Most character charts for writers will include things like hair color, eye color, place of birth, occupation, and education. While these things are nice to know, they don’t tell you very much about the character other than surface facts. Here’s a list of some other things you need to think about to make a believable character.
Personality: Is your character an introvert or an extrovert? Is she ruled by her emotions or her intellect? Is he the life of the party or laid back? Personality is the cornerstone of who a person or character is. There are twelve basic personality types you can choose from. Click this link for a description of each type.
World View: What is your character’s belief system? This goes beyond their religious affiliation, but that’s a part of it. I’ll give you an example. Sally is an evangelical Christian who goes to church every time the doors are open.
You already have an idea of Sally’s belief system, but you need to dig deeper. Sally believes the Bible is the final authority, but even evangelicals differ. For instance, does Sally believe you should tell the truth even if a person’s life is in danger? Does Sally believe Christians should be actively involved social causes or does she believe we should be more concerned with spiritual matters? Does Sally think it’s alright to have an occasional glass of wine? How does she feel about protecting the environment? If someone is steeped in sin, will Sally befriend and try to help that person or will she distance herself and judge the person? There are many factors that go into our world views. It’s important to understand these when forming a character’s world view.
Character Flaws: What are your character’s flaws? Nobody is perfect. There are many flaws to choose from. But when choosing your character’s flaws, consider his personality and world view. For instance, an extrovert whose emotional may have a bad temper. Or she may make rash decisions. If she has a world view that’s judgmental, she may justify how she treats people. On the other hand, if she believes she’s supposed to help everyone, she may feel guilty when she loses her temper.
Redeeming Qualities: Every protagonist should have at least one redeeming quality, something that keeps the reading liking the person no matter how bad the character acts.
For instance, in my novel, Forks In the Road, JJ grows up to be an outlaw. There’s nothing good about that except he also has a protective friendship with his younger brother. He has put his brother before himself consistently throughout the novel, even risked his life for his brother at times.
This redeeming quality and the fact that he’s polite, even toward his victims, and has gone through a difficult past makes him likable even though we don’t like many of the things he does.
Motivation: Every character has to have a motivation or goal that keeps him moving forward in the story no matter what obstacles come in his way. And there should be obstacles, many of them, to keep the protagonist from reaching his goal. Without motivation, your main characters will seem flat like he’s drifting through the story. Motivation is key to a great character.
Mannerisms: We all have them. Does your character like to tease? Does she giggle when she’s nervous? Does he cross his arms when he’s upset? If you have a certain mannerism that signifies a character, it will make that character come alive. One warning here is don’t overuse that mannerism. A little goes a long way. Before long the reader will see the character doing the mannerism without you mentioning it.
Let’s go back to Sally. God is the most important thing in her life. Her family is second, and her career is third. What if Sally’s husband left her for another woman and isn’t paying child support? Now her career becomes more important because she needs the money to support her children.
But what if her career requires her to work so much she can’t spend any time with her children? Then what happens if she has to always work on Sundays and can’t take her children to church? What if the only babysitter she can find doesn’t believe in God?
You can see where this is going. Priorities are never easy. They sometimes blend, sometimes conflict with each other, and sometimes mess with motivations and world view. Life isn’t easy and neither are the choices we make. Don’t make life easy for your characters.
Backstory: We all have a past that colors what we believe about our world. Sometimes this past will cause us to have a distorted view of the world. What is your character’s backstory? What dark moment in the past causes him to believe a lie? What would it take to change his viewpoint?
You don’t want to reveal this backstory right away, but it’s important that you, the author, know what it is and why your character behaves the way he does. Then when you reveal it later on, it will make sense to the reader.
If you consider each of these factors when creating your characters, your characters will come to life and dictate to you where the story is going and what choices they will make. You will have a character driven story that keeps the reader on the edge of his seat.
The best stories have protagonists the reader connects with, characters they care enough about to continue reading to see what happens. A good plot isn’t enough if your reader doesn’t care what happens to the characters you created. Here are some tips for creating protagonists.
The main character should be the hero of his or her story.
The story has to be about your protagonist: what he wants and can’t have, what she needs to overcome, the quest for meaning or greatness. Everybody sees themselves as the heroes of their own stories. That’s why we can relate to the hero of the story we’re reading.
Main characters shouldn’t be perfect.
The greatest way to kill a story is to create a perfect character. If your character always does the right thing, reacts the right way, and makes the right choices, there is no story. When conflict happens, we need to be able to bite our lip hoping the hero makes the right choice but knowing she might not. Otherwise there is no conflict.
Another reason not to have perfect characters is that people are turned off by those who are too perfect. They can’t relate to them. Give your character a weakness. Even Superman had kryptonite to keep him humble.
In my Christmas novella, A Christmas Promise, Anna Brunner is the perfect wife, mother, and missionary, but even she has a flaw. She is so fearful and worried that something might happen to her family that her husband skirts the truth to protect her, and her children feel smothered by her. If I’d written the story without that flaw, Anna would have come across as boring and holier than thou.
The main character should grow and change. This is called a character arc. In real life, conflict causes people to make changes in their lives. The same should be true of your story.
The hero of your story is faced with conflict. This will cause him to change and grow as he works through the conflict toward a resolution. The change will sometimes help him overcome flaws and become a better person, but he could also become bitter, angry, or vindictive.
Both occurrences can happen in the same story. He might react the wrong way at first and become bitter, then come to accept the situation and grow into a better person. The change might happen gradually or it could be dramatic and instantaneous. But there should be change.
I use this technique in my novella, Soldier’s Heart. Noah is home from the Civil War with PTSD. He’s a good man, but the reader never knows for sure if his PTSD will cause him to act in the wrong way despite his good intentions.
Your protagonist doesn’t have to be likable, but she has to have a redeeming quality.
There is room in fiction for the anti-hero, the interesting character who might not be likable and who goes against societal mores. These kind of protagonist can work if they are the heroes of their own story.
But whether they change to become better people or not, they have to have a redeeming quality. This redeeming quality is called “save the cat” or “pet the dog”.
The main character could have a strong loyalty to family. He might regularly save people’s lives. She could have a soft spot for children. He might have sacrificed something for a friend. Even if your protagonist is disagreeable, manipulative, immoral, or greedy, this redeeming quality will be the one thing to keep your reader on the protagonist’s side. Even Scrooge had a good eye for business.
One example of this is Reddington on the television series, Blacklist. Reddington is a real bad guy. He kills people and has betrayed his country. He’s sold arms to small countries and is on the FBI’s most wanted list for a good reason. But he’s not completely despicable. He’s a charming man who will do anything for the people he cares about. One of those people is FBI agent Elizabeth Keen. Another is his assistant who he rescued from a slave trader. He is willing to sacrifice everything, including his life, for these people.
Whatever that redeeming quality is, it has to be something the character does. Don’t make the mistake of giving your character a bad childhood or a horrific event in life to make him likable unless you show him doing something good despite his terrible background. Everybody has gone through tough times. The reader will tire of the author making excuses for the character because of what happened in the past.
Whether it’s a corner in a room or a full-scale office with all the luxuries, every writer needs a writing area. This is the place the writer goes to allow his or her creativity to soar. If you write there every day, especially if you schedule a time to write, you’re training your subconscious that this is the time for you to be creative. This is the time and place for the words to soar.
The important thing is to be creative about your writing space. If you can have an office, that’s great. But there are certain items every writer needs in her writing area.
1. Computer: The days of the typewriter are over. Thank God. Make sure you have a good computer that’s easy for you to use. I recommend a laptop. That way, you don’t have to carry around a jump drive if you’re away from home. An Ipad with a Documents to Go app and a portable keyboard is also a great tool for when you’re on the road.
2. Internet: Internet is essential for writers in today’s world. It gives us marketing tools, email, online writer’s communities, writer’s tip blogs, research at our fingertips, and access to publishers’ and agents’ websites. The only caution here is to schedule when you’ll be on the internet and when you won’t. You may want to schedule a certain chunk of time for the internet. I have the internet running all day, but I only check it once every couple of hours, and if I’m not done writing (unless I’m doing research), I don’t stay on it longer than five minutes.
3. Library: Every writer needs a library that includes writing books, a dictionary, a thesaurus, and books he enjoys reading. Some of these books may be on-line. Some won’t. See this link and this link for the books I believe every writer should have.
4. Files: Every writer needs a place she can file research, plot outlines, character sketches, ideas, agent lists, and other important information. Some writers use online files such as MS One Note. Others like hard copies. But you need somewhere to store information.
5. Online computer back-up: Don’t take a chance. Subscribe to an online computer back-up service. They aren’t expensive, and if anything happens, you’ll be covered. Schedule the back-up to automatically back up your files at least once a week.
6. Music: Whether you use an i-pod, your computer, a CD player, or some other device, you’ll want something where you can play music or some kind of white noise. Some writers like it quiet when they work, but even they benefit from listening to music before or after writing. Also invest in a good set of headphones that will be comfortable to wear for hours and will block out most noises including the phone ringing.
7. A comfortable chair: You’ll want a chair where you sit up straight, your feet are flat on the ground, and your back is supported. Don’t prop your laptop on your legs while you type in a recliner. Your back will thank you later.
8. A desk or table: Don’t use one of those portable lap desks unless it’s short term. You need something you can put your computer on even if it’s a card table or a TV table.
9. No distractions: If you really want to escape into the world your writing and let the prose flow, you’ll need an area without television, video games, or a telephone ringing. A door that can be closed is even better.
10. A notebook: Keep a small notebook with you to jot down ideas. If you have an IPad or a memo app on your smart phone, this works even better because it will always be with you. Before you begin writing, record these ideas in your idea folder.
So that all you need to begin writing. Other than the computer, most of these items are free or can be purchased for very little money. Make this investment in your writing career.
Submitting and Marketing
How to Get Happily Published by Judith Applebaum (The best book for helping you through the submission and marketing process.)
Writer’s Market (Lists agents, publishers, and other important info.)
Christian Writer’s Market (Lists agents, publishers, and other important info for the Christian market.)
Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World by Michael Hyatt
Book Proposals That Sell: 21 Secrets to Speed Your Success by W. Terry Whalin (for nonfiction, but benefits fiction writers also)
Book Marketing Success Secrets by Terry Whalin
Sell More Books by J. Steve Miller
Genre Specialties and Research
Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life Series Writer’s Digest Series
Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing by Anthony Brundage
Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith
On Writing Well by William K. Zinsser
Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner
Science Fiction and Fantasy:
World Building by Stephen Gillett and Ben Bova
If you have any books you’d like to add or comments on these books, please comment.
There are many great writing books that will help writers with their craft. These are the books I consider as must haves.
Learning the Craft:
Self Editing For Fiction Writers by Browne and King (If you don’t buy any other book, buy this one.)
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
On Writing by Steven King (Warning: There is a little objectionable language in this book. But it’s still well worth reading.)
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
The Fire In Fiction by Donald Maas
Writing For the Soul by Jerry Jenkins
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
from the Inside…Out: discover, create and publish the novel in you! by Susan May Warren
Deep and Wide: Advanced Fiction Techniques by Susan May Warren
Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress
Merriman Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus 11th Collegiate (Very helpful for historical writers because it has the date each word originated.)
Chicago Manual of Style (Considered the final authority on grammar by most publishers.)
My next blog will post books on submitting, marketing, genre, and research.
Adverbs are words that normally end in an ly and should usually be avoided when possible. I used two ly words in the last sentence; nobody can avoid them all. Many new writers delete all of their ly words but don’t use a stronger verb in its place. The reason to delete ly words is because stronger verbs can replace them. Here’s a list of a few strong verbs you can use to replace your weaker verbs and adverbs.
slowly walked – sauntered, strolled, loped, moseyed, wandered, meandered
quickly walked – strode, darted, rushed, treaded, marched, advanced
angrily looked – glowered, glared
longingly looked – gaped, ogled, stared
quickly looked – glanced
loudly talked – shouted, bellowed
softly talked – whispered, mumbled
sat slowly – perched, rested, settled
sat quickly or angrily or clumsily – plopped, plodded
Whenever you see an ly word, look up the verb it describes in the thesaurus, and see if you can find a stronger verb to convey the same thing without the adverb.
Reprint from an earlier
An elevator pitch is a tool that every writer should have prepared at a writer’s conference. An elevator pitch is a thirty-second speech you have memorized that summarizes your book in case you get on an elevator with your dream agent or publisher. That agent asks what your book is about.
Unless you’ve thought about it ahead of time and have memorized your elevator pitch, you may end up saying something like, “Well it’s a kind of a like a story about, well you know, it’s about a guy and a girl, and they fall in love, and then stuff happens.” At this point, the elevator opens, and the agent leaves without offering you the chance to send a proposal because he has no idea what the book is about.
Don’t worry about frantically writing the perfect elevator pitch. Many writers panic about this, and there’s no reason to. The purpose for an elevator pitch is to tell someone what the book is about if asked. Here’s a few tips to make writing your elevator pitch easier.
Length: An elevator pitch should be two to three sentences long, around fifty words. If it’s the right length, you should be able to deliver it in about thirty seconds.
Title and Genre: Start the elevator pitch by stating the title and genre of your book. For instance – “My novel is called Yellow Bonnets and is a category prairie romance.” This part won’t be included in the fifty word count but will help the agent know if you have a book that fits her current genre interests.
Main Character: Your elevator pitch should mention the name of the main character.
Main Plot: Don’t mention things that are secondary. Limit your pitch to the main plot.
Study the Movie Industry: The movie industry does elevator pitches better than anyone. Study how they describe movies in only a few words to get an idea on how to develop your elevator pitch.
Here’s a few sites that go into depth about how to write an elevator pitch:
Update: Since I originally posted this article in 2009, I have had some success toward my goal of being commercially published. I have a reputable agent, Linda Glaz from Hartline. Two of my novellas will be released in November and December in e-book form through reputable commercial publishing companies that pay royalties. I also have a publishing company that requested a full read on my full length novel. Being commercially published takes time, but it can be done.
10 Reasons I’ve Decided to be Commercially Published
Reprinted from earlier post in 2009.
There are so many ways to become a published fiction author these days. Vanity self-publishing companies charge a fee to print a certain number of books. Then there are POD (Print on Demand) companies that will only print as many books as are sold. Some writers choose to go through a partnership publishing company where the company charges the writer a fee but agrees to do some marketing and editing of the book. There’s even a POD company that will set you up as your own publishing company. Then there are e-books. Most commercially published books are available now in e-book form. But some writers self-publish their books in e-book form through companies that charge a fee only if a book is downloaded.
Some of my writer friends have decided to go one of these routes, and they’re happy with their decisions. I don’t fault their choices, but I’ve decided to take the long hard road to become commercially published by a publisher who pays royalties, prints a run of books or sells e-books in a variety of formats, and has contracts with bookstores and e-book companies.
I haven’t made this choice because I’ve found an agent to represent me or a publisher to offer me a contract. I’ve sent my first novel to many reputable Christian agents. Some were interested enough to send me notes, some asked for an entire manuscript, but every agent has sent me a rejection. One of the biggest reasons many of them gave was the story I wrote was not what was selling right now. So I’m currently editing another novel to prepare to send it to the host of agents I’ve collected in my database.
Getting a reputable agent to represent you, and getting a commercial publisher to offer a contract is a long shot. Very few are chosen. So why would I want to go down this narrow road of rejection and heartache when there are so many choices out there?
10. I’ve learned over the years if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Self-publishing and POD companies make a lot of claims. They try to discredit commercial publishers by calling them “traditional publishers” and saying that by going through the self-publishing companies, you can make a lot of money. But I’m not buying it. I pray those that make the decision to go this route do their homework and don’t listen to the get rich quick promises.
9. Commercial publishing companies do a better job with printing the books. The cover, paper, ink, and editing all point to quality. Self-publishing companies and POD’s are hit and miss. They might do a good job printing, but more likely they won’t.
8. I want to feel good about my accomplishments. Commercial publication is a long hard road, but when I get there, I’ll feel like I’ve achieved something great through hard work and perseverance. I won’t feel the same way if I pay to see my novel in print.
7. I want to be known as a professional author. I want to have that reputation. To me writing is a profession and a calling. In most cases, self-published authors are thought of as amateurs even if they gain some level of success.
6. I want the name of a commercial publishing company on my book jacket. I don’t want someone to pick up my book, see the name of the company, and snarl up his nose because he knows it’s been self-published. I want the publishing company’s reputation behind my novel.
5. I want the resources commercial publishing companies have. Commercial publishers have copy editors and book designers. They have publicity people and sales representatives. They know what they’re doing. I want to participate in promoting my own novel. But I don’t want to have to do it alone. I want all of the resources a commercial publisher has including free copies of books I can give to influencers and advertisement on their websites and in their catalogues. I won’t get that from a self-publishing or POD company.
4. I want my novel to be in print at a bookstore. POD and self-publishing companies are quick to point out that their books are available on Amazon.com and in bookstore catalogs. That may be technically true. But almost every book is on Amazon.com. That’s no guarantee that anyone will find your novel. Amazon.com promotes books that sell, books that are put out by commercial publishers.
Catalogues that bookstores use have thousands of books available. Most bookstores have limited space and are more likely to go with books by commercial publishers. They have an added incentive for doing this because commercial publishers will take the books back if the bookstores don’t sell them. The bookstores have a win-win situation here. If they go with a self-published or POD book and it doesn’t sell, they are out the money they invested. It’s good business for them to only order commercially published books. Also they know the sales representatives of the commercial companies and are more likely to go with them. An author carrying a box of books under his arms is not likely to hold much weight with a bookstore owner.
I want my books to be in bookstores. I want to hold them in my hand and point them out to customers.
3. I want my novel to sell. Many self-publishing companies make claims about how successful their clients are. There are a few self-published authors that end up selling a lot of books. “The Shack” is one book that is frequently used as an example. But the chances of that happening are greater than the chances of being published by a commercial publisher.
Not every commercially published book will sell. Those that do sell will probably not be best sellers. But most best-sellers are commercially published books. Most moderate sellers are commercially published books. And most commercially published books do sell better than most self-published books. Self-published books that sell a hundred copies are considered successful. I want my novel to do better than that.
2. I have a lot to learn. I’m glad I wasn’t published by the first person I sent my manuscript to. If I had been, I would have had a lot of bad reviews. I’ve learned a lot about writing since. And because I didn’t take a shortcut to publication, I’ll continue to learn until I’m ready to be published.
I think I’m ready now. But maybe that’s because I don’t know about the one thing I need to make my manuscript a better story, something that will touch the heart of somebody, maybe even their spirit. I know that even though I think I’m ready, I need a teachable spirit. I’m willing to wait and learn.
1. I trust God. That’s sounds cliché, but it’s my number one reason for waiting for commercial publication. God directed me to write novels. Since then, I’ve been compelled to write.
He has given me the stories. He hasn’t dictated the words I should use or all of the plot points, usually just an idea in my spirit. It would be so much easier if He hadn’t required me to struggle to work with what He gave me. But any writer who tells you God wrote their novel through them is not to be trusted. God authored the Bible through men, but He hasn’t done that since. But He has given me the desire and planted the seeds of the story within me.
So no shortcuts for me. I’ll take the hard narrow road. Since God is directing me, and since He’s given me stories to write, He will help me to write them. And when the time is right, I can trust Him to direct my paths to publication. But in the meantime, I’ll work hard, and I’ll wait on Him.
Most writers know it’s important to have great first and last lines in novels. But did you know first and last lines in every scene can make the difference between whether the reader sets the novel down or continues reading. That doesn’t mean you should have a monumental line for the beginning and ending of each scene. The lines can be simple, but they need to do the job assigned to them.
First Lines: Many writers take too much time setting the scene or using descriptions for the first line of each scene. This is a mistake unless you’re using those descriptions to set a mood. First lines should set the emotional tone for what’s to follow. Many times, they’ll introduce the point of view character and hint at the coming conflict. Whatever the case, a good first line will make the reader want to read further.
Last Lines: The biggest mistake new writers make is ending a scene too late. Don’t tie up loose ends and allow resolutions in your scenes. You want to have the reader on edge wondering what’s going to happen. And whatever you do, don’t end a scene with somebody falling asleep unless it’s Snow White right after she took a bite of the poison apple.
The best way to think of last lines in scenes is to think about the old serial movie cliffhangers. Each last line needs to have a hook. While you might not want major catastrophes at the end of every scene, you will want an unresolved issue that causes enough tension to make the reader read further.
Read through the first and last lines of every scene in your manuscript. Forget about the middle part at this point. Are the first lines setting the tone you want to achieve? Are the last lines hinting about conflict yet to come or leaving the reader biting his nails wondering what’s going to happen yet? If not, consider revising them.