Thursday, June 10, 2010


Posted by Ruby Johnson
John, it's my pleasure to welcome you to our blog. As an author of eight books on poker, two books on writing, two novels and three novellas, you are one busy man. Can you tell us a little about your newest novel The California Roll?

JV: Thank you and Hi there everyone!
 The California Roll, a “sunshine noir” comic mystery, is the story of a world-class California con artist who meets his match – natch – in the form of a beautiful woman.

There’s so much I could tell you about this book… how I became fascinated with con artists… how the project morphed out of my work in poker non-fiction… how the tome has already sold literally tens of copies to date… But I want to focus on character development, because I know from my own experience that if you’ve got interesting characters – fun, compelling people with whom your reader can emotionally engage – that will cover a multitude of sins should the plot become knotty downstream. In other words, if your characters rock, your readers will throw you a bone when you need it.

RJ:Could you tell us how you develop your characters?

JV: Okay, so, character. What makes a great one? Myself, I’m a huge believer in the character key, which is a way of immediately revealing the character to the audience in a brief, strong, clear fashion. A good character key telegraphs the whole character to the reader in an instant. In literary terms, this is called “synecdoche,” the part standing in for the whole.

So here’s the first line of The California Roll, wherein our hero says, “The first person I ever scammed was my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, and could never remember from one minute to the next whether she’d just given me ice cream or not.” If readers find such charming, innocent amorality attractive, they’ll probably give my protagonist their attention, or at least the benefit of the doubt. Thanks to the character key, they can make an informed decision based on available information. So don’t be coy with characters: Tell your readers who they are!

RJ: Does a character's name play a big part in your character's makeup?

JV:  I’m a big one for names, and I’m always on the lookout for ones which suggest interesting characters. The protagonist of The California Roll is called “Radar Hoverlander,” and he insists that’s his real name, though you can’t necessarily trust him, since he’s a self-admitted “notorious lying liar.” But what I like about the name (apart from its real roots in Jet Propulsion Laboratory nomenclature) is that it’s the sort of name a character has to earn. Colorful names demand colorful actions.

RJ: What about secondary characters? What part do they play in your stories?

JV: I’m a huge fan of sidekicks, and endowed Radar with one of the best (which is to say worst) in the form of a low-rent and dim-bulb scam artist named Vic Mirplo, so totally a loser that he’s “unlikely to get laid in any circumstance short of lying on his back with his pants down when a nymphomaniac alien drops out of the sky, legs spread.”

RJ: How do you see the role of a protagonist?

Worthy characters, we know, require worthy adversaries. To put it in black and white terms, your good guy will never be sufficiently good unless he has ample opportunity to challenge himself against a sufficiently strong foe. But this whole business of “good guy versus bad guy” is a little misleading. Mine is not a world of moral clarity (no con world is), so it’s less a case of pitting Radar’s goodness against his enemy’s badness than it is of serving up the challenge of a strong antagonist. In Radar’s case, he must first unravel, then battle, then co-opt, and ultimately ally with, the single most talented female scammer he’s ever met, the estimable and “dead-bang cute” Allie Quinn. Is she the queen of all con artists or the last true innocent? Radar isn’t sure, and he spends about, oh, all but the last two pages trying to figure that out. So that’s what we call a worthy adversary. She’s not evil. She just has her own agenda, and part of pursuing that agenda involves keeping poor Radar in the dark, and working him as hard as she can.

“Poor Radar.” You know, whenever I hear myself say of my characters, “Poor X” or “Poor Y,” I know I’m really onto something. By those words I signify, to myself at least, that I have both sympathy and empathy for the characters. Sympathy: I like that guy. Empathy: I am like that guy. I could prattle on at some length about how to build sympathy and empathy into characters, but you know what? I don’t have to! I’ve already done it, in another book I wrote, called The Comic Toolbox: How To Be Funny Even if You’re Not. In that book, should you peruse it, you’ll find ample information on creating comic (and non-comic) characters, as well as some fundamental rules of comedy that also turn out to be fundamental rules of drama, such as this: “The truth is revealed under pressure.” Only by putting your character under pressure can you hope to move him to a new understanding of himself, and in comedy or drama, novels or screenplays, getting that new understanding is the whole, entire name of the game.

I will leave you now with the single most powerful piece of writing wisdom I’ve ever received, handed to me, free of charge, back in my early days as an earnest sitcom toiler. I’d been trying to write “for the market,” and found that a bleak and frustrating experience. 

A wise writer took me aside and rocked my world with ten simple words:

"Keep giving them you until you is what they want.""
is what they want.”
 It’s made all the difference for me. It will make all the difference for you.

RJ: John, thank you so much for your wonderful tips. Could you give us some information on how to contact you and learn more about your books?

Okay, here comes the pimping part. I invite you to visit my website,, where you can establish a dialogue with me, read my blog, investigate my sordid poker career, and learn about the 20 years I’ve spent traveling and teaching writers in 24 countries on four continents at last count. (Fort Worth next? Who knows?) You can read excerpts of all my books, including The California Roll and The Comic Toolbox, and order any of them, signed, and with only slightly inflated shipping costs.


Judy Sizemore said...

This is great information on characterization. I especially enjoyed John's easy, natural approach. His down-to-earth attitude is what makes his characters so interesting and quirky. I'm excited to check out his site and his new book.

Jeff Turner said...

Even in non-fiction you need to make the people in your tale come alive to the reader. His points on characters can apply to real people and how you describe them. Interesting stuff.

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