Sunday, November 18, 2007

Creating Secondary Characters

We are extremely excited here on the Playground to welcome New York Times bestselling author of historical romances Eloisa James to our swingset! Well-known for leading a double life as a romance writer and Shakespearean professor, Eloisa just released her newest book An Affair Before Christmas on November 13th. Please join us in welcoming her today as we talk about an aspect of writing I'm currently obsessed with: Characterization...

It’s a truth known to every author that the only thing better than beginning a book is ending one. The book that I see in my mind, before writing, is a heart-breakingly wonderful, intricate yet clear novel that will make its readers sigh with joy… The first chapters are all panic, excitement and pleasure. Anything could happen. All sorts of things do.

Yet even in the midst of all that frenzy, I still need to set up a whole world – and that takes some work. Beginning writers often ask me how I come up with all the people in my novels. I’ve actually been thinking how hard it is to create an image of a character that will stick in the reader's mind.

Romance writers can always lovingly describe every muscle the hero has to his name, or the heroine's silky lashes, silky hair, silky breasts...all of it. There's a great poem by Marvell telling his lover that he would praise her breasts for two hundred years: sometimes it feels like that when you're writing romance. A hundred years for each breast, and two hundred more for all the rest. But all that chest description doesn't leave too much time to describe secondary characters – and they are integral to a story line. No matter the kind of novel you’re writing, the world must be peopled with more than the main characters.

I was looking around for help the other day and came across Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. She does it brilliantly. Here's a priest: "a wrinkled, elderly man with a hairless face and brown, dead curly hair that looked like a wig." A girl: "Ruth Bent had red-dish-brown frizzy hair... her voice was deep, like a man's; her skin was swarthy and freckled... she had a good figure, small, with a sort of shimmying movement to it." And here's a hero: "Nevertheless, there was a wild strain in the family. The men were extraordinarily good-looking, dark and black-browed as pirates, with very fair skin and queer lit-up gray-green eyes, fringed by the 'McCarthy eyelashes,' long, black, and thick."

My current novel, Affair Before Christmas, opens at a house party. I introduce the main couple in a prologue set in Paris, and then the novel skips to England and a party at the Duchess of Beaumont’s townhouse. Since this book follows Desperate Duchesses, some readers will know the people at the party, and others won’t. New readers need to be introduced to the complexity of characters who already played roles in the previous book.

One of my favorite characters is the Duke of Villiers. He’s a chess master, wildly intelligent, full of self-loathing, and frequently bored. I create him through clothing. In Affair Before Christmas, he appears at the party just after losing a duel:

“The word cloak brings to mind black velvet: but Villiers wore a sweep of rosy silk, edged in a stiff little ruffle of deep violet taffeta. The ruffle bore a gorgeous pattern of embroidery that resembled iron lattice work… He walked a dangerous boundary, between masculinity and its opposite and yet – as always – his flamboyant clothes managed to make him look more male. Of course, his features weren’t in the least feminine: not that large nose and rough-hewn chin.

There wasn’t another man in England who would have dared to wear the cloak. But Villiers looked like a prince – the kind of prince who has a harem of dancing women, what’s more.

So here's a challenge: Pick a public figure. any public figure, but not one with the plastic beauty of a movie star, because that's hard to describe. And not a politician. Give us one or two good descriptive sentences. And then tell us who it is, so we can all revel in your description.

So let's discuss characterization. Especially those characters you may have to make stick in the readers' minds in just a sentence or two. How do you do it?

Eloisa will be giving away a copy of Desperate Duchesses to one lucky commenter today. Don't worry. The winner won't be judged by skill. Just the fact that you post (even a quick Hi!) will put you in the drawing. Don't forget to check out Eloisa's really cool website: !



robynl said...

Hi and welcome,
I'd love to get to know Poppy and The Duke of Fletcher. The following makes me in a hurry to get the book to get to know them:

Unwilling to lose the woman he still lusts after, the duke is determined to win back his beguiling brides delectable affections . . . and surpass the heady days of first love with a truly sinful seduction.

Nini said...! I'm so excited. Two descriptive sentences about a public figure you've never seen and i'm supposed to be able to make you see him/her. I've been having a hard time with my own characters but since a professor asked me to do this, i have no choice.

Here it is:

An aura of importance surrounded the figure standing strong in front of the room. A buttoned-up severe black jacket, hair scraped ruthlessly back to a bun, wire rim glasses perched imperiously on the edge of a nose, she waited impatiently for everyone to stop talking.

That's the superintendent of my Board of Education....and it fits her to a tee!

Critique it please?????

Nini :)

Santa said...

Hi Eloisa! I have AABC and have added it to my reward TBR! We'll see how long my resolve lasts!

Here it goes:

She adjusted the collar of her pink Oxford shirt over the V-neck of her burgundy cashmere sweater before peering into the mirror to make sure there were no stray bits of spinach in her teeth. She bent down to tug at the laces of her white leather Keds one last time and, tapping her foot, straightened up to watch the monitor for the DJ to cue up the music.

Ellen DeGenneras (sp?)

Eloisa James said...

Hi everybody!

Nina, you want a critique? really? Well... I like it, but I would suggest that old staple, show don't tell. In other words, the "aura of importance" is clear in the fact that she stands strong and waits impatiently -- you did the showing and you don't need the telling!

Santa, LOL! I love Ellen but I never noticed she wears white keds. Puleeese, Ellen!

I'll check in again later; have a great day everyone!


Problem Child said...

Oh, I can name that poem! ("To His Coy Mistress"--one of my faves btw, and a fun one to teach.) Carpe Diem, y'all!!

What annoys me is when authors seemingly spend 100 years on each breast---it's a breast for Pete's sake. There's a template there; I can kinda fill in the rest!

(Yes, I'm avoiding the homework assignment--too early in the a.m.)

Instigator said...

Welcome to the playground, Eloisa! We're so glad you dropped by the sandbox today.

Um...I'm with PC. It's too early for me to be creative :-) I do my best thinking after 9 PM. I'll take a stab at it a little later though (after my brain wakes up) :-)


Playground Monitor said...

Carpe Diem to you too, PC.

It's early but here goes.

Dark slashes of eyebrows topped his brilliant blue eyes, and his thick, wavy brown hair grazed his collar and curled ever so slightly, just like the lock that fell over his forehead. The fabric pulled tightly across his massive shoulders, making his blue suit look better than it had a right to.

-- Superman


Problem Child said...

I have an off-topic question for Eloisa--

I teach Lit, Comp, and ESL at the local U and Community College. I catch a lot of flak about how I should be writing "Great Literature"--preferably with Heavy Symbolism and Complex Metaphors. (I've ranted about this before on the blog.) Any advice about how to respond to this?

Do you still get the "when are you going to write a real book" questions? Or after a certain amount of sales/bestsellers does it drop off?

I've trotted out the Samuel Johnson defense ("Some seem to admire indiscriminately whatever has been long preserved without considering that time has sometimes cooperated with chance"), Frye's top 10 in Shakespeare, and just about every Austen argument there is. It really does seem easier to live a true double life under a pen name, but I'd love to hear how you handle it...

Lynn Raye Harris said...

Ooh, I'll play!

He tugged at his bow tie, giving it one last tweak on each corner. Wire-rimmed glasses sat on a rounded face and lanky hair fell over his forehead, while wide-set eyes, a pug nose, and a Pekinese underbite made him look vaguely like a cross between a frog and a gnome.

Garrison Keillor

Hi, Eloisa, and thanks for dropping by. The first time I read one of your books, I was enchanted. I loved your example of Marvell's poem. ROFL! I once wrote a response to Marvell, as his mistress, in one of my undergrad English classes. I, of course, argued in favor of marriage rather than simply shacking up. :)

Like Kim, I occasionally get that business about why don't I write serious novels. Mostly, I shrug it off, but it can be disheartening sometimes.

Eloisa James said...

Hi all,

OK, on the "great books" vs "trash" front. I have two suggestions.

One that I often trot out is the "Great Books" weapon. Shakespeare and Dickens were both popular authors in their day. Great, fun writing is not legitimized by a genre label (and literary fiction is just another genre): it's characterized by how much readers love it. I'm trying to follow in their footsteps--very slowly, and I'm not going to make it, but I'm aiming high.

(this has the virtue of irony, especially in the last part, but it also slyly points up the ridiculousness of the intrinsic question)

And second is just for you. Eleanor Roosevelt said that no one can make you feel humiliated unless you give them permission. I remember that a lot.

And yes, I get asked the real book question all the time. My colleagues ask me; publishing people ask me; my dying mother asked me. It goes along with the name "romance writer," and one had better shrug it off than fight every battle. Generally, it's asked with affection.


LeeAnn said...

Hi Eloisa I love your books. I started with Desperate Duchess and it was awesome! So I have now started on the backlist. I finished Potent Pleasures yesterday and have started Midnight Pleasures.

I love your characters their all so different but fit together almost perfectly. Your heroines are people I wouldn’t mind being friends with and your hero’s makes you want to slap them upside the head occasionally because they’re just being men, but at the same time you can’t help but love them.

(ok now I’m done with my fan girl letter LOL)

MsHellion said...

Hard for me to pick someone who's not a celebrity...*LOL*

He was a man who if you'd never met him you'd know he was an actor: he had that sort of everyman look in his features, neither too pretty, nor too handsome, and cameleon enough to where you weren't sure where one character ended and the man began again. There was a bit of gypsy in his topaz eyes, a sort of charming pirate about his smile, but underneath the masks he presented, you caught a hint of a man you'd never really know. Not even if you were married to him for a lifetime.

Problem Child said...

Thanks for gushing, leeann. I would have done it, but was afraid it would be unseemly to do so on my own blog!

catslady said...

Being a reader and not a writer, I'm just going to say "hi" and let you know how much I'm enjoying the posts.

Eloisa James said...! Who is he? I want to meet him!

And thank you, thank you, leeann, for those kind words about my books. It seems so long since I wrote Potent Pleasures... I'm honored that you're reading it!


MsHellion said...

Eloisa: Johnny Depp. Or at least the Johnny Depp I see when I watch him. No matter what part he plays, you almost see all the parts he's ever played...there's a bit of gypsy in his Sparrow; and a bit of pirate in his Roux. When you see his still shots, he looks...well, tired. That sort of Earl of Mayne tired where he thinks all this fame is rather ridiculous, but what do you do? He seems a person that always is playing a part; you'd never see the real him. Not anymore.

I know. I cheated. He's a celebrity--but technically he seems to usually play "secondary" characters that steal the show. *LOL*

Michelle Buonfiglio said...

Buona sera, Playfriends! Hullo, Eloisa and other blogfriends! Just dropping in to say that "Affair Before Christmas" is a delight!

Great fun reading all these characterizations... Glad you're feeling better, Marilyn/Playground Monitor.



Kathy said...

Welcome to the playground, Eloisa! I've enjoyed reading your books and was lucky enough to have attended your Hitchhiker's Guide to the Historical at the RWA Conference in Dallas, which I greatly enjoyed! Your class gave me, an historical writer, much food for thought. Thanks!

Here's my go at this:

Accustomed to the benefits of his rank, he stood tall amongst the crowd waiting to be applauded by the peerage for the work he had recently done in a military campaign. Well wishers groveled at his feet, his foreign wife gushed appropriately at his side, but I did not reciprocate as I neared introduction and was struck dumb by the hard-edged steel in his eyes.

Eloisa, I know you have written great Regency novels and have recently moved on to the Georgian time period. Do you have any plans to write Victorian or Edwardian novels?

Carol said...

Another reader here just saying HI!
I wish I could write and I have a lot of respect for anyone that can!
I'm looking forward to reading An Affair Before Christmas! It sounds great! :)

Eloisa James said...

Hi everyone!

Kathy, I probably won't move into the Edwardian or Victorian period, mostly because it takes so much research to be comfortable in a period. The series following this one is going to be Regency again (Yes! I already know the characters!)

And everyone...thanks for the kind words about Affair. I hope your own writing goes beautifully!

Happy Thanksgiving,