23 June 2010

My Favorite Characters From My Own Stories

Jean recently did a post--from the 7 Things tag--in which she blogged about her seven favorite characters from her own novels. I thought it was a fun idea, so fun that I wanted to do my own version. Jean, being a kind person, informally tagged me. (Don't fear. I am not tagging anyone.) Before I start, I think I should give a little glimpse at my writing development, which will help keep this in perspective.

My writing has always developed in stages, two of which overlap. The first went from the ages of 7 to 10. I don't remember much about this period, except this was when I first started writing and it consisted mostly of personal essays and short stories. There are only two pieces I remember from this time. One is the first thing I ever wrote--a short story about jewel thieves in Paris. Before you ask, it sucked horribly. All of the characters were French yet had American/English names and accents. We won't even go into the nonsensical plot. But it was my first creative effort. I also remember an essay I wrote for school when I was about 9, in which I turned my hated stepfather's rants about the messiness of my room into a celebration of how messy my room was. My teacher adored it, my stepfather hated it--Hehe I directly quoted him--and I learned that the pen is truly mightier than the sword when waging war.

My second phase was from the ages of 10 to 17, but mostly between 10 to 15. This was my emo poet stage. I had a lot of "issues" at this time and I consoled myself by writing angry, depressed poetry, most of which was pretty crappy--and having looked back with hindsight--quite disturbing. As I got older, my poetry got more refined and less angsty, but by then, I had shifted into my next stage of writing, which overlapped some with my poet days. This was my novel writing stage, which lasted from about 13 to 19. I dabbled with several genres--most of the ideas blended historical and crime fiction, but I also played with spy thrillers, fantasy, horror, mysteries, and Westerns--and ended up with a few manuscripts and several more undeveloped ideas. I also wrote one play--an adaptation of the story of Esther. (Do not look for that to be staged at anytime in the near future.)

Looking back as an older--and hopefully wiser--writer, I see that I had some interesting premises and complex characters and some good lines, but my writing at the time was uneven and my plots were often overstuffed. (You know . . . only so many people can die before things get ridiculous. And too many plot twists can be jarring. And too many complex characters, no matter how fascinating, can be distracting.) I think my biggest problem was I was too ambitious. Beginning writers shouldn't set stories in places they have never been, in time periods they have never lived, and attempt to write experimentally a la William Faulkner. I bit off more than I could chew. Waaaaaaaaay more than I could chew.

I stopped writing completely my first year of college--other than diary entries and academic essays--and then resumed writing the next summer on my book blog, posting book reviews. By this time, I was an English major and in between reading classic works and literary fiction, I felt like I would never, ever be a writer. I would read beautiful prose from writing masters and one part of me would think "OMG! Pretty!" and the other part of me would think "WAAAAAAAAA! I can't do that!"

Then, I was assigned to write a poem for one of my classes. Some of you have read it--"Oedipus in Hell." To make a long story short, I was supposed to put an ancient literary character in hell and punish him. I chose Oedipus--a character I actually like and feel sorry for--and banished him to hell, dooming him to pay for his self-mutilation with an, erm, ironic punishment. Most of the people who read it liked it, I made an A++, and I managed to frighten my grandparents with it. (The last one sort of bothered me, because I didn't want to disturb them, but deep down, I was thrilled that I was able to elicit such a visceral response from a reader.)

That assignment made me realize that I could write and I could only improve if I worked on it. To that end, in the past 6 months, I ended up writing and submitting a comic piece about crimes against punctuation to my college's literary magazine, which is not likely to be published, but it was the first time I ever subbed anything; entered and placed second in my college's sonnet contest; and worked on my college's literary journal as an editor. This last one was a great experience, because it confirmed how much nerdy delight I take in editing and revising (I do; I truly do) and it made me realize that there are a lot of talented writers out there--many much more so than me--but there are also a lot of people who think they can write and, well, to be nice, can't. But they at least try to write and they have confidence! So I am working on my writing confidence . . . and my writing. This summer, in some weird full circle, I am back to my early writing career of short stories and poems. I have a few short story ideas I am working on and this July I am going to try to do NaPoWriMo, even though it usually occurs in April. (Hey, I was busy in April!)

So now that you know a bit more about my writing, I will list my favorite of my own characters, all of which come from my still most definitely unpublication-worthy attempts at novels:

1. Ed McPherson (Chicago): Ed is a Depression era mobster in what ended up being my first (and still remains my most complete) novel that I keep changing the title of. (I am leaning toward Once Upon a Time in Chicago, but that's just because I adore Sergio Leone and want to pay tribute to him.) The title isn't the only thing I keep changing. Poor Ed has went through three major personality revisions. At first, he was the tale's antagonist--and his name was David. He was a somewhat charming person, though his charisma masked an over the top psychopathic personality. Then, I decided that those kinds of villains are a dime a dozen in novels, so I changed his name to Ed and made him a relatively good natured, if not somewhat murderous, bad guy who was not the antagonist only because there were no good guys in this story. This was all fine and good, because I adored Ed. He was a fun character to write about. In fact, I adored Ed so much I refused to write an unhappy ending for him, though my brother--who is the only person to ever read my novels--kept telling me that for the story to really work, Ed would have to, you know, kind of, sort of . . . die. *bursts into tears* I refused to write that! Ed was not dying! Ed was my fictional buddy! NOOOOOOOOOOOO! Ahem. I finally decided my brother was right and that the problem was that Ed was too likable. I mean, he kills people for a living. He's not really someone you'd invite home to meet your mother and no matter how laid back and good natured he was, nothing could change that. So I rewrote his personality . . . again. Now Ed is not really psychopathic, but he's acerbic and cynical and ruthless and, to be honest, quite moody. And I don't mean Ed-weird Twilight "But he's so charmingly moody" moody. I mean moody, as in "Leave him alone when he's in one of those moods" moody. Ed's still not the antagonist, but he is no longer a likable character. *sniffles* He's not the man I used to know! But this personality change was for his (and the story's) own good.

2. Carla (Killing Tiny): This is a story--likely a novella--that I started when I was fifteen and, in many ways, is still one of my absolute favorites. Killing Tiny is a noir comedy about, erm, well, killing a fellow named Tiny. Carla is Tiny's sister and is the chief conspirator against her brother. Carla is one of my favorite characters because, though she is far from bright, she has all the tenacity of a pit bull. Come hell or high water, Tiny is going to die! Hehe Now if only Carla and her pathetic band of assassins would stop screwing up their attempts to put Tiny six feet under . . .

3. Shlomo Rabinowicz (Killing Tiny): Shlomo is Tiny's friend and business partner. He's one of my favorites because, well, though I am Jewish, he's the only one of my major characters who is Jewish. My brother has said that I like Shlomo so well because he reminds me of me. That's probably true. I just like writing his kvetching rants. He lives to kvetch. :D

4. Virgil (Chicago): Remember when I was discussing Ed and said his story had no good guys? That's true. But some are better than others. Conversely, some are worse than others. Virgil is about as bad as they get. He's a former hit man who now makes a living fleecing poor hapless souls. He runs a scam charity that purports to "help" those hit hard by the Depression. Of course, the only person Virgil is interested in helping is himself. I can't stand Virgil as a person--partially because he's based on someone I know. No, my acquaintance was not a hit man for the mob, but he was a sleazy scam artist, so I have fun seeing how slimy and smarmy Virgil can be. And O Evil Me has a lot of fun making sure Virgil gets his proper comeuppance. ^^

5. Louie and Nelle (Chicago): If I really and honestly had to choose just one character who is my favorite, it would have to be one of these two. They are the employers of one of my other characters in Chicago. Initially, they didn't even have names. They had no important role, but then I decided that I needed some comic relief. Louie and Nelle seemed like likely suspects. So . . . they went from being nameless employers to hideously tacky employers who bicker with each other constantly--much to the dismay of everyone unfortunate enough to be around them. In fact, I had so much fun with these two knuckleheads that I ended up giving them a major role in the plot just so I could keep writing about them.

6. Jack (Chicago): Jack is a detective in my mobster story. I adore detective novels, but I have found that there are usually only two types of detectives--the utterly brilliant, morally upright, well-to-do amateur detectives of classic English mysteries who are detectives for the sheer fun of it and the disgruntled, disillusioned, dysfunctional detectives of classic American hard boiled fiction who usually despises his job but feels compelled to do it, even if it means breaking the law he is trying to uphold. Jack is a bit of a mixture of both. He's not disillusioned, per se, but he's not really the most ethical guy you'll ever met. (If you want a favor, you should know he likes cash, preferably in non-consecutive bills.) But he is brainy and he does take a great deal of delight in being detective. He's also self-destructive but not in the traditional alcoholic sort of way. He's more neurotic and obsessive in his self-destructive tendencies. Again, my brother says that last point is me coming out in my characters. I think my brother should shut up.

7. Effie (untitled): I have never figured out a title for this story, which is a murder mystery set in Western North Carolina. My family is originally from there, and this novel is based on a true story--with names changed and some artistic license taken. Effie has a small role, really. She's in only one scene, but she was so much fun to write that it wouldn't be right to not mention her. Let's just say the scene she's in involves Effie taking some well-deserved vengeance out on her philandering husband. ^^


  1. I'm glad you ran with this. :D It's fun to see what characters people have lurking in the shadows. By the way, I love the title "Killing Tiny". I declare it awesome.

  2. Jean, Thanks! I really enjoyed writing this. Hehe I am glad you like the title. I usually am terrible with titles. That's the only title of mine that I am truly happy with. :D

  3. Awesome post Zella! It was super interesting reading about your characters and the stages of writing you've gone through. I'm thinking I should do this sometime. Or maybe not, I might kill the characters by getting them out there--they often refuse to be manipulated by my imagination any longer once I tell people about them. That's one problem I've had with writing for a while now-- getting both the plot ~and~ characters solidly together on paper. The characters tend to make a run for it whenever I set them free.
    Luckily I can catch them again sometimes, years later, and put them in a new story where they fit better.
    And I shall now stop talking about my characters as if they're actual, obstinate beings. x)

    My writing stages have consisted of mainly of "early" (under age 6) "middle" (up to tenth grade, the flip point when I began taking AP english) and "now" (from 10th grade and up to this point). I hope with CC and writing more this summer I can begin a new stage where I come out with more than gigantic but incomplete pieces of stories. :D

  4. I can tell you love writing, reading, and your characters, and I enjoyed your brother's insights as well. Now if Effie happens to be a writer then I guess you could say that poetic justice was done? Lol.

  5. Feathery: I would love to see a list about your writing! And I do know what you mean about characters. I talk about mine like they're people. Sometimes I'll just make totally random observations about them, much to everyone else's annoyance. :D

    Eric: Thank you! I do love my characters, even the unloveable ones. They have personalities only an author would love. Ah, Effie isn't a writer, but that can be changed. ^^

  6. Great post, Zella! I loved reading about your characters.
    Now I know you wanted me to post my favorite characters, so here goes...
    1. Bagrat (Reversing Roles)--Of course I'd have to put him in, because I love Bagrat. I love him to death (literally). But even after he was dead I had to bring him back. One thing about him was that I grew to like him more and more as the story went on; and my readers liked him too, so much so that I felt I couldn't just leave him in limbo when he died in Draft 1, so I brought him back. :D
    2. The Coffinmaker (The Coming of Night)--I mostly love The Coffinmaker because of his name. I don't even know when I thought it up, but I loved it immediately. The Coffinmaker is a Scottish vampire mastermind, and he's just awesome. He can change people's emotions; he can see people's past and present choices, and he can kick A-S-S. Only problem was he turned out to be too powerful. So yeah.
    3. Crazy Jack Bananas (The Coming of Night)--I had too much fun with my vampires in TCoN. Crazy Jack Bananas was another vampire mastermind, this time with a Bronx accent. Oh, I loved him. He was really proactive; when his coven was wrested from his grip, he became the first leader of the first online coven in vampire history.
    4. Tony Morrow (That Other World)--Tony is from an old story that I plan on totally rewriting, but even though the whole story will eventually be brought down and rerouted around him, I imagine Tony will stay much the same. I liked him; I liked his name, of course, but I also liked his good-natured yet clever and often sarcastic personality. It perfectly coincided with the fantasy world he was thrown into. He took everything in stride, making silly remarks and using his charm to get him what force couldn't.
    5. Errbert (Reversing Roles)--Errbert originally started out as a sort of royal version of Monty Python's Dennis from The Holy Grail; freedom of the people, progress and all that. But eventually I really liked the pessimistic, frustrated personality he developed. He played perfectly off of Chosen One's optimistic, happy-go-lucky personality.
    6. Cy Walker (The Coming of Night)--Cy wasn't especially funny or amazing or anything, but by the end of the first draft I found myself really liking his character. He was noble and his utmost treasure was his family. His loyalty to his family basically shaped every action he made, and pretty much directed the whole novel.
    7. Slay the Berserker (Got Mythed)--He was just 'The Adventurer' in draft 1, but with his copyrighted battlecry and his antiquated ways, I just felt he needed a name. And after that name was finalized, he became one of the characters I'll never forget.

    Well, thanks, Zella! Great post!

  7. Oooh, cool list, Scott! Thanks for sharing them!

    I am happy to see Bagrat taking first place. I never thought of it before, but I can so see Errbert as Dennis, who is one of my favorite Python characters ever!

    You have the coolest-sounding vampires! :D