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The Business of Novelization & Tie-Ins Part Three: The Characters

A Question-and-Answer session with some of the top authors writing tie-ins and novelizations today (some of whom, like Keith R.A. DeCandido and Greg Cox, have also worked as editors). For their bios, please visit the About the Authors page.

QUESTION: When you’re writing a tie-in based on a TV series, how much detail do you go into when describing the physical appearance of the characters (particularly in the case of such popular shows as BUFFY, STAR TREK, and CSI? When you write a novelization of a feature film, and you know who the actors are, how much detail do you go into describing the characters? What if you don’t know who the actors are in the parts?

James Reasoner: I’ve noticed something in the more recent tie-ins that I’ve read: there’s very little physical description of the regular characters and not much background about them, either. This is particularly noticeable in the STAR TREK novels I’ve read. The reader is expected to know what Kirk and Picard look like, as well as who they are and many of the details of their characters, before they ever read a word of one of the novels. Which means that somebody who picked up a STAR TREK novel without ever seeing an episode of the TV series might have a hard time figuring out who these people are and what they’re doing. I know, the odds of somebody reading a TV tie-in novel who’s not already a fan of the TV show are probably fairly small, but it must happen sometimes. I think it probably happened more often in the past, when tie-in novels were commissioned before the TV series they were based on ever debuted, in some cases. Which means there were tie-in novels for series that didn’t last very long, like THE OUTSIDER by Lou Cameron and JOHNNY STACCATO by Frank Boyd (Frank Kane).

Lee Goldberg: That said, I can’t remember Robert B. Parker spending any time describing Spenser, Susan or Hawk… nor does Elmore Leonard go into a lot of physical description. Many authors prefer to describe their characters through dialogue and action… to let them be defined by their personalities… and make due with describing only the most general physical features (Tall or short, thin or fat, etc.)

Max Allan Collins: I always put in fairly detailed descriptions of the CSI characters, although the editor and the CBS/CSI folks often cut that back. I know I have a certain number of CSI readers who follow my stuff, and don’t watch the show — not a huge percentage of the readership, but they’re there. Also, a book lacking character descriptions — a book that assumes its readership already knows what it needs to, about the physical characteristics of the people, at least — somehow isn’t a book to me.

The biggest problem I’ve had to work on is cutting any wry, vaguely uncomplimentary descriptions — an early comparison of Jim Brass to a weary bassett hound was cut because the actor might take offense. I once described Horatio Caine as “pasty white” and somehow the description got past everybody and into print…and the actor’s agent complained mightily.

Nowadays, with CSI, I try to do it in a stroke or two, and always flattering. Brass is now “a compact man with short brown hair and a melancholy mein”;”square-jawed, kind-eyed Nick Stokes…a navy blue CSI t-shirt doing its best to contain the former jock’s brawn…”; “Sara, her dark hair tucked under a CSI ball cap…her oval face had a ghostly beauty in the moonlight.” That kinda thing.

Nancy Holder: When I’m writing tie-ins for episodic TV, I usually describe the
characters as they are at that point in continuity. This helps to remind the seasoned viewer/reader/fan where we are in the series. It also serves as a mirror so the newer fan can visualize the characters s/he is still getting to know. I try to key in on certain outfits or changes in hairstyles, for example. This is where talking to the
costumer and makeup-and-hair can be invaluable. If fans are discussing
clothes or hair on a website, I’ll try to use that as a nod to them–to let them feel like part of the community centered around that show. Obviously, in the Whedonverse, Angel’s coat is a big deal. And Willow’s “softer side of Sears” in the early seasons of Buffy, which segued to her “magical” clothes. Mentioning Clark Kent’s blue and red
clothing–just in passing, not in boldface–also keys the reader’s mind to what s/he’s seen on the screen. So to me it’s both a prompt and a reflection. I go light, but I do mention physical appearance so the reader can stay in the story as we go along together. I like to put the “authority” in “author”–so the reader can feel like it’s okay to relax while s/he’s reading this book. I’ll fly the plane so s/he can sit back
and relax.

When I wrote “City Of,” which was a novelization of the premiere episode of ANGEL plus a lot of my own created backstory, I relied on photographs of the actors I had not yet met. Same thing with various seasons of BUFFY. If I don’t know what someone is going to look like, I try to flesh that character out in other ways–by having other characters react to them a little more, giving them some interior monologue–to give them an equal sense of presence in the story.

Bob Greenberger: Since I’m introducing new characters along with the licensed characters, I want to make sure the reader gets a clear idea of what I’m describing. So, if they can picture Captain Picard from my brief sketch, then they are likely to properly visualize the alien du jour in the story. Also, if I only describe the new characters, then it feels like I’m not doing my job by ignoring any descriptive detail of the regulars. Even though I suspect my readers know what the Enterprise crew looks like, it feels like I’m doing my job.

And, as Nancy said, by pegging the description to the television season connected to the novel, readers are more comfortably drawn into the story.

Steve Perry: I haven’t done stuff based on TV series, but I’ve been involved in five movie novelizations — three I wrote or co-wrote, and a couple my daughter did that I read and offered suggestions upon. In most of these, all I (or my daughter) had was a script. We knew who played the main character roles, but that was it. None of the secondary characters had good descriptions, and we didn’t know who they’d cast until we saw the finished movie.

You can describe who you know as much as you want. No problem. It’s who you don’t know that will mess you up.

My daughter did the novelization of TIME COP, and we knew Jean-Claude van Damme was the star, and we actually had dailies showing him. But when the ad for the movie showed up on TV, I called my daughter and we both said simultaneously, “She’s black!” Speaking of a secondary character here. Nothing wrong with the actress being black, but had my daughter described her as having long blond hair and fair skin, probably some readers would have noticed a discrepancy …

In THE MASK, I had Jim Carrey, nobody else. In MEN IN BLACK, I knew Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, but I didn’t know anybody else, and had no idea how big the bug was, nor what it would like like.

Sometimes you get the final draft from which to work, and then eighty percent into your book, you then get the “final final draft” which has altered things considerably. Two of the three I did were that way.

In such cases where you don’t know and can’t find out, better to describe your characters by their attributes and attitudes rather than their physicality. “She was young, and tough-looking, fit, and attractive …” etc.

This comes from the scriptwriter, who has to proceed carefully when s/he writes a screenplay. If you are writing a screenplay and thinking that the guy is Brad Pitt, and they wind up hiring Samuel L. Jackson, best you offer a description that both men can relate to. And good luck. Since the screenwriter seldom knows who is gonna be cast at any level going in, character descriptions must be kept vague. If you describe Clint Eastwood to a farethewell and he passes, you’re screwed. This slops over onto the novelizer, and is just how it is.

Yvonne Navarro: There’s an old quote that I unfortunately can’t attribute to anyone, but it’s a reminder that “every book you write will be the first one of yours that someone reads.” To that end, there is always someone out there who is reading a book in a tie-in series for the first time, and maybe they don’t watch the television show and just picked up the book because it looked interesting. I think you need character description for just those reasons.

QUESTION: It’s one thing to describe a character’s appearance in a tie-in…but how far do you go talking about their histories/backstories?

Lee Goldberg: I believe most authors are restricted in how far they can delve into the characters, unless they are merely re-stating backstory that’s already been revealed on the series. From what I gather, most tie-in authors are expressly forbidden from breaking any new ground…from straying from the established franchise.That makes sense to me (though I can do it as much as I want with my DIAGNSOIS MURDER books and Andy, the MONK showrunner, has given me amazing latitude to do it in the MONK tie-ins).

If a series is currently in production, it’s the showrunner’s perogative to create backstories for the characters, to decide what aspects of their personalities should be explored. My view is that the TV tie-in writer is, in many respects, like a freelancer contributing a script to the series. We shouldn’t start believing the characters belong to us. They don’t.

If we’re talking about a canceled series, the studio has a responsibility to protect the franchise and isn’t likely to let a tie-in writer forge much new ground and stray far beyond the boundaries established in the broadcast episodes. That said, I think the many STAR TREK novels have created a mythology, histories and a time-line that extends beyond that established in the many TV series and movies. But those novels are also closely overseen by the studio licensing department.

I’m lucky with the DIAGNOSIS MURDER novels. Because I was an executive producer and principal writer of the show for many years, I’ve been given complete creative freedom by the studio (which controls the rights and licenses the characters to my publisher). I’ve been delving into the characters in far more depth than most tie-ins are allowed to do. In fact, the fifth DIAGNOSIS MURDER book, THE PAST TENSE, a large chunk of the book is a first-person “flashback” to Dr. Mark Sloan’s very first homicide investigation, allowing me to explore aspects of his personality and his past we never touched on in the TV series.

Max Allan Collins: in the CSI novels, I have frequently explored and fleshed out the backstories — SIN CITY takes Catherine back into the world of strip clubs and former bosses and so on; and BINDING TIES gives Jim Brass a retired partner and a “White Whale” of a murder case that was his first on the Vegas P.D. Obviously such storylines have to be approved (like everything else), but this kind of thing seems not only fair game but a great strategy, because readers love this kind of stuff.

Burl Barer: When writing the novelization of STEALTH, Sony screened the film for me while it was in audio-mix stage prior to USA release. Hence, I knew what the main characters, the rogue UCAV looked like. Jamie Fox, for example, is black. The female star is blond. The plane is big. The plot is thin. The motivation for evil action by Capt. Cummings is non-existant. At the request of the Japanese publisher, I created childhood back-stories for the three protagonists, and stuffed the novel with enough technical detail to even bore Carl Sagen to death if he were not already deceased. Then I had to put plot where there was previously only premise. Happily, SONY and the films director approved of the backstrories AND the plot. Also, there was a tremendous “plot hole” (premise hole?) in the film regarding the dynamic character change of the UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle). That was not difficult to fill — my only concern was having it approved. No problem.

Max Allan Collins wrote the excellent novel of MAVERICK, while I did the MAKING OF tie-in that also contained a “narrative summary” of the film. I dont have Max’s book here, and I don’t recall if he had to re-write the novel to remove the Linda Hunt character who was cut from the film entirely. At the last minute, the narrative summary was rewritten to match the movie , but I was writing scenes that were being shot as I was writing — I didn’t really know what they were doing; I just had to make my best guess as to what I would shoot if I were doing the reshoot. Happily, my guess was the same as director Richard Donner’s.

J Steven York: It’s difficult to write about characters that can’t be changed and can’t significantly be further revealed. But there are tricks.

One approach is simply to reaffirm what is already known about the character. Take some established trait or bit of history and expand on that as theme. Have the character try to change it, and fail, realizing ultimately that it is part of who they are. Have it challenged or threatened by some outside force, then finally rescued and reaffirmed. Or use what is known to tie them thematically into an outside storyline or character introduced just for the book. All of these allow for a fair amount of room to dance around with story, while allowing for a total reset at the end.

I also find it useful to introduce a secondary character or two who does grow or change significantly during the book, in order to provide some color and keep it from being too static.

But it’s always more fun when you can change things, and establish precedent. That’s why working with Keith De Candido on the STAR TREK SCE books was fun. Those characters are allowed to change and grow. There are still restrictions, and of course, Keith is God in deciding what goes and what doesn’t, but you’ve got plenty of rope to hang yourself with.

Likewise, when Keith was doing the Marvel books at Byron Preiss, the series of books had its own little dead-end alley of continuity that added some amusement to the task. There was some contractual reason, for instance, that the Marvel spy-agency SHIELD couldn’t be used, so the books had their own counterpart. And because it was a dead-end piece of continuity that wouldn’t tie back to the comics, you could establish things about that agency that never would have been allowed with SHIELD.

Another trick some of us used on that line, was to mine really obscure and forgotten characters and bits of continuity. Several of us adopted an obscure character named Razorback. He was an attempt to cash-in on the CB craze, and appeared in a couple issues of Spider-Man comics back in the 70s, and a couple issues of She-Hulk much later on, and that was it. He talked in CB-lingo, wore a huge Boar’s head as a helmet (his face stuck out of the mouth!), and drove a semi-truck. So we could get away with a lot with him, because nobody cared. Much.

But even then, Marvel did put their foot down occasionally. I used Razorback in a plotline where he enjoys a brief surge of fame, and is presented with an opportunity to “out” himself as a mutant (his lame-o mutant power is the ability to drive pretty much anything, from a tricycle to a space-shuttle) and help the cause of mutant rights. I had him call a radio call-in show and do just that. But Marvel apparently thought that was too much of a change, and wouldn’t allow it. So I altered it so that he’s THINKING about calling into the show, but doesn’t decide to do it on camera. Given the way the character is painted, I think it’s pretty clear that he will, but it isn’t for-sure established, so it was okay with them, and still made for a good ending to the book.

That’s a long way to go, but the technique could work in a TV tie-in as well. You could probably get away with fleshing out the story of the guy who delivers pizza in episode 5 and is never seen again. If the scene is memorable, the fans may even love you for it.

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