In the majority of cases, the characters are usually what make or break a story for me. I could be reading something with lots of suspense and intrigue, but if the characters are made of cardboard, I’m not going to care much about them and therefore won’t care much about the story itself and what happens to them. On the other hand, if the characters are well-developed and interesting, it’s easier to overlook a mediocre plot because I’m totally focused on the lives of these [totally fictional] people and I get invested in them.
Of course, the best-case scenario would be to just find a book that has a great plot AND great characters 😉 But unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.
My books still have few enough reviews on Goodreads that it’s easy for me to tell when someone new adds one to their TBR list or marks it as Currently Reading. I’d been getting a little nervous because someone had had Dakiti marked as Currently Reading for over a month, which, in my mind, meant they either hated it and stopped reading or didn’t have time to read it consistently (Lord knows that’s happened to me a few times). It turned out to be the latter. I finally noticed this morning that this guy had marked it as “read,” and he had included a status (rather than a review, which might be a good thing) that said: “I didn’t have time to read this book consistently, so got confused about who was who, and I never really cared about the characters.” Of course that bummed me out a little, because in my opinion, the characters are what make this series. But I totally understand, and I’ve experienced this myself; if I’m not able to devote the proper amount of attention to a book, I can’t connect with the characters and end up struggling with the whole story.
That’s why I want to give a shout-out to all my readers who have taken the time to get invested in my characters. Honestly, the opportunity to share these people with someone outside my head was a huge factor in my decision to publish in the first place (they’d been locked up in there for WAY too long!). So when I get a text or a tweet or an email or a review from someone who loved the characters, it definitely makes me feel like this was all worth it. Sometimes, you guys have insights about these characters that I didn’t even consider when I was writing them! Stuff like that is a lot of fun for me, and I always welcome your thoughts as readers.
Anyway, as I’m working on Ronan: Ziva Payvan Book 3 and dealing with close to ten years’ worth of character development, I think about these wonderful reviews
the characters the books are getting and I find myself very glad the characters have turned out the way they have. There were certain changes made and elements added throughout development, and if those things hadn’t happened, we definitely wouldn’t be seeing the same Ziva, Aroska, Skeet, and Zinni we see today. Ergo, without further ado, I’d like to share a little bit of background information re: the development of my characters with you all.
Meet Ziva Payvan
Name Inspiration: I’ve mentioned a couple of times that Ziva came about right around the time Ziva David was introduced on NCIS. I loved the name and the character, so I borrowed it for my own character since she was meant to just be a temporary filler character in a couple of scenes. The last name “Payvan” didn’t come until quite awhile after; as small as her role was, she didn’t really need a last name. It ended up being based on Canadian volleyball player Sarah Pavan (PAH-van). The commentators mispronounced her name as PAY-van once and it was the first thing that came to mind when I was eventually trying to come up with a last name.
First Appearance: Back in junior high, a couple of my friends had created their own Star Wars characters and had begun role-playing via AOL instant messaging. They finally convinced me to join their little game, and I just used Leia as my character since their story took place during the Rebellion Era. We would take the transcripts from our chats and type them up into a more story-like format. For a particular scene, I needed another character to confront one of my friends’ characters, so I threw “Ziva” together for that scene with no intention of ever taking her any further.
Development: Obviously she did go further. There at the beginning, everything – appearance, personality – was based on the NCIS Ziva. She had dark brown wavy hair (the red streaks were there, although at that point I don’t think they were natural) and carried around this nasty-looking vibro axe that she used more for intimidation than actually fighting. We continued our crazy Star Wars story, and Ziva appeared in it for awhile longer before I decided she needed her own world, culture, and backstory.
There was a commercial that aired back then for an LG television, and it featured this girl with red eyes. I found that quite fascinating and decided Ziva was going to have red eyes. I wanted her to be tall, but I thought being 6’5″ as a human was a little unrealistic, at least for the story (don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of human women who are 6’5″ and taller…Sarah Pavan is one of them). That was when I decided she needed to be part of a different humanoid species that was naturally that tall. The name “Haphez” was one of those things that just came to me, and it was actually referenced in the story fairly soon after Ziva was introduced. I have to admit I’ve never liked the name all that much, and “Haphezian” is sort of a mouth full, but by that time I was past the point of no return in terms of getting it out of my head. So, alas, I’m still using it today.
The full extent of her abilities as a Haphezian weren’t really examined until I plucked her out of that co-op story and started building her a world of her own. I started out with a series of short stories, experimenting with scenery and environments and secondary characters. I have to admit that it’s only been a couple years since I really felt like I’d turned her into the character I wanted her to be. I think I’ve finally figured out who she is. She’s incredibly messed up and has about a million things wrong with her, but that’s part of the fun of writing her. And at this point, I’ve been writing her long enough that it all comes really naturally to me.
Meet Skeet Duvo
Name Inspiration: It seems like I was originally going to call him “Skeeter” – somehow it just seemed fitting for the general appearance I’d come up with for his character. But I thought Skeeter sounded too juvenile or nickname-ish so I shortened it to Skeet. Part of it was probably hearing of actor Skeet Ulrich back when the show Jericho first aired. The last name “Duvo” was one of those things where I was trying to come up with a quick last name and it was the first thing I thought of. Like Haphez, I’ve always sort of hated it, but it stuck.
First Appearance: Skeet first appeared in a random little scene I wrote where Ziva returns to Haphez after being away for something like seven years and goes to her [former] teammates for help with a mission. Skeet had become a mechanic and was busy fixing an old aircar when she found him. The scene was mostly an experiment to see how the two of them would interact. That’s how I usually start off when I’ve created a general concept for a character – I insert them into a scene and just write what comes to me, and if I don’t like how the character is coming across, I go back and fix them.
Development: Skeet’s story isn’t as long as Ziva’s, because by the time I finished creating her I had a better idea of what I wanted. Back in the day I played quite a bit of Lego Star Wars whenever I could get my hands on my sister’s Nintendo DS. You could create up to three custom characters – I started out by creating one that was as close to Ziva as I could get, and eventually I started messing with the other two. There was a certain head that was wearing a white helmet and had orange hair sticking out from under it. The face was sort of smirking, almost cocky, and when I used it on my custom character he struck me as being one of those classic semi-comedic sidekick characters. That was right around the time that I started branching out on my own and writing things independent of my friends’ story, so I decided he could be one of Ziva’s friends.
The little scene where he first appeared came shortly after. That was when I first got the idea that each member of the Haphezian race would have a different “color.” At first he was just supposed to have really red hair, so red it was nearly orange, but then I decided it would be orange. He’s actually got a black splotch on the back of his head, so it’s like his streaks are inverted (this is touched on briefly toward the beginning of Dakiti). And that’s when I really started doing some major world-building and developing the Haphezian culture and their rules.
For the most part though, Skeet has stayed true to his original purpose. He’s that loyal sidekick character who is just as capable as the (anti)hero(ine), but he’s easier-going and helps balance out the team when Ziva is so cranky all the time. He’s one of those characters that can always be relied upon, from both a story and writing perspective. Just recently, I was working on Ronan and I knew of a scene I would need to include, but I wasn’t sure whose POV to use. Introducing an entirely new character wouldn’t have worked, and it was too late in the story to turn someone into a new POV character, so I threw Skeet into the scene just to see what would happen. He ended up shining and I’m really pleased with how the scene turned out. That has happened a couple of times now; he’s my go-to guy if I’m struggling, and he can always be expected to perform.
Meet Zinni Vax
Name Inspiration: I keep telling people – it’s amazing how many things from this series were actually inspired by my cats. My sister’s cat’s name is Jenny, and I often pronounce it “Dzinny” when I’m loving on her. It eventually morphed into “Zinni” and I decided I wanted to use it for a character. I made it short for “Zinnarana” (I wanted something long and annoying) only after I decided the character would be female. Like Duvo, “Vax” is another example of something I made up on the fly. Again, I don’t care for it, but there’s not much I can do about it at this point 😉
First Appearance: Zinni first appeared in the same scene as Skeet – she was dressed in some greasy coveralls and went to open a secret cabinet full of explosives when Ziva arrived and announced she needed help. This is where I got the idea that she’d kind of be the witty hacker/demolitions specialist-type character. She has become a little bit more dry and cynical than she used to be, but overall she’s the same basic character as she was in that original scene.
Development: Like Skeet, Zinni originated from Lego Star Wars. She was the third custom character, although at the time she was actually male — no joke. She was essentially the same person: dark hair, blue color, short, and spunky. She was designed to be that not-so-important sidekick who often stays behind to man the computer and handle logistics. Think Mike “Spike” Scarlatti from Flashpoint here. For anyone unfamiliar with the show, Spike is a member of an elite strategic response team but he’s more of a demolitions and computer expert. While he’s perfectly capable of doing the things the rest of the team does, he often stays in the van with the computer and gives directions over comm. And whenever there’s a bomb that needs to be defused, he’s the guy. Zinni’s concept was around way before I ever saw Flashpoint, but Spike is a perfect example of the kind of character I had in mind when I started developing her.
I can’t remember when or why I decided to actually make her a girl; obviously it was before I started writing her. I think I thought the personality she’d developed would be more suitable for a female character. I often look at concept art of her and think “Awww, baby Zinni is so tiny and adorable” and then I remember she’s a Haphezian and it’s all relative. In my head, she’s always been 5’9″, but she looks so small compared to the other characters.
I often feel bad because she has sort of gotten the short end of the stick in terms of role size in the stories, but like Skeet, she’s one of those characters who can be relied on to carry a scene if I get stuck. She’s a lot more laid back than Ziva but no less professional for it. Her role in Ronan may be her biggest yet, not just in terms of number of POV chapters but also in terms of significance in the plot.
I still think she’s super cute, even though she’s only an inch shorter than me and could probably kill me with her bare hands ❤
Meet Aroska Tarbic
Name Inspiration: I’m pretty sure “Aroska” was just one of those names I thought of off the top of my head. I keep a list in my phone and the back of my notebook for when that happens – sometimes I’ll think of a word or a similar name that I could change to my liking, and this was one of them. It was meant to be sort of a unisex name, usable for either a male or female character, but in the end I thought it had sort of a harsh sound that was more suitable for a man. It took me awhile to come up with “Tarbic” – when I’m coming up with last names, I try to think of ones that have opposing vowel sounds. So, where Aroska has that short O in the middle, Tarbic has that I, and I thought the differing pronunciations sounded nice together.
First Appearance: Aroska first appeared in one of those Random Little Scenes where the director had called in several of HSP’s top agents to do a shooting demonstration for the Royal Officer. At the time, he was the lieutenant of the Beta special-ops team, rather than Alpha field-ops which is what he is at the beginning of Dakiti. I think he only had like two lines of dialogue in the entire scene, but it really helped to “see” him for the first time so I could get a better idea of what I wanted to do with him as a character.
Development: I’ve saved him for last here because not only is he the newest of the four main protagonists, but he has also by far been the hardest in terms of figuring out exactly who I want his character to be. In early drafts of a story that got scrapped, he was the soft-spoken but capable leader of the Beta team who was hunting Ziva after she supposedly killed one of his teammates (the story essentially combined the Dakiti and Nexus we know today). When I started writing Dakiti, he was sort of a loner who had had everything taken from him and wanted desperately to get in on the action in order to exact his revenge on the people who had hurt him. He was also sort of Ziva’s secret admirer. I thought I liked all of this, but after I got a little ways into the plot, I felt like there was something missing. The element of his brother’s death was there, but it seemed pointless at the time. I went back and re-wrote the beginning from his perspective, but that still didn’t help. It was like I had jumped into the plot too fast and hadn’t taken the time to establish his relationships with the rest of the characters. There was a lot of telling and not enough showing. I don’t remember when I actually came up with the idea of having Ziva be the one who’d killed Soren, but I took that and ran with it. I went back and started the entire story from scratch, still using Aroska’s perspective in the beginning. I like it a lot better because it takes more time to introduce him as a character and define his relationship with Ziva and the others. And that relationship has ended up being MUCH more pivotal than I had ever planned.
I honestly hadn’t meant to use him again after Dakiti, except for maybe a couple of minor roles here and there, but I ended up liking him so much that I decided to keep him around. In Dakiti, he sort of got caught up in the whirlwind of the plot and dragged along behind my other characters, so I’ve made sure to really delve into his character in the sequels. I stuck with some of his original elements and made it so he’s lost a lot during his life and feels sort of out of place, so he tries to make up for all of that with “material things” like drinking and women. What he really wants though is a purpose, and he thinks he’s finally found one as he gets involved with Ziva and her team, regardless of their rather rocky history.
Because he was the “new secondary character” originally introduced for Dakiti, I always felt weird about putting him in the spotlight. The story was about Ziva, Skeet, and Zinni, and I didn’t want to take anything away from them. At the same time, I really wanted to dive further into the backstory with Soren and explore the relationship between only Ziva and Aroska. But I always had a rule for myself that once I’d finished a story, I wasn’t allowed to go back and mess with it anymore. Deciding to publish ended up being such a blessing in that sense, because I could let myself make changes and tweak it to where it fit that new criteria. Skeet and Zinni still play major parts, but this is very much Ziva and Aroska’s story now, and I couldn’t be happier.
In a lot of ways, he’s the real hero of this story, not Ziva. Her goal is merely to solve problems – his goal is to actually do the galaxy some good. He ends up sort of helping her find/remember her “humanity” (so to speak) and their interactions never cease to entertain me.
Got questions or comments about these characters? What about some of the other characters from the series? I’d love to hear them!