Monday, November 30, 2009

Guest Blogger: Debra Webb

The Playground is thrilled to kick off Guest Blogger week with our friend and fellow chaptermate, author Debra Webb. When she isn’t renovating the historical home she and her family live in, she is crafting fast-paced romantic suspense at a speed most writers would be envious of. Thanks, Deb, for joining us at the swingsets!


Good Monday morning! Thanks to the Writing Playground folks for having me. And don’t worry I’m not going to talk about renovating this hundred and ten year old house—though I could tell you some stories! I’d like to share a lesson I’ve learned over eighty-some-odd books. There is one absolute truth about creating a fiction novel: the story is only as good as the characters. If you’ve been around the publishing world for a while, whether published or unpublished, this is not news to you. And if you’re not a writer but love to read, you know this from experience as well.

When I consider my favorite movies it’s quite easy to nail the reason I love them. Gladiator is one of my favorites. Not because I’m into watching the gore and violence or because the plot line was particularly compelling to me, but because of the character, Maximus, that Russell Crowe played. His brooding, wounded hero portrayal proved outstanding, in my opinion. Who can forget the lines, “…Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance in this life or the next.” Amazing! Then there’s another of my all time favorites, Long Kiss Goodnight. I loved, loved, loved Samuel L. Jackson in this movie! His portrayal of the character Mitch Hennessey was awesome and unforgettable. I have many, many other favorites. The reason I’ve presented these two particular examples is to demonstrate my renovation realities theory.

Generally when a story starts to develop in my very twisted mind I have one of two elements as a launching pad—a character that has stolen my attention and insists on being written or a plot idea that won’t leave me alone. Either way, it’s the characters that ultimately get the most of my time. Because I fully understand that when you hear a reader say, “God, I loved that story!” it is the character/s he or she loved. Creating those memorable characters is the key to an unforgettable story. Consider some of the classics that have endured the test of time: To Kill a Mocking Bird or Gone with the Wind. Both of those novels capture a time and place that is stunningly palpable to the reader. You can feel the story, taste it…smell it. But when you hear readers, young and old, talking about those stories the actual topic being discussed is nearly always one or more of the characters. Both authors created truly unforgettable characters.

So, how do we go about creating that unforgettable character? First, we make them real. Second, we renovate until we can stand back and say “yes, that’s what I was going for.” Whether you’re writing a wounded rogue or a quiet, sensitive computer whiz, he must have numerous layers just as real people do. It’s not enough to merely give him a name, a date of birth and profession, you need to give him the same elements a real guy would have. Where did he grow up? Any siblings? What about his parents? Dead? Divorced? Has he or she been married? Divorced? What was the environment like in his childhood home? What good or bad things happened to forge his personality and way of thinking? Whatever steps he takes, whatever judgments he makes about the plot, the other characters or his life in general are all motivated by who he is. You can’t fully develop who he is unless you give him a complete history. Think of your own life and the environment and events that made you who you are. That’s what you need for each of your characters. Whether it’s the hero or the heroine or the villain. Yes, the bad guys/gals have to be real too. The absolute best bad guys/gals are the ones readers feel some slight connection to. Creepy, huh? But it’s true. Look at Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. A truly gruesome, sick character. But he had so many, many layers. Extreme intelligence. Charm. Etc. No matter that he was a demented killer, there were tiny, tiny fragments of who he was that were undeniably relatable.


That’s right. Motive. Every single day of our lives we wake up and make one decision after the other. Whether to make the bed immediately upon rising or leave it for later. What to wear. Shower? Make-up? What to eat for breakfast? Load the dishwasher or not? A second cup of coffee or not? Spouse, kids, school, work, bills, etc., etc., etc. All those things and many, many more require decisions every day, every hour, every minute. Every single decision we make, spontaneous or not, is motivated by who we are and our thought process. What happened to you when you were five and older sister locked you in the closet? What happened on the playground when the bully took your milk money? How it felt when your first love dumped you because he/she was a complete idiot but you didn’t realize that until a long time later.


Give him or her a life and fill it with a history and I promise you will have created a compelling and unforgettable character. Now I don’t have any fancy charts or research books. I don’t even do all this up front. Most of the time I do it along the way (which means going back and layering—so if you can do it all up front, kudos to you!). That’s the renovation part. Yeah, I know, most folks (especially editors) call it revising. I prefer to think of it as character renovating.

So, how do you build and renovate your characters? Who are the characters you remember the most?

Thanks for joining us, Debra! We'll be giving away a copy of one of Debra's books to one lucky commenter. You know the drill. :)

Join us all week for visiting guest authors!


Problem Child said...

HI Deb! We're glad you're here today.

One of my most favorite characters is Simon from Jennifer LaBrecque's DARING IN THE DARK. L-O-V-E him. So much, in fact, that when I couldn't locate my book on day, I sent Jen a very panicked email. She sent me a back-up copy so it would never happen again! :-)

Character is everything. As a writer, I stumbled over that lesson. Learning not to get hung up in my plot was a big step for me.

Playground Monitor said...

I'm still learning this character renovation process, so thank you very much for the tips. :-)

One of my favorite characters isn't in a book, but on a TV show. It's Adrian Monk and through the seasons we've seen how this very wounded but brilliant detective came to be the person he is. And now the show is drawing to a close and next Friday we'll see him solve the most important murder of his career (at least that's what the previews lead me to believe). Gosh I'll miss Mr. Monk. But I have Rick Castle to take his place. ;-)

Anonymous said...

As a reader, the characters have to feel real to keep my attention. I think my favorite characters are Jamie and Claire from OUTLANDER. When the second book came out, it was like receiving a letter from old friends and catching up on their lives.

I know I've enjoyed a book when I've finished it and miss the characters. Recently, I finished a book and I found myself missing one of the secondary characters. I'm hoping the author will write her story - I'd love to spend time catching up with a friend I haven't heard from in a while. :-)


Julie Miller said...

Hey, Deb--
I love the idea of "renovating" vs. revising. I do that a lot with my books. Truly, if I know my characters, I'm rarely steered wrong on the plot, and it almost writes itself.

Memorable characters?
Ian McLaren from Rachel Lee's IMMINENT THUNDER
Sloan from Debra Webb's SOLITARY SOLDIER
Aden from Gena Showalter's INTERTWINED (my latest read!)
Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot from countless Agatha Christie books
Atticus Finch from Harper Lee's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester from JANE EYRE

You're right. The characters make a book memorable.

Smarty Pants said...

Characters really are the most important part. I guess I'm sort of lucky that my characters tend to come out fully formed with quirks and backgrounds. I wrestle with other issues like that pesky sexual tension.

My favorite characters, I guess, are a little weird...

- Dexter, the conscientious serial killer
- House, the grumpy, brilliant, pill popping doctor
- Monk, the obsessive compulsive detective
- Sookie, the mind-reading waitress with an affection for supes

I guess I like my characters flawed, relatable, but special and different in one way or another. I strive for that in my own stuff, too.

Sherry Werth said...

Hi Deb! Thanks for the great tips. I've started to concentrate more on my characters and this certainly helps.

Two of my favorite characters that come to mind are:
Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent from Lisa Kleypas's The Devil in Winter.

Wolf Mackenzie from Linda Howard's Mackenzie's Mountain.

PS: My Hubby would LOVE to have a hundred and ten year old house. The man lives for home remodeling. I made him promise when I was at the retreat not to build, tear down or add on anything connected to the house while I was gone. He built a very large dog house for a very small dog. Oh well....

Debra Webb said...

Hey Problem Child, you are so right! And Jennifer is terrific!

Debra Webb said...

Playground Monitor! I hope I'm not in trouble for being a little late this morning! I know what you mean. I so hate to lose a character I love!

Debra Webb said...

Hey Julie!! It's great to see you here! Thanks for mentioning Sloan, he was one of my favorite characters to write!

Debra Webb said...

JJ, that's so true! I love doing that in my stories. In fact, Adeline Cooper, a secondary character in EVERYWHERE SHE TURNS, will have her own story next spring called ANYWHERE SHE RUNS! I love Adeline!

Debra Webb said...

Smarty Pants, I'm with you! The best characters are the ones who ARE NOT perfect!

Debra Webb said...

Sherry! Your husband and I would get along well! I love old houses. Every city I visit I take an architectural/historic tour. Love it!

catslady said...

Chracters that make me laugh and cry (well of course it's the author lol). As a reader, I have to love or hate or love/hate my characters then everything else follows. There are so many but at the moment it's Rick Castle :)

Kathy said...

Hi Deb! ~waving~

I've seen your beautiful 110 yr. old home. You've done a fabulous job restoring it and it's obvious you've put a lot of love into the renovations. :)

Love your blog post! I plan to print it off and keep it for future use. Characters are the backbone and flesh of a book/movie/t.v. show.

My favorites are:
Captain Jack Sparrow ******
Erik, The Phantom of the Opera
Scarlet O'Hara & Rhett Butler
Jane Eyre & Mr. Rochester
Elizabeth Bennett & Mr. Darcy
Sam & Dean Winchester
Ashton Wingate & Lierin (from K. Woodiwiss' COME LOVE A STRANGER)
Hal Waterman & Elizabeth Lowry (Julia Justiss' A MOST UNCONVENTIONAL MATCH where the hero has a stutter!)
Peter Patrelli (HEROES)
Captain 'Lucky' Jack Aubrey (MASTER AND COMMANDER)

You've written so many books, Deb. How do you find a way to make your stories and your characters different? And where do you get your ideas?

Merri said...

This was a great checklist, Debra. It’s one to copy ‘n’ paste to review as I write.

A very well layered character, one who made quite an impact on me at fourteen when I read him at school was Heathcliff. I was never sure if I felt sorry for him and his unhappy childhood or despised him for his bitterness and cruelty. And in perfect counterpoint to him was Cathy—what was she thinking of when she ditched him? Wealth, position, or did she just crave a brighter, lighter life to the one she had.

Another character is Sydney Carton, the English lawyer in Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. I just loved how his character develops from drunken bad boy to falling in love with the beautiful Lucie to eventually sacrificing himself for her future happiness. It was a sort of Christ like sacrifice, and I just love it when an author or film maker employs this ending for a truly well layered character. Ripley in Aliens3, Spike in Buffy…

Thanks for sharing, Debra. I enjoyed your insight :)

Debra Webb said...

Hey catslady, I've got to find out who this Rick Castle is! Everyone seems to love him!

Debra Webb said...

Kathy, you are too kind! Well, I work really hard at trying "NOT" to write the same book or the same character twice (unless of course it's a recurring character!). Since I attempt to create a very involved history for each character that alone helps make them different. I should have started a running log a long time ago of names, etc., I've used but I didn't. Now, if I decide to it's going to take some catching up!

Debra Webb said...

Excellent examples, Merri! There was a book I loved in junior high whose characters I will never forget. It was called Witch of the Glen. I so wish I recalled the author. I'd love to find a copy of it now.

Smarty Pants said...

Deb, "Witch of the Glen" is by Sally Watson.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

No need to enter me, ladies. I'm dropping in to say hi and thanks for the e-mail. I've got this posted at Win a Book.

(Debra, you don't want to know how I create character... it's part of why I blog!)

Jane said...

Hi Debra,
Annette from "Faceless" was a very memorable character. She was a bad girl, but she definitely had a lot of redeeming qualities.

Angel said...

Oopps! For some reason I thought I had posted today, but hadn't. I'm so sorry, Deb!

I loved your descriptions of how to renovate your characters. My question? What do you think is the best way to deepen characterization? Is it character background, motivation... Where is the first place to start the renovations?

One of my favorites is the hero from Linda Howard's After the Night, Gray. When they are laying in bed together and the heroine, Faith, asks him why he wears his hair long, he mentions he's afraid of the noise clippers make. Has nothing to do with the plot, but my heart just melts over the confession. :)


mariska said...

ohhh..i love to Debra's book. since i'm still new with her books.

Memorable character, "Billy" from The Minds of Billy Milligan by Daniel Keyes.

uniquas at ymail dot com

Debra Webb said...

Smarty Pants! Thank you! I'll be trying to locate that!

Debra Webb said...

Susan! Great to see you here! Hey, I say do it whatever works best for you!

Debra Webb said...

Thanks, Jane. She was the hardest character to write for me. I'm so glad you liked her.

Debra Webb said...

Angel, I loved that book, too! And the characters were awesome! I start with the basics (name, physical description, date of birth, place of birth and occupation). Then I kind of go from there, giving the character little flaws and idiosyncrasies. After that, I deepen the character as the story evolves.

Debra Webb said...

Mariska, thanks! I hope you'll enjoy my stories. I sure enjoy writing them!

Christine said...

thanks for a fab post! I think your emphasis on character is why I can't let my fourth book's characters go despite some of the plot elements. I LOVE THEM. I know them and their motivations. I don't even CARE if they sell... that's not why I am finishing the story. I feel compelled to tell their story. I can't ignore them.

As for characters that move me: we're currently hooked on DVDs of ANGEL right now. The earlier ones are so wonderful.... I LOVE HIM. and his crew....

donnas said...

Great post. Thanks for sharing. As a reader its always interesting to read from the point of view of a writer. I love when the character is fully developed and has a history. It makes them more real.

Razlover's Book Blog said...

Hi Debra,

Great post and I love reading the books I have read by you!

Some memorable characters are:

1. Webb from Linda Howard's Shades of Twilight.

2. Gray from Linda Howard's After the Night.

3. Kell from Linda Howard's Diamond Bay.

4. Steve Morgan & Ginny Brandon from Rosemary Roger's Steve & Ginny saga

Scarlet Pumpernickel said...

Debra, I love the character Rorke from Kathleen Woodiwiss's Shanna. He is my favorite historical hero. I adore Remmington Steele. You are so right about characters breathing the life into a story. Without well defined characters the best plot falls flat. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

Debra Webb said...

Christine, you can always tell as you read a story when the author LOVED the characters! It shows! Keep up the good work!

Debra Webb said...

donnas, absolutely! We want our characters to feel real--just like us!

Debra Webb said...

Razlover! Great examples of outstanding characters! Thank you so much!

Debra Webb said...

Scarlet, I think you've hit on something there--real people "breathe." The best characters are so real you expect them to "breathe!"

catslady said...

The tv show - Castle. The real actor is Nathan Fillion. I believe he was in a scifi show called Firefly.

Angel said...

Just wanted to let everyone know that all the winners from our guest blogger week will be posted on Saturday's blog. So check back in to see if you've won! Thanks, everyone, for visiting with Debra today!

Minna said...

Great post!

Sue A. said...

As a reader I just want to connect with them. So they have to be humanized and not just barbie and ken dolls with perfect looks, they have to be flawed like all humans are and marked by the lives they've lead.

Virginia said...

I know I am late posting here but I was sure I posted here, maybe the computer ate it. Anyway I just wanted to say I love your books. Like every one else I want my character to have flaws because in real life no one is perfect so they souldn't be in books either.