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Characterization, Marketing Your Novel, On Writing, Plot & Structure, Thoughts on Writing

Writers, Keep It (Your Style) Simple

November 2, 2013

Novelists aiming to write popular fiction* need to develop a style that does not call attention to itself. If you’re writing for a wide audience, a straightforward narrative style – bare and spare – lets your story and characters take center stage.

Why? Because you don’t want your reader thinking about your writing style. That jars the reader from the imaginary world of the novel. It slows down the pace of the story.

If your intention is to write a literary novel,** go for it. Polish that style to a fare thee well. But if you’re aiming to write popular fiction, the advice to “keep it simple” applies.

Agents and editors overwhelmingly prefer spare prose. Ask any reader of a slush pile. Writers who “try too hard” in the stylistic department often do so to cover up a yawner plot and cardboard characters.

A good example of good spare prose that lets plot and character shine through is Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Collins’s prose is not yrical. It’s workmanlike. It does its job. It keeps a reader turning pages.

Collins’s readers are turning those pages not because they enjoy how she can bend a gerund, but because her story and her characters are compelling.

Had she written The Hunger Games in a style that made the reader stop every few sentences to wipe away a rhapsodical tear (at the beauty of the words), but ignored honing plot and character The Hunger Games would have languished on bookstore shelves.

It is common for newbie writers who are honestly striving to do their best to think a “literary” voice is the way to go. They may not yet have mastered characterization, plot and structure, but think, “My writing style sings, so I’ll get published.”

Well, no. Agents and editors want simplicity in the writing, and a darn good story, with great characters. Why? Because that’s what readers want too.

So, keep it simple.


* Work that sells like gangbusters today – and may well become a classic in twenty years time. (Time alone decides who becomes tomorrow’s “literary author.” Shakespeare wrote aiming at popular success – and we all know how that turned out.)

** Fiction of the type English majors study in college classes.


Characterization, On Writing, Thoughts on Writing

The Eyes Have It: Show Don’t Tell

October 30, 2012

Novels are a visual medium. This is true not only because readers scan pages to follow an author’s narrative flow.

It also is true because good authors paint word pictures for readers – animated word pictures, I might add.

One of my friends told me about his reaction to his first viewing of the classic movie Rebecca (based on Daphne du Maurier’s outstanding novel of the same name. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, run to the library and download the flick. Rebecca, which first saw the light of day in 1938, sets the standard for broody romantic suspense.)

My friend said the movie’s opening scenes, which show the hulking estate of Manderley in which most of the action is set, exactly matched the mental image he’d formed of the estate from the author’s detailed description. His response to the visuals presented by the movie underscore how powerfully du Maurier was able to “paint” her opening scene. sing only 26 letters of the alphabet and black ink on a white page she matched the work of set decorators, and a Hollywood budget. Friends, that’s writing!

Du Maurier’s detailed description of Manderley still works. One reason it does is the exquisite writing. Another reason is that the place itself is almost a character in the novel, as are all the other artifacts on which the hero’s dead wife left her imprint. I don’t think novelists today would want to nudge a reader’s patience with equally lengthy descriptive passages. That’s because leaders today have little patience with long-delays before the action of the novel starts. And that brings me to the point of this post: the need for “show – don’t tell” in characterization.

It’s fine to occasionally employ a tangential character to tell us the hero or heroine is selfless, or reckless, or courageous. But it’s best to show us what they are made of, by virtue of their actions.

Actions always speak louder than words. They especially do so in novels.

And actions are infinitely more interesting than character vouchers popped off by “friends of” the hero/heroine.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss boldly steps forward to volunteer herself as a gladiator in order to save her younger sister Prim from this ugly fate. To say, “Katniss was a loving and selfless older sibling,” might mean she gives her younger sister a larger portion of the pie. Nice – but not heroic. When she saves Prim, you need say no more. We visualize the scene and are in awe of her courage.

The same is true in The Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo steps forward and volunteers to take the Ring of Power to Mordor. The Ring is an evil artifact that can only be destroyed in the volcanic fires of Mordor which lie in the heart of a demonic overlord’s kingdom – Frodo is risking everything by undertaking this mission.

And what about Frodo’s friend, Sam Gamgee? Sam refuses to let Frodo take on this dangerous mission alone. It’s one thing to say, “Sam was loyal and reliable.” But Sam sticking to Frodo’s side as he sets off on what may well be a suicidal mission becomes a moving visual portrayal of loyalty – one we not only grasp with our minds, but also feel in heart and gut.

So, whenever you can, opt to show us what your characters are all about by showing us what they do.

Happy writing!

Characterization, On Writing

Novelists: Let’s Hear It for . . . the Villain

October 29, 2012

Spend some quality time characterizing your antagonist.

Novelists, as you create your story, keep in mind that your antagonist is just as important as your hero.

Without Darth Vader – there is no Star Wars franchise.

Without Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes isn’t challenged to fully utilize his formidable detecting powers.

Without Voldemort, Harry Potter’s life becomes a walk in the Hogwart’s park.

Your antagonist must be a force to be reckoned with. And he should not appear to be a cardboard construct. Just as you take care to create a hero that pops off the pages in life-like detail for your readers, so too take care to create an antagonist as fascinating  as your hero. The stronger your characterization of your antagonist, the better your story.

Clearly, the shark in Jaws, Voldemort, and Darth Vader contribute mightily to the success of the stories in which they appear.

That, of course, is because the more formidable the antagonist, the greater your hero’s heroism in standing up to him or her – and the better your story.

Give your antagonist a compelling motivation for his actions.

Keep in mind also that strong antagonists have strong motivations. A villain’s usual motivations? Greed, revenge and/or a desire for power – often with a touch of madness thrown in for good measure.

But, in some stories, the antagonist may technically be on the side of the angels.

Remember Lieutenant Gerard in The Fugitive? Gerard is the FBI agent who is determined to recapture Richard Kimble, a doctor who has been wrongly accused of murder and who has escaped. In his dogged efforts to enforce “justice,” Gerard hampers Kimble’s efforts to find the real murderer. Gerard is ostensibly motivated to do what’s right, but ego is a large part of his motivation as well, and his behavior appears obsessive/compulsive – which makes him a formidable, complex and interesting antagonist.

Happy writing!

Characterization, On Writing

Create a ‘Residents File’ for Your Characters

October 28, 2012

Creating the characters who will populate your novel is a fun exercise.

One way to do it is to create a “Residents File” for your novel.

Here’s how:

Reserve a sheet of paper for each character.

On that paper, you will give each character the following:

  •  Name
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • Standout ways of relating to others (two words that are the way most people would describe this character – friendly but phony, angry and sly, fretful and hardworking, worried and devout, calm and devious, thoughtful but officious, irritating but talented, etc.


Combine 3 and 4, and you have a four-word thumbnail sketch of your character: e.g., friendly but phony executive, arrogant but hardworking politician, worried but devout teacher, loud but talented chef, and so on.

Do this for each of the key characters that populate your novel. The end result will be your Residents File.

This will be helpful to you as you write your story because these character “sum ups” suggest plot lines and also help you make story choices more easily. A worried but devout teacher won’t make an unethical choice easily – but what if she were coerced into acting against her beliefs? What would be the consequences? For one thing, she would probably suffer pangs of guilt and might take action accordingly – action that might move the plot forward.

The above way of creating characters helps you create characters who are unique and distinct.

Another way to ensure your characters are distinct from one another, is to give each a few unique “bits of business.” “Bits of business” is a term actors use to describe small details they use to bring a stage or film character to life.

That can be: details of appearance or style (always wears a baseball cap, wears a favorite pair of sneakers everywhere, etc.); speech (accent, education, nasal, gruff, etc.); talents, skills and knowledge areas (wine connoisseur, golf, other sports, hobbies, special training, etc.); habits (good or bad), eccentricities, and/or nervous mannerisms. It also is useful to give a character something physical that makes him/her stand out: aviator glasses, toupee, whisky and cigarettes voice, and so on.

The one thing you need to do is avoid creating cliche characters like the brilliant but absent-minded professor, the strong but dumb jock, etc.

Unique and fresh characters make your plot come alive.

Can you create more complicated files on each of your characters? Certainly. You can write complicated biographies for each of them, if you wish. But the Residents File method of thinking through your characters is a useful exercise – whether or not you later opt for greater complexity. And you may find that this shorthand method of characterization is all you need.

Happy writing!

Characterization, On Writing

Characterization: Start with the Shoes

October 27, 2012


The cast of M*A*S*H

Alan Alda who played Hawkeye Pierce in the ueber-successful television series M*A*S*H, credits dog tags and a pair of army boots supplied to him by the show’s costume department with helping him clinch the character of Hawkeye.

Both the dog tags and the army boots had actually been worn by soldiers. (The tags bore the names of two different G.I.s.) Something about these items helped him bring Hawkeye to life. When he put on the uncomfortable army issue footwear, the challenges of being a surgeon in a Korean zone of war in the 50’s became real for him.

As authors faced with the challenge of bringing our characters to life, it’s not a bad idea for us to “start with the shoes” – that is, to start with a character’s shoes.

There’s a reason so many people are fascinated with shoes. They can reveal so much:

  • Are they newish, clean, polished to a fare-thee-well? Or, ripped at the seams, down at the heel, and spattered with dubious substances?
  • Are they the latest nosebleed-priced designer pumps/sneakers/lace-ups? Or Soles-for-Less specials guaranteed to last a month or two and to dissolve in a rainstorm?
  • Are they sandals dyed to match a pale lavender outfit worn on a night on the town? Or are they sensible black shoes meant to last a lifetime? Well, you get the picture.


Shoes help an author get a foot in a character’s door.

Imagine the shoes your character collects, and you can imagine his or her socioeconomic status (or financial challenges), sense of taste, and attitude to fashion, to fitting in, to work, to play, to romance, and so on.

Do you need to tell the reader what’s helping your hero navigate the streets of your story? Sure – it might be one of the details you wish to share. In other words, you can if you want to – but you don’t need to. The point is: you should know.

Happy writing!

Watch Jessica Hatchigan’s video tutorial – “How Bestselling Authors Create Pageturner Novels: Plot & Structure ” instantly on your PC, Mac, compatible TV or device via’s instant video.


Characterization, On Writing

Why a Hero Shouldn’t be Perfect

October 26, 2012

A hero needs to be imperfect.


For one thing, how many absolutely perfect people do you know? (No, you can’t count people you have just fallen in love with. Get back to me in a year.)

We all know that there are precious few saints walking among us. So a character who is perfect just isn’t going to seem real. Nor is he a character with whom the reader can identify.

That’s why movie hero Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes and has issues with his father, it’s why Superman can’t deal with Kryptonite, and it’s why Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones’s Diary is – well, Bridget is a mass of imperfections – and that’s exactly why we love her (and what drives her story).

And Story is the other reason a hero needs imperfections.

Here’s why:

  • If a hero is perfect, there is no suspense. We know he is going to win.
  • A hero’s weaknesses can spark decisions and actions that keep the story moving in an interesting direction.


So an author needs to create heroes with weaknesses and flaws.

In some stories – a hero can be Flawed Lite, as with Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes. In other stories the flaws are a large part of who the hero is, as with Bridget Jones – or with Adrian Monk in the detective series Monk. While Monk is a brilliant detective, he also suffers from OCD, and seems to be afraid of everything.

And remember: we need to show versus tell a reader about our hero’s flaws – or positive traits.

So, we won’t say hero is daring or thoughtful. We’ll show him leading a charge in combat, or buying flowers for his administrative assistant.

Same with flaws: we won’t just say a hero can be insensitive or that he’s rash. We’ll show him forgetting his girlfriend’s birthday, or drunkenly signing up for a skydive or a bungee jump.

One caveat: don’t saddle your hero with unforgiveable flaws. A “hero” who steals candy from babies or money from the church till is crossing the hero line. He isn’t “flawed” in a human, understandable way. He is demonstrating a mean, amoral streak that takes him out of hero territory. (You will need to use your authorial judgment in deciding on your hero’s shortcomings.)

So, with the above caveat in mind, add an imperfection or two to the heroic paragon who leads the action of your novel, and he becomes more real, likable – and compelling.

Happy writing!

Characterization, On Writing

Novelists: How to Create a Compelling Protagonist

October 25, 2012

Creating a hero? Here are the ‘Dont’s’

You need to make your hero engaging (likable and/or interesting) from the start of your narrative.

After all, he needs to capture our interest from his first appearance – and then be someone who can hold our attention for 200+ pages.

You can do this by making your hero funny in an endearing or fascinating way. In the television series Monk, for example, the title character is cheap, socially inept, and suffers from OCD. But his quirks give rise to various comical situations and the actor who plays him makes him very watchable.

A common way to make the hero engaging is to show what a great guy he is. Good writers do this in  interesting and creative ways.

But your hero doesn’t always need to be an admirably good person.

It’s more of a challenge to create an antihero – but Scarlett O’Hara is one example of how it’s done. Scarlett does not fulfill the typical requirements for a halo – but she fascinates readers. Impetuous, passionate, daring, and driven, it’s mesmerizing to follow her various exploits.

Beyond being engaging, your hero also needs to fulfill certain requirements, if he aims to keep a reader’s attention for the span of a novel. Specifically, most heroes need to be:

  • goal oriented – actively pursues a goal, makes things happen, is not afraid to engage in conflict in pursuit of what he deems is right
  • passionate – if he doesn’t care deeply about achieving his goal, why should the reader?
  • real – he should have some flaws and shortcomings
  • unique – use your creativity and make him memorable in his own right
  • decent – does the right thing, stands up for what’s right
  • admirable – courageous, someone we can respect, someone who acts boldly and takes risks


Remember: a bold hero is a vulnerable hero (one willing to take risks). And vulnerability equates to story tension and suspense. A hero can still be admirable, even if he’s an underdog or down on his luck, so long as he isn’t dumb or a loser or a jerk. The reason for this is the reader would lose respect for the hero. When that happens, the reader closes the book and walks away.

Happy writing!


Characterization, On Writing, Plot & Structure

Keeping It Real (via Characterization)

October 24, 2012

If your goal is to write a pageturner, you want to create a story with compelling scenes – scenes crackling with the sort of action that compels a reader’s attention.

Readers are hungry for plausible stories about people who do amazing things. However, note the “plausible.” The action of the novel, no matter how over the top, must be credible.

Hmmm, you say, are the action scenes in the Harry Potter, James Bond, and Twilight books by any stretch of the imagination credible?

And the answer is: absolutely, yes – within the story logic created by the author. The heroes and heroines of pageturner novels do amazing things few of us will ever experience – but their experiences are credible because their authors have fashioned their characters in such a way as to make their actions plausible. Of course, Harry Potter can fly a broomstick. Harry Potter is a wizard. Of course, James Bond can escape certain death umpteen times. James Bond is a Superspy. Of course Edward literally sparkles and can read minds. Edward is a vampire with an unbeating heart of gold.

The basic idea in fashioning a pageturner is: Decide on the five, eight or ten, key amazing, awesome scenes you want to emply to make make your plot sparkle and shine. Then fashion characters who are the kinds of people who can make those things happen.

If you want a character who becomes a fierce warrior, like Katniss in the Hunger Games, you have to establish tht she has that potential in the opening pages. So, from the start, the author of The Hunger Games presents us with a heroine who is a fearless hunter with quick reflexes. She also provides Katniss with the emotional motivation that will spur her to perform to her utmost as a firece warrior: she shows us how deeply Katniss cares for Prim, her younger sister.

In Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell wants the reader to believe Scarlett is going to chase after Ashley, her romantic target, for 500 pages, so she shows us Scarlett passionately – and scandalously – throwing herself at Ashley in the opening scenes of the novel.

As you plan your pageturner, ask yourself: what kind of hero  is the best choice for my story?

You can’t be whimsical. You can’t show us a dreamy timid passive heroine who has no exceptional skills – or who doesn’t especially care for her younger sibling  – and expect us to believe she’ll fight valiantly in the Hunger Games. You can’t show us a shy and retiring Scarlett and expect us to believe she’ll pursue Ashley tooth and claw, and scrap for her own survival as aggressively.

If you’re baking a carrot cake, you have to put the carrot in!

So your goal is to,

1) fashion an interesting story –  that means when you are planning the big action scenes in your story, you want to create and present new and interesting situations versus  same old same old. But – again – your fictional characters must behave credibly. You need to give your hero plausible reasons for the choices he or she makes.

2) create credible characters to make that story happen – you need to: create a hero who can function the way you need him to in the story environment you intend to create.

Some examples:

  • If you need a character who risks his life to save a bunch of hostages from terrorists, you need a character who has the background  to outsmart a bunch of terrorists, and then you give him reasons to hang in there and outsmart them. I give you . . . Diehard. (Bruce Willis is a tough smart cop and his wife has been taken hostage by terrorists.)
  • If you need a detective who can spot tiny clues everyone else misses, you create Monk with his photographic memory and his OCD. His reason for pursuing the bad guys? He needs to make a living, and reinstate himself as a detective. He was drummed out after he had a breakdown when his wife was murdered. Aside from his love for his wife, his job as a detective means more than anything else to him.
  • If you need a Katniss, you give her archery skills and a rule-breaking disregard for totalitarian authority.


If you need a scene in which the heroine drives a Zamboni, establish that your heroine held a summer job in college driving a Zamboni. If you need a scene in which someone sails a boat across a stormy sea, give your hero a childhood of sailing every summer with his dad.

That’s how you make the magic of compelling scenes happen: decide on the action of those scenes, then create characters who have the background to make it seem perfectly natural that they can do what you need them to do.

Happy writing!

Characterization, On Writing, Plot & Structure

Why Your Hero Needs to Be Gutsy

October 22, 2012

In our previous post, we established that in order to create characters who keep readers turning pages, you need to:

  1. Create interesting characters – your story people should come alive on the page. (We’ll share more about making characters come to life in a future post.)
  2. Give your characters an intense motivation – something they care intensely about and/or desperately want to achieve – or prevent!


The above recommendations hold especially true when you create your hero.

A fascinating hero who has a strong goal keeps readers riveted to the page.

What’s more – to ensure the rivets don’t jiggle loose – you need to make your hero  struggle mightily to achieve his goal. That’s because, without struggle, heartbreak, and immense frustration, there is no story.

That means: your hero needs to be a scrapper.

He needs to be ready, willing, and able (although sometimes he may be allowed a moment of hesitation), to fight against all odds.

It also means you need to put your hero in a situation/situations where he must resist/fight/struggle/endure, and where the stakes are constantly raised.

That – again – is why your hero needs to be strongly motivated. He must want to achieve (or prevent) something so badly that he is willing to give the struggle his all.

What is true of the hero, is true also for the antagonist. That is where story conflict arises – in the clash of the hero and the antagonist as each pursues opposing goals.

If you choose to develop one or more subplots, your minor characters also will have strong goals, and meet with various conflicts. (The skilful writer weaves the subplot conflicts in a way that works to explore the novel’s overall theme.)

Our next blog post will explore the basics of melding plot and characterization considerations. Until then . . .

Happy writing!

Watch Jessica Hatchigan’s video tutorial – “How Bestselling Authors Create Pageturner Novels: Plot & Structure ” instantly on your PC, Mac, compatible TV or device via’s instant video.

Characterization, On Writing

How to Create Pageturner Characters

October 20, 2012

Characters are important because they make a story memorable. They’re important for another reason too.

Plots can get recycled over and over again. Someone even wrote a book called The 20 Master Plots. Others gurus talk about novelists being limited to seven master plots, or to 36, and so on.

Characters, however, offer endless possibilities for creativity – for something new.  And that’s what readers are looking for:

  • the new
  • the unique
  • the fresh


So how does an author create great characters?

Think about some of the great colorful pagturener characters:

  • Rhett and Scarlett (and their foils: Ashley and Melanie) – Gone with the Wind
  • Frodo and Sauron – The Lord of the Rings
  • Edward and Bella – Twilight
  • Harry Potter and Voldemort – the Harry Potter books
  • Katniss – The Hunger Games


What do they all have in common?

  1. They’re unique and interesting!
  2. They each desperately care about something.


Sometimes the hero’s focus is love or money. For Scarlett O’Hara, it was both. Sometimes it’s living up to a personal set of values. Rocky didn’t want to win the fight in that first movie. He just wanted to stay in the fight.

Often, especially for the villain, it’s about power, and the hero’s struggle is to prevent the villain from achieving that power.

Sometimes the goal is to win. Sometimes it’s tp survive. For Katniss, in the Hunger Games, it was both.

Sometimes a character is trying desperately to avoid something. (Richard Kimble in The Fugitive tries very hard not to get caught by the law; he needs to be free to clear his name and to find his wife’s murderer.

In mystery stories, the hero cares deeply about solving murders.

Well, you get the picture; to create a character your readers will care about: give your character something he/she cares intensely about and//or desperately wants to achieve – or prevent! Readers are riveted by fascinating characters who have strong goals.

Happy writing!

Watch Jessica Hatchigan’s video tutorial – “How Bestselling Authors Create Pageturner Novels: Plot & Structure ” instantly on your PC, Mac, compatible TV or device via’s instant video.


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