How Well Do You Know Your Characters?

September 23, 2013


Character Development was the topic of a discussion I was having with a group of writers. I went through a general list of things I run up against when reading manuscripts – things that make my teeth itch. Things like:

  • React vs. Proact: Main character spends more time reacting to situations than proacting – being in control. This makes your main character disappear into the wallpaper.
  • Cliche: The cop who drinks and smokes too much, his apartment is always messy, and he’s divorced. Really? Why are there no healthy, happy, clean cops in these stories? Cliche characters is sloppy writing.
  • Weak supporting cast: Sometimes authors employ a weak supporting cast in order to elevate their main character. The result is a flat story. You need a strong supporting cast in order to have something solid for your main character to play off of.
  • Cause and Effect: If your intent is that your main character is viewed in a certain way, then you need to writer her that way. If she’s well respected, then she can’t be a dimwit who finger-curls her hair and says, “yanno” a lot. The dim bulb can’t be the Ivy League magna cum laude. If they are, then it has to be fully explained. Readers won’t go from Point A, to Point B and C unless you logically and artfully take them there.
  • Why Him/Her?: Your main character is your main character for a reason, which means they have some kind of trait(s) that are worthy of exploration, and is solely unique to this character. After all, anyone can save the world from that giant Twinkie, so why is Roger Ramjet the lucky one to do the honors? What makes him the only character to solve this problem?
  • Lack of a Personality: If you’ve chosen Roger Ramjet, then you need to give him a personality worthy of being up to this particular sequence of events. He’s gotta be real, with a personality we can touch. What kinds of quirks do they have? What are they afraid of?
  • Evolution: Characters who don’t evolve aren’t real. You know that saying about how no one gets out of this life alive…well, we don’t get out of this life unchanged, either. Characters who don’t change aren’t characters we can care about. If Margie is as dumb as box of rocks at the beginning and remains so at the end, then lots of readers will toss Margie against a wall and quit reading.

So all these things we talked about boiled down to one thing: How well do you know your characters? Many insisted they knew their characters very well, but then I asked how they felt their characters had evolved, I saw some thoughtful expressions. I asked why they chose THIS particular character to star in their stories, and saw some thoughtful expressions.

One author mentioned how she had killed off one of her characters and that he sat on the couch and told her all the reasons he should remain in the book. Ok, we realize that writers are the only people who can read that and not insist that little men in white coats carry them away, away, away….

After that experience, the author began to journal each character in her books, in each character’s POV.

I heard angels sing and watched a shaft sunlight blast through the clouds. What a brilliant idea. I know it’s not a new one, but it had been years since I’d heard it, and I thought this would be a good reminder to all you wonderful people.

And yeah, this goes for you nonfiction writers as well.

I see too many stories where I don’t feel the writer knows their characters well enough, and the result is lifeless, flat things that I don’t care about. A journal in your characters’ POV forces them to unveil themselves to you. You may realize things about them that you’d never thought of. This may be information you don’t plan on using…but you never know.

For example, I write bios for all my characters, and I ended up using some of the goofier traits here and there to add color and dimension to my characters. I do that to make sure those characters are as real as my fleshy friends.

And let’s face it, if you don’t have wonderful, rich characters, your book will probably fall apart. If the characters are fabulous, then I’ll follow them anywhere – even into the dentist’s office. But you can only attain that fabulosity if you know them really, really well.

Character Clichés – “Make Like a Tree and Get Outta Here”

September 4, 2013

I flew out to So Cal last week from the ‘Burg to see my adorable niece get married. As I got my seatbelt buckled, I noticed about three separate families with tiny babies, and another group of 45 kids get on the plane. Insert inward groan here. I’ve been on flights where I wished for a speedy death from a screeching baby, so the sight of all these mini-humans had my inner dialog sounding something like this: “1…2…20…25…gah! Look at all those walking hormones! On MY plane! Please, Benevolent Cosmic Muffin, just kill me now. Don’t make me wrestle the flight attendant for a rusty butter knife – even though I think I could totally take her…”

I had an overwhelming desire to dig my fingernails into my cerebral hard drive. Face it, we don’t real high expectations from a group of ‘tweeners, right? Well, the joke was on me. They were adorable…even the babies. I practically danced off the plane when it landed 5.5 hours later.

What I did is give in to a cliche. I made assumptions based on previous experiences, and gave no consideration that there could be any other outcome. We normally see ‘tweens as alien creatures whose breathtaking toxicity tarnish everything they come into contact with. We expect it.

As writers, we can sometimes fall prey to cliches, and it makes for boring, lifeless writing. The divorced, chain-smoking, messy detective; the airhead cheerleader; the dumb jock; the prudish/strict/scary teacher; the romance story clumsy female protag; the angry, resentful teen, the blushing bride…the list goes on forever.

Readers don’t want the expected because, well, they’ve seen it before. Lots of times. Readers are smart, and they want the unexpected. They want to be pleasantly surprised. They want twists. Nothing gooses my gander more than to finish a book saying, “Wow, awesome characters –  a welcome change from the typical run-of-the-mill.”

Take a look at your characters. Are they people you’ve read before, or do they have dimension? The cop/detective doesn’t have to be a divorced, chain smoking slob. He could be the fastidious type who’s borderline obsessive compulsive. Think of what that trait did for Monk. The idea is to think outside the box when it comes to your characters. They are the most important element of your story, so you have to make them leap off the page.

Take time with your characters, avoid the cliches. It’s the first thing that will cause an agent or editor to deep six a project. Now go out and be brilliant.

Read With Intention

October 25, 2012

I was giving a seminar on character development last weekend, and I mentioned using dialog as a cool way to show your character rather than tell your character. What I mean is this:

Telling your character:

Jane was the quirky sort who looked at the world through a skewed lens. She was on a few degrees off plumb.

On the face of it, the sentence is fine, but what if her dialog never reveals these characteristics? Then I have no choice but to take your word for it; and I won’t.

Here’s an example of showing your character through dialog: 

“What’s the fun of attending this stuffy tea if we can’t have a little fun? I say we spike the teapot with cheap gin and watch those university wives get down with the funk. With a little bit of luck, they’ll hike up their skirts and splash about the marble fountain. It’d be the most fun they’ve had since having their braces removed.”

The dialog makes the first example sentence (tell) unnecessary. The reader already has it figured out that the character is a few degrees off plumb.

I always appreciate authors who show rather than tell because this adds an extra layer to character development. You’re getting the idea across about your character by letting her speak, rather than giving your readers a menu. As I always say, you can tell me something ’til the cows come home, but until you show me, well…I’d rather go cow tipping.

The author in my seminar asked about what books I could recommend that had “intentional dialog” – dialog that accomplishes the two-part goal of imparting information and showing some character development. Oboy…what books? There are a gajillion books out there that can teach writers all kinds of cool writing tips.

The trick is to read with intention. If you’re looking for cool dialog, read with the intent of analyzing effective dialog. For example, I patterned my dialog after John Lescroart because I love the delicious banter he creates for his two main characters in his Dismas Hardy series. He makes me laugh and keeps me turning the pages. Moreover, I care about the characters. So when I first started writing, I kept a close eye on how he developed his dialog. I figured out what I liked about his dialog is that it’s dry, minimalist, and witty.

I thought about all kinds of books I’ve read and loved the way the authors’ dialog worked toward character development, but I ended up unable to give him a definitive answer because I have no idea what he’s really looking for. Just because I love something doesn’t mean it’ll float someone else’s boat.

If you’re looking to enhance your writing, you need look no further than the books you love to read. Figure out the specifics of why you love the stories so much. Why do you love the characters? What methods did the author use to develop those characters so they leap off the page? Looking for plot structure or pacing? Examine how your favorite authors do it.

Go to your bookshelf and read with intent. After all, those who have come before us are brilliant and have kept our attention into favorite author status, so analyze the tricks they employed to capture your attention. It’s a lot cheaper than writing classes and How To books, no?

REact and PROact – developing your character

October 22, 2012

I spoke about character development this past weekend at the Florida Writer’s Conference, and part of my talk involved analyzing whether your main character has earned his/her Head Kahuna status, or whether she’s playing the wet booger. To whit, I pulled this post out of mothballs for a dust off.

originally posted 2/2011

I happened to be working on my book the other week and hit a stalemate. Nothing was working. What was wrong? I decided I was bored with my main character. She’s a saucy thing, and I felt she’d become dull and lifeless – much like my attempts at baking. Distressed, I walked away from the book for a bit so I could analyze the problem. At two 0′clock that next morning it hit me.

My MC was reacting to everything, and not proacting. What I mean by this is that she was reacting to situations going on around her rather than making something happen. I told her under no uncertain terms that if she was going to maintain Big Kahuna status, then she needed to be proactive. Ever the tart, she told me to get off my lower forty and write her that way. Wench.

But she’s right, of course. I do need to pull her out of her reactive role and allow her to do what she does best – take charge. Whether she’s observing her surroundings or involved in a big scene, she needs to be the proactive, driving force behind it. The minute I allow her to lose her star status, the story drags, and she becomes part of the background…definitely not her style.

Mind you, I’m not talking about my MC being the absolute star of every scene, but writing her so that she’s the focal point – even if she’s being quietly proactive. What I mean by that is that she’s still actively involved in the scene even though the current focus is somewhere else. For example, I need to describe the exotic settings because it’s integral to the story – and I need the reader to see it through her eyes.

It’s frightfully easy to fall into the trap of tell vs. show, as in:

Example 1:

She saw the jungle unfold around her, revealing a vast array of greens and yellows that she never knew existed. She walked past giant flowers and leaves.

Notice how the focal point is on the scenery? It’s ok, but a whole diet of “she saw” is dull and lifeless because she’s simply reacting to the scene by taking a backseat to the setting. So I rewrote it, using dialog, in order to make her proactive – and more in control of the scene:

Example 2:

Stepping into the clearing, the jungle unfolded around her, revealing a brilliant pallet of colors. She sucked in an unconscious breath. “Whoa. So this is what Picasso’s paintings would have looked like if he was on crack.” She fingered a flower whose deep red hues shimmered when it touched the sun’s rays. “I’ve never seen colors like this. They’re so vibrant, my eyes hurt. Tell me this isn’t poisonous, okay?”

And this is a bit of what I’ve noticed in submissions. The character is described in a query letter as having wonderful qualities, but upon reading pages, I notice how they repeatedly get lost within a scene.

If a writer isn’t paying attention, plot twists or scenes can take over and shove the MC against the wall. This puts them into the observer role. It’s one thing to observe a setting or situation and be a wallflower, and quite another to actively observe. And our characters do need to observe all kinds of things. How they do it is what turns them into reactive or proactive.

An effective way to keep your character proactive is through dialog or inner dialog because you’re keeping them front and center. The reader stays in their head, and this gives the character automatic control over the scene, no matter how big it is. And it also adds dimension to your character because we have a better feel for their thought processes. Example 2 (above) shows you that the character has some spit to her…something the reader wouldn’t have gotten had I stuck with Example 1.

Remember, the current story is taking place because something happened “offscreen” that initiated your character’s involvement, so those main characters are the vehicle that propel the plot. They gotta be proactive and own the story. It’s the difference between enjoying a book and tossing it against the wall.

The Dangling Carrot and Character Development

October 17, 2012

I ran this post last year, and I thought I’d run it again, since I’m giving this seminar at the Florida Writer’s Conference this weekend.

Since we specialize memoir/biography, I am regularly humbled by people’s experiences and how they had to dig deep to overcome whatever experiences unexpectedly entered their lives. It’s like the Cosmic Muffin looked down and said, “Ok, see that huge pile of goo I just dumped in your lap? Deal with it.”

We never really know what we’re made of until we face that pile of goo. Some people fold like a bad poker hand, and others rise to the occasion and become better/stronger/more thoughtful people for their experiences. These kinds of people don’t know they have the strength within them until they are tested to the limits. Many of have to gain those abilities along the way in order to overcome or push through their experience. Hardship and challenges are the great separator of the wheat and chaff. I love hearing the “wheat” stories.

I thought about those elements that make for great nonfiction and how they play into the character development of fiction. We all know that characters are the vehicles used to unfold the plot, so it goes to reason that these characters need to be three-dimensional in order to maintain our interest. I read a lot of manuscripts, and the biggest problem I see is with character development. They are flat, colorless things,which makes me think the author doesn’t know their characters well enough.

The Dangling Carrot may be an important feature to helping you give your characters a few extra layers and, therefore, a lot more interest and dimension. I’ve separated The Dangling Carrot into three distinct elements.

The Dangling Carrot – three part symphony

The Dangling Carrot is something waves right in front of your face, but it’s out of your reach. The harder you run to grab it, the more frustrated you become because it’s always just beyond your grasp. The only option left to you is to develop new skills in order to nab that dang carrot. You might have to test out a few ideas before you find the one that helps you achieve your goal.

So here’s how that normally plays out:

1)  Your character’s current life:  When we meet your character, he/she is rolling along with his/her life, la dee da.

2)  Holy shock, Batman!:  While your character is innocently moving through his life, something comes along to test/challenge/frighten/influence him. This event, which is your plot, dangles in front of him and upends his world.

3)  “Do I have what it takes?”:   The carrot forces your character to dig deeply into their souls to obtain/overcome/destroy/resolve the plot. The problem is the character doesn’t have the skills to overcome the obstacles facing him, and this forces him to draw upon a strength they didn’t realize they possessed. The act of denying your character of the skills in which to overcome the plot makes for a much richer story because the character is playing off the plot.

What moves the story along is the character’s journey of growth and maturation to meet this new demand because there are numerous choices the character can make that will influence the outcome.  Your character(s) has to rise to the occasion in order to achieve their goal, or they’ll fail. The lovely byproduct is that the character is changed forever, which is your “riding off into the sunset” moment, be it tragic or happy.

Even Superman has his Kryptonite, so absent the clear view of elements 1, 2, and 3, you create a disconnect that pulls your reader out of the story. I’ve found that if writers adhere to the Dangling Carrot, they are forced to delve more deeply into the psyches of their characters’ backstories. It’s an important consideration because I see far too many stories where I feel the author doesn’t really know their characters, that they sprung to life on page 1…which really isn’t the case.

Our characters have a backstory just like we do. They have baggage, fears, and Kryptonite. Your job is to have that clearly defined in your mind when you start to develop your characters. Otherwise, they could be lifeless gobs of goo that I don’t care about…the characters, that is, not the authors!

If you consider the three elements of the Dangling Carrot when you’re creating your characters and the structure of your story, it might be the difference of a ho-hum story to a “Stop the margaritas, beagle, I gotta have that story!”

Make your characters leap off the page

April 30, 2012

One of the things I look for in a book – be fiction or nonfiction – are characters that leap off the page. It’s an element of writing that can’t be overlooked. After all, if your characters are dull, one-dimensional- lifeless things, then it’ll be harder to become engaged in the plot. It’s also one of the big reasons I reject a book. I’ve talked a lot about character development over the years, so I thought I’d toss in a few more key elements to the mix.

If you’re worried that your characters aren’t all they could be, maybe they’re missing these:

Backstory – Stuff That Happened Off Camera

I’ve talked about Backstory a few times and how this little lovely can bog down a story with the same effect as the beagle after too many pitchers of margaritas. The same can be said for characters. However, used with care, backstory can give your character a delicious level of page leapage (totally made that up).

Your characters (real or imagined) didn’t just pop into your story. They are there for a reason, and that’s because something happened off camera that brought them to this point – a trigger point. What is it? Let’s take two examples – one fiction, one nonfiction.


I’m noodling around with a story where the protagonist opens a romance publishing company whose authors are five saucy ladies in their 70s and one very reluctant John Grisham-type character who’s working through his issues of writing on auto-pilot after twenty-something bestsellers.

The backstory is that Twist, the protag, was a talented and successful advertising wiz who discovers her partner is stealing her ideas and selling them to the highest bidder. She makes a splashy Custer’s Last Stand by flipping him the bird and exposing him at a woo-hoo advertising banquet in his honor, after which she sells her portion of the business for a hefty profit, sells her apartment in NY, and beats feet for a permanent hiatus from the rat race to Palm Springs, where she plans on writing a book. That’s the trigger point.

Sure, I could just leap in with the current story, but those colorful events that took place off camera add richness and dimension to the main character. Giving some backstory as to what brought my character this point helps the reader understand the decisions she makes and the kind of personality she has. Absent the backstory, the reader would have to just take my word for it. With the backstory, the reader understands and appreciates the decisions – and the trouble – the protagonist makes for herself and her authors.

What are the trigger points to your novel?


Chris Baughman wrote an amazing book, Off the Street, which focuses on a horrific human trafficking case he spearheaded and solved through his unique detective techniques. It would be an understatement to suggest Chris is passionate about saving women, and it would leave readers wondering what fuels that hard-charging drive, had he not gone into some backstory about his own youth.

Chris’ backstory reveals being a kid, living in the projects and having an innocent view of his surroundings where magic was around every corner. It was shattered one day while playing at his friend’s house when a man broke down the door and beat up the friend’s mother, taking all her money and tossing her out into the street – all because she tried to get out of the prostitution world. The man, who was her pimp, had other ideas.

The shock of the incident and helping his friend wipe the blood off his mother’s face and body, tore the blinders from his face, and he never again saw his neighborhood as the magical, ideal home. He saw the ugliness and brutality where women were beaten and killed, and it fueled the man he grew into. It is a hugely powerful backstory that communicates the passion Chris carries in his heart every day. Because you know what happened to Chris’ off camera, his trigger point, you understand what fuels him, and you cheer him on to break the animal that you see “on camera.”

Used with intent and care, Backstory rounds out a character.

How well do you know your character?

I find that many writers don’t know their characters all that well. They don’t know their backstories because they don’t go back far enough to really get to know them as real life people, their trigger points that brought them to the current story. Instead, writers get centered on a plot and stick in the characters in order to project the plot. Characters – real of fictional – aren’t chess pieces that you blithely pick up and move around. There has to be a logical reason for your characters to act the way they do. And that comes from knowing them as well as you know your best friend.

For example, I came up with the publisher story because I needed an example of plot for a seminar I was doing at a writer’s conference, so the idea of knowing my characters wasn’t part of the plan. People kept asking me if it was a real book and where could they buy it. Hah. So it got me to thinking maybe there was something more to this silly plot. First thing I needed to do is get to know my key players better.

  • Who are they?
  • What brought them to this point where the story begins?
  • What kind of personalities do they have?
  • What are their pluses and flaws (no one likes a Barbie or Ken)?

What to use, what to lose

The worry is often, “How far back do I need to go?” My answer would be, as far as you need to in order to fully understand your character as well as you understand your best friend. There is no magic bullet.

After I fully understand and know my protagonist, I have to analyze what parts of the backstory to use and what to lose. There will be elements of my character’s backstory that aren’t relevant to the story, but they’re just as important to me on a writerly level because the more I understand her, the more rounded I can write her.

It’s exactly like research. When I wrote my novel, Donovan’s Paradigm, I researched various aspects of the medical community (and medicine, in general) for nearly a year. I interviewed women surgeons in order to get a feel for their challenges, and I interviewed a chief of surgery in order to understand the decision-making process and how much power that position wields. In the end, I used a fraction of all the compiled research. A fraction. But I had a lot of doc readers ask what kind of medicine I practice. That’s research.

The more I knew, the more I knew what I could leave out. It’s the same with your characters. It may not be important that your character has a weakness for Twinkies, but you can use that little bit to round out a scene and add a measure of banter. If you didn’t know your character well enough, you will have missed that opportunity. Sure, it’s a small thing, but it’s also something the reader will remember. When Donovan’s Paradigm came out, I received a few boxes of Twinkies in the mail, which totally cracked me up.

And that’s what you want to do: leave an impression.

Fully researching your character will leave readers with a lasting impression.


I love dialog (inner dialog included) because it’s the only way the reader can see the character clearly. You can narrate ’til the cows come home, but unless you hear them speak, they remain one-dimensional.  It’s all about communication, and it’s gotta be real. Too often, I see the exact opposite.

Dialog is the writer’s opportunity to reveal the soul and guts of their characters, and so many don’t take advantage of this. I hear all the time, “I suck at writing dialog,” and I don’t understand this. Ostensibly, we all interact with people, so what’s not to get? Even I escape my batcave to walk among the living, and I’m forced to actually speak.

If you speak, then how is it so hard to do this for your characters? And yet, I see this all the time. If your dialog is mundane and wooden, your characters won’t be memorable.

What makes you sit up and take interest:

“I’m going to the beach.”

“I’m going to hit the beach and french fry my skin into something the Golden Arches would envy.”

“I’m so sad.”

“Every crevice of my soul aches.”

Dialog is a valuable tool to expose your character’s soul.

So if you’re having trouble making your characters leap off the page, maybe you will find help with getting to know your characters, creating a backstory, and working on their dialog. Now go out and be brilliant!

Relationships – it’s gotta make sense

November 14, 2011

An old friend of mine (old, as in I’ve known her since high school, not wrinkly old) told me she was dating a guy we both knew in high school. My first instinct was to gag up my margarita. The guy was a tool bag, someone we hated, someone we loved talking about much we hated.

I considered that my friend may have submitted to a lobotomy at some point post-graduation and this was the reason for her sudden change of heart. Well, okay, thirty-seven years out of high school isn’t exactly sudden, but this guy was I-hate-you-for-life material.

In a word, it didn’t make sense. There was no context in which to understand this relationship without some serious ‘splainin’ from my friend. And this lack of context is something I’ve been seeing of late in the manuscripts that have crossed my desk. Memoirs can be especially vulnerable because it’s hard for an author to step outside of their own skin to adequately describe a relationship they already know like the freckles on their noses.

Regardless of what genre you’re writing, relationships gotta make sense. What characteristics meld these characters together? It’s not enough to say “Babs loves Jessie.” How? Why? It’s not unlike the questions I was asking my friend – after I got over the “ew” factor, that is. I needed details in order to appreciate that this guy had actually moved beyond the Neanderthal-jock-me-speak-in-single-syllables mentality and had morphed into something nearly-human.

The manuscripts I’ve been seeing lately are populated with relationships that have no golden thread. There is nothing discernible that connects them. I’m simply supposed to take the author’s word for it. And guess what? I won’t. If I’m not feelin’ it, I’ll move on.

It’s not just about character development, but relationship development. Just because you took care in developing your characters doesn’t mean there’s some automatic magnet that pulls those characters together. We can’t rummage around in your brain, or in my case scream to my friend, “Are you freaking KIDDING me?” You gotta thread the needle for us.

If a relationship doesn’t make sense, no matter how delicious your characters, then your readers will be less likely to engage in your book. Characters and their relationships are the foundation to your stories – fiction and nonfiction. If we can’t see the how and why to them, then readers will stumble over that disconnect.

Think about the magnetism that brings them together (I’m not talking about animal magnetism, you pervs) and the glue that keeps them together. You don’t want to tell us Annie and Joe are together, you want us to feel it.

As for my friend, she still has some ‘splainin’ to do because “Oh, he’s really grown up since high school,” doesn’t fill in enough blanks for me.

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