Posts Tagged ‘character development’

I can recall two very distinct moments in my childhood that completely changed the course of my life – at least in terms of my reading preferences and my proclivities as a writer.

The first took place sometime in 1980, when I was about nine.  I’d always been a voracious reader, with a propensity for the creepier stories or the scifi tales in the children’s section of the library.  But truth be told, I have never been genre-monogamous and I read anything I could get my hands on if the first sentence was strong enough to capture my attention.  If I’d been asked on the first day of fourth grade, I would have said that my favorite author was Madeleine L’Engle.  If I’d been asked on the final day of fourth grade who my favorite author was, I would have replied Stephen King. 

At some point in 1980, I discovered my father’s stash of horror paperbacks stacked and wedged against the back wall of a clutter-filled closet in our house.  Books with names on them that included Peter Straub, Richard Matheson, and F. Paul Wilson.  I don’t remember why I was looking in the closet in the first place.  Certainly not because I was seeking reading material.  But I do remember picking the first book off the top of the stack.  The cover art terrified me and I refused to touch the image when I tentatively opened the book.  It was a dark face embossed on a black background.  Blood dripped from its lips.  The book was ‘Salem’s Lot.  The first sentence captured my attention; I wasn’t pulled into the story, I was jerked forward into it headfirst.  With a vague feeling that I was doing something illicit, I grabbed three of the books from the pile and hid them in my room.  I’d taken that book with the horrifying cover art, along with The Stand and The Shining.  My life was forever altered.  I snuck back to that closet many times until we moved, treating it like it was my personal library. 

Of the Stephen King books I devoured that year, my favorite was The Stand.  It was my first exposure to post-apocalyptic fiction.  The very idea that the world’s population could be decimated by a virus that didn’t seem too different from the common cold (at least at first), and that a battle of will and courage could play out in that barren landscape was chilling to me.  As a nine year old, that seemed entirely too real and too probable.  I was, after all, a child of the Cold War and no stranger to paranoia.  I fell in love with King’s use of words, his decriptive artistry, and his ability to develop his characters so quickly and effectively that they may as well have been my best friends.  When I delved into that literary treasure trove, I had no idea that every story I would write over the next thirty years (and hopefully many decades beyond) would be graced by the influence of Stephen King.

The second event that changed the course of my life as an aficionado of horror came two years later, while visiting a friend’s house.  I’ll never know if it was on cable or a video rental (in those halcyon days where Beta and VHS were still battling it out), but I glimpsed George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead on the television and that solidified my calling as a writer.  I collapsed in a heap in front of the TV, mesmerized.  This was another empty world, a post-apocalyptic world like the one I had first encountered in The Stand, but this one was populated by zombies.  Gruesome, shambling, hungry zombies.  I was hooked.  Zombies were now a permanent part of my world.

A few years later I started writing.  When I was nine and ten, I told stories.  When I was somewhere between the ages of thirteen or fourteen, I started trying to capture those stories on paper.  All of those stories were awkward, predictable, and hopelessly juvenile.  But most of those stories, and all my stories since, strove to be character-driven, evocative, and inclusive of an element of the  horrorific intruding upon the everyday world, or of zombies lurching their way into day-to-day living, of characters that the reader (hopefully) cares about and with whom they have established a sense of rapport. 

When I no longer walk this mortal coil, I may leave little else, but at least I will leave my words behind.  And I hope that my stories reflect my profound gratitude and deep appreciation for all that my literary and cinematic heroes have given me.

What movies, books, authors, or events shaped your life as a reader or as a writer?  I’d love to hear your stories!

When I first started writing (that is, writing anything of appreciable length with some semblance of a plot) around the age of 15, I really struggled.  Writing believeable dialogue was a challenge, so I typically wrote stories with one character, or I’d kill the others off so quickly no one would have to interact.  Part of that might have been due to the fact that I am a bit of an introvert, and even my characters don’t like to have to extrovert – but really, it was because writing dialogue that advanced the plot, was engaging, and didn’t feel contrived or forced, was difficult for me then.  I also struggled with character development.  They all felt somehow one-dimensional.  Probably because they were.  My poor paper characters couldn’t have stood up to one of those sub-tornadic gusts Kansans refer to as a breeze.  I also had difficulty with developing an interesting context for my stories.  Looking back, a lot of what I wrote as a kid was based on mimicry.  I didn’t know anything about stealing cars, but I’d just read a book with a character who was a car thief.  Guess who ended up in the awkwardly Lovecraftian story I wrote when I was 17?  That’s right.  A car thief.  Of course, as with all my fiction, he met a rather horrific end. 

One of the few good things about getting older, I suppose, is the increased life experience that lends itself to better writing.  The more I read, the more I hear, the more exposed I am to the natural ebb and flow of conversation in the office, at restaurants or sleazy bars (I am a musician, which makes me a de facto denizen of many sleazy bars), the more my ears have become attuned to more effective, realistic, and convincing dialogue.  So, yeah, you might not notice me sitting beside you at the counter of Waffle House, but I am probably paying at least a little attention to your conversation about the travails of replacing the water main in your backyard, your kid’s weird Little League coach, or your grandfather’s polyps.  I’m listening for both what you say and how you say it.  Who knows when one of my characters might end up needing a colonoscopy?

At risk of sounding creepier, I’m watching you, too.  I’m looking for descriptive detail that I might not otherwise know, but can really benefit from when writing and developing characters.  I’m studying makes and models of cars, paying attention to the rust on the rocker panels and the partially scraped off bumper stickers.  I’m noticing what you wear to work – jeans and work boots, heels and a mini skirt, a Little Ceasar’s costume – whatever.  You – the cook at Waffle House in Franklin, Indiana – yeah, you.  Don’t think I didn’t pay attention to how you multi-tasked the orders, how you cleaned the grill, how you interacted with the wait staff, and how you kept the restaurant running like a well-oiled machine.  You’re already immortal.  You’ll find yourself in my new short story, Public Enemy.  Apologies in advance for the infectious zombie bite you incurred when you stepped out for a smoke.

I’m paying attention because this increases my fund of knowledge, incrementally keeps refilling the well that I draw my words from, and offers me glimpses of possible scenarios and compelling characters.  Is writing still difficult for me?  Of course it is.  Sometimes I have to pry the words out with a crowbar.  If nothing else, I am learning that being a writer is as much about technical skill as it is about passion and perseverence.  But by keeping my eyes and ears wide open, I discover my characters are already walking beside me.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been toying with neuroticism.  Not my own, although I’ve got a pretty good stockpile of that.  I’ve been thinking about character development, and the role odd little quirks and psychological peccadillos can play in making a protagonist, or a villain, more intriguing.  This is a bit of a natural line of inquiry for me, as I was a psychologist who wanted to be a writer in my previous life; now I am a writer who was once a psychologist, although my love for the behavioral sciences hasn’t waned.

Most of my characters are average joes, leading average lives with the same fears, frustrations, and concerns that so many of us share, who are suddenly thrust into a situation outside their control or forced to make decisions that are nightmarish in nature or implication.  But what if one of them struggled with attention deficit disorder in a world dominated by zombies seeking to devour the flesh of the living?  What if a recently-turned vampyr struggled with depersonalization?  How would uncontrolled auditory hallucinations and psychosis affect one’s ability to survive in a post-apocalyptic world?

When Chuck Wendig (who’s blog, Terrible Minds, happens to be outstanding)  issued a three sentence flash fiction challenge, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to toy with the concept of introducing a psychological quirk and seeing where it would lead.  As with most of the paths I walk, it lead into a pretty dark place.  This flash fiction piece, Head Count, is the result.  Enjoy!

His undead neighbors shuffled ceaselessly below his third story apartment window and his compulsion to count and touch them had become almost unbearable; at first he’d thought the desire to count was a quirk – annoying, yet harmless – but now he knew better.

As he counted his remaining shotgun shells and adjusted each with meticulous care to ensure that they lined up across his cheap Formica kitchen table in ranks and files with perfect alignment and proximity, he wondered if 27 would be enough.

He loaded his shotgun, inverted the barrel, and stared into its black depths; as it turned out, one round would be sufficient.