Book Beat Babes

Book Beat Babes

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson Has People in Her Head

Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson is a 7th-generation Texan and a 3rd-generation wordsmith who writes in mystery, romance, and horror. Once an actress and a singer Janis has also been editor-in-chief of two multi-magazine publishing groups as well as many other things, including an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist. Janis’ husband even proposed in a moonlit garden near the Pyramids of Giza. Janis and her husband live in Texas with an assortment of rescued furbabies. 

The People in My Head  
by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson
One Christmas my best friend (also a writer) gave me a sweatshirt with the saying “Writer’s Block – when your imaginary friends won’t talk to you.”

Truer words were never spoken.

Every so often someone presents a program at one of my writers’ groups on how to create characters. They bring charts and questionnaires and personality assessments of varying lengths and complexities and talk about how to create a complete character from scratch. They talk about how to give him a backstory and outlook, even down to his favorite flavor of Jello. I’ve dutifully taken down every scrap of information and – for a while – tried every system.

It didn’t work. Oh, I created some lovely characters on paper, fully rounded and complete with all the requisite quirks, strengths and histories, but that’s all they were – paper. I was Frankenstein without the lightning, and my carefully created characters were nothing but lifeless pixels.

My method? Stand out of the way. While I envy those who can create their characters to their specifications, I can’t do it. My characters simply walk in and take over. Yes, just like possession, though not as frightening or dire. My characters are like real people, with all the attendant flaws, quirks and differing histories. And no, I don’t think they’re Mary Sues (ie, perfect versions of me). Sometimes I don’t even particularly like them, but I can’t change them.

For example, take my heroines. Admittedly, some of them share a few traits with me – for example, we’re all female (a given). On the other hand, all are younger than I, which these days covers more and more age groups. Most are tall (which I wish I were), but a few are short. Most are fair and blonde or redhead (which most definitely I wish I were) but a few have dark hair and olive complexions. Some are spunky and courageous and a few are – in the beginning, at least – cringing, browbeaten cowards who must grow into fully rounded humans. Neither one of these extremes describes me at all. One or two have been downright snots who I would have kicked out of my house if they had been substantial enough to be kickable! Same goes with the heroes; one of my most popular heroes is a man whom in real life I wouldn’t have spoken to twice. Go figure.

So what do I do? How do I start a book? It’s not a formula graven in stone, but generally a situation creeps into my mind. It could be sparked by a bit of conversation heard in a restaurant, a news item, something I read, even something I experienced. It’s never the whole thing, though – whatever it is, it’s like a grass seed. It burrows into my mind and lies dormant there, often for years, then something brings it to life and it starts to grow. As it grows people appear.

Yes, they just appear, marching into my mind and pretty much refusing to be changed.  One character told me his name – which was not the one I wanted to give him – and refused to do anything until I called him by the name he chose. Determined not to be bullied by a figment of my imagination, I persevered, but the result was lifeless. What had promised to become a fascinating character became a jerky, wooden puppet. I decided to experiment and wrote a chapter using the name he wanted. It was so easy! Everything came to life and the writing flowed. The eventual result was one of my most popular books.

When I told The Husband (who had been listening to my woes for a week or more) about what had happened, he looked as me as if gauging the measurements necessary for a straightjacket, and I could hardly blame him. He is a totally grounded science guy, but you’d think after all the time we’ve been married he’d have gotten used to my ‘writer-weirdnesses’ by now!

If there is any useful advice in this post, it is to listen to your characters. Character is what makes a good story. A situation is the seed, but a situation is not a plot. A plot, to me at least, is the story of the interaction between the characters and their varying, sometimes changeable desires. Every character must have his own reason for being – past, desires for the future, foibles, hurts, prides, all the things that make anyone human. No character should ever exist just to forward the story. Of course, I’m talking about major and most secondary characters – you don’t have to give the convenience store clerk who sells the heroine a package of gum and is never referenced again a backstory. Unless he decides not to be ignored and works his way into a major character!

So – when your imaginary friends talk to you, you’d do good to listen.

Here are two wonderful books to check out, resulting from the voices in her head. Apparently, those voices also insisted she write under two different pen names: Janis Susan May and Janis Patterson.


A Gothic novel of Victorian Scotland where a young widow discovers that an unexpected legacy has turned her husband’s unknown family away from her while a callous predator plotting her death wears a smiling face.

Cast upon the cold charity of her late husband’s unknown family, Linnet MacTaggert is shocked that her brother-in-law was her husband’s exact twin. Both complications and threats ensue when it is known that she is the sole heiress to the estate, a situation that only worsens when she finds herself drawn to the family’s arch-enemy. But is her husband truly dead? Before Linnet can solve the mysteries that surround Jura House she must not only put herself at risk, but also almost lose her life.


Please welcome Janis to Book Beat Babes by leaving a comment.


  1. Welcome to Book Beat Babes, Janis! I love your method of letting your characters take over and do their thing! I have a vague idea of what I want to accomplish in a book, but sometimes my characters tell me otherwise, and they know best!

    Morgan Mandel

  2. Your characters are as pushy as mine. Once they develop on their own, I have to write things down I've learned about them so I don't forget. (One of the problems with getting old.)

  3. My characters always live in my head for quite a while before I start to type a word.
    So I understand how your creative process works.

  4. It's wonderful to meet the people in your head in your books! I so get it....:)

  5. Thank you so much for this poignant, entertaining read! Janice makes a wonderful point, and I am grateful she shared her personal process-- such a gift!

  6. Thanks for joining us here at BBB.

    One of the best things about being a writer is having a perfect, rational, totally logical reason for the voices in your head.

  7. The last time I had writer's block, I had the first and second chapter written in the story of a heroine I'd had a dream about. I knew her job and what was her dilemma and it revolved around the Dec. 2012 Mayan prediction. I thought I had created a good hero for her. Then the block. So I put it away.

    About a month later I had a dream in which a tall, very pale blond man with a Russian accent told me I was having trouble because I was trying to give her the wrong had to be him. Then he smiled, flashing his vampire fangs. I told him to go away because while I like to read paranormal, I don't write it. He smirked and told me, "Research the Mayans". I woke up and researched on-line and found out just how much of their rituals involved blood-letting, which is almost all of them. Why? Well, if their gods were alien vampires...

    The rest of the book wrote itself, along with the sequel. I haven't even read a vampire book since then. But the characters will correct you if you're on the wrong track. BTW, I LOVE that tee shirt! Gotta get me one of them.

  8. so true, so true. I can't map out a character anymore than I can the story. they start with a spark of some kind and grow from there

  9. Yes, characters run the story. If I'm not remaining true to them, they refuse to budge.

  10. Welcome to BBB! I had the same problem with naming a character. He refused to tell me anything until I called him by his name, Francis. I finally conceded and he has not stopped talking! That was two books ago!! I've never been able to change much in my characters - I let them tell me the story!
    I'm so glad I can write that on paper and other writers will understand!!
    Thanks for being with us!

  11. Nice blog post, Janis. How do I create my character? I don't. I wait for them to introduce themselves to me. Thanks how I met Sydney Lockhart. She's been bugging me for the last 10 years.

  12. Nice post. I can't create a character from charts either. Mine arrive already formed and want their story, so I understand.

  13. Thank you all for coming by - I appreciate your comments. I also appreciate knowing that I'm not alone in hearing voices in my head or having dictatorial characters! Now if I can just convince The Husband that this is a normal state of affairs...!

    Susan, also known as Janis