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Naomi Kwan: Strong like Water

Naomi is by far the nicest of my protagonists. She is generous and nurturing, a people-pleaser and a compromise-seeker. Unless cornered she will accommodate or retreat rather than confront, and she values peace over principle. She prefers physical exertion to mental effort, and sees no point in learning for learning’s sake.

In short, she is very much my opposite. I guess that philosophical/psychological saying about all of us containing infinities must be true. I created Naomi and adore her. but I have to step outside myself a long way to see life as she does.

Writing about her from other POVs also presented some serious headaches. Some of those characters don’t value the virtues of forbearance and endurance.  To them, Naomi looks like an unintelligent, ineffectual doormat waiting for people to walk all over her. I had to filter my words through their worldview while still showing readers the smart, compassionate, powerful person Naomi can be.

Victimization and abuse are hazards for self-effacing people,  granted, but they’re dangers Naomi has mostly worked out by the time she hits my stories. That was what I had to emphasize. She’s vulnerable, yes. Imperfect, certainly. Weak? No.

Naomi is strong like water: almost invisible, often taken for granted, but able to flow around any obstacle, seep into the smallest space and eventually, inexorably, get to the bottom of everything.

Let me digress a bit to discuss the way character creation meshes  with story design. Many authors start with ideas, plots, plans, or theme and then make characters whose skills and personalities will best present the desired ideas. Others take a real-life approach and put people they know into their stories, either as piecemeal traits or whole characters.

Me?  I … meet them. No, really.  Given the sheer amount of detailed advice and tools devoted to character development an author can find  on the internet, I suspect that’s not the norm, but it’s how I roll.

I came to storytelling through tabletop gaming, where I could sit and make new characters all night. Trait lists, talents, skills, vulnerabilities and fears– they come to me with as little conscious thought as making a fist or walking. I’m sure there’s lots going on under the hood, so to speak, but all I need is a germ of a an idea, a hint of a direction, and I can riff variations on a personality/past/plusses/minuses theme for hours.

Contrast this with my plotting struggles. Reducing the endless possibilities of a beginning to a single resolution requires tedious elimination of alternatives. It’s like chess, and I hate chess. It’s boring and brings me no joy. This explains why my writing process best resembles the technique I developed running role-playing sessions: begin with a set-up and an ending in mind, aim characters at the starting line, and let them find their own way to the ending.

I start every story with a mental image of someone doing something somewhere, and boom. The characters appear. The introductory pieces I write are rarely the first ones in the finished novel (often they don’t appear at all)  but the process itself is pure fun.

In this case, I was able to use the material as my first chapter. Serena showed up first. (I profiled her here, in case you missed it)    Before I finished writing that scene of her getting ready for a party, Naomi popped up from my subconscious fully-formed like some caretaker Athena, ready to do whatever needed doing for her friend.

That was great. I immediately knew she was my heroine. The drawback was that she was who she was. Risk-averse sweethearts are not  the kind of characters I picture when I think of fast-paced action storylines big on conflict, hostility and defiance of authority.

It occurs to me that I  could divide my characters into elemental groups. Take-charge, in-your-face, energetic fire characters like Parker and Alison move fast and burn nice straight lines to follow. Solid, principled, grounded characters like Justin and Felicity provide structure and framework, giving the story a direction. Flighty, airy, characters tend to breed complications and distractions (Hi, Carl) but they certainly add interesting detail.

But water? Oh, water is hardest of all to write. It’s difficult to contain, like air, and it’s even harder to push aside, but unless you do push it, it just sits there.

Like Naomi.

As it turns out, curiosity, laziness, and loyalty will push even the most conflict-averse heroine into action, and defiance comes in many forms, including passive evasion.

Naomi has no love for repetitive tasks, but poking her nose into things to see what’s inside is an irresistible temptation. Putting her in a situation where those two traits would combine disastrously was the key to getting her (and my plot)  moving.

And although she might not fight for herself, she will go to the wall for anyone she loves. All I had to do was write Serena into danger, and Naomi followed.

That’s how this all works for me. I set up my characters by playing to the weaknesses in their strengths, they do astounding things, and all I have to do is follow along and write it all down. Simple.  Well. Simple like riding a barrel over a waterfall is simple.

It’s worth the work and the risk of crashing at the bottom.  I meet such interesting people this way.




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Felicity: My Happy Character

The character of Felicity started with a joke and ended up inspiring a series of novellas that connected old and new characters together and pointed them all  in new directions.

Here’s the joke set-up.  What if two big, gruff, brooding soldier-spies ended up in a knitter’s shop?

That led to creating a knitter’s shop and populating it, and in the course of doing that, Felicity came to life. I picture her as a combination of Gina Torres and Candace Parker (images below!) but I haven’t had character art drawn of her. Yet.

Gina Torres
Candace Parker








She’s big, strong, and feminine. Her no-nonsense approach to life has roots in a family background that makes her people-savvy and extremely hard to impress.

I love writing from Felicity’s POV. She’s refreshing.  I especially love her perspective on all the rest of my colorful, eccentric abby-normal people.

She’s so much more sane than most people I’ve written, definitely more laid-back, and probably more relatable. This is not to say she’s boring. She can hold her own against all comers in the conversational arena,  and  she brings plenty of drama to the plotting table.

It’s simply that she’s more grounded in the day-to-day routines of a regular life than any of my other characters. That makes her view of their world all the more entertaining.

She’s the calm voice of reason, the bright beam from the lighthouse leading everyone else safely to port in their various emotional storms.  (Which means when she’s in need of support, you know they’ll all come running.)

I’m looking forward to introducing her to Alison someday. I have no idea if they’ll get along or start bristling like two big cats in a small box, but either way, it’ll be great fun to write.


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Getting It Done

I’ve not yet been accused of writing a Mary Sue, but some people have come close, and Alison is always Exhibit One for the prosecution. The assertion makes me laugh; she is as unlike me as a character can get, and she fails utterly as a perfected-author avatar. I don’t want to be the kind of person Alison is. I would hire her, I would love to be friends with her, but I would never choose to be her.

The only traits we share are a love for reading and a preference for choosing principle over personal.  I could never emulate her even if I wanted. Her disdain for all things outdoorsy or athletic would drive me nuts for one thing, and that’s only the start.

Alison is ambitious. She plans. She sets high goals and works her ass off to attain them. Her aim in life is commanding the respect of others, and she handles people with the same dispassion as she does work assignments. Me,  I’ve never met a goal I didn’t subvert, I have the ambition of a potato, and I regard plans the way I do recipes (they’re great starting points meant to be changed or abandoned ASAP) I agonize over hurting feelings, even if I do go ahead and do what I want anyway.

Plus, Alison has self-confidence to spare: not the strong front I sometimes put up, but a true and solid faith in her strengths and knowledge of her weaknesses. Okay, yes, I wouldn’t mind having that last trait, but a little perfection does not a Mary Sue make.

The rest of her character traits make an awkward fit for action plots. She is a natural quartermaster, not a field marshal.  Peril is a thing to be endured, not a thrill to be enjoyed. She weighs the pros and cons of every risk given half a chance. She doesn’t like action.

She was a fish out of water in Controlled Descent, and that was a great POV for introducing technical ideas to the reader in a non-technical way. Alison being competent, clever, and a little snarky was a fun bonus for the writer (and reader too, I hope.)

The thing is, keeping her in the action contradicted everything else I revealed of her. She isn’t a soldier or a thrill-seeker, and would rather not be anywhere bullets might fly. She loves to juggle logistics not grenades.

I could’ve taken away that choice and plotted her a bigger part in Flight Plan, like it or not. Thing is, coincidental inclusion always feels contrived to me as a reader. I call it the Jessica Fletcher problem. Oh, no, another murder just where Ms Fletcher happens to be! How does this keep happening?

I don’t know if that trick has an official trope name, but I didn’t want to go that route as a writer. Knowing Alison would do her utmost to help while staying out of harm’s way, that’s where I let her stay through most of the novel.

Most of it. Heh. Best-laid plans and all that.


Alison saves the day: Controlled Descent

Alison tries to stay home but still helps save the day:  Flight Plan

Art attribution: Andrew Kwan again


Extra bonus bit. Someday I will find an excuse to give Alison this piece of dialogue: “I’m not letting these motherfuckers ruin my bake sale.”

I heard it from a friend in real life, but it’s too perfect to leave unused.



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Big, Bad S.O.B.

Some characters are too easy to write. Carl is a conversational  battle tank who threatens to roll over every scene he participates in. It’s my own fault, I suppose. Carl comes equipped with a saint’s conscience and the uncanny ability to convince people to act against their own best interests. That made for a tangled mess of angsty drama even before I handed him the high-powered plot weapon of of a Tragic Secret Past.

When I work a story from Carl’s viewpoint, he  sheds plot ideas the way a cat sheds hair. The temptation to develop those tangents can get overwhelming.  He’s personally responsible for all the Restoration stories except Controlled Descent & Flight Plan–and those books would be a hell of a lot longer but less coherent if I’d surrendered to the temptation of writing more from Carl’s POV.

It isn’t all fun & games. His personality works against building action. He will talk any problem to death from every possible angle rather than move forward.  When other characters aim a plot somewhere, he’ll automatically take the opposing position and poke holes in their ideas. People sitting around talking things to death does not make for riveting prose.

Things move best when he’s sulking in a corner, biting his tongue to keep from saying anything to influence others to act in some way he wants.  His confidence that he knows best is surpassed only by his fear that he’ll force someone into agreement with him.

According to the Writing Gurus, self-doubt makes a character more appealing and sympathetic to readers (and heaven knows best-selling series thrive on protagonists who agonize through every page)  I find it gets tedious from a writing standpoint, especially when doubt slides into depression. Which it often does.  Oh, boy, does it.

Writing a depressed POV can be an emotionally crushing chore. The only redeeming aspect is the entertainment value of pitting Carl against sympathetic people who have no tolerance for moping. Setting him in opposition to Alison and Felicity’s brisk practicality leads to humor every time, and his relationships with his brother and Justin can be just as fun.

Those connections are all that keep Carl going sometimes. I still don’t know if his story ends in laughter or tears. Guess I’ll have to keep writing, huh?


The funny side of Carl: Turning the Work 

Controlled Descent and Flight Plan both offer glimpses of his darker half.

Joining In the Round  shows a little of the price Carl pays for power. It also has the easiest fight scene I’ve ever written.

art attribution: Andrew Kwan