Saturday, April 19, 2014

Frogfish Ugly, Jack Reacher Strong

Does your character stand out?

First a couple of facts:

1.  Oceans cover nearly 70 percent of the earth's surface.
2.  Humans are terrestrial beings unable to survive underwater for longer than they can hold their breath unless they use specialized equipment.
3.  Humans are not at the top of the food chain in the marine environment.

What better place to stage a crime?

My current work-in-progress includes a marine biologist in the cast of characters.  Scientists tend to be focused, fact-driven, data junkies. Cops tend to be focused, evidence-driven, adrenaline junkies. So far so good. Biologists also tend to know A LOT of biology. Cops, not so much. Therein lies a problem. My solution to the conundrum was a research trip* to the island of Kauai. I'm still a bit dodgy on the science, but the sea taught me an unexpected lesson on characterization.

Hiding in plain sight

Writers struggle to find the perfect words to describe their characters. When it's done well, readers can see the character's physicality and intuit a deeper emotional layer.  Our words are chosen with specificity in order to spark recognition of a virtue or vice found within themselves. A frogfish may be mistaken for coral, but no one who has ever seen a frogfish will confuse it with another fish.

Sometimes characters blend with the crowd

Not all characters are deserving of special recognition. Too much description of a secondary character leads readers to believe that the waitress / neighbor / UPS delivery person will play a more important role than the writer intends. Individually, these Spanish Grunts are hard to distinguish, but collectively, they form schools that create a larger profile and confuse prey.

Not all villains look dangerous

Antagonists shouldn't have a scar, a maniacal laugh, wear a black cloak, and kick kittens. The most chilling villain is the one readers understand. The Crown of Thorns starfish is an invasive species with venomous spines, few natural predators, and a voracious appetite for coral polyps. It leaves a swath of dead coral reefs in its wake and has threatened the stability of many ecosystems.  

Not all heroes look heroic

The Trident Trumpet Conch looks like Stephanie Plum, but acts like Jack Reacher. It is one of the few critters (scientific technical term) capable of getting the drop on the Crown of Thorns starfish. It grips its prey, saws through the starfish's armored skin, injects a paralyzing saliva, then feeds at its own pace. 

Wait, this is a hero? 
Depends on how I write it-- and whether you are the starfish or the coral.

That's the beauty of characterization.

*I love my job.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


My father died this week. We had a difficult and complicated relationship and his death has provoked difficult, complicated emotions.

I have written hundreds of words since his passing; private words of anger and grief. It is said that a person can choose their friends, but not their family. In either case, a person must want to nurture the relationship. My father and I chose to let ours go. Over the years, we attempted reconciliation, until one day, we just stopped trying. It was a decision we both agreed was best.

But death changed the game. What might have been has been recast as what was. And it is final.  

Now I'm pissed. It is a surprising emotion. One that will somehow work its way into my writing alongside the grief, alongside the sadness, overshadowing the guilt. Because, that's life. It's messy and complicated and difficult. All of which act as foils to the beauty and bounty we reap from living it.

My father died this week, and with his passing, he reminded me to live. For that, I am grateful.