Layering Characters

That sounds vaguely dirty, doesn’t it? No? It’s just me then.

Continuing my undoubtedly erroneous assumption that you’re all fascinated by what I’m doing as I get to the end of Nita, I’ve been layering characters throughout the story. I write in acts, so Nita’s first act is Nita before she’s forced to accept the supernatural and meeting Nick, second act is Nita learning to deal with the supernatural and falling for Nick, third act is Nita trying to deal with all the crime, supernatural and otherwise, while Nick cycles through multiple identities, and fourth act is Nita harrowing Hell because she’s tired of this crap and she wants to save Nick (who saves himself, but still, good goal). Obviously, Nita is front and center in all the acts, as is Nick. However this book has more characters than a fruitcake has nuts, and sticking with the analogy, we want the nuts spread evenly throughout the cake, arcing merrily as they go.

So take Mort, for example.

Mort gets in the car in the first scene, stops by breakfast, then calls Nita later in the act to say, “Get to Motel Styx.” In Act Two, he goes out to the Nature Preserve and then has Chinese in the bar with the family. Then he disappears. For the rest of the book. I love Mort, but if you have a character who disappears, you do one of two things: cut him completely or figure out what he’s doing during the rest of the book and find out how that affects the plot. Mort’s going to find out that the woman he loves is a poisoner, so that’s going to have an impact. I need to layer Mort.

But there’s also Fenella. You don’t remember Fenella? I loved Fenella, she was the anti-Marvella at the Historical Society. But she only showed up in the first and second acts and although I had more planned for her, she was obviously inessential. Fenella is no longer in the book and the book does not miss her.

The team members–Jeo, Rab, Button, Max–are active throughout, but I still need to go back and look at just their scenes to make sure they make sense and arc. So one of the things I’m doing is starting at the beginning of the book and just searching for “Button.” Then I can read just her scenes and see how she changes and grows more confident. Same for all the others (although not all characters have to change). And then there are the romances. Button and Max have a traditional romcom romance, simple and snarky, so that’s fun and easy to arc. The other romances are mostly hinted at or sketched in briefly–I don’t need any more subplots–but I need to arc them in the background, too. And then we get to the antagonists . . .

So I’ve been searching for supporting character names to make sure they’re in all four acts, each with his or her own layer of characterization, doing things that are not only important to the plot but also important to their (admittedly minimal) character arcs.

My next search is for Joyce. Yes, I’m going to arc a cat. I’m a pro, I can do that.

37 thoughts on “Layering Characters

    1. It’s like the Bechdel Test but for a cat. Does the cat see any other cats? Does it talk about anything other than its significant human?

  1. Speaking for myself, I am indeed fascinated by hearing about your thought processes and the attention to detail that goes into the smooth fabric of your books. It’s like so many things in life: it’s so well done, it all appears effortless. As a reader, you know that it’s all well done, you just don’t know _why_ it’s well done.

    And here you are, giving us glimpses into all of the hard work that lies behind it.

    Thanks! This is why we love you!

    1. And yet… you know that after all that hard work, editing, proofreading, etc….

      Within hours of it becoming available in its final form, we, your fans, will be saying, “That was GREAT? When will you publish the next one?”

  2. In some – limited – sense, this is the fun part of writing. Characters are *there,* just need to be — arced.

    Arc that cat! as far as she will arc!

    Thank you for showing us the arcing. Aren’t you a bit amazed you’ve come so far? I was more than a bit cynical, another book.

    Side note: “find” key on my old Dos-based program was so much more easier to use than Word system.

      1. Court reporter system. Replacing letters, words, paragraphs was aces too. And, oh, the ease of cut and paste.

    1. Hey, I didn’t believe it, either.
      Of course, just because it’s almost finished, doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck. Argh.

  3. It actually sounds like making a lasagna bit that’s me.

    I enjoy books with balanced and worthy secondary characters. You never want to Tom Bombardil a character… walk on, walk off!

  4. I find that the longer I work on anything (a knitted piece, a painting, a paper project) the more I think it sucks. Sometimes I need time away to appreciate what’s right about it.

    Jenny, do you get a break from working on the book once it’s turned in to your person (sorry, don’t know if she’s your agent, an editor, or …) but do you then get some time to let your mind turn to other things and let the story percolate in the subconscious?

    1. Yes. I turn it into Jen (editor), Jodi and Meg (agents) and then I look at the next thing I want to work on, which is probably the Zo and Cat books. Those are the ones that keep chattering in the back of my brain. Then Jen will get back to me with an editing letter or a rejection, and Jodi and Meg will tell me what parts they’re not sure about, and by then it will have been at least a week that I haven’t worked on it, and I’ll have some distance.

      But between now and then, I have to finish the character layering and print this out and do a paper edit and then get it to betas and rewrite based on that, so I have some work to do before a week from Friday.

  5. Dear Jenny,
    Now I know why you take so long to write a book. You are a Perfectionist!! This is one book that will be a “keeper”. Mind you all of your books (more than one copy) are keepers for me.

      1. All of your books are wonderful, witty, snarky and make me laugh. Most I rerelease for fun some are my comfort reads. The comfort reads have been gettin a workout for the past 3 years.

  6. I’m putting in a vote for “finding this fascinating” too. I love having a ringside seat for your process of book-writing, and I’m really looking forward to reading the finished work.

  7. I learn something every time you talk about process – see Jenny still learning from you even though you aren’t officially my professor anymore! I think one of the reasons I love your blog is because your voice is your voice. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or about the process or just writing about life. Your irreverence is damn fun to read.

  8. (-: Can’t wait to see how you arc the cat. I have always heard that a leopard doesn’t change its spots, and cats . . . they are provocateurs, sure, but there’s often something eternal and mysterious about them that just resists arcing. I’m going to have to think on that . . . .

    The only fictional cat that I can really remember right now is Salem, who was Sabrina’s cat on some old witch show that I only saw five episodes or so of. And if I remember right, he wasn’t really a cat, but someone who got trapped eternally in a cat’s body. I can’t remember if he arced . . . I think he was trying to be human again, so he might have.

    1. Namesake comic has Cheshire cats but I don’t think they arc.

      And the sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle has Sophie? turned into a cat. It’s been a while since I read it though.

  9. There are lots of cats in the Alanna and Beka Cooper series, and even more cats in the Enchanted Forest series. I’m not sure if any have arcs.

  10. There’s the practically eponymous cat in Door Into Summer by Robert Heinlein. Because it was the cat’s behavior that generated the title and prefigured the plot.


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