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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Welcome Speical Guest: Kat Henry Doran

They say time flies when you're having fun, so maybe that's why it's so hard to believe I have considered today's guest among my very closest friends for close to ten years now. I can still remember the day she invited this frustrated writer to join her critique group. It literally changed my life, since I probalby wouldn't be writing today if she hadn't. (Or at least not writing as well, LOL)

So it's rather fitting that my first-ever guest blogger is the woman who taught me everything I know about writing. She does it better than anyone I know. Without further adieu, I give you Kat Henry

Doran. (Please excuse the underlining, I have no idea how to get rid of it!)

Hey, my friend, thank you so much for offering me the opportunity to make a few comments about characterization and how to create viable, unforgettable characters.

First, we should think about the characters we already know and love, then decide what makes us keep returning to either watch them on the TV screen each week [Brenda Lee Johnson from TNT's The Closer] or read [again] our tattered copies of Kathleen Woodiweiss or Harry Potter or Eve Dallas and Rourke.

I will grant you that some of Ms. Woodiweiss' books go back to the 70's and 80's but the characters are unforgettable:

1. “Ashes in The Wind” takes place in the American Civil War. The hero, Cole, is a US Army surgeon; Alaina is a rose of the south, who must disguise herself as a boy in order to survive.

2. “A Rose in Winter” is a funny, dangerous, and mysterious story patterned after Beauty and the Beast.

3. “Shanna” has the hot sullen influence of the Caribbean Islands as a background and moves between England, the Caribbean, and the pre-Revolutionary War American colonies. The heroine, Shanna, in order to meet her father's dictate that she marry, finds a man in an English jail who is bound for the hanging tree. She has him cleaned up; they marry based on her promise of one night of marital bliss—but just as the bliss is about to take place, she chickens out and sends him off to be hung. He escapes and follows her to the Caribbean as an indentured servant. Of course he's looking for “bliss” while she's looking for peace and quiet. Another hoot of a story.

4. And we cannot forget “The Flame and the Flower” the story of Brandon Birmingham and his marriage of convenience to Heather, whom he calls the “little purple flower of the moors”.

How do we build characters? How do we intrigue the reader into turning the pages, and coming back for more? Try throwing them into the deep end of a strange pool—and be sure to keep a few boulders hidden beneath the surface to keep them on their toes.

Brenda Lee Johnson, a police officer known as The Closer for her skills in closing cases by getting suspects to confess, is a transplanted Georgia peach who finds herself lured to the Los Angeles Police Department by a former lover/Deputy Chief of the LAPD with promises he never intends to keep. Brenda finds herself heading up a renegade bunch of detectives who investigate priority homicides. She is a woman who has built her wardrobe at the local Volunteers of America store, never leaves a room without her over-sized handbag over one shoulder; has a passion for anything chocolate; and every other word out of her mouth is “Thank yewww, thank yewww very much.” Now going into the fourth season [I think], each of these characters is a story in and of themselves. Lt. Provenza, who never dates women over 30, well . . . 40—if he's in the bag. Lt Flynn the late 40's Lothario with a toothpick hanging out of his mouth who has taken indolence to new heights. Detective Sanchez with dark, haunted eyes whose talents lie in understanding the culture of the barrio and Hispanic gangs. Lt Tao is a wizard with computers and Brenda's aide Sgt. Gabriel, a hunk if there ever was one with eyes to burn the soles off a woman's shoes, is destined to be chief one day. He's bright, savvy, intelligent and devoted to Brenda.

As evidenced above through Woodweiss' leading characters and the squad of detectives comprising Priority Homicide on The Closer, one way to build intriguing characters is to make them vastly different from each other. This takes some planning. I use a tool which I call the Character Interview. This is a multi-page document, a former RWA chapter mate brought back from the New Jersey Romance Writers conference many years ago. It has undergone many changes over the years but the concept remains the same. In long hand, I interview my lead characters. Before I can do that however, I have to know at least one basic thing about them.

In “Captain Marvelous” I wanted a heroine with a brain and balls to match, who will do anything to achieve her career goal of becoming a physician. Throughout the story she vows to let nothing and no one stop her. That's all I needed to interview Annie Wolfe. Why does she want to be a doctor? Why will she never marry and have children? I asked her to tell me about her family of origin; where did she grow up; did they have money, live from paycheck to paycheck, or did they eat out of dumpsters? Then I asked her to tell me about her family of the heart. Who are her friends, heroes, enemies? I need to know how she relaxes, what turns her on, what turns her off in terms of favorite foods, music, patterns of dress; what kind of car does she drive? How does she drive [like a speed demon or careful and cautious]?

I decided the hero had to be the exact opposite of Annie: staid, rigid, always in control, a single parent who wants more children, someone who follows the rules no matter what. I interviewed him, too. Captain Ronen Marvelic [get the title of the book here?] is a New York State Trooper with a steel rod up his spine. After being banished from the cultural hub of Western New York he arrives in the bowels of the earth known at Nohmensville, quickly turned into No Man's Land. This is a place where a man would take a woman to the local drive-in for a Rambo marathon or to the town dump to shoot rats. He encounters the woman who lives in the apartment across the hall from him, a long-legged, softball playing smart mouth named Annie Wolfe, aka the Wolfgirl, for her abilities at short stop. He thrives on opera; Annie considers it all a bunch of fat ladies singing their brains out. He loathes sports of any kind; she has life-sized posters of baseball players and golfers papering her apartment. Ronen is assigned to investigate the murders of six women; Annie is coerced into helping him by developing victim profiles. Throw in a landlady who's a throw-back to the 60's, a decrepit town doctor, and a 17 year old college bound teenager and the fun begins.

Before I close, I must put some emphasis on a special type of character which I have found some authors forget: Location, location, location, or setting, setting, setting. It is my belief the setting becomes another character as in:

1. Say the word/name Hogwarts and all kinds of images jump out at us.

2. Los Angeles with its freeways, and streets with similar names made Brenda Lee Johnson's life a nightmare for the first two years of the show. She continually got lost trying to find crime scenes until she bit the bullet and asked Sgt Gabriel to drive her everywhere.

3. Kathleen Woodiweiss used New Orleans and the wilds of Minnesota for “Ashes in the Wind”. Who doesn't love New Orleans?

4. She used pre-Revolutionary War Jamestown Virginia for the conclusion of Shanna. For the Caribbean portions of the story her descriptions of indentured servitude are evocative and thought provoking.

5. In my second novel, “Try Just Once More” I used Saranac Lake in Upstate New York's Adirondack Mountains because I love it, but also for its place in history for landmark strides in the pre-antibiotic treatment of TB, the influence of the Olympic games, 1932 and 1980, in nearby Lake Placid, and its small town atmosphere in general. Much of TJOM takes place at the local hospital. I am a nurse so I am comfortable writing “medical stuff”. I would not advise it for all writers—unless the POV is in the non-medical character's frame of reference. Just like if you're going to write “legal stuff” you better know what you're talking about or your story will tank faster than the Andrea Doria.

I'd be happy to share the Character Interview. People can contact me at or visit my website:

Nurse, insurance investigator, forensic nurse examiner, professional workshop presenter, seamstress, author, wife and mother; Kat Henry Doran has been there and done all that--and more.

A native of Upstate New York, Kat uses the years she spent haunting police stations, Emergency Rooms, and criminal courtrooms, advocating for victims of sexual violence, as background for her writing which has been described as brutally realistic and starkly honest.

Even though Kat has retired her speculum and no longer paces the corridors outside Grand Jury and police interrogation rooms, she continues to advocate for disenfranchised women, currently through Panties For Peace.

For excerpts of her books and information on the professional programs she presents, check out

Nic, thanks for offering me this opportunity to show off!



Nicole McCaffrey said...

Now you know why I always say Kat is the writer I want to be when I grow up, LOL. Thanks, Kat, for sharing your wisdom with us today!

Helen Hardt said...

Hi Nicole and Kat! Great post, and wonderful information. You mentioned the character interview. That is so helpful. My local CPs and did a variation on it once. We met at a coffee shop as our characters and just chatted. It was amazing what we learned about them!


Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

I cannot disagree with anything you posted, Kat. I love Brenda Lee Johnson's character and how they characterize her. It's my favorite show because of it. And Kathleen Woodiwiss is the reason I am reading and writing today. I have all of her books. Shanna is actually the book that unleased my love for romance. Who could you ever forget her and that hunky Roark? It always helps me to write when I fall in love with my heros so I try to make them have unique personalities. They work for me and I've had judges tell me they have fallen in love with my hero but my heroine isn't good enough for them. Time to do more work on their characters, too!! :)

Editor Kathy said...

This is turning into a Kat/Nic love fest. You're the best.

Editor Kathy said...

getting together with writer friends to create characters or the basis for a story is one of my favorite things to do. "What if . . ." is so much fun.

Editor Kathy said...

LOVE your name!!!
Sometimes [heh heh] at my age, I forget character names--usually when I need them the most.
When I added "Shanna" to the character thing for Nic's blog, do you think I could recall his name?
Geez, and he was/is such a doll. And that cover!!!!!
Kathleen really lucked out when it came to her covers on her earliest books, they sorta dimmed for me in her later books. She too, along with an author named Shirley Busbee [I hope I spelled it correctly] got me interested in romance fiction in terms of historicals. Shirley had a talent for writing men. Yum yum!
It was Kathleen's plots that keep me returning to read her all over again because I read something new each time.
It's always nice to meet up with a Woodiweiss fan.

lainey bancroft said...

I love the cover for Captain Marvelous. Annie and Ronen sound like a match made for hot and humorous!

Great post, Kat. I use an interview technique as well, but sometimes I feel like the characters interview me. They're pretty mean about it too!

"Hey you, what makes you think you're focus enough to tell our story and do it justice? Huh? And enough with the stupid soap opera names. You don't even watch soap operas!"

Donna L said...


I really enjoy doing the character interviews. But before I do that, I give them a birthday, which gives me the character's astrology sign. So I get a better feel for what makes the character tick. Plus as an added bonus I get to check their sign every day. Donna L.Bolk

Editor Kathy said...

thanks for stopping by!
I can't imagine ANYONE getting snarky with you, except your editor of course. Don't you have teenagers? I know when mine were that age [don't we all love it] they got mean with me, I got mean right back.

Editor Kathy said...

first of all, thanks for stopping by Nic's blog.
Astrology signs? Never thought about that one.
Nic's fond of birth order, has it down pat. It makes me crazy remembering all that stuff, but she thrives on it.

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