Monday, December 16, 2013

Wordcraft -- Harris gets deadly serious about characters

The list of teachers and topics for Saturday’s writing workshop from Mystery Writers of America was impressive: college instructors, writers with strings of awards, an investigative journalist. And then there was Charlaine Harris, whose Southern vampire mysteries have all made the New York Times best seller list, and I knew I had no choice but to open this discussion with a few perceptively wacky words from the creator of telepathic, vampire dating, mystery solving barmaid Sookie Stackhouse.

“Here’s the first rule for the characters who populate your book,” Harris told the her sold-out audience, “everybody’s got a job.”

And that’s “job” as in something they get paid for as well as serving multiple functions in the book itself. Harris learned this the hard way when her Sookie Stackhouse series took off, finally developing a character list in the hundreds (most of whom she lists in After Dead, her absolutely last word on the world of all things Sookie).

And with so many characters, “they must be so distinctive that the readers won’t have to keep flipping back the books” to identify them, a distinction aids by careful choice of names. “Do not use names within the same book that start with the same initial,” she said, adding a tongue in cheek admission of her own weakness, “I’m very fond of the letter J.” (Not that you’d guess it from her character list.)

So how does she recommend finding these distinctive names? In obituaries. Or better yet, delinquent tax notices, frequently published in small town newspapers. Although she warned, “Don’t ever use the complete real name from those.”

And remember the common characteristics everyone possesses, including some I‘ll admit never hearing in any other writing class, such as moral code (“even if it’s do unto others before they do it to you”) and sexual orientation (“it informs everything they do”).

Having said all that, and more, Harris admitted to being “a pantser of the worst sort”--an author who writes by the seat of her pants. The one character she said she had “built as a conscious thought” was Sookie Stackhouse herself. “In order to shake up my career, I thought I would make her do something completely different--a woman dating a vampire” because of her strange disability, the ability to read the minds of her fellow human beings.

“Telepathy would be a terrible thing,” Harris said, “Because I believe in the polite lie, because I was brought up Southern.”

Fortunately for the sake of her romantic involvements, Sookie discovered she couldn’t read the minds of dead people, such as vampires, leaving her blissfully unaware of the true answer when she asks a vamp important questions she’d rather not know the answers to.

(Harris cheerfully admitted that though she remained faithful to most traditions of vampire lore, she wasn’t above making things up, like vamps’ lack of brainwaves, when it suited her.)

So what’s she planning to do now that the Sookie series has ended this year? She’s got a new mystery series set in the small town of Midnight, Texas, with the first volume, Midnight Crossing, due out in May. For more about Harris and her writing, I’ll leave you to check out this mistress of mystery,

And for more about the Mystery Writers of America, contact its Dallas chapter at


One of the instructors at Saturday’s session, Hallie Ephron, will return to Dallas January 25 for a day-long workshop on romantic suspense, courtesy of the Dallas Area Romance Authors. For information and to register, see

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