when it comes to the meat of the story. I still focus more on the characters even when mirror men are trying to kill my heroine.
That being said, a lot of the character actions ARE based in reality despite what some people think.
ARGUMENT ONE: No one would ever talk to his or her boss in the manner that Avery Shaw talks to her boss.
The thing is, I often talked to my boss the way Avery Shaw talks to Fred Fish. Out of all of my characters, Avery Shaw is the most like me. Newsrooms are not “office” settings by any stretch of the imagination. They may be housed in offices, but they’re not “normal” business settings. Strange, but true. My former co-workers and I used to have a good laugh about the oddballs in our newsroom.
I always had a theory that the journalism profession appeals to oddballs and loners. You’re not expected to dress in a suit and kiss the boss’s butt in a newsroom. That’s simply not the way it goes. Instead you’re allowed to come as you are (unless you’re covering a charity event or court case) and snark about with your co-workers while making fun of the television reporters.
Newsrooms are loose and fast with the rules and I had a tendency to whine when I didn’t want to cover something. In the books, Avery Shaw has a pair of shark mittens she uses to do puppet shows to explain to her boss why she doesn’t want to cover something. I got several messages about how unprofessional that was. Here’s the thing: I do have those shark mittens, although the mittens I utilized for my puppet shows were snakes (I still have them).
Why the snakes? They had long, floppy tongues that made the puppet reenactment so much more interesting. I did argue with my boss when I didn’t want to cover something but the puppet show was mild compared to what I saw other co-workers doing. The co-worker Marvin Potts is based on, for example, was prone to flying off the handle and yelling and stomping around whenever the mood struck.
And he not only got away with it but also was considered the best reporter in the room.
So, yeah, reporters are odd. Newsrooms are odd places, though, and they’re nothing like regular office settings.
ARGUMENT TWO: Grandpa’s antics in Avery Shaw are completely off the charts.
They may be but my Grandpa is based on my grandfather and he did a lot wilder things than what I have in the books. My family is also that co-dependent and we fight with each other constantly. We snipe, blackmail, mess around with and threaten to get our way when nothing is going on. We also turn up in a crisis and help, no questions asked or apologies for earlier fights offered. It’s simply how we roll.
ARGUMENT THREE: No one would put up with Avery, Aisling, Zoe, Harper, etc. and actually stay long enough to fall in love with them.
That’s actually a legitimate argument. In the real world, I can’t imagine anyone putting up with the stuff Avery does on a regular basis. She thinks nothing of it and Eliot is pretty much a martyr where she’s concerned. Aisling isn’t quite as bad but I know very few people in the real world who would put up with meddling brothers (to say nothing for a threatening father) like Aisling has. The same for the Winchester family. Bay honestly isn’t all that hard to deal with (for the most part), but putting up with Thistle, Aunt Tillie and Winnie on a regular basis would be soul-crushing for most men (delicious bacon aside, of course).
That’s why it’s a book, people. If I wanted everything to be exactly like it was in the real world I would stop writing and sit on my front lawn and watch the neighbors do nothing eight hours a day. The fun of a book is escape. I don’t pretend for a second that the bulk of my characters are people who would have an easy time of it in the real world.
ARGUMENT FOUR: The characters are selfish and not good role models.
I like to think the characters are more than one thing. They are certainly selfish when they want to be. People in the real world are selfish, too. The characters are also giving and loyal when things go bad, just like the people in the real world. As for the role model argument? I don’t set my characters up to be role models. I write them to be true to themselves and that’s pretty much it.
This goes back to the beginning, though. I like emotions that are realistic and actions that can be fantastic. That’s probably one of the reasons I like soap operas so much. I never once believed the Cassidines were going to freeze the world on General Hospital but I always believed I wanted Luke and Robert to stop them. To this day, I’m still rooting for Robert and Anna because of the characters … not the ludicrous stuff hey did throughout the years, like both of them dying and coming back from the dead, Anna being a double agent, Anna being kidnapped by a crazy person, their daughter dying and coming back from the dead, etc.
None of that bothers me because I’m invested in the character. Since that appeals to me, that’s what I focus on when writing.
So, for me, it all comes down to character development above all else. I don’t see that changing and that’s simply what I like to focus on.
What about you? Do you prefer a more realistic plot or are you focused on how the characters interact with one another?
There are some authors who know every character’s path before they even start writing.
I’m not one of those authors.
I’m the one who often surprises myself while I’m writing when it comes to certain things. Character development is one of those things.
Take Eliot in the Avery Shaw series. When I first envisioned the series I knew I wanted him to be a viable love interest but I ultimately expected him to lose to Jake. As things progressed, though, I realized it wouldn’t end up that way.
As romantic and fun as it is to imagine first love turning into forever love it doesn’t fit for Avery and Jake because it’s not fair to ask either character to completely change to fit in the other’s world. Eliot doesn’t have those issues and he grew in different and exciting ways as the series progressed.
Sometimes even I’m surprised by how much I like Eliot.
There are different characters in each series that ended up with bigger roles than I initially envisioned.
One of the biggest (other than Eliot) is Chief Terry in the Wicked Witches of the Midwest series. I always wanted him to be a friendly and amiable guy who cared about the witches but he’s ultimately taken on a huge role in the series (he’s very involved in the upcoming mystery installment).
He’s a surrogate father for Bay, Clove and Thistle. He’s a sounding board for Landon. He’s something to spar over for Winnie, Twila and Marnie. He’s also someone Aunt Tillie can’t help but rely on when she gets in trouble.
On the flip side, because I’m so enamored with Chief Terry I don’t often give the fathers enough character development. In my head I know I need to fix that and yet I remain a huge fan of Chief Terry and love writing for him. It is what it is.
When it comes to the Mystic Caravan series, I knew I would be able to have a lot of fun with the characters. One that stood out was Nellie, though. I thought he was going to be an occasional funny character. I mean … who doesn’t find joy in a cross-dressing dwarf masquerading as the bearded lady at a magical circus? Fairly soon when I started writing that series, though, Nellie’s role grew and while he’s not the main character, he’s definitely in the top tier of characters. He’s not all about comedy either. I like it when he has some emotional growth (which you’ll see a bit of in Freaky Games).
Sometimes I know going in that a character is going to be huge … like Jerry in the Grimlock series. Just envisioning him had me laughing and he still makes me laugh six books in. The big issue with the Grimlocks was creating a unique relationship between Aisling and all four of her brothers. At the outset I found Braden lacking so I had to concentrate hard on developing him and (hopefully) I’ve managed to create a unique relationship between Aisling and each brother that manages to stand out.
It’s always hardest at the beginning of a series. It’s a balancing act to give new characters life without doing an info dump (which is boring for everyone involved, readers and author). Launching the Charlie Rhodes series (which will debut in May) in the Wicked Witches of the Midwest world was an added trial because I wanted to give the witches some time to shine while introducing the new characters. I’m not a fan of revealing every single thing about a character in the first book, though, so there will be plenty of books to get to know them better while the witches get a lot of time to interact with the new characters in the first book. It was fun to write the witches through a new character’s eyes. There’s a lot of “wink, wink” for readers but there’s fun in the new discovery, too.
Sometimes I get messages asking how a series is going to end. I know in some cases how it’s going to end. In fact, I know exactly how the Aisling Grimlock series is going to end. I know who is going to say the last sentence. I know what the words are going to be. I have a few ideas about the witches, but that’s way down the road. I also know in a general sense how Avery Shaw will end. I have no idea how Mystic Caravan or Charlie Rhodes will end, though. Not even a notion. Sometimes it’s fun knowing. Sometimes it’s fun discovering things as I’m writing.
Even though I know exactly how the Grimlock series will end I’m still excited to enjoy the ride to the finale. And, like anything else, that ultimately may not be the end. I ended the Covenant College series at five books and then more than a year later I had fun ideas for two follow-up trilogies, which increased the books in that world to eleven. I also have plans for those characters to visit the Mystic Caravan Circus and very probably they will ultimately cross paths with Charlie Rhodes down the line.
I’m always open to new ideas so when people ask how I plan on ending something I’m not playing coy when I say I don’t know. I honestly discover something about the characters each time I start a new book. They come alive and entertain me even though I’m supposed to be the one creating them.
What's in a character?
My mother thinks she’s the mother in every book I write.
Even Aisling Grimlock’s mother, apparently. I don’t know what that says about her but she also refers to Avery Shaw as “you” when talking to me, as if I’m the character.
I’ve told her numerous times that the characters are not people she knows, but she doesn’t believe me.
In truth, a lot of my characters are based on people I know but none of the characters are exact duplicates of anyone I know (if that makes sense). It’s more that I pick out certain elements of an individual’s personality – usually something funny – and apply that to a character and then embellish even further.
Take Aunt Tillie. She’s a mixture of two people. I based her looks on a great-aunt and overlaid personality traits from that great-aunt and my great-grandmother.
My great-grandmother was a fascinating woman who took my mother and siblings (her grandchildren) to the cemetery and made them serve as lookouts while she stole flowers from the dead because “they wouldn’t miss them.”
She liked to take walks in the woods, pick out full-grown trees she loved, and make my grandfather dig them up and move them to her yard.
She glued false eyelashes on ceramic frogs and considered them art.
She also enjoyed a good fight when necessary. Does that sound like Aunt Tillie? Yes, and no. My great-grandmother obviously didn’t curse anyone to smell like bacon but she would’ve happily done so if given the chance.
The entire Wicked Witches of the Midwest series became a thing because one day – after listening to my mother and her two sisters argue for what felt like forever – I wondered what it would be like if I turned them into witches. Hence Winnie, Marnie and Twila. No joke. They’re the same … and yet different.
Newsrooms are always full of odd people so populating The Monitor’s newsroom was easy, including Fred Fish (who shares a lot of quirks with my former editor who has since retired) and Marvin Potts, who is close to my friend Mitch Hotts but also just a little sillier. To be fair, though, Marvin doesn’t need a lot of embellishment because Hotts is a quirky individual.
All of the characters pick up a habit or two from people I find interesting. Then, however, I expand on the quirks.
My cousin Kylie, for example, inspired two characters (but kind of split down the middle). Kylie and I were very close growing up and spent a lot of time together. She gave me ideas for Lexie in Avery Shaw (and yes, a lot of the stuff Lexie does my cousin Kylie did – and gladly told me about) and Clove in Wicked Witches of the Midwest.
Ah! People who have read both series probably don’t think Lexie and Clove are all that similar, other than their looks. They are, though. My cousin Kylie can manipulate with the best of them and turn on the waterworks like Clove. She also used to melt down when I made her sneak through the woods when we were doing something we shouldn’t be doing. On the flip side, like Lexie, she has no problem smacking people around with an umbrella and can bring a grown man to his knees whenever she feels like it. She’s fierce and tiny, but neither Clove or Lexie is exactly her. They both have elements of her personality.
Carly in the Avery Shaw books and Kelsey in Covenant College also pick up a few of the traits from the same person.
Mario in the Avery Shaw books is based on my cousin Chuckie, who is as gregarious, self-deprecating and funny as Mario but still manages to have a serious side, too.
The family restaurant in Avery Shaw? It was real. It was called Avery’s and it was in a small town called Mancelona, Michigan for a very long time. It’s gone now but I miss it a great deal. We didn’t have family dinners ever week but we all wandered in and out whenever we want, ordered whatever we wanted and also worked long hours even as teenagers.
Of all of my characters, the one most like his real-life counterpart is Grandpa in the Avery Shaw series. I made him look exactly like my Grandpa Avery. I gave him my grandfather’s larger than life personality and – the thing is – I rarely have to embellish stories about him because he was that much of a character.
He enjoyed skinny-dipping every morning to give the old ladies in the neighborhood their daily “thrill.” In fact, one night my cousin Eric and I were sneaking into the pool and didn’t bother to look at the trampoline. As we were lifting the gate latch, we heard “the water’s wet.” When we turned, we found him naked and drying on the trampoline. He thought our discomfort was funny.
He did go to jail for refusing to report for jury duty (and yelling obscenities at the judge).
He did get in trouble with local law enforcement for ripping up handicapped parking signs in his own restaurant parking lot.
He threw bread at us when he was angry and we were working with him. He also laughed when we were up to mischief and took us for sleepovers on the trampoline in the summers. Of course, he would get up early and time the underground sprinklers to get us wet at six in the morning … but that’s an entirely different thing.
My grandfather loved telling stories about himself so I know that he would be happy with Grandpa in the books. In fact, he would probably think that’s the only fun character.
What do you think? Who is your favorite character, and why?
When I was a kid, I was torn between whether or not I was going to grow up and be the Incredible Hulk or Wonder Woman. I flirted with being a Jedi Knight for awhile, but I wasn't up for the intense travel associated with the gig. In my teens, I settled on being a writer -- although I had no idea the effort that would entail.