A Guest Post by Josh Vogt
Last year marked the launch of my urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Book #1: Enter the Janitor. The novel focuses on two main characters, Ben and Dani, as they work for a supernatural sanitation company dedicated to protecting the world from magical muck and Corruption (yes, with a capital C).
Now, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. Gather ‘round close.
Dani used to be boring.
And I don’t mean to beta readers or anything. I mean she bored me. The author. That’s never a good sign. See, I needed a character to act, on some level, as the reader’s proxy into the weird world of the Cleaners, gawking at the absurdity of it, get the strangeness occasionally explained, and generally poking at things while asking, “Does this explode if I touch it?”
Dani did all that, but in such a bland manner, I had to stop almost halfway through the original draft when I started trying to find ways to kill her off. She needed to be a central character! Offing her would basically force me to start from scratch, which I didn’t want to do at all costs. But she, in that incarnation, refused to engage. She had no zest, no zing, zeal, oomph, spice, vigor, vim, liveliness…
*checks the thesaurus*
…or gumption. Let’s end it there, as I’m sure you get the point.
So I tried an old trick: the character interview. I sat down and imagined myself interviewing Dani, asking about her life, her passions, her fears, her neuroses, and any other quirks and tidbits she might be willing to offer.
And, boy, did I discover a lot.
First of all, I discovered her manic-obsessive fear of germs and dirt of all sorts, and how she lugged around gallons of sanitization gel to cope. I discovered her tendency to be a teensy bit foul-mouthed when stressed. I discovered she hated being pushed around and could push back just as hard if tested.
“Anything else?” I asked toward the end.
“I also have a pet lizard,” she replied.
I paused. “A lizard?”
“Yes. He’s a bearded dragon and his name is Tetris and I will rip out the heart of anyone who tries to hurt him. And then probably wash my hands for a month.”
“Why a lizard?”
My imaginary interviewee just grinned. “You’ll have to keep writing about me to find out, won’t you?”
Right then is when Dani came alive for me. Right then is when I became eager to stick her into scenes to see how much she could muck things up…and then do what she could to set things right. Because she had a pet lizard, which seemed so at odd with her original self. It presented a mystery (even a minor one) that I now wanted to unravel—and I started to see how other facets of her character could create personality paradoxes that might be both entertain and intrigue. I’ve since used this “mini-mystery” technique to give other characters extra layers, hinting at more convoluted mindsets and motivations than their surface actions suggest.
Now, since Enter the Janitor came out, readers have told me how they see parts of themselves, their friends, or family members in Dani’s antics. She’s not just a reader vehicle. She resonates for some. She makes others laugh. She’s even made a few people worry for her sanity. And I look forward to finding new ways for her to surprise not only me, but everyone who might’ve grown the slightest bit fond of this spitfire.
So maybe next time you want to liven up a character or scene, don’t follow the old adage of “bring in a man with a gun.”
Bring in a lizard, instead.
Dani’s adventures with the Cleaners continue in Book #2: The Maids of Wrath.
Author and editor Josh Vogt’s work covers fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. His debut fantasy novel is Pathfinder Tales: Forge of Ashes, published alongside his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor and The Maids of Wrath. He’s an editor at Paizo, a Scribe Award finalist, and a member of both SFWA and the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. Find him at JRVogt.com or on Twitter @JRVogt.