What It Look Like? Seeing Ourselves (?) in Literature

I’ve gotten comments from those who have read The Bastille Family Chronicles: Camille (informally known as The Camille Chronicles) about how they like the fact that I’ve written my characters in a way that their race wasn’t obvious; in fact, one can insert any race, ethnicity, or combination thereof, and it wouldn’t detract from the story.

That’s exactly what I wanted to accomplish, and it’s good that I’ve accomplished that goal.

I’ve always said that I consider myself an author who happens to be black, rather than a black author (oh, wait…you didn’t know I was black? LOL I personally don’t use the term African American, but that’s another post for another day, and on a different forum. But I digress.). When I was jonesing for a contract with a major publishing house, over a decade ago, one of the more discouraging comments I heard during my rejection process was that “the  numbers show that black people didn’t read” the thriller/suspense novel my then-literary agent was shopping around. I resented the fact that my book would only marketed to black people, when my story was beyond that. No disrespect to my people, but my goal as a writer was not to limit my writing based on race and/or ethnicity. This is further compacted by the assumption that every black author writes a “black” book (whatever that means, although it’s usually code for either an urban/street fiction novel, a church-based book, or a sistagirl novel a la Terry McMillan–which is what “the numbers” *rolling eyes* allegedly show that these are the books that black people only read). I was hesitant to put my picture on the cover because I didn’t want potential readers to see it and think, “Oh, this is a black book, and I’m not black, so I probably shouldn’t read it as I wouldn’t understand it, or I probably wouldn’t see  myself in the story–literally and figuratively.” But I also didn’t want someone else showing up and passing themselves off as me, so…the pic stayed. 😀

That sentiment had a large part in the cover design as well. I’d originally thought of something along the lines of what is normally seen on a romance book cover–namely, two people who may or may not be in the throes of passion, significant looks, etc.  The wonderful graphic artist who ended up doing my cover, John of AdLib Design, mentioned that as a reader, he liked to form his own opinion on how a character looked (or not) based on how s/he was described in the context of the story. To that end, we agreed on using symbolism instead of people on the cover. The feedback on the cover has been very positive, so I’m going to continue the symbolism going forward in the rest of the series. Which is cool, because I have to make sure that each book has a symbol-friendly hook to it, usually in the guise of a significant hobby or activity.

A good story is a good story. I like Maeve Binchy novels, but I am not white, and I have never set foot in Ireland. Her stories, though, are touching and I relate to them. I hope that other readers are willing to give me the same benefit of the doubt and at least try what I’m offering. I’m not saying my writing will transcend race (which is a phrase that irritates me, BTW), but will at least form a common ground for my readers.

Thanks for stopping by.

The Creative Flow: Creating characters

You can’t have a fiction book without characters. Once you figure out what you’re going to write about, you then have to figure out who is going to be in your book. Not literal people, although like most authors, our characters are an amalgamation of people we know or have known, or have at least encountered (if anyone tells you otherwise, they are lying ). In order for a book to be successful (which means to catch a reader’s attention enough to encourage them to buy it, like it, and tell his or her friends about it), you need compelling characters along with a compelling storyline.

To really do justice to a character, you need to get inside that character’s head. I mean, BE that character. This is easier for me because I was in the Drama Club for two years in high school, and Black Theatre Ensemble for three years in college; being in plays requires you to get into character. I also built sets for Mask and Bauble, another theater group (in case you didn’t check my bio, I graduated from Georgetown), so I was exposed to even more people in character–which was interesting when we saw each other as our normal selves during class.

When I create a character, I usually start with speech patterns. For some reason, the way the character speaks tells me a lot about his or her personality. Again, I think of people I know, have known, or have encountered. Sometimes, a character is borne of a simple phrase uttered by another. Case in point: in my upcoming novel (which will be released in October–yay!), my main character, Camille, is originally born and bred in New Orleans, but was educated in the northern part of the United States. I confer with my friends from New Orleans to get speech patterns, phrases, etc. down pat.  Because she is a Southerner who has lived most of her adult like in the North and is educated (as I was), that adds another layer to her speech patterns. Yet another layer involves her being a Southern female, as females in the South have a different way of communicating than males do; yet she is in a male-dominated field, so that alters her speech patterns as well.

My main character is also a physician, so I ask my physician friends about little things like schedules, educational paths, current medical technology, procedures for her specific field, etc. She is in her forties (as I am), so I also address issues specifically relating to a forty-something female who has a successful career, yet is still single. This includes sex; as the sex scenes in the book will show, a forty-something female is usually more confident in her sexuality (it’s not Fifty Shades of Gray, y’all), while tending to refrain from positions that she could once get into to when she was  in her twenties. Aging is real, y’all. 🙂 Most of my friends and associates are in our forties, and we have come a long way to where we are able to talk about sex and pleasure in a frank (but not vulgar) manner; this includes to our mates or potential mates. There is a freedom to do this that doesn’t really exist in one’s twenties, and only starts to come to fruition once you enter your thirties.

How a character looks in your head has a bearing on how the character comes across on the page. My main character happens to be extremely beautiful, which is at odds (in the minds of a lot of her colleagues, male and female) with her career success. The Pretty Girl Pass is real in our society, and there is still an inverse correlation between beauty and intelligence; I play up that aspect in the book. She is also a girly girl, so the fact that she lives most of her days in surgical scrubs does not negate her love of dressing up in more feminine wear in her spare time.

Character quirks are also important. They add dimension to the character, so that he or she lives off the page and in the reader’s mind. Camille has a habit of keeping things in her pockets: pens, snacks, phone. This has a bearing on the plot of the story. Again, I draw from my own experiences as I have a tendency to put  a lot of things in my pockets; I force myself to carry a purse so as not to overload my jeans, and I have a personal fondness for cargo pants, with their multiple, large pockets.

If you do it right, your characters will seem like real people to you; so real that it may unnerve some people. This will translate to a richer reading experience for your audiences, which will lead to more book sales (yay!). If a character isn’t real to you, then it won’t  be real to your readers, either. In future posts, I will talk more about character development, and also about creating the world in which the characters live.

Thanks for stopping by.