Reader Friday: Characters

Reader Friday: Characters

CharactersJD Robb has just published her 50th “In Death” book. The cast of characters has grown over time, but her two main characters, Eve and Roarke, have anchored every book. Other authors write multiple series featuring different characters, often those who have played secondary roles in previous books.

If you’re writing a series, do you get tired of the characters, or are they old friends? For recurring characters, how do you keep them fresh?

It’s Going DOWN The Volcano That Gets You

1Maui-IslandPardon my posting a tad late this morning. I’ve been on quite the journey the past couple of weeks. We were scheduled to go to Maui last month, and we did go–but not before 1) I developed a major flu-like illness,; 2) I developed a severe eye infection that kept me from seeing well, which caused me to 3) fall down a significant flight of stairs, which rendered me black and blue on the left side from head to toe.

It was the head part of the bruising which caused the most consternation, travel-wise. I was forced to wear a low-brimmed hat and sunglasses, otherwise I looked like a domestic abuse victim, and people would be shooting my husband suspicious glances. The facial bruising did come in handy a couple of times, however. When we checked into the Westin 1incognitshutterstock_192787424and were told all the ocean front rooms were booked, I removed my glasses, assumed maximum pathetic expression, and told them I was there to recover and I needed to spend the week looking out at the ocean. We were instantly upgraded to an ocean front suite. (Yes, I’m not above using whatever I can use to get what I want). We spent Thanksgiving seeing an awesome Elvis impersonator performance (he had an excellent voice and physical resemblance to Elvis, right down to the aging King’s paunch).


Brocken’s Ghost optical effect atop Maui’s volcano

1elvis20140605210535_1967757812_10611_9It turns out that Maui has some very posh urgent care facilities specifically for tourists, called Doctors on Call. I got to know the fine medical professionals there on a first name basis, especially after I made the insane decision to go up (and more importantly, down) the hair-raising ride to Maui’s volcano. The top of the that volcano is one of only three places on earth where you can see an optical effect known as the “Specter of the Brocken,”–which means, you can see your shadow cast on the clouds below, surrounded by a rainbow. (You can also occasionally catch a glimpse of the same effect from an airplane, when the plane casts its shadow on the clouds below. Look for it sometime.)  Seeing that view and surreal, moon-surface landscape was worth the trip, even if I had to pay for the trip by tossing my cookies nonstop for the next eight hours, until Doctors on Call reopened.

At some point during the trip I felt moved to look into the world of Hawaiian literature, which for practical reasons, includes book about Hawaii. I learned to my dismay that one of my oldie Nancy Drews, MYSTERY ON MAUI, is no longer available in hardback, only e-book now.) (Too bad, too–the hardcover had Nancy sporting a killer Babes On The Beach yellow bathing suit on the cover). Although there are wonderful books available by authors who are actually from Hawaii, my favorite book, and I believe still bestselling book of all time about those islands, remains HAWAII by James Michener. The book is episodic, with each chapter written from a different character’s point of view. The story culminates with a character the writer called “The Golden Man,” a person who is culturally and racially the result of the millenia of immigration to the islands. We met many such Golden People on our trip, 1MauiOceanCenterincluding the man who drove our bus on the volcano drive. He’d grown up in “old Hawaii,” part of a large family that made its living fishing and working in the sugar fields. After a stint in the Army, he’d been transporting tourists on that volcano drive for the past 25 years. And yet still he conveyed a sense of excitement as he described the Hawaiian culture, the history of the gods and tribes that founded human culture on the islands. He was able to convey the current challenges that Maui, and other islands face–threats to native wildlife by the encroachment of development, land prices that have risen from $100 per acre to $1 million in less than one person’s lifetime. Our driver was a mixture of native Hawaiian and some European background. That’s important in Hawaii, because you have to have a minimum percentage of “native” Hawaiian ethnic background in order to qualify for some generous educational and civic opportunities that were set up specifically for Hawaiians by one of the original island queens. Our bus guide was a perfect ambassador for educating visitors about the New Hawaii. I believe he may have been the embodiment of Michener’s “Golden Man.”1James-A.-Michener-Quotes-1

So, have you been traveling during the holidays? Enjoying life at home? Either way, what book or series best represents the place you’re visiting, or the place you call home?

Cast of Characters

Nancy J. Cohen

Do you include a Cast of Characters in your mystery novel? Is this a helpful item to readers? In my experience, some readers like to have this directory. It serves as a refresher or helps to explain the relationships among the story people. Others may view a long list of characters with trepidation. In a mystery, they feel the tale might have too many suspects to remember. So who do we please?

The other thing to consider is placement. If you list your characters in the front of a book, potential new readers who click on “Look Inside” at Amazon will lose a page of text that you could have there instead. Same goes for a Table of Contents. While it may be good to put these in the front of a print book, for a digital copy the opposite might be true. Should we consider putting them in the back where they won’t interfere with that critical first look?

Some authors include entire family trees along with their sagas. This can be helpful if you are writing a series with multiple generations. But what about a single title? Is listing the cast a desirable item?

In my online files, I differentiate between Continuing/Recurrent Characters and the current Cast. The latter includes my main characters and the suspects for this story only. It does not include recurrent secondary characters that only make brief appearances. Those people go on my private list of Continuing Characters. I suppose if your series gets very lengthy, you could insert a guide to all the characters in this particular universe, whether they have blood ties or not. This type of guide should definitely be part of the back bonus materials.

The Cast List that I include for each story is as brief as possible. You can include a teasing question about each suspect or just describe their straightforward role. Be careful not to include spoilers that give away a character’s secrets. There is a short CoC in Peril by Ponytail. Click on the Look Inside feature.

What do readers think?

One reviewer recently said about Peril by Ponytail: “I really liked that at the beginning of the book there was a ‘List of Characters’ outlining everyone within the context of the series.”

Then I asked these questions on my Facebook Page: Do you like a Cast of Characters in a mystery novel? Is it helpful or intimidating? Does it matter if the list is up front or in the back material?

Negative Responses:

“I don’t usually look if it’s included. I like to discover the characters as I read the book.”

“No. It makes it seem too theatrical, like I’m being told right from the start that this isn’t real.”

“I won’t look at it unless I’m having a hard time keeping characters straight or am having long lag times between reading and need a refresher.”

Positive Responses:

“Up front! It’s especially helpful if you haven’t read the previous books in the series.”

“I like it because it gives me a sense of place, especially with a new series. Also, if I get confused, I can go back to the list to figure out who’s who.”

“I like it, and I usually refer back to it as I read and come across each character. I like to know how they relate to each other.”

“If the book is a part of a series, the cast of characters can be very helpful if you didn’t start at the first of the series.”

“I like it if there are a lot of characters, of if you have a character who only appears a few times, several chapters apart. And put it in the front.”

“Up front! I recently read two mystery books that involved several guests at parties and a quick cast of characters guide would have helped.”

“I think it can be helpful if there are a lot of characters or if they have similar/unusual names. Also, no spoilers in the list.”

“I like it in the front. Sometimes new characters are hard to keep straight.”

“I like it at the front. That way I know it’s there if I need to refer back to it. I also love maps!”

“Up front. I always read it and I go back to refresh my memory on who a character is.”

“I like a CoC and a floor plan of the main character’s home.”

And More! This question garnered over 960 people reached. View it here:

As you see, it’s a mixed bag of responses, but the majority appears to be overwhelming in favor of including a list of characters in the front of a book. What is YOUR opinion?

How Should Characters Change?


Got an email from a writer which asked the following (used by permission):

Dear Mr. Bell,

Ok, so I’m big on stupid questions. I just had a thought as I was musing about my latest book. I know the main character has to change. That’s a big deal. But what about secondary characters? What about the bad guy? Do the secondary characters change, but less? or something… And I want the bad guy to go from neutral to really bad… Does that make sense? Not something I can google…

First off, that’s not a stupid question at all. In fact, it’s a great question with good instincts about the craft. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

The Main Character Can Change in Two Ways

In my book, Write Your Novel From the Middle, I explain that not all MCs have to change from one state of being to another. That kind of arc is, of course, common in fiction.

For example, Ebenezer Scrooge. He starts out as a misanthrope and ends up a generous, compassionate member of the community. Martin Riggs, the suicidal cop in Lethal Weapon, changes from self-destructive loner to close friend of his partner, Roger Murtaugh, and Murtaugh’s whole family.

This type of change comes only through the fire of Act II. A life lesson is learned. Now the MC is a new person with something of value for the community. As my friend Chris Vogler puts it, the hero returns home with an elixir: he has new wisdom and insight to share with his ordinary world.

Of course, as I also note, the MC can change in the opposite direction. Michael Corleone goes from a loyal American soldier to the soul-deadened Godfather of the Corleone family. That’s because in Act II his father is nearly killed by members of another crime family. At the crucial “mirror moment,” Michael realizes he’s the only one of the three brothers who actually knows how to exact revenge. Thus begins his negative slide.

In this type of large-scale change, the MC goes from pole to pole.

But that’s not always how a character changes. There’s another way. That’s when the MC retains the same basic nature, but grows stronger because of the life-and-death challenges of Act II.

An example is Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. He’s the same decent man at the end as he was at the beginning. But he has had to learn survival skills. He is forced to grow stronger because he was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. When he escapes from a prison bus, he has to stay alive and out of the law’s reach so he can find the real killer.Marge

Marge Gunderson, of Fargo, is the same decent, small town police woman at the end as at the start. But she has to ramp up her skills to bring a vile murderer and a devious scam artist to justice. This is not like the misdemeanors she’s used to!

So consider what kind of change your MC is going through: change of nature, or growing stronger?

Also consider this: A character can resist change. He can be “offered grace” (Flannery O’Connor’s term) but turn it down. That’s what makes for tragedy.

In Act IV of Othello, Emilia, Desdemona’s attendant (and, unfortunately, the wife of Iago) pleads Desdemona’s innocence to Othello in no uncertain terms. But when she exits, Othello mutters that she is a “subtle whore” and refuses to believe her. He kills his wife instead.

Finally, change can come too late, which is also tragic. Think Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.

Secondary Character Change

A powerful trope is the change of secondary characters, brought about by the courage and example of the MC.

JonesHere is where The Fugitive elevates above most action films. The opposition to Richard Kimble is Sam Gerard, the lawman played by Tommy Lee Jones. He makes it clear early on he has only one job: catch Kimble. When Kimble has a gun on him and insists he’s innocent, Gerard says, “I don’t care!” Because it’s not his job to care. At that point Kimble thinks, “Oh, crap” (my interpretation of Harrison Ford’s facial expression) and so he dives off that spillway and goes kersplash in the waters below.

But observing this, and other behaviors of Kimble––as well as seeing what a lousy job the Chicago cops did on the original investigation––Gerard does begin to care. Until, at the end, he helps Kimble get the real bad guy.

Another example is Louis, the corrupt French police captain in Casablanca. Watching how Rick gradually begins to take sides against the Nazis, Louis finally finds his conscience at the end, letting Rick off the hook for murdering Major Strasser. To the arriving police force Louis says, “Round up the usual suspects.” Not only that, Louis walks off with Rick to join the war effort. It is “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

This kind of change enhances the theme of a story. We like to see things like justice and honor prevail. When they do, it ought to be powerful enough to inspire secondary characters, too.

Bad Guy Going From Neutral to Worse

There is no reason at all you can’t show a villain growing more villainous as the story moves along. You can show this via parallel plotline from the villain’s POV, or you can utilize it as the “shadow story,” which I wrote about here. What happens off screen with the villain? How is he altering his plans, ignoring his conscience, falling further and further from his humanity? Give it some thought and weave that material into the narrative as you see fit.

A plot is about a character who uses strength of will against the forces of death––be they physical, professional, or psychological. No one goes through such a crucible without changing or becoming stronger.

It’s your job to show us the change and make us glad we stuck around for a whole book to see it.

What are some of your favorite examples of character change?


How to Show What Your Characters Think

homer-simpsons-155238_1280I love hanging out with writers. Who else can you talk to about such important matters as the possessive apostrophe, or whether to use semi-colons in fiction? (On this last one, I usually get pugnacious and am asked to leave the room).

So last week I’m at a conference and some colleagues and I are sitting around the breakfast table on morning when the subject of character thoughts comes up.

The short version of the issue is this: Is it unfashionable these days to use italics to show a character thinking?

This is the sort of question readers don’t care about, but which affects them. We as writers are always looking for the best ways to keep readers inside the “fictive dream.”

Traditionally, there have been two ways to show a character thinking. You either do it with italicized lines, or unitalicized with the added attribution he thought or she thought. Thus, you might have the following:

John walked into the room and saw Mary by the window. I wonder what she’s doing here, he thought. [Note how the thought itself is in a first person voice]

John walked into the room and saw Mary by the window. What was she doing here, he thought. [Note how the thought is now in a third person voice]

John walked into the room and saw Mary by the window. I wonder what she’s doing here?

You’ll sometimes hear talk about “deep POV,” which means we are so ensconced inside the viewpoint character’s head that italics or attributions are not necessary. I’m not a stickler on this. I don’t mind he thought or she thought on occasion, and don’t think readers even notice. But it’s worth, ahem, thinking about. If you’ve got a strong POV established, you can dispense with attributions and render the thought in a third- or first-person way:

She opened the door. Saw his body. Bullet holes all over him.
He deserved it, every bit of it.

She opened the door. Saw his body. Bullet holes all over him.
You deserve it, Frank, every bit of it.

On the matter of italics, it’s become something of a meme among writers and writing groups that italics are out of date. I think that’s mainly because italics can be abused. I’ve seen it done this way, and it always rubs me the wrong way:

  Rip looked at her with those cobalt blue eyes.
  Kiss me, kiss me now, oh please, I need to be kissed.
  “I like you, Dakota, I really do,” Rip said.
  If you like me, go for it, my lips are ready for yours.
  “Do you like me too?” Rip asked.
  Like you! Can’t you see it in my eyes? No, maybe he can’t, because my heart has been broken so much it has grown calluses and become a hard, unnatural thing. Oh, break my heart, please break, so that you melt and warm my eyes for him, so he will take me in his arms and give me the love I have been yearning for.
  “Yes,” Dakota said. “I like you.”

Now, I don’t mind a short, italicized thought when the emotions are running high. It’s sometimes the best way to render the emotional impact on a character without stopping the flow of the action. Thus:

   He shoved her to the ground. Searing pain ran up her elbow and exploded at the base of her neck. She wanted to call for help, but her mouth wouldn’t work. His laugh filled the void as he took off his mask.
Her former lover had…


   “I hope you’re happy,” Max said.
“Oh I am,” said Constance. “So, so happy. Especially since you had the liposuction.”
He laughed then. And it chilled her to the bone.
“Now,” he said, “we are going to make love.”
   Fat chance.

Sometimes, for stylistic reasons, you may want to try second person POV thoughts. Yes, that’s what I said. It works if the emotion is running high.

   He walked over to the window and looked at the street. A homeless guy was preaching to an invisible choir.
Well, this isn’t exactly what you wanted, is it? You wanted fame and fortune, and you got a cheap room in a crummy hotel, and you know you deserve it. Welcome to reality, pal. You done good, real good.

To sum up:

  1. Use italicized thoughts sparingly, if at all. Save them for short, intense thoughts.
  1. You don’t need italics, or he thought/she thought if the POV is deeply established.
  1. If the POV is deep, you don’t even need he thought/she thought. Use them on occasion if you wish, but also analyze your scene to see if you might do better without them.

So those are my thoughts on thoughts. What do you think about my thinking?


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,, her blog,, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.