by Zoë Sharp
Several things sparked off this week's post. The first was raised by one of Dusty's excellent questions of the course of his last two 'Rati posts. He asked (and I'm paraphrasing here) if you had ever bought an author's book after visiting their website, or if you'd only visited the site after reading the book.
That got me thinking about what is an author website for, exactly? So, I went looking at a number of different sites to try and answer that question, at least in my own mind. I put my reader's hat on and went surfing. In order to do this, I went mainly (but by no means always) to sites of authors I had certainly heard of, but ones whose work I was not particularly familiar with. What I was looking for was something to really hook me into the writing, the stories, the characters. I was looking for something that would turn me from a casual browser into a fan.
And, I have to say, there are many, many wonderful websites out there. Well-designed, easy to navigate, informative. Most have extracts of the author's work so you can try out their voice, some even have audio extracts, read by the author, so you can hear the words spoken exactly as the author intended, with all the emphasis in the right places.
But one oddity struck me.
Where an author writes a mystery or thriller series with a continuing character, the character often seems to become bigger than the books. Yet there's also some assumption made that, if you've got as far as the website, you must already know a certain amount about this character. Very rarely did I find any kind of detail on a website about the kind of person the series protagonist is, other than the couple-of-word description found in the dust jacket copy. Is that enough, or do you need to know what makes him or her different from the next character?
Because, as everybody seems to accept, the characterisation is one of the main qualities that keeps readers coming back to a series. Or to an author, for that matter. But how can a potential reader glean much from a brief book-jacket-type description of who and what the main character is and does?
You see, one of the things that nudged me in the direction of this week's blog was the fact that I am at the dreadful thumb-twiddling stage of being Between Books. One is delivered to my agent, and I am awaiting her verdict with some trepidation before I plunge into undoubted rewrites. Meanwhile, of course, I have been kicking around some ideas for a new book, with a completely new main protagonist and set of characters. This does not mean that I intend to abandon Charlie Fox, by any means, but on the theory that a change is as good as a rest, I feel the need to stretch my wings a bit and try out something fresh.
And when I see my agent next week, I'm faced with the prospect of explaining, in a pithy kind of way, not only what the initial story is all about, but why I feel this new main character – and the immediate supporting cast – is worthy of consideration.
So, I not only require my elevator pitch for the story itself, but I also need a brief but grabby description of my new protagonist.
I need a character pitch.
And that's been a very interesting proposition, because it's made me re-evaluate what I say about Charlie when I'm asked the question, "So, who's your main character, then?" The pat answer is that she's a no-nonsense ex-British Army Special Forces soldier turned bodyguard. OK, so that tells me what she is, but not who. It's too easy to say, "Oh, she's like (insert appropriate well-known fictional hero or heroine here)." Charlie has been likened to female versions of both Jack Reacher and James Bond, but neither are quite a comfortable fit for her, I think.
Working out exactly who your protagonist is, and summing it up in a few catchy sentences, is a daunting task. Other people often do it so much better than the author can manage. Paul Goat Allen came up with a wonderful one for Charlie in the Chicago Tribune: "Ill-tempered, aggressive and borderline psychotic, Fox is also compassionate, introspective, and highly principled." I have to say a big thank you to him, because I use that one a lot. It tells it relatively straight. I probably wouldn't have come up with that description, but I can't argue with it and it doesn't kid potential readers what the character is all about and what to expect from her, and from the books.
But what about this new one?
We had a quick 600-mile work trip last weekend, which gave me plenty of time in the car to jot down some notes. I wrote down anything and everything that occurred to me about this new character. I now have pages of scribblings and I'll let you know if they met with approval or not – but not until after I've tried them out!
But, I will say that a snatch of a Counting Crows song, 'Round Here' kept coming to me, so I wrote that down, too:
'She knows she's more than just a little misunderstood/She has trouble acting normal when she's nervous.'
It doesn't quite fit the character, but there's a sliver there, an inkling, an idea.
So, my question is, what's your character pitch? Not just what they do, but who they are as well?
Or, how would you pitch your favourite literary character, in a couple of sentences, to a new reader who'd never come across them before?
This week's Word of the Week is harbinger. I picked this because I used to know a chap who had a boat called Harbinger and everyone pulled a face when he told them the name, and said, "That's a bit gloomy, isn't it?" because hardly anybody can hear 'harbinger' without the words 'of doom' on the end of it, but this is not the case. In obsolete language, a harbinger was a host, or someone sent ahead to provide lodging. But now it's come to mean not just a forerunner or a thing which tells of the onset of something, but also a pioneer.
It's a bit like the phrase in flagrante delicto, which is simply to be 'in the very act of committing the crime, red-handed' and does not necessarily mean 'unclothed, with someone else's spouse, in a cheap hotel room …'
Great stuff, Zoe. It has me thinking about Laura, my protag. But, alas, only the routine character description comes to mind.
I’ve seen several author websites that have “Interviews” with their protagonists so you can get a flavor of their personality and while I have a complete background on my protag I couldn’t sum her up in an intriguing way on a moment’s notice.
Depends what you mean by “only the routine character description comes to mind”? There must have been something about her that intrigued you enough to make her the central character of your novel, even if it was only the way she laughs at your jokes, or pushes her hair back. And what does she do that connects her with crime?
I’ve been honing my elevator pitch of Taylor Jackson for four years –
“Taylor Jackson is the homicide Lieutenant for Metro Nashville homicide. She’s a very black and white, good versus evil woman, strong without being strident, who has the respect of her peers and superiors alike. And she always gets her man. The most fun I have as a writer is forcing Taylor into gray areas to see what she’ll do.”
Maybe I need to put that on my website…
Great post, Z!
Good post. It really got me thinking about my characters. My books are unsold (so far!)but I’ll give this a shot.
The best word I can come up with for one of my protagonists, Summer, is “wounded.” She’s a martial arts instructor and an ex-cop so she’s tough. People think she’s stand-offish but she really afraid of getting hurt again (backstory–her husband was killed during a drug bust). In the second book, she begins to reach out a bit and let someone get close.
The character in the book I’m writing now is completely different–probably because it’s a funny mystery. She’s a smart ass and kind of bossy. I’m still learning about her and I’m sure she’ll end up surprising me.
Charlie Fox: a tough as nails, ass kicking heroine, but with a heart that can be broken.
Jack Keller: A man whose wartime experiences have scarred him and kept him isolated from humanity for too long. Now he’s trying to re-connect with people and to love again, while working in a violent job that obsesses him and which sometimes drives him closer to madness.
Tony Wolf: A guy who’s very very paranoid, but he has excellent reasons to be. But since he can’t walk away from a child in danger, hiding doesn’t work out too well.
Andy Cole (current WIP): A defense lawyer who likes to think of himself as a rebel, but who’s discovering that he’s really more a part of the power structure than he’s willing to admit, and he’s being forced to confront the fact that that power structure is rotten at its core.
One of the toughest balancing acts, I always think, is to have a strong female lead character who isn’t just a ‘guy in nylons’. You manage that beautifully with Taylor.
I like the Counting Crows lyrics as character starter. Well done.
Since I don’t have a series character, I guess I’d start each of my protagonists’ descriptions with their vocations. (Calla Gentry is a jury consultant who … Cadence is a blind auto mechanic who … Jessie Dancing is a roadside assistance operator who) but that really says so little about them. The back halves of those sentences would be the important part. And the tough part as you’ve described above.
Both your characters sound intriguing, not least because they’re so different.
I really like a character to have their own personal journey, although, having said that, some of my favourite series characters are seemingly unchanging from book to book!
Loved the description of Charlie. I just keep beating the crap out of her and she just keeps coming back for more …
Jack Keller has always seemed one of the most interesting tortured characters out there. He really is walking a very thin line and part of the fun of reading your books is seeing if he manages it.
Apart from being paranoid, what does Tony Wolf do? Argh! You can’t leave me dangling like that!
Knowing your own legal background, having a defence lawyer who turns against the sytem is a nice twist. Can’t wait to read more ;-]
You know, I very nearly left out the Counting Crows line, but I’m glad I didn’t.
Yes, the second half of the sentence is the difficult part, particularly for someone who writes such wonderfully diverse and layered characters as you do.
Thanks for the kind words about Jack,and good point about Wolf. Let’s hone the pitch a bit:
Tony Wolf is an ex-FBI undercover agent who’s been in hiding for four years from both the Bureau and the biker gang he was infiltrating. He’s very very paranoid, but he has excellent reasons to be. But since he can’t walk away from a child in danger, hiding doesn’t work out too well.
Ah, right, now I get it. Sounds cool. And now, of course, I want to know what makes this guy tick … ;-]
I just say my character is Madeline is me only bitchier and a better shot. Not that that tells anyone ANYTHING useful.
And I adore the phrase “in flagrante delicto,” which always makes me smile when I see it in print. I guess the immediate presumption it has to do with the unclothed spouses of others is that it sort of onomatopoeically brings to mind “in flagrant deliciousness.” At least to me.
I love that – “my character is Madeline is me only bitchier and a better shot.”
Yes, ‘in flagrante delicto’ is one of my favourites, too. Someone once told me that the difference between flagrant and blatant in that context was that flagrant meant you were discovered in a compromising situation in a hotel bedroom, whereas blatant meant they could hear you all the way down the hall…
And then there’s ‘flagrante bello’ – while war is raging – which is another cracker.
Dan Taylor: An eager rookie detective, Dan is so haunted by mistakes he made before joining the force that he overcompensates, becomes so driven to catch criminals and relieve his own guilt that it also drives him away from his wife and burgeoning family.
Very thought provoking post, Z. I’m about 30K words into my WIP and I never even thought about a character pitch. Well, into the old MOLESKINE(TM) notebook it goes.
BT?W, love your word of the week. Plus of course “in flagrante delicto.”
Here’s my character’s pitch:
“Peri Minneopa likes clean houses and dirty martinis. She left her career as a housekeeper to become a PI, because finding people’s dirty secrets is more fun than finding their dirty socks.”
And she’s hardly ever in flagrante delicto, although she can be a harbinger of mayhem.
I’ve had reviewers describe Bobbie Faye as a “hurricane-force heroine” and a “titanium magnolia” — both very apt. She is the kind of woman who is better with a gun or a knife than she is her own heart.
Boy, Zoe,Great post. You’ve given me a lot to think about.
I’m going to try to come up with character pitches, but it’ll take time. I’ll have to give them a shot when I’m not trying to get this latest project out the door.
Like the sound of Dan, who should still be idealistic and perhaps even a little naive at this stage of his career, but is clearly already carrying emotional baggage … ;-]
I must admit, I’ve only just started to think about a character pitch, but the more I DO think about it, the more important it seems to be. If nothing else, writing down disconnected thoughts about this new character have proved very illuminating.
It struck me, for instance, that she’s a smoker. I have no idea why. I’m a reformed smoker of 20+ years – Brazilian cigarellos – but nobody was more relieved than me when they banned it in restaurants and bars in the UK. Very un-PC, but I just took one look at her and knew she’d light up and blow smoke rings under a No Smoking sign, just for the hell of it.
Of course, I’ve no idea how I’m going to translate that into a simple description … ;-]
I’ve come across the ‘titanium magnolia’ quote for Bobbie Faye before and thought it was a wonderful description – as well as being entirely apt.
But what does she actually do that involves her with crime – other than get hit in the face with a catfish and blow stuff up?
OK, confession time. Another of the things that sparked off the idea for this post was the little snippets you’ve been dropping about your new character – Darnda is it?
She sounds so intriguing that I was hoping you might be persuaded to tell us more about her, and what makes her different from Sasha? Or what the two have in common?
That’s one of the difficulties when you already write one series character and you consider doing another. Do you consciously make them as different as possible, or vaguely similar?
I absolutely love Quintin Jardine’s Bob Skinner series, for instance, but for some reason am not as keen on his Oz Blackstone books. Great writing, but a completely different character. And I always liked Lord Peter Wimsey, but never took to Sayers’s travelling salesman, Montague Egg.
I’m not ignoring you – I replied to your comment and Typepad seems to have eaten it, so my apologies if this (or something similar) pops up again.
Basically – bravo! A very neat character pitch for your PI protagonist, AND both Words of the Week in one hit.
I am, as I said, DEFINITELY not worthy ;-]
“I just took one look at her and knew she’d light up and blow smoke rings under a No Smoking sign, just for the hell of it.”
I LOVE this line.
Thanks, RJ ;-]
I’m kind of thinking she’s like Charlie Fox, but much less restrained …
Zoe, I’m cracking up about the catfish.
But yeah, Bobbie Faye is constantly going to extremes to protect the people she loves from people who intend to do harm, and she has no sense of “enough” or “stop” until she’s succeeded, no matter who she has to run over to accomplish that goal.
I love your description of a character with no sense of ‘stop’. That’s just terrific.
And that trait appears in some of the greats. Where would Spenser be if he gave up every time two men with guns came into his office and told him to lay off the case?
Or if Jack Reacher had indeed meekly left the diner in Despair *before* he’d had his cup of coffee?