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Monday, March 4, 2013

Straight from the Horse's Mouth - by Alexis Morgan

One of the hardest parts of embarking on a new series is getting to know the people who comprise the initial cast of characters. I’m talking about the folks who will play a major role in the story whether they appear in just one book or across several. It’s important that I get them right from the beginning because I’ll have to live with them for a long time. If I get it wrong, it can seriously impact my ability to tell their story.

I start off doing all the usual things. I make a list of possible names, testing them out to see if they not only feel right but also sound right. A name that fits a modern day warrior may be totally wrong for a U.S. Marshal in the 1880s. Personally, I like to use names that mean something appropriate for the character and doubly so when it comes to my heroes. In my Warriors of the Mist series, I chose Gideon as the name for their leader because the name means warrior. In an earlier series, I chose Devlin because it means fierce and valorous, both characteristics a leader needs to have. Even if my readers never know that about the names, I do. It was just one layer in building a believable hero.

It's also important to say the characters' names out loud to make sure that they don’t sound too much alike. They can look quite different in print, but still sound similar. For example, in the first book of Warriors of the Mist, I started off naming one knight Kane and another Cai. Those names are different enough in spelling to be easy for readers to keep them straight. However, when I started talking about the characters in a brainstorming session with a friend, I kept tripping over them because they sounded a little too much alike. I normally hate to change a name, but Cai became Averel because in the long run it made it easier to keep the characters straight.

Then there was the time I named my hero Cal and the heroine Lily. Again, on paper, those names are fine. It wasn’t until the book was actually out and I was giving a talk that I realized how they sound when said together. (Cal and Lilly=calla lily.)  Sheesh.

Once I’ve settled on names, I think about what style of clothing each character prefers. In the contemporary world, a guy who lives in flannel and denim is going to be a different personality than one who prefers Armani. A woman who only wears tailored styles is likely to act differently than one whose wardrobe is mainly sweats and t-shirts. Even in a fantasy world, there are differences in clothing. A wealthy man will wear richer fabrics. A warrior might wear leather and chainmail. A serf will wear homespun clothing in a simple style.

One of the best talks I’ve heard on choosing fashion for specific characters was given by the costume designer for the Lord of the Rings movies. It’s part of the extras in the extended boxed version. The woman talked at length about the thought processes behind the decisions they made for all the characters in the movies.  For example, she pointed out that because Frodo came from a wealthy family, his vest is made from velvet. Sam, who is a farmer, wears one that is not nearly as fancy. It’s all in the details. Although I might not have noticed all the specifics she pointed out on my own, I do know that those details all added to the richness of the film. 

When I was putting together the character descriptions for the five Warriors of the Mist, I used two techniques I hadn’t tried before. I knew each of them had an avatar, an animal that fights at their side over the centuries. Choosing the right one to fit the personality of each man took me hours. I chose a large raptor for Gideon, the leader. Duncan who is both a warrior and a scholar has a large owl. Murdoch, who is quiet and strong, has a reclusive feline companion. And Lord Kane, the man with the darkest past, has a gargoyle. They are both the last of their bloodlines.

But the avatars weren’t the only ones who taught me something about the warriors. In the world of Agathia, horses can select their own riders. I had a wonderful time figuring out what kind of horse would choose my warriors. Gideon bonded with the lead stallion. No surprise there. Murdoch, who towers over most men, was picked by a huge draft horse. A high stepping mare picked Sir Duncan, who is the most chivalrous of the warriors. Lord Kane, who is marked by the dark magic of his bloodline, bonded with a battle-scarred stallion that has never before accepted a rider on his back.

The modern day equivalent of those horses might be the kind of car or motorcycle that your character would choose. Does your heroine drive a pragmatic older sedan or does she zip around town in a red convertible?  Does your hero drive a heavy duty pickup truck or a sleek sports car?  Those details make a difference because they contribute to how your reader sees your characters.

And maybe the vehicle stands out in stark contrast to everything else in the character’s life. Maybe your heroine wears plain clothing and little makeup, but she does drive that red convertible. That anomaly makes her interesting to me. Why that one aberration and what does it mean?  It would sure signal to your readers that there’s something interesting going on in that woman’s head.

So as you plan your next story, think about the details that will reveal character to your readers. Try to come at it from a different angle than you have before and see where it takes you. After all, with my Warriors of the Mist, I really did get it straight from the horse’s mouth. 

They are cursed by the gods, and war is their salvation. Love is their deliverance.

 For centuries, five legendary warriors have braved their battles shoulder to shoulder. But now, they must divide and conquer as lone champions against evil.

Duncan, a scholar at heart, is drawn to an isolated abbey rumored to hold the answers to countering the terror unleashed by Duke Keirthan. Inside the cloistered walls lies the hidden collection of forbidden lore on dark magic. But the real key to the salvation Duncan seeks—both for the people of Agathia and his soul--is the abbess herself, Lady Lavinia.  Hunted by the duke who seeks to harvest her powers, Lavinia knows Duncan wants to help her. But can she trust the tortured warrior with her secrets?

 In the end, it is only by joining forces that they can save not only those they are sworn to protect, but each other.


Cathryn Cade said...


I like your suggestion of an anomaly for each character, instead of every piece of their appearance and possessions ringing true. Thanks for putting this into words.

In my next contemporary, the hero is a builder and weight-lifter, a big, powerful man's man. In one scene he shows up in a too tight pink T-shirt, to show his support for breast cancer research. The POV character realizes he should look ridiculous, but doesn't, because of what the T-shirt means.

Because of your piece, I'm now off to see what anomalies I can present the space adventurers in my new sci fi series! Fun stuff.

Cathryn Cade

Alexis Morgan said...

Cathryn--I love the pink t-shirt idea! It does speak to the kind of man he is. Have fun with your adventurers!

Leti Del Mar said...

Wow, what a great post. I need to spend more time thinking of my character's names. I usually just name them after people I know and never tell them, which is probably a bad idea. I also loved the costume tip from LOTR :)

Alexis Morgan said...

We all have different processes that work for us. Knowing the names have meaning does help me. When I wrote stories set in the Old West, I picked names off lists of Civil War era military rosters to get ones that were right for the time period.

And after listening to the costume designer talk about her work, I have made it a point to watch the extras on DVDs to see what else I can glean from directors and designers.