Protagonists Who Come
Out Of Nowhere

“I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It’s so f–n’ heroic.” — George Carlin

By PJ Parrish

One of the most important decisions a novelist faces is: Who is going to tell this story?

Well, that’s easy, you say. That’s the job of the protagonist, right? Well, it isn’t always that simple, I am here to plead today. This is on my mind lately because I’m watching an excellent TV series called A Small Light, which is the retelling of the Anne Frank story.

The story of the teenage diarist is ingrained in our culture. What’s the point of rehashing it? But A Small Light is told entirely from the point of view of Miep Gies, a young Dutch woman who risked her life to shelter Anne Frank’s family from the Nazis.

Miep is just an ordinary girl trying to grow up in hard times. She’s a twentysomething slacker with no husband and no job prospects. She charms her way into a job working for Otto Frank at his company. But as the Nazis advance, Miep finds herself smuggling the Franks to the annex above Otto’s Amsterdam offices one at a time.

Anne is relegated to the margins as the story focuses on the growing relationship between Miep and Otto Frank. By shifting the spotlight to a secondary character,  the story comes alive and feels very fresh, even though we know the tragic outcome.

We mystery and thriller writers often use the word “protagonist” as a synonym for “hero.” The protag is the person who gets the call to action, solves the murder, rescues the missing child, saves the world from the incoming comet. But it’s often more complicated than that, especially given how much genre-bending and style experimentation is going on these days. The standard old blond with the great gams who asks the private dick to find her missing husband just isn’t the standard anymore.  We’ve grown beyond that.

I’m not even sure I even know what a protagonist is anymore. So let’s try some definitions. From Stephen Koch’s Writer’s Workshop: The protagonist is the character whose fate matters most to the story. I definitely buy that.

But the writer’s website Dramatica takes it one step further:

  • A Main Character is the player through whom the audience experiences the story first hand.
  • A Protagonist is the prime mover of the plot.
  • A Hero is a combination of both Main Character and Protagonist.

Confused? Yeah, me too. Let’s go to an example most of us know — the movie The Shawshank Redemption. But let’s look at it through its source, Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.  In King’s iconic book, Andy Dufresne’s story of injustice and escape is narrated entirely by fellow inmate Red (Morgan Freeman in the movie). The book opens with a long recitation by Red on how he got to prison and ends thusly:

I have enough killing on my mind to last me a lifetime. Yeah, I’m a regular Neiman-Marcus. And so when Andy Dufresne came to me in 1949 and asked if I could smuggle Rita Hayworth into the prison for him, I said it would be no problem at all. And it wasn’t.

And later, Red summarizes Andy’s opaque character:

I knew him for close to thirty years, and I can tell you he was the most self-possessed man I’ve ever known. What was right with him he’d only give you a little at a time. What was wrong with him he kept bottled up inside. If he ever had a dark night of the soul, as some writer or other has called it, you would never know. He was the type of man who, if he had decided to commit suicide, would do it without leaving a note but not until his affairs had been put neatly in order.

So in the book, who is the protagonist? I would vote for Red. Andy Dufresne is the story-driver, but Red, even though he is a “secondary” character, is the one whose heart and mind we are living in. More important, he is the one who changes the most over the course of the story. At the end, we shed tears not for Andy, but for Red.

A couple more prime examples of secondary characters who act as narrator-prisms for main characters and thus almost become “main” characters in their own right:

  • Dr. Watson. The Sherlock Holmes books are written from his point of view, all observations of Sherlock solving the crimes. Witness:

“You have brought detection as near an exact science as it ever will be brought in this world.” My companion flushed up with pleasure at my words, and the earnest way in which I uttered them. I had already observed that he was as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be of her beauty.”

  • Chief Bromden. In Key Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the primary conflict is between McMrphy and Nurse Ratched, but the chief is the consciousness through which we view this and Kesey’s views on mental illness.

I been silent so long now it’s gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.

  • Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. The true “hero” of the story is her father, Atticus, who defends an innocent man, confronts a lynch mob, and faces retaliation against his family. But the story emerges from the emotional prism of the narrator Scout. Like Red in Shawshank, Scout is the one who changes over the story. Thanks to Atticus’s heroism, she learns that evil can be lessened by compassion.

Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

While researching this post, I found out screenwriters have a name for this type of character — Supporting Protagonist. Some writers chose someone who does NOT have a central role to narrate the story. A Supporting Protagonist is someone who would normally be a secondary character but is actually the main character. It can, as in A Small Light, put a fresh spin on what’s expected.

There’s another type of protagonist that I love — what I call The Hero To Be Named Later. This is a character who emerges out of the pack or obscurity and is called upon to save the day. The reasons might vary:

Shlubb turn savior (Chief Brody in Jaws who can’t even swim)

I Didn’t Raise My Hand! (Han Solo in Star Wars, essentially a jerk who wants nothing to do with anything where he might get hurt).

Default Diva. (Ellen Ripley in Alien, who just wants to collect her paycheck and go home with her cat)

Not So Innocent Bystander. (Michael Corleone in The Godfather who sulks in the shadows until the Sonny sets).

Let’s look at the last two (two of my favorite movies, by the way). Alien opens with an ensemble cast — the crew aboard the salvage freighter Nostromo. We assume the protagonist is Captain Dallas, given his cool stewardship. But as the xenomorph picks off crewmen one by one, Ripley emerges as the badass leader.

I’ve saved the best for last. The Godfather trilogy, taken as a whole, is about Michael taking over the family business and losing his soul. But in the first movie, Vito Corleone is vividly the protagonist, with his sons in orbit around him. Sonny dismisses Michael as “that sad thing over there.” It’s not until halfway through the movie that it becomes clear that Michael is the protagonist. His father shot, abandoned in the hospital, Michael whispers: “Just lie here, Pop. I’ll take care of you now. I’m with you now. I’m with you.”

Michael has looked in mirror. A protagonist is born.


Show, Don’t Tell

There’s a Deadline Beast lurking in the near future, so this post will be brief, for me.

You’ve heard or read this before, but even writing today’s post revealed some laziness on my part and I cleaned up several pages of my work in progress.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov

“In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.  C.S. Lewis

The late E. L. Doctorow, author of twelve historical fiction novels said, “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

And then there’s King Stephen who is always delicate as a chainsaw. “Your readers, without even realizing it, will love you for it, because it engages them, it draws them into the story. If you show, you don’t need to tell. If she kicks him in the balls, the reader gets that she’s angry. You don’t need to say it.”

In my personal writing experience, this is one of the hardest things to learn, second only to finding your writing “voice.”

The following is from my newest work in progress, a traditional western.

One of the newer glassy-eyed inmates with a wispy mustache passed us at the same time his stomach growled, looking for a place out of the searing sun and somewhere safe to eat. Swift attacks to steal our twice-a-day allotment usually spilled more than they gained. Escobedo had only been in Purgatorio for a week, and in those few days the slender man lost half of his rations.

He sat only a dozen feet from us norte americanos and wolfed down his meal. The two fresh cuts over one eyebrow and the opposite cheekbone was proof of another hard night.

Andelacio Morales rose from where he squatted with a clot of other prisoners near the long row of outside cells and swaggered across the bare yard. Even me and the boys steered clear of him when we could, but from the look in Morales’ eye, that was about to change.

Morales’ worn-out shoes crunched on the yard’s gravel and sand packed hard by decades of footsteps. The prisoner in for life towered over Escobedo who kept his eyes lowered to the tin plate between his knees. The young man’s head ducked and what little spirit was left in the newest inmate evaporated.

As I said, this piece isn’t yet finished, but this example avoids weak telling words and phrases like “I heard,” (Morale’s crunching footsteps) “He felt,” and “was afraid” (Escobedo’s fear demonstrated in the last sentence). Telling words, and phrases pushes the reader out of the story. Don’t tell us that your characters are happy, sad, scared, giddy (I especially hate that word), hot, hungry, or mad.

You want readers to be in the scene, and not on the outside looking in. Your writing should pull readers into the world you’ve created so they can use their senses based on their own memories and experiences.


Tell: The sound of gunfire reached his ears.

Show: The hard, flat reports of gunfire came as almost physical blows.


Tell: The wildflowers were pretty.

Show: The prairie was a carpet of color, nodding and swaying in the wind.


Tell: He smelled bacon when he walked into the café.

Show: The aroma of frying bacon wrapped him in comfortable memories of vacations and café breakfasts.


Tell: She heard the sound of birds in the trees.

Show: Birds flittered in the branches, and a mockingbird went through her repertoire of songs.


Tell: Bill was divorced.

Show: Bill’s fingers absently went to the pale skin on the fourth ring of his left hand, feeling was as strange as his empty bed.


“You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road.” —Richard Price

Show, don’t tell, allows the reader to experience the story through actions, words, subtext, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through your explanations and descriptions. If your character is afraid, let them feel his pounding heart, or the sharp pain in her stomach. A shortness of breath is terror, and the urge to flee is natural.

Pick out a couple of pages in your own WIP and clean them up as I get out of here. Don’t tell readers something is terrifying, like an impending deadline. Show them.

Biphasic Sleep and “The Watch” Syndrome

Are You Working Overtime at Night?

First Sleep, Second Sleep, and “The Watch”


Do you wake up at night? Do you have to eat a snack, drink some milk, or read a book to return to sleep? According to the Cleveland Clinic, one in three adults worldwide have insomnia symptoms (30% in the U.S.)

The NHSinform (National Health Service of Scotland) lists the following as common causes of insomnia: stress, anxiety, poor sleep environment (uncomfortable bed, too much light, noise, too hot or cold, alcohol, caffeine, and change in work hours).

But, have you ever considered that the cause may be “The Watch?” A forgotten medieval habit of sleeping in two shifts, once in the evening and once in the morning (“first sleep” and “second sleep”), included a period of wakefulness and activity in between – “the watch.” This unusual phenomenon of double sleeping, or “biphasic sleep” was common in England and Europe (and other societies around the globe) during the Middle Ages and until the industrial revolution.

The watch followed a period of sleep of usually about two hours, and lasted typically from 11:00 pm to 1:00 am. “This period of wakefulness was a surprisingly useful window in which to get things done. People did just about anything and everything after they awakened from their first sleep… from tending to ordinary tasks, such as adding wood to the fire, taking remedies, or going to urinate (often into the fire itself).

“For peasants, waking up meant getting back down to more serious work – whether this involved venturing out to check on farm animals or carrying out household chores.

“The watch was also a time for religion,” with specific prayers for exact time periods.

“But most of all, the watch was useful for socializing – and for sex.”

And, not unexpectedly, “criminals took the opportunity to skulk around and make trouble.”

So, is there any evidence that this is a normal circadian pattern?

In the early 1990s, a study by Thomas Wehr experimented with shortening men’s hours of light exposure to only ten hours per day, with fourteen hours confined to a dark room. After four weeks, the men were sleeping in a divided pattern of two halves with one to three hours in between of wakefulness. Wehr had reinvented biphasic sleep.

Another study, in 2015, involved volunteers from a remote area in Madagascar that had no electricity and no lights at night. The volunteers wore an “actimeter” that could track sleep cycles for ten days. The researchers found that subjects with no artificial light had a period of activity from about midnight until 1:00 or 1:30, then would fall back to sleep until 6:00 a.m. and sunrise.

Why has this pattern of biphasic sleep disappeared?

Actually, it still exists in small areas of the world, but the evidence seems to point to the Industrial Revolution, with artificial lighting as the cause for the end of biphasic sleep.

But, do some of us maintain a hidden need for a natural sleep pattern? Is it possible that our modern lifestyle and pattern of sleep is not what our bodies and brain really crave?

Do you have insomnia? Does it occur at a specific time? How long does it usually last?

What do you do to get back to sleep?

Do you make use of this time for writing or reading?

Have you found a book you would like to nominate for most likely to make you sleepy?

Good Luck and Good Advice


By Elaine Viets

What a week of ups and downs. I broke my collarbone. My right collarbone and I’m right-handed. I wish I had a good story to go with it, like I was outrunning the cops in a high-speed chase, but I tripped and hit a wall. Yep, tripped.

The brakes failed on my husband Don’s car in our condo parking garage. (That’s it above, leaking on the garage floor.) The car hit a wall and was totaled. Don walked away without a scratch, and no one was hurt. A minor miracle, and we’re both grateful.

My car (the green one with water up to its hubcaps) survived the great Florida flood and it’s ready to drive. Except I can’t drive it because of the busted collarbone.
But along with this steaming pile of lousy luck, there is some good news. Very good news.

The Malice Domestic mystery conference is honoring me with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Malice 36 April 26-28, 2024. Malice Domestic is an annual fan convention in Bethesda, Maryland. I’m thrilled to be part of a star-studded line-up next year.
Lori Rader-Day will be Toastmaster. She’s nominated for the Edgar Award, and won the Agatha, Anthony and Mary Higgins Clark awards. The award-winning Sujata Massey, who writes historical and mystery fiction set in Asia, is Guest of Honor. Noted blogger Kristopher Zgorski of BOLO Books, will get the Amelia Award. There’s more, much more, but there always is at conferences.
I learn a lot by talking to other writers and readers. At the recent Malice Domestic convention, we were talking about the good career advice we received. Many of these tips have been discussed in TKZ, including the importance of persistence at all stages of your career. And, don’t quit your day job.
But the most helpful advice for me, now that I have 34 books out, came from my current agent.
He had me re-read all my books, from the beginning to the current novel, and report back to him.
The results were enlightening. Novels that I thought were my best had major flaws. I repeated certain catch phrases. In some, I waited too long to start the mystery. There were good things, too. But I learned a lot.
I recommend this for every writer. If you only have one or two novels, take time to analyze them. If you have several unpublished novels, do the same thing. Analyze your body of work.
I probably won’t be stopping by today because I’ll be in St. Louis for a book signing, busted wing and all.
Tell us what writing advice works for you, TKZers.

############################################################################The Dead of Night, my new Angela Richman, death investigator mystery, is available in book stores and online:
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What’s The Big Deal About Was?

What’s The Big Deal About Was?
Terry Odell

When I finished my first novel, the only paths to publication were vanity presses and agents. When I found my first, last, and only agent, she returned my first chapters with every use of the word was circled in red. Everyone said “Was is passive writing. Don’t use it.” I might not have been an English major, but I knew enough to know that “was” is the past tense of “is” and there’s nothing wrong with writing in the past tense. Now, it might not be the strongest of words, and when paired with an “ing” verb, might not be the most exciting way to express something, but it’s not passive. (I wrote about the dangers of using ‘ing’ construction in another post.)

Passive voice is something else again. Consider The dog bit the boy versus the boy was bitten by the dog. The former is active voice, the latter is passive voice. (I know someone out there is saying, “But what about The dog was bitten by the boy? That’s passive voice, but unexpected, and therefore more interesting.)

The following are passages from books written by best-selling authors. I wonder if their editors circled all their “was” usages in red—and “were” as well. Yes, there are  a couple of passive voice sentences in there. Their editors didn’t cut them, either.

The body was crumpled beside a Dumpster midway down the alley, but my view was blocked by a woman in a T-shirt and shorts, and two men in dark sport coats. The woman’s T-shirt was fresh and white and made her stand out in the dingy alley as if she were on fire. The older suit was a thick man with shabby hair, and the younger detective was a tall, spike-straight guy with a pinched face.  The Forgotten Man, Robert Crais

The shooter was trained, the shooter was a killing machine, but he was still human. Now, breathing hard, he tasted blood in his mouth like you might after a tough run; and all the time, he was looking for lights, he was looking for an alarm, a cry in the dark.  Heat Lightning, John Sandford.

Sheriff Goodman was into his thirtieth hour without sleep. He was dazed and groggy and barely upright. But he kept on going. No reason to believe the abductors had stayed in the vicinity, but he had his guys out checking any and all vacant buildings, barns, huts, shelters, and empty houses. He himself was supplementing their efforts by covering the places they weren’t getting to. He had found nothing. They had found nothing. Radio traffic was full of tired and resigned negativity.  A Wanted Man, Lee Child

The general public was for the most part under the impression that the gang wars that gripped most of South L.A. and claimed victims every night of the week came down to a  Bloods versus Crips battle for supremacy and control of the streets. But the reality was that the rivalries between subsets of the same gang were some of the most violent in the city and largely responsible for the weekly body counts. The Rolling 60s and 7-Treys were at the top of that list. Both Crips sets operated under kill-on-sight protocols and the score was routinely noted in the neighborhood graffiti. A RIP list was used to memorialize homies lost in the endless battle, while a lineup of names under a 187 heading was a hit list, a record of kills. The Black Box, Michael Connelly.

Now, if you want to know a usage that bugs me, it’s using “start” where it’s not really needed. “The phone started to ring in Bob’s pocket.” What’s wrong with “The phone rang in Bob’s pocket?”

Or, “He started to walk away.” Unless he turns around and comes back, why not “He walked away.”?

What about you TKZers? Any “rules” you disagree with? Words or usages that bug you?

Cover image of Deadly Relations by Terry OdellAvailable Now in Digital, Paperback, and Audio
Deadly Relations.
Nothing Ever Happens in Mapleton … Until it Does
Gordon Hepler, Mapleton, Colorado’s Police Chief, is called away from a quiet Sunday with his wife to an emergency situation at the home he’s planning to sell. A man has chained himself to the front porch, threatening to set off an explosive.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

Writers and Age


Photo credit: Pexels -Vlada Karpovich

By Debbie Burke



A February 2023 article in The Guardian gives hope to us writers of a certain age. According to the story, “older, unpublished writers are now at a premium – with radical, edgy women aged into their 80s particularly sought-after.”

During the economic downturn that began in 2008, mergers and downsizing of publishing companies led to many older, experienced editors being culled to reduce costs. If they were replaced, new hires were younger people willing to work for less money.

Because of that, publishing tended toward a youth-oriented culture. Many agents and editors are Millennials (1981-1996). That led to significant ageism, with older writers being shoved aside unless they were already big-money successes.

I know of one seasoned author who reported a rejection where the agent said, “Your turn is past.”


At a conference several years ago, I pitched a twentyish agent with a book in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series that stars characters in their 50s. In conversation, there was a passing mention of AARP. She authoritatively informed me, “You can’t join AARP at fifty.”

Oh really? That’s news to all the people who receive solicitations to join around their 50th birthday. 

Her incorrect statement was one reason I decided to end the quest for traditional publication and self-publish instead. I didn’t need to fight another uphill battle in the face of arrogant ignorance.

But recently “old” has become cool.

A prime reading demographic are Boomers (born between 1946-1964). They are retiring at increasing rates, have discretionary income to buy books, and time to read them. And they are interested in substantive topics of health, family, giving to others, and quality of life, rather than the celebrity scandal du jour.

Lisa Highton, an associate agent at Jenny Brown Associates, says: “The vast majority of books are bought by women aged 45 and above. They’re a hugely important demographic and increasingly, want to see themselves represented in books.” She adds, there is “value [in] their collected, distilled wisdom, their lifetime of reading and radicalism that is not possible for younger writers.

According to Cherry Potts, Arachne Press, there is a “very willing readership” for the work of older women “including that most elusive of reader: the white middle-aged man”.

Leading the trend are a number of recent bestsellers by older women like the debut novel by Bonnie Garmus, Lessons in Chemistry and The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller. The latter book features characters in their 50s and addresses the long-taboo subject of senior sexuality. 

An 81-year-old friend, Marie F. Martin, just completed her seventh novel, a mystery set in 1952 on a Montana farm. She didn’t start writing until she was 70 and has learned, refined, and honed her craft to a high gloss. The latest is her best book yet.

Marie caught the self-publishing trend early on and did well with six books. For her seventh, she decided to query agents and publishers. Again, she’s on the leading edge of a trend. I hope she’s accepted and achieves success—she’s earned it. But, if not, she won’t be disappointed. She’ll self-publish again. Marie’s equanimity carries her over the rollercoaster of despair and elation that goes with a writing career.

In my last post, Editor/Janitor”, I mentioned retired newspaperman George Ostrom.

Since then, I saw George and his wife having dinner at the senior community where they live. He’s now almost 95 and in declining health. During his long newspaper career, he had a reputation for calling out BS, sometimes to the angry dismay of prominent citizens.

That evening, I went over to their table, introduced myself, and kiddingly asked him, “Are you the Editor/Janitor of the Kalispell Weekly News?” 

An awkward hesitation followed.

Uh-oh. By trying to be funny, had I inadvertently embarrassed him?

“Why?” he finally asked. “Do you wanna hit me?”

To my great relief, his humorous spirit remains intact.

Like wine, writers improve with age. Unlike athletes, writers don’t peak in their 20s and 30s then go downhill.

The longer writers live, the more problems we’ve had to solve, the more fascinating and frustrating people we’ve known, the more experiences we’ve enjoyed or suffered. That huge reservoir adds richness, texture, and depth to the stories we create.

Insight and wisdom are hard-earned. By sharing those gifts with readers in books, articles, and blog posts, writers can shine a light on truths that lead to realization, understanding, and empathy for the human condition. Those truths endure through time.

Take heart, senior writers. Contrary to the rejection cited above, our turn is not past.


TKZers: Have you experienced ageism when submitting to editors and agents?

Who’s your favorite senior writer?




The lead characters in the Tawny Lindholm Thriller series are still kicking ass in their 50s. Please check out the new release Deep Fake Double Down, on sale now at Amazon and other major booksellers.

The Valley of Elah


“Skill and confidence are an unconquered army.” –George Herbert

* * *

My husband and I hired a private guide to take us on a one-day tour since we were pressed for time. When our guide stopped her car by the side of the road next to a desolate field between two hills, we thought she must have made a mistake. There were no tour busses and no other people around. The three of us got out, walked into the valley, and stopped by a dry creek bed filled with smooth stones.

It was hard to believe the undistinguished field in which we were standing was the location of one of the most famous battles in the history of the world. This was the Valley of Elah, the site where David fought Goliath.

We’re all familiar with the story. Goliath wasn’t just some big guy. He was a giant who taunted his enemies and called them cowards. They were understandably terrified of him. All except David, the young shepherd boy who had no experience in warfare but  convinced King Saul that he (David) could defeat the Philistine giant with only his sling.

“Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.” 1 Samuel 17:40

I’m not sure I appreciated the magnitude of David’s accomplishment until I picked up a stone from that same creek bed and realized how small it was. And yet one of those stones, slung more than three thousand years ago, saved the young nation of Israel and changed the world.

* * *

Many parents share the story of David and Goliath with their children to instill courage and faith in their offspring. They want them to know they will face giants in their lives, but they can overcome. However, one thing we don’t often talk about when we relate the story is the skill young David had with a sling.

David was a shepherd, certainly a lonely occupation. He must have spent many months alone, looking after his father’s flocks and protecting them from wild animals. David even explained this to King Saul who had doubted his abilities:

Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth.” ! Samuel 17:34-35

I’m guessing David got very good with his sling during those months and years. Besides fighting wild animals, I can envision him setting a tin cup on a tree branch and practicing his slinging expertise day after day.

In contrast to the slow-moving, armor-burdened Goliath, David was quick and agile. His stone wouldn’t be effective against Goliath’s armor, but he had a target that would bring down his opponent: Goliath’s unprotected forehead. It only took one shot, and the giant was dead.

* * *

Developing skill is obviously important in any field. I recently read an article on this subject on the Personal Excellence website. A couple of sentences stood out to me.

“… people are often impressed by what others have accomplished without realizing what they went through to get there. We see their accolades and victories, and make gross assumptions about what it takes to succeed.”

I think this is especially true of writers. We all know how to string words together to make sentences, and we’ve read lots of good books. How hard can it be to write one of our own? But TKZ regulars know it is oh, so much more than that.

I was looking for some straightforward guidance about the development of skills when I stumbled on the site of the Morningside Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences that enumerated the necessary ingredients. Here are the basics they listed:

  1. Get training.
  2. Practice.
  3. Get feedback.

That looks pretty simple, but we know each one of those items is a world of its own.

So, TKZers: Do any of your books have a David vs. Goliath theme? How did your hero defeat the giant? (Or did he?)

How do you train for your writing? 

How much time to you spend practicing? What kind of practice do you recommend?

How do you get feedback?

Characters: The Good, the Bad and the Unnecessary

Protagonists, antagonists and supporting characters– without some version of each, it would be very difficult to write a thriller, and even harder to write a murder mystery. Protagonists must tackle the obstacles they face, with strength of will, usually sooner rather than later. Antagonists must throw up roadblocks; oppose, fight, scheme, betray, whatever it takes to get what they want, depending upon the character. Let’s not forget supporting characters—both protagonists and antagonists need them.

In today’s Words of Wisdom, James Scott Bell discusses that strength of will every protagonist needs, while Jodie Renner dives into creating a fascinating, believable antagonist. Finally, Joe Moore talks about the challenge of removing a character you realize is unnecessary to your novel. This last was something I had to do with my most recent novel, erasing no fewer than three supporting characters, because each turned out to be unnecessary.

As always, it’s worth reading the full posts, which are date-linked from their respective excerpts.

There is no novel, no drama, no conflict, no story without a Lead character fighting a battle through the exercise of his will.

As Lajos Egri states in his classic, The Art of Dramatic Writing:

A weak character cannot carry the burden of protracted conflict in a play. He cannot support a play. We are forced, then, to discard such a character as a protagonist … the dramatist needs not only characters who are willing to put up a fight for their convictions. He needs characters who have the strength, the stamina, to carry this fight to its logical conclusion.

Let’s think about Scarlett O’Hara for a moment. Do we want 200 pages of her sitting on her porch flirting with the local boys? Do we want to listen to her selfish prattle or watch her flit around in big-hoop dresses?

I’m not sure we want anything to do with her at all after seven pages or so, but then! She learns that Ashley Wilkes, her ideal, her dream husband-to-be, is going to marry that mousy Melanie!

She immediately lays plans to get him alone at the big barbecue. She’ll tell him of her love and he’ll dump Melanie. Through strength of will she draws him into a room where they can be alone.

Only her plan does not work out as intended. Which is good! For strength of will must be met with further obstacles and challenges and setbacks. The protagonist has to keep fighting, or the book is over.

That’s why, after the setback with Ashley, Scarlett faces a further complication—a little thing I like to call the Civil War.

For the rest of the book Scarlett will have to show strength of will to save the family home and fight for the man she loves (NOTE: strength of will does not always mean strength of insight. Scarlett does not realize until it’s too late who she really loves. Of course, we could have told her. It’s the guy who looks like Clark Gable!)

Now, a character can start passive. But she cannot stay there for long. In Stephen King’s Rose Madder, the opening chapter depicts a wife who is horribly abused by her psycho husband. The chapter ends with the chilling line: Rose McClendon Daniels slept within her husband’s madness for nine more years. 

Wise storyteller that he is, King does not give us more pages of abuse. No, he quickly gets us to a blood stain. It’s what Rose sees on a sheet as she makes the bed one morning, a reminder of her most recent beating. Nothing she hasn’t seen before, only this time it triggers something inside her:

She looked at the spot of blood, feeling unaccustomed resentment throbbing in her head, feeling something else, a pins-and-needles tingle, not knowing this was the way you felt when you finally woke up.

Then comes Rose’s strength of will. She finally does what her husband has strictly forbidden—leave the house. Do that, he warns, and I’ll track you down and kill you.

For us, walking out a door is a small thing, but for Rose Daniels it is the biggest risk of her life. But she does it.

And that’s why we want to watch her for the rest of the book. She will have to exercise her will many times in order to survive.

James Scott Bell—October 25, 2015


To pose a credible, significant threat and cause readers to worry, your antagonist should be as clever, powerful, and determined as your protagonist. Challenges and troubles are what make your main character intriguing, compel her to be the best she can be. They force her to draw on resources she never knew she had in order to survive, defeat evil, or attain her goals.

For today’s post, we’ll assume your antagonist is a villain – a mean, even despicable, destructive character we definitely don’t want to root for. He needs to be a formidable obstacle to the protagonist’s goals or a menace to the hero’s loved ones or other innocents. And thrillers, fantasy, and horror require really frightening, nasty villains.

Most of the bad guys in movies and books want the same thing: power. Or maybe revenge or riches. And they don’t care who gets hurt along the way. Or worse, they enjoy causing pain, even torturing their victims.

The antagonist needs to be powerful, a game-changer. As Chuck Wendig says in his excellent blog post “25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists,” “The antagonist is there to push and pull the sequence of events into an arrangement that pleases him. He makes trouble for the protagonist. He is the one upping the stakes. He is the one changing the game and making it harder.”

The protagonist and antagonist have clashing motivations. Their needs, values, and desires are at odds. The antagonist and protagonist could have completely opposite backgrounds and personalities for contrast – or be uncomfortably similar, to show how close the protagonist came or could come to passing over to the dark side.

Most readers are no longer intrigued by “mwoo-ha-ha,” all-evil antagonists, like Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Unless you’re writing middle-grade fiction, be sure your villain isn’t unexplainably horrid, evil for the sake of evil. Today’s sophisticated readers are looking for an antagonist who’s more complex, realistic, and believable.

Chuck Wendig suggests antagonists should be depicted as real people with real problems: “People with wants, needs, fears, motivations. People with families and friends and their own enemies. They’re full-blooded, full-bodied characters. They’re not single-minded villains twirling greasy mustaches.”

For a believable, fascinating antagonist or villain, try to create a unique, memorable bad guy of a type that hasn’t been done to death. Try to give him or her an original background and voice.

Remember that the antagonist is the hero of his own story. He thinks he’s right. He justifies his actions somehow, whether it’s revenge, a thirst for power, ridding society of undesirables, or payback. He may even feel he has a noble or just goal, as in the serial killer of prostitutes.

Jodie Renner—March 9, 2015

Lynn and I write thrillers with complex plots, and THE PHOENIX APOSTLES is turning out to be the most complex of all. Because of the complexity, we have some really intense brainstorming sessions, especially as we approach the end of the book and must tie all the loose ends together so they are resolved for the reader. Our conference calls go on for hours as we play “what if”, argue, plot, and strategize. Since we live over 300 miles apart and only meet once or twice a year, we rely on unlimited long distance calling to work out the details.

Recently, we were discussing how each of our characters would resolve at the climax of the book. We both like big Hollywood endings, and this one is shaping up to be a whopper. We were going down the list of ever character, either signing their death warrants or letting them live another day. We knew what should happen to Carlos, but when we got to Teresa, we came up short. As a matter of fact, we couldn’t even justify placing her in the final scene. Normally, we assign all our characters “jobs” in each scene, and she was pretty much unemployed by the time the shit hit the fan.

There was a long silence on the phone. Then Lynn asked that dreaded question no self-respecting fictional character ever wants to hear. “Do we really need her?”

“You mean in the climax?”

“No, in the book?”

After another long pause, I had to admit she was right. If Teresa vanished from the pages of our novel, would it make any difference? The reluctant but honest answer was, no.

We came to the conclusion that we could convert all of Teresa’s “jobs” into the Carlos character and the result would be a tighter, crisper story with fewer heads to hop between.

And so the killing began.

Within a few hours, I had gone through the entire manuscript, found every instance of Teresa’s character, rewrote each one and shifting her responsibilities, motivations, and character development to Carlos. By sundown, Teresa was pronounced dead. Worse than dead; like some former Soviet government official who fell out of favor, she simply ceased to exist.

I had lived with Teresa for over a year. I knew her wants and needs. I liked her. But I had to sacrifice her to make for a better story. I mourned her passing, drank some whisky, and moved on.

R.I.P Teresa Castillo.

Joe Moore—July 1, 2009


There you have it, advice dealing with protagonists, antagonists and unnecessary characters.

  1. How have you shown your protagonist’s strength of will? Do you have a favorite example from fiction or film of this in action?
  2. How do you like to bring your antagonist to life? What’s the most fun aspect of creating an antagonist for you?
  3. Have you ever had to erase a character from one of your novels or stories? How much work was it? Any advice?


Brand-new librarian Meg Booker is just supposed to be checking out books.

Instead, it’s the patrons who are being checked out–permanently.

A Shush Before Dying, the first book in my new cozy library mystery series set in the 1980s, is now out, and available in ebook and print.

Reader Friday – Science or Perception

Science is “the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation, experimentation, and the testing of theories against the evidence obtained.” (Oxford Languages) – my italics

Perception is “a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression.” (Oxford Languages) – basically, the way we see the facts from our perspective

Note that “perception” is our view of the facts at a given moment. Science is an ongoing testing of the “facts” that is continuously changing the “facts.”

There has been an ongoing conflict between perception and science since humans began declaring their perception as science. Ex. “The earth is flat.” Or, “the sun rotates around the earth.”

And that conflict continues today, often with someone’s bias inserted into the perception:

  • A Chinese “weather balloon” gently drifting across the U.S. … and making figures-of-eight over high security military sites
  • Installation of “climate-friendly” wind turbines off the east coast … and whales washing up on the beach
  • The “facts” about the Covid virus, immunizations, and preventative measures that were presented to the public … and later, in the light of science, were shown to be more someone’s perception or bias
  • Developing AI technology (see Debbie’s post from last week) and its “promise” of benefits … when it is already being used for nefarious purposes

Note that all these examples are filled with conflict and are ripe with opportunity for insertion into our stories.

So, your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

  1. What examples of fact vs. fiction (science vs. perception) have you used in your stories, or enjoyed in stories by others?
  2. What other examples of science vs. perception can you think of that might be useful for conflict in a story?




A powerful wizard uses Covid “jabs” to spread his DNA and achieve immortality.

Available on Amazon. Currently priced at $0.99.

Romans, Horse Asses, US Railroads, Space Shuttles, and Common Writing Paper

Kill Zoners — Bear with me. I promise this headline will make sense. I belong to a police veteran group where this piece was recently posted. Yes, I’m plagiarizing sharing it here because I can’t say it better in my own writing. So please read away, digest the logic or humor, and be sure to comment.

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The United States standard railroad gauge (distance between the inside flanges of the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches or 56 ½ inches wide. That’s an exceedingly odd number.

Why was that gauge used? Well, because that’s the way they built them in England, and English engineers designed the first US railroads.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the wagon tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.

So, why did ‘they’ use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they had used for building wagons, which used that same wheel spacing.

Why did the wagons have that particularly odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break more often on some of the old, long-distance roads in England. You see, that’s the spacing of the long-established wheel ruts.

So, who built those old, rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (including England) for their legions. Those roads have been used ever since.

And what about the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match or run the risk of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

Therefore, the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches, or 56 ½ inches wide, is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot.

Bureaucracies live forever.

So, the next time you’re handed a specification/procedure/process and wonder What horse’s ass came up with this? you may be exactly right.

For perfect balance, Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the outside width of the rear ends of two harnessed and pulling war horses. (Two horse asses wide.)

Now, here’s the twist to the story.

When you saw a United States Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad in Florida, you noted the two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. Those were solid rocket boosters, or SRBs.

The SRBs were made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the Florida launch site.

The railroad line from the Utah factory happened to run through a tunnel in the mountains, and the SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is as wide as two horse behinds.

So, a major Space Shuttle design feature, of what was arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system, was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of horse asses.

And you thought being a horse’s ass wasn’t important?

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Kill Zoners — This chariot-becoming-shuttle story makes sense to me, but what doesn’t make sense (in a completely unrelated way) is why the common paper size we writers use is 8 ½ by 11 inches. Can anyone explain the reason or logic of this? (Wikipedia, Google, Quora, and/or ChatGPT cut ‘n pastes not allowed.) BTW, debunk the horse backside story if you’d like, but remember this is a writers’ site where girls just wanna have fun.