Archive for the ‘Creating Characters’ Category

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Now that you created compelling characters, you need to actually write the characters compellingly.

It’s like planning a rich flavorful moist four-chocolate cake with velvety smooth icing; the whole joining of spongey chocolate cake, warmly melted chocolate inside, and cool silky chocolate icing making your mouth water at the mere thought of it. It doesn’t matter how great you made the plans for that cake if you cannot deliver it via a plate to that waiting guests’ mouth without it falling flat, dry, and bland.

No amount of outlining and character profiling can automatically make those characters pop. Even the best storyline does not alone breathe life into them in the paragraphs of the story. And, trying to explain how to write compellingly is not like listing ideas for your character profiles, showing you types of character arcs, or giving tips on choosing character names.

To write compellingly is to write the characters and story well. It is honing your writing craft, practicing and practicing and practicing. Studying the writing of others who write well. Always working to improve your writing skills and work better.

How do you write compellingly? Captivate your reader. Make it resonate with them. Compel them to keep reading. Make them feel what your characters feel, the same love, hate, and pain. Drive them to yearning for your characters; needing those characters to fail or succeed as though their own life story depends upon it.

Well, it’s bloody hard for many writers. It doesn’t just come naturally. Even writers who have written for years can struggle with it. After years of writing, always working to improve my own writing, I too ask myself if I can write better, and consciously strive to write compellingly. Editing and revising, plotting against characters, keeping notes like some wicked conspirator, and planning in my head even as I write by the seat of my own pants. Going back and changing scenes, chapters, characters, and my outline that I create as I write to keep track of everything.

Each scene is the hook for the next one. The final chapter scene needs to make the reader crave to turn to that next chapter. They are unsettled until they find out what happens next. That is writing compellingly.

Your characters need to captivate the audience. Connect with them and challenge them to see the world through their hearts and eyes.

Conflict makes the reader love and hate your character. Love and hate for your character.

Conquer your character, your reader, their hopes and dreams, but let there be that light of hope on the horizon. Your character and reader can do this together if they just try hard enough. Together.

And when you wrap it all up, leave your reader feeling like they just had a bit of a thrill ride. In my case, it’s an unsettling too slowly rattling ride through the dark creaking haunted house that isn’t all wiggling strips of plastic and worn out animatronics whose dilapidated state is hidden in shadows, smoke, flashing lights, and poor soundtracks of shrieking ghouls, maniacal laughter, and softly dying souls.

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Everything and everyone in a story should be there for a purpose, however small it may be. It might not seem relevant until chapters, or even books, later, but your divine purpose is there.

If a scene or character is truly irrelevant, they can graciously be cut. In addition to setting a scene or mood, or moving it along (whatever would have happened if that extra character, the owl, did not deliver Harry Potter’s letter?), extra characters can add a sense of reality. They can be used to tip the reader off or lead them down the wrong path. Giving them a little life or attitude can add a chuckle in the midst of a tense moment, a divination of something bad to come, or bring home the reality of what the protagonist is experiencing. Don’t undervalue them, make your extras extra.

Extras. In film they are the nameless living bodies used to fill a scene. They mostly have no lines, no more than a few words, if any, may not be paid, and are more part of the set and scenery than the scene itself.

Like the scene setting, extras have a purpose of their own in establishing the mood and driving force of the chosen scenery. They also can have their own personality. Are they angry or calm? Studiously going about their business or laggardly slogging through the day? Mindless automatons moving with easy efficiency?

Giving those nameless and barely mentioned extras a life of their own, treating the group like a character unto itself, can lend a depth to the story and even allow a moment of foreshadowing.

Unless it’s a monolog or limited characters alone without any reference to other peoples’ existences, you likely aren’t going to have a longer story without extras, so you might as well use them.

“The Paperboy” or “Messenger” is a commonly used extra character. Sometimes quite literally, a paperboy standing on the street corner shouting, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” while holding up a newspaper to show its prominent feature story headline screaming off the page to feed the reader or viewers an important piece of information. He might even call out that headline in a nudge to bring your attention to it.

Or their purpose may be for the protagonist, antagonist, or supporting character, to gain possession of that important news, informing them of something they didn’t know or giving proof to what they already suspected.

They aren’t necessarily an actual “paperboy”. It’s anything relaying that information. A newsflash on a television screen, phone call, letter, online search result, or a character sharing the information.

This character or object exists for one purpose only, and perhaps no more than a brief mention: to bridge the story into what is to come. To provide information to the characters, or just to the reader, that would otherwise not exist and cause a plot hole.

“The Mob” as I think of them, is any group of extras that exist just to set the mood. Barely more than background scene, they are a wall of screaming fans meeting a celebrity, jeering and catcalling at victims being dragged to the guillotine, armies waiting to clash on the battlefield, avid supporters, or an enraged mob.

“The Scenery” is a more docile version of the mob. Other people who just happen to be scattered in the coffee shop, other shoppers at the mall, beachgoers, bodies filling theatre seats. They exist because your characters’ world is not one without other humans.

But, what if you take one of those extra characters and make them just a little more?

Learn the secret behind the bodies. Take a step back in time to meet the boy who will create the killer.

In The McAllister Farm, William walks into a small town coffee shop to meet a man. Being a diligently cautious man, he automatically scans the patrons, noting who is there and anything out of place. A pair of men sitting at the counter who look exactly like so many others he’s seen in similar middle of nowhere coffee shops and restaurants. A nervous woman glancing out the window of a window booth. A teenaged boy sitting in a booth.

These extras are there because odds are against finding a completely empty venue and, in his case, anyone overhearing their conversation would be a potential threat to William McAllister and his family. Their existence adds that subtle layer of risk to the meeting.

It is the teenager who becomes just a little more than part of the backdrop. A boy like his own, a little older, sulking, letting his milkshake turn to watered milk. The kid’s mannerisms, bruising below his lip, and haunted eyes that won’t look at anyone. This tells William all he needs to know about the boy. More importantly, this moment within the scene gives the reader an insight into who the cold hard-handed William McAllister is. And in the end of the scene, as the man William met leaves minutes behind William, the scene shifts back to that boy in a reinforcement that William is not just correct in his observation of the boy, but also that William is more than the father the reader previously saw smack his own son. William’s moment of anger over the boy is justified and sense of morals affirmed.

Brief interactions with these extras can be a great source for imprinting on the reader anything from the mood of the scene to your character’s inner layers of personality, to dropping hints of foreshadowing, adding a moment of levity or strain, or reality to the scene. They’re useful in their own sentence or two to shine in the spotlight for informing the reader of something you don’t want the main characters to know. It can be used as a tool to give the scene itself its own sense of personality.

Now go out and write those compelling characters.

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“My characters just won’t do what I want them to!”

“It’s like they take on a life of their own! They won’t listen to me!”

“My characters keeping getting off story!”

Do these sound like familiar thoughts to you? Have you frustratingly, or jokingly, grimaced and made these and similar complaints?

It is inevitable. As you dig deeper into plotting arcs for your story and characters, outlining, detailing character profiles and the story outline, weaving them together, and writing the scenes, expect your characters and their arcs to grow. Ideas will come that make them deeper, more twists and hidden gems. It is the natural progression of the story, whether it is intentional growth or not.

Don’t limit your story and characters by being determined to stick to that outlined plot no matter what. Let yourself grow with your characters and it will make your story richer.

Beyond adding details to a chart or character profile, beyond expanding your story outline, your characters’ personalities evolve. As you get deeper into building and writing the story, your understanding of and relationship with your characters grows and deepens.

Once you are in the midst of it, your characters’ actions based on their personalities don’t always fit neatly into the outline you planned, or even into their initial character profiles.

This is the point where some writers feel the character has taken on a life of their own and run away with the story. They just won’t do what you, the writer, want them to do. They’ve taken over your plot, your story, and sent it off in a completely unplanned direction and you have no idea how to get it back on track.

Even the best laid plans can go awry. The most meticulously detailed and plotted outline can go off track. Nothing feels right. Your characters won’t cooperate and what they are supposed to do doesn’t fit the story anymore.

I guess that’s it. You just have to quit the story and start a new one.

Yeah, no.

I say go with it. Embrace the new direction your characters are pulling you in. But whether you do that or choose to rework them back into your carefully plotted outline, you need to smooth out any course misdirections.

And, sometimes the problem is more than just a character who has outgrown your intentions. Or it could be a combination of a deeper problem and the natural growth of the character.

Regardless of the cause, there are ways to fix the story. Starting with: revisit what you thought your characters and storyline need to be.

Maybe something just isn’t working.

Think of each character as a little puzzle. Every detail of them is a puzzle piece which needs to fit neatly together. Each piece that makes up the character’s profile, their personality and background, relationships and drives, description, and their character arc and personal storyline, all come together to make a complete picture. When one piece changes, it might not fit anymore.

The same goes for each location set in your world, each scene, every event.

Now imagine your story as a 3-D woven puzzle, only each of these pieces are mini puzzles themselves. They are your characters, locations, world, and scenes, each with its perfectly fitted space among the woven storyline threads.

If just one piece of any of these puzzles doesn’t work, a puzzle is falling apart because a piece is missing or doesn’t fit and was force-wedged in, then the whole creation could collapse.

This is easier to fix if you can readily spot the culprit. Yes, it means going back and rewriting. But you don’t want to. You like the way it’s going even better. Or it’s just too much work, too daunting, to go back and figure out what you have to change.

If you’re lucky and know exactly where the problem starts, then you work forward from there. And if you are extraordinarily fortunate, it might be as simple as adding a bridge scene or two, maybe some foreshadowing earlier, and a few tweaks after that so the change makes sense and seems premeditated. Shhh, only you will know.

Worst case, you have to go back and rewrite an entire character or story thread. But if you don’t fix it, you should ask yourself, “Will the reader notice?” Because if it feels off to you, it will scream it to them.

Maybe you’ve gone off course.

You got carried away in the passion of writing and strayed from the outline. Or a character evolved in a way you didn’t plan on.

Okay, you’ve got this. This isn’t so bad. Where did you go off course? Remember, you don’t want to stubbornly limit your story to that pre-planned plot no matter what. Consider what works best, the original plotline or the new?

Backtrack to where you diverged. Either you can rewrite your course correction from there, or you can take a step further back and rework a few scenes, add a few bridge scenes maybe, to make the new direction of the story inevitable.

It’s okay to change the storyline and characters as you go. For the characters, story, and you, the creator, to grow with the writing of the story. The characters change as they progress to their conclusion already. It might even make the surprises more surprising, revelations less obviously predestined, the plot twists more twisted, the reader more intrigued with guessing what will happen next. As long as it works and doesn’t lead the reader down a confusing path, it’s all good. Just be sure to fill in those plot holes.

One problem with these changes, though, may be keeping them and the plot straight. Don’t let yourself get lost because you don’t remember what you changed. Helping you keep on track while you grow with your character’s can be as simple as how you organize your characters and outline.

As you get more in depth with writing and outlining, the character sheets you made will include more important details about the character’s history like their, lineage, the place and circumstances of their birth, and important storyline events: moments that may seem important or insignificant or incongruous but play into the arcs of other characters and the narrative itself regardless of how important or not they seem.

You may want to split character sheets into sections to make particular information easier to find and cross reference. Especially in the case of more in-depth storylines like those commonly found in fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction.  Keep it simple and straightforward, and consistent across characters. Something you can find what you want at a glance. Some ideas of sections are:

  • General character information: their name, birth gender, gender identity, general description, likes and dislikes, allergies, disfigurements, and the like.
  • Their lineage and/or genealogy , if it’s important. Even if it isn’t, it could come to matter later,  no matter how short it is.
  • Important moments and events: ups and downs that cause your character to grow, falter, or fall. Things that push the character forward with the story.
  • What they lost or gained: can be items, relationships, people, perceptions, views, anything goes.
  • Relationships: as your story grows more complex, so does your characters’ relationships.
  • Cross references to other characters, events, places, important chapters, etc.
  • How other characters perceive them/perceptions of them change.
  • Geographical history and movements. The point of this is you don’t want to, for example, say character b was at a place and time that contradicts their location at that point mentioned in another chapter. This will probably only be relevant to the deeper twists of certain stories and epic adventures where their movements are relevant later or to sub-plots of the story. Starting with chapter one, it’s a simple plotting of time/place as the characters move through the story. A reference, really, for verifying your accuracy in later chapters. Keep this current and updated as you outline, plot, write, and edit. Being together at this point, Characters A, B, and C would have identical movement plots. Keep it short and simple. You aren’t re-outlining your story here.
  • Anything else relevant.

Splitting plot sheets or your outline chapters into sections can help too.  For me, I like to have a brief description of what happens in each chapter. Again, simplicity here helps. Some ideas of sections or point form notes are:

  • Time and location.
  • Precursor event for chapter.
  • Main event for chapter.
  • Secondary event for chapter.
  • Characters present in chapter.
  • Other characters and chapters affected by the chapter.
  • Story thread chapter leads to.
  • Important chapter notes.
  • Anything else relevant.

The simpler you keep these, the more consistent between character sheets and your outline notes and pages, the easier you make things on yourself. Keep them to what is relevant for that particular story. Because growing with your characters means re-outlining and re-writing parts of your story.

Here is an example of growing with your characters and story.


The Woods has three intertwined stories. The boys, Jessie and Kevin, who vanished in the woods. Their parents, Henry and June, who both individually and their marriage is changed by it. And Cody, who buys their house thirty years later.

In each of these I need catalytic events to drive them forward and the characters into changing. But, as the characters grew, the events I envisioned changed. And because each separate timeline has an indirect effect on the others, because they don’t directly merge together, I need to reference back and forth between them all. Where one storyline changes, it ripples out into to the others.

Henry’s character growth left me in need of an event to push him closer to the brink of change, drive a bigger wedge between him and June, and their relationship towards that coming precipice. The problem was Henry is the strong silent type, and proving to be too resilient for the needed change. His character became too capable of handling the stress. I had to emotionally break Henry. But how?

I conspired against Henry. What can break a strong man? Finding evidence of your missing boys where they ought not to have been.

The catalytic event became a small green plastic toy solder you can hide inside your fist. This also meant I had to now plant that toy in Jessie and Kevin’s timeline.

The need to push Henry harder in Henry and June’s timeline in chapter 29 meant making a change in Jessie and Kevin’s chapter 48 timeline, a bridge scene added to chapter one to foreshadow, a few scattered seemingly irrelevant mentions of the toy soldiers in other chapters to subtly foretell that soldier’s importance, and it will ripple into Cody’s timeline. I haven’t figured out yet where this particular event affects Cody. Because of the significance, it might be near the end, leading him to take an action that may be his undoing and bringing us full circle back to that foreshadowing with Jesse and Kevin in chapter one.

Without keeping up to date cross-referenced notes, it would be much harder to keep track of and fix a timeline shift like this to keep up with the characters’ growth and story events. Particularly since it has to affect all three storylines.

It would have been easier to rethink the idea and find a simpler fix that doesn’t affect the other timelines. But it might not have had the needed emotional impact on Henry’s character who grew stronger than planned, and would not have had the added bonus of creating a whole new thread tying the three stories closer together.

Embracing Henry’s stronger than planned character growth, he was supposed to be a stagnant character with a flat arc while June and their marriage changed around him, and the addition of the soldier, also turned out to strengthen Jesse and Kevin’s storyline and the book as a whole.

And on the topic characters and Fred’s part in Henry being shown the found G. I. Joe, Fred who is a stagnant bit character of little importance, next week we discuss Making Your Characters Extra.

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How do you make your characters compelling? For a start, you need to be passionate about them if you expect the reader to be.

Love, hate, or be indifferent to them, but remember that every character matters down to the smallest bit player. A character people can relate to is one your readers are more likely to feel connected to.

Give the reader something to discover with layers. Without some complexity, characters are a flat mirror, nothing more than a picture pasted to its front with no depth.

How do you make a character compel the reader to emotion? To root for them or beg for their ruination? To feel your character’s pain, their wrath, and their misery?

1.    Know what drives each character. What pushes them to make the choices they do? The stronger the drives, the more drama they create.

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In The Gypsy Queen, Travis’s drive is wealth. Easy money. While Darius’s drive is to survive the trouble Travis gets them into and to protect his friend, even at the expense of his own safety and love interest.

Write it down on your character sheet. As their personality grows, list these things for each character:

  • In the immediate, what does the character want? Remember, desire is not the same as need.
  • In the immediate, what does the character need?
  • What is your character’s ambition? What do they aspire to?
  • What is the character’s goal? It may not be their goal per se, but could be a goal assigned to them by another or by circumstances.
  • In the long run, what does your character need? This may be something they don’t learn until later.

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2.    Know your character’s strengths. Everyone has a strength. It could be physical or mental, adaptability to changing situations, intelligence, perseverance, or strength of character. Great strength can also lead to the character’s downfall. Strength itself can be a character’s weakness in the right circumstances. Give your character a few to draw on.

Marjory McAllister in The McAllister Farm (McAllister Series book 2) is frail and timid, constantly nervously wringing her hands. But when push comes to shove her strength shines; from facing down a gang of housewives, to a pack of coyotes attacking her little girl, to an angry mob of neighbors with guns.

3.    Give your character a vulnerability. This sign of weakness draws the reader to your character. It makes them imperfect and imperfection makes them more believable, and more likable. It can be empowering or potentially their undoing.

In The McAllister Series, William McAllister’s vulnerability is his family. His need to protect them at all costs. That vulnerability is also his strength.

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4.    Don’t discount fatal flaws. What is a fatal flaw? Isn’t that the same thing as vulnerability? Not necessarily. The fatal flaw can be the driving force of your character’s failure. An inability to see cause and effect. An inability to change, to see beyond their own desires. This is something that hampers a character more than simple flaws and vulnerabilities, creates drama of its own, and builds tensions around that character.

In The Gypsy Queen, Travis’s fatal flaw is his blindness to the repercussions of his own blind ambition for fast wealth and the easy life. Even when that path leads to a haunted boat and the repeated near deaths of his only and closest friend.

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5.    While we’re on it, don’t forget your character’s flaws and weaknesses. This is not necessarily the same as a vulnerability or as powerful as the fatal flaw. Keep in mind a vulnerability can be a strength in disguise. No one is without flaws. Being too perfect itself is a flaw. While they may cause small hinderances or none at all, giving your character small flaws adds a level of depth to both their person and personality. List your character’s flaws and weaknesses.

In Old Mill Road, David’s character flaws and weaknesses revolve around his long-time childhood crush on Felicia. That drives his need to keep their disturbing childhood secret, and to know what happened that night Felicia and her family vanished. They are also that he is too sure of himself and egocentric. Felicia herself is his fatal flaw.

6.    What are your character’s emotional triggers? Apart from the strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and flaws, or perhaps because of them, everyone has a trigger. What in the heat of the moment will trigger your character to act, deviate from their path, react, or choose to stop their actions? What might trigger their change be it growth, falling, or to shut down emotionally?

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In Madelaine and Mocha (published under Vivian Munnoch), Madelaine’s biggest emotional trigger is her attachment to her dog, Mocha. She is also a teenager with the whole mess of teenage emotional triggers she herself doesn’t understand. She’s angry at being taken out of her comfort zone, of being forced to go camping, of not being allowed electronics. She’s angry at feeling controlled, her perception of having no freedoms, her parents and her sister, at the whole situation, the world, life. Many of this is rooted in her own secret. Mostly, she’s angry at herself, filled with loss and despair, for losing Mocha. Being kidnapped out of their tent by a very strange man is also pretty triggering.

7.    Secrets. The dire lives in secret. Secrecy begets it. It builds the possibilities of hitting an impasse, creating or building on conflict, and forcing changes in characters and the story itself. Secrets live in many dark corners and the more you give your characters and story, the more they feed into the intensity of the drama.

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In Old Mill Road, Felicity keeps her secret closely guarded. The two long ago childhood friends who remember it also do. It is a secret that has destroyed her and could destroy her brother and the friends she grew up with. This secret only serves to drive her brother to learning it, and their eventual fates.

  • What secret inclination or trait does your character have? Do they have a tendency to dishonesty? Alcohol or drug abuse? Violent tendencies? Other psychological dispositions they want kept hidden?
  • What secrets lay hidden in your character’s past?
  • What motivations and desires do they want to keep from others?
  • What secret is being kept from your character that might destroy what they believe about their self or others? That might alter their course or change their motivators?

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8.    Contradiction drives complexity. What clashing traits does your character have? These contradictions might come out in a moment of stress or conflict. The cruel person who saves a bunny. A bigoted person is compelled to protect a person their nature requires them to hate. A momentary selfless act committed by an unfailingly selfish character.

In Hunting Michael Underwood, (McAllister Series book 3), a serial killer capable of brutal acts turns that darkness on a man for committing abuse against helpless livestock in a slaughterhouse. The abuse of the animals sickens him.

Contradictions of character, of their moral fiber even, makes your characters unpredictable and capable of surprising behaviors that leave your readers wanting to learn why they did it and what else they may be capable of.

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9.    No one is 100% good or bad. Give your most villainous character a little good and your most pure-hearted character a little bit of badness.

Even the hard-handed William McAllister in The McAllister Farm (McAllister Series book 2) will not tolerate another mistreating any member his family. Despite his cold ways and firm handling of his own family treading inflexibly over the line of abuse, there are moments he shows the softness his life won’t allow.

All of these things work both together and against each other to make your characters believable. As your story develops, so do your characters grow in complexity and depth. Revealing layers of character and story together as they drive each other forward through conflicts and change helps create dynamic characters .

Choose your characters’ names wisely, be consistent in their descriptions and behaviors, and give them quirks and personalities.

And leave your characters room to grow.

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We’ve all heard at least one term for a story arc; narrative arc, drama arc, or simply the arc. The different shapes and terms for the rise and fall of different arcs. How they shape the rise and fall of story action.

Your characters need arcs too. This is the transformation or inner journey your character is drawn along through the story.

A character arc is separate from but driven in part, or largely, by the story arc. The assumption, and generally the critical point to any story, is that the events force your characters to grow and change in some way by the time the fateful words, “The End” appear. Determine your characters’ personal story arcs. Where did they start? Where will they end up? What major events lead them there?

Take a group of characters working together for the same end. Each character has their own uniqueness, their differences. Life experiences, ambitions, desires, personalities, and emotional state all come into play creating different arcs despite following the same path together.

As they progress through the story, they learn more about themselves and each other. Hardships bring changes within. One person might shut down emotionally while another becomes more aggressive or angry. Another moves ahead without thought while their companion views each coming step with caution. Clarity of mind grows or wanes.

Often people react differently under duress than they normally would, or even against all beliefs in themselves and how they think they would act. This is the moment where character flaws and strengths shine brightest. Perhaps the one everyone always thought to be reliable and brave cuts and runs, leaving the others to defend themselves. A weak character proves surprisingly resourceful and selfless, shocking even theirself.

Despite the shared experiences of running the same gauntlet of the plot or arc of the story together, all characters won’t change and grow in the same ways or the same rates.

One character has a change or transformation arc, ideal for the main character. This person will change considerably, if not completely, from who they were at the start of the story. The simpering bullied kid who becomes the hero. The angry girl who closes out the world, hiding behind a wall of cruelty, learning to open herself to love and kindness. Their very belief system may be shattered and reborn entirely new.

Another character follows an arc of growth. This might be the best arc for your secondary support characters, showing their growth alongside the more volatile changes the main character experiences. It is similar to a change or transformation arc, but with subtler character changes. Who they are and their basic beliefs don’t fundamentally change. By the end of the story they are largely the same person they were at the beginning. But, they do grow in some way. They overcome some internal struggle. Their perceptions shift. They become a better person, more rounded, or devolve the other way.

Characters arcs are not always growth arcs. They don’t always become better or stronger, don’t always have that revelation that opens their eyes to the error of their ways. The change or transformation can change them for the worse. Their growth and overcoming an internal struggle does not have to be a positive growth.

One of your group may experience a negative or fall arc. While the others grow in some way, bravery, overcoming obstacles, this character has a different reaction to the events they are thrust into. Through their own bad choices or misfortunes forced upon them, their internal storyline declines, perhaps spiralling down by the end. By the end this character embraces the negative changes. They are disillusioned and bitter. Reader and character both likely recognize the only road to the end of the story for this character is downward and paved in misery, hate, and despair.

These three characters may perchance happen to revolve around one with a static or flat arc. Despite the assumptions that all characters must change, they simply all do not. Like all literary rules, character arcs bend to your artistic needs. Some characters simply do no change. They remain static, the story and characters moving about them as they plod on at their same pace. Lesser supporting characters may have flat arcs because their change is irrelevant. They are there to serve other purposes in driving the story forward. A more prominent static character may act as a base line to bring more attention to the degree of change in another character or the world around them.

Different arcs can also cause conflict. Partners and love interests work because of their similarities. The conflict in those relationships are caused by their differences. When one grows, leaving the other behind, it causes distance in the relationship and that rift breeds conflict.

In this sample graph below of character arcs, we have four friends struggling through the story together. Each has a different character arc. They start at the same static moment and all rise and fall together with the story arc, but their levels of experience are different.

The bigger the crisis, the bigger the change, so I plotted the character who changes the most, the transformation arc, with the biggest rises and falls too. Every epic fail and every success affects this character more, driving a bigger character change by the end.

With the growth character, their rises and falls are less pronounced, driving a lesser change in their internal struggle. They grow, but do not fundamentally change.

Destined to be doomed, the falling arc character never rises to the same levels of highs as the others. The wins simple aren’t so much a win for them. The successes are flatter. Failures hit them hard. Each rise after a fall in the arc never attains a height it had before. In my story, once it begins they are never closer to the character with the biggest positive arc than when they both are at their lowest moments. The low spikes are the driving force of the forward change, one up, the other down. The falling arc character continually grows more distant from the other two with flatter arcs, continuing to trend down. Even the final push up for the others only pushes them further down, and they finally spiral into despair and ruin at the end.

Even the static arc character is not completely unmoved, but their graph line mostly is. Despite their inability or unwillingness to change, they are not an entirely unfeeling monster.

Whether the characters are mortal enemies or friends, the points on the graph reveal their relationship with each other. The closer the points, the closer they are to each other. To whatever is possible, an affinity, renewed or gained relationships, mirrored changes for good or evil. The larger the gap, the more distance in their relationship, and the bigger the hole for conflict to seed, grow, and thrive in.

While characters who change the most are more likely to be the most affected by each other, the very refusal or inability of a static arc character to change could potentially be what drives the other characters’ changes and the story to weave and slither around them towards its climax, the plot arc itself forced to change because of their unbending nature.

So too, as the story arc changes the characters, the characters themselves also affect the story arc.

Basic Arc Types:

  • Growth/positive change
  • Falling/negative change
  • Flat/static/little to no change

Foundational Ingredients of an Arc:

  • Thematic truth: the truth about how your world works.
  • Lie the character believes: a misconception contrasting the truth which your character believes.
  • What the character wants.
  • What the character needs (may cause inner conflict vs what they want).
  • The ghost/wound/injury: whatever you choose to call it. This is a motivating catalyst, what haunts the character, something they can’t move past, traumatic, positive or negative, that causes them to believe the lie.
  • Normal world: the initial setting where your story starts.

Heroic Arc Types:

  • Growth/positive change: character believes the lie, sees past it to learn the truth, and formative change or growth is spurred.
  • Flat arc: character believes the truth, unwavers from that belief, and uses that truth to overcome the lie.

Negative or Falling Arc Types:

  • Disillusionment arc: character believes the lie, sees past it to learn the truth, but the truth is tragic. His new world is revealed and he is left cynical, let down, and disillusioned.
  • The fall: character believes the lie and clings to it, embraces it, and rejects what for them is the new truth and the new world it brings, spurring them to believe a worse lie.
  • Corruption arc: character sees the truth, but rejects it, choosing instead to embrace the lie.

Your character arc together with an interesting character profile helps to build compelling characters.

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There is power in a name.

How many times have you avoided using a name because it reminded you of someone? Or it didn’t fit the mood and tone of the story? What names give you the impression a character is strong or weak?

The names you choose helps set the tone, declares your characters’ genealogy, and invokes them with initial power or weakness.

Bruce Wayne. A simple name. The combination evokes a certain image in your head of his heritage. For me both the simplicity and familiarity of the two names say, “White guy.” Maybe it’s my own association with the name Wayne (and English name), aka the earlier days of movies character John Wayne and that surnames traditionally tend to hold more weight than given names. Otherwise, another known actor, Bruce Lee, would be more likely to come to mind with a very different image of what the character might look like.

And as simple as it is, ‘Bruce Wayne’ holds a sense of power aside from knowing this is the Dark Night. Both being well known names also makes it easier to remember. Would a more complex name evoke the same sense of strength in the character? Would you feel the same impression of the character’s ‘normal’ persona name if instead of Bruce Wayne it was, for example, Christopher Steel or Kevin Richardson?

Another well-known character name: Lord Voldemort. While ‘Lord’ is a title, it is essentially used to identify him with two surnames without the implied familiarity of a given name, the trio names of his once normal character, Tom Marvolo Riddle, shed. Voldemort is not a simple name like Bruce, Wayne, or Tom, and yet invokes not just power, but also mystery. It sounds and feels both foreign and powerful. Something that would not have been accomplished with a name like Lord Riddle. If anything, that might invoke the comical image of Batman’s nemesis, The Riddler. What if, instead, the author named him something like Lord Villalobos? I got that from a random villain name generator.

Main character names should be memorable. As much as they determine the reader’s mental image of the character’s appearance and strength of character, you want your main characters’ names to stick in the reader’s mind. That doesn’t mean using only single syllable power names. A name can be memorable because it seems silly or absurd (Pippi Longstocking, a children’s book character, or Pepper Potts in Iron Man).

Complex names can be more memorable too. Despite Lord Voldemort being more complex (it has three syllables to it: Vol-de-mort) it’s likely easier to remember than Marvolo (also three syllables). Why would this be? Say them out loud one after the other. Voldemort, pronounced ‘Voldemor’, rolls easier off the tongue than Marvolo.

One name over another may stick better in the reader’s mind because of their marvellous simplicity, strangeness, subtle or obvious double meaning, or the mind and tongue simply embraces them more. It could be the name inspires a sense of the unavoidable future that awaits, or because it invokes a certain perception of strength or weakness.

You should remember, too, that each reader is different. Each has a different way of thinking, memories, history, and culture. And that all affects each one’s interpretations and impressions of the names, just as your own does.

As writers we often agonize over finding the perfect names for our ‘babies’, our characters. Names that evoke the right amount of strength or weakness. Names that are right for a financial powerhouse and CEO of the largest most powerful company in the world or a character living in abject poverty in the slums. A name that suggests living in obscurity or being pushed to the heights of fame. One who is capable of cruelty or destined for acts of goodness.

Often it’s about finding hidden meanings behind the names. Darth Vader. Darth derives from the word ‘dark’ and Vader is Dutch for ‘father’. Bran Stark: Bran is an old Celtic word that means ‘raven’. It’s also the name of a Celtic king and purported god, Brân the Blessed, who was a giant and said to have died from a poisoned spear. It was believed that his head possessed powers of prophecy even after his death. Fitting for a character who sees through and then becomes the Three-Eyed Raven.

There is a wealth of resources out there for finding those perfect names. If you are desperate enough, you might try random name generators, although I find their results tend to range from comical to ridiculous.

Just like naming your real life baby, looking to baby naming sites gives you lists of both common and unusual modern names. Ideal lists can come from the simplest Google search like, “Top 50 names in Canada for girls,” or, “Most common last names in the US.”

Sites like Behindthename.com are good sources to find the history and meanings behind names. Also to search for names from a specific ethnicity.

When choosing names, you want ones relevant to the era and setting of the story, but also to the characters’ history. Would you name an Irish character Ricky Short? Ricky is a derivative of Richard and not an Irish name. Short is an English surname from the nickname of one who is short. Similarly, if your story is set in the 1700s, you don’t want modern names that were not in existence when your story takes place. If your story is about when your character lands in a foreign country, you don’t want to name people they encounter common North American names unless your intent is they only come across foreigners like themselves.

There are as many things to consider in even a simple name as in your plot, and as complex or straight-forward because, like all things, complex does not always mean better.

Avoid naming pitfalls:

  • Don’t make your names too weird or hard to pronounce. Maybe you want your characters’ names to be unusual, memorable. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just don’t make them so weird that it distracts the reader from the story. I abandoned reading one trilogy early in because the names were so overdone in the weirdness that they were off-putting. The characters’ names made it impossible to focus on and follow the story.
  • Don’t make your names look or sound too similar. Avoid repeating multiple names starting or ending in the same sound, that rhyme closely, or are almost the same. Who was at the Winrose party? Was is Tate or Nate? Who stole the urn, Lacey or Lucy? No reader wants to keep going back to check which character it is. If your reader is confused about which character is in the moment, they will be more than confused by the story.

Be culturally aware:

  • If your story is set in a particular time and place, research what names were typically found then and there.
  • Choose names that match your characters’ cultures and races if they are specified and relevant to the story.
  • If the story location is multicultural, your names should be too.
  • Try to use predominant names accordingly, but don’t forget to represent the smaller groups. For example, a film company is re-booting Brooklyn Nine-Nine in Quebec, Canada, set in Quebec, Canada. They chose to change two main Latinx characters to white French-Canadian. Despite the backlash and cries of “Whitewashing” against this change, it’s not hard to see why they did it. The cultural diversity of the city the reproduction is set in is different. Brooklyn, New York has a much higher ratio of Latinx and black people than you would find in the predominantly French-white Quebec.
  • When you leave characters’ physical descriptions open to the reader to decide what they think they look like, trying to find some names that also have multiple genealogical origins or from varied ancestries.

Your readers don’t have to know how clever you are being:

  • In fact, it’s likely 75% to 90% or more will be clueless about it. That’s okay.
  • In the above examples of Darth Vader and Bran Stark, most people likely wouldn’t know the meanings behind these names unless they looked them up, someone volunteered to tell them, or they happened across the meanings.
  • In The Invention of Lying, Mark Bellison tells the very first lie. His name “M. Bellison” is written on his office door. M. Bellison — embellish on. Get it?
  • Unless you are going for satire, being subtle in your clever name choices is sublime. Naming a villain something like ‘Judge Dredd’ is great for comic books and zombie or post apocalyptic spoofs; but maybe not so much for a serious story.

Treat your characters like real people:

  • Ask yourself, “Does the character name sound like a legitimate real person?”
  • Often the best names are common names. That doesn’t make them forgettable. In fact, familiarity might make them easier to remember.
  • Is it conceivable your character would choose that name for their child? Why or why not?
  • If the name is not what makes sense for the character to be named, that could be part of their backstory.

There doesn’t have to be any big mystique to your naming. If it’s generally irrelevant to the genre and specifically so to the story, then it may be better to not complicate the reader with hidden meanings. For many of my stories I focus more on the genealogy of the character if it’s assigned and the common baby names registered in the year and place of their birth than on anything else. In fantasy, especially epic fantasy, the game of hidden name meanings tends to be more relevant than non-fantasy genres.

Whatever the intents and goals of your name choices, they will help shape the readers’ perception of your story and characters, and can also be a tool to opening up backstories, hints, and story threads.

Next up, Character Arcs.

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Expand your character profiles. Before you get too in depth in creating your characters, build on their profiles. It’s like you just created your Facebook profile and now you are going to fill in those little ‘about you’ details before the world gets to really know you.

You’ve labelled your characters with the most generic details and now you want to get more specific. Dig deeper into those three categories, expand them, and add more if needed. And remember, we are still scratching at the surface of who your characters are.

There are many articles out there on character creation with ponderously long lists giving the messaging suggesting quantity over quality. Do you need to spend hours or days trying to fill in the blanks on a 63 point character profile? No. Yet many articles blandly list every idea they can come up with in a checklist that begs to be filled out.

Like so many other things, when creating your character sometimes more really is less.

The more over-detailed you are, the fewer readers who will feel an affinity with your character. If your character is a 5 foot 6 blond bombshell with blonder highlights in her lustrously smooth shiny hair that cascades to the small of her back, ice blue eyes, perfectly manicured cherry blossom blush pink softly curved one inch stiletto nails, hairline-thin deeply arched shaped eyebrows, perfect subtle smoky makeup, a waist a man can encircle both hands with, perfect cone-shaped uplifted breasts (totally not realistic), yada-yada-yada… how many readers do you really think will identify with this character instead of seeing her as a completely fake plastic doll with no personality chip?

By adding too many details, you make your character less. Less relatable, less real, even less likable.

On the flip side, leaving your character too void of detail makes them nearly invisible in the readers’ imaginations. The character may be forgotten by the next chapter.

There is a subtle beauty in simplicity. Simplify your characters’ descriptions and focus on the relevant or memorable basics and let the readers’ imaginations fill in the rest. Maybe the height or long deadly pointed fingernails are important. As for the rest, find a less wordy more generic way to describe her carefully fashioned appearance.

When filling in more details about your characters, keep in mind what actually relates to the story and, if possible, weed out anything unimportant. For example, regardless of your vision of the character, does it really matter if the reader views them exactly as you envision them?

Again, your list may look different because each story has unique character needs. If it isn’t relevant to your character or story, then you don’t need it. If it is, then add it to the lists.

Who is your character?

  • Does your character have a nickname?
  • Does their name or nickname have significant meaning?
  • Does your character self-identify as something other than what/who/how/when/where etc. they are born? For example, LGBTQ+ identifiers, claims to be from another country or town, lies about their age.
  • Is your character anger prone, a loner, extrovert, disturbingly calm?
  • What is your character’s main flaw(s) and strength(s)?
  • What is your character’s job or school? Assuming it’s relevant.

Character description:

  • Does your character have identifying features? For example, piercings, tattoos, missing hand or finger, birthmark, scar, stub for an arm, noticeable limp, or that ever-popular YA strange quirky lock of white hair on a young heroine.
  • Does your character appear younger or older than they are to other characters?
  • Does your character have a particular style?
  • Does your character have a distinctive voice?     

Character’s relationships:

  • Expand a little on the details of the characters’ relationships.
  • Do they get along with the person? Why?
  • Is there a major secret either keeps from the other?
  • Start cross-noting characters’ relationships like those detective’s crime suspect picture boards on the wall with bits of string strung between photos of witnesses, victims, and suspects. Do it in whatever way works for you. Particularly for a story with a bigger cast of characters.

What other generalities are relevant to your characters?

  • What club or organization do they belong to, if any?
  • Is their level of education or job important?

Next up, names.

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Build your character from the primordial ooze, starting with the basics. Think the most basic of the basics, plunking characters into little pots of generalities alongside other characters from this and other stories. Like sorting toy soldiers, game pieces, or puzzle pieces that you have yet to figure out where they go. All the soldiers from this army go in this pot. All the green marbles go in this pot. All the H-shaped puzzle pieces go in this pot.

Every new character is a clean slate, ready to be made into whatever you need them to be. More importantly, they are ready to be made into what the story needs them to be.

Start with the basics of who or what the character is. Like everything else, these are changeable. Everything about a story can be changed to make it fit and flow better.

Generalize the most trivial aspects of your character, embrace their malleability, but don’t lose focus of the points that are fundamental to the storyline.

Your list will probably look different. If it’s not relevant, leave it out. If something is important, then add it. This list will and should be short, but will grow as you build and develop your characters.

Who is your character, for example?

  • Biological (birth) gender.*
  • Age.
  • Race or species.
  • Societal status: poverty/low-born, middle-income, wealthy/high-born, educated or uneducated.
  • Living or deceased.
  • Level of importance: main character, secondary, middling, supporting, bit player.

*I don’t include gender identity here because its significance is more important to deeper character development than classifying the most basic generalities of the character.

General character description:

  • Tall, short, or average.
  • Slovenly, meticulous, or average.
  • Long hair or short.
  • Body type.

*I prefer to avoid descriptors like hair, eye, and skin color unless they feel relevant. Leaving those out allows more varied readers to imagine themselves inside the story and relate to the characters.

The character’s relationships:

  • Married, engaged, in a relationship, ‘it’s complicated’, single.
  • Relatives, co-workers, or neighbors who are relevant to the story.
  • Their dog. What? No pet? What kind of monster are you?

*List any that are relevant to the character, their development, or the story. Again, we are using generalities here. Vague categorizations, except where it matters to the story. If you don’t want to forget it, then it doesn’t hurt to add it in.

Congratulations, you created your characters’ basic social media accounts. Now go forth and multiply those details.

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Your characters are the make or break of your story. The same thing goes for every part of it, from having a strong storyline to quality editing to setting mood and scene. But, you can get everything else right and lose the reader with a weak character.

I’ve read stories that were mostly well-written with compelling storylines, but could not get excited about the characters. As the reader, the characters became secondary to the story. Overcoming this is a new challenge with every tale, and one we don’t always win.

As much as the narrative is important, if your characters don’t draw readers on and inspire them to care, they will get bored with the book.

Nothing drives a story, embraces the plot, and inspires a reader to tears whether they be of anger or joy, more than a well written character.

How do you make your characters compelling? For a start, you need to be passionate about them if you expect the reader to be.

Love, hate, or be indifferent to them, but do it with an excitement for their existence. Every character matters, down to the smallest bit player. A character people can relate to is one your readers are more likely to feel connected to.

Give the reader something to discover with layers. Without some complexity, characters are a flat mirror, nothing more than a picture pasted to its front with no depth.

Build your character from the primordial ooze, starting with the basics. Think the most basic of the basics, plunking characters into little pots of generalities alongside other characters from this and other stories. Like sorting toy soldiers, game pieces, or puzzle pieces that you have yet to figure out where they go. All the soldiers from this army go in this pot. All the green marbles go in this pot. All the H-shaped puzzle pieces go in this pot.

Expand your character profiles. Before you get too in depth in creating your characters, build on their profiles. It’s like you just created your Facebook profile and now you are going to fill in those little ‘about you’ details before the world gets to really know you.

Name your babies. Names have power. Significance. Whether it is your baby, pet, or character, taking the time to find a relevant and meaningful name is well worth it. I usually use name placeholders in lieu of names until both the characters and story are more developed. Things like Man1 or Girl2, Shopkeeperman1, Evilneighborwoman1, or Man1mother. They act as both descriptors and a name placeholder so my writing isn’t stymied by having not come up with the perfect names yet. As simple as it sounds, coming up with good names can be anything but.

Your characters need arcs too. The assumption, and generally the critical point to any story, is that the events force your characters to grow and change in some way by the time the fateful words, “The End” appear. Determine your characters’ story arcs. Where did they start? Where will they end up? What major events lead them there?

Grow with your characters. It’s inevitable. As you work through plotting and piloting arcs for your story and characters, detailing their profiles and the story outline, weaving them together, and writing the scenes, your narrative and characters both will grow. Ideas will come that make them deeper, more twists and hidden gems. Don’t limit your story and characters by being determined to stick to that outlined plot no matter what. Let yourself grow with your characters and it will make your story richer.

Don’t ignore extra characters. Everything and everyone in a story should be there for a purpose, however small it may be. It might not seem relevant until chapters, or even books, later, but your divine purpose is there. If a scene or character is truly irrelevant, they can graciously be cut. In addition to setting a scene or mood, or moving it along (whatever would have happened if that quite extra character, the owl, did not deliver Harry Potter’s letter?), extra characters can add a sense of reality. They can be used to tip the reader off or lead them down the wrong path. Giving them a little life or attitude can add a chuckle in the midst of a tense moment, a divination of something bad to come, or bring home the reality of what the protagonist is experiencing. Don’t undervalue them, make your extras extra.

An important thing to understand as a writer is to know that wherever you are in your writing talent, it’s ok. It’s perfectly fine to make mistakes, to not be the best. It’s also quite acceptable to be experienced, good, and still make mistakes. We are human, after all. Fallible.

Writers come in all shapes and sizes, all talents and skill levels. It takes a lot of work to get good, and a good writer never stops trying to improve. A driven writer always looks ahead to how they can write better.

My writing certainly is better now than it was with my earlier books. It’s a thousand times better than my much earlier writing; in all forms from flash fiction and short stories, to long fiction, to blogging.

Keep writing and reading my friends. And never stop working to improve your craft.

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