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The Writer's Mailbag: Installment #347

We Are Complicated as All Hell

I was pondering the truth of that statement the other day. We humans are complicated creatures. You walk along the street, you pass a woman who is walking her dog, she looks perfectly “normal,” but you delve deeper into her life and find she was sexually abused as a child and is in a loveless marriage. You see a delivery truck park, guy in a uniform gets out, delivers a package, mid-fifties, nothing memorable about him, but he turns out to be nationally recognized for his part-time career as a volunteer working for the homeless.

I love that about us, and as a creative writer I am never lacking inspiration for characters.

My best friend, Frank, he and I went to college together, and at college we roomed together in the dorm. On our floor was a guy by the name of Vince Dunnahy, big guy, easily six-three, a solid two-twenty, very shy and quiet, and he was an engineering student. He always walked around with a pocket protector, I swear to God, one of those plastic things that held pens. He had a crew cut and he was intense as hell.

One night the three of us were at the Student Union building having sodas and grilled cheese sandwiches, fries of course, and during a conversation I reached across the table and helped myself to one of Vince’s fries, a perfectly innocent thing to do, we all did it from time to time, but Vince was opposed to it, quickly rose to his feet and came across the table at me, one seriously angry engineering student. Frank had to jump on Vince’s back and pin him to the floor, while another couple guys pried Vince’s fingers from my neck.

True story!

Ten years after graduation, Vince found himself residing at McNeil Island Penitentiary for manslaughter, doing ten-to-twenty.

Complicated as hell, we are.

Let’s get to the mail, shall we?

The Mail Room

The Mail Room

Plots and Subplots

From Mary: “I am trying to understand how you weave a main plot and sub-plots to your novel. Do you plan it beforehand or do they just come to you as you write? Maybe you have already answered this before but it escaped me.”

Mary, there is no steadfast rule for this. I can tell you what you should probably do, and I can tell you what I have done in the past.

The best I ever saw at doing this was an author by the name of, well, I can’t remember his name, but he wrote a series of fifteen novels, and those novels were so intricately woven together with plots and subplots, and I was left with the sense that he must have sat down, at the very beginning, and planned the whole series out. I pictured a huge cork board in front of him, placing subplots in each novel, drawing connecting lines, making sure the whole series was cohesive.

That, to me, is the goal to aspire to.

Me, I just wing it! Subplots come to me as I’m writing. Mind you, I have a vision of where I want my “Shadow” series to go, but the subplots are added to as I go from book to book. I’m sure I make more work for myself than is necessary, doing it that way, but it’s the way that works for me.

Find what you are comfortable with and ride that horse as far as it will take you.

Some seriously complicated people in this crowd.

Some seriously complicated people in this crowd.

Creating My Characters

From Zulma: “You spoke of identifying with your characters in order to make them more real and relatable. With regards to your 'Shadow' series, how did you go about creating your characters? Did you know people like them? Are they aspects of your own personality and those of others? Or are they amalgams?

“Striker, in particular, is a fascinating character. At first glance, he seems a sociopath. But if you listen to what seem like throwaway lines, you see find he really is quite nuanced. He wasn't born a killer, he was made into one. There are times I feel he would like to leave that all behind and yet seems unable to. Did you know someone like this or is his character bits and pieces of other people you've encountered. I really want to know more of his backstory.”

Zulma, I love this question. Thank you for asking it.

Scroll to Continue

When I first made the decision to start writing novels, I was intent upon making complicated, multi-faceted characters. To me, that is what being human is all about. I believe there is good, and bad, in each of us. I believe we are capable to incredibly loving acts, and I believe we are capable of being spiteful and vindictive. Take a farm kid from Iowa, fair-skinned, aw shucks sort of guy, and toss him into the steaming jungles of Vietnam in 1968, and the aw shucks kid just might be guilty of war crimes so heinous you would swear he was being controlled by the Devil.

That kind of stuff has always fascinated me, and I wanted my characters to fascinate my readers in the same way. You mentioned Striker. Good example. Striker is a killing machine, trained by the U.S. Government in all manner of combat, a man who seemingly has no redeeming virtues, and yet he is fiercely loyal and has fallen in love with a wheelchair-bound woman who sees good in him.

The main character in that series, Eli Baker, has no problem killing evil men, and women, and yet he spends his time quoting dead philosophers, coaching Little League baseball, and pondering the meaning of life.

Are they aspects of my own personality? Yes, insomuch as I am complicated. Did I know people like that? Yes, insomuch as we are all complicated. By the way, originally, Eli Baker was modeled after the Charles Bronson character in the movies “Death Wish,” and Striker after the Rambo movie character. They quickly morphed into what you see today.

I hope I answered your wonderful question. My bottom line for all of this: I think characters should be engaging and fascinating. If not, why even put them in a book?

A family of complicated people

A family of complicated people

Back to Complicated

I think about this all the time when I’m out in public. Am I the only writer who does it? I’ll see someone walking down the street and I’ll make up stories about them, or someone in traffic, parked next to me at a red light, I’ll make assumptions about them as I sit there, creating a quick character profile of them during that sixty seconds.

And I think of a group of men I saw, on occasion, when I was a kid. This group of men, they were always dressed in suits, heads down, maybe six or seven of them, walking around the neighborhood, never saying a word during the many times I saw them. I asked my dad about them one day when we passed by them in our car, and my dad told me that group of men never came home from World War 2, that they were still on the battlefield. PTSD, called shell-shock back then, my introduction into the mysterious world of our minds.

I don’t know what ever happened to those men, but they are still with me, sixty years later, never forgotten, nor should they be. They were the price paid for freedoms I often take for granted, and I think about that often as well.

Welcome to the world of a writer!

I hope this finds you well during these difficult times. If you have a question for the Mailbag, drop it in the comments below, or email the question to me at

2021 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 12, 2021:

For sure complicated, Eric, but oh so enjoyable. :) Happy Weekend, buddy!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 12, 2021:

Thank you Linda! Did you get any snow in B.C.?

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 12, 2021:

I appreciate that, Denise. Thanks so much. I find great fascination in my fellow man (and woman, of course).

Blessings always on this snowy weekend


Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on February 12, 2021:

Hnmnm, complicated eh? I might just think that is what a marriage is all about. That is except for love.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on February 11, 2021:

Thanks for creating another interesting article, Bill. The story at the beginning is scary!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 11, 2021:

LOL...turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks!

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on February 11, 2021:

There You go: You fixed it. At least You're not a cat:

Or a floating upside-down head:


Denise McGill from Fresno CA on February 11, 2021:

What an intensely complicated mailbag. I agree we are all complicated people. We are each given a name and it never quite describes the complicated mess boiling within. I'm glad you write about this stuff because that's what gives characters life and not just words on a page.



Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 11, 2021:

It took me awhile but I found it, Ann! Thank you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 11, 2021:

Zulma, I promise I won't make a snowman. :) In your honor, nothing creepy will be built by my hands.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 11, 2021:

You are a gem, Sha! I appreciate it.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 11, 2021:

I appreciate it, Sha! Thank you! Got it done!

Ann Carr from SW England on February 11, 2021:

You edit your hub by going into 'author view' in your account list - just in case you haven't already been told! I didn't realise that either until John Hansen told me. Ridiculous that we have to go round the houses to do simple things!


Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on February 11, 2021:

Hi, Bill.

We had some snow a few days ago. Nothing serious, though, and it was gone in a couple of days. There was some real snow a few weeks back. The kids made a snowman in the backyard that kept watching me through the window. Kinda creepy and I wasn't sorry to see him go. lol

Have fun in the snow and be sure to write about it.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on February 10, 2021:

Bill, you can also get to My Account by way of the hamburger menu at the top left of your feed page. Click on "More" and you'll get a drop down menu. There you'll find My Account.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on February 10, 2021:

Bill, you can edit the article by going into My Account on Click on "Author's View" underneath the title. That'll take you to the same place you go to post. Click on the "edit" button at the top, then "done editing" when you've made the changes.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2021:

Zulma, I love that you love Eli and Striker as much as I do. They are my greatest creations, and I love to write about them. I'm missing them something terrible right now, and can't wait until I can write about them again. The next story is already written in my brain. Now to find the time.

Snow coming our way, finally, up to a foot by Saturday. Very exciting!

Have a great Wednesday!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2021:

MizB, we are about to get our first snow of the winter, Thursday through Saturday. Very exciting as long as we don't lose power, in which case I will be cussing like a sailor. :) Have a great week, my friend, and thank you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2021:

Rodric, I think you've done well considering the time in the hospital but yes, I'll answer your question next Monday. I hope you are feeling better, my friend. Take care!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2021:

All true, Flourish! I have no idea what Vince's family background is, or was; I just saw the ramifications of that life he lived before. That was enough to me, thank you very much!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2021:

It's true, Mel! I do the same thing. Some meaningless event from my life can turn into a series of short stories, all about family members, and they have no idea they are being featured. LOL Thanks, buddy!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2021:

Thank you MG! That's my goal, so I'm happy I achieved it this time.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2021:

I know, right, Bill? NASA? So very weird! Makes you want to give wide berth when walking in a crowd, doesn't it? LOL

Have a great week! We are finally going to get snow tomorrow after a white-less winter so far.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2021:

Mr. Happy, thanks for catching the misspelling. Then I went in to edit it and couldn't. Grrrr!

All is well here. First snow of the winter tomorrow and Friday, and I am looking forward to walking the dogs in it. They love the snow.

Have a fantastic rest of your week, my friend.

FlourishAnyway from USA on February 10, 2021:

The burdens that some of us carry can be incredible. For that engineering student, in his mind you violated a boundary by taking his food. Who knows the circumstances he was living in then and grew up in (food insecure, mentally ill, abusive environment, etc.)? We rarely know our fellow human beings as they truly are.

Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on February 10, 2021:

Good morning, Bill.

First, that guy, Vince. What was going on in his life? How does an engineering student with a pocket protector, the ultimate nerd accessory, end up in prison? Write that story! Please.

Moving on, your inspirations for Eli and Striker are interesting. It's been years since I've seen either 'Death Wish' and 'First Blood', but the protags always seemed one-dimensional. I like the way you've fleshed out your characters. I mean, they are so real I often think about them long after I've closed the book. Speaking of which, I just got your latest 'Shadows' and can't wait to step back into that world again.

Thank you so much for this series and have a great day.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on February 09, 2021:

I really enjoyed this week's mailbag, Bill, better late than never, I guess. I especially liked your description of how you build your characters. I've never really thought about it. They just seem to come to me, but sometimes after I finish a story, I realize that somebody is a little shallow and go back and add to him or her (with the exception of flash fiction, of course. I did have one reader complain that he wanted to know more about a character in a flash fiction, lol.

Cold, rainy and possible snow later in the week. Weatherman says to expect a low of 9 degrees one night this week. I thought I lived in the south. Such crazy weather. Hope you are staying warm, my friend.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on February 09, 2021:

Another great mailbag. Fascinating stuff about the engineering student. I'm finding as a writer that you can take a true incident like that and spin it into something that goes way beyond what really happened. If family members and friends knew why I was using the iceberg tips of innocuous things that happened to them, and turning them into Titanic sinkers, they would gang up and lynch me.

Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on February 09, 2021:

You gave me an idea for a story with the men who walked around well dressed in you childhood and said nothing. That sounds like a book or movie tiale.. The Men Who Said Nothing or Quiet Gang or Silence of the Men, The Quieting, I could go on , but I won't. My question to you this time is how do you get on a schedule to write. I know it is Monday when I see your article. It is like a force of nature. I want to be like that. How do you do it? My issues in the past have been with health, but I have found the will to write and I know I can push content because of the 10 article challenge I did last month, despite being in hospital five days. I need to know how to get on a schedule and stick to it.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 09, 2021:

Sha, thank you! Like you, I'm going to have that image of the toilet in my head for a long time. I'm laughing again just thinking about it. No matter how bad things have been for me in the past, I've never talked to a turd. LOL

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 09, 2021:

Thank you Alyssa! We are going to get our first snow later this week. Very exciting for us snow-starved Northwesterners! Happy Tuesday young lady!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 09, 2021:

Thank you, Ann, for pointing out that misspelling. Oddly I don't see how to edit that article. What am I missing here? It won't let me edit. Dammit! Now I have a question for my own Mailbag. LOL

All is well here, my friend. We are going to get our first snow of the winter later this week. Pretty exciting! Anything but the rain is fine with me.

Be safe, my friend, and thanks for the questions.


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 09, 2021:

Thanks so much, Brenda! If people take the time to ask me questions and comment, I should take the time to give detailed answers. I just appreciate that people take time from their busy days to interact with me. It's special, you know?

Happy Tuesday to you, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 09, 2021:

Peggy, it's probably just as well we don't know the actual truth in people, or we wouldn't have any friends at all. lol

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 09, 2021:

Thank you Rosina! Happy Tuesday to you. Stay safe and healthy, my friend!

MG Singh emge from Singapore on February 08, 2021:

You have touched on so many topical points and your article makes compelling reading and more important makes one put on his thinking hat.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on February 08, 2021:

Excellent mailbag, Bill. Scary story about Vince, guess you never really know. I suppose we are all very complicated in our own way. I have friends from HS and college who have shocked me with some interesting and seemingly out of character stories, but nothing close to Vince. And Mike’s buddy now with NASA, I am speechless. Have a great week.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on February 08, 2021:

"I pictured a huge cork board in front of him, placing subplots in each novel, drawing connecting lines, making sure the whole series was cohesive." - That sounds complicated. Makes me think of those police movies where a detective has a board in his/her office with all the clues, names, places, etc. Way too much for me lolol

"Take a farm kid from Iowa ... you would swear he was being controlled by the Devil." - There are no winners in wars. There are only survivors. (A Native Elder said that.)

"Back to Compicated" - You meant "complicated", right? Haha!! Look, English is my 4th learned language (now 3rd since I lost one along the way) so, I am never too sure with myself.

"I don’t know what ever happened to those men" - They changed wars and suits. They're still around and always will be if we keep creating wars.

"I hope this finds you well during these difficult times." - I'm surviving, doing what I can. Wish all is well on your end, considering the world's circumstances.

Stay sane and stay safe - all the very best!

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on February 08, 2021:

Once again, you've presented an excellent mailbag. You've really got your readers digging deeply into the craft of writing. I can see you teaching a class.

That's quite a story about Vince. The fact that he was convicted of manslaughter ten years later, probably made you shudder at what could have happened to you had Frank and the other guys not been there to peel him off you.

I love Mike's story about Eric as well. Like you, I don't know if I'll ever get the image of a man sitting backwards on a toilet out of my head - speaking to his turds no less!

Alyssa from Ohio on February 08, 2021:

Wow, what a way to open the mailbag this week! That was some story! I love your perspective and exercise with people-watching. I'll have to give it a try. Excellent mailbag this week, as always. :) I hope you are having a wonderful Monday!

Ann Carr from SW England on February 08, 2021:

Interesting question about characters and fascinating answer. In short, another great mailbag (btw, you need an 'l' in the last para heading!).

I have a question: How many stories should one put into a short story anthology? I've been juggling with mine for a while and I can't make up my mind about order, nor about the quantity! It's driving me nuts. I've looked at others' short stories and they vary a lot, but as a first, I don't want to overdo it. I have put them into themes, into moods, into styles, and have come to the conclusion that a mixture would be better - then I change my mind! Any thoughts?

Re-reading old stories at the moment (partly because of the above) and I find some which I much prefer to the ones I write now! Does that happen to you?

Keep safe and well, bill!


BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on February 08, 2021:


I love that you take the time to answer each question in detail.

Your reply about finding what you are comfortable with and riding that horse as far as it will take you...that hits home.

We all write differently but we gotta keep going to see it through.

The story about Frank and the french fries I can picture. I have had people take food from my plate & honestly I don't like it, unless they ask first.

But i would never react that way.

We are all complicated. Somehow I think writers tend to be a bit more complicated because our mind is always thinking.

I tend to sum up people very quickly...maybe it's the truth or maybe it's my imagination.

I love your writing. I wish we could all come up with details so easily. I think the chalkboard method would be too boring for me. I don't seem to follow the usual rules.

Take care & have a nice day.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 08, 2021:

People are indeed complicated. You are a master at defining characters in your books. I think that we all make assumptions about people we see in crowds. Are they accurate? Probably not, in most cases, but it is still fun to create those characters in our minds. As Heidi pointed out, we would probably be shocked to know the actual truth about people and their beliefs. January 6th defines such a moment in time.

Rosina S Khan on February 08, 2021:

I enjoyed this mailbag. Glad for the wisdom that we are all complicated, with good and evil residing in us. Happy Monday to you and a good start to the week.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 08, 2021:

Mike, I'm going to be laughing the rest of the day over that image of a guy sitting backwards on the toilet. My God that's funny! And now NASA? Makes me worry about the space program just a bit, you know? LOl Thanks buddy!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 08, 2021:

Thank you Mary! How do I develop it? Stay tuned till next Monday and I'll tell you. :) Happy Monday to you.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 08, 2021:

I appreciate that, Pamela. Thank you! We might actually get our first snow this week. Pretty exciting!!!

Happy work week to you, my friend!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 08, 2021:

I have a problem with that as well, Dora. I love happy endings, but there has to be some setbacks along the way or I just can't relate to it all.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 08, 2021:

Thank you Heidi! Happy Valentine's Day to you. Shocked by D.C.? Not me - they are, after all, our representatives, just one of us, not terribly different.

Mr Archer from Missouri on February 08, 2021:

Guy I went to college with, Eric, thought he was beamed back in time from the Enterprise; had a Junior Commander's Star Trek shirt; would sit on the toilet backwards, facing the wall and call out "Come out you little turd!" repeatedly while going to the bathroom; had 43 straight disappointments (asking girls out on a date and them saying no); called the Dean of Chemistry's daughter a whore in class (after she declined his offer for a date) while her father was teaching the class!

He works for NASA now.

Complicated? Yeah, we are!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 08, 2021:

Thanks so much, Chitrangada Sharan. I hope this finds you healthy and happy, my friend. Happy Monday to you.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 08, 2021:

Happy Valentine's Day to you, Devika, and Happy Anniversary to you as well. Thank you for your kind words.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 08, 2021:

Manatita, thank you my friend! Striker is my favorite created character. I would love to know him in real life, as long as he was on my side of an argument. lol Thanks for sharing that bed memory. My goodness, so much anger built up and spilling over in your direction for a totally innocent act. Makes one wonder.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 08, 2021:

That is an amazing memory, Peg! Thanks for sharing that with us, and thank you in general for your comment. I hope this finds you well, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 08, 2021:

I am in total agreement with you, Linda. We need more storytellers and fewer pontificators. :) Thank you for your kind words, my friend.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on February 08, 2021:

Thanks again, Bill, for your answers. In particular, I like very much the way you view every human, the complications that go with each personality and capturing this is what makes a novel interesting. I notice this complication in your characters and i enjoy it because it is not forced, it sort of happens in a comment or a reaction to an incident. How do you develop this?

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on February 08, 2021:

This is a particularly interesting mailbag. Subplots make a story much more interesting. People are complicated for sure, and if you can givw the more than one dimension they become more interesting.You do that quite well, Bill.

Have a great week!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on February 08, 2021:

I love your intro, Bill. Because life is complicated and people are complicated, I have a problem with stories where the protagonist gets everything he or she wants without experiencing any difficulty. Real life has detours and setbacks, or the story is plain fantasy. Good questions and answers as usual.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on February 08, 2021:

With all the turmoil in Washington DC lately, people are shocked when they learn what some people believe. Pretty crazy. Awesome fodder for writers.

Well, gotta run. But wanted to wish you a Happy Valentine's Day and thank you for sharing your love of life and writing with us!

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on February 08, 2021:

Hello Bill!

Interesting introductory paragraph. Yes, complicated we are. Any person, who we see or meet, can be a potential character of a story, I do agree.

Enjoyed going through this edition of mailbag.

Happy day, and happy week to you.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on February 08, 2021:

Hi Bill Happy Valentine's Day to you and everyone here. It is a special day for me my Wedding Anniversary. As always your hubs make me smile. Your discussions have great meaning and writers learn from your informative hubs. I have learned a lot from your work.

manatita44 from london on February 08, 2021:

This one was even more enjoyable and I had a good chuckle. Bad people, good people. Man is capable of anything! I was on a humanitarian mission in the Gambia some years ago, when the black American, a very good friend of mines, totally lost it. My crime? I sat on his bed.

What makes an otherwise very good human being, kind in so many ways, suddenly lose it? He went totally mad!

Now I was somehow thinking of Bronson, way before you mentioned him later on. Talk about how mind works!

Now I did a bit of character profiling in Manhattan in the late 70's. There was an American doing it, rather proud of himself and he called me to explain. He could usually tell a lot just by the walk, smile and other expressive features, gait and attire, not to mention voice. Perhaps he had sinister motives. Lol. Brilliant work Bro, and oh, I absolutely love Striker!

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on February 08, 2021:

Amazing description of character creation. I would imagine that many writers create stories about people they run across in their daily lives and turn them into a more interesting version of who they really are. It's fascinating to hear you speak of images that you captured as a child which stayed with you over the years. I have one from when I was 4 years old and the chain gang came through to clear a ditch behind the house. Still can hear them singing and the chains rattling.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on February 08, 2021:

Bill, I am in awe of the storytellers, the people who weave a tale and hold the reader spellbound, feeling sad and almost abandoned when the final page is read. You do that with your novels, and the questions in your Mailbag today indicate that you are instilling that gift (or the desire for it) in others as well.

Thank you. The world needs more storytellers.

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