Saturday, October 10, 2009

Creating Characters and Reviewing Reviewers

Charles has hit upon the truth when he notes that you have to know everything about your characters, whether or not you put it all into your novel. This is because a real person’s background informs every action he takes.  If your character hates women, it may not be relevant to the action that he was raised by an abusive mother, but knowing that fact will certainly help the author write him in a realistic way. Many of my characters are inspired by real people, but they are not based on them.  When I create a character, his life, personality, background and physical attributes are whatever I need them to be for the book. I made a point of not physically describing my main character, Alafair, except in generalities, even though I have a clear picture of her in my head. Many authors actually write lengthy biographies of their characters, most of which never sees the light of day.  I don’t go that far, but I do keep a notebook containing the particulars of all my characters: looks, birth dates, likes and dislikes, life events.  Of course, after several books, my recurring characters have developed lives of their own, and they drive the action rather than the action driving them, just like real life.  The great mystery novelist Graham Green once said, “There comes a time when your character does something you would never have thought of.  When that happens, he’s alive, and you leave him to it.” (I may have used that quote in this blog before, but what good is it to know a pithy quote unless you can use it fifteen or twenty times?)

A thought or two about reviewers: Like everyone else who has ever had a book published, I Google myself regularly to see if any new reviews have come up. I am fascinated by my reviews. They teach me a lot, often stroke my ego, sometimes make me want to stop writing and take up ditch digging. But they always tell me quite a bit about the reviewer. In fact, they usually tell me more about the reviewer than they do the book itself.

A couple of years ago I found a review of my first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, which appeared in the Norman Transcript. Don and I lived in Norman, OK, home of the University of Oklahoma, for several years in our youth, so I feel rather like Norman is “back home”.  The reviewer says many nice things about the book, all of which I appreciated very much However, s/he didn’t like the dialog — or more precisely, the dialect — at all.  I’m afraid I don’t know the name of the person who reviewed the book for the paper. The byline is just “staff writer”  I didn’t know if the writer is a man or a woman, old or young, or anything about him/her at all. But because of the review, I understood the person instantly.  I, too, was once a graduate English student at OU who was self-conscious about her accent.

A well-respected reviewer for a California newspaper loved my first book, hated the second.  That stung.  I think she felt betrayed, because she grudgingly admitted that the third book might indicate that I was “back on track”.  Fortunately for my ego, the very day after the bad review,  I received a wonderful e-letter from a woman in Illinois who loved the book, so I was saved from having to throw myself under a train.  Because, as anyone who has ever written anything knows, you’re always wondering if you’re losing your touch.

There is one well-known reviewer who never met a book she didn’t like.  We all know of whom I speak.  Whether her always glowing reviews are taken seriously or not, she is a lovely and kind-hearted person, and if you’ve just had a novel raked over the coals, you can use her review of your work to soothe your wounded soul.  It’s amazing how credible she becomes when it’s your book she’s praising.  

I’ve found a couple of online reviews that left me gratified and amused at once.  I liked this one:  “The writing style is humorous, and odd.”  I’d like to meet that reviewer.

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