Can Your Character Go the Distance?

A strong trend in the publishing industry is the concept of a series—books that are linked through characters, plot, or world building—with a continuing story line. Many publishing houses read a concept or an author’s voice and like it so much that they want to buy more than one book. And linking the books can also build readership or sustain an author’s readers who are already familiar with their work.

In a blog post on Nov 13, 2010 “What makes a book publisher drool? Can you say series?” Alan Rinzler wrote:

If we smell a potential series in a promising new submission, we try to nail it down with a multiple book contract. That trend is apparent in the numbers of new multi-book deals listed in Publishers Marketplace over the past 12 months, with the greatest number in the following genres:

Top genres for multi-book deals in 2010
Romance – 108 deals
Mystery & Crime – 73
Young Adult – 56
Middle Grade – 53
Science Fiction – 31
Thrillers – 29
Paranormal – 27
(Note: Alan Rinzler is an Executive Editor at Jossey-Bass, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons with over 40+ years in the book business.)

So I thought it would be fun to examine ways to create a series character with enough juice to build or sustain a readership. Below are some of my thoughts, but I’d love to hear from you, too.

• Paint a large enough canvass. Create a world that’s big enough to allow a character to grow and surprise a reader with different plot scenarios.

• Give your main character(s) enough emotional baggage & personal conflicts that they can develop and grow from, to keep the series fresh.

• Make the plots in the series challenge your character’s weaknesses or flaws. Conflict is vital for any book.

• Tie each plot to the character’s emotional soft spots and allow the character to learn from what happens to them over the course of the series.

• Add a secondary cast of characters who add value. Make them fun, quirky, and definitely memorable, enough to bring a unique touch to your series. They are especially valuable if they add conflict or reflect on your main character’s strengths or weaknesses. If your secondary characters are effective enough, this can mean spin off potential.

• In any book, plant seeds for a spinoff story line. If the novel takes off, you can capitalize on your germinating ideas.

• Tell the reader enough in each book about the character’s back story to entice them to read your other books, but don’t go overboard with a dump of information that will slow the pace.

• Avoid the formula. If something worked in book #1 in order to successfully launch your series, don’t repeatedly recreate it. Surprise the reader with something new, which will keep your creative juices flowing too. Don’t be so tied into your own success that you’re afraid to surprise your readers.

• On the flip side, don’t “jump the shark.” Surprising leaps in character motivation—just to add shock value without substance or believable motivation—may stray too far from center to sustain your readership. Recognize your strengths and find new ways to hone them.

• Keep in mind that your character may have to age if the series becomes popular. Have a plan for that. Three books may wind up as twenty+.

• Don’t be afraid to dig deep inside yourself to fuel the motives or experiences of your character(s). Making them real is vital in order for a reader to connect with them, especially over a series.

I’d love to hear other ideas, so please comment. What tips can you share on how to create a successful series framework? Or what has worked well in other series books that you’ve enjoyed reading?

Letting Action Define Your Characters

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I just finished a book (which shall remain nameless) for my first Australian book club meeting and despite all its accolades and awards I couldn’t believe how totally uninvested I was in any of the characters. I’ve been mulling over the reasons for this ever since I skimmed my way to the finish yesterday and this morning I woke to find I knew exactly what the author’s problem was – she had failed to let her characters be defined by action.

In many ways this is a classic literary novel mistake because, lets face it, in a mystery or a thriller there’s no way an editor would let us get away with having passive characters who spent half their time engaged in inner monologues about how they felt!

We have blogged a lot on this topic but never has the reason been made so clear to me as it was after finishing this book. Although there were some dramatic moments and a terrific historical backdrop, none of these had any resonance as the characters seemed to be little more than distant, passive observers to all that was occurring in the book. So I compiled a short list for myself, as a reminder of what not to do, when I feel the literary urge coming on (and believe me, getting pseudo-literary is one of my many failings as a writer:)!)

1. Rein in those inner monologues and angst. While okay in small doses this book diluted the power of any angst-defining moments by having the main character ruminate ad nauseam. It would have been far better for the character to have been confronted by his past – in a direct and visceral way so the reader could have seen (rather than being told) how this impacted the character.

2. Cut the literary bull. Too much pondering, pretty metaphors and dream sequences drag a story down (and this book had enough of these to sink the Titanic). Far better to let the plot move the character through his or her emotions.

3. Let action/reactions tell the story not the author. In this book I felt that as a reader I was being told too much by the author – to the point where I didn’t see the characters as real. They became little more than a literary device for the author to tell me her clever observations on the societal issues of yesteryear (yikes!).

4. Insist the plot drive character development. As far as I could tell I didn’t witness any real character development or change, I was merely told that it had happened by the author.

5. Ensure each character is true to life not a literary contrivance. In this book almost all the character flaws were described but never actually witnessed. Once again, without action or plot points to reveal these I was never invested as a reader.

So if you had to do a list on using action to define characters what else would you add (or change on my list). Have you read any book recently that you have found similarly lacking? And why do authors of so-called literary books often forget the basics that we, in our field, would never be able to get away with?!

TEN TIPS on Pace & Structure of a Thriller

Writing a thriller is so much more involved than ten tips, but the checklist below is a good start. You notice I used the word TIPS and not RULES. I hate rules. Think of these as talking points to chat about and explore in your own writing.

1.) Start with a BANG and Explain Later

• Start with the moment that changes the character’s life forever.

• Or throw the reader right into the middle of action.

• No backstory or introspection

• Stick with the action

• Be patient with dropping mystery hints & clues, thread thru plot later.

• Place the reader in the midst of it—using all their senses.

• Remember that your protagonist might be ducking gunfire or are in a dangerous situation. It’s all about action, reaction and pace.

2.) Alfred Hitchcock’s Definition of Suspense & Basics on Structure
I’m not a plotter, so this part won’t be about plotting.

Hitchcock believed suspense didn’t have much to do with fear, but was more the anticipation of something about to happen. When I read this, it was a HUGE epiphany for me. The idea changed how I thought about scene and chapter endings. In a recent work-in-progress, I kept the same words that I’d started the book with, but ended scenes and chapters with this idea of anticipation. It gave the book a different dynamic and enhanced the pace. Don’t be afraid to cut off a scene or a chapter in the middle of the action. Here are some examples:

• One of my chapter endings in NO ONE LIVES FOREVER (RT nominee Best Intrigue 2008) has my hero in the middle of a steamy jungle, handcuffed and on his knees with a gun pointed between his eyes. The last sentence of that chapter is – And that’s when he pulled the trigger.

• Another chapter ending in my next thriller EVIL WITHOUT A FACE has my bounty hunter woman blinded by the headlights of an oncoming SUV about to run her down in an alley. With only seconds to consider her options, she plants her feet and raises her Colt Python, aiming for the faceless driver behind the wheel. And the last line to the chapter is – Time to play chicken with six thousand pounds of steel.

• Don’t let readers put down your novel.

• Give the reader a sense of foreshadowing or plant the seed of a red herring to sustain the pace and tease them with things to come.

• And the teaser doesn’t always have to be a major calamity. It can be something as subtle as a person walking into a room. For example, if an author has built a growing mystery surrounding an individual, have everyone in a courtroom turn to see who is walking in, then stop the action. In the next chapter, the author carries the story forward, drawing it out so the reader must finish the next chapter too—and so on and so on.

• Short sentences (as well as short chapters, scenes, and paragraphs) adds tension.

• Switch between key scenes – back & forth with the action like is done in movies to build tension.

• Or tell the story from different points of view (POVs) to build momentum on action sequences.

• 9-Act Screenplay Structure – Most blockbuster movies use a plot structure like this. (Check out my website under the FOR WRITERS page to see a 9-Act outline as well as other handy articles from craft to promotion.) This 9-Act structure is similar to the Hero’s Journey. And once you become familiar with the plot structure, your mind will automatically think in terms of it when you’re working on future projects. I’m not a plotter but I saw potential in this structure.

3.) The concept of Enter Late and Leave Early (ELLE) – The “Law & Order” Concept

• ELLE – Enter Late, Leave Early maintains pace and leaves the reader wanting more.

• The TV show “Law & Order” is a good example

• ENTER LATE refers to starting a scene in the middle of the pertinent action, such as AT the crime scene staring down at the body, not the drive over in a car.

• LEAVE EARLY refers to an ending that foreshadows something or raises a question or creates more of a mystery, not showing the detectives driving back to the police station.

• Quick snippets of plot suggest pace/movement and a reader can fill in the gaps on what happened in between.

• This principle does not apply to dialogue. Don’t make the reader guess what your characters are talking about. Start at the beginning of the dialogue for clarity.

4.) Torture Your Characters – It’s Legal

• Torture can be deviously fun—on paper, that is.

• Make the reader understand why your character is worthy of being the star of your novel.

• Your characters have to rise to the occasion—even if they are an average Joe—and go up against insurmountable odds.

• And we’ve all heard the phrase “Write what you know.” It should be “Write what you fear…what you love…what you hate.” Writing what you fear conveys human emotion that will resonate with readers. Tapping into what makes you afraid will translate into a trigger for the reader as well. And this goes for other emotions too. Drawing on a reader’s emotions will pull them into the story.

5.) Weaving in the Threads of Clues – No Surprise Suspects or Miraculous Databases

• Pretty self-explanatory. We all laugh when one of the CSI shows can turn around DNA analysis in minutes or they have access to amazing databases that don’t exist that allows them to wrap up the show in five minutes.

• I read about the “RULE OF THREE” on a mystery loop and it made sense. If you want a hint or clue to sink in for a reader, you subtly weave it into your plot in three different ways and places within your book. The repetition reinforces the importance and plants a seed with the reader, but don’t telegraph it in a huge way. It’s a balancing game of subtlety.

6.) Layer the Conflict & Allow Your Hero/Heroine to Be the Star

• Put up roadblocks and heap on complications.

• Use internal and external conflicts as a driver.

• Give them emotional baggage that the reader can relate to.

• Force your characters out of their comfort zones. Make them do the one thing they would never do.

• Action by itself can be boring if you don’t add the right balance of the human struggle and emotion into a story.

7.) Ramp Up the Stakes & Make it Personal

In my release, EVIL WITHOUT A FACE, I start with a 17-year old girl being lured from home by an online predator pretending to be another young girl. You’ve heard this story before, but I catapult this troubled Alaskan family into a massive global conspiracy with the clock ticking. A tangle of unlikely heroes attacks this conspiracy from different angles and they converge in a fight for their lives.

• The conspiracy is far reaching and it’s deadly.

• And because one young girl is caught up in it, it’s personal.

In my debut book, NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM (Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2008), my woman homicide detective was burdened by the abduction and murder of her younger sister and filtered every new investigation through her pain and guilt.

• She’s flawed and makes mistakes in her investigation of a cold case.

• Puts herself in the cross hairs of treacherous men – unable to be objective.

• Her emotions drive her to be heroic and also become a weakness that can get her killed.

8.) The Clock is Ticking – Then Shorten the Deadline

• Give your characters a deadline—a race against time—then shorten the timetable.

• Force your hero or heroine to make really tough decisions.

• Make them do the one thing they would NEVER do—with the clock ticking.

9.) Give the Reader a Big Payoff & Tie Up the Loose Ends

• No hype – give readers a big finish. Don’t disappoint them.

• Exceed their expectations – go over the top.

• Tie up all loose ends.

• And tie up the emotional journey too.

10.) Restore the World, but Don’t be Afraid if it’s a Different Place

• In a series, you have greater flexibility in how you choose to end your story.

• Happily Ever After (HEA) isn’t always necessary because you are writing a bigger story arc in the series. My books tend to read as standalones in plot, but the characters’ journeys continue and they grow with each book.

• I still like the idea of restoring the world—a certain amount of redemption—but it doesn’t have to be the same world.

• Crime affects people in a bad way, so they are forever changed. Don’t be afraid to show the aftermath.

The Chicken Guy

by Michelle Gagnon

Excerpt from THE TUNNELS:

“So what do you think?”

Kelly looked up from her notes to find Morrow watching her, rocking back and forth on his heels with a half-smile.

“Not our guy.” She rubbed her eyes with a thumb and forefinger and suppressed a yawn.

“Told you. Long day, huh? Where’d they pull you in from?”


“Oh, right, the chicken guy. Nice work on that one.”


In my debut thriller THE TUNNELS, I made this oblique reference to FBI Special Agent Kelly Jones’s previous case. Over the years I’ve received several emails from readers curious to hear more about “The Chicken Guy” (although as we here at The Kill Zone know, by all rights that title belongs to Mr. John Ramsey Miller, who is currently breeding a chicken army for world conquest).

So when it came time to submit a story for our anthology, I thought this would be great material to mine.

I’ve probably only composed a few dozen short stories total over the course of my writing career. With this one, I decided to focus on a single setting, the scene that would mark the climax if it were a full novel. I wanted to write something that was almost pure action, where you really got to see Kelly do what she does best.

I enjoyed exploring my heroine through a prequel. Part of the story laid the groundwork for crises she’d face down the line, tests of her moral code that over the course of my series have become increasingly challenge for her to pass. Hints of that popped up as I was writing The Chicken Guy. Knowing where she ends up made it much easier to figure out where she started.

As I was editing, I caught myself wondering if I would have written the story the same way if I’d tackled it immediately before writing THE TUNNELS. And as I’m putting the finishing touches on my fourth novel featuring the same characters, I was struck by how much Kelly in particular had been forced to change. What I love about writing a series (and about watching a well-made TV series, as opposed to a film) is that it enables a much greater story arc. A character grapples with different challenges in each book, challenges that shape how they’ll act when faced with new situations down the line. I’ve put Kelly through the wringer over the course of these four books. She’s emerged far more damaged than when she started, but in a way stronger than she was at the outset. It was interesting for me to look back on her through this lens, to see how far she’s come in so many ways.

We’re discussing assembling another anthology later in the year. For that one, I’m toying with the idea of delving further into the life of a more minor character from the series, one I haven’t had the opportunity to really explore. What I’ve discovered through this process is that short stories can be a great tool for character development, a chance to see how a tangential story line can have an impact. As Joe said, this is a great format to do that kind of exploration.

The anthology is available on Amazon and at Smashwords for the bargain price of $2.99.

Regrets, I have but few…

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

My husband and I went and saw the inimitable Jackson Browne last week and it’s put me in a reflective frame of mind. Of course, the fact that Tim and I were some of the youngest fans in the audience didn’t help – but Jackson Browne has provided a very strange soundtrack to our lives. When I first met my husband he had one of those early cool portable CD players (hey, it was only 1987!) but to say I was aghast at his CD collection would be an understatement – I mean who else had The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Jackson Browne alongside Madonna? My tastes ran to New Order, the Violent Femmes and The Smiths so I was literally gobsmacked. I grew, however, to love Jackson Browne (The Eagles I’m afraid had to go…) and my husband’s love of his music provided new insight into him – who knew the preppy guy had an angst ridden 1970’s soul?
The concert has made me think about the nature of regret. I have to admit, even as I face down the dreaded four-zero in a few months, I don’t really have many regrets at all – and the ones I do seem pretty trivial in the context of my life. I certainly wish I had pursued my dream of being a writer earlier – but then I wouldn’t be the writer that I am now. I’m a strong believer that you stumble upon your own path – and I’m supremely grateful of the path I managed to find.
That being said, I do wish I’d been more savvy about the publishing industry when my first book came out. I would have definitely fought harder to change the cover for the hardback of Consequences of Sin (see exhibit A, on right). Although the paperback cover is fabulous (see exhibit B, on left) I still think the cover for the hardback irrevocably hurt sales and may have doomed me to Barnes & Noble (not to mention publishing) purgatory…

But it’s hard to have a clue when you’re first starting out – right??

I’m sure in a few years I’ll no doubt wish I had known now what I will know then, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over regrets (it is pretty pointless, after all), but regret, as Jackson Browne so often writes and sings about, is an important emotion. It is one that defines and shapes us, and when creating characters I think it’s important to explore not only their loves, hopes, and fears but also their regrets. In many ways our behavior is guided by regret in subtle but crucial ways – and I love getting under the skin of my characters in this way.

So what (if any) regrets do you have regarding your writing? Do your characters carry some of those same regrets? Do they have an angst ridden soundtrack to their lives or are they at peace with the path they (or rather you, as a writer) have chosen for them…?

What’s in a Name?

by James Scott Bell

Mystery writers everywhere honor the name of that master detective, Sherrinford Holmes, and his good friend, Ormond Sacker.

Or not.

And what about that great heroine of the Civil War South, Pansy O’Hara? Remember her?

Of course you don’t. Because Margaret Mitchell thankfully scotched it after briefly considering it for her lead in Gone With the Wind. Props also to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for choosing Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, after toying with those other names.

The name of a Lead character, especially one who will be the star of a series, is not to be randomly selected. Sherlock Holmes is perfect. (Doyle admired Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.; Sherlock may have been the name of Doyle’s favorite cricket batsman). And Scarlett is just right for Miss O’Hara.

Travis McGee, the popular creation of John D. MacDonald, has a sound like the character himself–living on a houseboat, few cares in the world, hard when he needs to be.

Could any gumshoe be tougher than Sam Spade?

Ignatius J. Reilly and Myrna Minkoff definitely belong in John Kennedy Toole’s oddly structured comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces.

And so it goes, with other names like: Winter Massey, Kate Gallagher, Cotten Stone, Ursula Marlow, Jonathan Grave and Kelly Jones.

Good, solid monikers all. I wonder what the naming process was for the creators of these characters? Perhaps they’ll share it with us.

Here is what went into naming my own series character, Ty Buchanan, whose latest appearance is in Try Fear.

Tyler is from Fight Club. Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt in the film) is primal, nihilistic, violent. In Try Dying, the first book in my series, Ty Buchanan has to contend with similar feelings as his world is turned upside down. An up-and-coming lawyer in LA, Ty has it all. But his fiancée is killed (on page 1) and when he goes looking for answers, he’s forced into a street existence that both engenders and requires a hard-edged response.

Buchanan is from a favorite Western of mine, Buchanan Rides Alone (1958, dir. Budd Boetticher), starring the iconic Randolph Scott. He is, in the best western tradition, an anti-hero and loner, but with a strong inner code of honor. He doesn’t look for trouble, but when it finds him, he fights. And he always displays an insouciant good humor.

I wanted these two dynamics to play out within Ty Buchanan. They provide counterpoint and inner conflict, as the Buchanan side is often at odds with the Durden aspect. Thus, the name.

So, writer, how did you choose names for your Lead characters? Is it more than a sound for you? Is there a deeper meaning you look for? Or do you just run your finger down the white pages of a phone book?

And you, reader, what names come to your mind when you think of memorable literary heroes?

Getting Inside a Character’s Head

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I have just finished the first part of an online short story I’m posting on my website which requires a change of perspective. Both Consequences of Sin and The Serpent and The Scorpion incorporated a distinctly Ursula-esque POV but in the new story I have delved inside the head of another character – namely Lord Wrotham – which has opened up all sorts of possibilities (I can’t help but grin as I write that).

It does, however, also raise some challenges which go to the very heart of character development. You see I have only ever viewed him the way Ursula views him. Although I know his background (I created it after all), in many ways he’s as much of a mystery to me as he is to Ursula. Hence the fun in writing the story…and for those of you who have read The Serpent and The Scorpion, the story also offers some tantalizing clues as to what led to his arrest…

When I develop characters some of them appear pretty much fully formed in my head, whereas others take a while to ‘ferment’, as I ponder their past and what has made them who they are. Now I know many writers take offence at the prospect of characters doing unexpected things (aren’t we the ones in control after all?!) but I do find that many times my characters start behaving in ways I never intended – in a way rewriting themselves as the book progresses. For me, that’s all part of the fun of character discovery and development.

So how do writers flesh out their characters and what did it take for me to write this story from another character’s perspective?…You’d think it would be a methodical, well-organized process but instead I found myself:

  1. Rummaging through my old electronic files for the backgrounder I developed for Lord Wrotham then realizing that as I wrote both Consequences of Sin and The Serpent and The Scorpion I basically discarded most of it and reinvented him as I went along (bugger!!)
  2. Rewriting the bloody backgrounder from scratch only to find a couple of minor characters unexpectedly popping up in his past (Bugger! Bugger!) which meant I had to take a closer look at them as well
  3. As I am also working on the third Ursula Marlow book, Unlikely Traitors, I then sifted through that draft manuscript to check his story and then started playing the ‘what if’ game….(triple bugger, No!!!)

So what happened at the end of this process? Well, I decided I liked pottering around in Lord Wrotham’s head…In fact, I was discovering he was one complicated sexy man…then my husband stopped talking to me.

I guess that’s what happens when characters take over.

So how do you approach character development – are you better organized than me? Do you have it all figured out? Or do your characters, just occasionally, take you by surprise? Are there any writers whose characters you wish they would explore more – characters you wish you could get inside their head and have a bit of a rummage?

Bringing Characters To Life

John Ramsey Miller

To be successful storytellers, authors have to make each character in their story seem like a real person to the reader. Not just the main characters, either. Every character has to ring true and register as individuals, not cardboard cut-outs pushed into a scene to utter words, or provide some action––which could include being a dead body. Good authors pull it off because they pitch each character’s voice so the reader hears them speaking when they are in a scene, or describes them so the reader visualizes them. And it’s never about how much an author says in describing a character, but what they choose to describe, and at what point in the story they do so. What a character says, and how they say it, tells a lot about a character, but a single action can say more about a character than a page of dialog or of physical detail.

An author’s best tool for characterization is observation. Every day, everywhere you go, you see people being themselves. You see mannerisms, you hear dialog, the music and cadence of voice, along with accents, and colloquialisms. You see people reacting to other people, you see the way people dress, how they pose, how they move, how they do a million little and big things. You see body types, how each type moves, how one figure may remind you of an inverted bowling pin, or a crow, or a skeleton covered in dried skin. As you observe, you put the images away for later, and when you are writing flashes come into your mind, or should.

Talented authors watch the world and record what they see, and will later drag their brains for snippets that bring some measure of real to a character. Some authors take pictures, or make notes, for reference, and they have stacks of pictures to root through for ideas, I suppose. Others use their minds alone and file it all away.

Settings are characters too. Pictures will capture style, details, but I find the practice oddly confining. I write from my memory because time adds an ethereal element to those images in my mind. I do use pictures for reference when I need accuracy in a setting that exists, but my best locations come from impressions of places, or several places blended by smell, texture, the way light plays and shadows fall, the tastes, the temperature into a place that only exists in my imagination and on the printed page.

There are a lot of things that separate good and bad writers. Observation is one. The ability to take observations and put them into your work and make them part of your story in a way that makes real the characters and defines them is not easily accomplished. Writing well is another story and I’ll save that for another time.

So, do you watch and file, or do you take notes or pictures?