Writing a book or short story can seem like a difficult, sometimes impossible, task. How do you create characters people care about? How hard is it to organize your book, and what is the best software to use to do so? How do I make the story engaging enough?
Today I interviewed my editor and good friend, D. W. Vogel, sci-fi fantasy author of the engaging Horizon Alpha series. We delved into a seemingly difficult task for writers – character creation – to hopefully help any writers out there struggling with it.
Reinfried: Thanks so much for sharing some of your knowledge with me today, Wendy. I know character creation can be challenging.
Vogel: It definitely can be. I still struggle with it myself.
R: You’re currently working on the third book in your Horizon Alpha series, correct?
V: Yes, Horizon 3 is in editing status. I’m also working on a new series based on a super popular board game franchise that I can’t announce quite yet.
R: Well, dang, now I’m super excited! I’m a big fan of your work, and love the characters you create, ones that us readers truly feel connected to.
Tell me, have you ever created a character you disliked? One you hated to write but was necessary to the story?
V: The thing is, if they are necessary to the story, then write them you should. I love all my characters in different ways. Even the villains have motivations they think are as valid as the heroes’. Many aren’t folks I’d want to have over to dinner, but all serve a purpose, and for that, I love them.
R: I totally understand. I remember writing Alex, the main villain in the first book of my Grim series. Uncovering parts of him were shocking at times, and I was worried he was too evil – and questioned myself as I enjoyed writing his scenes the most. But readers absolutely loved Alex!
V: He was a great villain. Definitely necessary to the story, even throughout the whole trilogy when we got bits of his past from other characters. Alex was a cool villain.
R: Thank you! *laughs* I still chuckle at his name; it was fun to incorporate his hatred of his full name in the prequel.
Wendy, how do you come up with names for your characters?
V: Well, some are meaningful. Khalira, the main character of Flamewalker, is a slight tweak on the Muslim name, “Khalida,” which means immortal. Her nemesis Adon is the phonetic equal of Aiden, which means fire.
There’s a lot more room in fantasy and sci-fi to make up names because of how cool they sound, which is pretty fun. In the Horizon series, I was careful to come up with names form all nationalities since the Horizon ships are interstellar arks, carrying people from all corners of the Earth to their new homes.
R: Sounds way more involved than how I do it! *laughs*
V: Don’t you use an online name generator?
R: Once in a while when I’m stuck, yeah. And mostly for last names. I just think of the character long enough, get a real feel for being inside their head. Other times I picture what I think they look like and soon, a name will kind of just pop up. Like, she sounds like an Emma or he looks like a Shawn.
It was easier to come up with names for Souls, since half of the characters are the doppelgangers of those in the Grim plane of existence. So all I had to do was make them sound a bit more Western-y.
R: It’s totally a word.
V: It is now!
R: So yeah, Emma turned into Etta, Jaxon into Johnny, Shawn into Shane. I liked giving some of them different personalities than their Grim doppelgangers since it makes sense that characters wouldn’t be the same from one plane of existence to the other. Which is also why some Souls characters aren’t ones we see in Grim. I had to come up with new ones to make sure it wasn’t just a retelling of the same people.
Speaking of, how do you know if a character isn’t good for your story? Yours are always so well thought out, but have you had any that you’ve had to get rid of before a book was finished?
V: For the most part, by the time I sit down to pound out the story, I’ve generally plotted it out pretty thoroughly. Sometimes, though, changes to characters end up with so much rewriting that I realize where the story is going just doesn’t work for me. In the beginning like that, I can just toss out someone who just isn’t doing what they were intended to do.
R: Do you get rid of them entirely? Or sit through changes until they work out?
V: I’ve done both, honestly. Generally I end up adding to my manuscripts rather than subtracting. I write very sparingly at first, then go in and layer details, which makes creation of anything easier. Once you lay out the general plan, go back and put in smaller things, such as personality quirks or nervous tics. If for some reason a character has too much, or is doing something too far out of bounds of his or her personality, that’s where a new side character can show up.
R: That’s fantastic advice. I completely agree. Lay it out, then add details. Works with so much when writing.
When adding these details, what do you think makes a believable character?
V: For me, a likable character is someone who is being true to their own inner motivations. Even if they’re doing terrible things, as long as I understand why they’re doing them, and what brought them to that point, I can like the most awful of characters.
R: And do all characters in a story need to be likable?
V: I think all characters need to be relatable in some way.
R: Yeah, I mean, I’ve found a lot of times, I don’t even agree with choices my characters make. I think that if a character makes a bad decision that is believable, and based on who they are as a person – their fears are an especially good motivator for bad decisions – it’s easier to understand why they have done what they did, and relate to it as well.
V: Yep, exactly.
R: And that is how you create a believable villain, too.
V: It is. Villains are always so much more interesting than heroes, as you know. The key is to understand that the villain thinks he’s the hero. They believe in whatever twisted way that what they are doing is the right thing, no matter how much suffering it causes, just like your Alex.
R: Or your Adon in Flamewalker.
V: Yeah! A lot of reviewers pointed to Adon as a great example of this. You follow his story from the moment when a moral, upstanding blacksmith makes one bad decision, leading Adon down a path to unspeakable evil. You have to love him before you can properly hate him, and that’s what makes a believable villain to me.
R: What if you like a character but your readers don’t?
V: I don’t think “like” is the right word here. It’s too subjective. Just because I don’t “like” chocolate ice cream doesn’t mean it’s bad. If the ice cream itself is truly flawed, then no one is going to like it, and that’s when it’s time to head back to the Delete key and start over with that particular character.
R: Damn, you’re good. And I also now want chocolate ice cream.
I want to thank D.W. Vogel for her time and wonderful input when it comes to character creation. If you have any further questions about this topic or any topic for either of us, leave it in the comments below! Stay tuned for further Author Insights, and follow my site to get updates for when new interviews come out!
Guys, I seriously can’t wait to see what Vogel is working on with this board game series. So excited! And if you haven’t checked out her work, DO so. It’s quite fantastic.