Monthly Archives: October 2014

Character Arc, Part 2: Building Your Character’s Internal Arc

Complete Characterization cover 1 2Here’s another lesson from my workshop, Dynamic Characterization, to help you build your character’s growth arc, starting with the flaw or wound, the defining traumatic event, and the stabilizing belief. Mapping your character’s growth arc before you start writing makes it easier to figure out your plot!


The character growth arc is about moving the character from one trait or state of mind to another.

  • From greed to generosity.
  • From hating himself to loving himself.
  • From helpless to powerful.
  • From believing that people who are different are wrong and deserving of scorn to believing that people who are different should be respected and learned from.

If you can’t state you character’s growth arc in “from ____ to ____” format, you might have a problem.

The growth arc starts with the flaw or wound you chose for your character in lesson five. It ends with the character having transformed the flaw into a more positive trait or having healed the wound and no longer feeling like they need to engage in the protective behaviors associated with that wound.

The Structure of the Growth Arc

The basic structure of the growth arc is:

  1. Character has a flaw or wound, but is comfortable with it, and their behavior is shaped by the flaw or wound.
  2. Something changes that makes the flaw less functional or the wound harder to protect (this is usually the inciting incident).
  3. This change creates problems for the character as they work harder to compensate for their flaw or protect their wound.
  4. These problems create internal and external conflict for the character.
  5. The character’s attempts to resolve these new conflicts while at the same time compensating for the flaw or protecting the wound lead to disaster.
  6. This disaster causes the character to question their stabilizing belief.
  7. This questioning allows the character to discover a better belief.
  8. A new trait arises from the better belief (which is demonstrated through new behavior).

The character might go through multiple iterations of steps 4-6 before they finally get to step 7.

Let’s apply this structure to Steve, the greedy stockbroker from yesterday’s post.

Step 1: Character has flaw or wound, but is comfortable with it, and their behavior is shaped by the flaw or wound.

Steve has worked his way out of poverty and is now making half a million dollars each year as a result of his savvy investment skills. He put his sisters through college, and he’s now able to give his wife and daughter everything they could possibly want. His greed has driven him to become one of the best on Wall Street and to constantly seek to improve his skills so that he can amass even more wealth.

There’s not a whole lot of incentive for Steve to change right now, is there? Sure, he’d like to spend more time with his wife and kid, but he feels it’s more important to keep making money so that he doesn’t have to worry about his ability to take care of them. He hates that he doesn’t see his family enough, but he can’t stop pushing himself to make more money.

Remember from the example in yesterday’s post—his trauma is that his mother died of cancer because the family couldn’t afford health insurance, and Steve feels that it was his responsibility to take care of her. As a result of that trauma he acquired the unconscious belief that being poor means he’s doomed to lose the people he loves. So now he’s faced with the choice making money to protect his loved ones vs. spending time with his loved ones but risking losing them because he failed to make enough money to protect them.

Step 2: Something changes that makes the flaw less functional or the wound harder to protect.

Steve is offered a sketchy investment with a huge potential return. He knows he shouldn’t make this investment, and that his wife wouldn’t approve, but the money he’s expecting to make will put his daughter through grad school at Princeton. He justifies the bad decision by telling himself that he’s doing it for her. At this point in time, he doesn’t even recognize that his focus on making money is protecting him from his fear of losing the people he loves.

Step 3: This change creates problems for the character as they work harder to compensate for their flaw or protect their wound.

Oh no, the con artist who convinced Steve to invest ran off with the money and left Steve with a paper trail and an FBI investigation! It turns out that the investment was a Ponzi scheme, and hundreds of retired folks have been bilked of their life savings. All the evidence left behind by the con artist frames Steve as the ringleader.

Step 4: These problems create internal and external conflicts for the character.

For the first time in his life, Steve’s greed isn’t helping him, it’s hurting him. He’s lost his job at the investment firm. He’s humiliated by the news stories trashing him. His friends won’t have anything to do with him. Worst of all, his wife is furious—she can’t believe he would endanger their future like this.

Steve feels terrible. But his intentions were good, he rationalizes. He didn’t mean any harm. He was just looking out for his daughter.

And he’s got connections—he can fix this, right? This is just a temporary glitch, and soon he’ll be trading on the stock market again.

Steve holds back some crucial details about his interactions with the con artist who set him up, because those details would also lead the FBI to the one secret bank account that they haven’t found yet. And Steve’s going to need the money in that account to invest and make back his fortune once he gets out of this mess. His greed is still in full swing.

Step 5: The character’s attempts to resolve these new conflicts while at the same time compensating for the flaw or protecting the wound lead to disaster.

Steve’s not blaming his greed for getting him into this mess—he blames the con artist. And his solution to his current predicament? He arranges a meeting with one of the few friends who’s still talking to him, and through that friend, attempts to bribe the prosecuting attorney to make a mistake that would allow Steve to get off on a technicality.

Guess how that works out?

Meanwhile Steve’s assets have been seized, his wife and daughter have been forced to move in with friends, and jail time looks like a sure thing. No one believes Steve’s “not guilty” plea, not even his lawyer.

Step 6: This disaster causes the character to question their stabilizing belief.

Sitting alone in his jail cell after a demoralizing talk with his lawyer, Steve gets a call from his wife:  she wants a divorce. It finally hits him that he’s been wrong all this time. Money hasn’t protected him from losing his loved ones—not only that, but his greedy pursuit of money has caused Steve to lose his loved ones.

Step 7: This questioning allows the character to discover a better belief.

Steve decides that from here on out, he’s going to do the right thing, no matter what it costs him. He may have lost his family to greed, but he can try to help the people who lost their life savings to the con artist.

Steve calls his lawyer back and asks him to arrange a meeting with the FBI. He divulges the information that leads the FBI to his last remaining stash of money—as well as to the con artist. The real villain is caught, the stolen money is handed over to the authorities to be returned to the con artist’s victims, and Steve is offered a community service sentence in exchange for his help in catching the con artist.

Step 8: A new trait arises from the better belief (which is demonstrated through new behavior).

Steve reunites with his wife, swearing that he’s giving up his job as a stockbroker and begging forgiveness for his mistake.

She forgives him, and together they use the money that was returned to them—the money that Steve gave the con artist months ago—to start a foundation that pays for cancer treatment for those who can’t afford it, which they name after Steve’s mother. Now that Steve is freed from the crippling belief that he should have been able to prevent his mother’s death, he’s free to address that personal tragedy in a meaningful way: by helping others who are in the same situation that killed his mother.

Notice that he’s also demonstrating the new trait of generosity—which is the opposite of the flaw he started with.

Which characters need growth arcs?

Not all characters need a growth arc—if every single person in your story changed like this, the story would feel like a mess. But unless you’re writing fiction that’s completely plot-driven, your protagonist probably needs one. You might want to give your antagonist a growth arc that either contrasts with or parallels with the protagonist’s arc, for thematic purposes. Depending on the story you’re telling, you may decide that one or more other characters would benefit from a growth arc. It’s a judgment call with every character other than your protagonist.


Ready for NaNoWriMo? If you’ve got your character arc but are still struggling with your plot,
The 30 Day Novel Success Journal or The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance can help you figure out what happens at each step of your story.

Character Arc, Part 1: Flaws, Wounds, and the Defining Traumatic Event

Complete Characterization cover 1 2Here’s another lesson from my class, Dynamic Characterization, to help you flesh out your characters for NaNoWriMo.


In order for a character to grow during the story (i.e. have a character arc), she needs either a flaw that she’ll overcome or a wound that she’ll manage to heal by the end of the story.

Flaws

A flaw is a negative personality trait—a trait that causes the character to have a poorer experience of life and that interferes with her ability to become the best possible version of herself. The character may or may not be aware that the trait is negative, and in fact, may actually view this trait as a positive thing.

For storytelling purposes, a flaw is usually a) rooted in a trauma that the character has experienced in the past and b) stabilized by a belief that the character formed in reaction to that trauma.

For example, let’s say our hero, Steve, is a stockbroker and his flaw is greed. Why is he greedy?

Steve grew up in an economically-depressed Midwestern town. His mother’s disability check wasn’t quite enough to keep Steve and his two sisters fed and clothed. Steve worked two part-time under-the-table jobs, starting when he was in fifth grade, but in spite of all his hard work, there was never enough money. And when his mother died of cancer—undiagnosed until it was far too late to treat because she couldn’t afford to see a doctor—he swore he would do whatever it took to get rich. He blamed lack of money, specifically his own inability to earn enough to buy his mother medical insurance, for his mother’s death.

The trauma of his mother’s death caused Steve to form a belief: If I don’t have enough money, I’ll lose the people I love.

Logically, we understand it wasn’t Steve’s fault that his mother died. Teenager Steve wasn’t in a position to hold down a full-time job in order to get his mother medical benefits. It wasn’t Steve’s decision to save money by skipping doctor visits. But Steve is a smart, responsible, loving son who’s been forced to be the “man of the trailer” from a very young age, and to him, it feels like he should have been able to save his mother.

As long as Steve believes that poverty = losing loved ones, he won’t be able to stop being greedy. The second he quits earning money, that terrible fear of losing his sisters and the other people he loves is going to rear its ugly head.

In order to change, Steve is going to have re-examine that childhood trauma and reinterpret the misguided belief that he formed as a result of it.

If we were writing Steve’s story, we might decide that Steve needs to recognize that the local factory where his mother was exposed to carcinogenic is to blame for his mother’s death—and that instead of making millions, his real goal should be to expose the factory’s coverup of its employee’s higher-than-normal cancer rates.

Or we might decide that Steve needs to come to accept that his mother made so many sacrifices because she loved him, and to respect her choice to sacrifice herself for her children. Instead of making millions, maybe his goal should be to honor her sacrifice by doing something meaningful with his life. It depends on what kind of story we’d like to tell about Steve.

But whatever kind of story we put Steve in, he’s going to have to change the belief that stabilizes his flaw before he can fix the flaw itself.

Wounds

A wound is damage to the character’s psyche caused by a trauma that the character has experienced and that hasn’t yet healed. The character’s problems or limitations arise from her need to protect that wound.

For example, let’s say that Harriet slept with her high-school sweetheart Mike and got pregnant at the age of 16. She was so head-over-heels in love with him that she was sure he’d want to marry her as soon as she told him about the baby. But not only did Mike laugh in her face, he told everyone at school what a slut she was and claimed that she was lying about the baby being his. All of Harriet’s friends abandoned her, and she dropped out of school to become a single mother.

You can see how this trauma might cause Harriet to come to the conclusion that Mike is a scumbag. If he was a football player, Harriet might generalize and decide that all football players are scumbags. But Harriet was a tender-hearted teenager in the throes of her first love when Mike humiliated her—the belief she formed as a result of this horrible experience was: All men are scumbags who’ll destroy you as soon as you fall in love with them.

She’ll cling to that belief as long as she’s carrying around the hurt that Mike inflicted on her, because that belief protects her from being hurt in the same way again. If she doesn’t date, she can’t fall in love, and if she doesn’t fall in love, she can’t be destroyed by someone she cares about.

Flaws and Wounds Shape Your Story

A character’s flaw or wound gives rise to specific behaviors. Given the choice between spending the evening with his wife and daughter or researching a new investment opportunity, Steve is going to choose the opportunity, because he believes that he’s risking losing them both if he doesn’t make more money.

A character’s flaw or wound also gives rise to internal conflict. Given the choice between a legal investment with the potential to make a 10% return and a sketchy investment with the potential to make a 50% return, which do you think Steve will pick? Will he go with the safe investment, because he doesn’t want to risk his ability to support his wife and daughter? Or will he give into the temptation to invest in something questionable, because every dollar he brings in makes him feel like his wife and daughter are safer?

That would be a big dilemma for him, wouldn’t it?

When you understand the relationship between a character’s flaw or wound, the trauma that caused it, and the belief that resulted from it, you start to see how your character arc is going to work. Want to make Steve less greedy or get Harriet to go on a date? You’ve got to put them in situations where they’ll encounter evidence that their stabilizing belief is wrong.

Maybe Steve will make that sketchy investment and get caught—and when he does, he starts to see that money isn’t a guarantee that he’ll be able to protect his family. In the aftermath of his arrest, his wife might have a stress-induced heart attack or his daughter might be bullied by her classmates at the ultra-expensive prep school she goes to. The more Steve tries to buy his way out of trouble, the more problems he creates for himself and his family.

What if Harriet is accused of a crime she didn’t commit? Maybe she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe she was framed. It looks like she’s going to jail, unless she cooperates with the homicide detective who believes she’s innocent. We’ll want to make this homicide detective the opposite of Mike, the kind of guy who has a chance of proving to Harriet that not all men are scumbags. No matter how hostile Harriet is to Mike, he’s determined to see justice done.

At the beginning of your story, the belief that is stabilizing the character’s flaw or wound is working for him/her. At first Steve’s greed seems like a positive thing—it’s helped him work his way out of total poverty and send his younger sisters to college. It’s helped him win his wife and to give his daughter every benefit that a parent could give a child. It’s pushed him to become one of the savviest stockbrokers in the history of the market.

Likewise, Harriet’s wound has helped her become the strong, independent woman she is today. She’s never relied on a man for anything, and she’s single-handedly raised her daughter, with whom she’s very close. She knows how to fix a leaky sink, how to make a delicious meal from beans and rice and veggies she grows in pots on her apartment balcony, and how to do her own taxes. She’s worked her way up from the mailroom to middle management—she had no choice but to learn quickly so that she could get a job that paid well enough to give her daughter the opportunities Harriet never had.

So when Steve and Harriet are put into situations that trigger their flaw or wound and challenge their stabilizing belief, they’re going to hate it. They’re going to fight tooth and nail to keep these dysfunctional beliefs that seem to be making their lives better.


Come back tomorrow to see how to turn a flaw or wound into a character arc!

Paula Millhouse on Writing a Romance Novel in 30 Days or Less

Today I’m joined by Paula Millhouse, the romance author who field-tested
The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance by using it to write a novel about dragon-riding elves doing battle with the evilest sorceress you’ll ever meet!

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you and what do you like to write?

Hello, Everyone, Paula Millhouse here, and I write Romantic Suspense and Fantasy Romance. I indie-published two novels in my series The Wishes Chronicles, in order to see what it’s like behind the scenes for publishers. I also signed contracts with a small press for two short stories in the fantasy romance genre.

How long have you been writing? How did you get started writing fiction?

At age 13 I wrote fantasy romance featuring the Rock Stars KISS as our Heroes (in makeup, of course), with a critique group of girlfriends in school. I moved on to poetry, then on to high school, and college, and then real life. In 2010 I focused on writing fiction with an eye toward publication.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Ohh, good question, for sure. I call myself an organic hybrid now. I wrote as a Pure Pantser from day one, then realized I’d wound up with a computer full of stories, and half-finished humongous files too massive to tame. I needed a way to adapt. I’ve tried plotting stories, but honestly that stifles my creativity from the outset. Now I’m a mixture of both.

What was your writing process like before you tried the romance story blueprint in The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance?

I’d sit down at the keyboard, review what I’d written the day before, and start off on a tear for the next few scenes.

What were your biggest frustrations? Where did you usually get stuck?

Biggest frustrations – my characters, the little darlings, would often follow rabbit trails down holes where I’d have to cut up to 15,000 words.

Now, I loved writing those scenes, and I still love getting caught up in the creative flow, but once I got 2/3 of the story down, my characters would go silent and refuse to speak to me. Often, I’d get stuck about 30,000 words in (The Wall), and start questioning the entire tale.

I think the problem centered around not asking them the right questions.

What kinds of brainstorming tools did you use before you started writing?

I keep a long-hand journal of conversations with my characters and ask them questions about their goals, motivations, and conflicts. One of my favorite brainstorming tools is Pinterest – I create story boards of my novels with images that springboard my imagination.

What other plotting methods had you tried before?

Dear Goodness, what haven’t I tried? Spreadsheets. Character profiles. Plot Whisperer. Dramatica, and its adaptations. Million Dollar Outlines. Save The Cat. Rock Your Plot. Fairy Tale Structure. Story Weaver. Hive World. Entangled’s NaNoWriMo Boot Camp.

While all these methods have great impact on the craft of writing, often revealing their author’s hard work, somehow I couldn’t make them fit me. It seemed like once I filled in all the details my stories lost their importance. It was as if my characters went on strike and carried signs that read, “The story’s already been told, so why bother?”

How long did it take you to write your novel, Dragon’s Promise, using the romance story blueprint in The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance? Is this slower or faster than your usual timeline for writing a full first draft?

Dragon’s Promise was finished in full first draft in 25 days. This experience was significantly faster than most of my previous stories.

I did win NaNoWriMo twice, but I wound up with a hot mess of chaos still yet to see edits, or second draft.

What was it like to write Dragon’s Promise by plotting one day at a time?

First, I loved plotting one day at a time. Every day held a new set of questions to think about. Even with my self-imposed time-limit of 30 days to complete the first draft, I had new questions for my characters to answer every day. The brainstorming questions saved my story from stalling out.

What did you find most useful about the blueprint?

The daily questions were the most useful part of the blueprint for me. Knowing you based the questions on solid story structure–a verified path to follow, and not rabbit trails I’d have to fix later–gave me the confidence to meet my goal. I appreciate all you’ve put into designing the questions, Lynn. It’s a No-Brainer to use the blueprint. It’s loose enough that I don’t feel constricted, yet structured enough I’m staying on track.

How did you use the brainstorming prompts?

Ray Bradbury’s Dreamscaping must have helped because the next day I’d think about the brainstorming prompts all day at work, maybe answer a few of them at lunchtime.

When I came home to write after work during my designated writing time, the scenes were already in place. I swear, it was as if the movie of the scenes I wrote played out in my mind. It was all right there at my fingertips. On average I wrote 2,000 words/day because the brainstorming prompts led me to success.

How would you compare your earlier novel-writing experiences with your experience of writing with the romance story blueprint?

I wrote this story knowing if I kept true to the prompts the novel would hold water. I wasn’t wasting my time.

Did the romance story blueprint change your writing process in any way?

Yes. I still hold that I’m an organic writer, a Panster if you will. The Romance Story Blueprint helped me laser-focus the precious writing time I carve out of my day. It SAVES time. It doesn’t feel like I’m stifling my creativity at all.

Are you planning to use the romance story blueprint for your next novel?

I have an idea for a Romantic Suspense novella, the third in my Wishes Chronicles, up for first draft. My plan is to use the blueprint while writing during #NaNoWriMo2014.

What would you say to writers who are considering trying out the method described in The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance?

If you’ve got a hot mess of writing on your hands and you want to finish your novel give this method a try. It will focus your writing, and lead you to the finish with a product you can be proud of, ready for edits.

I’d also like to point out, if you’re a Plotter, you’ll be in Hog Heaven with this method.

I also think The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance will be instrumental in the editing phase.

Romance Author Paula Millhouse

Paula Millhouse grew up in Savannah, Georgia where Spanish moss whispers tales in breezes from the Atlantic Ocean, and the Intracoastal Waterway. As a child Paula soaked in the sunshine and heritage of historic cobblestones, pirate lore, and stories steeped in savory mysteries of the south.

She’s a member of Romance Writers of America, & the online Fantasy, Futuristic, & Paranormal Writers specialty chapter.

In the southern tradition of storytellers, she loves sharing the lives of her characters with readers, and following her muse on the quest for happily-ever-afters in thrilling romantic fiction.

She lives with her hero, her husband of twenty-seven years at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains with their pack and pride of furry babies.

Website | Facebook / Twitter / Goodreads / Amazon / Boroughs Publishing Group / Pinterest


CarefulCover8-10-14.1

CAREFUL…

Escape to Vermont with Romantic Suspense

Spend crisp Autumn evenings in Bradford, Vermont curled up with a romantic suspense novel crossed with a thriller’s twist. Careful…, by Paula Millhouse, deals contemporary romance a deadline with justice.

Author Evie Longfellow wants to stay alive long enough to write her fourth New York Times Best Seller. She accepts a blind date from hell that changes everything sane in her life.

Drugged, kidnapped, and horrified Evie escapes and runs for her life with evidence the FBI needs to nail one of their most wanted.

TV Psychologist Dr. Nick Franklin wants to help Evie with her goals. He hides her from a sadistic mafia kingpin, and even though he doesn’t trust his judgment when it comes to the diagnosis of love, he senses Evie may just be the story of his life.

Hit man Tony Aiello plans to do whatever it takes to protect Miss Aida Marino and her Fortune 500 company from disaster. He chases Evie and Nick from New York City to the wilds of rural Vermont to recover the stolen evidence threatening to take Miss Aida down, and faces off with evil in a showdown that brings hometown justice to life.

***************************************************

BUY LINKS:  Smashwords / Kindle / Paperback/ Pinterest Board for Careful…

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 AYW.Millhouse.Ebook.8-16-14ALL YOUR WISHES…

Spend Christmas in Vermont with All Your Wishes…

Spend your Christmas wrapped up in a romantic suspense with a thriller’s twist.

From the Winter Wonderland of rural Vermont to the jagged spires of New York City, All Your Wishes, Book 2 in The Wishes Chronicles by Paula Millhouse, serves up harrowing justice with romantic flair that’s sure to leave you cheering for Nick and Evie’s Happily Ever After.

A Christmas Story to warm your heart.

Dr. Nick Franklin finds himself falling hard for the love of his life, Evie Longfellow. Hunted by a mafia princess, Evie’s terrified something’s wrong, and revenge won’t let her rest.

Tia Marino figures the person who killed her father is his last victim – Evie Longfellow – the only one that ever got away from Paulie Marino. Tia plans to kill Evie in front of her grandmother just before she takes Miss Aida’s place as the new queen of Marino Industries. Hostile-takeovers have never seen the likes of Tia.

Nick’s not gonna have it.

He’ll do anything to protect Evie, even if it means aligning himself with Miss Aida’s hit-man, Tony Aiello.

Follow Nick and Evie from their simple home in the winter wonderland of Vermont down to New York City in their race to stay alive, and out of the hands of a new generation of criminals intent on tearing them apart.

Christmas has never been so hot.

BOOK BUY LINKS:

Smashwords | Kindle | Paperback | Pinterest Board for All Your Wishes…

COMING SOON:  Don’t Say A Word

Syndicate Hit-man Tony Aiello and FBI Special Agent Janet Pierce each hold court on opposite ends of the spectrum of law and justice.

Death row inmate Dante’ Buccherri escapes from Supermax ADX Prison in Colorado and comes back to New York City on a rampage with Tony and Janet’s names on the top of his list.

But, when Tony and Janet are pitted together in a high-stakes man-hunt they must press the fringes of their chosen professions in order to take Dante’ down or fall victim to the mad-man’s blade. When sparks ignite between the two of them, the worst part of their conflict has nothing to do with the killer.

Workshop: Dan Wells on Story Structure

NaNoWriMo’ers: This incredibly useful plotting workshop that shows how to identify multiple story arcs in your novel and weave them all together. Especially helpful if you want to include one or more subplots and aren’t sure how to work them in!

It’s split into five videos:

On a side note, his seven point outline is also great for plotting out short stories.

Neil Gaimain: On Writing Under Pressure, Inspiration, and Other Writerly Topics

This is a wonderful talk by Neil Gaiman on The Nerdist, especially apropos for National Novel Writing Month.

Here are a few quotes that struck home with me:

“For me, it’s always been a process of trying to convince myself that what I’m doing in a first draft isn’t important.”

“Nobody’s ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft. …Whatever you’re doing can be fixed. You can fix it tomorrow. You can fix it next week. For now, just get the words out, get the story down however you can get it down…”

“The weird thing is that six months later, a year later, you’ll look back at them and you can’t remember which scenes you wrote because you were inspired and which scenes you wrote because they had to be written next.”

Bookmark this one to watch when you hit those mid-month doldrums where it’s tempting to give up!

How to Make Sure Your Character’s Personality Shines

Complete Characterization cover 1 2Getting ready for NaNoWrimo? To help you develop your characters, I’d like to share this lesson from my workshop, Dynamic Characterization: A No-Inspiration-Required System for Creating Unforgettable Characters. You’ll learn how to make sure that your character’s personality traits come through clearly on the page.


We often talk about giving our characters personality traits. But what does that mean?

A personality trait is a mode of interacting with the world, and more specifically, with other people. When we talk about personality traits, we’re really talking about habitual behaviors that people engage in.

Let’s look at some examples:

Haughty: someone who is haughty behaves as if they’re at the top of the social hierarchy.

Humble: someone who is humble behaves as if others are equally high, if not higher in the social hierarchy.

Ruthless: someone who is ruthless behaves as if the harm they do to others while pursuing their goals doesn’t matter.

Snarky: someone who is snarky behaves as if it’s their job to make fun of all the things wrong with the world (and the people in it).

Shy: someone who is shy behaves as if other people are dangerous. Shy people protect themselves by avoiding social interactions whenever possible, and minimizing social interactions when avoidance isn’t an option.

Aggressive: someone who is aggressive behaves as if the only way to get what they want is to force others to hand it over.

Generous: someone who is generous behaves as if they have enough (time, money, etc) that they can afford to share what they have with others.

Intuitive: someone who is intuitive behaves as if their gut feelings are just as valid (or more valid) than what they can understand by using logic.

Remember, traits are not just behavior, they are habitual behavior—behavior that the character displays consistently again and again.

Traits Shape the Character’s Journey

A character’s goals and motivations determine where they’re headed, but their traits (habitual behaviors) determine how they get there.

Let’s look at an example of a character who needs a bank loan.

A haughty character might try to intimidate the loan officer into giving them the loan, or try to impress the loan officer by putting on airs.

A humble character might ask for help and appeal to the loan officer’s spirit of generosity.

A ruthless character might badger the loan officer with verbal abuse or try to blackmail him into granting the loan.

A snarky character might be in danger of sabotaging her own efforts to get the loan because she can’t turn off the critical commentary—or she might endear herself to the loan officer by snarking on someone the loan officer dislikes.

A shy character might stutter or even hand over the paperwork without saying anything at all.

An aggressive person might deluge the loan officer with pie charts, spreadsheets, and a thirty-page report on why they should be given the loan.

A generous person might bring the loan officer coffee (without intending it to be a bribe) or go out of their way to rearrange their schedule for the sake of the loan officer’s convenience.

An intuitive person might listen to what their gut is telling them and refrain from pushing the loan officer to make a decision that day.

It’s the same scene: an applicant speaking with a loan officer. But you’d write that scene very differently depending on which core trait you’ve assigned to the character asking for the loan. And we haven’t even talked about the loan officer’s core trait. J

A character’s behavior in a single incident can be misinterpreted by the reader. Maybe the applicant isn’t generous, maybe she really is trying to bribe the loan officer by bringing that coffee. Or maybe she went out of her way to accommodate the loan officer’s schedule because she’s desperate for the money.

That’s why we don’t just show a character’s core traits once—we show them many different times in different situations. Habitual behavior, remember? We want to give the reader an opportunity to compare a character’s behavior across multiple scenes so that the reader naturally develops a sense of the character’s personality as the story unfolds.

Focusing on a Few Core Traits

Be selective when assigning personality traits to your main characters. Too few traits makes a character seem one-dimensional, but too many traits causes the character to seem inconsistent and/or generic.

Secondary characters can display only a single trait during their brief appearance in the story, as the reader won’t expect them to have a lot of depth, but the bigger a character’s role in the story, the better developed they should be.

Expressing Core Traits on the Page

Let’s run through the character expression elements for a character who’s displaying the trait of slyness.

If you look up the definition of “sly” on dictionary.com, you get this:

  1. cunning or wily: sly as a fox.
  2. stealthy, insidious, or secret.
  3. playfully artful, mischievous, or roguish: sly humor.

A person who is sly behaves as if the best way to get what he wants is to be secretive while manipulating others or working indirectly/behind the scenes. He’s smart or cunning enough to get away with this the majority of the time. Often, he will be playful when he feels he can do so without endangering his secrets.

Translating Traits into Character Expression Elements

Dialogue: A sly character won’t speak his mind directly or reveal his secrets easily. He’ll flatter, tease, hint, cajole, imply, speak in ambiguities or outright riddles, dole out misleading tidbits of information, lie by omission, tell half-truths—but to get the whole truth from him, other characters will have to either outsmart the sly one or threaten the sly one with a fate worse than giving up his secrets.

His playfulness may come through via teasing, wordplay, double-entendre, joking, etc.

So when you’re writing this character’s dialogue, it’s crucial that you have him speak indirectly unless he has no other choice. In each scene, ask yourself how this character will attempt to manipulate others when he speaks.

Action (voluntary and involuntary): Direct conflict will be a sly character’s last resort. He’ll do things behind the scenes, attempt to work through others, or misdirect others’ attention to give a false impression. When confronted directly, he’ll use whatever tools are available to extricate himself from the conflict: implying that another person is to blame for the problem, twisting the confronter’s words, changing the subject, defusing the conflict with humor, etc. If the conflict can’t be defused, the sly character may attempt to manipulate others into protecting him.

Because of his playful nature, he may treat life like a game, or indulge in practical jokes, or practice other sleight-of-hand or other forms of physical trickery.

Unless a sly character is alone, everything action he takes in the scene will be done for the purpose of influencing those around them.

So when you’re writing this character’s action, you will always want to ask yourself: What’s the secret agenda? How can this character appear to be doing something innocuous while furtively pursuing his goals?

Body Language: Body language is likely to be poised and controlled, with deliberately calculated facial expressions. You might show that a sly character is under extreme duress by letting his expression slip and reveal something that he didn’t intend to share.

One thing that the dictionary.com definition of “sly” didn’t include is that sly people often come across as smug or self-satisfied (it’s that “I know something you don’t know” attitude leaking through). So when you’re contemplating body language, you might want to occasionally let the reader see this character with a smug expression on his face.

Thoughts and Feelings (interior monologue, visceral sensations, intuition): If the sly character is a POV character, you’ll be showing the reader his thoughts and feelings as he schemes his way through the story, and the incongruity between his thoughts/feelings and his outward behavior will make clear to the reader what a sly fox he is.

If the sly character is not a POV character, the reader won’t necessarily know if he’s sly or sincere, and the fun will start when his true motives are discovered by other characters in the story.

Habits: Since this character has secrets to keep, he’s probably not going to keep anything important written down, or if he must have a written record of his secrets, he’s going to have a great hiding place for them.

He might make an effort to vary his routine enough that others won’t be able to predict where he is at any given time. Or he might stick to a solid routine that gives him opportunities to spend time with (and manipulate!) key people in his life.

He might have a hobby that’s deliberately calculated to project a particular image. Or perhaps he’s got a hobby that he only practices in secret, because he wants others to underestimate him when he puts his big plan into action.

He’s probably in the habit of gossiping in order to keep tabs on what everyone else is up to or to find out what they know. Maybe he even pays others to collect information for him that he can use to manipulate the people around him.

Quirks: Perhaps he sleeps with his password-protected smartphone under his pillow to be sure no one else has access to it, and never reads email unless he’s alone.

He could have developed his own shorthand code for those situations where he absolutely must write something down on paper that he doesn’t want others to discover.

He undoubtedly shreds his mail and receipts, unless he wants someone to find them.

Clothes, Accessories and Grooming: He probably wears whatever he needs to in order to project the right image at any given moment.

Tools and Special Objects: We might decide that this character is really secretive and that he has a set of lockpicks that he keeps under his mattress for snooping emergencies.

Depending on what secrets he’s keeping, he might have other special items to protect: blackmail photos, a locket of his late mother’s which he wears tucked away under his shirt to remind him why he must not rest until he avenges her, or a love letter from the high school sweetheart who turned him into the manipulative secret-keeper that he is today.

He might also have possessions that he displays prominently, not because they have sentimental value—revealing what he cares about makes him vulnerable—but that he pretends are important in order to manipulate how others see him. An expensive vase collection to serve as his “in” with the evil Duke. A rare signed baseball which he uses to convince his marks to invest in the con he’s running.

Meaningful Locations: What might be a meaningful location to a secretive person? How about someplace where he can relax and be himself? It could be some place quiet and isolated. Or perhaps he has a secret life of some sort—a girlfriend in another city, or an out-of-town bar where everyone knows him under a fake name.

Scars, Wounds, Body Modification, and Unusual Physical Traits: Hard to tell this from a personality trait—if we had an idea why he’s so secretive, maybe we’d give him a scar to fit. For example, if the secret he’s keeping has to do with being an abused child, perhaps he’ll have a scar that he reveals at the climax to prove that he’s the villain’s son. But for now, let’s leave this open until we know what kind of story we’re going to put him in.

For the sake of this exercise, we’re designing a character in a vacuum, but in real life, we almost always have at least a hint of the story that we’re building characters for, so chances are this category and the next would be things you’d already know.

Secrets: Since we don’t know what type of story he’s going to be in yet, we’ll leave this blank, but as we get more of a feel for him, we’ll revisit his secrets. He’ll have one really big one for sure, and probably several small ones that may be revealed or hinted at during the course of the story.

Relationships: There are probably few, if any, people he trusts enough to be completely open with them. Anyone he does trust is someone who has deep roots in his life—a very old friend, a sibling, or someone who owes him so much that they could never repay the debt.

For the most part, he probably thinks in terms of short-term alliances rather than long-term relationships. His relationships are likely to be based on mutual interests/problems rather than on whether or not he likes the other person.

If you choose character expression elements for your characters’ personality traits, you’ll have a list of behaviors that you can sprinkle throughout the story that will paint a clear picture for the reader–without you ever having to point out that your character has that trait.

Not sure how to choose personality traits for your characters?  Here’s a list of personality traits (in a downloadable PDF).

Choose a trait you think might be good for the character you’re developing. Then start selecting character expression elements related to that trait.

Will the behaviors that a character with that trait exhibits work for the story you want to tell?


Have a great character but struggling to come up with a plot? My workbooks teach you a plot-as-you-go method that guarantees a novel with solid story structure. Just follow the prompts and answer the questions about your characters to find out what happens next!

The 30 Day Novel Success Journal     The 30 Day Novel Romance Smashwords cover

What’s the difference between them?

The 30 Day Novel Success Journal leads a single protagonist through a growth arc during the course of the story.

The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance is designed around two protagonists, each with their own growth arc, falling in love during the course of the story.

Writing with Your Muse, Not Your Ego

I love this Ted Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” about how changing her relationship with her creativity greatly improved her writing process. I now talk to an empty corner of my writing room every day.

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, this mental shift could be the difference between giving up under the intense mental pressure or finishing your novel.

Whether you believe that there is such a thing as a Muse or not, taking your ego out of the writing process and focusing more closely on the work can increase your productivity and lower your stress levels.

Joe Bunting, founder of The Write Practice and Story Cartel talks about another method for separating your ego from your creative process:  he tells the story of a therapist who helped a screenwriter break through writer’s block by praying every day to write the worst novel ever.

Must-See Videos If You’re Brainstorming a Novel or Short Story

Working on your NaNoWriMo plot?  If you haven’t seen it already, you owe it to yourself to check out “How to Write a Story That Rocks,” a workshop by John Brown and Larry Correia.

They teach you how to use more than a dozen techniques for turning a basic scenario into a complex plot full of twists and turns that your readers will love.

Use now, as you prepare to start your novel, but bookmark it and come back if you get stuck in the middle. Your secret weapon for finishing NaNoWriMo!

You’ll need a couple of hours to get through the whole workshop–longer if you stop the video for each exercise and apply it to your work-in-progress, like I do. So you might want to watch 15-20 minutes per day and work through a couple exercises at a time.

John has made a “cheat sheet” for the techniques available on his website here (http://johndbrown.com/writers/), along with a ton of other great articles on the craft of writing.

Interview and Contest at The Author’s Journal

The lovely Paula Millhouse interviews me on her blog, The Author’s Journal, about the evolution of the plot-as-you-go romance story blueprint and how this approach to writing can help both plotters and pantsers:

http://tinyurl.com/mu3f6dy

One lucky commenter will win a free copy of The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance, just in time for NaNoWriMo!

Creating Your Character’s Dominant Impression

In an earlier post, I talked in depth about dynamic characterization. Now I’d like to show you how to use dynamic characterization to create a character’s dominant impression.

A character’s dominant impression is the way you’d describe the character if you had to sum him/her up in a single phrase—just the bare essentials. The things you’d mention briefly in the back cover blurb.

For example:

  • thief with trust issues
  • space marine with a strict code of honor
  • ruthless mobster who always takes care of his people

Don’t try to cram every last detail into your dominant impression statement—focus on capturing the big picture. Here’s a simple process for homing in on the two most important things about your character:

  1. Identify the character’s primary role in the story. This role will be relevant to the external arc, the role or trait related to the story goal. (thief, space marine, ruthless mobster)
  1. Identify the character’s main trait or issue. This issue or trait will be relevant to the internal arc, which supports the theme of the story. (distrustful, strict code of honor, protective of those who are weaker)

A properly constructed dominant impression statement not only describes your character in a nutshell, but it also lets the reader know what kind of story they’re going to be reading.

For example…

“Space marine with a strict code of honor” implies that there will be spaceships, battles, aliens, cool weapons, and a good guy who’ll be sorely tempted to do the wrong thing.

“Thief with trust issues” suggests that there will be a heist, an object precious enough to be worth stealing, a character whose backstory includes a betrayal, and a second character who may or may not be trustworthy.

“Ruthless mobster who always takes care of his people” hints at an ambiguous character with a gray morality, a story about loyalty, crimes committed, police evaded, and perhaps a bittersweet ending where justice may or may not have been done.

Once you’ve nailed down a character’s dominant impression, the next step is to figure out how you’re going to demonstrate it to the reader. How are we going to do it? Using those character expression elements, what can we tell about our space marine without knowing anything else about him?

Dialogue: He probably has the habit of saying ma’am or sir when addressing a stranger or an authority figure. He’ll use military slang that civilians wouldn’t get. If he’s been fighting against or alongside aliens, he’s sure to have picked up some words from their language. Some of those will undoubtedly be alien swear words.

Since he has that strict code of honor, he’d never promise anything unless he’s sure he could keep that promise.

Actions (voluntary and involuntary): If he’s been fighting recently on a high-gravity world, we might show him making an effort to move in a relaxed way as he adjusts to being back in normal gravity. Or if he’s just left a low-gravity world, we might see him working harder to take actions that would normally be effortless.

Does his hand unconsciously move to his weapon holster when he’s threatened, even if he’s off-duty and unarmed?

If he’s used to being cooped up in a ship or on a space station, does he get vertigo when he gets planetside? Does he try to cope with the vertigo by squinting, or focusing on a point straight ahead of him, or rubbing his eyes a lot, or leaning against things whenever possible?

Body Language: He might unconsciously snap to attention when encountering an authority figure, or stand at “parade rest” during conversations.

He can probably tell if a person has military training or not just from the way they move.

Thoughts and Feelings: Does he revel in the fact that he’s on leave, or does he miss the structured days and clear rules that he’s used to when on duty?

Does he compare the food he eats at his favorite hole-in-the-wall diner with military rations and grumble that civilians don’t know how good they’ve got it?

Does he have any resentment toward the civilians he risks his life to protect? Is he proud of the fact that he makes their safe lives possible?

Does he believe that the war he’s been fighting is for a just cause, or is soldiering just a job he does because he’s good at it?

Having experienced other aliens’ cultures, he’ll have opinions about them. Have these other cultures opened his mind to other ways of doing things and made him critical of some elements of human culture? Or did they reinforce his belief that the human way is the best way?

What are the tenets that make up the code of honor that he follows? How about:

1) Polite to and protective of women

2) Never throws the first punch

3) Doesn’t tolerate bullies

4) Always backs his buddies up

Military personnel tend to get vaccinations for all sorts of diseases that a civilian wouldn’t be exposed to. Is his arm sore from his most recent round of shots? Has he had any health problems as a result of being overvaccinated?

Does the future government put chips in soldiers so that their bodies can be tracked at all times (and retrieved in the event of death)? If so, can he tell the chip is there? Does it have side effects? Does he do anything to interfere with its functioning? Or worry about being under surveillance?

Habits: Does he polish his boots? Clean his weapons every night whether he’s used them or not? Sleep in four hour increments so it’ll be easier to adjust to taking watches when he goes back on duty? Does he own more than he can fit in his rucksack?

Do the space marines issue any sort of pharmaceuticals to their troops to enhance strength, speed, alertness, perception, the ability to withstand extreme temperatures, protect against radiation, etc? If so, is he dependent on any of them, or can he stop taking them when he’s on leave? Does he experience any side effects from them? Does he go through withdrawal if he misses a dose?

Has he learned to be a light sleeper? Or to take combat naps whenever he’s got five minutes of free time? Does he tend to dream about past missions or dead comrades when he sleeps?

Does he do hundreds of pushups and situps on his off-days, to stay in shape, or is he blissfully happy to skip a day physical exertion?

Quirks: Do the space marines have a rivalry with another military branch? (I bet they do!) How does he feel about this rivalry—like he needs to defend the marines’ honor, or like it’s a stupid thing to fight over?

As a soldier, he’s going to know a lot more about weapons than the average civilian, and given a choice between two guns that might look identical to you and I, he would probably have a strong preference for one of them.

Maybe he has a hard time feeling safe even when he’s far away from the battlefield, and he improvises booby-traps or alarms to secure his room before bed each night.

In the process of traveling to strange new worlds, seeking out new life and killing it, he may also have acquired a taste for alien foods—maybe things that the average person wouldn’t even consider edible.

Clothing, Accessories and Grooming: He’d probably have a military cut (makes his helmet fit better and it’s easier to keep clean in unsanitary conditions). Does he let it get shaggy when he’s on leave, or does he prefer to keep it short?

No doubt he carries a military ID. Does it give him any special privileges? Or limit his access to anything?

How about footwear—does he feel naked unless he’s wearing combat boots? Or is he delighted to slip off the heavy clompers and put on some running shoes?

Does he wear fatigues even when he doesn’t have to? Or does he miss wearing street clothes? If he wears street clothes, do all his tee-shirts have military logos and slogans on them? If you saw him dressed normally when he’s on leave, would you be able to tell that he’s a marine by what he’s wearing?

Does he have a class ring or a unit ring? A promise ring from his girl back home?

Tools and Special Objects: He might feel uncomfortable unarmed, even in places where a civilian might feel safe, and have a permit to carry a weapon (concealed or openly).

Has he named his favorite gun?

What if the knife he always carries in his boot sheath belonged to his grandfather and his father?

Meaningful Locations: The military cemetery where both his grandfather and father were buried? The monument to the war his father died in? The small town where he grew up, and which he dreams of returning to once he’s ready to retire from the service?

Scars, Wounds, Body Modification, and Unusual Physical Traits: If he’s new to the corps, he might be unscarred, and if he’s a sensitive soul, he might even feel guilty that he’s whole while some of his friends are scarred or maimed.

But if he’s seen any amount of action, he’s probably got at least one scar. How about we give him surgical scars on that wounded knee, and a cluster of small scars on his shoulder where he caught some shrapnel?

It’s also not uncommon for military men to have tattoos of some sort—how about we give him one that shows the space marines glyph, and another small one that he got along with the surviving members of his unit after a particularly dangerous mission?

Depending on what kind of future you think he might be from, our marine might also be genetically or cybernetically enhanced in some way. A bionic eye with night vision and the ability to see different types of radiation? A reinforced skeleton and accelerated healing, to make him harder to kill? Genetically-enhanced muscles to allow him to fight on a planet with gravity three times stronger than Earth’s? Gene therapy that makes him capable of traveling through hyperspace without the usual side effects?

Secrets: Out there on the battlefield, he’s probably seen some pretty awful things. Some of those awful things may have been done by his fellow soldiers. Some he might have done himself. He probably doesn’t want to talk about them. Or does he? Will he get drunk enough to tell a stranger at a bar that he saw an innocent village massacred by mistake? Or that the recently-decorated lieutenant who’s been on all the new feeds really isn’t a hero at all?

He knows what’s really happening on the ground, too—he knows which parts of the news reports are true and which are not. If the government isn’t giving the folks back home the whole story about the war, our hero has to choose between keeping his mouth shut or spilling the beans. If he spills the beans, he’s going to have to worry about repercussions.

Relationships: How close is he to the others in his unit? Has he lost touch with all his former civilian friends? Does he have a girl in every port? Or an alien girlfriend waiting for him back on her homeworld?

Also, how do civilians react to him? Does he get called jarhead? Does he get lectured by a pacifist while he’s trying to enjoy a cup of coffee? Are others afraid of him when they find out he’s a marine? Does he get treated with respect when he’s in uniform? Does he not talk about his job because there’s always some moron who asks him how many people/aliens he’s killed? Do shopkeepers thank him for his service when he shows his military ID for a discount? Does his little brother want to hear all about the battles he’s been in?

Now let’s contemplate his code of honor. We don’t want to just tell the reader what is code is, we want to show him living by it. Here’s the basic tenets:

1) Polite to and protective of women

2) Never throws the first punch

3) Doesn’t tolerate bullies

4) Always backs his buddies up

Polite to and protective of women. Ways we could show this:

  • Put him in a situation where a woman is being rude to him, and show him keeping his temper and treating her politely anyway.
  • Put him in a situation where he sees a woman being treated disrespectfully, and show him intervening—perhaps criticizing the rude shopkeeper, or escorting her to a safe place so that the juvenile delinquents who were harassing her back off.
  • Put him in a situation where a woman is being physically abused or threatened, and show him stepping in to defend the woman.
  • Let him meet up with a bitchy ex-girlfriend, and show him resisting the urge to argue with her when she snipes at him.
  • Put him in a situation where he sees a woman in need of help, and show him helping her even though it’s inconvenient for him.

Never throws the first punch. Put him in a situation where someone is threatening or taunting him, and let us see him try to resolve the conflict without fighting. Or put him in a situation where a suspicious character appears, and it would be convenient for him to take the potential troublemaker out of commission—but show our hero waiting until the trouble starts before he tackles the troublemaker.

Doesn’t tolerate bullies. Put him in a situation where he has to either ignore someone being bullied or intervene. Make it easy for him to walk away and tough to drive the bullies off. That way, when he stands up to the bullies on the weaker person’s behalf, we’ll know his actions came from his belief that the strong have a responsibility to protect the weak.

Always backs up his buddies. Show one of his buddies doing something stupid or foolish or just plain wrong—and let us see our marine sticking around to extricate his buddy from the resulting difficult situation. Show him sacrificing something to get his friends out of trouble even—or especially—when they don’t deserve the help.

Notice that all of these are things that you can show through interior monologue, action and dialogue. They’re showable. We won’t need exposition to tell the reader how your hero is affected by being a space marine if we show even a quarter of the things we brainstormed here.

Sure, we could have just written down on a character worksheet that our space marine is chivalrous, loyal, and honorable. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as helpful in understanding how our space marine behaves.

Chivalrous is abstract. Polite to women suggests a range of specific behaviors that your character can perform.

Loyal is abstract. Willing to fight when one of his fellow soldiers gets drunk and mouths off to a group of civvies in a bar is something you can turn into a scene.

Honorable is abstract. Refuses to kill a non-combatant even when ordered to by a superior shows the reader where this space marine’s heart is when push comes to shove.

Still with me?

That was a lot, I know…but we did it one small step at a time, and you can build complex, multi-dimensional characters the same way.

And notice that we haven’t even looked yet at this character’s personality traits–all we’ve talked about so far are the ways this character has been shaped by his experience of being a solider in a futuristic setting. We still don’t know if he’s shy or sarcastic or philosophical or compassionate.

Now that you’ve seen how it works–I challenge to choose a character you’re developing for NaNoWriMo or a character from your work-in-progress, and create his/her dominant impression.


Want some help getting ready for NaNoWriMo? Check out The 30 Day Novel Success Journal or The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance. Both of these workbooks contain a unique story blueprint and brainstorming prompts that show you how to plot your novel one day at a time and come out with a well-structured story.

What’s the difference between the two workbooks? The 30 Day Novel Success Journal is intended for a story with a single character growth arc. The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance results in a story where the two main characters have growth arcs as they fall in love with each other.