Today, I’m going to do an interview with bestselling author BJ Hoff. Her final book in her Riverhaven Years series, River of Mercy, releases this September. I’ll be editing it next month and I’m looking forward to it very much.
In a recent e-mail BJ said this about a future project we’re discussing:
“Before anything else, my anchor character has to show up. That’s how all my books begin. One character, and only one—always male—’appears’ in my imagination and won’t give me a rest. The only exception was my novella, The Penny Whistle. That began with Maggie MacAuley making her first appearance as a young girl.”
I find that fascinating. I know almost every writer has a different way of conceiving their novels. Perhaps I like BJ’s novels so much because they’re so much about character. So with that, I’m going to ask BJ to amplify on her statement above.
Nick: Is there anything that goes on in your mind before this character appears? For instance, do you ever think of an era you’d like to write about and then your anchor character from that era appears?
BJ: I really had to stop and think about this. What occurred to me is that most of my characters come to mind when I’m doing something entirely unrelated to writing. As unprofessional as it may sound, I might be baking a cake or shelving some books or taking a walk when a character makes his first appearance.
For example, Morgan Fitzgerald, the anchor character for The Emerald Ballad, first made himself known while I was walking around the neighborhood. I had long wanted to tell the story of the potato famine of the mid-1800s that brought so many Irish to America—but I wanted to tell it from both sides of the ocean, from Ireland and America. I’d been stalled at the idea for months while I was working on another project, because all I had was just that: an idea and a time frame. Before I ever reached home that day, the character of a renegade Irish warrior-poet dropped in on me, complete with a wandering soul and a small minstrel’s harp … and from that point on I was off and running.
I suppose that was a case of an event needing just the right character to drive the engine through what would become a five-book story. So, yes, apparently an era or a particular event of a certain era can spawn just the right character and characters. Because I write historical fiction, I can always count on the character being from the past.
Nick: Have you ever had an anchor character appear that didn’t result in a book? If so, do these unused characters linger in your mind for perhaps years or do they disappear as quickly as they came?
BJ: All kinds at all times. It seems that some instinct tells me they’re not “workable,” and I suppose my subconscious simply dismisses them, because they never linger but bow out fairly quickly. A couple of exceptions: I carried around the character of a blind musician for years, knowing he had a story, but not knowing what it was. There never seemed to be a place for him. Finally, though, he ended up as Michael Emmanuel, the anchor character in my book American Anthem. Oddly enough, another character (Renny Magee), who danced around in my mind for a long time first showed up while I was listening to a catchy tune sung by a favorite Irish singer. Renny eventually made her appearance as a Dublin street busker and ended up much later as a character in the same book. She was intended to be a minor character but took on a much more significant role than I’d intended.
So not only do some characters come and quickly go, but at times they stay around to play a different part than I’d originally thought they would.
Nick: Several years ago we discussed character interviews. Once your character has presented himself, do you do an interview to get to know him better? Are there also other ways you find out more about your anchor character?
BJ: I often interview my anchor characters. Sometimes on paper, sometimes only in my thoughts. Not the type of interview that addresses physical description so much—I always get a clear fix on their appearance from the beginning, but I like to give readers a fair measure of leeway in visualizing a character as they see him. I’m not concerned about a character’s favorite foods or hobbies and the like. That sort of thing is easily sorted out fairly quickly as the book progresses. Instead I try to get into his or her back story and emotions, reactions to various events, etc. I seldom do this with a minor character. But, then, for me, the only really “minor” characters are walk-ons that might bow out almost as quickly as they appear. Supporting characters, however, are more important, so even though I may not spend time on an interview, I make sure I know them well. I always look for identifying character traits or quirks that sharply define them, for myself and for the reader. Living with one’s characters—thinking about them, studying their interactions as the story progresses, indulging in a few questions about them—all that plays into giving them distinct “voices” and their personal impact on the story.
Nick: Are all your anchor characters readily to your liking….or have some caused you to ask, “MUST I tell your story? I don’t much like you.”
BJ: Your questions are really making me think! This one brought me to a total stop. I believe, though, I’d be safe in saying that I’ve never had this happen. I’ve had supporting characters affect me like this—and I usually shoo them out the door without much delay—but my anchors usually turn out to be just the folks I need for the story. I have had a few who puzzled me, or confused me, or even frustrated me, but I don’t think I’ve ever had one I disliked.
I’m thinking that’s a blessing. An anchor showing up uninvited who also turns out to be unwelcome could really throw up a roadblock in a story!
Nick: Once you have your anchor character firmly in mind, how does his story unfold? What’s the next step?
BJ: Naming the character. That’s crucial for me. Until the name fits the character, the character won’t fit the story. He’ll remain totally static. Occasionally the character shows up already named—both Michael Emmanuel and Morgan Fitzgerald being examples—but that’s the exception. I can’t explain why some names “fit,” and some don’t, but that’s how it is for me.
Next, I give him a problem. That has to happen right at the beginning of the story. To kick off Chapter One in the first book of the Riverhaven Years series, “Captain” Gant almost drowns in the Ohio River with a gunshot wound. In the Mountain Song Legacy, schoolteacher, Jonathan Stuart has a heart condition which could be fatal. Plus, his expensive and highly prized silver flute has been stolen, possibly by one of his students. Maggie MacAuley begins a “movement” with other students to help find the flute and “restore Mr. Stuart’s music.” Morgan Fitzgerald’s (The Emerald Ballad) family and friends are starving and dying in Ireland’s horrendous potato famine, and he’s searching for a way to save them. Michael Emmanuel of American Anthem is blind and isolated while he lives under the suspicion that he somehow might have been implicated in his wife’s death.
After I determine the problem, other characters almost immediately start arriving to help drive the story. Some are love interests, others are friends, a few turn out to be enemies. The engine is conflict—and most of the conflict comes from the characters. Relying on events or circumstances can be treacherous to the conflict in fiction, though to some extent of course, events will thwart the characters. But if too much conflict relies merely on external sources, that can drastically weaken characterization. Conflict that comes directly from the characters themselves, whether it’s internal conflict or conflict from interaction with other characters, is almost always stronger and works best to propel the story.
I try to make sure that the reader will care about the characters. Even an anchor’s enemy needs to be real and human enough that the reader will care what happens to him, if only to want to see him get “justice” for his wrongdoings. As for the anchor, as he develops, I like to see him making a few mistakes along the way because of a flaw or two in his makeup. My heroes are sometimes unlikely ones. I think that’s because they’re not physically perfect or emotionally together or spiritual giants. They’re more like us. I work for that.
Nick: Once the anchor character is known to you, do the supporting characters also present themselves to you or are they often created as foils for the anchor character?
BJ: Characterization is a genuine mystery to me. I wish I could understand—and explain—how it works, but the most honest thing I can say about my writing in general, and about my characters in particular, is that it’s all gift. I have no real process, no strategy, no self-written handbook on characterization or any of the rest of it.
As best as I can remember, I’ve never “built” or “created” a character, either an anchor or a supporting character. They simply come to me, usually full-blown. That doesn’t mean they won’t change during the course of the story. Hopefully, they will. And sometimes my editor (ahem) will point out that “I don’t think he’d do that” or “I don’t think we need that here,” and I have to reconsider or make corrections. I’ve also run up against places in the story where I sense a lack of motivation for a character’s behavior, so I have to figure out the why of his actions. But mostly, my characters walk into my imagination and onto the pages, and I end up following along after them to see what they’re going to do next.
I can’t emphasize enough the “mystery,” the gift, in this process. For me, it just happens. I love it when it works. I grind my teeth when it doesn’t and then try to figure out why. But after all these years of wondering about it and trying to understand it, I’ve simply accepted the reality that I probably never will, this side of heaven, know how I do what I do.
Nick: Has there been a time when you wanted to write about a specific era or locale and no anchor character appeared? If so, did you drop the project or simply work at creating your own anchor character?
BJ: Unfortunately, that’s happened. When it did, I put the project on hold until I sensed the time was right to think more about it and hope that the right character would show up to get things started. I have two of these projects on the back burner right now. A couple of times in my early writing years, I tried to create the right character, but I got nowhere and finally gave it up.
Nick: Are these anchor characters respectful of your schedule, waiting until you finish a current project before they knock on your door asking you to tell their story? Or do they rudely barge into your imagination without warning, even if you’re in the midst of a current project?
BJ: They pay me no respect at all! They’re like uninvited guests who show up when I least expect them and usually don’t have time to deal with them. But they hang around, generally making a nuisance of themselves until I pay attention. I actually have a fellow now who’s shoved his foot in the door so far I can’t slam it on him.
Nick: Creating effective characters is hard for most writers. If an aspiring fiction writer has a weakness for characterization, do you think your method of having anchor characters present themselves is something that can be taught? Is there anything you can recommend for writers who are weak on characterization?
BJ: Well, I’m confident I couldn’t teach it if I tried. As I said earlier, the characterization process is mostly a mystery to me. I might make a couple of suggestions, though. I believe the most important key to any part of the writing process is to commit every facet of it, from the time one begins to sense he might be called to write, to God—seeking his will and guidance, as well as trusting Him to keep it in its proper place in one’s life. Don’t be hesitant to pray about your writing—God cares about every aspect of our lives, so He’s certainly interested in something that requires as much time and work as our writing. If characterization—or any other part of the writing process—is especially difficult for you, bring it to Him and ask for help. You may be surprised how He delivers that help, but I believe you can expect Him to provide it.
I think it also helps to find something that evokes your emotions. In my case, that special “something” has always been music. Music has been a huge part of my life from the time I was a child. I’m a former church music director and teacher, and there’s no way I can explain how greatly music has impacted my life and added emotion and realism to my writing. I know I might be criticized for emphasizing emotion in fiction, but I’m not talking about sentiment or sentimental writing. But writers need to find the key that unlocks their emotions so their characters become as real as possible, and thus their readers will share the feelings of the people on the pages. The genuine emotion of the characters allows the reader to step into their world and live with them, at least for a brief time. So whether it’s music or art or nature—whatever connects with the writer and plumbs his emotions—should be cultivated, because it can help to generate realistic characters.
Finally, if you have a favorite author, or a few, whose characterization you believe to be excellent and realistic—read everything you can by those authors and try to figure out why you’re drawn to their characters. See if you can spot some traits, emotions, actions, that recur in their fiction and ask yourself why their characters work so well. You can also learn about the “wrong way” from books in which the characters seem stilted and stiff and one-dimensional.
Nick: Thanks, BJ! Great interview! Folks, be sure and visit BJ’s website at:
Or visit her Harvest House page here: http://harvesthousepublishers.com/authors/bj-hoff/
and, if you’ve never read any of her books, do so! You’re in for a treat. She’s among the best fiction writers in CBA.