One of the questions I’m constantly asked (which admittedly I never get tired of answering) is what my process in terms of world building and developing complex characters.
My approach to world-building and character development ultimately corresponds to my overall approach to storytelling. As a writer, I personally belong to the school of character = story. What truth do we discover along the character’s journey? More than that, whether it’s fiction, articles or blog posts, I generally have three mandates which I dub E-Cubed: Enlighten, entertain and empower.
Needless to say that E-Cubed has led to other techniques which has only enhanced my storytelling abilities over the years.
1) If You Aren’t Reinventing The Wheel, Keep It Rolling
West of Sunset features an entire assortment of speculative elements: witches, vampires, magic. I also understand that West of Sunset is not the first story to feature said speculative elements and I doubt it will be the last. For that matter, I doubt West of Sunset will be the last story from me specifically to feature said speculative elements.
Most people are familiar with what a vampire is, their powers and the common ways to defeat them. Many people have read a comic book or at least have watched a comic book movie. Harry Potter fans can be found all over the world. You can count this author among the masses. This is all to say that I understand that my audience is generally familiar with magic, witches, wizards and their functions. So unless I’m doing something very unique or distinctive with my mages or undead, it serves the story no purpose to waste 30 pages hinting at what a witch is and another 30 pages explaining what witches do. That tends not to be entertaining and you’re writing down to your audience.
For example. Magic is real, witches practice it. Some are good, some are evil. Vampires, immortal, pale, have fangs, very strong, very fast. They tend to be allergic to sunlight, fire, and wooden stakes through the chest. This is very much akin to the KISS method. Keep it Simple, Stud.
So essentially the question a writer should ask is are these characters and worlds a reader would want to become invested in? More than that, would a reader who is not a fan of genre fiction become deeply invested in these protagonists and the worlds in which they would reside? What about someone who hates reading, period? Would they be willing to pick up a book and become invested in this story? How do I make that connection with the non-converted? This goes back to the school character = story and discovering that inner truth and universal narrative which resonates with the human condition.
One of the best compliments that I received when I released Hollowstone, was from readers who informed me that they typically don’t read YA or paranormal novels, but they absolutely enjoyed my book and couldn’t put it down. I was honored and humbled to hear that because it told me that I did my job. If a “non” fan likes it, then it’s a safe bet that fans of the genre will love it.
3) Don’t Limit Yourself To The Literary
Anyone who’s met me for five seconds knows that I’m a hardcore comic book geek. I make no apologies for this. When people ask me who my writing influences and heroes are, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, F. Scott Fitzgerald and JK Rowling are the first among many who come to mind. I’ll also mention Joss Whedon, Russell T. Davies, Shonda Rhimes, Janelle Monae, and the late Dwayne McDuffie. The latter list often confuses people as they aren’t literary novelists. While that may be true that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from these gifted artists.
Sadly too many writers limit themselves by buying into this notion that you can only do what’s already been done in literature. Many even take it step backwards by only qualifying art and literature as anything produced by old dead white men.
If I see exemplary storytelling techniques utilized in music videos, comic books, video games, etc. I will not hesitate to study them and implement them in my writings.
For me, story is the primary focus, the medium in which it is expressed is secondary.
4) Write To A Sophisticated & Savvy Audience
As a rule I write with the mindset that the audience is at least as smart as me, if not smarter. This forces me to step my game up with each piece I pen and I always attempt to try to outdo myself. This results in my best getting better.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, Hollowstone is in many respects an homage and a modern day reimagining of The Great Gatsby. Because the story is also a paranormal and YA novel, it also incorporates themes of mystery, noir, southern gothic, and more than a few action-packed scenes.
The title of my next novel West of Sunset itself is a mashup and a play on the titles of two of my favorite films, East of Eden and Sunset Boulevard. The second portion of the book has more than a few nods to both movies.
When it comes to interests and tastes, I pride myself in having an eclectic palette which translates into the worlds I create. Worlds with influences of everything ranging from film noir, comic book superheroes, Greek mythology, Wuxia, Native American lore, and English romanticism.
It’s been my experience that most readers appreciate that I respect them enough to give them more than cookie cutter rehashes of The Adventures of Captain Whitebread and His Token Sidekicks taking place on the Planet Caucasoid being told in the Hero’s Journey basic formula.
5) As Long As It Contributes To The Story, All Things Are Possible
If you haven’t figured out by now that I’m a huge comic book nerd, then you haven’t been paying attention. No really, you haven’t been paying attention because I’ve mentioned and referenced comic books several times now. Keep up everyone.
On top of being a comic book nerd, I am a child of the 80s. Much like graphic novels, 80s cartoons and 80s sci-fi/fantasy films allowed sorcery and science to intertwine and the two were not mutually exclusive as it often is into today’s genre fiction.
A perfect example, He-Man and She-Ra. In its most simplistic description the mythos of these two series could be described as a mashup of Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars. It goes without saying, but both hit shows were much more than that. No really they were. Which by the by, if you’re not here for that Masters of the Universe/Princess of Power Realness, then you’re not about this life. TRU FAX! TRU FAX!
Hollowstone contained angels, demons, Wiccans, a chosen one, martial artists, hitmen, computer hackers, and then there’s the really outlandish stuff.
When peeps have inquired about West of Sunset, I’ve summed it up as young gay wizard detectives, witchy heroines, vampire biker gangs, all colliding during a vacation trip in L.A. and that’s just one half of the book. 😉
If it works storywise, it is fair game as far as I’m concerned. As a former art professor used to tell me, there are no rules, just tools.
6) White Is Not The Default
Because we still live in a society where white privilege, racism and institutional oppression run rampant, many of us are constantly (or should be) working to unlearn the ingrained bigotry that society programs into us.
Unfortunately in our culture, white is deemed the norm and the default. This is why even though Hollowstone runs the gamut in speculative elements, the one aspect that continuously skullfracks most white readers is the concept of Noah Scott being a mild mannered 14-year-old Black kid who is a straight, a student, devout Catholic and gifted violinist. Because apparently mild mannered straight-A black teenage musicians can’t possibly exist because something something something author insert (even though he’s based on 3 high school buddies) something something something Mary Sue something something something not white not right something something something Obama is scary.
Even in social justice discussions, we reinforce white is the default in our language. For instance, when white minorities, be they women and/or LGBTQs, self identify, they will often say something along the lines of “I am a woman” or “I am a gay man.” However when people of color who belong to those same groups self identify, we’re all but forced to state, “I am a black woman” or “I am a gay Asian male.” Now on the surface it seems pretty innocent and harmless enough but when you add in white privilege, institutional oppression and the well-documented history of women of color and queer PoCs being treated lesser than their white peers in feminist and LGBTQ circles, well, self-identification can often be just another snowflake in an avalanche of oppression.
Speaking of snow and avalanches, there’s one scene in Hollowstone where Cal and Noah vacation in Aspen and meet a pair of beautiful twin ski bunnies. Originally the twins were white and blonde and then I stopped myself and asked, “Why do they have to be white? Black women can also be beautiful romantic love interests and illustrating that blacks do travel and ski also will probably make more than a few heads explode.”
The twins became African American and it strengthened the story as a result. It added diversity in that key scene. It also added nuance to Cal’s character. Being a hopeless Lothario and bonafied bad boy, the scene showed that Cal appreciates beautiful and exceptional women, no matter their ethnicity.
Even today I’m constantly vigilant in reminding myself that white is not the default and to make sure that latent systemic programming doesn’t infect my work.
In my world, the girls can hold their own with the boys; PoCs are the stars of their own stories; gay men are the toughest badasses walking; trans protagonists are extraordinary champions. To me it’s art imitating life, which is why I call BS when white people can write drivel upon drivel about vampires, werewolves, and aliens but claim writing black people is just soooooooooo hard. This among many reasons is why I have the following personal edict: “Never mistake for ignorance that which can be explained with malice. Because when it comes to bigoted white folks, it’s almost ALWAYS malicious intent.”
8) Marginalized Take Precedent
Because of the dearth of stories featuring minority protagonists in leading and central roles and the continuous whitewashing and erasure of the few that do exist, I’ve committed myself to penning stories that feature PoCs and/or LGBTQs as the leads.
Recently while appearing as a guest at a con, an attendee asked me “Why am I so committed to diversity, progression and multiculturalism?”
My response, “To paraphrase Joss Whedon, “Because you are asking me that question.’”
If you’re looking for a template to create unique and interesting characters, the past has more than a few. If you do enough research, you will discover that many of history’s key players and game changers had few resources and often they weren’t male, heterosexual, or white.
Bayard Rustin, Cesar Chavez, Ching Shih, Alan Turing, Sojourner Truth, Wilma Mankiller, Jamie Escalante, Julian Bond, I could go on. Of course it begs the question, how many great leaders, scientists, artists and other brilliant minds have we missed out on because societal isms?
Because that’s the thing about bigotry and institutional oppression, everyone loses and misses out in the end.
10) Learn From Your Neighbors
They say you can judge a man by the company he keeps. I certainly hope that’s the case because if that’s true then I’m the most blessed and the most awesome individual walking the planet. Tru Fax! Tru Fax!
Not a day passes that I don’t think God for blessing me with the extraordinary loved ones who have enriched my life and my journey. Men, women, young people who come from all walks of life spanning almost every conceivable demographic. Some practice an alternative faith, some have disabilities, many are LGBTQs, many are women, and most of them are people of color. So as far as inspiration goes, again, it’s simply a matter of art imitating life.
11) Build The Worlds You’d Want To Live In and Create The Characters With Whom You Would Fall In Love
Regarding key reasons for the worldwide success of the Harry Potter series, my buddy filmmaker Jackson Wickham made a most profound point which I work to apply to my own work. “Rowling’s masterstroke was in creating not just a great story, but a place where a tremendous amount of people would prefer to live.”
12) Remain True To Your Art
As cliched and trite as this may sound many artists forget this basic fundamental. Too often they get swept up in following trends, allowing other voices to drown out theirs. As a result, their work suffers and there is a disconnect with their gift. Only I can share the characters and their journeys that I’m meant to share in my distinct style and voice. The same is true for the next artist. In being true to your gift, your gift will remain true to you.
At least that’s been my experience. 😉