Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ya Gotta Have Sass

by Nina Wright

Now and then I tend toward the blunt and cynical.Example: On a recent occasion when I may have been more...ahem...emotional than usual, my significant other, whom I fondly call Coach, asked why I was being "such a girl." In response, I asked why he was being such an a--hole. He calmly observed that I sound like the character I write.

"Which one?" I demanded.

Whiskey Mattimoe is hardly the girliest of girls, but she does have a mouth on her. Since she runs a real estate agency, however, she can't afford to piss everyone off. My teen protagonist Easter Hutton is more likely to let flip responses fly.

"Pick one," Coach said. "They all say what you want to say."

I started to protest, then reconsidered. Before long we were engaged in a lively discussion. Allow me to summarize:

* Esprit de l’escalier. French for “staircase wit.” In everyday life, that’s the sparkling remark you wish you had thought of when you needed it but were too slow-witted to produce. In writing, it’s the power to give your characters the verbal snap and crackle you lack. Or not. Sometimes we make them mis-speak for humor, humanity, or plot activation. Both Whiskey and Easter frequently open mouth and insert foot.

* Author-Protagonist Identity Fusion. No, this is not a new listing in the DSM-IV, although perhaps it should be. Authors, especially authors of series fiction, grow weary of being asked if they are their protagonists. Sue Grafton has admitted that she conceived Kinsey Milhone as a younger, braver, fitter version of herself. That’s partially true of me and Whiskey: she’s taller, braver, more athletic, and certainly more affluent than I am. But in all fairness, she lacks my brains and sophistication. Faraway friends with whom I used to spend lots of face time insist that reading the series is the next best thing to hanging out with me. I can only imagine that’s because Whiskey has a few of my questionable charms. Frankly, it’s the differences between us that keep me intrigued. My teen protagonist Easter Hutton is nearly the complete opposite of the sunny sixteen-year-old I used to be. That’s what makes her fun to write. I get to relive teen angst as a dark personality in a high-risk, paranormally charged world.

* Author Personality Projection/Adjustment. Again, not a disorder. I contend that we infuse every character we write with pieces of ourselves, often neatly twisted. Although I’m inspired by real-world folks and frequently borrow dialogue or other details, I’m the final filter. Confession: my villain may be more like me, or more like what I fear, than my protagonist.

* Author’s Voice. Finding our own is hard work for most of us. Reshaping it as needed for the various books (and genres) we choose to write may be even tougher. My signature voice, though distinctly different for Whiskey vs. Easter, is breezy, irreverent and direct, not unlike the way I talk. (There. I admitted it.) Yet that’s hardly the way I’ve always written. Back in grad school I believed that my future lay in writing literary novels. Oh, the poetry I churned out. I was the sensitive, articulate type. What happened, besides waking up to the reality of commerce? I dropped all pretense and wrote my essence. But I’d like to believe that I could still find the voice needed to write that literary or gothic novel. Without going back to grad school.

Although I aspire to weightier pieces, I swear sass beats class for readability and sheer entertainment. What’s your Author Voice? How did you find it? Where do your characters come from? Happy writing and Happy Halloween from this occasionally rude writer.



Felicia Donovan said...

Nina, great post. My challenge has been to keep the voices of the four main characters in THE BLACK WIDOW AGENCY separate and distinct, but their individual personalities shine through each time. Thus, I've allowed them to have a guest appearance and respond in kind:

Katie: "I've heard the rumors that she wants to dump us and write something more literary."
Margo: "You can kiss my sweet literary ass goodbye if she think she's gonna' make any money from that crap. We're her damn bread and butter and she oughtta damn well know it. Speaking of bread and butter, anyone want some hot chocolate pound cake? I just took it out of the oven..."
Alex (declining food): "Katie, you want me to launch a rootkit invasion of her system to see what she's typing behind our backs?"
Katie: "I really don't think that's necessary, Alex."
Jane: "Katie, you don't think she would really drop us? Oh dear. My monthly social security only covers so much..."
Katie: "Relax Janie. I've seen her "literary" stuff and believe me, we have nothing to worry about. Trust me, the Black Widows are all safe. Now pass that cake..."

Mark Terry said...

Derek Stillwater, my series character, says what's on his mind and always does what he thinks needs to be done. It gets him in constant trouble which is why he's a great character to work with. I also think it's why readers seem to like him.

I wrote a couple things featuring a character named Dr. Theo MacGreggor. He's a single father, consulting forensic toxicologist, college professor. He appears in CATFISH GURU. Although people seemed to find him appealing, I've often felt that Mac's problem was he was too diplomatic, too passive-aggressive, he held his tongue when he should have spoken, he didn't ruffle feathers. He was, in short, an awful lot like me. (I don't know how appealing I am :)).

One of the literary characters I've held up as a great character is Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch. It's like: has baggage, will travel. He pisses off everybody, even the people that respect him and his abilities. He always does what he thinks is right, even if it alienates everybody around him.

In real life would we want to be around Harry? Probably not. But in fiction, absolutely. And for the writer, a character like that solves a lot of problems, because fiction is about conflict. And when the character brings the conflict with him or her, half the writer's job is done.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Whenever I'm asked if Odelia Grey is like me, I answer truthfully: Yes, she is pretty much me, but she swears less, dresses better, and is much nicer. I also have never, thankfully, gotten involved with dead bodies.

My new series, The Ghost of Granny Apples, will be the real challenge and test of my writing ability. The main character, Emma Pearle, is younger, fit, divorced, a mother, affluent and genteel - everything I'm not. The other main character is Ish Reynolds, a ghost of a pioneer woman - again, no similarities whatsoever, except that she will be rather mouthy. I can't wait to dig deep inside myself and see what comes out.

G.M. Malliet said...

Staircase wit. Wonderful! I'd never heard that expression before.

Candy Calvert said...

Oh, honey--you KNOW that I can relate: Sass is Darcy Cavanaugh's middle name. And the reason I have to bite my own tongue so often. ;-)

Though I, too, aspire to "weightier" work one day, there is definitely something pretty wonderful about hanging out with characters who say (and do) everything that I shouldn't.

And--hey--can we borrow that pumpkin butt? It's got my characters . . . over the moon. ;-)

Nina Wright said...

I'm enjoying everyone's comments. And finding deep comfort in the knowledge that I'm not the only one whose personality leaks into my characters--good, evil, and in between.

Felicia, what fun when characters speak directly to us. It's the most direct route into their minds. BTW, Alex is creeping me out.... ;<)

Mark, your assessment of Harry Bosch and other colorful series protagonists (including your own) is right on. We wouldn't want to live with 'em, but, man, they are the main reason we pick up the books.

Sue Ann, in the process of "finding" Emma and Ish, you'll have as many adventures inside your head as you do on the page. Happy travels!

Candy, let's face it: we write not only to make others gasp and laugh, but to have the same effect on ourselves while we work. Whiskey and Darcy make (most of) our real-life decisions look safe and sane.... Vicarious living, anyone?