Tag Archives: character development

What a Jerk! #atozchallenge



What a day to be writing about them!

(If you don’t know, April 12 is an auspicious day around here. That’s all I’m saying.)

Jerks are actually tricky things. Because as authors, we can lump them into two categories:
1. Idiots who are trying hard and who the reader ends up liking
2. Characters the reader is never supposed to like, and so doesn’t.

I mean, think about Screech on the old show “Saved by the Bell.” (And don’t ask why I picked that one because I can’t even begin to answer that question.) He was a jerk. But we loved him. In fact, we loved rolling our eyes at him and resisting our urge to be kinder to him.

That’s how he was drawn.

And sometimes, that’s the sort of character you have to create. Like Screech, he may not be the antagonist — and let’s face it; the easiest antagonists to write are those who have nothing about them to make the reader like them.

But the jerk who the reader grows to love? That sort of character takes a deeper skill, a better mastery of craft. This is the guy you have to finesse. You’re always on a tightrope with this one: If you go too far to one side, the reader will hate him. If you go too far to the other, you lose what sets him apart.

When he’s done right, the jerk who wins you over can become some of fiction’s most endearing characters. Think Rhett Butler!

The flip side, the second type of jerk, is much easier. Like I said, these are often the antagonist, the person who gets in the way of the lead character’s mission. They’re the bad guy in a mystery, the bad guy on Criminal Minds. You know the type. They’re usually one-dimensional and often cliched. They are there for two purposes: to be the bad guy and to get it in the end, so the reader and main characters can feel vindicated. They’re about the simple message that the bad guy always loses in the end, and the good guy always triumphs.

But in real life, the first type of jerk is much more prevalent, isn’t he? That’s because life isn’t as black and white as the bad guy always loses in the end. But then again, that’s why we like fiction so much. We need that clear demarcation.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that even though the jerk who you’re never supposed to like is an undeveloped, usually cliched caricature who has very little, if any, literary value (from a high school English teacher’s POV, or even from the educated reader’s), he still serves a purpose, and that’s the feel good that the reader comes away with. That sense of satisfaction that life IS neat and orderly and it all works out in the end.

So. Jerks. The good ones are hard to write. The easy ones serve a greater purpose.

Think about it. Can you tweak your jerks so the lines between the categories here aren’t so black and white?


#atozchallenge: All About Characters


A writer can have a lot of different areas in which to be strong: dialogue, plot, pacing, description. We’ll get to some of them this year and save others for future blog posts.

Today’s letter in the A to Z challenge is C, so let’s focus on one of the other big elements that are vital to a good book: characters. You know: the people who populate your pages.

(I like alliteration.)

Now, we all know that it’s important to develop really good main characters. A lot of authors use a character study sheet or make a character bible to help with this. If you need an idea of what they look like, go and Google it. (Just be careful about all the links you’ll get to displays of character in the Bible, which is an entirely different creature and not germane for today’s discussion.)

I have a template I can share with my clients, when they need it. I’ve used it myself, in my own writing, on occasion (Yes, this is one of the many benefits you get when you’re a client around here). It’s long and very detailed.

Now, as I say to a lot of the young writers I work with (and we’ll talk about what exactly a young writer is later in the month, so stay tuned), you, the author, need to know all this information. Whether they are left-eye dominant may never come up in your story if they never shoot (a gun, a bow, a camera) but it may affect how you, the author, view your creation. Or the sort of house the character grew up in.

Yet these are the forces that shape your characters, and so it’s important for the author to know this stuff. Believe it or not, some authors think delving this deeply into a character is a waste of time, or that anything they learn about the character needs to go on the page.

To the first claim, I laugh. Nothing about working on your manuscript is ever a waste of time. It’s all an exploration, an exercise into deepening your knowledge of your characters.

And to the second, I argue that it does wind up on the page — just not in the way they expect. And this is why taking the time to create an in-depth character sketch is important: Because the more you know your character, the more authentically you will put them on the page. The little things you know about them will find a way to ooze out, into how they speak, into what their eye lingers on, on the way they appreciate the situation they’re in.

Getting to know your characters as deeply as possible is vital.

Now, all that said, you also need to know a little bit more about your non-dominant characters (aka the antagonist and the protagonist). Your secondary characters, the people who do more than walk through a scene and wave. Anyone who’s around for any length of time needs to be more than just The Maid, or The Deputy, or The Fairy Princess. They may not need an entire backstory or a complete work-up of their attitudes and motivations, but you need to know more than what’s on the page. You need a rough sketch of who they are and what they are up to. (Many a secondary character has arisen to steal the story and spawn a book — or a series! — of their own.)

Yes, it’s a lot of work. Yes, it’s easier to ignore this step, or to rely on stereotypes.

But remember our goal here? The best book possible.

That means putting in the work. Taking the time to build your characters from the ground up, from the inside out. It’ll lend your manuscript an authenticity that it won’t otherwise have, and that in turn creates a book that readers can’t help but engage with.


#SaystheEditor: Got Guts?


Guts. Cojones. Nervy. Courage. Daring. Moxie. Chutzpah. Intestinal Fortitude. Balls. Fearlessness. Gallantry. Valor. Nerve. Gumption.

Lots of names to describe shades of the same thing, no?

But yes, today, we’re talking about that which drives us to do things we maybe ordinarily wouldn’t. The shy man who swallows hard and asks a woman out. The character who picks up a gun for the first time and shoots the bad guy (oy, me and guns). The family who invites themselves to a life cycle event even though they can’t bring themselves to be polite to the hostess. The abused who finds her voice and speaks out against her abuser. The young child who knows he doesn’t fit in the world around him, so he runs away and finds out that he’s actually a prince in another dimension.

And on and on. (and yes, a couple of those are drawn from real life and no, I’m not a prince in another dimension.)

It’s the power of our guts, our courage, our whatever-word-and-shade-of-meaning-you-assign-your-characters that give fiction its fun. When a character acts in a surprising way, when they find their inner strength, their … well, fill in the blank from the list above (and, of course, there’s no way it’s comprehensive) — that’s when a fictional character becomes fascinating. It’s often these moments that let a reader make that emotional attachment to a character that lets the character come alive in the reader’s mind.

If you are struggling because your critique partners and beta readers (and you use them, right? Especially those of you who are working on your first couple of books?) tells you your characters are flat, this is the first place to look, and it’s that emotional tug on the reader that you want to focus on.

It doesn’t take a lot to show a character acting with guts. Anyone can reach for that gun. Commit the entire family for a life cycle event whose hostess you don’t particularly like, even though only your kid was invited. Open your mouth and let the words, “Want to grab dinner?” come out of your mouth.

It’s the wording you use that makes that emotional tie. It’s the blocking, the physical movements (for you non-theater types).

He opened his mouth. Like he’d expected, the words were stuck. He closed his lips, hung his head just long enough to take a breath, and tried again. As he lifted his head, he dropped his shoulders and caught her eye. She had a small smile playing at her lips, and that was enough to make all this easier. “C’mon,” he said. “Let’s grab dinner. I’m buying.”

(He upped the stakes! He offered to buy! You go, fictional dude I just made up on the fly!)

But that’s it, isn’t it? Because you see what he’s going through, his discomfort and his attempt to swallow his fear — and the way in which the girl makes it easier for him — that grabs you. He found his guts.

And now, this story about a young man who’s afraid to live his life takes on more interest. He’s taken a risk. Shown some guts. And we want to know how it ends.

We have lots of names to describe this state of affairs. Take a step back and look at how often around you people show these traits. Someone cuts you off on the highway? “Dude. That took serious balls.”

Your kid cuts school? “Dude. You got some serious chutzpah going on. Why don’t you spend the next three years in your room thinking it over?”

Your best friend goes dress shopping without you. “Dude. You did what?

Showing your intestinal fortitude’s all around us (right now, your favorite metalhead is listening to country music. Why? I’m not quite sure. Daring, baby. I’m living on the edge.). People do it daily.

Make sure your characters do, too.

Oh, and if you come across any alternate dimensions looking for their princess or (God help me, but I’m old enough now) their rightful queen, send ’em my way, will ya?