Sunday, April 15, 2012

I-Spy: Writing the Gay Mystery (Characterization)


Join the authors and friends of Not Your Usual Suspects for an occasional series of posts about their world of reading, writing and publishing.

Short and sweet, hopefully both informative and entertaining - join us at I-Spy to find out the how's and why's of what we do.

Today’s Post: I-Spy Writing the Gay Mystery…with Josh Lanyon


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First, I want to apologize for missing last month’s column. I unexpectedly came down with the flu, and that was pretty much that for the next two weeks! Yeesh.

So we’re going to be running one month behind schedule, which means that instead of discussing Setting, we’ll be talking about Characterization today.

There are two types of stories: the plot-driven story and the character-driven story. In the plot-driven story, the characters are shaped and ultimately revealed by the turns and twists of plot. In the character-driven story, the characters themselves -- their choices, their decisions --determine the course of the story.


Either way, if there’s a single most important element in modern storytelling, it is characterization. For most readers, the difference between liking and loving a story very often comes down to how they feel about the characters.

It’s not enough to create believable characters; you have to create interesting and engaging characters. Ideally, characters the reader comes to love.

Then again, just creating believable characters can be a challenge for many new writers, so maybe we ought to start there. You’ll find plenty of information and advice on the web regarding creating characters. I’ve seen recommendations for everything from buying expensive software to thumbing through a thesaurus in order to match verbs with personality types. If you like writing exercises you can develop bios, cast astrology charts, cut photos out of magazines, spin the color wheel… If you like reading and talking about writing versus writing, try this article on for size. Or this one. Here’s another one.

This is the thing... I’ve never met a writer who could admit he or she has trouble creating characters. Occasionally a writer will confess difficulty writing opposite sex POV, but generally I’ve found most writers believe -- whether true or not -- that characterization is one of their strengths.

We writers are predisposed to love our own creations. This leads to two common mistakes. The first is to create characters in the author’s own image. The second is to create nauseatingly perfect characters that embody all that the author wishes he or she could be. So the first rule is to preserve a proper distance between ourselves and our creations. It’s too hard to put our characters through the necessary hell they need to evolve and grow if we get too attached to them or identify with them too closely.

You have to remember that we writers aren’t…well, we’re writers. So we have to look beyond ourselves and our experiences and our reactions when we’re creating “normal” people to populate our stories. The ideal character is someone the reader can relate to. A good refresher is to read non-fiction -- in particular biography and autobiography --relating to both law enforcement and crime.

One of the first things you notice when you read any biography is that every human has strengths and weaknesses. This needs to be true of your characters too. Now strengths are rarely a problem since the tendency is to make our characters too perfect. Coming up with recognizable weaknesses is harder. Usually what we see in fiction are “weaknesses” like…the character’s blindness to how gorgeous/talented/adorable he really is. Or the character is too successful or too brilliant or too whatever for his own good.

However, characters in mysteries do often suffer from a genuine weakness known as TSTL (Too Stupid To Live). But this is generally not deliberate on the part of the writer -- which means it’s something we have to watch for when our characters are making the life and death decisions that frequently crop up in a mystery novel. Granted, some leeway must be given characters in crime and mystery fiction because if our characters behaved sensibly, they’d never get involved in crime or mysteries.

When you think about crafting any character, you should focus on the things that define us all: who we are in our work, who we are at play, who we are at home. If you know who your characters are when they are at work, at play, and at home, you know all you need to know about them.

As you’re sketching out your characters -- and I do recommend keeping biographical notes because it makes life SO much easier if you don’t have scan earlier chapters to verify whether Protagonist A has green eyes or hazel or Protagonist B’s grandfather graduated from Yale or Harvard -- think about the character traits that would make someone likely to get involved in a crime or a mystery -- and survive the experience.

Think also about how their work or hobbies mesh with developing the skills and personality traits that will allow your protagonists to believably survive their involvement in this particular and unique crime or mystery.

Note: Romantic relationships with cops or other law enforcement is a staple in mystery and crime fiction, but try and give your protagonist some useful skills and abilities in his own right.

Remember that if your protagonist will need some special knowledge or talent to solve the crime or save himself, you need to establish that talent or background early on. For example, if your character needs to speak Russian to decipher a mysterious message, at the very least hang a print by Karl Bryullov on the wall of his apartment.

The trickiest part of good characterization is remembering that you can’t tell the reader that your character is well-educated or inquisitive or free-spirited. Nor can you have other characters comment in clunky fashion, “You’re so well-educated/inquisitive/free-spirited, Jonah!” You have to show this to the reader, you have to prove it, you have to make your case for characterization based on the way your character speaks, the car he drives, the clothes he wears, the newspaper he reads, etc.  

Characterization is not about reciting a list of facts about your character, it’s about showing who and what that character is in every glimpse the reader has of him. You establish characterization in every single scene. Every choice your character makes carries symbolic weight and reinforces who he is. And who he turns out to be will determine whether your reader thinks of him as a character in a book or someone she can’t wait to spend more time with.

This month's recommended reading features gay historical mystery:
My Dearest Holmes by Rohase Piercy
Gaywyck by Vincent Virga
Willing Flesh by JS Cook
Lessons in Love: A Cambridge Fellows Mystery by Charlie Cochrane


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A distinct voice in gay fiction, multi-award-winning author JOSH LANYON has been writing gay mystery, adventure and romance for over a decade. In addition to numerous short stories, novellas, and novels, Josh is the author of the critically acclaimed Adrien English series, including The Hell You Say, winner of the 2006 USABookNews awards for GLBT Fiction. Josh is an Eppie Award winner and a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist


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FUTURE POSTS will cover:
Kindlegraph / the art of research / writing male/male romance / rejection and writer's block / building suspense / writing love scenes / anti-piracy strategies / audio books / interviews with editors and agents / using Calibre.
We welcome everyone's constructive comments and suggestions!

6 comments:

Toni Anderson said...

I really think characterization is the 'key' to and good story. And you are so right about not wanting the bad things to happen to those we identify with too closely. I always solve their problems and the book is done by chapter 3. Then I go back and mess up their lives. Great post, Josh. My link thingy isn't working well so I've only tweeted, not shared anywhere else yet.
I'll get there :)

Elise Warner said...

Late commenting, Josh. Busy trying to straighten out real life problems for a friend yesterday. Everything you've written about characterization is absolutely right. Thoroughly enjoyed your post.

Josh Lanyon said...

Thanks, Toni.

I noticed that tendency in myself early on. I HATED all the stress and turmoil that came with...a plot. :-D

I've finally worked through it. Now I save the peace and harmony for my real life. ;-)

Josh Lanyon said...

Elise, you sound like you have your hands full!

Thanks for stopping by to comment.

Rita said...

Great post Josh. I spoke to a group Monday about writing and character building was one of the subjects we covered. I worked real hard at getting across the point that readers have to connect with the characters. They either have to hate them or love them. Like Toni said characters are a key to the story but their internal and external conflicts are what makes the book. No conflict – who cares. I'm bookmarking this so I can refer anyone who asks me about character building to it.
Thanks again and sorry about being so late to the party but real life has been giving me fits.

Vanessa said...

Thanks for your comments on characterization. I'm always concerned that I'm not making my characters interesting enough. You've given me food for thought.