Books by Melissa Bowersock

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

What Makes a Great Character?

character from pixabayWith all the reading I do, I’m very aware of how I feel about different characters in different books. There are times when I’ll go weeks — months, even — and not read a book that knocks me out. I begin to wonder if I’m getting jaded, but then, suddenly, a book comes along that I simply love and the characters are more like dear friends than two-dimensional sketches. These characters really grab me: make me laugh, make me cry, make me bite my nails with worry over their challenges. But they’re rare. Rarer than they should be. So it got me to thinking, what makes a really, really great character? Here’s my list, in no particular order.
Intelligence. One thing that drives me crazy is a character who repeatedly does stupid things. I’m talking the twenty-something cheerleader-type who’s alone in an isolated cabin with a chainsaw murderer on the loose, and she goes outside with only a dinky flashlight to check on a weird noise. Really? That’s a special kind of stupid and she deserves everything she gets. No, I want my characters to be smart — smart but, for whatever reason, boxed into a corner, forced to make hard decisions, forced to really reach inside and find out what they’re made of.
Rhett Butler is a smart guy. He understands economics, he understands war, and he’s good at keeping his head when everyone else is panicking. So he’s not so smart when it comes to falling in love, but we’ll get to flaws later on. Overall, he’s smart, he’s capable, and he’s effective. Quite the catch.
Sympathetic. A good protagonist has a good heart. Okay, sometimes it’s buried under a ton of stuff: mistrust, betrayal, abuse, defense mechanisms. Sometimes the character has to assume a tough exterior, a hard-guy persona, in order to battle through his own demons, but underneath it all, he’s a good guy. Someone to root for. Someone to care for. We may only see glimmers of it from time to time, but it’s there. We know it.
One of my books is a fantasy about a young peasant who gets pulled into the middle of the classic battle between good and evil. In the beginning, he takes on a purely personal quest, albeit an altruistic one, and that is to free his family from slavery. He’s very single-minded about this, and objects to being pulled into the larger conflict. On my first re-read, I realized he was too single-minded, and he showed a distinct lack of compassion for the people around him. He had nothing but petulant disdain for the hardships of others. I had to go back and write him softer, more empathic. Having him be more sympathetic to others gave him a deeper dimension, and also heightened the tension in his decision to press on with his own quest. It made him more human.
Strengths. Our characters don’t have to be super-duper X-men to be interesting. Sometimes strengths come in very subtle packages: perseverance, support, encouragement, patience. Personally, I like willingness in a character. They may be up against a wall, their quest may be a longshot, but they are willing to go the distance.
In one of my romances, the woman has been a doormat all her young life, but the threat of having her marriage fall apart spurs her to a newfound strength and conviction she never manifested before. It’s not courage in a grand, epic sort of way, but it’s still courage. Sometimes the subtle strengths can be the most profound.
Weaknesses. All great characters have flaws. Secrets. Pasts that haunt them. The flaws make them human and provide tension — will he be able to do what he needs to do, or will the flaws be his undoing? Will his tragic past dictate his future? These weaknesses can take two tangents in stories; they can be things the character needs to overcome, or they can, surprisingly, become strengths, become the tools the character needs in order to accomplish his goal. Either way, they add a great deal of texture to the character and the story.
Remember what I said about Rhett Butler? He’s smart, but he falls for Scarlet O’Hara, god knows why. He can handle himself confidently in business around town, on a profiteering ship and at a dance, but he can’t keep himself from wanting the stubborn and selfish woman who taunts him. This is the kind of flaw that must, eventually, be overcome. Sadly, regretfully, but yes, he must finally walk out the door. Not giving a …
Motivation. What drives the character? What pushes him forward? This needs to be very clear. If a character has little or no motivation, it will be hard for us to believe he’s going to do what he says he’s going to do. I think I’ll go climb Mt. Everest. Why? I dunno; just seems like a good idea. Yeah, no.
Growth. To my mind, this has to be at the end of the journey. What has the character learned, understood, accomplished, gained? With all the ups and downs our characters endure, all the hoops we put them through in their story, they have to end up different in some way. They have to be affected by what they’ve seen and done. If there’s no growth at the end of the story, I have to wonder if the character is just a blockhead after all.
In one of my historical romances, the woman has led a very sheltered life as a pampered only child. When she travels to the wild west of Arizona to find the father she never knew, she’s faced with some very rough experiences, including time in an Apache village. While she’s repulsed at first by the primitive ways, she learns — reluctantly — that the Apache methods are exactly what are needed in the harsh landscape. It’s a lesson she thought never to learn — didn’t want to learn — but it stands her in good stead by the end of the book.
Complexity. No human on earth is all good or all bad. I call this the Disney Syndrome. In Disney movies, we know who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, and neither will ever, ever, be anything else. This works for six-year-olds, but as adults we need more than that. We need complexity in our characters. We needs shades of gray (no, not that kind). This is where the flaws come in. Our guy is fighting a secret organization bent on controlling the world, but he’s also fighting his own fears, his own tendencies to give up and run and hide. The complexity of his character keeps us wondering which side will win out.
Consistency. This can be a tough one. The character needs to stay in character throughout the book. If a guy has been a selfish S.O.B. all through the book and suddenly at the end he turns the other cheek and becomes Mr. Niceguy, are we going to buy that? He’s had no life-altering experience, no dark night of the soul, yet he just decides to be a good guy? I don’t think so. The characters have to stay true to their inner core, although obviously their experiences can lead them to do some heavy-duty soul-searching. I’m not saying they can’t change, only that if they do, there has to be a good reason for it.
Physical Presence. Now that we have all these qualities, we need something to hang them on. We need just a pinch of physicality, something we can picture in our minds. I don’t need a full page of description down to the number of pores on the face, just a brief mention of the character’s defining qualities: ice-blue eyes, tall and lanky body, a shock of wild brown hair. I’ve read some books where I’ve gotten absolutely no indication at all what the character looked like, and while I could certainly conjure up something on my own, I noticed that I had a hard time imagining the dialog, the expressions, the carriage of the body. Just having a small bit of distinct description can move the character from words on a page to a visual, relatable image.
These are the things I work to build into the characters I write, and the things I look for in the characters I read about. What about you? What do you look for in a memorable character? What are the make-or-break qualities that elevate a character from cartoon to real-life, three-dimensional hero?
Originally published by Indies Unlimited on 7/14/2015.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

New Release: Book 20, Prayer Walk

When I started writing the Lacey Fitzpatrick and Sam Firecloud Mystery Series over two and a half years ago, I never for a moment imagined it would grow to what it is today. I had ideas for two, maybe three, books, but no more. Of course, it went far beyond that. I'm pleased (and surprised!) to announce the release of Book 20, Prayer Walk

Based in sprawling Los Angeles, medium Sam Firecloud and his partner, Lacey Fitzpatrick, never seem to run out of hauntings to investigate and resolve, but when they get two separate calls from two frantic customers, they realize they’re getting stretched pretty thin. How are they going to handle two cases at once? Daniel, Sam’s fifteen-year-old son, has a solution, but they quickly discover that solution could lead to serious injury—or worse—for the supernaturally talented boy.

One of the best parts of writing a series is seeing how the characters develop, how the relationships evolve, and how these "friends" continue to grow and expand. For those loyal readers who have followed the series, I think you'll be pleased with Daniel's progress in this book. 

To celebrate this milestone book, I'm putting ALL ebooks in the series on sale for just 99 cents each. If you haven't already boarded the Sam and Lacey train, or if you've fallen behind on their progress, here's your chance to catch up on every book for just pennies. Get the entire series, and be all set for your summer reading, for less than $20! 

The series will be on sale through June 30, 2019. 

And don't forget that these same fast-paced, paranormal mysteries are also being converted into audio book format. So far we've got Books 1-4 complete, with  more to come. Take Sam and Lacey with you on your summer travels, or just keep current during your daily commute time. Sam and Lacey are always the best carpool partners. 

To listen to samples of the current books, check out my SoundCloud page here.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Listen Up! New Audio Book of Sonnets for Heidi

Family secrets; every family has 'em. What was the real story about your great uncle who moved to Alaska and was never heard from again? Why doesn't your cousin ever get invited to family get-togethers? Whose picture is that in the shoebox with no name on it?

Sonnets for Heidi is a book about just such a secret.  

Trish Munroe never planned to be a caregiver, but circumstances have conspired to make her responsible for her elderly Aunt Heidi. Trish does her best to balance the demands of her job, her love life and Heidi's advancing Alzheimer's, but the pressure is taking its toll. When Heidi passes away, there's a bittersweet reprieve until Trish uncovers a family secret of forbidden love that takes her on a tragic yet triumphant journey of the heart.

Sonnets for Heidi was a Finalist in the 2016 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards, and is now available as an audio book as well as a paperback and eBook. You can listen to a sample of the audio book here.

But I have to warn you, read (or listen to) this book with plenty of Kleenex! When I was writing the last few chapters, I had to stop periodically to mop myself up, because I was crying buckets. I think this is the most heartrending yet emotionally satisfying book I have written. If that sounds like your cup of tea, I hope you will check it out. You'll be glad you did.