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Quite the Character

by Olive Balla

Olive Balla245According to author, editor, and writing consultant Jeff Gerke there are two kinds of writers—I call them Plotters and Character-philes. No, this has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with how our brains are wired. Gerke says fiction writers will be good at either crafting a complex, multi-stranded plot, or building deep, multi-faceted and interesting characters, but not both. With that in mind, and in the interest of helping my fellow Plotters thicken the portion of their cerebral cortexes wherein their Character-philes lie dormant, I submit some tidbits I’ve picked up.

By the time we reach the age of twenty or so, all of us will have developed psychological, mental, spiritual, and even physical battle scars, along with the mechanisms for coping with them. And by the time we’ve put a few decades under our belt, we’re as bent and dented as any used vehicle on a second-rate car lot. Gerke’s message is to embrace your hard-earned dings. Exorcise your ghosts through your characters. For example, show your protagonist struggling to survive a tumultuous relationship with her mother, father, or even her boyfriend’s obnoxious cat. Or better yet, show your antagonist’s inner turmoil over an action he’s taken, or is about to take. Readers love delving into the dichotomy of good versus evil that apparently resides in every human being, so heap the internal conflict high.

Got any phobias? How about a couple of recalcitrant neuroses? Do you engage in obsessive compulsive rituals or carry a load of guilt over youthful—or even recent—indiscretions? Good. Confession time: One such incident from my past became the basis for my essay “The Four People I DON’T Want to See in Heaven.” Here’s an excerpt:

I don’t want to see David Brown in Heaven. David was in my third grade class. He lived just up the street from me, so we often walked home from school at about the same time. One afternoon, when we reached a particularly isolated spot, David offered to show me His Bits if I would show him Mine. Never having seen that particular part of the male anatomy before, I figured that sounded like a great idea. I told David to go first, and he did. However, being raised in an extremely conservative household, I had second thoughts about my end of the bargain. Modesty won out, and after completing my observations, I turned and ran home as fast as my nine year-old legs would carry me, leaving an undoubtedly wiser David with his pants around his ankles.Had any epiphanies along your self-discovery journey? Excellent. Draw on all of those life experiences to build colorful, deeply human characters. You don’t have to admit to a thing, and your readers will wonder how you grew to be so wise.

Then there’s the dynamic known in psychological circles as the Normalcy Bias. How many horror or suspense movies have we watched where a female character hears a noise from the basement and proceeds to check it out? We in the audience know it’s a bad idea, but the character is a victim of the too-human characteristic that whispers in her ear, “Nothing bad has ever happened before when you went into the basement, so nothing bad will happen now.” The ways to enhance your characters through use of this it-can’t-happen-here trait are endless. For example, does the mother watching her toddler play in the park realize that the handsome young gentleman who seems to turn up everywhere is actually stalking her? Of course not, it has to be a coincidence. Or do the villagers who live at the foot of an active volcano fear imminent destruction? Poppycock. The thing has been spewing smoke and cinders for decades. Go to sleep children, all is well.

And how about fear? We humans harbor fears-a-plenty. We’re born with the fear of abandonment, and then proceed to pile up more terrors over our lifetimes. We fear people, places, situations, the future, insects, certain animals, etc. Haul out your own fears. Hold them up to the light, and then bless your characters with a fistful. Someone said that readers look to writers to help them discover ways of dealing with their own life issues. So scare the bejeebers out of your readers, and then lead them to safety—or not. Either way, they’ll love you for it.

Then there’s the human ability to survive through adaptation. It’s the process by which the bizarre becomes the norm. If an action is repeated often enough and over a long enough period of time—even if it involves horrifying or twisted behavior—the people who witness it, or even those who are victims of it, adapt to it. They may not like it on some level, but they will eventually not only accept that behavior, but embrace and even mirror it. It’s part of our arsenal of survival strategies. Tough and resilient characters, anyone?

Ah, the human condition. Time to turn your lemons into lemonade.

AnArmAndALeg72Olive Balla, author of suspense novel An Arm and a Leg, is mother of 3, grandmother to 13, great-grandmother of 4, a retired educator, and part-time professional musician. Having been everything from secretary at a used car dealership, a university student, and a high school Spanish teacher, Balla states her characters are, in part, amalgamations of people she’s met. Living with her husband Victor in the Albuquerque area, she spends her spare time in a small woodworking shop designing and building everything from breadboxes and wine racks, to a porch bench. Visit her website at

This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Make Your Characters More than Cardboard Cutouts

by Kirt Hickman

Revising FictionYour characters must not be automatons. Your reader must buy into them as real people with real goals, real motivations, real relationships, and real emotions. They must have flaws as well as virtues. They must face internal struggles and external conflict. They must have past lives and prior relationships.

Use the tips below to individualize each of your characters. The traits you assign don’t have to be sensational. They can be small, even subtle, qualities. Your goal is to make each character a believable individual, not an incredible eccentric (unless, of course, you want him to be).

Give each character a unique set of physical traits.
These don’t have to be scars and tattoos, the obvious choices for truly unique identifiers. Furthermore, these traits need not be unique among all humanity, just unique within the context of your story. If you choose traits that are extraordinary, account for them in a credible way through the character’s background.

Give each character a unique style of speech.
Each character should have a unique combination of dialect and vocabulary, based upon his personality, level of education, and upbringing. Make your characters’ speech rhythms different enough that if a line of dialogue written for one character were attributed to another, that line would sound out of place.

Give each character a flaw that the reader can understand.
If you make your hero perfect, she won’t be credible. Even if you manage to make her believable without building in a flaw or two, your reader won’t be able to relate to her. Write about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Your hero’s flaws often provide a source of internal conflict overlaid upon the external struggle provoked by the villain. Ratchet up the tension in every scene by exploiting your character’s flaws to make her trials more difficult.

Give each character a special skill.
Special skills let your reader see into some aspect of life, some hobby or profession, that he might find interesting. Introduce your character’s skill early in the story, well before she needs it. Otherwise it will seem contrived—an afterthought you invented to get her out of whatever fix you put her into. Present your character’s skill at a technical level your reader can understand, and provide only information that is directly relevant to the events at hand.

Give each character a definable personality.
Is your character optimistic? Pessimistic? Grumpy? Funny? Flirtatious? Adversarial? What does she get fired up about? The environment? Animal rights? Poverty? Duty? Family? Honor? Love? Hatred? Vengeance? Let’s face it, without a definable personality and a passion for something, your character (your hero in particular) will be boring.

How does your character respond to frustration? This is an important decision. Your plot consists of obstacles and events designed to frustrate your character’s efforts. How will she react? Will she get angry? Resourceful? Determined? Depressed? Will she get even? Will she seek help? Will she pray? I’m not suggesting your character should respond to every situation in the same way, but people tend toward certain emotional reactions to frustration. Your character should too.*

Give each character an identifying line, mannerism, or prop.
Give your reader something to associate with your character besides a name. Establish identifiers early, preferably the first time you introduce the character. Exhibit the identifiers every time the character appears in a scene.

Give each character virtues.
This is particularly important for your hero. Generally speaking, the reader must like her. No matter how many internal demons your hero has to overcome, she must have at least one redeeming quality that your reader can latch onto and that makes him say, “I care. I hope she overcomes it all because she’s worth saving.” Give virtues to your other characters as well, including your villain. The villain rarely considers himself to be the bad guy. Whatever he does, he does for a reason. Sometimes it’s just for personal gain. Often, he believes he’s working toward some greater good, however warped that perception might be.

Know each character’s backstory.
You must know the details of your hero’s backstory in far greater depth than you’ll ever reveal in the pages of your novel. Your character’s past has made him the person he is today. His past will determine his emotions, attitudes, and actions. And it will justify them to the reader. His past will make him real.

Know how each character will change throughout the story.
The change your character makes, and the way that change comes about, is the character’s arc. Provide an arc for each major character, not just the hero, but make the hero’s arc dominant in the story.

*See also Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint from Writer’s Digest Books (2005).

WorldsAsunder125_2Kirt Hickman is a technical writer turned fiction author. His books include three sci-fi thriller novels Worlds Asunder (2008), Venus Rain (2010) and Mercury Sun (2014), the high fantasy novel Fabler’s Legend (2011), and the writers’ how-to Revising Fiction: Making Sense of the Madness (2009).

This article was originally published in the July 2009 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

From Idea to Story: Situation & Complications

by Chris Eboch

AdvancedPlotting200People often ask writers, “Where do you find your ideas?” But for a writer, the more important question is, “What do I do with my idea?”

If you have a “great idea,” but can’t seem to go anywhere with it, you probably have a premise rather than a complete story plan. A story has four main parts: situation, complications, climax, and resolution. You need all of them to make your story work.

The situation should involve an interesting main character with a challenging problem or goal. Even this takes development. Maybe you have a great challenge, but aren’t sure why a character would have that goal. Or maybe your situation is interesting, but doesn’t actually involve a problem.

For example, I wanted to write about a brother and sister who travel with a ghost hunter TV show. The girl can see ghosts, but the boy can’t. That gave me the characters and situation, but no problem or goal. Goals come from need or desire. What did they want that could sustain a series?

Tania feels sorry for the ghosts and wants to help them, while keeping her gift a secret from everyone but her brother. Jon wants to help and protect his sister, but sometimes feels overwhelmed by the responsibility. Now we have characters with problems and goals. The story is off to a good start.

Make sure your idea is specific and narrow. Focus on an individual person and situation, not a universal concept. For example, don’t try to write about “racism.” Instead, write about one character facing racism in a particular situation.

Ask why the goal is important to the character. The longer the story, the higher stakes needed to sustain it. A short story character might want to win a contest; a novel character might need to save the world.

Ask why this goal is difficult. Difficulties fall into categories traditionally called man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself. You can even combine these. Your character may hunt bank robbers (man versus man) during a dangerous storm (man versus nature) when he is afraid of lightning (man versus himself).

Even if your main problem is external, give the character an internal flaw that contributes to the difficulty. This adds complications and also makes your character seem more real. For some internal flaw, see the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.

GeniesGift150Test the idea. Change the character’s age, gender, or looks. Change the point of view, setting, external conflict, internal conflict. Choose the combination that has the most dramatic potential.

If a character solves his goal easily, the story is boring. To keep tension high, you need complications.

For short stories, try the “rule of three” and have the main character try to solve the problem three times. The first two times, he fails and the situation worsens. Remember: the situation should worsen. If things stay the same, he still has a problem, but the tension is flat. If his first attempts make things worse, tension rises.

For novels, you may have even more attempts and failures. In my first Haunted book, The Ghost on the Stairs, I made sure each ghost encounter felt more dangerous. As Tania tries to get closer to the ghost in order to help her, Jon worries that she will go too far and be injured or even killed. With enough variety, you can sustain this kind of tension indefinitely (witness the ongoing battle between Harry and Voldemort in the seven-book Harry Potter series).

You can worsen the situation in several ways. The main character’s actions could make the challenge more difficult. In my new mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a young temple dancer searches for her missing friend. But when she asks questions at the barracks where he was a soldier, she attracts dangerous attention from his enemies.

The villain may also raise the stakes. In my Mayan historical drama, The Well of Sacrifice, the main character escapes a power-hungry high priest. He threatens to kill her entire family, forcing her to return to captivity.

Secondary characters can cause complications, too, even if they are not “bad guys.” In The Ghost on the Stairs, the kids’ mother decides to spend the day with them, forcing them to come up with creative ways to investigate the ghost while under her watchful eyes.

Finally, the main character may simply run out of time. At her first attempt, she had a week. At her second attempt, she had a day. Those two attempts have failed, and now she has only an hour! That creates tension.

For each turning point in the story, brainstorm 10 things that could happen next. Then pick the one that is the worst or most unexpected, so long as it is still believable for the story.

Coming next month: how to build the climax and finish your story.

BanditsPeak150Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages. In Bandits Peak, a teenage boy meets strangers hiding on the mountains and gets drawn into their crimes, until he risks his life to expose them. The Eyes of Pharaoh is an action-packed mystery set in ancient Egypt. The Genie’s Gift is an Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy adventure. In The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala rebels against the High Priest who sacrifices anyone challenging his power. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog. Sign up for her Workshop newsletter for classes and critique offers.

Chris also writes novels of suspense and romance for adults under the name Kris Bock; read excerpts at

This article was originally published in the April 2011 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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