10 Polishing Characters

I recently received a comment about Clemency and the ‘state’ of its characters. The critique was that my characters were all very ‘base’ in nature. Put in different terms, the suggestion was that they were very crude.

I believe that a story needs to be event driven to keep a reader moving and engaged.  But on another level, I think that it is critical that it be character driven as well.  Let me explain.  What I think it’s important to establish a journey for a character. They should start in a specific position and end up in a somewhat different position in a story.  What kind of position?  Well that depends.  It might be emotional, moral, practical or some combination of all of these.  But characters, just as we are in life, need to be exposed to constant change.  After all, change is the only constant.

We all walk some road to redemption in life, and my characters are no different.  If I polish my characters on page one, and make them perfect from the beginning, then they have no journey to make and they have finished their roles in the story before they have even begun. They have no road to redemption, no means to improve either their outlook or their lot in life.

In Clemency, I exposed the main characters and established their flaws almost immediately. Why? Because their shortcomings become highlighted throughout the rest of the story, and end up driving the multiple storylines as they develop. By the time the book has finished, the reader is left with a host of questions about their feelings for eachother, their fate and their future.  But this is why we have sequels, right?  Now lets take a brief look at a character in Clemency who is relatively complete.

What about the Captain?  His ‘character cycle’ is not unlike one that you would find in a book not connected to a series.  In that case, all the characters need to be developed, apex and be resolved within the covers of the single story.  The Captain’s life is similar in nature.  He was established later in the book, and his character apexed when he was no longer needed. His life as a character was relatively short, but his development as a character was pretty complete. What does this illustrate? I think it demonstrates that because the Saint Chronicles is a series, that immediate and full development of all the characters would do nothing more then shorten their use in the story. So am I tipping my hand about character development in future sequels? Probably.

11 Clemency – The Bigger Picture

In my way of thinking, a defining moment is one in which circumstance collides with human weakness. Let me give you an example. For those of you who are parents, a defining moment was the moment that you looked into the eyes fo your firstborn child. I don’t care how many books you read, classes you took or seminars you went to, nothing could prepare you for that single event, and beyond it you were never the same again.  Am I right?

Defining moments change the course of our lives.  They are where our life’s trajectory is altered and we are muscled into a new direction that we never expected.  What happens?  We adapt.  We change our habits, amend our ways, take on new things, give up old things and the cycle continues until the next defining moment comes along.

So what are we doing between these defining moments in our lives? What we are really doing is, we are searching for clemency. Let me give you an example. The last time you were searching for clemency, you were probably on the side of a highway somewhere in your car, sitting there with the window down as the air conditioning escaped, and saying to yourself: “Please, please, PLEASE let this man make it a 74 in a 55”.  Or maybe you were praying as you opened the credit card bill that the latest thing you bought wasn’t on there yet so that you’d have another month to pay for it?  That’s searching for clemency isn’t it?  You are hoping for a lessening in the severity of your punishment… a punishment you are expecting.

If you sit back and think about it for a moment, you can find countless examples in your own life where you have been searching for clemency.

In my book Clemency, each of the divers crept along silently in the black of the deep seeking their reward and what they hoped would turn out to be their next defining moment.  Whether it was to save the business, get out of jail, pay all the bills, or because they were the victim of simple blackmail, all the while weren’t they each praying for clemency?

12 What I Don’t Read

My readers have asked me what I read. Then they often times will try and compare me to one of a handful of other writers, all of whom I am sure are great. But when they ask me if I have read any specific work of fiction from any of the list of authors that they rattle off my stock answer is ‘No’. I am generally pursued for a yes at this point until the broad question of ‘Well have you ever read anything by so-and-so’ breaks upon the shore. The answer is most certainly ‘No’. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been compared to several presumably great authours, but the truth of the matter is that I don’t read. You heard me correctly.

I actually don’t read for enjoyment. Why? Well, mainly because I don’t want my characters to be influenced by the characters of other writers, whether they are great writers or not. I know, imitation is the sincerest… blah blah blah. Do I sound like Andy Rooney here? Probably. But as I said in an earlier post, I know up front that my vision is narrowed by my limited life experience. I know that to develop a story and its characters, they must have their own unique voices. But rather than borrow those voices from other works, I would rather listen to the unique voices of the strangers around me, and take from them the intreaguing aspects of character, rather than copy the voices of one of the great writers of our time then try and support that character through my storyline.  if you are one of those voracious readers, wouldn’t you rather hear new fresh voices, rather than hear from somebody you remember hearing from three or four books ago?

My overall objective is to bring my readers a new perspective by exposing them to my life experiences in such a way that they feel as if they have been there with me.  But in my way of thinking, as important it is to have fresh

So next time you ask me about a character in another book? I’ll smile sweetly, because I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

14 – The Allure of the Sea

In a recent interview, I was asked about my career as a diver as it relates to Clemency.  I started diving a little over fifteen years ago, and at that time concentrated on shallow reefs as I built my experience and interest in the sport.  But as time passed and my experience grew, I succumbed to the allure of the sea.  For some it is above the waves, but for me it would be beneath them.

It is simple physics that dictates the world underwater.  Every twenty feet in-depth doubles the atmospheric pressure exerted on our body and the things around us.  As a result, our volume is compressed while our weight remains the same.  The result?  Under the law of displacement, we become smaller with the same relative weight so we sink.  As a matter of fact, the deeper we go, the faster we sink!

Don’t worry!  They make equipment for this!  Yes we wear a lead belt, but we also have a Buoyancy Compensator (BC) that we wear like a jacket.  We add air to it to increase our displacement and slow or stop our descent.  So why am I going through this mini SCUBA lesson?  Because when I learned to dive, I was the one who always WANTED to go deeper.  I WANTED to get down there into the black just to see what was there!  People had to come GET ME OUT!  Most people liked to stay up in the shallows where the pretty fish were and the water was eighty-seven degrees.  Me?  FORGET THAT!!!!  I wanted to penetrate the darkness and rip open the oceans secrets!  Deep? BAH!  Cold?  NAH!!! Bring it on!

We all make friends in dive class, and I have a best friend and buddy that I dive with whenever I can, even though our basic diving desires are a little different.  While I like the deep and the cold and the black, he prefers the warm and the colorful.  He also owns my home dive shop now too, so there may be something to his plan.  Nevertheless, I am destined to fool with Nitrox, and rebreathers, and every technical aspect of diving I can conjure up while my buddy is well above me in the warm sun counting beautiful fish.  I guess it’s just my nature to want to seek out discoveries in places that are hard to get to and uncomfortable once you arrive.

So I ask you:  Isn’t the Ocean our last earthbound frontier?  Couldn’t your next dive be a dive of discovery?  Are we not finding things down there all the time?  Treasures?  Medical breakthroughs?  New forms of life?  With most of Earth’s surface covered by the Oceans, and while we wait for time travel to come of age, shouldn’t we do all we can to understand a universe that is right in our own back yards?

I think so.

9 Research versus Access

The research for developing the backdrop in Clemency is encapsulated for the reader in Chapter 7.  Here, our lead characters and the reader are openly exposed to the facts surrounding the demise of the ship, and the conditions under which the operation is about to take place.  I haven’t hidden anything.  Why?  Because I believe that there is a difference between research and discovery; between facts and circumstance.  One can spend all the time they want researching what a Liberty ship looks like, and make all the plans they wish for dissecting it.  But to be in its presence is a completely different matter.

While it is true that the lead characters have the entire mission laid out for them, the actual environment would turn out to be nothing like the facts they had been given.  They would be forced to slip from research into discovery, and no two things could have turned out to be farther apart.  Research is by its very nature reliant on given facts.  Sometimes these facts are derived from previous explorers who make discoveries and bring information back with them.  This was at least partly the case in Clemency.  But many times, research is contained within sterile conditions.  We might know everything there is to know about an object, but we cannot know what it will do in a given environment.  This was also the case in Clemency.  No level of research could have prepared any of our characters for what they would find when they arrived.

This leads me to the consideration of the term access in fiction.  As I touched on last time, I believe that powerful fiction is derived from truth and truth is derived from experience.  To derive experience, one has to have access to circumstances which in turn, unlock that experience.  Research in fiction is critical to establish plausibility, but access is critical in establishing a backdrop of realism that will engage a reader and propel a story from the realm of plausible to the realm of convincing.  It is not enough to know all there is to know about an object, and to be able to blurt back the rote facts about that object.  These facts are awash in the public domain.

I have done the research and I have lived the moments.  Thank you for coming along with me.

Unique Voices


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You may remember that I said in a prior post that I spent time walking around with my Molskine book taking notes before I finally sat down to write Clemency. Much of that time was spent responding to the characters as they followed me around and spoke their minds. But you might be interested to know that a significant amount of time was spent NOT writing at all, but rather, LISTENING. In my view, an author is only a small shard of glass in the kaleidoscope of his or her world. That is to say, I constantly keep in mind that I bring a very limited view to the world because, as much as I may try and tell myself otherwise, I myself have a very limited life experience.

I am a pilot, but I have never scaled Mount Everest. I am a SCUBA diver, but I have never cycled the Tour de France. There are many things that I have never done which produce life perspectives from others that they share and that I, as an author, can draw upon to deepen my characters. While I must admit that I had created all the characters before getting to this step, I knew that, written by me they would all SOUND like me. So I set out to listen to other people and draw from their personalities those things which would give each of my characters their own voice. After all, they each had to have their own unique voice to be able to contribute to the story in their own way.  Isn’t this actually research?  Absolutely!  But I wouldn’t call it research of the traditional kind.  It would take countless sources and sound bites from people who are perfect strangers.  Although I would never directly interact with most of what I was exposed to, it took all those voices to be able to puzzle together that single voice for that unique character that wasn’t me.

In the end, as power as the pen may be, perhaps my ears are my greatest tool for creating the voices of my characters.  Oddly, their words come from the mouths of strangers every day.

Layer of Tradition – The Parable


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While the delivery technique for story has advanced significantly over the course of known history – Mesopotamia all the way up to multimedia – the timeless tradition of storytelling has been carried tirelessly down through the time. For the most part, the intent of a story and its layer of tradition remains intact to this day. Good versus evil, man versus nature, and any number of combinations in between are molded and crafted to create a story with a message; they’re known as parables.  The Bible represents one parable after another, as Christianity attempted to teach by example. Characters imbedded in the many different stories would demonstrate their strengths and weaknesses as a means of showing the ways of their truth.

boat, shore, Galilee, Bible, ChristThroughout the New Testament, Christ’s Apostles emerge as standout characters, each charged with  performing tasks that present the reader with a cornerstone of faith. In Clemency, the characters names, attributes, and activities mimic some of the basic elements of characters that had come thousands of years before them.  Can you identify four key elements and a key theme that resonate from The Bible?  Lets examine the text!

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Scene-it: The Power of a “Favorite” Scene


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It’s safe to say that everyone has their favorite scene in a book. Whether it’s evocative, intense, or rings the bell of the story loud and clear, for me, it gives the reader a jolt as it defines the true message of the story. My favorite scene in Clemency occurs at the end of chapter 14 when the Captain declares, “every man is a man in trouble.”

The Captain brought me out of a deep sleep early one morning to say that to me, and I realized that in a greater context he was right. In the end, whether you live in a mansion or a cardboard box, we are all in trouble. The difference is only a matter of scale. Where you might be behind on car payments, someone else might have watched their net worth melt away on the stock market. Sure, they may have a car to drive, but they’ve lost it a hundred times on bad investments. Illness, job loss, foreclosure, the list goes on and on.

So when Ben turns to the Captain and makes him that fateful offer, what is he really doing? Has his moral fiber abandoned him? Yes. But wouldn’t it? After all, his relationship with the other two men was tenuous at best, and he had his own problems to deal with. In that instant, Ben forgets all other commitments, and ignores all other responsibilities. He is focussed only on his own ends, and it costs him dearly.

We see this kind of action – these kinds of decisions – daily. We watch financial institutions crumble under the pressure of self-service. We watch money disappear and millions of people thrown into financial ruin every year. Why? Is it because nobody is listening to the Captain?  Is it because nobody is willing to admit that they are in trouble? We all smile and mow the lawn of the house we’re about to lose. It’s not just the little man who is in trouble, since we’ve watched the big men fall. No, as the Captain said so pointedly as he bore down on Ben with his revolver… “Every man, is a man in trouble.”