Hi booknerds, it’s time we talked about the hardest character I’ve ever written. Most people would—rightly—assume that the hardest character to write would be one that is the polar opposite of the writer, whether because of gender, sexual orientation, or the oppression they suffered that the author has never experienced. All of that is hard to do, and even harder to craft a believable, well written character that the author has no first-hand experience with in “the real world”. While that is true of me too, the hardest character I’ve written to date is actually in the contemporary fiction, family saga novel I’m working on. Why is this character so difficult? It’s not because I don’t have any experience with what they are going through, but the exact opposite!
In this particular WIP, the main character’s older brother has Asperger’s Syndrome. This diagnosis is something she is unaware of, so because of the issues that has caused in her childhood, she grew up hating her brother and feeling like an outcast to her own family. This, dear friends, is very close to my actual childhood. My brother has Asperger’s which, if you are unfamiliar, is on the Autistic scale and is often misdiagnosed as ADHD in young children—medicating children with Asperger’s with ADHD medication doesn’t help at all, by the way. People with Asperger’s have extreme difficulty reading social cues; they don’t know when people are kidding or, as kids, don’t understand when other children play make-believe games. Making friends for them is very difficult, so they are often lonely and depressed, and don’t know how to communicate that depression, which means it can often come out as a type of violent anger. Like any mental condition, there is a scale of how severe or benign Asperger’s Syndrome can present itself. For my brother, he had one of the more severe kinds and, as a kid growing up in the 90’s where this kind of thing was barely understood and rarely talked about, figuring out what was going on and how to treat it was a battle in and of itself.
I’m really not looking for pity or sympathy here. The purpose of this particular novel is to educate and to give others who may be dealing with similar issues a beacon of hope. It took me years, YEARS to see my brother as more than his condition and to appreciate that my parents were doing their best with the resources they had available to them at the time. I have, with the help of therapy, healed and moved on with my life and have a great relationship with my family, especially my parents. But, deep down, this was a story I felt needed to be shared, especially now given how we as a society still struggle with treating mental illnesses and showing compassion for those who struggle, and those people who love them despite the challenges.
But writing that was incredibly difficult for me emotionally. I had to go back and rely on my past childhood experiences and dig up painful memories in order to create this character and show why she feels the way she does toward her family, without the reader hating her or her brother for it. Of all the books I have written, some of which are still in the editing phase, this took me the longest to “finish”. It was so emotionally taxing; I had to talk to my family and make sure they understood that while this story was inspired by the things we went through, it wasn’t about them, and I had to make sure that come the end, my readers still felt hopeful and like my main character was going to be okay. There were so many instances where I started crying during writing different scenes that it isn’t even funny. Plus, because it is so personal to me, deeming it “done” and packaging it all up so it can move forward in the publishing process was legitimately terrifying for me! So much of this was my life that the idea of someone picking it apart was something I had to work very hard to mentally prepare myself for.
So while, yes, writing a character that you have no real experience with can be challenging, so can writing a character that is so much a reflection of yourself. That line of fact and fiction got so blurred at times and I wanted to make sure that I was portraying everything truthfully, but that it didn’t come across as villainous. Writing these characters, this book, took so much out of me that it’s taken a long time to get my emotional reserves back to a place where I can write happy, or funny, characters again that I can safely say: writing a character based on me was the hardest character I’ve ever written.
Well booknerds, now that all the books in The Monster of Selkirk have been released and the final book has been out for over a month, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about how I created Tallis’s villains, particularly her ultimate foe which gets introduced in the 5th book in the series: Urban. If you haven’t caught up yet, don’t worry, I’ll avoid plot based spoilers so you you’ll be safe to read on. However, if you want to wait to catch up on the books before reading, that’s fine too! You can get the books here, or signed copies from my Etsy store, which ever you prefer! But now, allow me to share a bit as to why I created villains that were more relatable, or sympathetic, instead of the stereotypical mustache twirling bad guy.
For me, personally, I love reading books where the antagonist is more complex than someone who merely wants to watch the world burn because of reasons. You see it a lot in some of the Marvel movies, where the bad guys want ultimate power so obviously the only way to get that is to destroy the world. That can be fun and exciting, sure, but I like reading about deeper villains, which is why I did my best to create complex villains as well. This is where Urban comes in. Urban is deeply religious, his mother was an acolyte of sorts in the service of the human god. He loves his religion, he believes in its teachings full-heartedly, so much so that when his psychosis grips him, that yearning for his god gets severely twisted and is turned into a destructive religious fanaticism.
Even if you aren’t religious or don’t believe in god, I think everyone can kind of empathize, or at least understand, someone’s desire to know that their prayers are heard, that there is a reason for their struggles, or that there is indeed a purpose or plan for them and their place in the world at large. This kind of desire spans most religions too; it’s that comforting belief that an all-powerful, all knowing entity is looking out for you and there is a reason behind all the good, or bad, in your life. For characters like Tomas, these type of thoughts help bolster is faith, but for Urban, it took the darker path. It became a desperation to bring their god to earth so that they could converse with this entity, that he could become his prophet, and end the prolonged silence the humans have had when praying. Urban doesn’t yearn for ultimate power, riches, or glory, he has no desire to watch the world burn just for evils’ sake. Urban’s extreme faith, coupled with the illness lurking within him, propels him to seek out god, despite the fact that no mortal could ever understand the reasons for such an entities silence when it comes to their creations.
Knowing Urban’s motivations made it all the easier to craft the kinds of interactions he had with other characters, both those who yearn for their god the way he does and would be tempted by his fanaticism, and those who don’t feel nearly as strongly as Urban does, or whose faith is strong enough to not be tempted by Urban to begin with. It made him a villain people could understand, even in the fantasy setting. His wants and desires are pretty universal. It also adds a sympathetic layer to him, one that makes Tallis’s guilt surrounding the whole Urban situation understandable. And, for some people and characters, makes him a person that many would want to see saved or redeemed, or, on the other spectrum, have him succeed in his plans.
Villains, like the monsters I talked about in April’s blog post, can be complex, multi-dimensional creatures that make you feel uncomfortable because you can relate to them—maybe, depends on the monster. Good villains are ones that you love to hate, but they can also be ones you understand and that a little part of you wants to see succeed, even if the method in which they go about things is evil. They make, in my opinion, for far more interesting reads, even if the story they inhabit isn’t the most original I’ve ever read. Also, I happen to have the most fun writing complex villains that serve more of a purpose than just an obstacle to the main character on their path toward achieving whatever goal they set out to do. Hopefully I have succeeded in doing that with Urban, but be sure to read the “Wrath of Silence” and let me know!
Hi booknerds! So last month I talked a bit about the inspiration behind my first short horror story, “The Cautionary Tale of Bertrand Allary”, so this month I want to share some behind the scenes information for my second short horror story “The Washerwoman”. This story is very different from my first, as it doesn’t draw from local New Orleans legends, even though I wrote it while still living in the South. For this particular tale, I drew inspiration from one of the faeries that I found in “The Great Encyclopedia of Faeries”. I’ve owned this book forever and it has some absolutely stunning illustrations in it, as well as a plethora of faerie creatures I have never heard of before.
One such Faerie is known as the Washerwoman, or Washerwomen really, as there are usually more than one. You won’t find much on these faeries on the internet, but according to my book, these creatures are kind to the innocent but spiteful toward nighttime offenders—basically people who disturb the peace of the night by trashing nature. They are known to redeem bad deeds through their washing, so if a passerby is say, returning from Church, they may be forced to wash alongside these spirits, but it would not be the end of them. The origins of these Washerwomen can either come from being the opposite side of the good faeries, or they could be faeries that have done terrible spells, but for my tale, I choose the third potential origin: a mother guilty of infanticide. Once someone is lured to these women, and they are not innocent, the only option of breaking the curse is to constantly wring the washing in the opposite direction of the Washerwomen at all times. If the not-so-innocent-victim forgets this, then the shroud they are washing will wrap around their wrists, arms, their whole body, until they are wrung and twisted and are utterly crushed before being drug under water.
I really loved all the tragic elements of the Washerwomen, especially if their origin was of a mother who killed their child. There is so much potential in that as to why they would commit such an act. Also, I loved that these faeries lured people who were not good, who were sinners of some kind, but could redeem themselves if they knew what to do. Reading about these monstrous faeries made me really excited for 1. What lead to a Washerwoman becoming the creature she is and 2. The kind of person she would attract. Would this person be an all-around bad guy who can’t be redeemed? Or would they be sympathetic and you’d want them to remember to wring their hands in the opposite direction of the Washerwomen? There were just so many possibilities!
Of course, such a faerie needed the right setting as well. You aren’t going to find a woman doing her wash in the Los Angeles River luring people who destroy nature at the dead of night, for example. That kind of atmosphere clashed far too much with the vision I had for this particular faerie. Given that places like Ireland and Scotland seem to be the birthplace of so many different kinds of Fae creatures, I felt a pre-industrial Ireland would be the best setting for “The Washerwoman” as it added a bit of believability to the tale and, as I was working on The Monster of Selkirk which draws inspiration from Scotland, writing in a familiar setting with similar dialogue was something I was very comfortable with.
Now that I had the setting and the monster all figured out, I needed to figure out what kind of main character I wanted. Given what the Washerwomen do, I decided I wanted a main character that was just awful—as in you want to see him get what he deserves. It was fun writing a character that is irredeemable, as it was so different from what I’d been doing with The Monster of Selkirk! But I won’t say more than that to avoid spoilers regarding what happens with my Washerwoman and her would-be victim. If you’re intrigued by it though, you can read the whole story in “Running Wild Novella Vol. 2 Part 2”!
Which of you booknerds has ever heard of a rougarou? Anyone? Well, in case you haven’t, or have but are curious to learn a bit more, allow me to tell you: a rougarou is a Cajun legend of a beast that traditionally prowls the swamps around the Greater New Orleans area and is most often depicted as a human with a dogs head—Louisiana does not have wolves native to the area. But if it sounds like a werewolf, you’d be right! It has several similarities, but is also different enough to be classified as its own monster. As I lived in New Orleans for a few years, I was fascinated by many of the local legends and beasts, so much so that the rougarou and New Orleans itself became the inspiration for my short horror story “The Cautionary Tale of Bertrand Allary”.
There are several variations to the rougarou legend, some of the most common deviations are used like boogeyman stories to scare children into obedience, particularly around Lent. Where if you break Lent 7 years in a row, you’ll be turned into the dog-like beast. But another variation that I liked more and served as the basis for my rougarou was the blood sucking version—this is New Orleans after all, I’d be remiss not to draw from the legend with vampire vibes as well. In this version, a rougarou is under the spell for about a third of a year, but the curse can be passed from person to person when the rougarou draws human blood. During the day, the rougarou reverts to human form, if they draw blood from a new victim, but often appears very sickly in the daytime. They can’t tell anyone of their curse though, for if they do, the curse remains permanent. It’s tragic and terrifying, and exactly the kind of folktale I love!
Additionally, when I was brand new to New Orleans, I was intrigued by its history: how and when they drained most of the state to be livable and its long history of organized crime, to be exact. It was such an interesting time that it felt like too good of a backdrop to go to waste. Which is why I based “The Cautionary Tale of Bertrand Allary” in the early 1920’s. Then, to marry that with the legend of the rougarou? It created such a wonderful, atmospheric vibe that, even though I don’t often write strictly horror stories, I had a blast writing Bertrand’s tale.
What followed was the story of how one man delves into a curse and sickness he doesn’t understand, or truly believe in. Because, really, who would honestly believe something like a rougarou existed? The story documents his descent into becoming both a villain and a monster, along with how he tries to combat that change. I don’t want to share too much more than that in order to avoid spoilers with what becomes of Bertrand and his friends, but if you are intrigued and want to read the whole of the story, be sure to get a copy of “The Heart of the Devil” villains anthology where the story appears in full!
Greetings booknerds, as I near the end of my journey with The Monster of Selkirk, I think it’s about time I talk a bit more about my monsters, don’t you? Specifically why I made my monsters more of an obstacle rather than the series villain.
In the land of Selkirk, the human denizens are tormented by feral elves. These elves are nothing like what you may be familiar with from things like Lord of the Rings—at least, not in their current form—as they are not regal or good, heck, they don’t even speak a language anyone can understand anymore! Instead they click at each other like insects, grow their nails out to talon-like length, file their teeth into razor sharp points, and have sickly, glowing yellow eyes. These are elves who like to kidnap children and eat the flesh of any human they catch. They are, in a word, monstrous. They weren’t always that way, however. They used to be more like the traditional elves we’re all used to—forest dwellers who worship tree deities with exceptionally long lives and agility, which made them fierce on the field of battle. They were beautiful and noble, but as the humans took more of their land they grew desperate for a way to stop them and save their trees. They sought help, but the help they received didn’t go as planned, and instead turned them into the beasts that have plagued the humans for three hundred years by the time the first book in the series starts.
So why did I pick elves to be my books’ monsters? And how did I decide what attributes to give them in order to make them beastly? First, I needed to research writing monsters in general to figure out what purpose my feral elves needed to fulfill. For instance, in things like the Walking Dead, the “monsters” (the zombies) are more of an obstacle. Sure they are gross and can be scary when they are in a herd, but they aren’t smart and the humans know how to deal with them. But using them as an obstacle means that it forces others to do evil things in order to survive. It makes for more complex villains as they can use these obstacles to their benefit against those they plan to victimize. Similar to Frankenstein’s monster. The creature wasn’t necessarily the bad guy, but using fear of this “other” creature allowed Shelley to show who the true bad guys were. Sure, there are more traditional monsters, smart and menacing who prey on the innocent like Stephen King’s “Cujo” or the original “Dracula” which work because it forces your stories heroes to outsmart them and find ways to destroy the thing trying to kill them first. But ultimately, what all monsters have in common is that these creatures are scary.
Villains can be scary too, but what makes a monster is more of that primal fear they illicit in your characters. So, when I was crafting my monsters, I had to think first of what would be scary for my characters to interact with, what fears my characters had that these monsters could play off of, or I could embody within them. I had to ask myself: is my monster meant to be an obstacle that my other bad guys use or that stands in the way of my main characters goals? Yes, monsters can be villains obviously, but it was important for me to decide if my bad guy was going to embody something truly frightening, or if they were going to be everything my hero was not and therefore oppose the goals I had established for my main character to accomplish.
Once I established what role my monster elves needed to fulfill—an obstacle that served as a motivator—that’s when I started to have a lot of fun with monster building, because I knew exactly what I needed from these beasts and how that would impact my other characters. At this point in the creative process, I was asking myself questions like: what does my monster look like? Where do they come from? What makes them scary? What are their powers or abilities? Their weaknesses? Are they brand new creatures or based on an archetype? How does this monster fit into my story/what goal does the monster have? This is when in the process I actually settled on flipping elves into the bad guys, by the way. The creature based on an archetype bit, in case you want to know exactly when the magic happened. I also relied heavily on a great resource for crafting my monsters—and will continue to use for my books in the future as well--“Writing Monsters” by Philip Athans. This guide was instrumental when I decided that my feral elves were going to be the monsters that served as both a metaphor, were sources of pity, brought the worst out in people, were an obstacle, and were legitimately terrifying—both for my characters and, hopefully, you, the reader.
There can be dozens of layers when crafting a truly remarkable monster that will stand out, and also pose all kinds of terrifying obstacles for characters to deal with. Monsters can be as rich as the main characters themselves, which leads to a more robust world, and a creature that is both well rounded, and believable even if they are completely made up. Monsters can be villains, but they can also be so much more than that if you want them to be! AND it leaves room to show what lengths your other villains will go to in order to harness the various monsters with which to oppose my main cast of characters. Which in turn led me to create multi-layered human bad guys. But more on that in July!