I write, but I’m also a reader. I’m honestly not sure a person can be a writer without being a reader. I’ve read bad books, good books, and great books. I often find myself thinking about what makes a book a great book. Plot is important, no doubt. Quality of the writing is important too. But what, hands down, makes a great book? In my opinion? It’s all about the characters.
Easy to say. Not so easy to explain what makes a great character. But I thought I’d give it a try and let you know what I think about when I am working to create characters.
I personally love characters who have flaws and who grow over the course of a novel. My Blue Notes Series books are those types of characters. And even in my Mermen of Ea books, which are heavier on plot, you’ll still find characters who start at Point A in the story and arrive at Point B by the end.
What’s a character “flaw?” Normal, human things. Lack of patience. Lack of ability to communicate. Fear of commitment. Insecurities. Physical impairments. Look around at the people you know and you’ll see all of these things. With many of the characters I write, I do look around me to find inspiration. I know I’ve gotten it right when I have a least a few readers say, “I got so pissed because [Character] did [name your flaw]!” Yep. Flaws can drive you nuts. Or they can break your heart.
If a character is too perfect, I don’t get invested in them. I’m certainly not perfect, why should the people I read about be? If a villain is pure evil, without any humanity, why do I care? In my opinion, the best antagonists are the ones who have redeeming, human qualities. The face-palm, why-are-you-doing-that sort of characters you want to hate, but you keep hoping will do the right thing. Three dimensional, and I care. Did I care about the villains in the James Bond movies? Meh. Not so much.
Let’s talk antagonists of mine for a moment, then. Because I just submitted the next Blue Notes Series book, Dissonance, to Dreamspinner Press and one of the MCs is Lord Cameron Sherrington, the antagonist from Aria. Cheating Cam. Cam who breaks Aiden Lind’s heart. And you know what? By the end of Dissonance, I loved Cam. Even adored him. Because he changes and he grows into a man deserving of happiness. Did I consider writing Cam’s story when I was first working on Aria? Nope. But he took on a life of his own, and he demanded his own story. Which leads me to my last tidbit about writing characters….
Original characters tend to develop as you write them. They often have minds of their own. I’ve had more than just a few characters I’ve written who have put their feet down, glared at me, and told me in no uncertain terms that they were not going to do what I told them they should do. Without spoiling the end of Aria, I can honestly say I didn’t intend Cam to do what he did. Not when I first planned the book. Another character who told me in no uncertain terms to “f-off” and let him follow his heart? Cary Redding in The Melody Thief. So much for the last half of that book! My outline went whoosh out the door and Cary got the story he needed. I think I have a few more gray hairs to show for that one!
Sure, there are many other aspects of writing original characters. But these are the tried and true principles I always keep in mind when writing. So the next time you’re reading a book and shouting at a character, or your heart breaks for him, think about why you feel that way. What about him makes him real enough that you care what happens to him? Does he remind you of yourself or someone else you know? Can you empathize with him? If so, that’s probably a great character. And you’re probably reading a great book.
I’ll leave you all with a sneak peek excerpt from the next Blue Notes Series book, Dissonance, and a little taste of Lord Cameron Sherrington. Or rather, the man behind the façade. Because he hides his heart all too well. –Shira
Blurb: British lord Cameron Sherrington has hit rock bottom. The love of his life, opera sensation Aiden Lind, is marrying another man, and Cam knows it’s his own fault for pushing Aiden away. Then someone tries to set him up and take away his family business. Facing possible deportation if he stays in the U.S. or arrest if he returns to London, Cam decides to run. But with no money and no place to stay, it’s not exactly the Hollywood thriller he’d imagined.
When Cam hears Galen Rusk play in a lonely subway station, he’s intrigued. But his assumptions about Galen are all wrong, and their unusual relationship isn’t exactly what Cam bargained for. Add to that the nightmares that dog him nightly, and Cam’s world is shaken to its core. Cam figures he had it coming to him, that it’s all penance due on a life lived without honesty. He just never figured he might not be able to survive it. Note: Blue Notes Series novels are standalone stories, and can be read in any order.
Four hours later, Cam stood on the platform of the No. 4 train listening to the sound of the train from the next station echo down the tunnel. The sharp tang of urine mingled with a smell he imagined was the coating of dust and dirt from the rails as the trains created friction and heat. The floor began to vibrate beneath his feet and the squeal of metal against metal drowned out the conversations of the few people standing nearby. He looked down at the thick yellow line that ran along the edge of the platform. Some of the paint had been scraped away, and bits of gum and tar covered other parts of it. But it was there. For your safety, stay behind the yellow line.
He moved up a few steps until his toes were centered on the line. His eyes burned. He tried to convince himself it was the blast of cold air from the tunnel, or the smells, but his brain kept pulling him back to the black sedans parked outside of Riley’s apartment building. Waiting to take him into custody, and then what? Had Riley even hesitated before he’d called Homeland Security? Had his uncle called Riley to warn her? He deserved every fucking bit of shit the universe was sending him. Oh, no, he hadn’t done anything wrong.
Not this time.
He closed his eyes and tried to block the thoughts and images that seemed to replay in an endless feedback loop in his mind. Spending through his inheritance so quickly he’d had to beg the board of directors to cover his living expenses. The way they’d looked at each other—judging him, and rightly so. The Broadway-bound productions that had gone nowhere. The fast cars. The clothes. The men. His mother’s laughter when he’d asked her to send him some money. The $100 dollar bill that he’d spent on food, a hot shower, and clean underwear. The calls his uncle—the fucking CEO of his own fucking company!—wouldn’t return.
Fucking Jarrod on the antique sofa. The pain of betrayal in Aiden’s eyes. Aiden packing his suitcases, his eyes red from crying. How he’d told Aiden he’d regret leaving. The fear on Aiden’s face when he’d understood the implicit threat. How he’d meant that threat.
Fucking some sweet Italian arse aboard his family’s yacht the night before Aiden flew to join him. Hinting to some annoying twat of a reporter that Aiden had been unfaithful. Knowing full well how much it would wound Aiden. Faithful Aiden. Aiden who’d loved him.
This time, his own pain, because Aiden had only told the truth: Cam really didn’t know how to live with him, or anyone. Another threat. The feeling that he’d ripped his own heart out of his chest, still beating. Aiden, whom he’d loved.
God, I loved you!
Everything blurred. The guilt, the pain, the anger. All of it. He couldn’t think straight. Couldn’t see a way out of this. Didn’t want to see a way out, because if there was a way out, where would he be?
Alone. Pathetic. Locked in a cell no bigger than a box. A dark, damp place. He imagined hands reaching out to hold him down, keep him there. Hurt him. He’d never liked enclosed spaces, although he had no recollection of why. He thought about the cell again and shivered.
He opened his eyes. The toes of his shoes were even with the edge of the platform, his feet now fully on the yellow line. The train was close now. So close. He watched the lights moving toward him. Felt the air rush past his cheeks. He leaned forward….
A hand grasped his shoulder, sure and steady. He blinked and stepped backward as the train whizzed by, inches from his face.
“Are you all right?” The man had to shout the words over the din.
Cam’s heart pounded hard against his ribs, racing like the train. “I… ah… yes. I’m quite all right.” Total bullshit, and yet he managed to speak these last words with the confidence he lacked.
The man—Cam knew he’d seen him before somewhere—offered him a lopsided smile. Blue eyes. Dark blond hair. Cam saw he was holding a black fiberglass case.
The trumpet player. The one who’d been playing for tips. What was his name? Galen.
“Can I buy you a cup of coffee?” Galen asked.