The #1 secret to writing gripping characters

When I was in high school my teachers, mentors and family members gushed praise over my talent as a budding writer. I'll bet that if you're reading a post about the secrets of the writing craft, yours did too... or perhaps they still do.

Creative Commons image by UNC CFC USFK of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by UNC CFC USFK of Flickr.com

I have seen many talented students in writing classes and writer's critique groups over the past twenty years. And there is one terrible affliction that affects them all at some point--the same one that has at times afflicted me. That is the belief that I had made it. 

I don't mean financially. There are only a handful of writers in the whole world who have made it financially through their craft. But I'll admit it. I've suffered through times when I thought I had become such a good writer that I had little left to learn of the craft. I'm glad to say that as I've gotten older, that particular affliction has recurred less and less often. 

Before you get offended and go off certain that you are the exception, sure that you have learned all the basics of writing and only need to polish the brightest jewels in your prose, please stop and consider. I was seventeen when an article I wrote in a small-town newspaper won a statewide competition. I didn't even have to submit the article. It was noticed all on its own. My first writing professor in college initially scoffed at the idea that I would double his required word count and make it all high quality as well. He wasn't scoffing after two semesters in which I delivered before every deadline. And yet when I look back on my writing from that time, I can only cringe and laugh and tell myself it is good that I've improved.

Creative Commons image by Stuartpilbrowof Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Stuartpilbrowof Flickr.com

I had the spark and many others do too. I am not saying you're a hack, just that many new writers who are good still don't have the best skills of the craft. And after twenty years of writing non-stop, I stand in awe at all I have left to learn. 

So, don't despair. Keep your current writing in good clean folders and notebooks. Make sure you keep it safe. You will need it in ten or twenty years, when you will look back and be astounded by how far you have come. It will make you cringe but also give you courage. 

But I promised you the big secret of writing gripping characters, not all this blather about how much you have yet to learn. Don't worry. That wasn't click bait. 

It's only that my writing students have been teaching me that new and talented writers who can dance with language, produce dazzling sentences, craft sturdy and beautiful paragraphs and plot a snappy narrative believe they have it made and often refuse to consider technical terms. They assume they know the "rules" already, even when they don't. 

My writing students recently swore to me that they know what P.O.V. means. Their manuscripts tell another tale. 

So, I decided to put this out there. The single most important key to writing gripping characters is the correct and deft use of Point of View. As you probably already know, Point of View (abbreviated to P.O.V.) refers to the perspective your story is narrated from. It goes beyond the difference between first person versus third person. Or the mandatory caveat that stories can technically be written in second person, but that just because a thing can be done doesn't mean you should. 

There is also the difference between limited P.O.V. and omniscient, i.e. whether the reader feels like a bug sitting in your character's brain, listening to his/her thoughts and watching the action through his/her eyes, or feels like the God of monotheistic religions, sitting on a cloud and viewing the whole thing from above. As the terms hint, the former is called "limited" P.O.V. and the latter is called "omniscient."

Creative Commons image by Dennis Skley

Creative Commons image by Dennis Skley

If the terminology of "first person" and "third person" gives you trouble, here is an excellent beginner's guide to P.O.V. But what I am discussing in this post goes a bit beyond the bare bones. 

Many writers think of P.O.V. as a simply a technical decision you make at the beginning of a writing project, like the verb tense you will use. You decide whether or not you will tell the story as "I" and in the present moment, so that the reader feels like they are the main character and the events are happening right now OR if you will tell a story about another person--a guilt-ridden old man, a reckless young woman or some other "he" or " she"--and in some long distant fantasy age or possibly a yet unforeseen future.  And ,many writers believe that once the decision has been made that's the end of it and that gripping characters can be had with any tense or P.O.V.

Many will argue that P.O.V. is not character development and thus it has nothing to do with how gripping your characters are.

But they'll be wrong.

Deciding which P.O.V. to use is no small thing. It's a momentous choice and not one you can change easily. I can tell you from bitter experience, that if you change your mind two chapters into a story and decide to change your P.O.V. you should definitely not attempt to edit your chapters to reflect the change. You should start from scratch and write the chapters again. P.O.V. affects everything, every turn of phrase and many things too subtle for anyone to consciously edit well. 

The reason for this gets at the root of why P.O.V. is the key to gripping characters. 

Here is a hard truth. Despite all this talk of different P.O.V.s in fiction, there is in reality only one P.O.V.:

Creative Commons image by Jimmy Baikovicius

Creative Commons image by Jimmy Baikovicius

The reader.

I'm serious. At the very least, it's the only one that matters. When you read George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, you are presented with a myriad of different P.O.V.s but they all meet at one point. They all meet in the reader. The reader feels and understands the various characters, knows their fears and anger, grits their teeth in frustration and clings to fleeing hope. 

How does Martin manage to get readers so hotly engaged in the characters and the story and keep them that way for years... a lot of years?

It is primarily because when Martin wrote, he clearly took the position of each character in turn, put himself in those shoes and smelled what that character smelled, felt what he or she felt, burned with the anger of that character and knew the history of that character--even the history not specifically stated in the pages. 

New writers make P.O.V. mistakes a lot, chief among them being what we call "head-hopping." You can technically avoid head-hopping by learning what it is and how to avoid it from a technical standpoint. But there is an easier short-cut to avoiding it and one that will inevitably make your characters grip the reader more.

Try this exercise. After you finish reading this, take your hands off your keyboard, close your eyes and form the image of the character who you want to tell your next story. I don't care if this is the kennel boy, the vapid alien, the plucky rookie cop or an omniscient God.  Make up an image. Then make up an image of a video camera in your hand. Put your eyes into the camera and then your ears and lastly your heart. Make sure they are firmly inside this camera. And then hand the camera to your character.

Creative Commons image by Ed Brambley

Creative Commons image by Ed Brambley

Good. Now, go write. But write ONLY what that camera in the hands of your character sees and hears and feels. 

If you are writing the next big thing after A Song of Ice and Fire and you need to jump from character to character, take a moment each time you want to make the switch to a different character. Envision the next character and clearly see within your mind the character who had the camera last handing the camera to the next character. Then continue writing. 

Don't just switch without taking the time for this exercise or some similar moment of concentration and visualization. You must take this time and engage in a conscious process of switching. That is the key to writing gripping characters.

Not just deciding on a P.O.V. and not just choosing the "correct" one for your type of story, which is a debatable issue. But rather the clear understanding of what your P.O.V. can see and hear and feel.

Your book may not be a movie and you may not even want it to have a film-like feel. That doesn't matter. Your narrator still can only experience what he/she/it experiences. No more. 

You can have the camera held by one person and thus see all closely from that person's perspective, including understanding their inner world and feelings of that one character and misunderstanding and guessing at the feelings and thoughts of other characters. Or you can give the camera to God and point it at the characters, seeing all of them more objectively, yet not delving deep into their inner thoughts and emotions. But you cannot have it both ways without a clear break.

Keep in mind that characters cannot actually see themselves, unless they are looking in a mirror. You cannot start a sentence describing a character's facial features and ending with his inner, unspoken fears. Well, physically you can of course, if you really want to. There are plenty of examples of a character looking into a mirror and noting their appearance and then continuing with their inner thoughts. But this is an overused technique and should only be employed if it comes up as a completely obvious choice for your character. If you create this kind of sentence without the mirror and thus imply looking from the outside and then the inside of the person at the same time, you will destroy your reader's experience and turn readers away from your character. Such a character does not hold interest or empathy. 

When I explained this in classes, one student responded by pulling out examples from classical literature in which this rule has been broken by famous authors of the distant past. The question was plain. Do I dare to challenge the titans of fiction?

Well, in some ways I do. We don't look down on the great medieval painters because they painted stiff, portraits of children with faces that appear middle aged. But neither do we emulate them. Crafts progress and P.O.V. is one way in which the craft of fiction writing has developed over the past several hundred years. 

Creative Commons image by Isawkins of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Isawkins of Flickr.com

On the other hand, many early works are quite good and have a magic of their own. I didn't claim that P.O.V. is the answer to everything, just the key to gripping characters. Engaging character development was not always the highest goal of the fiction writer. In the ages before Facebook and on-demand TV, fiction could take at least a little longer to get around to the point and characters could be a bit less gripping in favor of other virtues of the prose.

Today, however, they can't.

Either you grip your reader or you die. All writers must die as George Martin would probably say. The question is whether or not you will die in obscurity without your stories being read.

If you want to grab readers, make your characters grip. And in order to make them grip, be absolutely certain of your P.O.V. and stick to it. Never forget who is is holding your camera at any given moment and be firmly inside their experience as you write. 

There is more to writing gripping characters of course, things like character description, motive, character arc, background and believable interactions--all things I will discuss in other posts. But getting the P.O.V. right and sticking to it is more important than any of that. Without a solid and steady P.O.V. there is no character to develop. 

I love connecting to fellow writers. Let's share our experiences. Drop me a line below and tell me and other readers about your experiences with writing P.O.V. Have you made any dramatic mistakes with P.O.V.?  What is your favorite P.O.V.? Are these terms new to you or have you been wrestling the beast for some time?

Be well and keep writing.

When you become your greatest fear: A Kyrennei Series character interview

Readers of The Kyrennei Series love to ask questions about the premise, especially about how the Addin really works on the inside. There will be more on that coming in Book 5 of the series this fall, but for now here is a character interview that will answer some of the questions you have wondered about and add a little more spice to the summer.

If you haven't yet started on the series, this interview doesn't contain any major spoilers, although you'll have to roll with a few unfamiliar terms. Reading this first may also have unexpected consequences in your experience of the story when you do read it.  That could be a good thing, although I'm not sure what the results would be. 

With no further ado and by popular demand, the character who has been drafted by readers to be interviewed on these pages is...

Atreyu O’Keefe

Q: We'll leave aside how and why you're here talking to me for the moment because that is confidential. We'll start with the basics. Where are you from? Where were you born? And all that.

Illustrative photo - Creative Commons image by Palmira Van

Illustrative photo - Creative Commons image by Palmira Van

I’m from La Grande, Oregon. I was born there. My mom was too. My dad was from Portland. They built our house out on Hunter Road.

Q: You were friends with Aranka Miko as a kid, weren’t you? What was that like?

We were friends for a few years, since we were seven or eight until we were twelve. It was great at the time. There weren’t any other girls my age who lived close enough to visit. We were active, outside most of the time. We played dress-up like a lot of girls, but we’d dress up in wild outfits and then we’d go ride our bikes down the gravel roads and get the gauze of our princess dresses tangled in our chains. 

Q: Was there anything out of the ordinary about her then? Would you have believed that she would play such a crucial role in the world?

No, no, of course not.

I mean she wasn't average or anything. She was kind of wild adventurous for a kid. She talked me into hiking to the top of Mount Emily to camp out by ourselves. My parents freaked out. She was never going to fit in with the mainstream, but neither would I, except for... well, all that. But still I never would have thought anyone from our little backwoods corner was going to do something like that.  

Q: Did your parents approve of your friendship with Aranka?

My parents were always a bit nervous. But when my mom mentioned that I wasn’t best friends with any Meikan kids, I remember my dad said, “Lin, let her be. She’ll have to accept hard reality soon enough. Let her be a child for a while.” 

My dad liked Aranka’s dad too. That was probably part of it. So, they didn’t have anything against us playing, but they believed she was uninvolved and that I would have to grow out of that friendship someday.

Q: What was it like growing up Meikan in La Grande? 

It was okay mostly. I have to say. Even though some things were hard. We had our community. People stuck up for each other. A bunch of guys helped my dad build our house. If someone was sick, you always had people to help out. It was like having a big family. 

We were under pressure from the Addin but only as much as we could bear. It was more that you knew what your limits were. Uninvolveds talk about how “any kid can be president” and all that. We knew that wasn’t true. We knew we couldn’t even be mayor. 

But we also knew that we could live a reasonably good life if we just kept our heads down. At least that’s what I thought as a kid.

Q: But then you were taken.

Yeah.

Q: Why? If you obeyed the treaty, why were you taken? 

Accidents happen. I was always told it was because they didn’t know I was Meikan. That might have been true.

Q: And afterward they couldn’t undo it?

No! No, there is no way they can undo that. And they wouldn't even if they could.

Q: Can you tell us what happened exactly? How you were taken?

A family moved in nearby who had two girls a bit older than me. I guess they were fourteen and fifteen. My mom always made one little effort to welcome new neighbors, even though she was nervous about uninvolveds. She brought them cookies and some spring greens from our garden.

Aranka wasn’t home that day. I think they went on a canoe trip. So, I went with Mom to see who the newcomers were. The girls weren’t very nice at first. Their names were Britney and Chelsea. I tried to act like I was their age to try to get them to accept me a little, but I don’t think they believed me. I didn’t think about the fact that someone like that might be Addin. I was twelve. It just didn’t occur to me. 

When I ran into them later, I kept trying to say hi to them, even though they didn’t say hi back. Once the younger one, Britney, commented on my clothes, laughing and saying she had the same skirt a few years ago, so I must have gotten it at the second-hand store. We weren’t dirt poor or anything and I’m pretty sure that we bought that skirt new, but we did sometimes buy clothes second-hand. My mom thought buying second-hand was socially and environmentally responsible. Or something like that.

Anyway, I figured those girls weren’t going to have anything to do with me. Then one day a week or two before summer break they came up to me in the public library while I was checking out books and waiting for my dad to give me a ride home. All of the sudden, they were acting really nice. There were two other girls with them. One of them was Rose Sinclare who was an eighth grader and already a social queen. She smiled at me and said I was cute. I couldn’t help feeling good when someone so popular said something nice to me. 

They said they wanted to show me something and we went back to the teen section. That’s a room at the back of the library that’s all glassed in and has lots of posters up. There are some couches for kids to hang out on. Those girls had smart phones and this was before it was standard for everyone to have smart phones. They started showing me pictures... 

Q: That's it? That's all that happened? They just accepted you and you went willingly because you didn't know they were Addin? 

No... It wasn't just that. When it happened I felt kind of dizzy. Like if you spun around in circles dancing really fast. I held onto the couch really hard and I must have looked a little weird. Then the girls were all laughing and patting me on the back. 

“See. No big deal,” Rose told them and then asked me, “How do you feel, Atreyu?” 

I didn’t know why I should feel anything, but I did feel a little different. I really wanted to be Rose’s friend and I wanted her to like me and like what I did and what I wore. I think that was the first thing. The rest of it sank in more gradually over the next few weeks. At first, they didn’t tell me anything about special Addin stuff. 

Q: But that still doesn't sound like a big deal. Was there ever a moment when you were shocked to realize you'd been taken?

I started to wonder and the idea didn't bother me. Then I wondered why I'd been afraid of the Addin.

It wasn't a single moment. It took a little while to really understand it. That's probably because I was so young. I wasn't shocked. I thought it was funny. I was a bit nervous about how my parents would react. Very briefly, but I knew they couldn't do anything to me. That made me kind of giddy, knowing that my parents were weak and brainwashed and I didn't have to do what they said every again. 

Q: How did your parents react?

My dad showed up at the library to pick me up and Rose and the others said goodbye just like they were my friends. Rose said something like, “Have fun and don’t get into too much trouble at home.” 

My dad got on my case when I got in the truck, saying I was being sullen and turning into a teenager. Then he started giving me a lecture about how you always have to use the sign, even if you’re pissed off or whatever.

I’d just picked up the sign a few weeks earlier and I still wasn't entirely sure what had happened. But I couldn’t remember it. I couldn’t even remember what it was. I still don’t. I know it was something I could do for those few weeks, but it was just gone.

I did get sullen then and I wouldn’t answer my dad. It took a few days before I told my parents straight out that I didn’t remember it. First I told them maybe I wasn’t really old enough. They talked to some of the Meikan elders. At first they hoped maybe it was a fluke, like I’d regressed or something.

They took me to see Annie Reese. I only knew where we were going when we pulled into her driveway and my dad got out of the pickup and ran in to talk to her. When they came back out Annie was really upset. And by that time Rose and the others had made the situation clear to me, so in the end I told them.

I got out of the truck and said, "Yeah, you idiots. I finally woke up and realized how stupid you are. Now you have to leave me alone. It's the law." 

My mom started sobbing and some guy across the street was staring at us. I felt embarrassed to be around them at all, so I walked away and went to one of my new friends' houses in town. I had to go home eventually, but it was different then. They couldn't boss me around.

Q: Do you really think the Addin didn’t know you were Meikan?

Britney and Chelsea acted all shocked that I had been Meikan. I’m not sure. I think maybe some of them knew. It’s hard to say. Why else would they have been interested in such a young kid? It’s possible Rose knew and the others didn’t. The way she acted was different. She could have been told by adults to practice on me.

Q: So then the Meikans shunned you?

Annie Reese let everyone know about it and immediately no Meikans would even look at me. At first, I didn’t really care that I was shunned. I had new friends. And it was good that the uncool people who I knew around town didn’t try to bug me or say hello to me. If they had, it would have been really awkward with my knew friends.

I saw that most of the Meikans shunned my family too. At home my family acted stiff around me. I could see that my dad was really angry when he looked at me, but he didn't raise a hand against me. My mom cried a lot. I thought she was just silly and hysterical. I had no idea how much it hurt her that I was taken. Then my dad and my brother moved away. My mom was pretty much alone because a lot of Meikans were too afraid to have anything to do with her, even though she still had the sign. They were afraid of me. I could see it in their faces and their hatred too.

Q It’s odd. It doesn’t sound that terrible to be taken. It almost sounds like your family and other Meikans overreacted.

It wasn’t a terrible thing for me. I've said that plenty of times. And I did think they overreacted. That’s how it was for me. I’m sure they saw it differently. They saw me change. I went from being a kid who was interested in the community, a kid who had dreams and goals for my own life and a kid who was really into saving forests and protesting clear-cutting to a kid who was  passionate about the popular crowd and having all name-brand clothes and perfect make-up.

There's a cost. You lose yourself, but you don't grasp that, so it doesn't actually hurt while it's happening to you.

 I didn’t care about our community anymore. I really thought they were delusional and I thought the Addin was much more practical and reasonable. The Addin knew how to run things. They had a hierarchy that made sense, based on how talented you were as well as good looks. 

When you’re in the Addin you want the Addin to be in control. It’s the most obvious thing in the world. You know that people are better off with the Addin in charge, even the people who don’t know about it. And all you want for yourself is to be accepted in the Addin. 

I could sit down and have dinner with my parents and not have any real problem unless they brought it up. I knew they had weird ideas that would screw things up, if they ever got their way.  But once I was brought into the Addin I had older mentors who explained to me why I had to let my parents be the way they were. They weren’t important and as long as they didn’t stir up any trouble it was best just to leave them alone.

Q: But you didn’t just let Meikans be. You gave the Addin names of Meikans in La Grande.

A few months after I was taken I was asked to come and talk to some people, including the mayor. That was a pretty big deal for me. One of the Addin teachers let me out of class to go, so my parents didn’t have any idea about it. 

The mayor's people told me again how I had to accept that my family and other people I knew wouldn’t understand. They seemed disappointed that I had been shunned by Meikans so soon. That is another reason I suspect that my being taken wasn’t entirely an accident. But it could have been. It doesn’t really matter. The Addin never really took the treaty seriously. What they took seriously was the need to keep Meikans docile and quiet.

Anyway they started asking me who was Meikan. They already knew about some people, but not about most of them. I didn’t know everyone’s last name at that age, but I could name off which kids were Meikan from all over town and they could then figure out who the families were. At the time I didn’t think about why. They wanted to know and I was so happy to be important enough to help them that I was all glowing and elated inside. Maybe I was just an immature kid or maybe its a specific Addin thing. I don’t know, but it never occurred to me at the time that I was betraying anyone or what the consequences might be. 

Q: But Aranka wasn’t Meikan. Why did you stop being friends with her as well?

She wasn’t cool. She was nowhere near the popular crowd. After I was taken, all I cared about was being accepted by the popular Addin kids and doing what they wanted. Mostly I just couldn’t be bothered with Aranka. She was insignificant. 

When she kept following me around and talking to me, Britney told me that I had to get rid of her for good. She let me know that having a nobody like that act like your friend was really bad juju. It would hurt my chances in the social scene. So, I told her to get lost. I told Aranka I was just pretending to be her friend. 

Q Why was Aranka not cool?

I don’t know… No specific reason really. She dressed very practically and she didn’t seem to care about what was in style. But it wasn’t even mostly about appearance. The social crowd can always find something about you to pick on, but they mainly do it because of who you are inside anyway. 

She wasn’t as quiet as a low-status person should be. She’d go ahead and talk, even when you were supposed to listen to the cooler people and work your way up to being worthy enough to talk. When the top girls decided someone needed to be punished, she didn’t seem to notice. She’d still laugh at that person’s jokes and talk to them. 

I guess most of all, she just didn’t play the game. She knew it was there, but maybe she didn’t know it was mandatory to play it. Or maybe she couldn’t play it the same way. Kyrennei are still Kyrennei even before they’re changed. Maybe there is something about them that is never going to fit in.

Q: Do you feel hope for the world, given how powerful the Addin is?

I do now. I can't really say more about it, because like you said it's confidential. But there is hope. For me, it's about compassion. That and I still believe people have good souls.

Must all modern female heroines be unbelievably strong, fearless and invincible?

Maya Gardener is a college student with practical dreams. She's a dutiful daughter, attending church even when she goes away to Michigan Tech. But she doesn't feel like she belongs--not at church, not with the sororities on campus, not with her parents nor anywhere else. She assumes that's because she is both adopted and biracial in a country where the rift between black and white is widening.

And yet that's the least of her troubles. Shadowy authorities are trying to track her down, authorizing "lethal force" to capture her. A guy she thought she liked turned into a maniac, shot up the university and kidnapped her. Maya has good reason to be frightened. Most of us would be.  

"But she isn't like Katniss of the Hunger Games!" a friend who is also a prolific author protested.

"That's true,"  I answered. "She isn't Katniss... or Tris of Divergent for that matter. Her name doesn't even end in 'iss' as seems required of best-selling modern heroines.  But more importantly, she is more like a real woman." 

"But who wants to read about regular old people who aren't superhuman?" my colleague argued. "I want to escape into a fantasy world when I read, not experience a life that is even more miserable as my own." 

"It's easier to fully enter the world of the story, if the characters are like real people." I tried to explain but I wasn't entirely invested in the argument. "Katniss and Tris will always win. You know that from the outset. They don't give me a sense of hope, because I always knew they were in a class apart, superheroes, who I can never measure up to." 

My correspondent wasn't convinced and neither was I. We simply disagree. And readers are bound to disagree as much as writers on this issue. 

Aranka Miko, the heroine of the initial trilogy of The Kyrennei Series, has been compared to Katniss and Tris on occasion. She is feisty. She gets hit with bad stuff and she bounces back. The minute she has a spare breath, she is ready to help rescue others in a similar predicament, regardless of the danger to herself. She stands up to torture and refuses to surrender valuable information to the bitter end.

And there is a kind of hope in that. We need strong heroes and heroines.

As readers, we recognize the strength and courage it takes for the character to survive and even fight back in the face of enormous evil. But how difficult is the path of such a heroine really when she begins with tenacity and ferocity as her strengths? And what can she really do for the world, when you get right down to it? She brought a flicker of hope, but unless the author (ahem) engineers a series of extremely unrealistic events (as some authors have... no naming names here), Aranka won't be able to bring down the powers of tyranny alone. 

To do that, it will take something more than tenacity and ferocity. It will take the kind of strength our own world is in such dire need of.

That kind of strength comes from a real battle within. Deep and authentic hope comes from the understanding that even those of us who do not start out as superheroes, who are small, terrified, wounded and broken can choose our own path in the face of the most horrendous odds. The battle is within us as much as on the outside. 

And that is why Maya Gardner is the heroine of Code of the Outcast (Book 4) of The Kyrennei Series. She is like most of us. She isn't particularly strong or fast or good with a bow. She avoids fighting and conflicts. She freezes up in a crisis. But within her she carries a hidden potential, a spark of something waiting to bloom. If only she can reach out and choose her own path when most of her choices have been taken away. 

Then we would have hope in the darkness of our own world as well. When the choices are hard and uncertain, choosing your own path is an act of great courage.

I love your comments on these posts! What is your favorite type of hero or heroine? Share this article using the icon below and find out what your friends think.

What's in a word? "Outcast"

"You must think the whole world is against you. Why else would you write about an outcast?" 

That was one interesting reaction to the upcoming publication of the fourth book in The Kyrennei Series, entitled Code of the Outcast.  (I'm beginning to like criticism. It provides good blog fodder.)

Obviously the word "outcast" stirs up some intense emotions. I'm well aware of it. For some, that word has more gut-punch power than the worst curse words. It isn't a word we say or hear very often, but it's between the lines a lot. 

I wrote about the issue of a community shunning a person, making him an outcast, because I believe that it's the duty of writers and artists to open up the dark corners of society and the mind.

Whatever is too painful to touch directly, we must touch and try to heal with stories. For centuries that has been our role. Where the healing of doctors cannot go, where the words of public figures dare not go, artists and writers should go. 

And no, the world isn't "against me." The world is very troubled and mostly doesn't know I exist. And that is quite difficult enough for anyone to cope with. 

Code of the Outcast is the fourth book in a series. Even though this book starts with new characters, you will probably still enjoy it more if you start from The Soul and the Seed (Book 1). For those who know the series, this book is a bit of an answer to a lot of reader questions, wondering about what happens to those who don't have the protection of the legendary fighters of J. Company.

The answer isn't always pretty. And yet there is something of great value here. 

Code of the Outcast begins with a person facing the realization that he and only he can make a difference, save a life... change the world. Yet in order to do it he must commit violence and take the consequences. 

We float through so much of our life in numbness because most of the time there is very little we can do to change the terrible things that happen in the world. We hear about them at a distance and we can only write letters to politicians and protest. We can't really change it. 

But there are moments when you can.

Such a moment will usually not come when you expect it or come at a convenient time. But there are moments when one person can make a great difference. Code of the Outcast is essentially the story of one of those moments and the two people it uprooted and turned into outcasts.

You don't get to change the world without sacrifice and in this case the sacrifice is just that - to be shunned and lose home and family forever. Could you make such a choice, if it would save the life of a person you cared about? 

Is this a worthy topic for a novel? Comment using the icon on the lower left. And please share this post with your friends using the icon on the lower right. :)

Time to order Book 4 of The Kyrennei Series

Code of the Outcast is now available for preorder as a Kindle ebook. Until July 1 it will be on sale for 99 cents. Then the price will gradually go up until it's $3.99 like the other books on publication day (JUly 7). It's both cheaper and a boost to the series if you preorder now and have the book delivered to your Kindle on July 7. 

If you haven't read The Soul and the Seed (Book 1 of The Kyrennei Series), it's recommended that you start there.

The paperback book and other ebook formats will be up soon. 

If you need a read-for-review or pre-release copy either in the Kindle format or another ebook format,  send me an email. 

Free books!

If you think you might like my books or have read one of them but not the rest, here's your chance to get a free book. Join my hearth-side email circle, where readers get an occasional email with links to my blog posts plus a sort of virtual cup of tea. And you get a free ebook. Here's how:

  1. Subscribe to my hearth-side email circle here
  2. Then look at The Soul and the Seed (or check the Books by the Fire tab to find the next book in the series if you've already read that one.) 
  3.  Next go to my contact page and send me a message. Include your email address, your preferred ebook format (Mobi, Epub or PDF) and which book you would like. Presto! You'll have it in your inbox soon.

Character development the easy way

There are all kinds of books on writing that will tell you how to develop deep, multi-dimensional characters. And yet most leave out a few easy and essential early steps that make all the difference.

I’m not saying that character development is easy. Good, deep character development is very hard. It’s arguably one of the hardest things about writing fiction and also the most important thing.

But there are harder ways to do it and there are easier ways to do it. This the easier way to do something that is hard enough even if you don’t make it any harder than necessary.

Step 1: Choose models

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. Using real-life people as models for you characters is not plagiarism and it is not slander. The whole point of using a real person as a model for your character is that you want to come up with a new person. The model is only a starting point and usually only covers one facet of the character.

The key point is that you actually don’t want one model for your character. You probably want at least three. You want one person who looks more or less like what you want your character to look like. You want another person who has a personality and speaking style like you want your character to have. And you want one person who has a job or situation like you want your character to have. It is much simpler to take these three things from three different people. That way you have the flexibility to work within your plot. And no one can say that you slandered them by putting them in your story.

Why is it important to have models? Well, models make it easy. You don’t have to do it this way. You can make your ten or twenty essential characters up out of whole cloth and try to keep their faces and mannerisms in your head through your book or series of books.

But… well, good luck with that.

If you’re name is George Martin or Diana Gabaldon you can ignore this and all of my advice. Those authors are either doing this already or they are geniuses with astronomical IQs.

Here’s a practical example of what I’m talking about. Let’s say you need a police officer in your story.

There. You already have a job for your character. But figure out what kind of police officer, in what position, in what size of town you need. Then if possible find someone who is a police officer in that sort of situation. The job part is actually one situation where people like to be models for fiction. If possible, find a friendly cop in the kind of position you need and tell them that you want to write about someone in a similar position who isn’t them, who looks completely different and has a different personality but the same job. Professionals will often be thrilled to tell you all the crucial details about that job.

I’ve got a landscaper in my current work-in-progress and my younger brother is a landscaper. It’s very handy to pick his brain to find out exactly what my landscaper should be doing at various times of the year. But my landscaper couldn’t be more different physically or emotionally from my brother.

Okay, I went a bit backwards on this one. The characters at the bottom of this cover (Rick and Kenyen, as readers of the Kyrennei series will know) are recognizable but I actually didn't find these pictures on ShutterStock until I was finished writing the first three books.  That made finding the right pictures hard. But I'd had these characters in my head for twenty years, and had a very clear picture of each of them, although Rick does sort of look suspiciously like an Iraqi friend of mine who likes to cook.

Okay, I went a bit backwards on this one. The characters at the bottom of this cover (Rick and Kenyen, as readers of the Kyrennei series will know) are recognizable but I actually didn't find these pictures on ShutterStock until I was finished writing the first three books.  That made finding the right pictures hard. But I'd had these characters in my head for twenty years, and had a very clear picture of each of them, although Rick does sort of look suspiciously like an Iraqi friend of mine who likes to cook.

As for the physical picture of your character, think about what physical characteristics will suit the character in your story. Don’t forget that besides hair color, eye color and height you have many other factors to play with. Don’t make all your characters be of average weight and build. Don’t make all your characters the same race as you. Give your characters some small differentiating feature. Once you figure out what general kind of physical appearance you need, try to find someone who looks like that.

Think about your circle of friends and acquaintances or look up photos on Google. You can seriously google “Picture of tall brown-haired man” and get a ton of great pictures of tall, brown-haired men. Look at them and pick one. Then copy the link to your research file. Do NOT use this photo in any publication as you probably don’t have the copyright privileges to do so. But do refer back to it. Keep it in front of you enough that you can visualize the character.

With a main character or other key character you might still want to change some important detail of the character’s appearance but make it something you can visualize in that photo. Pick a person without a scar and give them a scar in your mind. Or glasses. Or sideburns.

The most difficult and most important part is your character’s personality. But again the same technique will serve you well. Choose a person to be your emotional model. This time it is really better to choose someone you know personally. Otherwise, you won’t know their reactions in enough depth. Then think about that person in various situations. How would he or she react if their spouse broke up with them or if they won a writing contest or if they had to tell a loved one terrible news? Get used to that person’s reactions and way of relating. Play amateur psychologist and make up reasons for why a person might have those particular reactions. Or if you know why your real-world model has those reactions, change the reasons up a bit.

You can in fact use more than one emotional model for one character. Combine different traits from two different people. Again think how your character with the personality he or she has would react in various situations.

I have a character in my current work-in-progress who is trans-racially adopted. I use what I know of people in that situation to inform me about her emotional make up. But she is also the kind of person who avoids conflict at all cost and tends to freeze up when there is tension.

A relative of mine, who is also one of my trusted beta readers, talks about struggling with freezing up in the face of conflict. So, I use my relative’s reactions to inform how this character might react. The character isn't “supposed to be” my relative. The girl in the story is very different in other ways, but it is handy to have an emotional model.

It is particularly handy to have one who likes being an emotional model and is happy to read through the story and pick out how I’ve slipped up on the personality type. That is a rare treat. You won’t usually be able to tell your emotional models that they have a personality double in your story and you might have to go on the run if you do tell, but it’s fun while it lasts.

Step 2: Fill out a character sheet

The next thing you do with your budding characters is print out a copy of this free character sheet I developed, combining the best qualities of the many character sheets out there. You’ll need a copy for each major character.

Stop!

Wait. You don’t have to fill out the whole thing immediately. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. Fill out as much as comes easily to you given your choice of models for this character. If you don’t know your character’s family history yet and it isn’t key to the plot in the beginning, leave it blank for now. You may find that the story will provide you with the answers you need as you deepen your plot.

So, in the beginning, just fill out those parts you can and then come back later and fill in other parts as you go.

Why am I asking you to do this exercise that looks like a worksheet from school and doesn’t seem to have much in common with writing? Because it will save you endless blood, sweat and tears later.

You may think you know your characters well now but after 70,000 words and many months of work are you really sure you’re going to remember the make of this character’s car or the color of that character’s eyes? Even when it was mentioned only once somewhere in your narrative?

Remembering those references will be much harder than you think. And finding them again is tedious and time consuming, assuming you even remember to look. What if you decide to put this manuscript aside for a couple of months and get back to it later? It will be much less work to get back into if you can quickly review the crucial information about your characters.

There is nothing worse than having a reader catch you being inconsistent. “I’m confused. In chapter 1 she had blue eyes. In chapter 10 she has brown eyes.”

Oops!

Keep character sheets. I’ve made one for you and it’s free.

Step 3: Think about what your characters want

I know the character’s desires are on the character sheet but it is likely that with many characters you won’t be able to come up with all of their desires in the very beginning.

This is a step that starts in the beginning and keeps going throughout the writing process. Remember that good fiction requires conflict or at least a problem to be solved. Conflicts and problems create suffering of some kind in a character. And if you ask a Buddhist guru (or a writer) what the root of human suffering is, you will be told that it is desire.

Without desire, there is no suffering and without suffering, there is no conflict. Make your characters yearn for something and you have story.

Deny your characters what they want and you create suffering. There is a law in fiction that says that the more you make a characters suffer, the more your reader will love them. This is almost always true. You can make a character too pitiful and lose the reader’s sympathy and respect but generally if your character suffers, your reader will keep reading.

Desire doesn’t have to be a fantastic dream or an overt goal and suffering need not involve physical pain. Sometimes a character simply wants to be able to live in peace or to find the answer to nagging internal questions. But this desire must be made clear and vivid to the reader. The more abstract the desire, the harder the writer’s job is.

Suffering is the same way. While commercial fiction usually involves a character suffering in some dramatic way involving physical injury, grief, betrayal or denial of love, it is very possible to make a compelling story in which the suffering is deep and less easily understood. It is only that doing more abstract and less overtly tangible things with a character is harder to do well.

Step 4: Visualize scenes like a movie or act them out

Either before you write or in the early stages of writing your first draft, visualize new scenes in your head. Let them play like a movie a few times. Get a picture of the characters and watch how they move. Get a feeling for them and watch what they do and say.

Try out the scene in a few different ways. What works best? What actions and words seem natural to your characters?

I have been known to act out scenes from my stories, standing in the middle of the room and stepping back and forth to take on the roles of different characters in a heated debate or moving around the room to block out a combat scene, making sure the physical actions will add up in three-dimensional space. I don’t really recommend doing this when other people are watching or listening. It requires too much stopping and backing up and redoing to be very entertaining and your goal is not to be silly but to iron out specific details that will then come across very real in the story.

Do I look slightly crazy while I talk to myself and have fights with the air? I might but this is another reason to do it in private. If the NSA is spying on me through my computer’s webcam, at least they’ll know what all my Google searches involving borders, bridges and weapons are about.

Step 5: Start writing or plotting, whichever is relevant.

There are two kinds of writers, it is said. The plotters and the pantsers.

Plotters carefully plan out their story with note cards, time-lines and outlines before they ever sit down to write.

Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They get the basic groundwork in place, particularly the settings, premise of the story, key conflict and the characters, including their initial desires. Then they sit down at the keyboard and let the characters do their thing.

I’m a pantser, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Pantsers don’t necessarily do less work in preparation for writing. Flying free in writing is best done if you have all the necessary back-up - well-developed characters, settings, premise and initial conflict. I usually know where the story is going within the next 20,000 words. And I have a vague idea of the ending but I don’t usually know how I’m going to get there.

I have often pulled up Google Earth, plunked my characters down in one place and told them they have to get to another place, given whatever the conditions of the story are (chase, pursuit or search for something), and then I let Google Earth surprise me and the characters. It almost always works beautifully, providing me with plot twists I never would have come up with on my own.

Oh, there’s a river there. That’s a problem. How are my heroes going to get across while being chased by helicopters. Ah, there’s a bridge… But only one bridge. And it will be guarded by the antagonists, obviously.

You can see where that’s going.

But this isn’t a general guide to plotting. This is about characters. And which ever way you choose to write, whether plotting or pantsing, you have now come to the point where you have to just do it. You hold onto the sense of your characters as individuals that you have developed in the previous steps and you feel their desire while you work out the specifics of your story. This will result in what is called a “character-driven story.” But that is just a fancy name for good fiction. All good fiction is character-driven, even the fiction that is action packed.

Step 6: Now change your characters

I know. I know. I said keep your characters consistent. But there is a difference between “consistent” and “stagnant.”

Real people faced with challenges and conflict change. Characters with a realistic personality should too.

Aranka Miko, the main character in The Soul and the Seed, is initially a frightened teenager imprisoned in a dark cage. How she rises in a troubled world to kindle the first flicker of hope in a thousand years is the core of the story..

Aranka Miko, the main character in The Soul and the Seed, is initially a frightened teenager imprisoned in a dark cage. How she rises in a troubled world to kindle the first flicker of hope in a thousand years is the core of the story..

Maybe this is the hard part for some, but I contend that if you’ve done the previous steps well this will be the easy part. I have rarely decided beforehand how my characters are going to change. I have simple set up characters and given them unfulfilled desires and a conflict. Then I followed where they led and the characters changed by the time the story was done.

Several reviewers of my first book gushed, “You can see the characters growing and changing before your eyes.”

I hadn’t realized when I started the story that the growth of the characters would be so obvious so soon. I also thought the only character to really change would be the main character. But that wasn’t the case. Because my major characters were strong and unique and had real personalities and they were faced with huge challenges, they had to change and I didn’t have to force it or consciously manipulate it that much.

In case this doesn’t come as easy in every story, remember to go back to the character’s desires. Do they get what they want? Are they thwarted? Does what they wanted turn out to be as good as they thought it would be? How does this impact the character?

Step 7: Rewrite and edit with an eye to character consistency

When you are done with your first draft, it’s time to rewrite and edit, then edit some more, then put the story aside and pick it up again and edit some more, and then edit again… and again.

That’s just the reality of writing. I edit certain parts roughly as I go and my first drafts are relatively clean. I rarely have to change major plot twists after the first draft is done, despite my seat-of-the-pants writing style. But I do have to edit and edit and edit. Everyone does who wants to turn out good writing.

When you edit, pay particular attention to what your characters look like and what they say and do. Make sure you have kept their appearances consistent and that the actions and words of each character fit their personality and situation. If you have a feisty, firebrand for a heroine, you can’t suddenly have her meekly take insults just because the plot requires that she is calm and collected for once. You can get away with having her learn to be calm and collected but that is going to take some work.

Read your text out loud and particularly your dialogue scenes. Go through dialogue several times, trying to hear the voices of your characters. What kind of voices do they have? Do they have an accent compared to you? What is the emotion behind the words?


I hope these tips come in handy. What are your favorite tips for developing characters? I would love to hear from you. Put a comment in below and keep in touch.