By JT Ellison
This is the most popular post on my website—and for good reason. This information is evergreen, and I hope you find it useful.
P.S. If you haven’t been to my For Writers page in a while, check it out. I’ve reformatted the essays for easier digestion, and added pretty pictures. Who doesn’t love pretty pictures?
How Well Do You Know Your Characters?
Are you as intimate with them as you should be?
Coming up with a character is easy. You give them a name, an occupation, and a reason for visiting your story. Developing that character into a living, breathing, vital aspect of your manuscript, one that successfully propels your story forward, is another phenomenon entirely.
There are a few things that are an absolute for me when I develop a character.
The Most Important Is A Name.
As I begin writing a new manuscript, I make a cast list. All the main characters are there, as well as all the secondary characters. Everyone who is going to make an appearance in the story is named and accounted for.
A couple of rules that I like to follow when it comes to developing character names:
- Make the name pronounceable.
- Especially for secondary and tertiary characters, make their name fit. If you’re writing a story about white slavery, an unhappy stripper named Tatiana will convey the message more effectively than an unhappy stripper named Jane.
Where do the names come from? I’ll admit, there have been the times, (in the past, of course, cough, cough) I’ve been in a pinch and looked to my reference bookshelf. I pick a first name and last name at random. Problem is, when you’ve been working on a manuscript for four straight months with the same bookshelf of reference material, you’re going to duplicate yourself. I was caught by one of my readers. I’d used Richard Curtis and Curtis Richard. For shame. Now, I use every available resource. Magazines like Maxim and FHM always have great names. There are websites that use algorithms to mix and match names to degree. You get the drift – finding sources to pull from is easy.
Since I generally write series novels back to back, I’m intimately familiar with my main characters and the people they work with on a daily basis. Secondary characters that are making their second or third appearance are simple to keep up with. But the new primary and secondary characters need defining, and I need a new list of tertiary characters and one-timer throw-in names.
My very first step is to build the list of names.
In my new book, there is a big cast of secondary characters. A big cast. My list has sixty-eight new character names on it. I know I’ll use up at least twenty-eight right off the bat. I have a new character who has a whole team behind her, so there’s another nine. See where I’m going? I never want to be left out in the cold when it comes to naming my characters.
Unfortunately, as well intentioned as I am with my cast list, there are characters who pop up unexpectedly and announce, “Hey, I’m here. This is what I’m going to do to wreck havoc on your story. But I need a name, please.” Hence, the pre-built characters list.
What works for me is to name my secondary characters off the bat, but leave some of the tertiaries for later. That way I can satisfy my spontaneity gene and grab a name at random a few times through the book. Now that I’m a little wiser, I only take it from the proscribed list of tertiary character names, rather than inventing off the top of my head.
But What’s In A Name? There Needs To Be More To Make A Character Come Alive.
Some characters are so big and bold, they parade right out of your mind onto the page with no effort. Some need to be coaxed a bit. For the reluctant characters, there are a few absolutes that must be answered before they get to show up in print.
The first things I decide on are age, hair color and eye color (subsequent to race), height, weight, and level of education.
While it’s generally easy to define a character by social class and educational status, I have the joy of writing books that are based in Nashville, Tennessee. This is a southern town, and there are many colloquialisms here that can be misinterpreted by outsiders. Brilliant, well-educated people here use terms that Yankees would deem dim-witted at best. I try to be especially careful when I dip into that particular well. It’s a unique issue that’s been written about by many more capable writers than I. Suffice it to say you need to be aware if you’re writing regionally specific characters.
Back to building a character. Age, looks, race, education and socio-economic status are first. Those are the main ingredients for me.
Now it’s on to the spices.
I can’t say that I do the same thing for each character. Some have more information on them than others. Some I know how they walk, what they wear, how their hair is styled, whether they are straight or gay, who their family is. Some I just have a mental picture of who they are. If they are a one-timer, I try to be cognizant of their surroundings, so the character can help me set the scene.
One of my writer buddies, Jennifer Brooks, came up with a brilliant idea while writing a book with an omniscient POV and several main characters. The BMW’s (my critique group) were having trouble keeping all of them straight, and we badgered her to do something about our inability to “get” who was who. (Many times, POV problems are a result of not knowing your characters as well as you should. If you know exactly how your character will react in a certain situation, what they’ll say, how they’ll feel, your POV will fall into place.)
Have you ever been sent an email survey by one of your friends, the kind that has a huge list of questions that either you or said friend must fill out? They ask detailed questions that are meant to show how much you really know someone.
My friend, in all her brilliant glory, decided to fill out the survey as her characters. Since many of her characters are in relationships or strong friendships, she allowed the characters themselves to ask the questions of their friends and lovers. It gave her a stronger grasp of who each character is and how they can be presented in the story to help us, the readers, keep them straight. It worked wonderfully.
Another quick note on character building.
One of the most important questions I ask each of my characters is, “What do you mean to the story?”
A tertiary or one-time, one-scene character can steal the show. Let me rephrase that. They should steal the show. I try to make my one-timers feel special. Give them something important to do or say. You should never have a character who doesn’t advance the story in one way or another.
Sometimes, even these tricks aren’t enough to really give you a sense of who your characters are. Since we’re talking crime novels here, let me point out that victimologies are vital to the success of your book. If you don’t have a victim, you don’t have a crime, and you don’t have a book. Making sure your victims are as well developed as your speaking characters – it makes a big difference.
I tried something a little different in my first manuscript. I had several girls who were killed. They were all in different states, and they shared a physical resemblance. I was struggling with their deaths, mainly because it’s so hard to kill someone in a book, no matter how gleefully we might go about it. There was one that I felt so close to, it hurt me to kill her. My protagonist was struggling with the issue, just as I was. I had him on a plane, desolate, looking at the MISSING posters that accompanied each girl’s disappearance. I envisioned him getting off the plane, going into his office and tacking up the MISSING posters. Hmmm.
The next thing I knew, I was up to my, ahem, elbows, in imaginary dead girls. There are a couple of glossy color magazines here in town, so I went out and bought them, looked to the society pages, and cut out pictures of girls that fit the killer’s profile. I then mocked up the MISSING posters. Based on actual fliers from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children website, they each had a picture of the victim, all her particulars, where she was last seen – all the information I needed to use to drive the story and build the plot.
Since that worked so well for me, and my second manuscript had the same kind of situation, so I took the time and picked out my victims. In the manuscript, these pictures go in a dossier for the antagonist to peruse. They go in a dossier in my files as well, so I can experience what my character experiences as he looks at them.This has been one of the most successful tricks I’ve learned.
Dead characters deserve as much respect as living characters.
Bringing them to life makes it harder to kill them off, but the goal is to create believable, sustainable characters for your readers. And you’ll stay away from being gratuitously mean to them, which is the goal.
I also make my setting, Nashville, a character unto itself. I know people have received those constructive rejection letters that claim the reader didn’t get a good “sense of place”. Make sure your setting is a character just like your protagonists and antagonist, and you’ll never hear that again. Get to know your characters, and they’ll never let you down.
Via: JT Ellison
By JT Ellison
Happy Sunday, chickens!
Did you have a good week? I’m fresh off a whirlwind of travel, first a writing retreat in the desert followed by a weekend at one of my favorite annual signings, Southern Kentucky BookFest. I’m not sure which time zone I’m in, let alone which zip code, so I’m looking forward to a week of recalibrating . . . before we replace the flooring in the house because of a leaky dishwasher.
Ain’t no rest for the weary. But we’ll soldier on, won’t we?
Here’s what happened on the Internets this week:
First of all, can we talk about Prince? I’m devastated. But I send him thanks: for always pushing parameters, for showing it’s ok to grow and reinvent ourselves, for always reminding us that even though we may differ on a lot of things, we’re all just trying to survive. You’ll be missed.
Y’all. The ADD in me won’t let me sit still sometimes; even when I’m writing, I’m compelled to check all the things—because I can keep all the plates spinning, right? Well. I can’t. *sigh*. But thankfully, my favorite productivity tool, Freedom, has a brand new, major update: the Freedom app. When I turn it on, I can choose to block access to certain apps that I know will be a time suck (hello, social medias). It prevents me from becoming my own worst enemy and I love having it on my phone and iPad, I’m addition to the laptop.
If I were in England, I’d totally visit this exhibit: Books by earliest women writers in English on display together for first time.
Modern technology has changed the way we collect and distribute information; this can be seen probably most clearly in the way we use libraries. Check out how this young librarian is building a community of readers and thinkers for the 21st century.
Fellow Austenphiles: these 15 quotes from Persuasion will make you soon. Swoon!
Like Jane Eyre? Here are 17 books you might love.
And closer to home:
On The Wine Vixen, I shared a $9.99 Syrah that’s gonna pair beautifully with both spring and fall dishes (check out my pairing suggestion—all I can say is YUM!).
Twitterverse: wanna join the She Reads Twitter chat about NO ONE KNOWS? Join the conversation at 8 p.m. EST/7 p.m. CST on May 5, and use #srbkchat to follow along.
You and I both value indie bookstores. Like I’ve said before, walking down the street to a store owned by friends and neighbors, to have a gathering place for your local tribe, is vital. The torrential rains in Houston have flooded Murder by the Book and put quite a dent in their book sales. I’ll be visiting in June, and I’d like to encourage you to purchase FIELD OF GRAVES (or any other book, for that matter) from them to offset their losses. Let’s keep this indie afloat!
And on the Tao, I talked a little bit about my TV show, A Word on Words—and show you one of my favorite interviews so far: with All Souls Trilogy author, Deborah Harkness!
Are you signed up for my monthly newsletter? If not, you’re missing out on exclusive treats, yummy recipes, the latest book news, and more! If you aren’t signed up, now’s the time to do it, because…
I’m giving away 3 ARCs of my new Taylor Jackson prequel, FIELD OF GRAVES, to my newsletter subscribers!
You can join the list here. Oh, and if you’re already on the list, you’re already entered into the contest. But hurry—I’ll draw names on April 26!
Alright, y’all, that’s it from me! Enjoy the spring weather, go pet a kitten, and I’ll talk to you soon.
Via: JT Ellison
By JT Ellison
Photo Credit: Nashville Public Television
Last October I told y’all how I became a TV host.
And it has been quite the surreal experience.
Every time I get on set, wherever we’re shooting in Nashville that day, I’m overwhelmed with just how lucky I am to do this. I get to launch into full reader-nerd mode, ask brilliant people how they do their work, and learn at their feet.
Plus, I’m conquering personal milestones, i.e. my fear of public speaking. I haven’t nearly barfed on someone since I interviewed sweet Patti Callahan Henry. That that, stupid phobia!
Anyway, my fellow readers, I thought you’d like to see what I’ve been up to, who I’ve been chatting with. I have a wonderful co-host, the hilarious and talented Mary Laura Philpott, who’s been bringing her A-game in her interviews (go watch her chat with recent Pulitzer Prize winner, William Finnegan). And I can’t say enough about Linda Wei, Matt Emigh, Will Pedigo, and the rest of the Nashville Public Television crew. Your unparalleled vision and crazy talent have brought something very wonderful back into our city. And you guys are so much fun!
This interview’s one of my personal favorites.
I got to interview Deborah Harkness, whose All Souls Trilogy I just adore.
After this chat? I may adore her more!
Wanna watch more? Check out the A Word on Words website.
Via: JT Ellison
By JT Ellison
How are you this fine Sunday? I’ve sequestered myself on a writing retreat, praying the Muse will fill me with words to jumpstart my latest projects (that’s right—plural—hence the prayers). I hope this break from routine sparks some much-needed creative flow over here!
*Sidenote: I’m going to be at SOKY Book Fest this weekend!
If you’re near the Bowling Green area, you should see me at the signing hall on Saturday. I’d love to say hi!!! If you’d like to visit, here’s what you need to know.
Here’s what happened on the Internets this week:
This is the perfect gift for book nerds, AND I JUST LOVE IT.
Eye-opening: this is what it’s like to have dyslexia.
Here’s what to read based on your favorite Harry Potter character.
And speaking of Harry Potter: here are 13 shows to binge watch with the Gryffindor (i.e. ME) in your life.
Want an autographed 1st edition of NO ONE KNOWS? Get one from VJ Books!
Random: I started a Q&A page! If you’d like to ask me a question, hop on over.
Some time management help: here’s how to prepare for “the busy time.”
Happy birthday to the adorable children’s book, MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS, which turned 75 last week!
Fascinating article: That Emoji Does Not Mean What You Think It Means.
And if you need a good giggle, watch this.
For the badass in you: here are 21 products that say “Don’t f*** with me” so you don’t have to.
And closer to home:
The Wine Vixen is BACK! Amy and I have been so focused on birthing new books into the world that we haven’t been drinking much wine lately (irony, right?). Here’s a delicious $9 Riesling from Washington State that Amy really enjoyed.
You love your indie bookstore, right? I love mine, too. And on the Tao this week, I talked about why we need to keep them around.
Speaking of love and books, I wrote a review on one of my favorite books for Off the Shelf: Deborah Harkness’ A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES. Y’all. It’s just so good. You should’ve seen the first draft of this review; I was quite literally gushing and had to be reined in. And—AND—I got to interview Deb for A WORD ON WORDS; she’s just as delightful as I’d dreamed.
And if you want to follow my travel antics this week, follow me on Instagram.
Also, fun news: NO ONE KNOWS hit the #1 audiobook spot on iTunes last week!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It’s beating THE ART OF WAR. I mean, that’s pretty cool. Thank you for making it #1, you lovely people!
That’s it from me! Have a wonderful week, come see me at SOKY, and we’ll talk again soon!
Via: JT Ellison
By JT Ellison
This was originally published in SIBA‘s Lady Banks newsletter. I thought you guys might enjoy it, too.
A few nights ago, I attended a signing at the wonderful Parnassus Books in Nashville.
The signing author was Ariel Lawhon, who was launching her brilliant story chronicling the doomed flight of the Hindenburg, FLIGHT OF DREAMS As Ariel and I hugged and kissed hello, bookseller extraordinaire Bill Long-Innes smiled benevolently and asked, “Do you guys have a writer tribe? It seems like Nashville authors really make an effort to support one another. I wonder if any other cities have such a tight knit group?”
Ariel and I nodded.
Because we do have a tribe here in Nashville.
Our literary community, dubbed the Nashville Literati, is tight. There are cliques within it—young adult writers in the SCBWI, crime fiction in Sisters in Crime, romance writers in MCWR, literary authors big with Salon 615 and Humanities Tennessee and The Porch Writers’ Collective.
But when it comes to supporting another author, we cross genres like a boss.
We lunch together. We attend each other’s signings. We hang out in East Nashville at East Side Storytellin’. We pull together all our writing buddies when a writer friend comes to town. We even go on writing retreats together.
And now one constant we all have in common is our indie store, Parnassus.
I think the store’s staff has made it such a welcoming, open place for writers of all genres, of all stripes, that we can’t help but want to gather there.
When our beloved former indie, Davis-Kidd, closed its doors in 2010 (and Parnassus didn’t yet exist), it suddenly became much harder to get everyone together. We have the annual Southern Festival of Books, which is always well-represented with local authors. We did lunches and cocktails, drove out to other counties to attend signings.
But not having an indie store that represented and celebrated all the writers in town was hard. A town without an indie store is a sad one indeed.
Davis-Kidd had a long history in this town. As a matter of fact, it was one of the reasons I was okay with moving here. When my then boyfriend (now husband) brought me to Nashville in 1993 to meet his parents, he drove me around, and our last stop was Davis-Kidd. “See?” he said. “This is the best bookstore in town. You’ll have plenty to read if we ever move here.”
(I’m not sure if I was more entranced by the idea of books—books!—or the fact that my boyfriend had just hinted strongly he wanted a long future with me.)
Davis-Kidd was everything you could ask for in a bookstore: great staff, great events, a huge, diverse collection of titles. I attended my very first author signing there (John Connolly! My writing hero!). At that signing, I met a woman who became my other mother, who mentored me through years of writing, getting an agent, getting a deal. I did one of my first signings at David-Kidd. I hit my first bestseller list while I was launching my fourth book there. I attended Sisters in Crime meetings there. I wept with everyone else when it closed.
To have an indie in our midst again is incredible.
It’s been very fun to watch Parnassus take hold in our community, to see stories being made there. The Nashville Literati grows stronger day-by-day, with new writers coming up to join the established ones. And Parnassus is our hub. Several writers are booksellers there (And one co-owns it. You might have heard of her . . . her name is Ann.). This lends a verisimilitude unmatched anywhere else.
Yes, Nashville has a writer tribe, just as strong as Chicago, New York, and L.A.
And thanks to our favorite indie, we have a place to call our own, too.
Via: JT Ellison