How do you create memorable characters that readers will remember? In this workshop, award-winning author Nancy J. Cohen will discuss how to develop your protagonist and secondary characters, use dialogue, add conflict, and follow genre conventions in regard to plot. Examples of conflict as the engine that drives your story will be given. You will feel confident in being able to create your own main characters and devise subplots for the recurrent cast in a series.
You can learn a lot about your story characters from the knickknacks in their house. Consider this topic when enhancing characterization in fiction writing.
As we are attempting to declutter our shelves, I’m wondering why I collected so many souvenir drinking glasses, paperweights, candles and rocks. Yes, rocks. There’s also my wonky pen collection, a box full of troll dolls that I am loathe to give away, and letter openers. What do these things say about my personality? You tell me.
What can they say about your main character? Perhaps your heroine presents a tough exterior but has a collection of hair ornaments. Or your bookish hero hides a fascination with antique hunting knives. Maybe a sidekick is a cat fan and has decorated her house with cat-themed throw pillows and handmade ceramics depicting cats. For inspiration, check out those unsolicited catalogs you get in the mail.
Be specific about what type of reading material your character keeps around. Does the heroine read steamy romances but pretends to disdain romance? Does your hero stick to instructional manuals because fiction isn’t real? What if the woman he’s interested in collects unicorn figurines? Will there be a clash in their interests? How about the pages of the magazines or books? Are the corners folded in, the spines bent, or is there a bookmark inside?
What secret longing do these objects represent? How about art? What does your heroine hang on her walls? Does your hero prefer sports memorabilia or does he have an interest in wall clocks? Maybe he hasn’t an eye for design and mismatches colors, while your heroine reads interior design magazines and believes everything should be coordinated.
It’s fascinating to view the items inside another person’s house. You can see what they enjoy collecting and learn more about them. It also gives you an idea what to get them for a gift. So next time you visit a friend or relative, take a stroll around and see what’s inside their curio cabinet, adorning their walls, or standing poised on a bookshelf.
Even owning nothing of a personal nature makes a statement in itself. Have fun delving into the intricacies of your protagonists’ hobbies so you can describe the collection through their eyes. It will give an added dimension to your story.
Revisions for our novels should include a complete read-through for repetitions and inconsistencies. What do we mean by the latter? You’ll want to take a look at your characters to see if they are behaving in a manner consistent with their personality. As a writer, this should be an essential part of your self-editing process. Below are some examples.
What’s wrong with this passage?
Dalton went for his gun, but Marla slapped his hand away. “Don’t risk it. You don’t know what we’re up against yet. And they won’t know you’re armed.”
Marla would never slap Dalton’s hand away. He’s a police officer. He knows his business. He’s allowed her to come along on a night mission, which she shouldn’t jeopardize this way.
Often it’s my critique group that catches these kinds of mistakes. In this case, I read those sentences and frowned. Wait a minute. Marla would never do this. I went back and changed it.
Ditto for Marla acting dumb. My editor has caught me on this one more than a few times. “Marla is too smart not to figure this out when everyone else knows what’s going on.” She isn’t acting in character when she’s too dense. Same goes for Dalton. Should he let Marla accompany him to interview suspects without protesting or finding an important reason for her to come along?
This also goes for mannerisms of speech. Your rough-around-the-edges hero isn’t going to suddenly say, “Oh, good heavens.” His dialogue should be consistent with his personality.
Here are more examples from my current work-in-progress. Marla and Dalton are talking about the victim.
“That would have given someone plenty of time to whack her on the head and get away,” Dalton said.
“Do you truly believe another person did this to her?” Marla’s glance darted to the rows of strawberry plants, the water-lined canal, and the tall sugar cane. Was the culprit watching them from some hidden viewpoint? Should they be worried he might return?
My editor said, It’s obvious another person did this to her. Could the woman whack herself on the back of her head?
“This injury is indicative of a blow to the back of the head,” Dalton replied. “The medical examiner will determine the exact cause of death, though.”
Would he say this to Marla when the gash is evident? Not according to my editor, who wrote, “This is another dumb remark. Of course matted blood to the back of the head is “indicative” of a blow to the back of the head!!!”
I’m lucky my editor isn’t afraid to call the shots as she sees them. She’s always right. Here is my rewrite. See what you think:
“So that would have given someone plenty of time to whack her on the head and get away.”
“Are you certain the blow is what killed her?” Marla’s glance darted to the rows of strawberry plants, the water-lined canal, and the tall sugar cane. Was the culprit watching them from some hidden viewpoint? Should they be worried he might return?
“That’s not for me to say, but it would be my best guess. The medical examiner will determine the exact cause of death.”
We hope to catch these errors during the revision process. What we write during the heat of the story-making process doesn’t always pass muster when examined under the editorial microscope.
Once I’ve devised the crime scene, the victim, and the cause involved, I turn to my list of suspects. Here is where I delve more deeply into their psyches. This means working on character development sheets for each person as necessary. Doing this allows me to determine their secrets and goals before I start writing. Any one of these items may change as I write the story, so I don’t hold fast to them, but the descriptions help start me on my way. I might also look for pictures online at the royalty free sites or cut out photos of celebrities or models from magazines of people who fit the character.
If the story contains a romance, I’ll do a conflict chart as well to show how the hero and heroine are at odds with each other in their goals and motivations. It’s not until I have an idea of each person in my mind that I can write the synopsis. This provides a road map for my story. As for research, I’ll do whatever is necessary along the way.
Here is a sample of a character development chart from my current WIP.
CAREER: Val is an artist who paints scenes of natural Florida. A history buff, she’s especially interested in Florida’s early development. She sponsors Friends of Old Florida annual ball. She’ll go to garage sales on weekends seeking photos and journals of life in early Florida.
PHYSICAL FEATURES: 59 years old, works out in gym on weekends.
FAVORITE SPEECH PHRASES: “You said it.”
LIFESTYLE: Val lives in the family mansion in east Fort Lauderdale. She’s used to having her staff do mundane tasks and isn’t a pragmatic person. She can see the overall picture but not the details. In this regard, she relies too much on others.
DARK SECRET: Lesbian.
RULING PASSION: Painting
DOMINANT TRAIT: Idealistic Dreamer.
Short-Term: To make sure she’s funding the right objectives. Long-Term: To leave a legacy through her paintings. Concrete Symbol: An appointment to the Florida Historical Commission.
Val comes from old money through her mother’s side, who made their fortune in Florida’s East Coast Railroad in the 1890’s. She got her interest in history from her father, a naturalist who’d enthralled her with tales of Florida pirates, Indians, and Spanish explorers. Her ancestry might even include a pirate who’d ploughed the high seas by the Florida Keys. But when her sister dies from breast cancer, she rethinks her focus. The past won’t mean anything without the future, and we’d better do something about pollution, contaminants and toxic waste. She considers switching her funding to an environmental group. Val is divorced, having married a gold-digger who soured her on marriage. Or at least that’s her excuse for not remarrying. She dotes on her sister’s kids and has left them a generous bequest in her will.
Internal: She’s highly regarded in Friends of Old Florida and hesitates to leave them in the lurch. She is a past recipient of their Lifetime Achievement Award. But perhaps this other organization needs her more now. External: She has some concerns about her trust fund that she inherited from her mother. One of the trustees is also on the Board of FOLF, and that’s how she became involved in the organization. Her investments seem solid but her dividends don’t seem to add up.
She’s confided her uncertainty to her friend, Lora. She knows Lora’s secret, having once made a pass at her. Becoming suspicious of Lora’s frequent trips, she hired an investigator and discovered what Lora did on those excursions. Lora begged her to keep silent and threatened to expose Val in return. The two became polite antagonists, working together but keeping their distance otherwise.
STRENGTHS: Val is good at public relations and working a room at parties to gain donors for her cause.
FLAWS: She doesn’t care to scrutinize things too closely.
REALIZATION LEADING TO CHANGE: Maybe the past isn’t as meaningful as the future. We have to take steps to protect our environment now or there won’t be anything left to preserve.
Now here is a sample of a Romantic Conflict Chart from Warrior Prince. Nira is a makeup artist destined to be one of the legendary six women who will defeat the demon, Loki and his minions, the Trolleks. Zohar is Crown Prince of the Star Empire and leader of the Drift Lords. Keep in mind that even if you’re writing in another genre, your characters in a romantic subplot would benefit from this analysis.
Nira: Attacked by Trolleks
Zohar: Rift opens between dimensions
GOALS Long Term Nira: Financial security; Discover her identity
Zohar: A loving family; Accept his Destiny
Short Term Nira: Get a job so she can research her birth parents and pursue a graduate degree.
Zohar: Locate the Trollek jamming device, shut down the rift and banish the enemy.
DRIVING FORCE Nira: To discover her identity. Job security so she doesn’t have to struggle like her mother. Fears abandonment because her parents deserted her.
Zohar: Fears losing his heart to a Trollek woman like his father and going insane. Feels he must correct his sire’s mistakes.
PERSONAL WEAKNESS/STRENGTH Nira: Fiercely independent. Resilient in face of adversity.
Zohar: Sensitive to criticism. High moral standards.
RELATIONSHIP OBSTACLE Nira: Fears abandonment so doesn’t want to depend on a man.
Zohar: Fears intimacy so doesn’t want to get close to a woman.
BLACK MOMENT Nira: She lets herself get taken by a Trollek in order to save him. He thinks she’s turned to the dark side.
Zohar: He leaves for his home world to deal political instability. She thinks he’s left her.
CHARACTER GROWTH Nira: Wishing for adventure can become a curse rather a blessing. Embrace who you are rather than who you want to be. Lesson: Be careful what you wish for.
Zohar: He doesn’t have to make up for his father’s sins. He will be a kind, strong leader. Lesson: You have to accept yourself before you can lead others.
Another way of getting to know your characters is to interview them. This is especially important in a mystery. Often I’ll interview the killer to learn why he committed the crime. Or interview your sleuth to determine what her concerns are at the start of your story. I’ll use the chart as indicated in my Writing the Cozy Mystery booklet to point out the interrelationships among the characters.
Anyway, these are the tools that work for me. What other means do you deploy to get to know your fictional people?
“Florida is a giant bug light for crazy people.” ~Phyllis Smallman, Sleuthfest 2014
It’s no surprise to any author living in Florida that some of the craziest stories we can write are actually inspired by true events in our sunshine state. Join us in exploring a different side of Florida than the travel bureau promotes with our first Blog Hop sponsored by Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Read on, click the links below to read another member’s view of crazy Florida, comment, share your favorite stories, and enter the contest to win a Kindle Paperwhite.
Florida has its share of wacky characters. Every Sunday, I buy a newspaper and read through it with a pair of scissors in hand. Inevitably, there’s some article about an interesting resident or an issue that intrigues me. I cut out these articles and file them. Whenever I’m searching for a secret to give a suspect, I’ll glance through these clippings. That’s how I found a cool character who was a funeral director by day and a Samoan fire knife dancer at night. I tracked down the guy, interviewed him at his funeral home and based a character on him in Hair Raiser.
There’s no lack of strange people living in Florida. Criminals move down for the good weather same as other citizens. But most of the interesting characters in the news appear less in the spotlight. It might be a housewife running a prostitution ring, a non-profit administrator embezzling money, or a local teacher found with child porn files on his computer. These are secrets worth considering, because they’ll make the characters in my books seems suspicious. And Florida does have its share of wackos where truth is stranger than fiction.
Another character I used in a book was inspired by a reader at a talk I gave. She’d owned a clothing boutique and mentioned a guy who came in and wanted to try on women’s clothes. This idea was perfect for Murder by Manicure who now has a transvestite in the story. So you never know where inspiration will strike.
For Hanging By A Hair, #11 in the Bad Hair Day mysteries, neighborhood communities played a role in story development. Who hasn’t had trouble with their homeowners’ association? Marla’s husband has a disagreement with their HOA president who is later found dead. Our state’s Native American heritage comes into play in this story with a suspect who is a tribal shaman.
Florida has a rich history, a diverse ecosystem, and a hotbed of issues. All we have to do is read the newspaper for ideas. Thus I’ve dealt with citrus canker, illegal immigrant labor, exotic bird smuggling, child drowning prevention, melanoma detection, and a host of other matters that affect Floridians. Although these issues can be serious, my stories contain humor, a satisfying ending, and a lesson learned. And what have I learned? We never lack for material in sunny South Florida.
Nancy J. Cohen has written over twenty romance and mystery novels. She wishes she could style hair like her hairdresser sleuth, Marla Shore, but can usually be found reading instead.
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Chaos is one of my favorite things about fiction. This is especially true in a cozy mystery. I truly enjoy the insane amount of juggling required by the heroine. As a woman, I can relate to the pressure and frustration of handling too much- minus the murder investigation, of course – and it’s fun to see the scenarios unfold on someone else for a change. I can relate. It’s no secret women handle unthinkable amounts of responsibilities while maintaining the peace and meeting unreasonable expectations of others. We hold down the household, punch a time clock, volunteer in the community, date, please our family, entertain our friends and so much more. (We really are the more miraculous portion of our species. In my humble opinion). Which is why we all deserve a good book and a break from time to time.
As writers, it’s our job to connect strangers with a character we dreamed up. Chaos is a common ground we can use to our advantage. When I fall into a great new cozy or amateur female sleuth series, I immediately connect with the heroine if she’s got her hands full. I nod along and smile, thinking, man-oh-man am I glad it’s not me this time. My heart goes out to her. It’s hard keeping things afloat, and honestly, the chaos can be pretty entertaining when I’m not on the business end of things.
As I write each mystery, I want my heroine overwhelmed, well-liked and spread paper-thin. I want readers to feel the pull of hands on her time and person. So, as I plot and scheme a fun new investigation, I ask myself “What do I do every day?” and then “What do my friends do?” What keeps us so busy? The snowball method takes over from there because the short answer is we do too much.
Piling up the trouble is a great writers’ tool. It’s a fun and easy way to increase the chaos and pacing of a story. It keeps the pages going and stops the story from stagnating. I spend extra time on my outlines peppering in all the commitments my heroine, Patience, has to maintain in addition to surviving the wrath of a provoked killer and exploring the leads in her investigation, not to mention all the people she wants to please.
Add responsibilities to connect readers to your heroine. Give her problems they can all relate to, like family and romance. Those things are complicated. Messy. Real.
In my newest release, Murder Comes Ashore, I’ve piled up the everyday things that make a woman bananas. As my heroine pursues her investigation, (the crux of the story), she’s drawn away repeatedly by phone calls from clients, impromptu visits from family and a frustrating love triangle she’d prefer not to think about. She’s running from a killer, volunteering at the grade school and questioning birders about anything unusual they might have seen since the murder. Local law enforcement is running a parallel investigation and they get in her way, too.
Adding reality to the fiction anchors readers to your story. Who can’t related to a boss that expects us to show up on time? Or a sister who takes it personally if you’re five minutes late for dinner? The predicaments don’t have to be fantastical because they’re fiction. Take the things that make you the craziest and share them with your heroine. It is fun to move the burden onto someone else and it bridges the gap between you and women readers everywhere. Hey, it’s no fun when I have to fold laundry, check homework assignments and explain to my mom why I haven’t called all week, but when those things fall to a character, I smile because we share common ground. And us XX chromosome types have to stick together.
If you’re looking for a fun new mystery to cozy up with, I hope you’ll consider my new release, Murder Comes Ashore. It’s packed with chaos and a heroine who understands. Besides, who couldn’t use an island escape right now?
Murder Comes Ashore
Patience Price is just settling into her new life as resident counselor on Chincoteague Island when things take a sudden turn for the worse. A collection of body parts have washed up on shore and suddenly nothing feels safe on the quaint island.
Patience instinctively turns to current crush and FBI special agent Sebastian for help, but former flame Adrian is also on the case, hoping that solving the grisly crime will land him a win in the upcoming mayoral election.
When the body count rises and Patience’s parents are brought in as suspects, Patience is spurred to begin her own investigation. It’s not long before she starts receiving terrifying threats from the killer, and though she’s determined to clear her family’s name, it seems the closer Patience gets to finding answers, the closer she comes to being the killer’s next victim.
Julie Anne Lindsey is a multi-genre author who writes the stories that keep her up at night. She’s a self-proclaimed nerd with a penchant for words and proclivity for fun. Julie lives in rural Ohio with her husband and three small children. Today, she hopes to make someone smile. One day she plans to change the world.
Murder Comes Ashore is a sequel in her new mystery series, Patience Price, Counselor at Large, from Carina Press.
This past weekend, guest speaker Joanna Campbell Slan told us how to create vibrant characters. First she mentioned four personality styles. Dialogue should reflect if the person is a tell versus an ask kind of guy. This sounds like me and my husband. He is ALWAYS asking questions. He’ll say, “Why is that man cutting his grass so early?” I’ll say, “I wonder why he’s cutting his grass so early.” See the difference?
Which comes first, character or plot? Start by developing your characters. Give them conflicts, differing viewpoints and reactions. Problems between them will create tension. Remember that if any strength is overused, it becomes a weakness. An example is the character who will get the job done, but at any cost. Or it can be the person who follows rules no matter what happens.
Give each person a habit and a telling detail that helps identify him. Also, pair a physical description with an emotional one for each character.
Have your characters work toward a goal. The four personality types will react differently. One group may ask numerous questions and want to know the rules. Another group may spend time getting organized and elect someone to take notes. Group three might just play around and have fun. And group four will be the ones who take charge and accomplish the task.
Joanna offered a lot more tips in this valuable workshop. This only touches the tip of the iceberg on what she covered. But keeping just these few bits of advice in mind is helpful.
Have you ever thought about writing a military hero into your story?
If so, be sure to get your facts and lingo straight. At a recent Florida Romance Writers meeting, we had the good fortune to have as guest speaker a Navy Captain and the brother of one of our members. Let’s call him Captain X for the sake of anonymity to respect his privacy. His experience includes flying helicopters, missions over Iraq, and special ops support.
He explained (Disclaimer: All comments are subject to my interpretation) that Special Forces means U.S. Army and Special Operations Forces (SOF) refers to any service. In general, these guys are professionals, fairly introverted with quiet personalities, and very patriotic. Rogue agents like you see in the movies probably would be “PNG-ed” or deemed “persona non grata” in reality. A QRF refers to Quick Reaction Force. These are the guys who stand by in case “things go sideways.”
Captain X mentioned how you don’t really know how you’ll react until you are actually under fire. A brave man faces his fears and chooses to overcome them.
The Captain talked about Iraq and how he’d rather be there in the summer because it’s too hot for the bugs to come out. It rains in the winter and the powdery sand becomes like mucilage. Some of the wildlife includes camel spiders (“as big as a dessert plate”), no-see-ums, mice, and scorpions.
His helicopter had two pilots, two gunners, and a medic. He wore armor and a helmet with a boom mike. He says they never use the word “gun” but call it a “weapon” instead. They refer to members of the military as “teeth or tail”, i.e. going to war or staying behind. He says they are careful not to cause collateral damage in terms of injuring civilians. They’re allowed to say No to a mission if they deem it to be too dangerous in this regard.
This was reassuring to me. It’s nice to know our military officers’ opinions are respected and they’re not expected to blindly follow orders, the excuse for too many atrocities in the past. At least, this is one officer who makes conscientious decisions based on the information available. I hope there are many others like him out there.
Captain X also mentioned his deep respect for Vietnam Veterans, and from his personal experience, they are as brave and honorable as anyone who ever wore the uniform.
And if anyone wishes to support the service, please consider the Wounded Warrior foundations.
The writing lesson learned is to be true to the lingo if you write a military hero. Captain X’s talk was peppered with colorful language that probably wasn’t as bad as it is in reality. Honor is still important, and so is bravery. And when your hero raises his rifle, it’s a weapon, not a gun. Or better still, it’s a specific model weapon. So just as cops and other folks in our books have their own jargon, so do the military. Get it right.
My hairdresser sleuth has a particular way she looks at things. How about your characters? What occupations have you researched for accuracy?
Nancy G. West is the author of an artist’s biography, the suspense novel NINE DAYS TO EVIL, numerous magazine articles and two books in her new Aggie Mundeen mystery series, Fit to Be Dead and Dang Near Dead.
FIT TO BE DEAD (Aggie Mundeen Mystery #1)
Aggie, single, pushing forty and terrified of becoming decrepit, tries to get in shape before anybody discovers she secretly writes the column, “Stay Young with Aggie.” At the health club, she deals with killer machines, muscle maniacs and disgustingly-fit fillies until a girl turns up dead. So curious it makes her feet itch, Aggie is determined to flush out the killer, despite warnings from the SAPD detective appalled by her sleuthing methods. When the killer comes after Aggie, and the club evacuates members in less-than-dignified attire, Aggie really has to get creative . . . while she tries to stay alive.
DANG NEAR DEAD (Aggie Mundeen Mystery #2, coming December 1, 2012)
Aggie vacations with friends at a Texas dude ranch. She’ll advise column readers how to stay young and fresh in summer. Except for heat, snakes and poison ivy, what could go wrong?
When the assistant ranch manager, an expert rider, is thrown from her horse and lies in a coma, Aggie thinks somebody caused her to fall. Determined to expose the girl’s assailant, Aggie concocts ingenious sleuthing methods that strain her dicey relationship with the handsome detective traveling incognito. When Aggie scatters a hornet’s nest of cowboys, more than one hombre in the bunch would like to slit her throat.
How can you make your characters sound stronger when they speak? Think of the ways authoritative people talk in terms of their word choices and tone of voice.
Choose one of each:
1.A. “I think we should hit the beach at dawn. That way, we’ll probably be able to avoid the patrol boats.”
B. “We’ll hit the beach at dawn so we can avoid the patrol boats.”
2.A. “It is my belief that it would be best if we took the right-hand path.”
B. “Let’s make a right-hand turn.”
3.A. “I suppose I could agree.”
B. “I agree.”
4.A. “Oh, dear, perhaps this yellow dress would be more suitable. It brings out the highlights in my hair, and I do want Butler to notice me.”
B. “The yellow dress complements my hair, so I’ll wear that one. Butler has to notice me tonight.”
5.A. “I guess it would be all right if you borrowed my bracelet, but if you don’t mind, please see if you can return it tomorrow.”
B. “You can borrow the bracelet, but I’d like it returned tomorrow.”
If you chose any “A” answers, you’re making your character sound weak. To strengthen your heroine, have her sound positive and determined. Characters should focus on their goals, not on their appearance or performance. Avoid phrases such as I think, I guess, I suppose, dear me, maybe we should, It is my belief that, I don’t know.
Of course, exceptions to the rule do exist. Just make certain your character doesn’t sound wimpy when he speaks or has an introspection. Cutting extra verbiage can help. Aim for precision of speech, but avoid curtness. Remember that dialog should further your plot or reveal character. Phrases that reveal hesitation or self-doubt may indicate places that need revision unless you purposefully want your character to act this way.
Strong heroes appeal to readers, so take out your pen and get to work. Good luck!