Character: Z is for Zzz–Death of a Character

atoz [2014] - BANNER - 910

Z is for Zzzz—the Big Sleep, or death of a character. 

Killing characters for fun and profit is sometimes part of a writer’s job.  It’s not as easy as it sounds, however, especially when you’ve created one for whom you (and the readers) have developed a fondness.

The death of a character can advance the plot or it can be secondary.  In crime fiction and mystery, which is typically about murders (more dramatic), a death sets the plot in motion.  We rarely know the victims or see little of them before they’re killed.  But without their sacrifice, there is no story.  We don’t usually feel for them except a passing sympathy for whatever plight caused their demises.

It’s different when a writer kills off a beloved character.  In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (I don’t really need to put a spoiler warning here, do I?), the shocking death of beloved Hogwarts headmaster and Potter mentor Albus Dumbledore caused a great deal of mourning.

Yes, I bawled all over my hardback.  Not ashamed. 

Yes, I bawled all over my hardback.  Not ashamed.


While this was a very upsetting thing, the story needed it in order to move forward.  Harry had become too dependent on Dumbledore’s aid and comfort.  He needed to step up and fulfill his destiny as the Chosen One and take charge of the mission to stop Voldemort.

What are some of the good reasons writers kill characters?  Well, they vary, but here are a few:

  • He’s standing in the protagonist’s way, either benignly (as Dumbledore did) or malevolently (as Magnussen in the Sherlock episode “His Last Vow”)
  • He’s grown tiresome (Nikki and Paolo on LOST) and adds nothing to the plot or character development.

In this case, you might reconsider whether he belongs there at all.  If you needed him for a purpose—he stole the elderly protagonist’s purse, thus setting her on a road to becoming a crime-fighting granny—fine.  But make sure his death doesn’t compromise your other characters.  If Granny’s moral code isn’t to kill but to capture, having her beat him to death with her cane is a non sequitur.  It won’t ring true, and readers will notice.

  • For dramatic effect, to force either a situation or growth on the other characters (Dumbledore again)
  • To enable the succession of another character (killing off a protagonist is tricky, and will probably require some pre-planning)

Before you decide to remove someone from your narrative, ask yourself the following questions.

Do you need to kill a character?

What do you hope to accomplish with this person’s death?  If you’re killing someone just for the sake of doing it, then you’re probably wasting your time.  Meaningless deaths that don’t affect the other characters in some way aren’t necessary and can piss off readers or viewers.  Think about The Walking Dead.  This show kills people right and left, but fan favorite Hershel’s brutal death at the hand of the Governor in the Season 4 episode “Too Far Gone” left everybody in a state of shock.

Hershel, we hardly knew ye.  Well, we did, but that’s beside the point.

Hershel, we hardly knew ye.  Well, we did, but that’s beside the point.


Is it the right time for him to die?

Harry Potter was able to step up after Dumbledore’s death because he’s gained enough strength through training and experiences both at Hogwarts and outside it to handle the situation.  He grew up.  In Deathly Hallows, the Harry we see has worked through his angst about being the Chosen One, and he’s able to accept the help of his friends, who leave school to go with him.  He’s mature enough now to deal with it.

How will you do it?

Sometimes, you have to do the big, grand gesture, if for no other reason than this person would not go gentle into that good night.  But a character’s death doesn’t have to be dramatic.  A quiet exit can carry just as much (if not more) emotional impact.  Joyce Summers’ death in Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn’t a huge, Big Bad-caused train wreck.  After recovering from a serious medical problem, she simply laid down on the sofa one day and slipped away (“The Body”).  I triple dog dare you to watch Buffy find her mother without crying.

You don’t have to show a death to make it tragic, either.  In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the faithful, hard-working horse Boxer collapses one day and is sold by Napoleon the pig so he can buy himself a drink.  The scene where the injured horse is carried off in the knacker’s van, with Benjamin the donkey attempting a futile rescue, is heartbreaking.

We don’t see Boxer die, but we know where he’s going, and we don’t want to know.

Will you bring him back somehow?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem, and readers of the magazine The Strand canceled their subscriptions en masse.  He was so inundated with letters begging for his return that he resurrected Holmes in The Adventure of the Empty House.

Poor Watson. *cue The Lonely Man theme*


It should go without saying that you need to write the character’s comeback so it makes sense within your fictional world.  Holmes had an elaborate ruse to explain his resurrection.  In fantasy literature, writers use magic, potions, or other supernatural means to bring back characters.  In my novel Tunerville, the city is infested with newly raised ghosts, the first of which becomes a comical secondary character.


Regardless of how you do it, a character’s death is a profound moment for the other characters.  Death brings change, and with it, your story will have to move in a new direction.  Make it count; give your dying character the best death you can.

Character: Y is for You (and not Mary Sue!)

atoz [2014] - BANNER - 910

Y is for You.

You are the author.  These are your characters.  You gave them life and imbued them with all the traits you wish you had, you think they should have, or you’re glad you don’t have.

Every character has a little bit of the writer inside him.  But there are problems with basing a character entirely on yourself.

The Mary Sue conundrum

You may find that you’ve slipped into writing an idealized version of yourself.  It’s doubtful such a character will pass the Mary Sue test, but you can try it.  It’s difficult to look at yourself objectively in this fashion, and a character based on you may not be as authentic as you’d like him to be.

Let’s face it; we all want to be him.

Image:  Wikipedia

If you write yourself into a book as Stephen King did (he appears in Book Six of his Dark Tower series as himself in 1977), you might be tempted to go too far the other way to avoid the Mary Sue conundrum and make yourself into a weak, whiny character.  You could actually end up with something pretty amazing, if you’re a skilled writer with years of experience.

It’s too meta

Metafiction is when a work of art uses self-reference to draw attention to the fact that it is a work of art.   The Stephen King/Dark Tower thing was very meta; the writing of the books actually affected the outcome for the rest of the characters.  Sometimes, the narrator of a book will reveal himself as the author, as in Clive Barker’s Mister B. Gone, or as in the book itself telling part of the story (Toni Morrison’s Jazz).

In TV, stories about characters who are in show business are meta.  Personally, I hate this; I’d rather see shows where the characters are a bit more of a stretch.  Actors playing actors, writers writing about writers writing, singers performing on shows about singers.  People who do not do these things have a hard time relating to the characters’ situations.  I don’t want meta when I’m watching TV; I want to escape into an alternate universe.

This show is all about escape. 

This show is all about escape.


That’s what made the early seasons of Roseanne so brilliant.  The Conner family was a working-class, everyday family with the same problems and issues as many of their viewers.  It was a little meta in that Roseanne Barr’s comedy had its roots in her blue-collar origins, but it worked because the viewers could relate to the characters.  I had a very hard time with Full House for this reason:

  • Danny Tanner had his own talk show (played by Bob Saget, a TV host and stand-up comedian)
  • Joey Gladstone was a comedian (played by Dave Coulier, who also did stand-up comedy)
  • Jesse Katsopolis had a band, Jesse and the Rippers (played by John Stamos, actor and musician)

These aren’t things most of us do.  The only thing that saved the show from being impossibly meta was that the focus wasn’t on their jobs but on the relationships between the characters and their unusual family situation, and that it was so clean it squeaked.  There was nothing objectionable; everybody could watch it.  But meta characters like this are usually hard to take seriously.

 Criticism is too personal

If readers don’t like a character who is a reflection of you, can you handle that?  Writers sometimes have a hard time taking feedback on characters that are nothing like them.  Imagine if you poured your heart and soul on the page and it’s really yours, and they rip it to shreds.

Next on Oprah:  Writers who play the characters they write on TV!

Next on Oprah:  Writers who play the characters they write on TV!


When you write anything, whether it’s based on your own life/experience/traits or not, you lose yourself in the creation of it.  It comes out of you.  It’s yours even if you’re writing about a sentient dog who runs an underground railroad for stray cats.  (Okay, I have no clue where that came from, but I just climbed three flights of stairs four times for my afternoon workout and I’m dizzy as hell.)

Alisa Carter has a good post here about how to take criticism.  While you’ll probably be lurking inside your own pages anyway, it’s less of a blow when the character someone is critiquing (or attacking) isn’t your own.

Character: X is for Xposition

atoz [2014] - BANNER - 910


X is for (E)xposition.

When you’re setting up point of view (POV), consider how your reader will discover things about your character.  If you don’t get inside his head, you’ll have to reveal it through the thoughts, actions, and dialogue of other characters.

Exposition can be accomplished one of two ways:

  • Show, where the writer lets the reader infer information from action, words, thought, feeling, etc. rather than explaining everything
  • Tell, where the writer advises the reader what is happening

Telling done wrong tends to pause the action and the narrative stops moving forward.  You might have to explain a few things about your character to get the readers up to speed, but it doesn’t have to be in the form of an info dump.

BEEP BEEP BEEP!  Stop the story; we’re backing up!

BEEP BEEP BEEP!  Stop the story; we’re backing up!

Image:  duron123/

A good example of an info dump is something I mentioned in the V is for Villainy post, where villains in movies (and some novels and comics) stop what they’re doing to explain their motivation to the hero.  Mostly it’s done to give the hero time to untie himself or think of a countermove.  If the information isn’t woven into the narrative naturally, then the story clunks (as I like to put it).  It takes a few beats to get started again and jerks and hitches like a car with a messed-up transmission.

You shouldn’t have to grind the action to a halt to clue readers in.  There are ways to weave information into a scene where the character is doing something mundane.  He could be reading an article to get information; in that case, you can intersperse action and thoughts with the article to keep the reader connected to the character.  (Disclaimer:  I’m not the expert on this and for all I know, my critique will come back from Brian Keene with half the following scene cut to ribbons!)

Here’s an example from Rose’s Hostage, where you first meet John Robert Cook, Jr.  In Chapter 5, he is enjoying his coffee and newspaper before work:

             Yesterday’s bank robbery dominated the front page.  The Black Bandit again.  The guy had robbed four banks now, the take larger each time.  This time it was almost two million.  He whistled through his teeth.  A nice sum.  The jerk probably wouldn’t know what to do with it, though.  Scum like that usually blew their money right off, buying expensive crap and putting the rest up their noses or into their veins.  Still, he was getting lots of press.

            The thought made him frown.  He paged through the section, finding nothing about the motel room killing.  He skipped to the local section.  There it was, page four.  “PROSTITUTE, CUSTOMER FOUND DEAD,” the headline blared.  Below, in smaller type, “Motel Serial Killer Still At Large.”

            Why was this all the way in the back?  The Black Bandit should have been back here, not this.  He read the article.

RALSTON (AP): The bodies of a man and a woman found Tuesday in a local motel room have been confirmed by Ralston police as the latest victims of the Motel Shooter, a possible serial killer who is targeting area prostitutes and their customers.

             Customers.  Huh.  Idiots, risking disease or worse.  He took a gulp of coffee and grimaced as the hot liquid burned his throat.

Bullets recovered from the bodies at autopsy matched .9mm rounds found at two other similar crime scenes.

           No way to trace the gun.  .9mm weapons were like cigarette butts in the gutters.  They were everywhere.  He continued reading.

Media Liaison Officer Brad Mercer said the Motel Shooter case had its own task force.  City council members have complained about this, citing the overtaxed detective division, which is also assisting the FBI with a recent rash of armed, takeover-style bank robberies perpetrated by a man known only as the Black Bandit.

Mercer would not confirm or deny that the department had placed the robberies at a higher priority than the Motel Shooter case.

             Higher priority?  Ridiculous.  There were hostages.  Of course it was.  They couldn’t afford to ignore him.  He would see to it they had no reason to.  And they mentioned the Bandit in his story.  Couldn’t they leave him to his own article?  Damn.

 Earlier, you get some things that tell you John is very picky—how he likes his coffee, that he rearranges the paper before reading it.  What else can you discover about John from this?

  •  He’s searching for the local crime articles.
  • He doesn’t think much of the bank robber, the Black Bandit (called that because he dresses all in black—the cops and reporters aren’t very creative).
  • He’s reading a particular article, about the shooting of a prostitute and her customer.
  • Why does he care if the cops can trace the gun or not?  Hmm.
  • He refers to it as his story.  Did you catch that?
It’s elementary, John.  He must be a car salesman. 

It’s elementary, John.  He must be a car salesman.


  • He doesn’t like all the attention the bank robber is getting.

Soon after this, your suspicions are confirmed.  A little reminiscing before work and we know something about John that no one else knows.

Your character could also explain something to another character.  This is difficult; often, it works better just to narrate what the reader needs to know.  If you use this technique, avoid Hollywood dialogue, or the dreaded “As you know, Bob.”  Make sure your character should actually be explaining something in this scene, rather than just using it to inform the reader.  You can use it to move the story forward—since people rarely give complete explanations of anything, leave out a bunch of stuff or even make him lie to Bob.  Let Bob discover it later.

Showing takes more time than telling.  There will be times when you need to convey some information but you don’t have room for an entire scene or chapter illustrating exactly how X happens.  In that case, you can use your narrative for exposition.  It’s a balancing act—not too much of one or the other, or your reader (and you!) will grow tired.

I’ll finish it laterrr—maybe not. 

I’ll finish it laterrr—maybe not.

Image:  marin/

In this useful post from Writer’s Digest, Roseann Biederman suggests a tool to help you spot and vanquish telling for exposition where it doesn’t belong in your narrative.

Character: W is for Worldview

atoz [2014] - BANNER - 910

W is for Worldview.

A character’s history and experiences shape his view of the world and of his place in it.  It’s more than how he sees himself; it’s his intellectual perception of how the world works and what effect he can have on it.  With this in hand, he can take in stimuli, reason through what is happening and why and eventually take action.

Well, John, my deductive skill tells me that we’ve discovered a robot turkey. 

Well, John, my deductive skill tells me that we’ve discovered a robot turkey.


Perception is cognition of events, etc. as a whole.  We know people have different levels of perception and they all see things differently.  This is a great way to show something about your character.

A number of things can shape a character’s worldview.  Whether they control him and by how much depends on the proportion of their influence in his life.


Some cultures are isolationist; they believe (and teach their children) that the outside world is full of peril or is at odds with their beliefs.  For example, Amish people prefer to live a certain way in accordance with their religious dictates.  While they do make a conscious choice to join the church as adults, they rarely decide to leave their communities because their upbringing doesn’t support an existence in modern society without a huge adjustment.

A character who is exposed to other worldviews, especially during his formative years, will have more tolerance to different ways of doing things.  If your hero’s viewpoint is at odds with the situation in which he finds himself, he’s going to have a much harder time of it if he hasn’t been raised with open-mindedness.

Or open-pantsedness.

Or open-pantsedness.


Religion and spirituality

Many people depend on their faith for answers to the most puzzling questions of life.  Religious belief can be rigid; it doesn’t always allow for alteration and acceptance.

In the 1973 film The Wicker Man, Police Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) comes to the remote Hebridean island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl.  He finds a hedonistic society that is at odds with his own strict moral upbringing.  This dichotomy causes him a great deal of anguish, and it keeps him from seeing the real reason he’s there until it’s too late.

Robin HardyÕs THE WICKER MAN (1973). Courtesy: Rialto Pictures/ Studiocanal

You’d think the people running around in animal masks would have given him a clue.

Image:  Rialto Pictures/ Studiocanal /


What are some of the things we learn at school?  Besides reading, writing, history, and computer sciences, we learn socialization and cooperation.  We also learn about bullying, abuse, and cruelty.  A character who went through this in school could view people in his adult life with suspicion.  If they try to befriend him, he might think they have an agenda and avoid them.

Think about this from the bully’s point of view, too.  Your character may not be a pleasant person if he’s used to taking what he wants and getting his own way.


News and popular opinion gleaned through television, radio, and internet influence people all the time.  The worst part about media is that it’s not always accurate.  People tend to take the easiest route toward learning something.  They take what they see and hear at face value and rarely bother to fact-check, unless what they’re hearing sounds suspiciously far-fetched (and often not even then).


Our friends are a huge part of our worldview.  We surround ourselves with like-minded people, and share experiences with them that reinforce those attitudes.

I’ll be there for you…but only if you're the same as me. 

I’ll be there for you…but only if you’re the same as me.


When new people come into our circles, they sometimes shake up the status quo and give a settled group a new perspective.  Depending on that person’s motives, the change can either strengthen a group or tear it apart (which provides the writer with excellent conflict material).


Your character’s worldview gives him a unique perspective on events.  Take two different people and put them in a situation with the same exact stimuli at the same exact time.  The things one person notices when he walks into a room will tell you a lot about him, as opposed to what another person would see in the same space.  See how their reactions and what they perceive differs.

This will absolutely change the way you write a scene.  It’s a huge help when working with show vs. tell.  And a character’s altered perspectives will provide you with numerous opportunities for growth and development.


Character: V is for Villainy!

atoz [2014] - BANNER - 910


V is for Villainy!

So you’ve decided to create a villain.  Congratulations!  Villains are great fun to write.  You can experience the worst of humanity, do really horrible rotten awful things, and wallow in depravity, muck, and vice.  All vicariously, of course.

And the clothes.  Don’t forget the clothes.

And the clothes.  Don’t forget the clothes.


Villainous characters rarely come in one flavor.  There are several types, including the following, and different tactics for dealing with them.

Sympathetic villain

This one is hard to do without lapsing into antihero status.  He’s a villain because something bad happened to him, or maybe his circumstances forced him into doing the wrong thing (or the right one, but in a convoluted and awful way).  Either way, he chose his path, and he might even have grown to enjoy it.  We may not like him, but we understand him.


You might be able to reason with this villain, especially if you lean toward giving in to him.  If you can do that without hurting anyone, he might just shut up and go away.  But you better have a contingency plan for his return, because he’s learned that villainy will make you cave.

Examples:  Khan in the film Star Trek: Into Darkness, Severus Snape in the Harry Potter books.

This had nothing to do with the subject, but it made me laugh really hard despite the horrid misplaced apostrophe.

This had nothing to do with the subject, but despite the horrid misplaced apostrophe, it made me laugh really hard.


Unintentional villain

This is somebody who never set out to be a villain, but she ends up one anyway.  Through her actions, she hurts and threatens other characters.  She doesn’t mean to be bad and may even be puzzled by other characters’ reactions to her behavior.  An unintentional villain may also be someone who causes an accident or incident and then, terrified of the consequences, proceeds to make the situation worse with every subsequent move she makes.  Or she might just be so stupid that she’s dangerous.


You can distract this villain long enough to escape or perhaps to push her down another path.  If she’s lashing out from blind fear, you’ll have to placate her somehow.  Show her you’re not a threat, that you’re on her side.  Maybe you can talk her down by making her feel safe.

Example:  Rhoda in The Bad Seed, Elmyra Duff from Tiny Toons

I’m gonna hug you and squeeze you and love you forever!

I’m gonna hug you and squeeze you and love you forever!


Pure evil villain

One of my favorite characters to write was the baddest bad guy in Rose’s Hostage.  Dale Conroy is Joshua’s second-in-command in the bank robber gang.  He has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  I did get inside his head, so you see his anger, his posturing, and his motivation.  But even though you understand him, you still hate him.  Everything he does is only to benefit himself.

Dale isn’t very clever on his own—he needs help to pull off his dastardly plot.  Unfortunately for everyone in the hideout, he knows where to find it.


Superior strength may defeat this villain, but if you don’t have an army behind you or you can’t outfight him, you’ll have to be clever enough to find his weakness.  Everybody has one and if you can figure it out, you can take him down.

Examples:  Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit, Charles Augustus Magnussen in the Sherlock episode “His Last Vow.”

Magnussen is just plain nasty, no doubt about it.

Magnussen is just plain nasty, no doubt about it.

  Image:  the

Pure evil villains are the ones most likely to laugh maniacally and spend ten minutes explaining their wicked scheme to the hero while simultaneously buying him a chance to figure out an escape.  Seriously, this has been so overused.  If you have sufficiently shown your evil bad guy’s machinations before the final showdown, you won’t need to do this because your hero will already know about it.

Now what are some of the things that make a villainous character great?

  • He has to present a challenge to the hero.  An effective villain forces the hero into a corner.  He may actually push the protagonist so far that he’ll do something bad himself just to stop it.
  • He has to have a purpose.  Even the most terrible villains in history have reasons for what they do.  They may be twisted and stupid, but they can still end up perpetrating great evil, like Hitler with his Final Solution.  Why would a person go to so much effort unless he really believed his reasons were sound?
  • He has to be someone to whom we can relate.  The most frightening villains of all are those who walk among us and are just like us.  We all know someone who would tip over the edge if the situation were just right.  Even more terrifying is the thought that we might do the same.  When we see ourselves inside a villain, it makes us shudder.  And if he’s attractive to us somehow, desire might even tempt us to take his side.
That voice would make us do almost anything.    

That voice would make us do almost anything.


Whether we understand his motives or not, a good villain should have traits that make him human.   If he’s just an unreasonable monster, like Freddy Krueger, we look on him as a force of nature, the same way we see a tornado or an earthquake.  Sure, those things are destructive, but they aren’t that way out of spite or pain.

Take time to develop your villain as thoroughly as you do your hero.  After all, they’re two sides of the same coin.

Character: U is for Underpinnings

atoz [2014] - BANNER - 910

U is for Underpinnings.

No, not backstory and not underpants.  I’m talking about internal conflict, which is a mental or emotional struggle that occurs within a character.  Backstory is the events of the character’s past, his timeline and history.  Underlying conflict can stem from that.  Is there something he has to work out within the confines of the action?  It could be a past trauma, something from childhood or more recent, like a divorce or death.

He could be the survivor of a tragedy or a disaster.  The experience could leave him with messed-up thoughts and stress reactions, and it can interfere with his future decision-making.  Let it give him a phobia, and you’ve got a huge potential conflict that can even directly affect the action.

Watson will forever harbor a fear of smarmy French waiters.

Watson will forever harbor a fear of nerdy French waiters.


The events of the narrative can also precipitate internal conflict.  Let’s look at Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings.  Frodo grew up in the Shire among his friends, adopted at 12 by his Uncle Bilbo Baggins when his parents, Drogo Baggins and Primula (really?) Brandybuck died in an accident.

It’s a pretty tranquil existence, and Frodo is content to live it as it is.  Then, along comes Gandalf poking around for what he suspects is the One Ring, which Bilbo, who just bailed on his birthday to go hang with the Elves, left in Frodo’s care.

Where he goes, trouble follows. 

Where he goes, trouble follows.


When Frodo first has to leave the Shire, he thinks he’s only going to Rivendell and the matter of the Ring will be dealt with there.  It’s a tough journey, but he doesn’t know that he will be the Ringbearer charged with its destruction (he volunteers, actually).  Like Harry Potter, Frodo has to deal with some heavy decisions and shocking events on his journey.  But the worst thing is what the Ring is doing to him while he’s trying to destroy it.

Because Frodo is pure of heart, it takes longer and hurts more, but he eventually succumbs to its insidious influence.  The conflict changes him deeply and wounds him terribly.

And leaves him in dire need of some Rivendell hair and skin products.  

And leaves him in dire need of some Rivendell hair and skin products.


You can use the story to help the character work through his traumas or leave them separate and simply allow them to influence events.  People tend to avoid things that remind them of painful experiences or elicit the same feelings.  Your protagonist could do this and screw himself in so tight your readers will wonder if he ever gets out.  A little tension never hurt a story, nor did a little glimpse of underpinning at just the right moment.

Character: T is for Talking

atoz [2014] - BANNER - 910

T is for Talking.

A character’s dialogue says a lot about him.  It’s a great way to use exposition without wasting a lot of time talking about the character’s past, doing flashbacks, etc.  In just a few sentences, he can tell you where he’s from and what is most important to him.

I don’t need to hear you talk.  Even completely pissed, I can guess your entire past simply by smelling your coat sleeve.  

I don’t need to hear you talk.  Even completely pissed, I can guess your entire past simply by smelling your coat sleeve.

Image:  BBC/

In Tunerville, there’s a marked difference between the way Chris (the protagonist) and Callahan (spirit of the Realm) talk.  When Chris tries to tell people not to use the tuners, he uses very plain language—he just tells them to stop.  When Callahan appears, he says, “Cease use of this instrument or there will be dire consequences.”  When the two of them are talking without any tags, you can tell it’s two different people.

When I write a character’s dialogue, I think about who he is and where he’s from, and that influences my word choices.  An educated character who lives in an affluent suburb won’t talk the same as someone from the sticks.

Accents are a bit different.  You can’t really hear an accent when you read (not literally), so you’ll have to imply it so readers can hear it in their heads.  If I make him say he’s put his wellies in the boot of the car and dammit, where did he leave his biro, because he’s got to make a list for the grocer’s whilst Emma is having a bath, then you might surmise he’s from England.  You would be right.  Can you hear it?

I’m not even going to try and reproduce any other UK accent here; there are quite a few.  If you want to hear 14 accents in 84 seconds, watch this video.  It’s the coolest thing ever.

All this applies to dialect as well, which can be written phonetically to a degree, but you can’t go overboard with it.  Avoid what Margaret Mitchell does in Gone with the Wind:

             “…Now, did you hear us say anything that might have made Miss Scarlett mad– or hurt her feelings?”

Thus appealed to, Jeems gave up further pretense of not having overheard the conversation and furrowed his black brow.

“Nawsuh, Ah din’ notice y’all say anything ter mek her mad. Look ter me lak she sho glad ter see you an’ sho had missed you, an’ she cheep along happy as a bird, tell ’bout de time y’all got ter talkin’ ’bout Mist’ Ashley an’ Miss Melly Hamilton gittin’ mah’ied. Den she quiet down lak a bird w’en de hawk fly ober.”

You can’t argue that it’s Southern speak, either, because only the black characters talk like that.  Not only do many people think that’s pretty racist, it’s nearly impossible to read.  Dialect works best when you suggest it.

Be careful not to use what many writers call Hollywood dialogue, where the character tells another person stuff they both already know.  It’s clumsy.  Poor writers often use it for exposition.

“As you’re aware, Robin,” said Batman, “the Joker has been a nemesis of mine for many years now.”  

“Batman facepalm”  is apparently a thing.  A thing you can google.

“Batman facepalm”  is apparently a thing.  A thing you can google.


Probably the best thing you can do for good dialogue and characterization is go sit somewhere and listen to people talk.  See if you can guess two things about them just by listening to their conversation.  Try it; you might even hear something that will inspire you.

Character: S is for Sex

atoz [2014] - BANNER - 910

S is for Sex. 

Sex is one of our strongest urges, and our most troublesome.  Who we love and who we want to boink is the driving force behind many a literary conflict.

Will you make your character heterosexual or homosexual?  This does make a difference because of the dynamics involved in having those relationships.  Many gay people hide their sexuality for various reasons.  If your character is gay and in the closet, what are those reasons?  If she is not, why does she choose to be out?

Is she bisexual or polyamorous?  That sets up a whole different dynamic right there.  Regardless of orientation, you will have to consider who her lovers are and why she chooses them.

A seething cauldron of desire.

A seething cauldron of desire.


If she has more than one, the dynamics here will affect the other characters as well.  Otherwise reasonable people may change markedly when sexual jealousy (the absolute worst kind) rears its head.  There will be a whole set of logistical management issues, especially if they don’t know about each other.

You should also consider whether your character prefers intimate relationships or just has sex.  I already did a post about writing actual sex scenes, so I won’t repeat that here.  This is part of your larger character arc—and if she’s just having casual sex, you should give her a solid reason why.  Perhaps a relationship didn’t work out and she can’t seem to connect with anyone.  She could be seeking to reproduce that experience and no one quite fits, or she might be trying to distance herself from it.  Or maybe she just enjoys it and isn’t ready to settle down with one person.

Another consideration is whether an adult character has had sex at all.  A virgin could be interesting to write, especially a male character, and one who is a bit older than the average guy at the time he’s deflowered.  We tend to assume everyone over a certain age has done it at least once, but that isn’t always the case for everyone.

Probably never.

Probably never.


Your characters’ backgrounds affect how they will act because of their socialization and cultural conditioning.  You can certainly play with making someone act in ways that aren’t typical of their gender roles in whatever culture (or time period) they live in, but avoid lapsing into stereotypes.

Certain types of fiction likely won’t discuss characters’ sexuality—children’s and middle grade won’t go there, although young adult fiction often does.  Thrillers tend not to have much sex in them at all, or it’s not relevant to the plot so it gets left out (boo!).  Horror fiction characters do it all over the place and with all kinds of creatures.

Just ask Rosemary. 

Just ask Rosemary.

Image: © Paramount Pictures /

Despite what some people would have you believe, we are sexual beings.  We’re one of the few animals that can (and does) mate at any time, not just during certain biologically proscribed periods.  Our carnality doesn’t have to rule us, but it definitely influences us.  When you build the scaffold of your well-rounded character, keep it in mind.



Character: R is for Romance

atoz [2014] - BANNER - 910

You and I breathe the same air,
Though we have not walked beneath the same boughs.
In the vast spread of molecules throughout the cosmos,
Our paths move inexorably toward one another
And we mingle,
Though we have not met.
We are made from the stuff of stars, of the twinkling points of light on which we gaze,
Pondering the possibility of each other, perhaps at the same moment.
One day the fabric of space and time will bend.
I will fall toward you,
And you will catch me,
And we will become one.
Until then, you will think that there is no one for you;
I will think the same,
And we will both be wrong. — © Elizabeth West


R is for Romance.

I was watching Cosmos and feeling wistful, okay?

When you give your character a relationship in your story, you’ll have to consider how he deals with romance.  What elements would influence how he does this?


In Western society, men are expected to pursue the women they’re interested in.  While women in today’s world feel more comfortable making the first move, quite a few would rather be pursued.  And many men still feel that the role of the pursuer belongs to them.

If your protagonist lives in another time, the rules could be very different.  Someone whose behavior doesn’t align with accepted norms will clash with other characters, making for some interesting conflicts.  Even modern eccentrics can throw a spanner into the works.

This waiter has extremely bad timing. 

This waiter has extremely bad timing.


A big part of romantic socialization is the expectation we get from books, movies, and love songs with which we grow up.  Grand gestures are seen as the ultimate in true romance.  But what if your protagonist can’t afford more than a simple bouquet of carnations?  You might want to show the value of small, loving acts of thoughtful expression in your story by having your broke lover at least get them in her favorite color.  Bonus points if he has to leverage some effort to find out what that is.


Put an assertive person and a retiring person in a story where they both want the same lover and see what happens.

The assertive person is far more likely to go home with someone’s number that night.  He’s also more likely to strike out, for the same reason people who fly frequently are more likely to lose their luggage:  the more chances you take, the more chance you have of both success and failure.

How would your character, if he were the shy one, handle this?  You could use it to push him into pursuing his true love, if you liked, or you could let his social anxiety strangle him.  In Kazuo Ishiguro’sThe Remains of the Day, the butler Stevens and the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall lose their chance at happiness together because they simply cannot admit their feelings for each other.

Talk about the British keeping a stiff upper lip…

Talk about the British keeping a stiff upper lip…


Even if he does manage to speak the truth to his lady love and she reciprocates, remember that no one is perfect.  The road to true love is a bumpy one.


To handle his epic romance successfully, your character will need more than just a winning personality and proper socialization.  He should have some experience dealing with the emotional needs of another person and the practicalities of such a liason.

One reason I can’t stand Romeo and Juliet is that they’re both so incredibly stupid.  Romeo spends the entire play complaining and mooning over first Rosalyn and then Juliet and waiting for everything to work out. Even when he gets her, he’s a complete idiot who thinks only of himself.

Juliet is no better.  She knows that her family will never accept her marriage, and the plans she lays for her future are ill conceived and childish.  One wonders:  if they were clever enough to sneak out long enough to get married, why could not they have left after that and sent word later on, when it was too late to do anything about it?  Perhaps they were too young to think past the wedding night.

It’s all about the nooky.

It’s all about the nooky.


I guess the only way it works is because they’re both really inexperienced teenagers.  To accept the tragedy, we have to accept their love.  But they’re both such idiots, it’s rather difficult.  I’ve often wondered if Shakespeare (who lifted this story from an older one) wrote it this way on purpose, to divide the audience.

Consider these aspects of socialization, personality, and experience in planning your characters’ romantic interactions.  Whether your big romance is the main focus of the narrative or simply a side plot, it will have more impact if your characters behave authentically.