About Jodie Renner

Jodie Renner is an editor and award-winning author of fiction-writing guides, CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER. She has also published two clickable e-resources to date: QUICK CLICKS: WORD USAGE and QUICK CLICKS: SPELLING LIST. www.JodieRenner.com; @JodieRennerEd

Make Sure Your Characters Act in Character!

Captivate_full_w_decalby Jodie Renner, editor & author @JodieRennerEd


Have you ever been reading a story when suddenly the protagonist does or says something that makes you think, “Oh come on! Why would he do that?” or “This is crazy. Why doesn’t she…?” or “But I thought he…!” or “I didn’t know he/she could [insert extraordinary ability].” The character seems to be acting illogically, to be making decisions with little motivation or contrary to his personality, abilities, or values

I see this problem a lot in fiction manuscripts I edit. The author needs something to happen for the sake of the plot they’ve planned out in advance, so they force a supposedly intelligent character to do something contrary to common sense and their best interests, like recklessly putting themselves in danger.

For example, I once edited a book where the highly educated, intelligent heroine rose from her bed in the middle of the night and, without telling her husband where she was going or even leaving a note, drove to a remote warehouse to find some incriminating evidence, knowing the killer was likely to return – which of course he did, and attempted to kill her. It made for an exciting scene, but unfortunately, the otherwise savvy character came off looking like a foolhardy, impulsive airhead. I couldn’t help wondering, why wouldn’t she tell her husband? Better yet, call the police and let them handle it.  Even police, who are trained for these situations, usually get backup.

Moving your characters around like pawns to suit the plot, if it doesn’t make sense for who they are, could have your readers scratching their heads in disbelief or, worse, throwing your book across the room, then writing a scathing one-star review of it.

Don’t force your characters, kicking and screaming, into actions they just wouldn’t do.

Readers won’t suspend their disbelief and bond with the character if they don’t “buy” what the character is doing and why. An engrossing story needs realistic characters dealing with adversity in bold but realistic and plausible ways.

To make a character’s decisions and actions convincing, take care when creating their background, character, abilities, and motivations.

Background, character, and personality

Of course, you don’t want to make your hero or heroine ordinary, timid, or passive, with few daring decisions, because that would make for a ho-hum book most readers wouldn’t bother finishing. But on the other hand, if you’re going to have them perform daredevil feats, be sure to build that into their makeup.

First, get to know your main characters well. Take some time to develop their background, character, and personality. Are they athletic or more cerebral? Risk-takers or cautious? Do they embrace change, enjoy challenge, love to learn new things? Or do they prefer to stay within their comfort zone? To plumb their depths, do some free-form journaling in which they express their strongest desires, fears, hopes, secrets, regrets, and gripes.

Are they physically capable of what you want them to do?


If, for a riveting plot, you need your hero to do something heroic, almost superhuman, make sure he has the determination, strength, flexibility, and endurance to do that. Although it’s amazing what people are able to do under duress with the adrenaline flowing, it’s more credible if your character is already at least somewhat fit. Does he work out a lot to maintain muscle mass, agility, and endurance? How? Also, he’ll need to be intelligent, skilled, and resourceful.

If he needs special skills, show earlier on that he possesses them and how it all makes sense, given his overall makeup. In one novel I edited, the sedentary, slightly overweight, middle-aged protagonist fought off a strong attacker with quick, expert martial arts moves. This was an “Oh, come on!” moment, given his lifestyle, age, and paunch.

In The Hunger Games, we learn early on that Katniss is an expert at archery, which is a huge factor in her survival later. A nerdy banker probably doesn’t do kickboxing on the side, so you may need to make him less desk-bound and more athletic for it to work. Or give him another profession.

If you’re writing fantasy, of course you have more leeway with unusual characters and situations, but if you’re writing a realistic genre, with no supernatural or paranormal elements, make sure the character’s actions are realistic and make sense.


Is your hero sufficiently motivated to put his life on the line? Do those motivations fit with his belief system, background, and immediate needs? If you want or need a character to do something dangerous, go back and give him some burning reasons for choosing that course of action.

Perhaps he finds himself in a life-and-death situation for himself or someone he loves, or innocent people are in grave danger. His love, concern, and determination will make him more selfless and daring, bringing out courage he never knew he had.

As Steven James advises in Story Trumps Structure, as you’re writing your story, ask yourself , “What would this character naturally do in this situation? Is he properly motivated to take this action?”


Be sure your narrative is also shaped by the logic of cause and effect. For your story to be believable, character decisions and reactions need to plausibly follow the original stimulus or actions. If your character overreacts or underreacts to what has just happened, they won’t seem “in character” or real.

Be sure every decision and action makes sense with what preceded it. As James suggests, as you go along, continually ask yourself, “What would naturally happen next?”

So don’t force your characters to act in uncharacteristic ways because your plot needs them to. Readers will pick up on that. Rather than insisting certain events or actions happen as you had planned, instead allow the natural sequence of events and logical reactions to shape your plotline.

Go through your story to make sure your characters are acting and reacting in ways that are authentic to who they are and where they’ve come from, and that they’re sufficiently motivated to take risks. Also, do their reactions fit with the stimulus? Is that a logical response to what happened?

Ask yourself, as you’re writing, “Is there a way to accomplish this that fits with the character’s values and personality?” If not, I suggest you either change the plot (have them make a different decision and rewrite where that leads them) or go back and change some of the character’s basic attributes, values, and skills. Or add in incidents in their past that have shaped them in ways that will justify their current actions.

That way your plot will flow seamlessly and your characters will seem real. There will be no bumps, no hiccups where readers will be suddenly jolted out of the story.

As William Faulkner advised one of his fiction-writing classes,

“…get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says.”

So don’t impose your preconceived ideas on the character – you risk making him do things he just wouldn’t do. Know your characters really well and the rest will naturally follow.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.



by Jodie Renner, editor & author    @JodieRennerEd

Book Contests in 2015 for Independent Authors and Publishers


Have you considered entering your book into a contest? You’re not alone. My list here on The Kill Zone last January of 2014 book contests for independent authors and small publishers has received about 4,500 page views since then, so I know there’s a lot of interest in this topic.

Here’s the list, updated for 2015. If you know of any more good book contests for self-published authors, please let me know in the comments below, with the website, so I can add them.

Also, here’s a great list of free writing contests, mainly for short stories and poetry:

27 Free Writing Contests: Legitimate Competitions with Cash Prizes

If you’re experienced at publishing your own books, skip the next six paragraphs and jump down to the contests. If you’ve just recently decided to go the indie route and publish your next book yourself, read the next few paragraphs to ensure your book is ready for entering in book contests.

As you know, the competition is tough for independently published books, and an amateurishly produced book can sink a new author’s reputation before they’ve gotten started, so be sure to put out a professional product (and it is a product). How do you make your book rise up the ranks, sell well, and garner great reviews?

First, be sure to search out professionals to edit and proofread the manuscript, design the cover design, and format it properly. For an excellent, extensive list of professional resources for book design, editing, formatting, and more, check out Elizabeth Craig’s EBook Services Professionals Directory. Also, peruse our list here at TKZ (in the sidebar).

Limited resources for all of those necessities? You can save a lot of money on editing costs by doing a thorough revision and edit yourself first. (If your manuscript is long and rambling, see my recent post on Janice Hardy’s blog, Fiction University: “How to Slash Your Word Count by 20-40% – and tighten your story without losing any of the good stuff!” .) For expert help with the revision process, I recommend James Scott Bell’s excellent guide, Revision & Self-Editing for Publication. Also, check out my award-winning editor’s guides, Fire up Your Fiction and Captivate Your Readers.

You can also cut costs for formatting by doing the basic formatting yourself, per these instructions for formatting your manuscript.

And you can get a high-quality cover design for as low as $99 on sites like this one audcasinos where my three covers were designed – or even lower if you choose a pre-made cover.

Then, once your story is revised, polished, and presented in an attractive, professional-looking package, and you’ve published it, think about entering it in a book contest. Winning an award for your self-published fiction or nonfiction book is a great way to gain recognition and respect, so it rises above the masses. If you win an award, the publicity will boost your book sales, and you can add the award decal to your cover and mention the achievement on your back cover, in the book description, on your website or blog, and in all your marketing and promoting, for that extra edge.

Here’s a list of book awards specifically for independently published books. It’s for your quick info only, and is in no way an endorsement of any of them. Click on the title of the award to go to their website for more details. And do let me know of any good ones I’ve missed. [And if you’re looking to hone your skills and network, you might also be interested in checking out this extensive list (over 120) of Writers’ Conferences & Book Festivals in North America in 2015.]

BOOK CONTESTS FOR INDIE AUTHORS (Click on the titles to go to their sites.)


Sponsored by: Writer’s Digest Magazine (F&W Media) and Book Marketing Works, LLC

Requirements: Open to all English-language self-published books. Entrants must send a printed and bound book. Evaluated on content, writing quality and overall quality of production and appearance. All books published or revised and reprinted between 2010 and 2015 are eligible.

Early-Bird Deadline: April 1, 2015

What’s in it for you?                 

  • A chance to win $8,000 in cash
  • National exposure for your work
  • The attention of prospective editors and publishers
  • A paid trip to the ever-popular Writer’s Digest Conference!

Fees: Early-bird entry fees (by April 1): $99 for the first entry, and $75 for each additional entry.

Categories: 9, including 1 for poetry and 2 for nonfiction.

Winners notified: by Oct. 12, 2015

Notes: Very popular so very competitive. Your book needs to be professionally produced and sparkle in every way, including a stellar cover an enticing and error-free back cover, clean formatting, and a story that’s been professionally edited and proofread. I have served as judge on this contest three times, so can provide more general info if anyone is interested.

Judges provide feedback/commentary on all books submitted? Yes – minimum 200 words, plus a 1-5 rating on 5 points.


Hasn’t opened yet for 2015. Info from 2014:

This competition spotlights today’s self-published works and honors self-published authors. Whether you’re a professional writer, a part-time freelancer or a self-starting student, here’s your chance to enter WD’s newest competition, exclusively for self-published e-books.

8 different categories

One Grand Prize Winner receives $3,000 cash and lots more.The First-Place Winner in each category receives: $1000 in prize money and more. Honorable Mention Winners will receive $50 worth of Writer’s Digest Books and be promoted on www.writersdigest.com.

Entry fee: Early-bird – $99 for the first entry, $75 for each additional

Deadline: The 2014 deadline was Aug. 1, 2014, so look for this contest in the summer.

A definite plus is that, like the above WD contest, they do send you the judge’s rating and commentary, whether you win or not, which is very helpful.


Sponsored by: Foreword Reviews

Open to: all books from independent publishers, including small presses, university presses, and self-published authors, published in 2013.

Deadline: January 15, 2015 (oops! This one has passed. Bookmark this contest for next year, and get your entry in by Dec. or early Jan.)

Winners announced: at American Library Assoc. conference 2015, San Francisco

Entry fee: $99. Send two books per category.

Categories: 62 categories

Judges provide feedback/commentary on all books submitted? No.

Benefits/Prizes: Valuable publicity and $1500 cash prize for the Editor’s Choice in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Details/Advantages: Lots of categories, and “The judging is unique in that after the initial entries have been narrowed down to a group of finalists in each category by the magazine’s team of editors, the finalists are shipped to a hand-selected group of booksellers and librarians who determine the winners. This panel of industry experts use the same criteria for judging as they would use in their own acquisitions process.”


Sponsored by: Kirkus Indie

Requirements: Open to all self-published books with a valid ISBN. No restrictions on publication dates. Both eBooks and paper books can be submitted.

Deadline: March 2, 2015

Categories: Two main categories (fiction and non-fiction) and 49 sub-categories.

Entry fee: $150 per title, $50 fee for each additional category entered.  Submit two copies the first category entered and one each additional category.  One paper book and one ebook is preferred, if possible.

Winners announced: at the 2015 Book Expo America (BEA) in New York City.

Judges provide feedback/commentary on all books submitted? No free review anymore. If you want a review, you have to pay for it.

Prizes: Award ceremony at Book Expo America, sticker, professional IndieReader review, exposure. First place gets a review from Kirkus Reviews.

*Note that compared to the others, the above contest has a high entry fee, no cash prizes and no feedback unless you pay for it.


Sponsored by Independent Book Publishing Professionals Group

Requirements: Open to independent authors and publishers worldwide. Enter books released in 2013 or 2014 or with a 2013 or 2014 copyright date

Categories: 70+ categories to choose from

Deadline: February 13, 2015

Fees: $75 per title for the first category entered, $50 for each additional category. Submission Details: Two copies of the book must be sent for the first category entered plus one copy for each additional category.

Prizes, Benefits, awards: Cash prizes ($1,500 to $100), trophies, awards, listing in catalogue, exposure of top 70 books to NYC literary agent, awards reception, NYC

Details: The largest not-for-profit awards program for independent publishers

Winners notified by: May 15

Judges provide feedback/commentary on all books submitted? No.


Requirements/Eligibility: Open to books with an ISBN, published 2012-2015. Send one copy of the book per category entered.

Deadline: March 31, 2015

Fees: $69 per category

Categories: Lots of Categories!

Winners & Finalists: Will be publicized during Book Expo America; be listed on the official website of the IndieExcellence.com site; etc.

Winners announced: May 15, 2015


Sponsored by: Jenkins Group Publishing Services, affiliated with Publisher’s Weekly.

Eligibility: independently published titles released between July 1, 2012 and March 15, 2014. Open to authors and publishers worldwide who produce books written in English and intended for the North American market.

Deadline: March 10, 2015

Fees: $85-$95 per category; $55 to also enter the E-Book Awards or Regional Book Awards

Categories: 76 subject categories in National awards; Regional awards for the United States, Canada, and Australia and New Zealand; E-Book Awards with fiction, non-fiction, children’s and regional categories.

Benefits: Winners receive celebration party in NY City, medals, stickers, certificates, national publicity in major trade publications including Publisher’s Weekly and Shelf Awareness. Learn more


Sponsored by: IBPA – Independent Book Publishers Association

Info: The IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for excellence in book publishing is regarded as one of the highest national honors for small and independent publishers.

Deadlines: First Call – Sept. 30, 2015; Second call – Dec. 15, 2015

Categories: 41 book categories + design = 55 categories

Entry fees: IBPA member – $95 per title, per category; Non-IBPA member – $225 for first title, which includes one year’s membership in IBPA; $95 for subsequent entries.

Benefits: Winners recognized at a gala event. Gold winners receive an engraved crystal trophy. Gold and Silver winners receive award certificates along with gold or silver stickers. All winners announced to the major trade journals and media.

Judges provide feedback/commentary on all books submitted? Yes. The Benjamin Franklin Awards are unique in that the entrants receive direct feedback on their titles. The actual judging forms are returned to all participating publishers.


Requirements: Accept manuscripts, published and unpublished books, ebooks, audio books, comic books, poetry books and short stories in 100+ genres. No publication date requirement or word count restriction. Entries are accepted worldwide as long as the work is in English.

Fee: $89 per book

Deadline: April1, 2015

Awards: Four award levels plus a finalist level in each of our 100+ categories. Special Illustration Award competition for illustrated books. Roll of high quality, embossed award stickers ($50 value). Digital award seal for your book cover and print/web marketing. Personalized award certificate. Olympics-style physical award medal with ribbon. Awards ceremony with guest speakers and media coverage. Book displayed in our booth at the largest book fair in America. Book review posted on 7 popular book and social networking sites.

Feedback? Mini-critique of 5 key areas of your book.


Sponsored by: Florida Authors and Publishers Association

Requirements: English language titles published in 2014 or 2015. Any author or publisher who resides in North America may enter. Bound books only, except for one category: e-books. Send four copies of your book for each category entered (e.g. one book entered in three categories = 12 copies of the book).

Fee: Until March 1: $75 (non-members), $65 (members); $50 for each additional category;  After March 1: $85 (non-members), $75 (members); $50 each additional category

Deadline: May 1, 2015

Categories: 30

Awards: FAPA will award one Gold Medal and up to two Silver Medals in each category. Winners receive: a gold or silver medal, a certificate, decals for book covers, and publicity.

Written review by judges: No


Deadline: May 1, 2015

Details: Open to all independent and small press authors. For eBooks published on Amazon between May 1, 2013 – May 1, 2015 (Must have Amazon Link).

Fee: $29 (Use Code  SJC85  before April 1st for 10% Early Bird Discount)

Categories: Mystery/Thriller, Romance, Y/A, Sci-fi/Fantasy, Literary Fiction, Horror/Suspense, Non-Fiction

Awards: 7 category winners will receive $350 cash, and $900+ in promotion & tools


Deadlines: Books: January 21, 2015. Short prose: March 31, 2015.

Fees: Books: $55

Categories: 18 categories

Prizes: Two grand prizes, one for short prose (i.e. fiction and creative nonfiction) and one for independent books. Prizes include a $250 award for short prose and a $2,000 award for best independent book. In addition, various other honors and distinctions are given for both prose and books.

Judges provide feedback/commentary on all books submitted? No.Our judging process is a three tier system. Two successive category judges score the book on a seven point criteria system and provide feedback before it is passed to the higher level judges, but we do not provide feedback to the authors / publishers / nominators. We did in the early years, but it resulted in too many authors feeling the need to defend their books.”


Sponsored by: Shelf Media Group, Half Price Books

Eligibility: Any independently published book in any genre is eligible for entry.

Deadline: Oct. 1, 2015.

Entry fee: $40 per book.

Submission: Email a PDF or Word Doc of the book or mail in a physical copy.

Details and benefits: Top five books receive editorial coverage in the December/January 2016 issue of Shelf Unbound. The author of the book named as the Best Independently Published book will receive editorial coverage as well as a year’s worth of full-page ads in Shelf Unbound (rate card value $6,000). More than 100 books deemed by the editors as “notable” entries in the competition will also be featured in the December/January 2016 issue of Shelf Unbound.

Judges provide feedback/commentary on all books submitted? No.

OTHER BOOK AWARDS: (Click on the names.) Beverly Hills Book Awards, Bookworks Awards,  eLit Book Awards,  EPIC eBook Competition,  Global eBook AwardsGreen Book Festival,  Nautilus Book Awards,  Publishing Innovation AwardsReader Views Literary Awards

BOOK FESTIVAL CONTESTS:  New England Book Festival,  New York Book Festival,  San Francisco Book Festival,  The Beach Book Festival,  The Hollywood Book Festival,  London Book Festival,  Paris Book Festival,  The Living Now Book Awards

INTERNATIONAL:  International Book Awards,  The International Rubery Book Award,  The WISHING SHELF Independent Book Awards [UK]

CHILDREN’S BOOKS:  The Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards     

Can you think of any more to add? Have you had any experiences with any of these book contests that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks!

IMG_5765_trimmedJodie Renner is a freelance editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Fire up Your Fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller, and Captivate Your ReadersFire up Your Fiction was awarded a silver medal from FAPA President’s Book Awards, a silver medal from Readers’ Favorite Awards, and an Honorable Mention from Writer’s Digest awards. Find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, and on Facebook and Twitter.