Talking Story

Character development

chefhat

As the author of a series, I’m often asked by other writers about character development—specifically, how should characters change from one book to the next. I always say it all depends on whether your series is more like a fast-food burger or a chef’s table dining experience.

You know us Hawaiians; it’s all about the food.

When you walk into a burger joint, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. Some series, particularly detective fiction like Robert Parker’s Spencer series, are structured like your basic grilled patty in a bun. First book to last, Spencer changes his underwear and not much else. A crime is committed. It gets solved. Some shooting, drinking, and bed-hopping happens in between. The order the books are read in doesn’t matter much more than having a bacon cheeseburger one day and a jalapeño ranch burger the next.

For burger-lovers, this consistency is a good thing. For authors making bank with a series, it’s awesome. With infinite combinations of new toppings and special sauces to season the plot, there’s no reason to mess with the character of the ground chuck. And with no over-arching storyline, the series never ends.

But no matter how juicy, few people crave burgers all day every day. Variety being the spice of life, it should be no surprise that some series are the literary equivalent of a multi-course chef’s table meal. When you sit at the chef’s table in a restaurant, you relinquish control over your dining experience to the chef who determines the pacing, ingredients, and presentation of each course. For readers, it’s about savoring each dish on the way to dessert.

Think of the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling. In each book the wizardlings had adventures and obstacles, but there was a more important over-arching tale involving Voldermort and Harry that advanced until it was resolved at the end of the last book. Now imagine knowing from the beginning Dumbledor’s end game and Snape’s true character—you’d be eating dessert first and spoiling your appetite for all the delicious tension built in the previous six books.

Just as a chef considers the textures, flavors, and juxtapositions of each dish in his set menu, the author of a cohesive serial story forces characters to change and grow from book to book, ultimately piquing the reader’s hunger for the next course. In a burger book, character development is secondary to the plot. A juicy char-broiled book series is all about enjoying similar experiences with beloved characters over and over again.

Here’s another example.

The Niuhi Shark Saga is a multi-course luau complete with roasted pig, hula dancers, and cake. It’s one loooooong story broken into bite-sized MG/YA books.

Through the series Zader, the protagonist, changes from the odd kid who always has to be rescued to the kid who questions everything to the young man who determines for himself how he will live his life. In each book I have to consider where Zader is in terms of his eventual transformation and where the other characters are in relation to both Zader and their own conflicts and ambitions. It helps that many of my characters are going through adolescence, arguably the biggest transformative time in anyone’s life.

In book one, One Boy, No Water, Zader is hiding in the shadows. There’s a lot of symbolism about young, tender things growing in the protective safety of the reef. He has Uncle Kahana, Jay, and Char Siu to guide and support him, and he’s pretty comfortable being led. At the end, Zader recuses his brother from a paralyzing fear and himself from bullies. This triggers his predator nature, and it’s obvious he’s outgrown the idea of camouflage as safety.

In book two, One Shark, No Swim, Zader’s grown enough that he no longer accepts what he’s been told as fact. Uncle Kahana is unwilling to deal directly with the changes he sees in Zader, and that causes problems. Char Siu, Zader’s gal-pal, is starting to understand that there’s a big difference between boy-world and girl-world and she’s navigating deep water while the boys are still splashing in the shallows. Jay begins to get caught up in competitive surfing, leaving Zader alone on the sand. These conflicts and others finally drive Zader to listen only to himself and to make a choice no one expects.

In book three, tentatively titled One Fight, No Fist, there are consequences for Zader’s choices. He’s older, more secretive, and both less trusting and more protective of his family and friends. He’s bolder, more aggressive, and is ready to take the fight to his stalker. He’s so far from where he started, he’s almost a different person. Consequently, all of the other characters have to change and adjust to this new person—or better, don’t adjust—and the reader can watch the sparks fly.

The changes the Niuhi Shark Saga characters go through are really the storyline that ties the books together. Without character growth the series would be like The Simpsons tv show—Homer chasing one doughnut after another, hanging out at Moe’s, and never learning or suffering from the consequences of his adventures for more than 30 minutes.

Now there are a lot of doughnut lovers who crave that consistency. Go, Homer, go!

But if you’re in the mood for something different, try a little of my Niuhi Shark Saga lau lau and poi. But be sure to leave room for the killer pineapple-upside down cake. You won’t believe what happens next!

Sitting in the dark with the dogs under my feet, kids sleeping upstairs, and husband zonked out on the couch, I take a moment to think about each of my characters in ways that never appear in the novels. How one of them sleeps with a flashlight. How meatloaf reminds another of cat food. The way a character holds a pencil, eats breakfast cereal, or sings along to the radio. More importantly, I think about what each of them desires most, holding fast to the knowledge that for them I can, unlike for my kids upstairs, really make all their dreams come true.

In the middle of the night I want to play fairy godmother and send Cinderella to the ball. She’s had a miserable life, but wait! There’s beauty under the ashes and soot. She dances with the prince, loses a shoe, but in the end he finds her and they live happily ever after in a big palace, dinning on sumptuous calorie-free chocolates with their children who never ever do things like throw up on the carpet or scatter Lego shrapnel down the stairs. Cinderella, eternally blissful in her big poofy sleeved dress, minuscule waist, and tiny glass heels. Sigh. Such a happy, happy life.

Oh, gag. I’m doing it again.

Too often burgeoning authors treat their characters like pampered privileged children, skipping right to the happy ending and bypassing the juicy details of the journey. In these stories dangers lurk in the shadows, something vaguely bad guys in black hats, but it’s all okay; everybody’s wearing a safety helmet and a lifeguard’s on duty; the sharks have teeth, but are vegan and just wanna be friends. These kinds of stories are full of quirky, loveable characters and stirring descriptions of conversations over cups of tea, but usually lack that vital spark called plot.

The real point, Constant Reader, is that as an author I have to love you more and my characters less. I have to find ways to make you fall in love with them and then take you both on a journey that thrills and chills, pausing just long enough to warm you back to your safe zone before plunging you down, down, down to despair and disbelief. Rather than the maudlin fairy godmother paving Cinderella’s path to happiness, I have to be Murphy’s Law, the minefield under the playground, the shark in the idyllic lagoon.

Cup of tea, anyone?

I admit it. I’m not a scrapbooker. I have boxes and files of my children’s lives stashed in random places in my office and in directories on my computer because I know this stuff is too important to throw away, but the thought of sorting through it all to create a meaningful tapestry gives me hives. So when I started getting invites from friends to join Pinterest, the image sharing social networking site, I ignored them. After all, did I really need to spend more time looking at cute bedroom designs I’d never use or read recipes for dishes I’d never cook? Did I mention I’m not the scrapbooking type?

But a couple of days ago, Kirk Cunningham, my publicist at Jolly Fish Press, sent me an email detailing what he wanted me to do with social media to promote my book One Boy, No Water and The Niuhi Shark Adventure Series. Pinterest was on his list, although he listed it only as an option rather than a must do like Facebook and Twitter. Thinking perhaps someday some bored tech savvy tween or teen might check out Pinterest, I half-flippantly wrote back that I was thinking about creating some Pinterest boards based on the main characters. I set up an account and started playing around, first looking for images of food I describe in the book. You know us Hawaiians; it’s all about the food.

Oh. My. Pinterest.

A few clicks and suddenly all of the images in my head about my characters’ likes and dislikes exploded onto the screen. I realized I could pin images about places, food, activities, music—everything from hula halaus to old pineapple plantation hip waders to custom surfboard art—to create complete character profiles and share them with anybody who wanted to know more about the people in my books, more than I could ever write in a novel. Characters who were already living and breathing in my own head could come alive in ways I didn’t anticipate.

Holy cow. What a way to blow an afternoon!

Pinterest as a character design tool is not perfect. Many of the images I wanted to pin to a character didn’t work, probably due to an issue with the originating site not wanting to share images. I get it, but it’s frustrating. I also have to remind myself not to switch back and forth in my descriptions from author to character. I finally decided to create these boards as if they were done by the characters themselves to keep the descriptions from feeling a little schizophrenic. Besides, if a picture is really worth a thousand words, I don’t think I really need to add much, which is probably why most of my pins are labeled in caveman speak.

Still, I gotta admit, it’s a lot more fun than I ever imagined. Maybe someday I will get those scrapbooks organized. (Don’t hold your breath!)

To see how the character profiles are evolving, check out Lehua Parker on Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/lehuaparker/

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When you’re allergic to water,
growing up in Hawaii
isn’t always paradise.

With Niuhi sharks,
even out of the water,
you’re not safe.

Everything you thought you knew
about Zader is a  lie.