Meet my main character(s) blog tour

This is new for me. Friend and fellow writer Madhuri Blaylock (author of YA urban fantasy series The Sanctum) tagged me to join in on the Meet My Main Character blog tour.

My first question was, what the hell is this? Then I read Madhuri’s blog entry, and it clicked. Basically, this is a great way to share with readers and other bloggers some key and interesting facts about the characters who make up our literary worlds.

So now it’s my turn. The book: my supernatural suspense novel The Last Conquistador. Here goes.

1. What is the name of your main character? Is he or she fictional or a historical person?

The Last Conquistador tells two parallel stories, one set in the present day and one set in the past, so there are two main characters. Randy Velasquez is a young American soldier stationed in Germany. He’s totally fictional, though I drew on my experiences as a soldier in Germany to create much of the setting and even some situations.

Rodrigo is the main character of the second part, which is set in the past. He is a 17-year-old Spaniard who sets off for the New World in search of riches. He is fictional, though I based many of his exploits and misadventures on the true and wild tale of Cabeza de Vaca.

2. When and where is the story set?

Randy’s story is set in the present in Germany. I chose this setting for two reasons. After living there as a soldier, I realized that, with a couple of exceptions, I’d never seen this setting in fiction before. Also, one of the themes of this story is being lost in a strange world. For Randy, Germany is a weird place that he’s never able to conquer.

Rodrigo’s story, which begins in the year 1530, spans Spain, Cuba, what is now the southwest US, and Mexico. Similar to Randy, though more extreme, he’s a stranger in a hostile land.

3. What should we know about him?

For both characters, their character traits drive the story.

Randy is brash, tenacious, and is stubborn. He’s a bit of a smartass, a little cocky and sometimes he goes too far, which gets him into trouble. But he never gives up.

Rodrigo is hungry and determined. He grew up the second son of a tanner in a small Spanish village, but he always lusted for adventure. This will get him into more trouble than he ever imagined. But his determination and hunger are what will carry him through some tough times.

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his life?

For Randy, the trouble starts because of his German girlfriend Lise. The day after she tells him she’s pregnant, she leaves him. Randy is determined to find her and win her back. But everyone around him throws roadblocks in his path, and he learns that Lise is not who she appeared to be. Not only that, but there’s a demon chasing him.

Rodrigo is in love with Elena. When her father turns down his marriage proposal, he vows to become a rich conquistador to prove his worth. But luck isn’t on his side. He becomes shipwrecked among hostile Indian tribes and spends the next several years trying to find his way back home.

5. What is his personal goal?

Randy’s goal is to find Lise and win her back. He wants her, he wants their baby, he wants this fantasy life he’s built up in his head, and he refuses to let that go, demon or no demon.

Rodrigo’s goal at first was to amass wealth and prestige. but once he’s marooned, his goal is simply to survive.

For both characters their goals are shaped by who they are. Rodrigo’s hunger drives him. He wants so much from life. this helps him survive against long odds, but it also leads to disappointment. Randy is stubborn in his hope, which sees him through some dark times. It’s the key to his ability to battle the demon which he can never seem to shake.

And now, for the next stops on the blog tour, check out these writers as they discuss their main characters:

Christa Wojo talks about David from her novella The Wrong David.

Check them all out. And if you’re a blogging writer, climb on board.

Read this book: The Last Policeman

Apocalypse stories are divided into two camps:

1. The impending doom, where we see the event plus its aftermath (or see it thwarted)

2. The post apocalyptic, where a remnant of survivors has built a new and dangerous world from the wreckage of the old.

Ben H. Winters, in his novel The Last Policeman, gives us what should be a new sci-fi subcategory all its The Last Policemanown: the pre-apocalyptic world.

Hank Palace, the hero of The Last Policeman, has always wanted to be a detective (a desire that in part stems from the fates of his parents). A rookie cop with the Concord, New Hampshire Police Department, he gets his wish, but only because an impending cataclysm has opened up a detective slot.

This impending cataclysm? A kilometers-wide asteroid named Maia heading straight for Earth.

In the world of The Last Policeman, everyone knows that Maia will arrive in several months to end life as we know it. Several months of knowing that doom awaits. Imagine that.

Winters does a stellar job in describing what life is like in this world. And he does so mainly through the eyes of Palace, a solid, tenacious, and kind protagonist who the reader quickly grows to like.

Hank Palace is not a man trying to save the world. He’s just trying to do his job.

The plot is simple enough: a man is found hanging by his neck in a McDonalds bathroom. Suicides are rampant in this world, but Palace isn’t convinced this is a suicide. He doggedly investigates while others tell him not to bother. What he gets is apathy and stonewalling. But he never gives up, even as many in the world around him (literally) do.

In many ways this is classic crime noir. Think Raymond Chandler, with his misdirection (and even a femme fatale). This element of The Last Policeman hooked me. I’m a big fan of Chandler — he inspired me to write my novel The Last Conquistador, and I proudly employed his techniques.

Winters amps it up, though, in that he throws us a sci-fi curveball in Maia. On a technical level, I admire the way Winters uses newscasts, media reports, and recollections to tell us about Maia — how he effectively intersperses the info without giving us a data dump.

He also peppers The Last Policeman with fascinating details of life on a doomed planet. For instance, that McDonalds where the body was found? It wasn’t really a McDonalds. Corporate HQ closed, and the remaining stores were run by whoever wanted to sell their own food. All over the world people are abandoning their old lives to pursue a final dream. Or, they’re just giving up.

The Last Policeman is part of a trilogy. I’ve read the second, Countdown City (also great), and Winters does an even better job in describing a society desolate, dejected, but still clinging to threads of hope. In fact, he just won the Philip K. Dick award for best sci-fi book for Countdown City.

Life on a doomed planet: it’s not a cheery topic, but it’s rich with dramatic possibilities.

 

On writing: race and the universal

I write about outsiders, mainly — characters who, in one way or another, are cut off from humanity at large, often in ways that aren’t obvious.

Take Danny, for instance, in my supernatural story Always Mine. He’s 15, plays for his high school lacrosse team, and he fits in well enough at school. He’s a good looking white suburban kid. Nothing wrong with his life, right? No, except that his mother is physically abusive and depressive, and his father is deployed to Iraq during the height of the conflict. He is alienated in ways that are hidden, even to himself. That makes it easy for him to fall for Tina, the new girl next door, who uses her Ouija board for not-so-good purposes.

As with Danny, many of my protagonists have been white (and male), in part because that has been my experience, so it’s easy to climb into that skin. But I enjoy writing heroes who are neither of those. Take Randy Velazquez. He’s the star of my book The Last Conquistador. His Hispanic heritage is vital to the story, but for him, it’s just a mundane fact of his life. He doesn’t strongly identify with it, and he doesn’t have the time for it to be an issue, between trying to track down his pregnant runaway girlfriend and dodging a creepy demon.

And a story I’m working on now centers around a 14-year-old Chinese-American girl, Mina. Her ethnic background is secondary to the story. So how do I, as a white guy, approach writing Hispanic or Native American or Asian or African-American characters? Simple, actually. I write them as human beings. My philosophy in writing any character is to get to their common human essence first, and then go from there.

But there seems to be a lot of reluctance to do this, especially in the world of movies and television. Too often nonwhite actors play roles that can only be played by nonwhite actors. It’s rare that you get a Will Smith in I Am Legend. That’s a shame for all of us, because it limits all of our imaginations.

A fellow Jersey City writer, Madhuri Blaylock, wrote a great novel titled The Sanctum: Book One: The Girl. It’s a paranormal thriller that follows Dev, a half angel/half demon teenage girl who is kick-ass. Dev, in a matter-of-factly way, is African American. Blaylock scored a hit with Dev because she wrote her from a place of universal experience. There is no preaching or educating, just entertaining. In a lot of ways, Dev reminded me of Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games in that she was 100% relatable. You do not have to be female, black or a teenager to follow Dev as she fights the forces of the Sanctum. Plus, her love interest Wyatt is white; it’s about time we’re moving past the point of interracial relationships being any kind of issue. I highly recommend checking out this thrilling book.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe there’s a place–even a need–for stories unique to gender, culture, age, race, sexuality and religion. But there’s also a need for people who are any or all of the above to be universally relatable. None of those qualities should matter all that much in our day-to-day lives. As writers we can make it so, at least in our fictional worlds.

Fictional faces brought to “life”

One artist is translating writers’ descriptions of their fictional characters. The results are jarring.

For me, half the fun in reading a book is imagining it in my mind’s eye. Sometimes I get a clear image of the characters; other times the image is hazy as the action takes control. Either way, I’m engaged in creating this world in my own imagination with the blueprint that the writer provided.

Brian Joseph Davis has taken some of the best known — beloved and infamous — literary characters and created sketches of them using law-enforcement composite sketch software. He’s compiled the sketches, and the original descriptions, on his website The Composites.

Take Mr. Wednesday, one of the major characters in Neil Gaiman’s classic novel American Gods.

As described by Gaiman:

Shadow looked at the man in the seat next to him…He grinned a huge grin with no warmth in it at all…His hair was a reddish gray; his beard, little more than stubble, was grayish red. A craggy, square face with pale gray eyes…The man’s craggy smile did not change…There was something strange about his eyes, Shadow thought. One of them was a darker gray than the other…humorless grin…Wednesday’s glass eye… He was almost Shadow’s height, and Shadow was a big man.”

And as visualized by Davis?

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That’s not how I pictured Mr. Wednesday in my head. To me he was older, craggier, beefier.

There’s more on Davis’ website. Here’s Marla Singer, from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, as Palahniuk describes her:

My power animal is Marla…Black hair and pillowy French lips. Faker. Italian dark leather sofa lips…Marla stares up at me. Her eyes are brown. Her earlobes pucker around earring holes, no earrings…She actually felt alive. Her skin was clearing up…Marla never has any fat of her own, and her mom figures that familial collagen would be better than Marla ever having to use the cheap cow kind…Short matte black hair, big eyes the way they are in Japanese animation, skim milk thin, buttermilk sallow in her dress with a wallpaper pattern of dark roses…Her black hair whipping my face…The color of Marla’s brown eyes is like an animal that’s been heated in a furnace and dropped into cold water. They call that vulcanized or galvanized or tempered.

And here’s Davis’ image.

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My favorite of Davis’ images is the one that captures a different view of a classic character. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley describes the monster as:

Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing… but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

And here he is:

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With all the Hollywood depictions of the Monster as monstrous, it’s easy to forget that he was not created to be hideous.

As a reader and a writer, I’m not a fan of over-description. In my book The Last Conquistador, I tried to be sparse but concise in my descriptions of the characters. For instance, the protagonist Randy describes his wayward girlfriend Lise as “solid and shapely, like the kid sister of a truck stop waitress.” I wanted to seed a broad image in the reader’s mind.

In Always Mine, Danny, the young hero, meets the stepfather of Tina, the mysterious girl next door that he has a crush on. How do I describe Bob? Using just a few key images:

“He shook Danny’s hand rough and hard. He was meaty with a walrus mustache, and he glared as if Danny harbored bad intentions for his daughter.”

While I prefer the less is more approach, after browsing through Davis’ website and comparing the writers’ words with the sketches produced, I have a greater appreciation for those writers who are meticulous in crafting their characters. It’s fascinating to see how writers shape the worlds we create in our minds.

Read this book: The Demonologist

Andrew Pyper proves that horror can live alongside literary fiction.

In one sense, The Demonologist is a highbrow book. Its touchstone is John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

the demonologistParadise Lost, published way back in 1667, is a classic (long, long) epic poem that chronicles the fall of Adam and Eve, Lucifer and a whole bunch of demons. It is the definition of literature. I read it in high school. It wasn’t fun. I haven’t read it since.

Now along comes Andrew Pyper, who valiantly tries to make Paradise Lost interesting. He pulls it off.

In The Demonologist, our hero David Ullman is a Columbia University professor who specializes in Milton’s Paradise Lost. He is visited by a creepy woman who offers him a huge sum of money to fly to Venice and consult with her mysterious employer on the topic of demons. His marriage in shambles, he agrees, and takes along his old-soul 12-year-old daughter Tess. In Venice, he sees something that make him believe demons may in fact be real, and then witnesses his daughter plunge from the hotel roof and disappear.

The rest of the novel follows David as he searches against reason for his supposedly dead daughter, encounters demonic forces and dodges church henchmen.

In The Demonologist, Pyper pulls a brilliant switch — what the demonic forces want from David is really simple, so simple that I can’t believe it hasn’t been explored before (maybe it has). I won’t spoil it, but it’s a great play on Pyper’s part. He’s a strong writer. His descriptions of evil are fully sensual and always unsettling. He touches on themes of mental illness and the complicated relationships between parents and children without being overbearing. And, most importantly, he is willing to make the reader feel acutely uncomfortable. He kills innocents in service to the story. That is horror.

Pyper does one more thing in The Demonologist that I like: he uses the reluctant hero. Thriller stories tend to rely on the valiant/flawed hero. Think the suave yet emotionally remote James Bond, or FBI agent with a scarred childhood Olivia Dunham from TV’s Fringe. These heroes are fun to follow, but as a reader and writer, the reluctant hero is the one I identify with. In my book The Last Conquistador, the hero Randy Velasquez only wants to find his girlfriend. He doesn’t care much about the demon chasing him, except that it’s standing in his way. Similarly, in The Demonologist, David doesn’t even believe in demons – he’s an atheist. He only wanted a big fat check. Now he just wants his daughter back. If it wasn’t for that, he would have probably returned home with Tess and rationalized the whole Venice episode away.

But then we wouldn’t have had such a thrilling and surprising story.

When it’s dangerous to dream

Dreams in fiction are hard — but not impossible — to pull off.

Why? Two reasons. 1) most dreams are fragmented (to ourselves) and boring (to others), and 2) a book/TV show/movie is essentially a dream: the writer is asking the reader to suspend their disbelief. To add a dream within a dream is tricky, and risks pulling the reader from the main story.

But dreams can be effective. Let’s look at the movies.

Cover of "Inception"

Cover of Inception

Inception was a great film about lucid dreamscapes. The viewer was never sure where reality ended and dreams began, even after the movie ended. Some people hated the whole movie because of this, but for me it worked.

The Nightmare on Elm Street series wasn’t just a bunch of teen slasher flicks. It was also a clever way to exploit nightmares common to all of us. Even in our worst nightmares we know on some level they are just dreams. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, this was no longer true.

And on TV?

I can’t skip over the single worst use of dreams EVER: when the writers of mega-soap Dallas passed a whole season off as a dream. Horrible. Unbelievable.

Anyway…

Restless (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Restless (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer had an episode titled Restless. It’s almost entirely dream sequences. Each of the four main characters, Willow, Xander, Giles and Buffy, experiences dreams–surreal dreams–that convey character and information vital for future episodes. It was unorthodox storytelling, and it worked. 

In Doctor Who, the episode Amy’s Choice followed Amy, Rory and the Doctor as they are forced to distinguish between reality and a dream world. They face mortal danger in both realms, and must choose to “die” in the dream in order to awaken in reality.

These all worked because the dream was integral to the story being told.

What about shorter dreams? I’ve used them in my writing, and it’s challenging. In The Last Conquistador, the main character, Randy, is awakened from a dream, and I describe fragments of it:

“It’s too early to be awake, and it’s not the sun bleeding through my curtains that wakes me. It’s the scratching. At first I think it’s the dream, the one where I’m swimming in the clear Caribbean waters when a hand pulls me under, but it’s not. Scratching, slicing, screeching. It’s not a dream. It’s coming from my window.”

The dream for Randy is part of a break from the world as we know it; as the book progresses, he will “slip” between worlds. And, it’s a short, singular image that melds waking and sleep.

In Always Mine, the main character, Danny, is targeted by an evil spirit after using a Ouija board. The entry point for this evil spirit? Dreams. He eats away at Danny through his unconscious mind. Dreams were the gateway.

Writing dreams is a tricky proposition. It usually only works if it’s an integral part of the story.

Music and mood: Lorde cover conquers Catching Fire

Music, writing, movies/TV can have a synergistic effect, and when it works, it’s powerful stuff.

A couple of years ago, a friend recommended I read The Hunger Games. I resisted — after all, how would a YA novel about a 16-year-old girl hold my interest. I relented, and I’m glad I did, because the author, Suzanne Collins, crafted a character and story that transcended age, gender, and genre. I went on to read the other two books in the trilogy, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, both excellent, though not perfect.

The Hunger Games translated well to the big screen, and Jennifer Lawrence on the screen was everything that Katniss Everdeen was in the book. Catching Fire is getting positive early reviews, and I was looking forward to seeing it.

Then I heard a song from the Catching Fire soundtrack. It’s by Lorde, a cover of a Tears for Fears song from the 1980s called Everybody Wants to Rule the World (click to hear the original).

The lyrics, written over 20 years ago, could have been penned for the movie. Lorde’s voice is creepy and compelling. Just listening to the 2.31 minute song brought the story to life for me. Now I cannot wait to see the movie. Listen below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaVA6sgOpws

I’ve written before about how music has influenced my writing of The Last Conquistador — how unexpected lyrics or melodies left a haunting impression that I wove into the story. The version of this song by Lorde does something similar, even if it wasn’t written for Catching Fire. It captures the desperation of Katniss Everdeen and the whole of Panem society.

Music, images, and words, when woven together, can be a potent combination.

 

 

Read this book: The Man From Berlin

The scariest monsters, it turns out, are all too human.

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My Friend Luke McCallin‘s great book The Man From Berlin is a historical thriller set in Nazi-occupied Sarajevo. It’s a page-turner, ideal for anyone who loves reading about other times and places. McCallin creates (or re-creates) a time period with mesmerizing detail.

But part of me was hesitant to read it. Why? The protagonist, Gregor Reinhardt, is an officer in the German army. When I read I like to try and identify with the main character. I didn’t want to identify with a Nazi. Luke reminded me that not everyone in the German army during World War II was a Nazi.

Okay.

That distinction wasn’t fine enough for me (and I’m still borderline). Lucky for me I got past this hesitation, because McCallin very subtly walks Reinhardt through the Nazi house of horrors. In the beginning, Reinhardt compartmentalizes: he’s a German soldier, separate from the Nazis. By the end, Reinhardt’s eyes are opened and he sees, like it or not, that he is playing a part in the evil the Nazis are perpetrating, even if his own hands aren’t bloody.

What is common knowledge for all of us – the atrocities committed – is new learning for Reinhardt, and through his eyes we come face to face with the scariest monsters of all, and they aren’t the demonic type. They are not vampires or werewolves or aliens. They’re human.

Take the character of Marija. The novel opens with Reinhardt being assigned to investigate her murder. She’s Croatian, but she collaborates with the Nazis, cataloging, observing, maybe even participating, in their horrors with creepy glee. Now, I have some doubts about whether she was as evil as depicted – she’s only described by others; we never actually see her in action. There’s a chance she was a scapegoat for others with their own agendas. Maybe. But it’s hard to read her as anything but a gorgeous monster.

I love to write about ghosts and monsters. The Last Conquistador stars a demon wreaking havoc on the life of a young Army soldier. But what I write is pure escapism – it’s safe to live in an imaginary world of ghosts and demons and vampires. It’s much harder to look head-on at the evil and danger that exists in this world, which is probably why we love roller coasters and monster movies.