Episode 9: Legendary Characters

Time-Stamped Show Notes

[0:00] – ADVERTISEMENT: Visual Quill.

  • [0:21] – Visual Quill ad that supplies a special offer code for a free consultation.

[0:40] – SEGMENT ONE: Author Zach Dundas describes the origin story of Sherlock Holmes, and how this character has stood the test of time.

  • [0:40] – The episode opens with a narrated description of the opening scene from Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia.”
  • [2:53] – 221B Baker Street is one of the most iconic literary settings in history. And its charm might be one of the reasons Sherlock Holmes became such a well-loved character.
  • [3:02] – Zach Dundas, who has written a book on Sherlock Holmes, describes the world of the character and explains his popularity.
  • [4:41] – The magic of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon is that it built on other people’s interpretations and iterations of the text.
  • [5:05] – Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Sherlock in the 21st century. Basil Rathbone portrayed him in an earlier film series. It all works.

[5:33] INTRO: In this episode of From the Margins, we explore how to write characters. Maybe we can’t all hope to create a legendary character, but how do we write a well-crafted character? Or a believable character? How do we write a character that a reader can relate to and care about? And what kinds of characters does the publishing industry need to work to include?

[6:45] – SEGMENT ONE, continued 

  • [7:04] – Dr. Joseph Bell, a professor Conan Doyle knew in real life, provided inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes character.
  • [8:05] – Zach Dundas reads a scene from his book on Sherlock Holmes.
  • [10:14] – Choosing a good name is key in creating a character that is both marketable and memorable.
  • [11:50] – Conan Doyle was a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe wrote what are considered to be the first three real mystery stories.
  • [12:40] – Sherlock Holmes is a scientist-artist hybrid.
  • [13:45] – The best way for Conan Doyle to make money off Sherlock Holmes was to write a series of short stories that were connected but could also stand alone.
  • [14:13] – Conan Doyle sold the idea to The Strand magazine.
  • [14:23] – Sidney Paget illustrated the stories. He is responsible for some key details of Sherlock Holmes’s appearance, including the iconic deerstalker cap.
  • [15:22] – William Gillette, the first actor to become truly famous for playing Holmes, introduced the large pipe that we associate with the character and codified the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
  • [16:47] – Moriarty has become integral in the mythology of Holmes even though he is barely in the stories. The same is true of other characters, including Holmes’s brother, Mycroft.
  • [17:24] – One of Conan Doyle’s talents was creating minor characters that were intriguing enough to keep thinking about.
  • [17:42] – Though fairly ordinary, Watson plays a very important role in the stories.
  • [19:23] – The few stories where Holmes narrates end up reading pretty flat.
  • [21:26] – Conan Doyle wrote his own Sherlock Holmes play. But he started to find the character and his popularity annoying, so he decided to kill him off.
  • [23:00] – By 1901, Conan Doyle had brought Holmes back.
  • [23:38] – Conan Doyle succeeded at bringing things to life without a whole lot of description.
  • [24:27] – One explanation for the success of Sherlock Holmes is that it feels like there’s so much left untold by the creator that there’s more work to be done. And that gets everyone’s imagination going.

[25:10] SEGMENT TWO: Girl Friday’s vice president of editorial, Christina Henry de Tessan, explains how developmental editors help writers create solid characters.

  • [25:34] – Developmental editors make the first pass on a manuscript, pointing out ways to improve pacing, structure, style, plot, and character.
  • [26:36] – What makes a good character? Christina says authenticity helps. Avoid caricatures and predictability. But don’t go overboard with the quirks or you’ll end up with an unbelievable character full of contradictions.
  • [27:06] – To bring out a character’s humanity, give the character flaws and obstacles.
  • [27:29] – Stay in that hard place with the character. It’s where the real magic happens.
  • [28:01] – Transcendence and growth are really important. We want to see characters suffer a little bit, then emerge triumphant.
  • [28:20] – Make sure the stakes, goals, and conflicts are clear to the reader.
  • [29:11] – Have the confidence to let your story stand on its own. You don’t need to spell it out at the end.
  • [29:19] – Let a character’s actions and dialogue speak for themselves. And write the dialogue well.
  • [31:26] – Make sure your characters aren’t black-and-white.
  • [31:58] – Christina recommends writing a lot more than appears in the book. It will help you get to know your character really well.

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[34:40] SEGMENT THREE: Elizabeth George, author of more than two dozen novels, explains how she creates characters. 

  • [35:02] – For Elizabeth, the plot arises from the characters, not the other way around.
  • [36:55] – Elizabeth makes sure that each character has his or her own agenda in every scene.
  • [37:41] – The “core need” is at the heart of who a character is and explains why the character behaves the way he or she does. So how does the stress manifest itself when a character’s core need isn’t being met?
  • [40:12] – Elizabeth uses “THADs” (Talking Head Avoidance Devices) to steer dialogue away from the typical he-said/she-said structure. A THAD can be an action that’s happening in a scene while the characters are talking.
  • [41:05] – View every scene as an opportunity to reveal character.

[42:31] – SEGMENT FOUR: Middle-grade author Vikki VanSickle talks about diversity in children’s and young adult literature.

  • [42:59] – When she was a kid, Vikki enjoyed reading about characters she could relate to. Seeing yourself reflected in fiction can be really empowering.
  • [43:38] – YA literature is often about relationships. Middle-grade literature offers nine- to twelve-year-olds stories about finding their own tribe and path.
  • [44:24] – Vikki wanted to write about boy-girl relationships that weren’t romantic, as well as blossoming sexuality and other topics preteens are just discovering.
  • [46:56] – Vikki let her character Benji come out in his own time. He came out in the third book.
  • [49:35] – It’s not that children’s books have happy endings; they have hopeful endings.

[50:13] – SEGMENT FIVE (LAST SEGMENT): YA author Stacey Lee recalls how hard it was to find books with characters who looked like her when she was growing up.

  • [50:45] – “When I read books, the assumption was that they were going to be white people,” Stacey says. “I really didn’t question that until I got old enough to understand what that meant.”
  • [53:32] – Stacey’s dad, who immigrated to the United States in the 1950s, inspired her to write her book Under a Painted Sky.
  • [54:43] – Stacey depends on a diverse group of beta readers to help ensure her characters are three-dimensional.
  • [55:27] – An editor told Stacey that “multicultural” books don’t sell. She hadn’t thought of her book as multicultural. She thought it was just a book about a kid.
  • [56:26] – Stacey helped to found We Need Diverse Books, an organization that was created in response to the diversity statistics put out by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. The center found that only 10 percent of children’s books in 2015 were written by African Americans, Native Americans and First Nations peoples, Asian Americans, or Latinos, and only 14 percent included characters of these backgrounds.
  • [57:51] – According to a survey by children’s book publisher Lee and Low Books, the publishing industry overall is 79 percent white.

[1:00:31] Closing credits.

Key Points

  • Author Zach Dundas tells the origin story of Sherlock Holmes and discusses why he became such a legendary character.
  • Girl Friday vice president of editorial Christina Henry de Tessan gives character-development tips to writers.
  • Crime novelist Elizabeth George explains her character-writing process.
  • YA author Vikki VanSickle talks about the power of middle-grade readers seeing themselves reflected in books.
  • YA author Stacey Lee tells the story of founding We Need Diverse Books.