Today I have the pleasure of hosting a fellow author Brandy Schillace. She is here to showcase her brand new novel High Stakes (Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles) which features a vampire as a main character, but not in a way you may think. Sixteen-year-old Jake has all the characteristics of a vampire, yet it is just a medical condition and one he would as soon not have. Brandy has been kind enough to share her process and thoughts on developing life-like characters. So without further ado…
Who is Jake? Characters and how they build us
How do you come up with characters that seem “real”? I get asked this question a lot—particularly from students in my writing classes, but from new authors and readers, too. Imagine me at the front of the class, eager freshman with poised pens waiting for the magic answer. Imagine their disappointment! As with most things in life, there aren’t quick and easy formulas for success, and if there is one thing I have learned it’s this: sometimes characters help create us and not the other way around.
At it’s most basic, character-building, like world-building, requires research. The difference tends to lie in dynamism versus stasis. Usually, once we have a map of our landscape, it remains the solid surface upon which and through which change happens. One of my novels takes place in Newport News, Virginia. I can rearrange street names a bit for effect, but I can’t add a mountain range in middle of town (unless that happens to be part of the plot—Newport News and the Unexpected Everest). The setting does influence the characters, though, and characters do change. They talk, too, and if you haven’t a good foundation for your character, dialogue is endlessly difficult. So how do we begin?
Over the past few years, I’ve taught a number of college-level creative writing classes, and I found several strategies for getting a writer out of their own head, and out of character-building no-man’s-land. First, we asked a writer to give us the name of her lead character and a series of traits. This student, who I’ll call “Sue,” had fleshed him out a bit already: Male, fair complexion, a bit wishy-washy, looking for work. The plot revolved around the main character accepting a dodgy job offer, so this way of perceiving him made plenty of sense. But none of us could “see” the character yet, and Sue had trouble finding his voice. So we did an experiment—and I asked the unthinkable:
“Sue, I want you to sit quietly for the next ten minutes and let the class take over your character.”
If I had asked her to wrestle live octopi while wearing a meat-suit in shark-infested waters, the result would have been about the same. But this was a necessary intervention. For the next ten minutes, Sue’s classmates came up with additional traits. He was gluten intolerant. He’d broken up with his girlfriend. He had a green thumb for houseplants. His sweater was on backwards. Etc., etc… Some of the suggestions were rather silly. Others ended up being important (and in fact, the character remained a sufferer of Celiac disease). It didn’t matter that Sue would throw away much of the suggested material as inappropriate or unnecessary to the story. Her hero had become real to the rest of us and so also to Sue; his hesitant step as he entered the tea shop, awkwardly turning down his interviewer’s offer of pastry because of allergies, sealed him in our minds. And of course, the scene developed at the same time. Sue had seen the character through the eyes of other people, and the gritty not-glamorous reality of a Midwestern bubble-tea shop suddenly infused the scene with new life.
The thing is, Sue’s character wasn’t what she expected. He did do what she expected him to, either, and pretty soon he was taking over the text in ways she hadn’t intended. The result, though, was a richer story and a richer experience for author and reader. That’s what I mean by characters building us. It happens to be all the time.
Take Jacob Maresbeth, for instance. In my initial drafts, I planned him to be a light-hearted, easy-going kid poking fun at the usual vampire myths. Now, he still is easy-going and the story remains largely comical and fun. But Jake also has hopes and dreams—and it is very hard to achieve your goals when you spend much of your time in a hospital. Jake’s condition might look and sound a lot like vampirism, but it remains a blood disorder, too, and there’s a lot of stigma that goes with being “differently abled.” Even summer vacation can be fraught with danger if you rely on a constant supply of hermetically sealed blood bags—especially if you have to hide it from everyone else. It was almost as if Jake had to sit down and give me a talking-to:
“So, this sucks,” I imagined him saying. “I mean, I have to lie to people. And I’m not even good at it.”
“But your dad is supportive—and he’s a doctor,” I said, thinking that would solve everything.
“My dad is lying, too—to the hospital! Also that place is creepy. They have needles. You know that, right?” He gave me puppy-eyes. “Needles.”
And so, I had to let Jake respond to his environment in natural ways. How would a 16-year-old deal with being shipped off to his maiden-aunt’s house for the summer? How would he handle a summer crush (especially if he had to hide things about himself). What about those hospital visits? Basically, what is it like to grow up with all of that happening around you—while still being a pretty happy, easy-going and positive guy? I have now written three of the Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles (two of which are out this summer), and throughout the process, Jake has been teaching me who he is—and what kind of story he wants to tell.
If you are struggling with characterization, I have three things to suggest. First, go to the donut shop, the greasy spoon, the local pub. Go to the laundry mat, the barbecue, the chili cook off. Let the warmth and light of real places and people (with the grit and the soot, the dirt and the smudge, the cackle and the gossip) soak into your creative synapses. Let the dung of the ordinary fertilize your garden. Second, share these characters. Let people intrude upon your vision and so expand it. You don’t need to keep it all, but you may see with fresh eyes. Finally, be ready for surprises. You might find that the characters don’t look the way you expected or behave the way you want. They might argue with you, even. Good. That means you have done the hard part–you created something with vittles, innards, guts. In general, they will take over the rest (whether you want them to or not!)
High Stakes (Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles)
“I’m not a vampire,” insists Jacob Maresbeth, teenage journalist for the school paper. But what is a vampire, really? What happens if you have all the right symptoms, but are a living, breathing sixteen-year-old boy?
Diagnosed with a rare disease, Jake can’t help but wonder. After eight years in and out of the Newport News hospital, he’s had it up to here with doctors, diseases and dishonesty. After all, Jake’s father, respected neurologist Franklyn Maresbeth, has been hiding some of his more unusual symptoms for years… particularly that part about drinking blood.
In High Stakes, Jake records his summer vacation in the home of his maiden aunt, the bangled and be-spectacled Professor Sylvia. If that isn’t bad enough (and it is), Jake and his theatre-loving sister Lizzy must keep the “unofficial” details of Jake’s disorder a secret from Aunt Sylvia’s seductively beautiful graduate student, Zsofia. Will Jake survive a whole month pretending to be an invalid? Will Zsofia weaken his resolve with her flirtatiously dangerous Hungarian accent? Will Jake lose his heart–in more ways than one?
About the Author
Author, historian, and adventurer at the intersections, Brandy Schillace spends her time in the mist-shrouded alleyways between literature and medicine.
Brandy grew up in an underground house in abandoned coal mining territory near a cemetery. It does things to you (like convince you to get a PhD). It also encourages a particular brand of fictive output. HIGH STAKES, Book 1 of The Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles, came out in 2014 with Cooperative Trade Press.
Brandy is managing editor of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry and Research Associate for the Dittrick Museum of Medical History. She is also editor of the Fiction Reboot | Daily Dose blogs. When she isn’t researching arsenic poisoning for the Museum, writing fiction, taking over the world, or herding cats, she teaches for Case Western Reserve University.
Connect with Brandy:
Goodreads page: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20927933-high-stakes
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Brandy-Schillace/e/B00K4EMPEG/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1
HIGH STAKES: High Stakes (Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles)