Archive for the ‘Characterization’ Category

Rest assured that this is not just a rant, though it is a personal opinion post. There are plenty of writing-related things that annoy me, so I’ve restricted myself to those. I’ve also limited my list to things I noticed in traditionally published books, so some agents and editors apparently weren’t bothered by the things that made me cringe.


1.  Quirks.

I keep reading about the necessity to make our main characters recognizable, identifiable, etc., and having a personal habit or quirk is touted as one way to go about that. But please. Use those quirks in moderation or you will annoy your readers and make them hate your characters rather than identify with them. Here are a few quirks I’ve encountered that have been used enough to become cliché:

Rolling the eyes . Some characters do it so often that I end up rolling MY eyes. Even worse is when more than one character does it. In a book I read recently, it seemed that someone rolled their eyes in every scene. I still enjoyed the story, but it was distracting enough that it inspired this post.

Raising one eyebrow. That may be a unique talent, but it has been overused in books. And every time I read it, I feel challenged to attempt raising a brow of my own. I can’t actually do it, and I know I can’t, so it’s really annoying to read about characters doing it so easily.

Twirling her hair around her finger. Lots of people do that, so how original is it?


2.  Deus Ex Machina.

God directly intervening to solve a problem the protagonist couldn’t possibly have figured out, especially when the protagonist doesn’t show any signs of a close relationship with God, is cheating. I want to be able to figure out what happened based on clues in the story, not witness a miracle (actually, I would like to witness a real miracle), but unless the story involves miracles as an integral part of the action, don’t end with one.


 3.  Explaining the ending.

Ending with page after page of people talking about what happened earlier in the book, even explaining things to minor characters who appear out of nowhere asking personal questions they are not entitled by manners or relationship to ask, is unbelievable. It is obviously a means for the author to reveal what happened in the book—in case the readers didn’t, or couldn’t, figure it out. This is a violation of the basic writing mantra of “show, don’t tell.” A good resolution will tie up loose ends, but shouldn’t have to explain the story.


4.  Stupid protagonists.

If the main character repeatedly makes bad decisions, doesn’t use common sense, or behaves like an idiot for no apparent reason, in my opinion she/he is stupid. (A time or two is excusable, as no one likes perfect characters.) We all do dumb things occasionally, but unless it’s a comedy I want protagonists to be people I can respect—even if I don’t like them. When stupidity is the basis for the story conflict, it feels weak and contrived. A good plot won’t need contrived behavior to keep it going.


5.  Poor editing.

I love words. I adore sentences that flow smoothly through my mind, leaving a vivid picture behind. But when words are misspelled, or the sentence structure makes it difficult to understand, I’m drawn out of the story and into reality. If I wanted reality, I wouldn’t be reading. So let me enjoy the world you’ve created—edit your work carefully. If you need help editing, get it.


What type of things pull you out of a story? What is your number 1 reading-related annoyance? What type of character quirks do you think are effective, and which ones do you consider annoying? Can you think of any “stupid” protagonists that are not annoying? Do you have any quirks?


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All week I told myself I’d clean the house, and all week I put off doing more than absolutely necessary to keep the place livable. At 6:00AM on Friday, I actually started cleaning. By 10:00AM I’d done 3 loads of laundry, scrubbed the bathrooms, cleaned the kitchen—including the oven and microwave—and vacuumed the floors.

Why did I finally do what I’d intended to do all week? I got motivated: my daughter said she was coming home for the weekend. I wanted everything to be perfect for her visit.

Motivation is what causes someone to take action, or behave in a certain way. Sometimes the motivation is intrinsic, coming from within. The person gets pleasure, or a sense of satisfaction, from completing a task or achieving a goal. At other times, the motivation may be extrinsic, which means something external induces the person to behave a certain way. Without motivation, there is little reason for people to take action, or to react to what others do.

In fiction, as well as in life, motives aren’t always clearly defined. There may be more than one motive involved, or a deeper one than what the person reveals to others. Figuring out a character’s motives may motivate readers to keep turning the pages, but if they can’t imagine the main characters behaving the way the author portrays them, they won’t relate to the story.


What are some common motives for the way characters in your favorite genre behave? Does knowing the motivation behind their actions affect the way you relate to the “bad guys” in a story? What motivates you to read a particular book? What motivates you to write?

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While waiting in line at the gas station to pay for my coffee, I got a terrific idea for a new character. My inspiration was a towering hulk of a man wearing a black t-shirt, jeans, motorcycle boots, and a silver bangle in one ear.

I never got a look at the guy’s whole face as I was standing behind him and could only see his profile. He must have been at least 6’6″ tall, so I had an excellent view of the inside of his nose whenever I looked up. That meant I spent most of my time staring at his belt, which held a chain with a fascinating wad of keys and plastic rewards cards. I suspect he doesn’t care about fashion or cleanliness, and yet he was attractive in a macho kind of way.

This potential character was buying lottery tickets, and the machine was so slow that we were there at least 5 minutes waiting for his transaction to process. He chatted with the cashier, and I took mental notes of everything he said. I was sorry when he left as I still needed to know a few things. Someday you’ll read about him, or someone very similar, in one of my stories.

In case you haven’t met any characters today, here are a few sites that might give you ideas for developing your own:

http://hollylisle.com/index.php/How-To-s/how-to-create-a-character.html Holly Lisle reveals how she creates characters.

http://kayedacus.com/2009/02/17/creating-credible-characters-refresher/ Kaye Dacus has a series of posts on characterization.

http://www.suite101.com/content/three-step-method-of-character-development-a160199 Suzanne Pitner gives tips on developing believable characters.


Where do you get inspiration for characters? How much background information do you need before a story idea develops around a character? Or, do you come up with the story first, then the characters? What is it that generally makes you notice a stranger and sparks your imagination or interest?

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Despite the clothes, the props, and the setting I fashioned for my deck chair earlier today, he failed to live up to my expectations for a character worthy of his own story. He was flat rather than well-rounded, and content watching life pass him by rather than taking an active role in it. That type of character might help move a story forward in the same way a movie extra does, but main characters need to be fully developed.

Here are a few things you can do to keep your characters from being lifeless and flat:

1. Give each of them a distinctive voice. Readers should be able to recognize the speech patterns and thoughts of each of the main characters.

2. Make the dialog believable, but leave out the boring conversational crutches that real people depend upon—like discussing the weather (unless it’s crucial to the plot).  

3. Let the character’s personal taste in clothes and possessions hint at her values and goals.

4. Have the choices they make reveal their personality strengths and weaknesses.

5. Show characters acting and reacting in ways the reader will understand and empathize with.

6. Pay attention to the little details that distinguish real people from one another, like the way they respond to children, the type of goodies they keep in a bowl on the kitchen counter, or the personal tics they display when they’re nervous.

Here are some sites that offer good suggestions to help create believable characters:


Rounded characters vs flat ones



Creating empathetic characters



Giving your characters life



Characters and plots


Can an exciting plot keep you reading even if the characters are poorly developed? Do you relate better to characters that have values or beliefs similar to your own, or does that matter when you’re reading? How can writers make characters believable if they haven’t experienced the things they are writing about—like murder, romance, super powers, etc?

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I’ve come up with a great idea for a story about Mr. Chair. Here’s a picture of him.

Mr. Chair

Right now my idea is sort of vague, so you may have trouble telling him apart from his brothers. After I give him a few unique characteristics, I’m sure he will be a guy you’ll enjoy as much as I do.

I think he needs to be a little older to fit the story I have in mind, and perhaps a new wardrobe will make him stand out from the crowd. A few accessories that help readers infer something about his personality, a distinctive setting, and a plot that wouldn’t be as interesting without him will all help Mr. Chair serve a useful purpose in my story—as well as on my deck.


Here he is, full of life and ready for the spotlight. He has a supporting cast, a setting that fits his personality, and a sexy, off-the-shoulder shirt that will entice passers-by to give him a second look. A combination of rugged strength and a hint of softness add to his appeal. Maybe I’ll even change his name to Reed Decker. Wouldn’t he look great on the cover of a book?

Reed Decker

Do your characters blend in with the crowd, or are they easily recognized by their unique qualities? How do you come up with distinctive character traits? What characteristics make a protagonist likeable or unlikeable? Can villains have some of the same traits as heroes; and if so, which ones?

(Yes, I realize this is a silly post. Blame Barbara Ann.)

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Sometimes when life becomes too stressful, or a situation threatens to explode with drama, a humorous comment or action can relieve the tension. It may be a momentary distraction from the drama, or it may heighten the emotional impact by acting as a contrast to it. In literary works, this technique is called “comic relief.”

comic relief (Allwords.com)  


  1. Narratology. The inclusion of a humorous character or scene or witty dialogue in an otherwise serious work, often to relieve tension.


  • Dutch: vrolijke noot
  • French: soulagement comique
  • German:  komische Entlastung
  • Italian: rilievo comico
  • Spanish: relevación cómica


Here are a few ways you can incorporate comic relief into your story (or life).

1. The protagonist may have a witty comeback to a villain’s threats. The James Bond 007 character is a good example of this, as is the Sherlock Holmes character in the movie released last year, or Indiana Jones (my favorite).

2. Another character may act as a foil, adding a lighter tone to the scene or acting as a contrast to the more serious protagonist. The old Batman and Robin duo comes to my mind, with Robin sorely lacking the intelligence to be a superhero (in my opinion!) while Batman was a serious crime fighter.

3. A tense scene may be interrupted by an unexpected event. For example, the character may trip and fall as she turns to leave the room after an argument. Or a child may interpret a stern lecture in a way the parents didn’t intend, causing them to laugh.

4. A suspenseful situation might reach a high point of tension, then be relieved by minor, comedic distractions. In horror stories, for example, the characters often fear that a noise at the door is the monster trying to get in, but sometimes it’s just the cat.


Don't you think that's funny?



Can you think of other ways comic relief can be used in a story? What examples from literature or movies can you think of that show comic relief being used? How do you relieve a tense situation in real life?

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I happened to glance at the television the other night in time to see a shirtless man on a commercial for Dancing with the Stars. I’ve never watched the show, so perhaps that’s a common sight, but it startled me enough to blurt out—”That man’s not got a shirt on!”

Immediately, my 20-year-old daughter replied, “Mom! You sound like you think he’s hot!” Her shock was obvious. Apparently a middle aged mom isn’t supposed to notice when a man flaunts his good looks.

That got me to thinking about characters in books I’ve read, and I realized that nearly every protagonist is gorgeous, talented, sexy, wealthy and/or powerful, with an exciting life. Am I the only one who finds that kind of person so unbelievable that I can’t relate to them?

Years ago I got tired of reading about the wimpy young woman who needed a strong, rich man to rescue her from her problems. Later it seemed like all the women were strong, ambitious, and adventurous, and involved with equally wonderful men.

Is it because I’m getting old that I now appreciate protagonists that I can relate to, which means they have realistic jobs, an average appearance, and problems that are believable? I love suspense, fantasy, romance, and many other genres, but many times I’m disappointed in the characters. Sure, they need interesting problems and conflicts to keep me reading, but why do the characters have to be so wonderful that they make normal people pale by comparison?

What’s wrong with a middle-aged protagonist with a receding hairline, glasses, and an average job? Can’t those guys be romantic, attractive, or interesting? What about a woman who’s slightly overweight, with hair that won’t hold a curl and nails that aren’t regularly manicured? Where are the books about those people?  

Lots of people meet challenges with strength and integrity, fall in love with someone who is less than perfect, solve complex problems, come up with brilliant ideas, and don’t depend on the shock value of going shirtless in public to gain attention. That’s the kind of person I find “hot.”


What about you? How would you define a “hot” man or woman? Have your tastes changed as you’ve grown older? What characters can you think of that might not fit the stereotype of an attractive male or female, but were appealing anyway? Name someone that you think is attractive, other than your spouse or significant other.

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According to The Free Dictionary, voice means “The distinctive style or manner of expression of an author or of a character in a book.”

Our voice is a reflection of who we are. It develops from our unique experiences and expresses our feelings and beliefs. The choices we make regarding the topics we cover, the themes we focus on, the details we include, the sentence structure and vocabulary we use, and the tone of what we write are all part of what makes ours sound different from everyone else’s writing.

Even though we each have a unique voice, it isn’t easy to let it show in what we write. Here are a few tips to help you develop the voice that reflects “you” on the page:

1. Practice writing without self-editing. Don’t worry about how it sounds; just write freely and save the editing for later.

2. Analyze what you’ve written to see where you may need to improve, but also recognize your strengths. Try to do better in all those areas.

3. Think about who you are writing for, and whether or not your writing fulfills the purpose you intend. Determine what you might do differently to communicate more effectively.

4. Write like you’re speaking to a friend. You’re most likely to write honestly if you’re comfortable with who you’re addressing.

5. Consider the experiences your characters would have had, and imagine yourself in their place. Write from their perspective rather than your own to keep all the characters from sounding the same.

6. Read a wide variety of books, not just ones you know you’ll enjoy. Think about what those authors did, how they sound, and the style they used. Practice writing like authors you admire to get a feel for what they’ve done, and apply what you learn to your own writing.

(For more on voice, see my posts from 6/23/09 and 6/17/09 on this topic.)


EDIT JULY 6, 2010Agent Chip MacGregor has a great post on his blog about the meaning of “voice.”  Check it out here.


Do you have a distinctive voice? What makes it unique? Are there any authors whose writing you recognize even when their name isn’t mentioned? What are some other ways to develop “voice?”

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Years ago, when I was young and clueless, my sister and I went for a walk with my brother-in-law (B-I-L), who’s blind. The three of us were strolling along arm in arm, with my B-I-L in the middle, when we encountered a huge light pole in the middle of the path. I let go of his arm and curved to the left to avoid it; at the same time, my sister let go of his other arm and curved to the right. Yup, my B-I-L kept going straight and slammed right into the pole.

Since we did NOT do it on purpose, we all felt terrible, especially my B-I-L, who almost knocked himself out when he hit that steel pole. After I quit laughing (It was sooo 3 Stooges-ish) I realized I’d learned a valuable lesson. Actually, I guess I learned several things:

1. Sight is a wonderful blessing which many of us take for granted.

2. You can get around most obstacles if you see them coming, but they’ll stop you in your tracks if you don’t.

3. If you have no idea where you’re going, you need a reliable guide to help you get there.

4. Don’t assume others know what’s going on, even if it seems obvious to you.

5. For people to see the world through your eyes, you have to make sure you give them sufficient information.

So, you’re probably wondering how this relates to writing. Or maybe you’re wondering if my B-I-L got mad after he recovered enough to speak: yes, he did. (And he still doesn’t think it was funny!)

I could clearly see the pole looming ahead of us that day long ago, but it was a critical piece of information my B-I-L was missing. It broke the flow of our stroll, just as a lack of crucial details can interrupt the flow of a story when readers must stop to figure out what’s going on.

We use the sense of sight to describe what the characters look like, to give details regarding the setting, to add suspense, to reveal clues about people’s emotions and actions, and to paint a vivid picture of what we want our readers to see. With so many visual images to choose from, we sometimes overload our stories with unnecessary details, but in other cases we fail to point out things the reader needs to know.

Our goal should be to create clear images with our words so the story we’re telling progresses smoothly from beginning to end. If there are poles along the way, we must guide our readers around them. Let them see the world through your characters’ eyes by having the characters see through yours.


What type of visual details do you think are most important to share with readers?  Do you have any funny stories to share about something you saw—or didn’t see?

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The sense of taste is closely related to the sense of smell. Both are chemical reactions that send messages to the brain, where the different flavors and odors are identified. When there’s a problem with the ability to smell, the sense of taste is also affected. Age, smoking, certain medications, head injuries, illness, and chemical exposure are among the things that can affect a person’s sense of taste.

Taste is difficult to use in many stories as quick-paced plots don’t allow much time for enjoying a meal. When the character gets a chance to eat, take advantage of it to include sensory details that will make the reader relate to what is going on. They can associate their own experiences with what the character is eating.

For example, if a truck driver sits at the counter eating chili, the reader knows he likes spicy food. Adding extra hot sauce may suggest he’s older, or a smoker, and has lost some of his taste buds. If he orders apple pie à la mode he’s a guy who has fond memories of his childhood (that’s my interpretation, not necessarily accurate). Even if you don’t mention the actual taste, reading about familiar foods will invoke a reaction in the reader’s mind.

To give a character an extra flaw, you could show the loss of taste affecting the person’s ability to detect spoiled food, or causing them to add so much extra salt for flavor that people think they’re weird—and it gives them uncontrolled high blood pressure. Lots of opportunities for taste to spice up a story. (Lame attempt at humor, I know…)

One of my favorite books, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, is rich with details that bring his characters and setting to life. It has wonderful descriptions of the food for sale in the market. The following excerpt goes against the writing advice we read nowadays, but I love it:

“There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that there was something going on; and, to a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement.”



What foods do you crave when you are worried or depressed? Which foods do you associate with happy memories? If you were stuck on a deserted island with only one type of food available, which food would you hope it would be? (My answer for all of those: butter pecan ice cream)

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