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May 15, 2013

John Abramowitz: Building Character

Let me tell you about one of my biggest rookie mistakes ever.

I'm probably not supposed to do that, as a writer. I'm probably supposed to keep my creative process under a tight veil of secrecy, and let you think everything that happens in one of my books was part of my plan from the start. That would be the smart thing to do, but I'm not going to do the smart thing. I'm going to pull back the curtain--so pay close attention to the man behind it!

A couple of years ago, I sat down to write Atticus for the Undead, my second book ever. The main character in Atticus is Hunter Gamble, a lawyer who defends witches, zombies, vampires, and werewolves. I knew that I ultimately wanted to tell the story of a zombie on trial for eating brains, but first, I wanted to give readers a taste of Hunter and his world. I wanted to let them know who he was, what sorts of clients he dealt with, and what sorts of issues he encountered.

So I decided to invent a throwaway case for Hunter to dispose of in the first chapter. An actress in a high-school play, accused by one of her classmates of attempting to hex him. (She claimed she was just rehearsing Macbeth.) Since I wanted to start the book off on a fun, lighthearted note, I decided to make her a diva of the worst sort--utterly self-centered and condescending, looking down her nose at everyone around her. And, since she was a teenage witch (maybe), what better name to give her than Sabrina?

So I wrote the chapter. Hunter won his case, he and Sabrina clashed in (what I hope are) hilarious ways, and a good time was had by all. And then, as is my wont, I showed it to one of my beta readers.

"John," my beta reader said to me, "when is Sabrina coming back? What's her overall role in the story going to be?"

"Um," I said, starting to feel a bit sheepish. "She's not coming back. She's a throwaway client. A one-time appearance."

"No," my beta-reader said. "I like her too much for her to be a one-off character. You have to bring her back."

I scratched my head. Bring her back? That would mean figuring out a way to fit her into the story I wanted to tell, and I had no idea how to do that. On the other hand, if my readers say they want something, who am I to deny it to them? So I did what any lazy person would do: I let him do the work for me!

"All right," I said. "I can bring her back. But how do you think I should do that?"

He had answers for that, all right. I can't tell you what they were without spoiling major major elements of the plot, but suffice it to say, by the time we finished brainstorming, I was wondering how I had ever planned to write the novel without her as a major character. 

As I wrote, Sabrina became the scalpel I used to delve into the psyches of both Hunter and his associate, Kirsten Harper. Through her, I was able to develop both characters in ways that would have been impossible otherwise. (And she let me write a Wicked reference into the book, which was pure joy for a musical theater nerd like me.)

By the time I started the second Hunter book, Identity Theft, bringing Sabrina back was a foregone conclusion. At this point, I would say that she's the second-most-important character in the series after Hunter himself. I'm even considering a spinoff series centering around her (though I'd have to think of something to name it besides Sabrina: The Teenage Witch.)

All this from a character who was supposed to have a lifespan of one chapter.

Moral of the story? Listen to your beta readers. Don't get so attached to your outline that you're unwilling to make changes.

And if I ever tell you I had everything planned out from the start, do call bullshit.

About the Author:

John Abramowitz is a long, tall Texan (who apologizes to Lyle Lovett for stealing his line) born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas. His heart is split between Texas and Iowa (where he attended college), and he keeps on good terms with both by eating ample amounts of corn and barbecue. Abramowitz is an unapologetic fanboy who liked Joss Whedon before it was cool. Among his other loves are thrillers (which influence his work), musical theater, and parentheses (of which there are far too many in this bio). He doesn't like discussing himself in the third person, and apologizes if this bio comes off as pretentious. He currently resides in Austin, Texas, where he works as an author and lawyer.
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  1. It's not so unusual, John... Spike on Buffy was supposed to be a throw-away character, and look how he developed! I had this problem, too, when I would try to write a story; people would show up who I'd never met and had no idea who they were and barge into the story, and then I'd have to stop and figure out who they were. So aggravating! Part of the reason I don't write anymore, those rude bargers-in... :-)

    Great post!

  2. Really enjoyed this post! I wonder how much more quickly we could write if we just planned the outline and wrote the story and that was it? Probably wouldn't be as much fun though!