An Interview with Aaron Michael Ritchey: Writing Prickly Characters

I heard author Aaron Michael Ritchey speak in February at the Pikes Peak Writers Write Your Heart Out workshop. During a break, we discussed writing likeable characters. He kindly agreed to take the discussion a step further here.


1. Aaron, some people think characters must be likeable in order to draw in the reader. Others insist that “real” is more important than “likeable”. What’s your own take? How important is it to you that readers like your main characters?

There is one big exception to all rules on writing. All rules can be broken because what works, works. No matter what. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has characters everyone despises, but no one can stop reading it. If you have the talent and the patience to revise, you can pull off any trick.

Okay, that’s the big huge answer for all people everywhere. For me, personally, I want readers to like my heroes and to root for them. And so, I have a “pet the puppy” scene, early, early on. A pet the puppy scene is where the hero or heroine does something morally good, it’s a concrete action, and what I want is the reader to say, “Wow, that Chuck is a nice guy.” Then I have more leeway to make Chuck real because I’ve established him as a good guy.

I also have a “kick the puppy” scene for the villain ‘cause hey, who likes someone who kicks puppies?

2. I’ve put down books where I haven’t liked the main character enough to stick with them for two hundred odd pages. On the other hand, I’ve devoured books with main characters I despised. (Lolita comes to mind.) What do you think makes the difference?

Some of it is our fascination with evil. More importantly, I think we can relate to sick, broken characters mucking around in life because hey, I’ve done my fair share of being sick, being broken, and mucking. I think if the stakes are right, you can do a lot with characters and stretch people’s acceptance of them. Walter White in Breaking Bad is a good example. We watch him go from a middle-aged guy with a wife, a family, a mortgage to an evil, murderous gangster. But why does he start down that path? Because he has lung cancer, a pregnant wife, and no money. He wants to take care of his family and leave them a legacy. The stakes are high and morally just. Even when he starts doing terrible things, we root for him because we want him to win. And we’re fascinated with his evil and how despicable he can become. That’s part of the fun of the show. But we didn’t start there, right? We started with an average Joe.

Another example of the likeable anti-hero (at least for me) is the protagonist in Notes From Underground. Now there was a scumbag who was just foul. At the same time, the writing made me fall in love with him, empathize with him, because I’ve felt that way – alone and hateful. Again, if you have the talent and the patience, you can do anything. Fyodor did a pretty good job with that one.

3. How do you create a three-dimensional character with flaws and still maintain reader interest? Do you readers want a character who is a “regular guy” or do we want to read about someone who’s better than us, a hero?

It’s the flaws we like as reader. Even the Greeks knew that. They came up with that whole Achilles heel thing, the heroic flaw. Batman is a self-destructive vigilante, and Superman has cryptonnite. Wolverine from the X-Men is such a good character because really, he’s this anti-social alcoholic rebel-without-a-cause type of character. More and more, readers DEMAND three-dimensional characters. Which is why I think the Superman franchise is having a hard time getting off the ground. Superman is too good. He’s too perfect. But Batman, Batman is a rich guy with a death wish—there’s more to work with. Spiderman is a nerdy kid with a camera who sometimes doesn’t get the girl because, hey, nerdy kid with a camera. It’s much more interesting to read about flawed characters. However, the more flawed the character, the harder some people might have with him\her.

However, there are tricks you can use for your more seriously messed up characters. In The Sopranos, Tony Saprano was a narcissistic violent thug prone to anxiety disorders. And yet, when he starts going to therapy, he wants to be a better man. So the flawed hero who wants to be good is a way to garner audience sympathy. Or, again in The Sopranos, Tony’s mother is far more corrupt and ruthless than he is, and so another trick is to have other more flawed characters act as a foil to your unlikeable hero. Quentin Tarantino does that all the time. His heroes are evil, but they go up against villains who are even worse!

4. Lena, your MC in The Never Prayer is not doing particularly likeable things. She’s a drug mule, she’s mean to her aunt, and she wears makeup like armor, but alongside this, we learn her parents have died violently, and she’s responsible for her tiny brother whom she deeply loves. Also it’s clear from the very first sentence that she’s conflicted about dealing drugs and doing it only because she’s been saddled with adult-sized money problems. She grabbed my sympathy despite her prickly outsides, and so I liked her enough to read on. Is that the key to reader engagement with her?

When I started to write Lena’s story, I knew she was going to be a hard sell. And I knew I needed to have the readers like her immediately, and so I added in the character of Jozey, her little brother. Jozey did two things. The first, he showed how good of a mother Lena was to him, and how much the two loved each other. The second, he raised the stakes. If Lena was caught running drugs, she would lose Jozey, whom she loved. So in the first chapter of the book, I had a classic “pet the puppy” scene, where Lena holds Jozey while he cries for their dead parents. It’s a concrete example of her being good.

Aaron’s second novel, Long Live the Suicide King, was released last week. Click on the photo for the link.

SuicideKing_AaronRitchey_Cover5. Tell me about JD, your main character. On the surface at least he’s not particularly likeable. He’s snarky, whiny and apathetic, and despite his privilege (brains and affluence) he wastes his time doing drugs. How do you help your readers engage with a character like this? Or do you consider it your job as a writer to help your readers engage?

If Lena was a hard sell, JD was impossible! So I pulled out the stops. JD is funny. Humor can go a long way to help people like your character. I introduce other drug addicts that make JD look like a saint in comparison. Like Tony Soprano, JD wants to get better. He wants to get off drugs and be a better human beings while others around him don’t. That dichotomy is important. And I introduced probably my favorite character in the book, Inga Blute, an elderly German woman JD takes care of. Like Jozey, Inga shows that JD is a good guy, deep down. And I love Inga because she is such a great counterbalance to JD.

Because of the subject matter, some people are just not going to like JD, and I don’t expect them to finish the book. In the end, that might be the only rule of writing that has no exceptions. Not everyone is going to like your book.

6. Do you find it more important to make Lena, a female, likeable than it was to making JD, your male MC, likeable?

Now that is a fascinating question. The short answer is no. For me, my characters transcend gender. They are more than their parts. Yes, Lena is far more feminine than JD, and sees the world through the lenses of a young woman, but in the end, who they are is important than their sex.

But the question is good. Women are saddled with a lot of baggage: women are expected to act in a certain way to be, women should be a bastion of morality, and they have to be maternal and sweet. Old-fashioned baggage, stereotypes, yes, but a writer probably should take that into account. I don’t, but a writer should. Interesting that Lisabeth from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was so popular, since she was such a broken character, and yet, her violent past touched a lot of people. But while it’s easy to come up with tons of male anti-heroes, finding anti-heroines is harder. Not impossible, but harder.

Should girls be nice and boys be rough? The rules are changing and I’m glad. Both sides of the battle of the sexes have been wounded long enough.

In the end, I’m there to tell my story, which includes a character arc and a story arc. In my books, I want my characters to grow because of what happens to them, which is the story. But I’ve learned. I can’t start out with my character too broken. I just can’t. So taking a page from Donald Maass, my larger-than-life heroes have flaws, and my flawed characters want to be better, and my normal or readers lose interest.

Donald Maass has some great stuff on character. He argues that total hero-types should have a flaw (like Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes, normal characters should be able to do something really well (Luke Skywalker has a special gift with the force), and anti-heroes should want to be better than they are. Tony Soprano fits there.

Thanks for answering my questions, Aaron.

 Thanks! This was fun!

Aaron Michael Ritchey grew up dancing with the demons of despair, but around nineteen he got tired of demons stepping on his toes. So he’s found other things to do like running triathlons, doing house exchanges across the globe with his two rockstar daughters and his movie star wife, and working a day job in medical technologies. He lives in Colorado and writes. A lot. It’s far better than dancing with demons. Each year, the diabolical music gets a little quieter. A little quieter. Long Live the Suicide King is his second novel.  Our friends in Amazon would love to hear from you!

For more about Aaron Michael Ritchey, go to his website at, friend him on Facebook, or follow him on twitter, @aaronmritchey.






An Interview with Amy Fellner Dominy

Amy Fellner Dominy lives and writes in Phoenix, Arizona. Her books humorously capture the struggles of the early teen years: learning how who you are veers off from who you thought you were, exploring your possibilities and your limits, and testing out friendship and love.

OyMGAudition & Subtraction

What attracts you to writing about teens and tweens?

Well, for starters, it’s such a wonderful / horrible time of life, isn’t it? Talk about drama! I still have my journals from that period of time and on nearly every page I was euphoric or devastated—and often both. I fell in love constantly, had my heart broken regularly, fought with my friends, struggled with my place in my family and started to see the world in a different, more independent way. I know lots of people say they just want to forget their middle school/early high school years, but not me. I think that’s where many of us begin to figure out who we are and who we want to be. Those are such interesting questions—I feel as if, in one way or another, those are the questions I’m trying to answer in every one of my stories.

Tatum (the MC of Audition & Subtraction) plays the clarinet. Do you play the clarinet as well? If not, how did you make this aspect of her character authentic?

I did play clarinet in middle school and all the way through college marching band. In fact, I actually began college on a clarinet scholarship. But I was a lot like Tatum in one other important way: I didn’t have natural ability. I had to work really hard at the clarinet and eventually I just didn’t have the talent to continue. I really drew on my insecurities as I wrote the book and hopefully that helped make Tatum more real (and relatable) to readers.

Which comes first for you, plot or character?

It’s kind of ironic because we often pick up a book based on the plot blurb we read on the back cover. But I really believe it’s character that makes us love a book (or hate it) and it’s character that matters most. I’m not exactly sure which comes first for me because ideas form in messy complicated ways. But I do know that even if I set a character off on an adventure, the adventure only moves forward when the character takes action. And then, from the action, comes the plot. So, it’s hugely important to know the characters before the story can move forward.

What can your readers expect next?

I’m really excited about a new project I’ve just finished up. In the past, I’ve created high stakes for my characters, but the internal kind. In other words, Tatum and Ellie were making decisions that would determine the person they would become, but the world wasn’t going to end. In the YA novel I’m finishing up, it’s life or death. Literally. The book is called DETOURS and it’s a kidnapping-roadtrip-love story with a deadly twist. I hope it’ll be ready to submit in the fall.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading Donald Maass‘s book Writing the Breakout Novel in preparation for a writing workshop in September. It’s very good, by the way. No matter where a writer is in their career, I always think there are new things to learn (and things you once knew but need to be reminded about.) I’m getting ready to start Book 4 of Game of Thrones (so addicted!) and in YA, I’ve got A.S. King’s newest at the top of my TBR pile.

You can learn more about Amy and her novels on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

An Interview with Patrick Freivald

Patrick Freivald, is a high school teacher, a beekeeper, and author of zombie apocalypse/high school novel, Twice Shy and its sequel, Special Dead. Patrick kindly agreed to answer questions about his writing and reading for me.
twiceshy(Special Dead comes out July 12th)

What are you working on right now? What’s next for your YA audience?

Right now I’m working on a supernatural thriller that stars the leader of a team of augmented human beings trying to bring down a cartel boss whose drugs cause euphoria, superhuman strength, and homicidal mania.

My next YA book, Special Dead (Twice Shy, book 2) comes out July 12th from JournalStone Publishing, and Blood List, a thriller I co-wrote with my twin brother about a serial killer who’s trying to save his father’s life, comes out in November. I’m just finishing up a nasty little Christmas horror story for a charity anthology, too.

Have you ever been required to tone down the horror element in your novels for your YA audience? 

I haven’t toned down the horror elements in my novels for YA readers. YA readers are smart, and they want books that are smart. YA horror readers want books that contain horror, and horror by definition is horrific!

How did you come up with the idea of a zombie high school student?

The idea for Ani came from a comment that a reader made on about my short story, A Taste for Life. The comments have long-since been deleted, but he said something to the effect of, “You know Zombie fiction will have come into its own when you see zombies in high school romance.” I laughed and thought, “Challenge accepted!”

Do your students know you’re an author? What’s the funniest thing a student has said to you about your writing?

My students do know I’m an author, and many have read and enjoyed Twice Shy. The funniest thing I’ve heard from a student (who didn’t know I was there) is, “Ugh. Why would anyone write that?” I guess she wasn’t my target audience.

The fun thing about Twice Shy is that different people get very different experiences from the book. Some find it touching, others tragic, others think it’s hilarious–and I think that’s wonderful.

Aside from Stephen King, who are your favorite authors? 

Asking me for a favorite author is like asking me for a favorite book or a favorite food… I can’t just pick one. I’m a fan of Peter Straub, Robert Jordan, F. Paul Wilson, Jonathan Maberry, Sebastian Junger, J.A. Konrath, David McCullough, George R. R. Martin, Jeff Strand, Peter Clines… How much time do you have? I just finished NOS4A2 by Joe Hill, and it wasn’t perfect, but it was excellent. David Moody’s Autumn series is fantastic.

What are you reading right now?

 I’m currently reading Forever Man by Brian W. Matthews — it’s fantastic — and I’m lucky enough to have an advanced copy of Steel Breeze by Douglas Wynne, which I’m reading as soon as I hit the last page of Forever Man.

You can find out more about Patrick on Goodreads or Facebook. 

An Interview with Jennifer Gooch Hummer

I read the fabulous YA novel, Girl Unmoored, last summer and fell in love with the main character Apron, her story, and author Jennifer’s gorgeous way with words.

Girl Unmoored

Tell us about Girl Unmoored.
Girl Unmoored is about a teen girl growing up Maine who is drowning in a sea of grief after the loss of her mother. Until she meets Jesus. Not the real one, of course, but the actor who plays him in Jesus Christ Superstar. Mike and Apron and Mike’s boyfriend, Chad, become Apron’s new family and in so doing save her.

Apron is thirteen years old in 1985, when AIDS hit mainstream awareness. Did you sit down to write a story about an eighties teen?
No. I started writing the beginnings of this book when I was ten years old. It took until I met my real-life friend Mike, to find Apron’s story. I had her character all along, but I needed more than just Apron’s heartbreak at her mother’s death. I met Mike in the late 80’s which was just when the AIDS epidemic hit America.

What is the writing process like for you? Do you know where your story will go from the beginning? In other words, are you a plotter or a pantser?
For me, the toughest part of the writing process is the first draft. I live in fear of the blank page. So I allow myself to do what the great Anne Lamott always prescribes to other authors: write the worst first draft you could possibly write. Then, once I have the horrid first draft, the real writing begins.

I’ve read that next up for your readers is a middle grade fantasy. Can you tell us about it? 
Yes, middle grade fantasy is next. It’s a fairy-ish tale that will be a trilogy. Writing a fantasy was much different than writing contemporary fiction. I’ve learned so much about the importance of story world with this project. Writing about a place I’ve actually stood in, smelled and breathed is second nature. Writing about a completely made-up world that’s never existed in anyone else’s mind but mine really tested my dedication to the story.

Where do you get your inspiration? How much of Apron, Mike and your other characters are drawn from real life?
When people ask me this question about inspiration, I can never come up with the right answer. Whatever it is that inspires me to write, or an athlete to compete, or a painter to paint, is kind of magical I think. I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer. Always. I have three daughters and a husband and I dedicate myself to them completely. But I have to write and they know it. Sometimes I wish that I didn’t have to write… all that time I could have to do other things. But after three days away from writing I’m lost and confused. The world is weird; writing is my safe haven.

What are you reading right now?
I can’t read fiction when I am writing or even rewriting a book. I just don’t want someone else’s storyline to creep into mine. So I read memoirs or nonfiction. But when I’m in between projects or awaiting notes, I read YA. I was a script reader for many years so I can read a book faster than I can make dinner. And I have a book blog so I am lucky enough to get books before they are published for review.

What authors inspired you to become a writer yourself?
Judy Blume was my first favorite author. That dates me, but unless you were in that era you can’t understand how crucial she was for us. She was the only author any one of my friends ever wanted to read outside of required reading. Next came Hemingway. His sentences read like music, his cadence is perfect. And now I am in awe of David Sedaris.

If you could take only one book to a desert island, what would it be?
Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue. Derivations of words and language and story mesmerize me. I just absolutely adore “the story” and all the elements within it.

The Avon Ladies in Girl Unmoored made me laugh out loud. How did I come up with them?
My best friend Jessica and I really were Avon Ladies exactly like Apron and Rennie. We went on search missions to find anything packaged in any of our mother’s make-up drawers or our families junk drawers. Then we would go door-to-door with our products, rain or shine. We mapped out good customers and steered clear of the bad ones. It’s one of my favorite childhood memories.

You can find out more about Jennifer at her official website:

An Interview with Leigh Talbert Moore

Leigh Talbert Moore is the author of the popular young adult romantic comedy The Truth About Faking, its companion The Truth About Letting Go, and the mature YA/new adult romantic suspense novel Rouge, a Quarter Finalist in the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Her latest novel, Dragonfly, released earlier this month.  Dragonfly

Leigh is an award-winning journalist and editor, who has also worked in marketing and public relations for many years. Her writing has appeared in newspapers and magazines across the southeast and Midwest U.S., and she runs the popular writing-craft blog That’s Write. A southern ex-pat and beach bum, Leigh currently lives with her husband, two young children, and one grumpy cat in the Midwest.

1. Hi Leigh. Thanks for being here! Could you tell us about Dragonfly?

Dragonfly is actually the very first book I ever wrote, and it’s the start of a series all set at the beach. The first book (Dragonfly) is more “mature YA,” and as the series progresses, it moves more into new adult territory. Anyway, it’s a contemporary romance-family saga about this super-rich developer who has a big secret, and the impact that secret has on the main character Anna. (Anna becomes friends with his daughter and starts dating his son. Sort of.) Basically, it’s soapy and steamy and sexy and it’s got a little mystery, and it’s all set at the beach. Yay!

2. When can your readers expect the sequels? How many will there be?

At this point, I’m envisioning four books. The first three will be out by October 2013. Book #2, Undertow, releases on July 18, so they’re coming fast. But! The first three were already written in 2009-10, so I’ve just been revising and rewriting mostly. It’s possible there might be five books in the series, but it all depends on how things go in #4. I kind of have a lot of ground to cover before the story ends, so it might spill over.

3. What got you started writing young adult fiction? How does the journalist in you aid or hinder the novelist?

Journalism was my first love because I loved writing, but I honestly never believed I’d have the patience to sit down and write a whole novel. Then one day, I tried it, and I really liked it! So here I am. I think being a journalist really helped me with dialogue and having an ear for how people speak—and for meeting deadlines! But it hurts me sometimes because I want to “rush” through to the end. Start with the lead, you know. But I’m getting better at slowing down.

4. Where do you get your ideas?

Well, the idea for Dragonfly was actually inspired by my work as a journalist in south Alabama. I used to interview business people, and once this realtor told me how visitors to the coast always thought their company was named after a real man. It wasn’t. But I got to thinking, “What if it was?” and it all flowed from there.

5. What can your readers expect next?

Right now, I’m finishing up revisions for Undertow, and then I’ll dive into Watercolor, which is Book #3. After that I’ll finish out the Dragonfly series, and then I’m back to working on Rouge #2. I’ve had several readers asking for that one, and I need to finish writing it.

You can connect with Leigh online at:

Facebook | Amazon Author page | Twitter | Tumblr | Goodreads

Read excerpts of her books on Wattpad and Figment!

An Interview with Rebecca Phillips

Rebecca Phillips is the author of young adult novels, Just You and Someone Else. She is also the the author of a YA 2012 ABNA finalist, Out of Nowhere.

Just YouSomeone Else

Someone Else is a sequel to Just You. Will there be another book about Taylor Brogan someday?

This is the question I get asked most often from readers. Enough people want a number #3 that I’m seriously considering writing one in the near future. In my mind, #3 will be a New Adult, taking place in college, and it may be from another character’s POV instead of Taylor’s. I think a book from Taylor’s friend Robin’s POV would be interesting.

Your bio says Judy Blume was a strong influence on you. Whom else would you list?

Judy Blume is definitely my first and strongest influence. Shortly after I discovered her at around age 10 or 11, I began writing my own YA novels (which were, of course, horrible). No other author struck me as deeply as Judy did until about 2003, when I discovered Sarah Dessen for the first time. Her books prompted me to start taking writing seriously. She made me think “Maybe I can make a career out of this too.” She was, and still is, a huge inspiration to me. I also admire John Green, Sara Zarr, Courtney Summers, Ruta Sepetys, Lauren Oliver, Gayle Forman, Laura Wiess, and Colleen Clayton. Just to name a few.

What are you reading right now?

I’m almost done with The Shift Omnibus by Hugh Howey, the prequel to his Wool series. Wool was one of the top three best books I read last year. If you haven’t checked it out yet, I highly recommend it. I’m not a sci-fi fan at all, but I devoured these books. The writing is excellent and the story is unique and compelling. And I have to admire an author who loves his fans as much as Mr. Howey loves his.

If you could only read one book over and over for the rest of your life, what would it be?

This is like asking me to pick my favorite child. It’s impossible. If I have to choose, I’m going to cheat a little and pick a series. The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. I’ve read it all the way through twice so far, and it’s so freaking long, it’ll keep me busy for several months.

Where do you get your ideas?

My imagination, past experiences, and the people around me. When I was a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest last year, I was asked several times where I got the inspiration/idea for Out of Nowhere. I always had a hard time answering this, because there was no inspiration, really. I was lying in bed one morning and the idea hit me. In the book, the main character witnessed her father dying, she’s a hypochondriac, and she wants to be a doctor. My father is alive and well, I am most definitely not a hypochondriac, and I wouldn’t be a doctor if you paid me. Everything in that book was a product of my overactive imagination (and sometimes Google). But of course, there’s always a little part of me in each of my characters.

You can find Rebecca online on her website,, her blog,, or her facebook, goodreads, amazon, kobo, or Barnes and Noble page.

Introducing L.A. Rikand

Aside from being one of my novel critique group buddies, L.A. is the author of the fabulous debut YA novel, Girl the Reaper. She agreed to be my guinea pig author for this blog. Thank you, L.A.!

girl the reaper

Tell us about Girl the Reaper.
GTR is the summer story of Cate Evans, who at 14 is leaving middle school and her childhood behind. Intellectual but shy, her life has always centered around family and their farm in Wisconsin. The cycle of life, including death, intrigues her; she composes epitaphs for fun and wonders what happens to people and animals right as they pass. One day she saves her father’s life by inadvertantly stopping the grim reaper from taking him. Now she has something that the reaper wants, and he won’t leave her alone until she lets her father die. She won’t do that, of course. But her situation has given her the ability to see and speak to other people who have died but not left earth. While searching for a way to save her father, she helps other people and in the end, proves that teens are capable of love beyond anything we normally give them credit for.

What made you decide to set your novel in the mid 1970s?
I was close to Cate’s age in the 1970s and found it an interesting time to both grow up and observe deep changes in the adults in my community. Veterans of WWI were dying with honor but “new” veterans of the war in Vietnam struggled to find their place back in the real world. Many brought the horror home with them. My family of farmers was not drafted into wars though a few volunteered. Our neighbors and friends who did often sought refuge in the rural areas where they grew up, trying to feel some kind of normal again.

The 1970s was an important time for the family farm as well…really the last decade of glory before their numbers rapidly decreased and large corporate dairy farms began to take hold. Dispersal auctions were common toward the end of the decade and with great sadness my father would stand by neighbors with other neighbors as their entire life’s work was sold off to the highest bidder.

Who’s your favorite character?
Cate’s grandparents Nan and Joe are my favorites because they are written as my grandparents really were. They are the only two characters in the book who are not mostly or completely fictional. Nanny and Joe established our family farm and lived through all the wars of the 1900s as well as the Great Depression. They both had a matter-of-fact, no-nonsense way of living which I’m sure was honed through decades of struggle–against nature, the economy, and constant change. And boy, they could make me laugh.

Any upcoming YA projects?
GTR was born out of a struggle to finish a series entitled THE SAME SPIRIT. In the end, GTR became a prequel to it, though it happens much earlier. THE SAME SPIRIT is set in a far-off future, during the next age of earth. Those who died as children during this age return to earth to live out their lives as they were intended. Will Apollo is a provincial farm boy with a mysterious connection to a missing artifact. He joins the frantic search for it–armed only with a storybook, some well-meaning friends, and a disenchanted king.

How do you get your ideas?
By observing people and imagining things about them–what secrets they harbor, how they grew up, what they like/dislike, etc. Daydreaming is the one skill that I’ve practiced every single day of my life.

You can find L.A. online at goodreads and facebook.