Monday 26 November 2012

What makes a good character?

What makes a good character?

I’ve been reading a couple of books recently (yes, really) and a couple of thoughts came to mind regarding characters, their development, and the empathy readers have with them.

In one book I’m reading, a YA dystopia, the male lead’s only recognizable feature is his spiky hair.  On top of this he appears to be good-looking.  No surprise there.  The female lead is a teenage girl who appears to be Bella out of Twilight with a different name.  Several reviewers have mentioned “great characters”.  Um, why?  The guy is a TV presenter transposed into a sci-fi novel.  The girl is a high-school girl of regular attractiveness and intelligence who will obviously at some point get with the guy.  There’s nothing at all that makes either of them special or makes them stand out.

And perhaps here we have the answer.

Do readers, particularly young adult readers, merely want a character that they can pretend to be?  So that they can pretend to be in the book itself, interacting with the other characters as if they were real?

Another recent book I read, a so-called sci-fi classic, had a review bemoaning the lack of character development.  The book was set on a foreign planet, and revolved around a guy finding out what was going on in his world.  Which he did, and it was great.  Why would I need the guy to have some kind of big change in his life?  The story wasn't just about the guy, it was about the whole world around him.

Another issue I have is with empathy.  Matt Cassidy, the central character in The Man Who Built the World (that's him looking miserable on the cover), is an alcoholic borderline wife-beater who hates pretty much everything.  He’s intentionally detestable, in fact I went out of my way to give him no redeeming features.  The point of the book is such that through his story you discover why he is how he is, and whether he can find redemption. You're not supposed to like him.

I recently had someone pull out of reviewing the book because they couldn’t identify with him.  While I fully respect the reviewer’s opinion this pleased me in a certain way because I don’t want my readers to identify with him.  I want them to pity or hate or be repulsed by him.

I don’t write books with swimwear models or high school nice guys for characters.  If you find one, you can be sure he or she won’t last long.  Charles de Molay, star of my favorite of my unpublished novels, Hooks, is a cripple.  Dan Barker in Head of Words (forthcoming) is mentally insane.  Even the Tube Riders have their issues.  Marta - the only one close to being good-looking, hardly ever gets to wash and her dreadlocks are a case of more grime than intention.  Switch has, for want of a better expression, a fucked up eye, and Paul is balding and overweight.  It’s not just about their looks, either, but their actions.  In a lot of books nothing seriously bad ever happens to the main characters, or they never do anything bad, take your pick.  In Tube Riders, Marta sleeps with guys to pay her rent (or at least she did before the book starts).  Paul does even worse.  Switch kills without thinking whether his victim deserved it or not.

A reviewer recently said my book contained “real people”.  This was perhaps the biggest compliment someone could ever give me.  It doesn't matter if they liked it or not, they got it.  In real life people don’t always do the right thing, and they certainly aren’t always good-looking.  For every Che Guevara (cool enough to spawn a billion t-shirts) or Aung Sung Suu Kyi (gorgeous - at least in her youth, damn) there are hundreds or thousands of 'heroes' that are nothing much to look at.  It is totally possible for someone who isn’t cool or an oil painting to have an adventure, to be a hero.

So what do I think makes a good character?

I used to suffer from something I call the Steve Syndrome.  I would have a couple of main characters who were more distinctive then everyone else would be a Steve (apologies to anyone called Steve!).  This would be a character who had no real features or definition and often a generic name (the first character I identified as having this problem, in my third novel, Resort, was called Steve - hence the name).  In Tube Riders, both Paul and Simon were originally Steves.  Marta and Switch were always pretty well-defined, but I had to make a real effort to make Simon and Paul distinct.  Paul I made fat and more unattractive, while with Simon I went the other way, making him more feminine, almost androgynous.

Therefore, the first thing that I believe is important is memorability (is that even a word?!).  A character has to be memorable.  And not just by having a cute smile - that’s not memorable, it’s generic - they have to have some feature or mannerism (or both) which makes them stand out.  It doesn’t have to be good, and it doesn’t have to be bad.

Also extremely important is voice.  People talk differently.  Some people swear, some people don’t.  Some people say certain words more often than others.  Some people talk in long sentences, others talk in short, clipped phrases.  You should (within reason) be able to write a three- or four- way dialogue without using any identifying dialogue tags yet still have the reader know who is speaking each time.  If you can do that, you’ve got it.

Also very important to me (as you’ll notice from my character descriptions above) is flaws.  I hate good-looking, perfect characters.  Boooorrrriing.  Have you ever met anyone who was perfect?  (Actually, I have met a couple of people who were, and god they were dull).  Perfect characters are only allowed in comedy, because their very perfection can make them hilarious (see my novella series, Beat Down!, for an example).

So what do people think?  Obviously few people agree with me.  I’ve sold 27 books this month so far.  How many has Stephanie Meyer sold?  A billion?  Even the book I was complaining about above has probably sold about 200.  So, I’m likely wrong (except in my own head of course!), but I’d love to hear your ideas on what you think makes a good character.

27 Nov 2012

Monday 19 November 2012


Be warned, this short blog contains some serious bitchin'.

Recently I've been suffering the inevitable effects of over-writing in the sense of burnout.  While I've got close to 50k written in the last month (20th to 20th) I'd hoped to be closer to 70k or even more, but computers, tiredness and general stress seem to be conspiring against me.

Today I got to work, found I only had a single class plus a test to mark so figured I could get a sly hour of writing on the clock, so to speak (don't call me a waster - I don't spend half my time forwarding joke emails like most office workers do!).  When I inserted my flash drive the computer asked me if I wanted to format it.  Huh?  Yesterday it was working fine, now for some reason it's unreadable.  Last month I dropped my laptop and broke my old flash drive, and only a very skilled mate was able to save all my info on to this, the replacement drive, an old one I've had kicking around for a while.

Seems its time to get a new one.

Since the last time I've learned my lesson to a certain extent and have been backing up my files.  All I lost this time was some updated work reports and about 3k on a novella I was working on, a Saturday morning worth of work.  I LIKED that scene.  While I'm happy enough to write it out again I don't really want to because I liked it the first time.

My NaNo project is also dying a slow death.  It never really recovered after my computer crashed while saving it on the first weekend, meaning I had to write out another 3k over again.  I seem to be having repeated hardware problems and that isn't the first time my computer has refused to save my document, instead deciding to save it as some kind of temp file and then conveniently loosing it.

In addition, I have a tick in my right eye that won't go away.

I looked online and it's not a serious problem.  The causes are -

   1 ) too much caffeine - CHECK
   2 ) too much time in front of a computer - CHECK
   3 ) too much stress - CHECK.

I guess I'm doomed to be ticked forever.

And the icing on the cake is that my books aren't selling.  After a great promo for Tube Riders I had about fifty sales over the next month and then it dropped off a cliff.  Completely.  I've had one sale in 12 days and I'm pretty sure someone I know bought that.  And that's not to mention the rest of my stuff.  I have 20 items on Amazon now - 20! - and I've sold one book in 12 days.  Is it really possible to go so invisible so quickly?

Anyway, rant over.

Yeah, I'm pretty positive about stuff in general.  Even with computer frustrations and ticks and stuff I've still written 225k in the last five months and hopefully will have another novel and two novellas published before Christmas.  I still rock - I've not yet had a review under three stars on Amazon (and that one only complained about a story being too short) yet I've had just one review for Tube Riders out of 4300 free downloads.  One.  Come on, it doesn't take that long to read ....

I'm very careful with Tube Riders 2 as well.  I can handle losing everything except that because its my literary child, but I've been backing it up online.  However, losing any writing is a pain in the ass because you just feel like the Gods of technology hate you.

Right, the rank really is over.  I'm off to eat cake and brew my fifth cup of coffee today.

19 Nov 2012

P.S. Just to make myself feel happier, this is my band live yesterday.  Rock!!!

Friday 2 November 2012

The Man Who Built the World new covers

So in the absence of any sales I decided it was time to go pro and update the cover for The Man Who Built the World.  Since she did such a great job with Tube Riders, I called in Su at Novel Prevue again.

After possibly driving her near-crazy with endless requests, here's the final result.  I think these look awesome and they capture the mixture of darkness, intrigue and mystery contained in the book perfectly.  I recently had a blogger pull out of a review because of how dark the book was, and I hadn't really thought about how bleak it was before, but it gave me a wake up call.  This is a very dark book that is more horror than supernatural, and with a central theme of the destructive power of love it is not one that a reader should approach lightly.  However, anyone prepared to follow Matthew Cassidy into the depths of his soul and the darkness of his past is sure to be rewarded.

Okay, here's the ebook cover -

This is just awesome.  You have a slumped Matt on the front, in a glade in the forest that features heavily in the novel.  The eyes could belong to one of two people - I'll let the reader decide.  And the feathers ... well, they have significance too.  You'll have to read it to find out what!

And here's the paperback cover -

 Here of course you have the grave on the back cover - the grave being a very significant location in the book.  Again, you'll have to read it to find out why!

Many thanks to Su at for these.  Once again she did a great job.


2nd Nov 2012