10 Tips for Building Believable Love Stories

One of my favorite love stories.

For those of you who couldn’t make it to my Athens Writers Association class in Athens last weekend, here’s a taste of what we discussed —

  1. Make your characters interesting. The best way to make me believe the love story is to make me believe in them. No matter how good the blueprint, if your building materials are Styrofoam and gummy bears, that cathedral ain’t standing for long. The more interesting and complex your lovers are, the more we’ll believe in them and root for their ‘happily ever after’. If your having trouble with the love story, go back and spend more time figuring out who these people are.
  2. Go for an off-kilter aesthetic. Symmetry is beautiful but, to me,love stories thrive in the place between beauty and ugliness. Let me explain— the cheerleader and the jock get together. They both like the same things, the same movies, and same religion. They’re perfect for each other. Are you asleep yet, ‘cause I am. There’s nothing wrong with that story if there’s an important ‘other’ element (’perfect’ couple must overcome her drinking problem or they’re both men- and it’s 1950). But in most cases, I’m more interested in the people you wouldn’t think would be together. My character Maurice (who follows the god of Darkness) falls for servant of a rival god just as a war is about to break out. A different Maurice (E.M. Forster’s) is a college-educated city man who falls for a simple (but super-charming) games-keeper. This is not just about differences in background, this is about the characters seemingly having good reasons to have no interest in each other and yet finding themselves very interested indeed.
  3. There’s obstacles to their happiness. Now, you could say that’s more about good storytelling than being ‘believable’ and yet part of the real world is diving into challenges and changes as you add a new person into your life. Your family might not approve; their family might not approve. You might live in different cities. But better yet — you might not agree about everything. I think some of the best love stories have the characters standing in the way of their own happiness. Can they move aside and allow themselves the happy ending? And should they? Love can spring up between diametrically opposed characters, say a detective and a killer, and they may love each but still make choices that ensure they won’t walk into the sunset together.
  4. Neither one is perfect. Most often the hero (male or female) in more interesting and flawed and the ‘love interest’ is some sort of perfect, beautiful, glowing god or goddess from the sky. No matter how great they appear to their lover, the love interest should have flaws, even tiny ones. In my mind, Edward (in Twilight) was a little too boring and perfect — a wish fulfillment for an accessory instead of a human being. Compare that story to My So-Called Life’s Angela and Jordan. The most interesting thing about us is often our weaknesses. And it’s often those weaknesses that we are most protective of in those we love.
  5. When it comes to cliches, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There’s certain phrases (and situations) that you should probably avoid like the plague (I promise to stop now). The ‘tripping into a stranger’s arms’ or ‘both reaching for the last- whatever’ are pretty overused as meet-cute devices. And I shouldn’t have to tell you to avoid actual cliches like ‘Her heart skipped a beat’. That said, don’t give up the emotion or impact you’re looking for, just find a more clever way to express it. In the beginning of Jumping the Broom, Sabrina is tired of sleeping with cheating run-a-round men and makes a promise to God to not have sex again until it’s with her (as yet unmet) future husband on their wedding night. So you get the feeling God is about to introduce her to the man of her dreams, and he does — when Sabrina accidentally hits Jason when he walks in front of her car. Her overreaction of bumping into him goes from funny to sweet when the audience sees their both smitten from the start. Likewise, if you feel like your character’s heart really did skip a beat (arrhythmia) then write that, but write it in such a way that it’s uniquely you (or better yet, uniquely your character). ‘Lucy decided she was having a heart attack, right now, right here in Josh Logan’s office. Josh raised his beautiful eyebrows in concern. Great, thought Lucy, I meet the man of my dreams and the only place he’ll ever take me is to the morgue.’ Dig past what you’ve seen and try to really connect to your character, where they might meet someone, and how they might react (especially if it’s not smooth).
  6. The best times aren’t the most perfect times. The best kiss, most romantic date, hottest make-out session, and favorite moment may not be exactly as planned. Scarlett and Rhett first kiss beside a dirty wagon with an unconscious woman and a baby in it, and he’s about to abandon her to drive miles by herself through a war torn countryside. Oh yes, and Atlanta is burning to the ground behind them. Their both soot-stained and sweaty — and it’s a great kiss. Much better than if they were in a perfect hotel room with glasses of Champagne. The same way that the ‘perfect’ first date with your crush might be ruined when he has to drive you to the hospital because your best friend got into a car crash- while driving drunk. Worst night ever? Not so fast, your friend was all right and while you watched her sleep, your crush sat down beside you and took your hand — and in that moment you kind of knew he was going to become your husband.
  7. Make us believe these two could have a great life together. Whether or not you have a sunset planned for your two leads, we (the readers) should at least believe it could happen. By which I mean, their personalities and souls are compatible. Do they laugh together, get each other’s humor and priorities? Do they respect the other’s mind? Even if they are opposed in some major way (she’s going to war/ he’s a pacifist) you still want to believe they could be happy if that one thing didn’t exist. Some characters fight and misunderstand each other so much that I want to separate them now, and I’m certainly not betting on a golden anniversary. In the same way, if your characters break up and get together more than once — I’m gone. I’ll go give my heart to a love story I can believe could work out longterm. The exception is something like the film Sid & Nancy: totally screwed-up characters whose destiny is to burn down the world with their love — and hate.
  8. Don’t fall into traditional boy/girl relationships. This is related to the tip about cliches. You may have noticed that in a couple of examples above, I role-reversed (she have a drinking problem/she’s going to war). That’s because few places force characters into tighter traditional roles than love stories. ‘“Don’t leave me!” She begged, clinging to his sleeve. He shook her hand away- cold, unfeeling.’ Youch. But what if you reversed it? Suddenly, it’s at least a little interesting. In Fall Street Claire is a sensible, sane, and intelligent 15 year old. Tommy is the popular kid two years older than her. But as they become friends, she realizes he’s a lot more emotionally needy than she is, and she had to reassure him and look after him. The reverse wouldn’t be much of a story, but the fact that people would expect an older boy to act one way (especially around a younger girl) to me gives the scenes more interest. One interesting way to break out of stereotypes is to have both of your characters be male or female. ‘Gay’ films or stories as genre can have their own cliches (just like ‘chick lit’). But I’m not talking about category fiction here — I’m talking about taking the exact story you were already telling and making the lovers the same sex. ‘He’s an ex-marine and the only person who can save the President from an assassin’s bullet. And he teams up with a rookie Secret Service agent to protect the leader of the free world. All the while, sparks fly between these two!’ It would be an interesting twist, and it might help you break out of expectations while writing it (ie the assassin — OF COURSE — holds the agent hostage in the final battle).
  9. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. One of the most believable love stories is ‘the one who got away’. 99.99% of romance stories try to deliver that happy ending — your story can really stand out if you admit that sometimes love can’t conquer all. If you really see your character unable to forgive him, unwilling to move to Bombay, or fatally shot in the final showdown with the assassin, consider following your instinct. There’s always room for another Wuthering Heights or Romeo and Juliette. Now, in a lot of cases, we want the happy ending and woe be to the writer who tricks us. So consider giving us a heads up (right in the beginning the narrator of 500 Days of Summer tells us ‘This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story.’). You can also have an open-ended love story where you leave us hopeful without promising sunsets and grandbabies. In romance even a pinch of doubt can shake the reader out of a rose-colored haze and remind them of events in their own life.
  10. It’s weird and different. In real life, it can be hard to explain exactly why you connect to a certain person, what so funny about them, and why you can’t get them out of your head. Most people will never understand exactly why you fell for each other. But in fiction, the writer needs to make us understand, to feel the love story from the inside out. You can do a surprisingly good job with the simplest story. Imagine a teenage boy — he carries the girl’s books every day, asks after her family, and- is totally ignored. But he keeps trying. And, if she’s worthy of him, we want him to succeed. That said, the shortcuts to connecting to your readers (his startlingly blue eyes, her pounding heart) — we understand we’re suppose to care without really connecting to the story. Your readers, and your characters, deserve better. Dig deep, and discover what makes these two different and how to write something you’ve never read before. My favorite love quote (which I can’t find the source of) is “Her lips were so close, what else could I do?”

And that’s what you want; give your readers no choice but to fall in love with your story, your characters, and your view on romance. It could be the beginning of a lifelong affair.

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What’s Holding You Back?

The following is a guest post from a good friend and fellow Athens Writers Association member, Jennifer Innes.  Jen has shown an incredible amount of courage and persistence in going after her dream and I think we can all learn a lot from her.  Enjoy!   

I started my first novel at some point in middle school. This book was pretty awful, but main themes that would become the ties that bound my writing together were there and it was a good start to what would become an almost twenty year career in writing.

By 2002, I was pretty confident that writing was the path I wanted to take. It was my second year of college and I had to decide where I was going to transfer to and what degree I was going to pursue. I gave up on a lot of different career ideas but writing wouldn’t let me quit and so I went on to get not one, but two degrees in English.

Fast forward eleven years and you’d think I’d have a million books in print and I’d be world famous (okay maybe just moderately famous) but no, I let myself be held back from my full potential. Over the years I’ve written many books, well to be honest, I have half written many books. Almost every book I started sits on a computer drive, half completed, each project waiting to be seen to the end, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Typically life would happen and interrupt the writing process for far too long and then fear would set in.

The only four letter word that truly disgusts me is ‘fear’ because it controls most of my life. With my novels I feared completing them because I was scared of both failure and success simultaneously. I was afraid of these things because in either situation I would be powerless. I began writing as a child to escape the powerlessness I felt and as an adult I still try to escape those feelings which means I don’t finish the novels that want to be finished and I don’t pursue my dreams of being a published author.

But it’s not all a sad story. Several years back I met someone who would become a dear friend to me. He was also a writer and he was also afraid. Together we began a novel that we both were dedicated to and by metaphorically holding each other’s hands, we helped each other complete the novel, edit the novel, and now we are pursuing publication together.

When deciding how to go about publishing our book we settled on self-publishing but wanted to see if other people would be interested enough in our book to help fund some of the publishing costs. We started a Kickstarter campaign on Kickstarter.com for “The Beginning of Whit” to test the waters so-to-speak, and so far the response has been pretty phenomenal. Kickstarter itself was another one of those fearful things because “failure” and “success” are attached to any Kickstarter campaign. But we are pushing forward because the possibility of success will help launch our book and that would feel more amazing than sitting in my comfort zone avoiding failure.

So I ask you, what is stopping you from doing the things you want to do? Is it fear? Is it something you can overcome? Don’t waste twenty years like I did, do something about your hurdles today. I said to a friend once, “I’m my own biggest hurdle.” He said, “Then get out of your own way already.” What sound advice!

Please check out the Kickstarter for “The Beginning of Whit” at:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2121709675/the-beginning-of-whit-a-laugh-out-loud-urban-fanta

Jennifer’s blog can be found at: www.fanwritunit.blogspot.com

Find her on twitter: https://twitter.com/TheLameUnicorn

Find her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JenniferInnesAndrewGrace

How To Become Beloved

  • Give it away — your time, your love, your heart
  • Say the sweet things you usually only think
  • Work hard
  • Always be honest, even about the little things
  • Keep your promises
  • Help others achieve their dreams
  • go the extra mile
  • Don’t take your frustrations out on others
  • Seek the things that make you make smile, then smile about them
  • Find a life so exciting that others cannot help but grin when they think about you
  • Find money and material items to be some of the least important things on Earth
  •  Love yourself
  • Let your inner glow, light, madness, and weird-irasity shine
  • See everyone as perfect at a soul level
  • Have empathy, or at least, have sympathy
  • Do little surprises for those you love all the time
  • Know it is better to be tricked a couple of times in your whole life than to be suspicious all of your life
  • Dance when your spirit call you to
  • Know that everyone is a ‘bad dancer’, ‘nervous about public speaking’, ‘afraid to talk to that person’, and could ‘never do that’ even though they’d love to — and then go be the person that shows everyone how awesome life is on the other side of fear
  • Love animals, nature, and life
  • Listen to other intelligent opinions
  • Know your worth, and refuse to spend time with anyone who doesn’t treat you as a magical, beautiful, perfect being
  • Seek adventure
  • Always have a beginner’s spirit and a master’s patience
  • Find the one thing you were put on Earth to do, and do it
  • Put down the phone when you are already in a room with people you love
  • Look others in the eye when talking to them
  • Never make jokes that are cruel
  • Give your ‘positions of power’ away but keep your strength
  • Love everyone
  • Live in the now
  • Know that you are worth it
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff
  • Turn off the TV and talk to others
  • Be a geek about anything you love
  • Be kind in words and thoughts , even to those who are cruel — especially to those who are cruel
  • Don’t steal
  • Look at life as a blessed, gifted miracle
  • Release worry
  • Embrace how awesome you are
  • Live the life of your dreams
  • Realize that you need only be and act from your highest, truest self and you will be instantly beloved by those you are meant for — and those who don’t understand and value your perfection you are happy to release to go on their way
  • Be kick ass.
  • Remember that in a hundred years none of this will matter
  • Remember today matters
  • And always —

A Writer’s ‘Most Enjoyable’ TV Shows List

I put the question of this ‘top ten’ to my sister, with the stipulation of ‘most enjoyable’.  The reason was not to exclude hard-to-watch dramas but rather to alleviate the fears that one would have in creating a BEST list.  So this is really about my favorites, not the ones I believe should be on display in the Smithsonian or that we should force schoolchildren to watch.

WARNING: Tiny spoilers within.

And so without further ado —

The Nominees

(basically shows I’d seen at least one season of and could imagine making it into the top ten)

Parks and Rec

The Sarah Conner Chronicles

30 Rock

Quantum Leap

Royal Pains

Simpsons

X-Files

Justified

Deadwood

Glee

The Vampire Diaries

Nip/Tuck

The West Wing

True Blood

Boardwalk Empire

The Glee Project

Spongebob Squarepants

American Dad

Family Guy

Rocky & Bullwinkle

Being Human

House

Life on Mars (UK)

Life on Mars (US)

Sherlock (Granada)

Sherlock (BBC)

Doctor Who

Mad Men

Walking Dead

Breaking Bad

South Park

Lost

Firefly

Buffy: The Vampire Slayer

My So-Called Life

24

Freaks and Geeks

Coupling (BBC)

American Horror Story

Girls

And now, the WINNERS —

No. 15 —Mad Men

Mad Men has been a giant influence for years now, from the amazing characters like Peggy, Don, and Pete, to its beautiful, restrained look at a bygone era.  Its only not higher on my list because it’s become too restrained for my case — I just want to have my favorite characters in the same room talking about things that matter and yes, I’ve watched for hours waiting for Pete and Peggy to talk to each other.

No. 14 — Justified

An odd choice, since I’ve only seen the first two seasons so far, but the quality of dialogue and the acting is transfixing.  “I don’t think of myself as an angry man.”  “Raylan, you’re the angriest man I’ve ever known.”  Shivers.

No. 13 — Nip/Tuck

Now with this one, I’ve only seen the first few seasons but I’ll never forget them.  This show is classic Ryan Murphy — funny, daring, heartfelt, cold, warm, and with lines and characters you can’t stop thinking about.  Other Murphy shows just missed the cut.  Christian is a character for the ages, and the way he’s subverted by his experiences makes you rethink human nature.  He’s a bit like a Damon Salvatore as explored by Ryan Murphy — to which I say ‘Oh hell yes!’

No. 12 — Life on Mars (UK)

This is one of those perfect series, a phrase that you rarely hear on TV.  The American version was good too — but this one’s great.  This is another era done right; its version of the ‘70s is letting it all hang out, with the clothes and lingo taking a back seat to the sexism, racism, and the police’s occasional brutality.  But at the heart of all that is a hero who wants to get home and wants to discover the childhood (and father) he never really had.  Heartbreaking and awesome — can you dig it?

No. 11 — Sherlock (BBC)

Another near-perfect series.  I had my doubts about this one (and had always only been a light Sherlock Holmes fan) and yet it’s been fantastic, shaking the source material up and turning two of our best British actors loose to charm the pants off the audience.  The creators said they only do three episodes every few years because they want to only have the highest quality of writing — and it shows.

Sherlock Holmes: Punch me in the face!

Dr. John Watson: Punch you?

Sherlock Holmes: Yes, punch me in the face! Didn’t you hear me?

Dr. John Watson: I always hear “Punch me in the face” when you’re speaking but it’s usually subtext.

No. 10 — Doctor Who

Doctor Who is the ‘It’s so fluffy!’ line from Despicable Me turned into a series: you simply can’t deny that much excitement, passion, and joy.  It makes you glad such things exist in the world.  And yet it has a profound heart, and a real understanding of humanity that makes this such a long-running favorite.  The Doctor loves the human race in a way we ourselves often can’t, and yet at the end of the day he must stand apart from the things he loves.  Also, probably the best idea ever for a TV show.

No. 9 — Lost

This is my love it/hate it entry.  The series went on a bit long, I abhorred ‘sideways world’ and yet . . .  Great writing makes me say, “Oh!  I’m so jealous — I wish I’d written that!” And I went around all the time I was watching seasons 2 and 3 thinking that.  It wasn’t perfect, but man, it was on SO much of the time, and it brought adventure and mystery to the small screen in a way I’d never seen before or since.

No. 8 — The West Wing

I just started watching this show this year and it’s already made the top ten.  I mean, come on!  How couldn’t it?  It’s Lincoln meets The Social Network.  The characters (and actors) are some of the best ever put together (and they are so often together, in the same room talking about important things).  And the story lines make you remember what HBO made you forget: that great dramas don’t need violence and sex to have truly great drama.  This show has actually made me a better person who cares more about her world.

No. 7 — Spongebob Squarepants

‘Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?’ And so starts some of the funniest, sharpest writing anywhere on TV (I recommend seasons 2 and 3 for maximum laughs).  Spongebob must be a spiritual sibling to the Doctor, because they both live life to the fullest.  The number of quotes that are still spoken daily by me attests to its staying power.  “I’m ready!  I’m ready!’

No. 6 — My So-Called Life

This show was a couple of spots higher and I had to move it closer to number one.  I had heard about it for years and figured I’d like it, but it was just such a perfect dream of character, identity, growing up, and remaining a child that I liked it even more than I thought I would.  And that last scene with Brian — wow — it pretty much influences me (and my writing of Fall Street) to this day.

No. 5 — Firefly

This is the perfect Joss Whedon show in my mind (I’ve only seen one season of Buffy so that might change).  It has it all — super original characters, a great setting, well plotted episodes, and the best funny dialogue written possibly ever.  Come for the charming captain, and stay for his shiny crew.

No. 4 — The Vampire Diaries

I know, I know.  Believe me, I get it.  For a long, long time I never watched a Vampire Diaries even though I like Jane Austin, romantic comedies, and supernatural stories.  I figured it would be vapid, dumb, cruel, and just about guys walking around with their shirts off all the time.  On top of that, I hadn’t thought Ian Somerhalder was that great on ‘Lost’, so who would want to see him as a lead?  How wrong I was.  The Vampire Diaries turned out to be a perfectly plotted show which teases you AND builds over each season.  It is that rarest network show that is going somewhere with its lead characters.  And Elena is a Harry Potter not a Bella and her friends and family mean everything to her.  And Ian?  He blows the doors off the place as Damon and makes him one of the most compelling, most misunderstood anti-heroes in modern television.  Even if he does walk around with his shirt off a lot.

No. 3 — The Simpsons

I did a list like this many years ago and The Simpsons was number one — it says a lot that I watch it much less now and yet it still looms so large.  The show would win awards from me based only on the volume of great TV it’s given — the sheer number of lines, gags, and firsts make it the great elder statesman of today’s cartoon families.  Don’t like The Simpsons?  “Release the hounds!”

No.2 — Deadwood

Some people started with the Sopranos or OZ as their gateway drug into cable drama.  For me, it was Deadwood.  I knew it as ‘That show that won awards and everyone was always cursing’.  Then I sat down with the first season DVD and was awestruck — this was TV, not as I’d grown up with it (TV comedies and stalwart 10:00 pm dramas), but exciting, masterful, and so funny.  Not every story line later on was a winner, yet still, taken together I never saw a world like Deadwood, SD, and never again have met people like Al, Jane, or Trixie.

No. 1 — True Blood

Once upon a time all I knew of Alan Ball was American Beauty and all I knew of the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries was their bright, cartoony covers on book shelves.  Then all that changed.  Bon Temps and its residents came into my heart full force and the romance, humor, humanity, and magic of the place can never be forgotten.  When I watch True Blood (I’ve only seen through season 4) I see so many great things that I want to learn to do in my own stories — and having a kick-butt heroine like Sookie is at the top of the list.

It’s worth clicking on to read it 😉

Is ‘Release Day’ an Outdated Term for Self-Published Books?

I am planning the release of my first book at the end of the month and I have a problem — I don’t have a burning desire to email everyone I’ve ever met, Tweet 24-7 about my “GREAT DEAL! ON AMAZON! CHEEP!”, or prime my fans to buy it on day one or else, I’ll insinuate, they’ll not really my fans at all.  I’m not interested in any of those things.  I’m happily sharing my most inspirational songs on FB and mentioning my book as I do it, but I realized this morning that ‘release day’ just doesn’t mean that much to me.

And then I starting thinking — how important are release dates for self-published books these days?

Now for movies, the first weekend of release is imperative.  Even if a movie ‘has legs’ and keeps making money, a slow opening weekend has very real implications — the actor, the director, and a franchise may be judged against it for years to come.

And for TV shows it’s even worse — a slow start may lead to a fast finish.  Your whole future is riding on a quick and intense public interest in your work.

Now we return to books.  In traditional publishing if a book doesn’t get enthusiasm from the publisher’s sales team, the initial run may be reduced.  If the book doesn’t sell right away, it may lose what little advertising it had, its shelf space, and even be headed for the dreaded ‘remainder bin’.  And then, after only 12-18 months, your book might go out of print altogether and disappear off the face of the Earth.

But with a self published book, everything changes,  Yes, selling more books in a short length of time can help you jump up in the Amazon rankings, but that’s about it.  Your book’s not getting ‘remaindered’.  It’s not going not of print.  You and your book can be on Amazon till the end of time.

I’m planning on growing my fan base (I’m aiming for 100 followers to this blog by the end of the month!) and I’m going to keep writing and improving myself and I plan on my book ‘How To Come Alive: A Guidebook for Living the Life of Your Dreams’ to be the first in a series.  So ‘opening day’ isn’t a big day for me.  It’s like the first day you meet the love of your life — it’s special, but it’s only the beginning.

And you all, my great readers of the world, are the love of my life.  And our adventure is only beginning — no countdown clock needed.

I Dare YOU to Walk the Goat Trail of Life

We’ve lost something, left something, along the old goat trails.  Allow me to explain — I am sitting here in a Starbucks, writing on my netbook, listening on my Beats Tour headphones to Giselle, act II no.15, Pas De Deux (I don’t usually listen to classical music but it seemed conducive to writing) — in other words, surrounded by privilege — and thinking about why my feet are wet.

The reason is I had been walking in the long grass before I got to the goat trail.  And the reason I’m daring you to follow in my footsteps is because of all I’ve learned in the last hour on that trail.

I got up this morning to take our Kia for the dealer for its 90k service.  Such a thing is always long but I thought it would be a good chance to go down to the nearby Starbucks and write without interruption for a few hours.

I dropped off our Kia at 8:00am and started walking.  Now, I should explain that the dealership is on a long commercial stretch beside a five-lane highway (Atlanta Hwy for the Athens, GA locals) that had an exciting, new mall 30 years ago and now has a quite less exciting mall and a slight, tittering-on-the-edge-of-irrelevancy feel.

It’s also a two mile walk to the Starbucks, one mile more than I’d ever walked on this highway (the Best Buy I work at is in the middle, and so I’d seen the dealership-to-Best-Buy portion on many oil changes (I like walking) and yet I’d never walked the Best-Buy-to-Starbucks bit.

Now, this is no ‘bad’ neighborhood and yet I know some would say walking alone, purse clearly out, and my netbook in a larger bag is asking for trouble.  We are afraid of the unknown, and the very act of walking is unknown to our car-driving, latte-sipping culture. So I bopped along happily in the morning sun and through the morning dew (feet getting be-drenched).  I didn’t even have a head phone in one ear, as I usually do on this walk.

I passed by my Best Buy and continued on into the unknown, the unwalked — to McDonalds and beyond.

Here is where my real journey began, the journey of discovery, the journey I suggest you take someday soon.

There were no sidewalks.  There was trash.  People walked from McDonalds toward the Starbucks, back to the apartments behind it.  On my previous walks, everything had been clean because I walked past the dealerships and furniture stores set so far away from humanity that nothing touched their perfectly manicured lawns — except me.

Now, walking beside a snip of woods, I saw that so many people had walked through the grass of this no-sidewalks area as to wear a trail, a path that seemed to me to look just like a little goat trail worn down to the dirt by so many feet.

And it felt like two different time periods were laid out side by side on the Atlanta Hwy — I walked the same dirt path that people were walking through fields and to cities thousands of years ago and meanwhile the present, the future, sped by six feet to my left.

As I walked onward I met my second lesson.  He came across the cross walk to my side on the street.  He was ahead on me but I walk fast and so I was gaining on him.  We were pretty different, he was black and I was white, he was a little older while I’m still a little younger, and he was dressed in a uniform like he might be a delivery truck driver (which isn’t really that different than a Best Buy employee).

We said hi, then commented on the weather.  I joked that it was nice to see the sun; after so much rain my friends and I had been joking that we must have moved to Seattle.  Then he said he had actually lived in Seattle, and Arizona, and fifteen years in Germany.  He worked there as a translator.  We joked about how the Americans often have more trouble understanding the British than other countries because they believe they already know the language and then it was time for him to turn off down his road and I was about at the Starbucks.

And I just couldn’t help thinking this was something that could never happen from behind the window on a speeding car, or even in the little gardens we create for ourselves on the internet, each with their high walls of exclusion.

And it certainly can’t happen if you let a culture that sells fear of our neighbors as six-O’-clock news entertainment tell you how to live your life.

So get out of your house, knock on your neighbor’s door, introduce yourself or, at the very least — find a little risky, slightly abandoned trail and walk the heck out of it.  You never know who you’ll meet there.

Lastly, at Starbucks I asked for a cheese Danish with my smoothie.  The lady behind the counter asked if I wanted it warmed.  I said no, then realized I had never had it that way before because I was always rushing back to my car, back to the road.  So I said yes, heat it up.

She said, “It’s really tasty that way, especially if you have the time to sit down and enjoy it.”

And what is the point of life if you can’t slow down, pull off the speeding highway once in a while, and enjoy a meandering journey down an old goat trail?  Especially one replete with undiscovered friends?

P.S.  The danish was delicious.

Female Characters — Why God, Why Is It So Hard?

I am a woman.  I have an amazing sister who’s a woman.  My mother was one of my biggest influences.  I believe woman can do anything and people are a lot more alike than they are different.

SO, WHY ARE FEMALE CHARACTERS STILL SUCH A CHALLENGE TO WRITE?

I’ve thought alot about this question and I believe these are the reasons (for me) —

  • There are still many more examples of great male characters
  • There are more examples of lousy female characters
  • The white male character is the ultimate ‘blank slate’ on which to write your character and their defects without censure or double-guessing yourself

So, in the first of a continuing series, we’ll explore writing women.  Today, we’ll look at my personal experience.

Now, in my early writing years, I had a couple of female characters at the center of stories, but they tended to be either the ‘normal’ person surrounded by more interesting weirdos or the ‘girlfriend’.  I’m pretty sure none passed the Bechdel test, which states a work passes a gender bias test if there are at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.  Not because they talked about men a lot, but because my one female character would look kind of crazy talking to herself.

At First Glance

The problem wasn’t that I didn’t want to write interesting women characters.  Instead, I tended to think of an exciting situation first, THEN imagine who wound the clock at the end of the world, say.  And I would think of great, complex, charming characters I’d seen and maybe my hero would be a little bit of a lot of characters I’d admired — but most of those amazing roles were men.  So my hero would take form as a man (honestly a John Cusack-type nine times out of ten in the early years).

Break Through

When I started my first novel, Other Gods (and mostly left behind screenplays and short stories), I still didn’t have any female leads.  But I did have a charmer, and a more full and interesting character, in Maurice’s girlfriend Selena.  She hadn’t been intended, she and Maurice just met in one scene and it brought out interesting things in both of them.  And I really didn’t intend the Vengier.  She’s an insane warrior who sees the future.  She’s sort of a spiritual relative to Asajj Ventress from Star Wars: Clone Wars, though she was written many years before I saw that series (and I didn’t know her last name till right now — how interesting is the similarity?).  The Vengier was hardly female, because she was hardly human — she doesn’t have to be great while dealing with a boyfriend, family, or regular desires — but she is a female character and an interesting one, and as such was my first big win in this arena.

A Change is Going to Come

Finally, I started having more interesting female leads.  I think the first time I did this was when I started thinking about a sequel for Other Gods.  There were two young men, mere bit players in the first book, that I sensed would play a larger role in the second.  And then one day I realised  that one of them, the more interesting one who actually became the lead of the book, was a woman.  I wish I could remember the particulars — I think I just had one too many brown-haired boys — but none the less, on that day my first full female character came into being.

Today

Now I have a lot of women running around (both my third and forth novels, which I’m working on simultaneously, have female heroes), but it’s still hard, harder than it should be.  One trick I’ve learned is to, early on in the storytelling process when I’m just thinking about the story and haven’t written anything down, flip the character’s gender.  I know, it goes against my organic take on character development, but I have to do it.  At to least try and see if it works, if it’s better, more true to the character.  Give it a shot yourself.  Because there’s way too few great woman characters out there still, particularly in sci-fi / fantasy.

I believe it’s getting better, both for my own writing and the world at large, but it’s still a damn shame to me that, in my fantasy Spark of Madness, I find it much easier and more interesting to write Roch’s story than his twin sister’s — and she’s the hero.

Let’s all work to add more messed-up, crazy, wonderful female characters to the world so the next generation of writers doesn’t even know what we’re talking about.

Next time we’ll look at the best (and worse) female characters for inspiration, and then the tips and tricks to make your own female characters amazing.