What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
It’s something that I’m mindful of. There’s a balance—a “literary sweet spot,” if you will— that you need fall into.
First, I feel you need to acknowledge that there are things that you absolutely do not and will not understand of the opposite sex. Just come to terms with that. Rest your head on a pillow at night and don’t let it haunt your dreams. Trying to solve everything that makes one “male” or makes one “female” (and even locking it to within those binaries) is something that writers have been exploring for decades, though very few—if any—have the lifespan to fully answer. So I say: don’t. Be aware of the differences, write responsibly, and pen your characters based on who they are and not what they are expected to be.
Since most of my writing focuses on social constructs and cultural habits, I usually define my characters, male or female, by what their adversity looks like and how they are able to cope. I write on the train and I see it all the time. Trust me: the NYC transit system teaches you a great deal about gender norms and sexuality.
You can easily sidestep tropes of writing the opposite sex by keeping in mind how a character would react in stressful situations. A male or female character saying nothing and doing nothing are primarily the same. There’s no pressure to be who they are, no approaching threat to challenge them. But a woman going to buy milk at a supermarket experiences the event completely different from a man. Even if it’s the same time of day, same supermarket, same carton of milk—the nuances and micro aggressions bombarding them as they push through this dimension attempting to satisfy their dairy quotient are worlds apart. For instance, of the six or seven characters I’ve developed in And Then There Were Crows, each one would react differently to, say, almost getting hit by a bike messenger when crossing a street or finding a finger in their hotdog. Then, factor in not just gender, but also age, race, values, experiences…and it gets even more complicated. My motto is that if you know the string of decisions that have led a character to this given point in time, and you truly understand their stressors, then you can build credible experiences and—even in worlds of the fantasy or absurd, believable characters. Treat every character on their own merit. What song would she listen to? What would be her social media post for today? Once you have this in mind, always know that it’s not enough to write a female character different from a male character. You also need to make sure that you’re writing her different from all of your other female characters. You have to be mindful of each character’s story.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
Wait, people don’t believe in writer’s block? I do, absolutely. Stephen King had a really great philosophy about writing while creating the Dark Tower series in that writers look through “doors” into other dimensions. Sometimes the door is wide open and we can see/hear/smell/sense everything in that world and connect with it. Sometimes it’s barely open. Sometimes it’s shut. I’ve always thought that writer’s block is the act of a writer banging their knuckles bloody on a door that might open tomorrow, fifteen years from now, or never.
I feel like it’s possible to search for another door until the one you want reopens. Last year, I published over twenty pieces [of writing] both online and in print. I wrote four to six hours per day. I hopped genres and styles: poetry, non-fic, fiction, horror, satire, politics. I wrote without breaks for nine months and never stopped chasing a new narrative. This is what we in writing, both in culturally creative circles as well as in the foundations of academia, unaimously dub “maniac.”
Writer’s block most definitely exists, but if you know yourself and put your energy into your strengths, it doesn’t have to put out the fire in your gut.
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What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I've done some of the obligatories. I went to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and tipped my hat to Oscar Wilde. That was a few years after I went to the Dublin Writers Museum. Oscar Wilde may think I'm stalking him.
I went to Providence in 2009 to do the Lovecraft walking tour. Record amounts of snow had fallen the night before thanks to a nor'easter, a term I may be using correctly. I was living in Texas at the time, and I was horribly unsuited to the bitter east coast February from a wardrobe perspective. It was a fairly miserable experience.
That's not to say I didn't enjoy it. I just nearly froze to death in the process. The cold, grey sky was the perfect backdrop for walking in the footsteps of my favorite horror writer.
How do you select the names of your characters?
Proper people, who exist outside the realm of fiction, seem to be assigned names at random. It happens at or shortly after birth, before one's personality has had the opportunity to develop. It only qualifies as a minor tragedy, as parents rarely harbor deep regrets about their Dylans growing up to look more like Reginalds. Or if they do, they keep it to themselves and take up drinking alone in dark closets. That's how the world works.
In writing, if I think of my characters as my children, I get the benefit of bringing them into the world as fully grown adults. For the record, I don't like to think of characters as my children, given how often I end up murdering them. There wouldn't be enough booze in the closet for all the coping I'd need to do.
In conjuring fictional people from thin air, I get to decide who they are before I name them; furthermore, in many cases, I get to change their names during the third draft once I've finally decided that the original name simply didn't fit. Most of them have traditional names from one culture or another, which makes it easy. I do a search for "[nationality] [gender] names" and pick one. German and Romanian are the staples for the Terribly Serious Darkness series.
Some characters get their names based on obvious attributes that define them, such as Mrs. Knife. Very few of them don't come from me at all, like Santa or Loki.
My favorites are the ones that take me the most time. They're the ones I've invented by capturing the very souls of the characters and distilling them into syllables. That's how Sloot Peril, Krespo the elf, and Ghasterly the necromancer got their names. If I loved all of my characters equally, I'd do this for every one of them; however, I don't. They're not my children. They're more like indentured servants, most of whom will meet grisly ends at the hands of other, more murderous characters. It's not a perfect arrangement, but it keeps my drinking moderate and out of the closet.
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