How To Craft a Compelling Character

Last week, Sisters in Crime approached me to do a SINC-UP! video tip for their YouTube channel. Volunteers from the national education committee post video writing tips several times a month to provide inspiration for new writers and promote the value of Sisters in Crime membership. All the videos are only 2-5 minutes long and easily digestible.

I chose characterization. After we taped the video, the volunteer told me she finally understood why beta readers couldn’t connect with her main character. She’s not alone. Many new writers struggle with how to deepen their characters. After all, we can have the best concept, premise, and plot, but if readers can’t connect with our characters then the story won’t work.

How do we craft a compelling character?

It starts with three dimensions. We’re all layered. Who we portray to the world falls under the first dimension of character. That’s not to say we aren’t acting genuine, but when we are in a public setting we act appropriately—or we don’t, but that’s what you’ll have to figure out for your character.

  • Who is your character in public?
  • Do they put their best foot forward?
  • Or are they so uncomfortable in a public setting, they make a total fool of themselves?

Jotting down how your character might react in public places will help you nail down the first dimension.

The second dimension of character is the person we show to family and close friends. At home we let our guard down. We’re more relaxed, more ourselves. We don’t need to try to portray a certain image or level of professionalism because we’re surrounded by close friends and family.

  • How does your character react around close friends and family?
  • Are they goofballs?
  • The practical jokester?
  • More loving, more reserved?

The perfect real-life example of the first two dimensions of character is Richard Simmons. To the world he was a gregarious, loud, sensitive, and passionate workout guru who pranced around in flashy outfits, the more outrageous the better. Everyone loved him. He was so open, so seemingly transparent, even casual viewers of his workout videos felt they knew the real Richard Simmons. He was a shining light of inspiration to many over the years. When he disappeared from public view, the public feared the worst.

  • Did he die?
  • Is someone holding him hostage?
  • Is he being abused?

No one knew. One day he was performing for the camera, and the next day—gone. No explanation, no paparazzi photos, nothing. He vanished.

What very few knew in the decades that followed was that the Richard Simmons he portrayed to the world was who he longed to become. An alter ego, if you will. At home Richard was an extreme introvert, a recluse with only one or two close friends, a quiet, emotionally scarred, deep thinker who preferred the solace of silence—the polar opposite of who he was in public.

Richard Simmons is an extreme example of the first two dimensions of character but keep him in mind while crafting a new character.

The third dimension is our true character. And by that, I mean, if your character is sitting in a crowded theater when a fire breaks out, do they help others find the exit? Or do they trample the crowd to save themselves? One’s true character is tested when they’re put into perilous situations.

  • Who is your character then?
  • Are they the savior or the selfish?
  • Do they think they’re the savior but when trouble ensues, they run in the opposite direction?

Ask your significant other or best friend to describe who you are in public, who you are in private, and how that might differ. Unless you’ve been in a dangerous situation you may not even know your third dimension…until it’s tested. Then you’ll find out quick. 😉

Once you’ve mastered these three dimensions and have gotten to know your characters on a deeper level, then ask them questions like,

  • What’s your greatest passion?
  • What’s your favorite genre of music?
  • Do you travel?
  • What places have you gone?
  • How did each trip affect you?
  • What was your childhood like?
  • Are you an animal lover? (I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like animals)
  • Did you have a favorite childhood pet?
  • How did you feel when they died?
  • What type of things are on your bucket list?

The more questions you ask, the better you’ll get to know them.

Apply the same three dimensions to all your characters, even your villain. You need to know the villain as well as your main character. After all, the two characters should be equally matched. Thus, even if everything they stand for rubs against who you are as a person, you’ve gotta fight for them, win their arguments, understand why they do the things they do. Most villains don’t know they’re the bad guy. They’re on a mission to fulfill their goals, and you, as the writer, need to champion their efforts, especially if you plan to write from their point-of-view.

Do you concentrate on the three dimensions of character while crafting characters?

For those who struggle with characterization, did this help connect a few dots?

5 Similarities Between Your Hero and Villain 

In story terms, a villain is a person, entity, or force who is cruel, evil, or malicious enough to wish the protagonist harm. Rather than simply blocking a goal or interfering with the hero’s plan, a villain causes suffering, making it vital for them to be conquered by the protagonist. Clarice must find and defeat Buffalo Bill if she wants to rise above her past and become a great FBI agent (The Silence of the Lambs); Chief Brody must kill the man-eating shark to preserve his town (Jaws).  

Regardless of the form your villain takes, there are certain qualities that will make them formidable and credible—qualities and connections they share with the protagonist. Let’s explore these qualifications through a case study of Dr. Lawrence Myrick, played by Gene Hackman in the movie Extreme Measures 

VILLAINS, LIKE HEROES, LIVE BY A MORAL CODE  

It’s been said that the best villains don’t know they’re villains; they think they’re the hero of the story. And this is true because a well-crafted baddie has his own moral code. Compared to the protagonist’s, it’s twisted and corrupt, but it still provides guardrails that guide him through the story.  

Dr. Myrick is a renowned and brilliant neurosurgeon who has dedicated his life’s work to curing paralysis. It’s a noble cause that he believes in more than anything—not so much for himself but for all the paralyzed people in the world. This cause is so important that when he develops a treatment, he can’t wait decades for it to crawl through the testing process and eventually be approved. So he bypasses the animal testing phase and goes right to human trials. It’s kind of hard to find healthy subjects who are willing to take such a risk, so he kidnaps homeless people and confines them to his secret medical facility, then severs their spinal cords so he can test his treatment on them.  

To the rest of the world, this is unconscionable. But to Myrick, the end justifies the means. He’s perfectly okay stealing people, taking away their freedom and mobility, and subjecting them to countless medical cruelties. And if they reach a point of no longer being useful, he’s fine doing away with them because they’re people no one will miss. He actually views them as heroes, sacrificing themselves for the greater good. His morals are deranged, but they’re absolute, guiding his choices and actions. And when you know his code, while you don’t agree with it, you at least understand what’s driving him, and his actions make sense.  

When you’re planning your villain, explore their beliefs about right and wrong. Figure out their worldview and ideals. Specifically, see how the villain’s beliefs differ from the protagonist’s. This will show you the framework the villain is willing to work within, steer the conflict they generate, and provide a stark contrast to the hero.  

THEY HAVE A STORY GOAL, TOO  

Like the hero, the villain has an overall objective, and they’re willing to do anything within their moral code to achieve it. When their goal is diametrically opposed to the hero’s, the two become enemies in a situation where only one can succeed.  

We know Myrick’s goal: to cure paralysis. And things are progressing nicely until an ER doctor in his hospital discovers homeless patients disappearing from the facility. Dr. Lathan starts nosing around, and when he realizes someone is up to no good, it becomes his mission to stop them. So the two are pitted against each other. If one succeeds, the other must fail. To quote Highlander: there can only be one.  

As the author who has spirited the villain out of your own (dare we say twisted?) imagination, you need to know their goal. It should be as clear-cut and obvious as the hero’s objective. Does it put them in opposition to the protagonist? Ideally, both characters’ goals should block each other from getting what they want and need.  

VILLAINS ARE WELL-ROUNDED  

Because villains are typically evil, it’s easy to fill them up with flaws and forget the positive traits. But good guys aren’t all good and bad guys aren’t all bad, and characters written this way have as much substance as the flimsy cardboard they’re made of. Myrick is cruel, unfeeling, and devious. But he’s also intelligent, generous, and absolutely dedicated to curing a devastating malady that afflicts the lives of many.  

Positive traits add authenticity for the villain while making them intimidating and harder to defeat. An added bonus is when their strength counters the hero’s.  

The villain of Watership Down is General Woundwort, a nasty rabbit whose positive attributes are brute strength and sheer force of will, making him more man than animal. In contrast, hero Hazel embodies what it means to be a rabbit. He’s swift and clever. He knows who he is and embraces what makes him him. In the end, Hazel and his rabbits overcome a seemingly undefeatable enemy by being true to their nature.  

When your villain is conceived and begins to grow in the amniotic fluid of your imagination, be sure to give him some positive traits along with the negative ones. Not only will you make him an enemy worthy of your hero, he’ll also be one readers will remember.  

THEY HAVE A BACKSTORY (AND YOU KNOW WHAT IT IS)  

Authors know how important it is to dig into their protagonist’s backstory and have a strong grasp of how it has impacted that character. Yet one of the biggest mistakes we make with villains is not giving them their own origin story. A character who is evil with no real reason behind their actions or motivations isn’t realistic, making them stereotypical and a bit…meh.  

To avoid this trap, know your villain’s beginnings. Why are they the way they are? What trauma, genetics, or negative influencers have molded them into their current state? Why are they pursuing their goal—what basic human need is lacking that achieving the goal will satisfy? The planning and research for this kind of character is significant, but it will pay off in the form of a memorable and one-of-a-kind villain who will give your hero a run for his money and intrigue readers.  

THEY SHARE A CONNECTION WITH THE PROTAGONIST  

In real life, we have many adversaries. Some of them are distant—the offensive driver on the highway or that self-serving, flip-flopping politician you foolishly voted for. Those adversaries can create problems for us, but the ones that do the most damage—the ones we find hardest to confront—are those we share a connection with. Parents, siblings, exes, neighbors we see every day, competitors we both admire and envy, people we don’t like who are similar to us in some way…conflicts with these people are complicated because of the emotions they stir up.  

The same is true for our protagonists. The most meaningful clashes will be with the people they know. Use this to your advantage. Bring the villain in close and make things personal by engineering a connection between the two characters. Here are a few options for you to work with.  

  • Give Them a Shared History. The more history the two have, the more emotion will be involved. Guilt, rage, grief, fear, jealousy, regret, desire—strong feelings like these will add sparks to their interactions. They’ll cloud the protagonist’s judgment and increase the chances their villain will gain an edge.  
  • Make Them Reflections of Each Other. What happens when the protagonist sees him or herself in the villain? A seed of empathy forms. The hero feels a connection with the person they have to destroy, which complicates things immensely. Personality traits, flaws, vulnerabilities, wounding events, needs and desires—all of these (and more) can be used to forge a bond that will add complexity and depth to this important relationship.  
  • Give Them a Shared Goal. When your hero and your villain are pursuing the same objective, it accomplishes a number of good things. First, it ensures that only one of them can be the victor, pitting them against each other. But they’re also more likely to understand one another. They’ll have different reasons and methods of chasing the dream, but the shared goal can create an emotional connection.  

As you can see, a lot goes into creating an enemy that is realistic, complete, and worthy of holding the title of villain in your story. When you’re drawing this character, give them the same thought and effort you’d put into your hero, and you’ll end up with a villain that will enhance your story, intrigue readers, and give the hero a run for their money.  

Want to take your conflict further? The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1 & Volume 2) explores a whopping 225 conflict scenarios that force your character to navigate relationship issues, power struggles, lost advantages, dangers and threats, moral dilemmas, failures and mistakes, and much more! 

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her books have sold over 900,000 copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online resource for authors that’s home to the Character Builder and Storyteller’s Roadmap tools.

 

Telepathy and Writing

Deep down each of us have a strong but underused connection to the world around us.

Consider the time when you sensed someone watching you, even if you couldn’t see them. Or the gut feeling, telling you something significant was about to happen. Or the intuitive, instinctive feeling that gave you the name of the person on the other end of the line before checking the caller ID.

If we learn how to tap into this sixth sense, we begin to notice when someone—dead or alive—is thinking about us, even when we’re physically apart.

Telepathic communication explains why, when you randomly thought of a friend and she texted you the next day. Or that time when you spontaneously called your third cousin, and he said, “Oh em gee, I was just thinking about you!”

Writers are especially attuned to the “little voice” inside us.

Some are more intuitive than others, but we all have an underutilized sixth sense. Once we learn its power and how to use it, new doorways open up, doorways that enhance our writing.

The more we open up to the possibility of telepathy, the more we’ll start to notice the messages from our spirit guides and ancestors, and the synchronicities or coincidences that have always been present in our lives.

The Natural World thrives on telepathic communication.

An animal’s survival depends on it. If you’ve ever wondered how one species warns another about potential threats, telepathy answers this question. And humans — as members of the Natural World — can tap into that same energy.

The notion of telepathic communication first intrigued me as a way to chat with animals, wild and domestic. Because when we watch and listen to animals, they help us reach our full potential. Animals enrich the mind, body, and soul. They’re sentient, intuitive beings who communicate with us in many ways. Body language, vocals, and telepathy, whether we’re cognizant of it or not.

Think about this: Most animals know more about their environment than you or I ever will.

An intuitive exchange with any animal — cats, dogs, guinea pigs, crows — begins the same way. First, with physical body cues. Then with the silent language of love.

So, how can we telepathically communicate with animals?

Step 1: Rest your hands over your heart and practice deep breathing exercises.

Step 2: Once you’re relaxed, pay attention to your heart, to your soul, and feel the gravity of your love for the animal.

Step 3: Express your love for that animal by visualizing a soft beam of light, a tether connecting the two of you.

Step 4: Silently or vocally ask the animal for permission to telepathically communicate with them.

Step 5: If you don’t sense any reluctance, express how you’re open to receiving messages in return. Keep it light in the beginning and progress deeper once you build trust, confidence, and strengthen your bond.

Keep in mind, animals live in the moment. They’re not distracted by the phone, the to-do list, or regret. And so, you must also be in the present moment to connect with them.

The only obstacle is you.

Trust the flow, the energetic pulse of life. Align with, not against, this flow. By blocking out all distractions, the energy exchanges between you and animals will occur effortlessly. You are in the present, anchored by love and grace, and coming from a place of neutrality. You are part of the Natural World, connected across space and time.

The same principals apply to human-to-human telepathic communication. Both parties must be willing participants. Don’t use this life skill for evil (unless you’re targeting fictional characters).

Remember These Three Simple Truths

  1. We are all part of divine consciousness.
  2. Love creates alignment with all creation.
  3. We all have the ability to listen with our heart.

When we refocus on lowering the frequency of emotions — fear, self-doubt, anxiety — we raise our cognition, enhance the vibration of our energy, we align with nature. Animals are drawn to bright inner lights, and therefore will be enthusiastic about communicating with you.

That’s all well and good, Sue, but how does that help our writing?

Glad you asked. 😉

In On Writing, Stephen King provides the perfect example of telepathy and writing.

“Telepathy, of course. It’s amusing when you stop to think about it—for years people have argued about whether or not such a thing exists—and all the time it’s been right there, lying out in the open like Mr. Poe’s The Purloined Letter. All the arts depend on telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.”

What does the quote mean?

The best way to think about writing is the process of transferring a mental image from your mind to the mind of a reader. As writers, we envision scenes, settings, characters, etc. Our job is to transfer that mental image to the page for the reader to experience later.

Sounds a lot like telepathy, doesn’t it? Because it is!

Hence why writing coaches tell us to envision our ideal reader, carrying that image with us while writing. The trick is learning what images to include and what to leave out. Hint: Less is more.

Want to hear something bizarre?

While writing this post in Word, the document kept disappearing. One second it’d be on my screen, gone the next. And I had three other documents open at the time. The other two stayed on the screen. Coincidence? You tell me.

Releases tomorrow! Preorder on Amazon for $1.49 before my publisher raises the price.

She may be paranoid, but is she right?

A string of gruesome murders rocks the small town of Alexandria, New Hampshire, with all the victims staged to resemble dead angels, and strange red and pink balloons appearing out of nowhere.

All the clues point to the Romeo Killer’s return. Except one: he died eight years ago.

Paranoid and on edge, Sage’s theory makes no sense. Dead serial killers don’t rise from the grave. Yet she swears he’s here, hungering for the only angel to slip through his grasp—Sage.

With only hours left to live, how can Sage convince her Sheriff husband before the sand in her hourglass runs out?

 

 

 

First Page Critique: My Girl is a Dog

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. See ya on the flip-side.

Title: My Girl is a Dog

Genre: Mystery/Thriller 

CHAPTER ONE

A Sunday morning on a snow-covered mountain trail, as I walked and dwelled on past sins and future amends, Girl hunted.

An old navy peacoat and flannel-lined jeans kept me warm. Girl always has her malamute-shepherd thick coat of hair.

Between her forays into the pines in search of prey, we played her favorite winter game: dig into a snowbank to follow my scent and retrieve snowballs. Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills.

When I threw another snowball, she veered away, dug deep into a different snowbank, and returned with a ski glove clamped in her mouth.

“Smart dog. Someone lost their glove. Let’s go. We’re short on time; things to do at the store today.” I wedged the glove in a pine tree branch and headed toward a meadow where animal tracks crisscross the snow and Girl runs in circles.

But her guttural vocals, dog-talk I call it, told me to turn around.

“What’s wrong?”

I followed her to the hole she dug, expecting to find another glove. Girl once found a purse buried in the snow; instead of a glove or purse, I saw a bare hand and forearm: black hair and white skin. I wondered if Girl pulled the ski glove off the hand as I touched the wrist—thick and cold—no pulse. After clearing more snow, I uncovered a shoulder tattooed in cursive: SEXUEL TABOU.

I brushed snow off the face: a mustached man, a stranger. And I wondered if what the tattoo implied tied to his being dead, at least half-naked, and buried in the snow.

My breath clouded in the frigid air as I pulled out my cellphone—no signal. I needed to call 911 from the truck.

A stark, contrasting memory of the last pulse I checked—five years ago, an unconscious man prone on a Mexican dive bar floor after he cut me with a knife and I busted a beer bottle over his head and held the jagged edge to his throat—accompanied me down the snow-covered trail.

I checked that guy’s pulse out of self-interest to ensure I hadn’t killed him. Then I walked out of the bar into a dusty street under a hot-as-hell sun and onto a bus heading out of town, leaving a job as a deckhand on a sportfishing boat without notice or collecting pay. Better than getting locked up again.

***

Brave Writer, we have a little colon/semicolon problem that needs to be addressed. With a few rare exceptions, they’re not necessary in fiction. If you pretend they don’t exist, you won’t use them as a crutch. That’s not a dig, btw. There isn’t a writer alive who doesn’t have crutch words, phrases, or punctuation they fall back on. The trick is learning our crutches so we can kill our darlings during edits.

Let’s dive right in…

A Sunday morning on a snow-covered mountain trail (Is the day of the week important? If it is, fine. If it isn’t, delete), as I walked (use a stronger verb. Hiked?) and dwelled on past sins and future amends, [my dog] Girl hunted. Added “my dog” for clarity.

An old navy peacoat and flannel-lined jeans kept me warm. Girl [had a] always has her malamute-shepherd thick coat of hair.

Between her forays into the pines in search of prey, we played her favorite winter game: (change colon to em dash) dig into a snowbank to follow my scent and retrieve snowballs. Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills. <–  Here’s your opening line.

When I threw another snowball, she veered away, dug deep into a different snowbank, and returned with a ski glove clamped in her mouth.

Condense all of the above, like this…

My dog Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills.

On the snowy hiking trail of Mount Whatever, Girl slalomed around pine trees in search of prey. I threw a snowball for her to fetch, but she returned with a ski glove instead.

“Smart dog. Someone lost their glove. Let’s go. We’re short on time; things to do at the store today.”

With only a pet character to chat with, be careful your dialogue doesn’t become too on-the-nose. Less is more. Example: “Huh. That’s odd. Somebody must be looking for it.”

I wedged the glove between two in a pine tree branches and headed (be precise. Hiked, clomped, plodded, lumbered, strode…) toward a meadow where animal tracks crisscrossed the snow and Girl runs ran in circles (if she’s running in circles, she’s not digging a hole, yet you say she dug a hole three lines below. Easy fix. End the sentence after “snow”).

But her Girl’s guttural vocals, dog-talk I called it, told (alerted?) me to turn around.

“What’s wrong?”

Girl bounced on her front paws, then took off, glancing over her shoulder every few seconds to ensure I followed (to give her some personality).

I followed her to the hole she dug, expecting to find another glove. Girl once found a purse buried in the snow.; instead of a glove or purse, I saw (saw is a telling word. Start the paragraph here –>) A bare hand and forearm protruded from a snowbank.: (lose the colons and semi-colons) Black hair, pale and white skin. I wondered (wondered is also a telling word. Rewrite into a question.) Did Girl pull the ski glove off the hand? as I touched the wrist—thick and cold—no pulse. (<– Nice!) After clearing more snow, I uncovered a shoulder tattooed in cursive.:  Rather than that pesky colon, set the next line apart like this…

SEXUEL TABOU. (Do you mean Sexual? Also, don’t change fonts. Use italics instead.)

I brushed snow off the face: (you’re killing me with these colons!) a mustached man, a stranger. And I wondered (rewrite into a question to remove “wondered”) if what the tattoo implied tied to his being dead, at least half-naked, and buried in the snow.

Why would the MC assume the tattoo and his death are related? If it is a clue, don’t tell us yet. Let the reader wonder if there’s a connection and move on. Later, the MC can circle back to this clue. For more on how to use misdirection, read this post.

My breath clouded in the frigid air (<– great imagery) as I pulled out my cellphone—no signal. I needed to call 911 from the truck.

A stark, contrasting memory (reminder?) of the last pulse I checked. (Don’t use an em dash here. It muddies the sentence.) Five years ago, an unconscious man lay prone (you know prone means facedown, right?) on a Mexican dive bar floor after he cut me with a knife. (This paragraph and ones after it can all be summed up in two sentences. Otherwise, it’s a flashback, and it’s much too early for a flashback.) He’s the reason I left a good-paying job and fled to [insert where we are]. Better than getting locked up. Again (I separated Again into a staccato to give it a little added punch, but it’s also fine as one sentence).

Hope I wasn’t too hard on you, Brave Writer. My only goal is to help you succeed. Once you clean up the few issues I mentioned, you’ll have a compelling storyline. I’d flip the page to find out what happens next. Best of luck, Brave Writer!

Favorite line: My breath clouded in the frigid air…

TKZers, please add your suggestions/comments.

What do you think of the title? Would you turn the page?

What Writers Can Learn from I Was Prey

Please excuse my absence over the last 7-10 days while I was on deadline. I’m usually a better multitasker. *sigh*

Every once in a while, a TV show comes along that’s a goldmine for writers. I Was Prey is that type of series.

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, each episode recounts the hauntingly true stories of people who found themselves in a life-or-death struggle with a dangerous animal. Whoever puts these shows together knows story structure, because each episode grips you, holds interest, and keeps you watching. It’s like a car crash. You cannot look away.

The benefit for writers comes through observation.

As each victim recounts their harrowing tale, watch their facial expressions, their involuntary tics and body movements. Listen to the inflection of their voice. It’s all real, raw emotion. These victims carry lifelong emotional and physical scars.

The grizzly bear and hippo attacks are my favorite. Not because I enjoy watching people fall prey to these animals, but because of their reaction to the animal’s power and strength. And we can use that to our advantage. The shock when they first encounter the animal, and what that looks like as they relive the moment on screen. More importantly, how they felt at the time.

Stories thrive on emotion.

It’s how we breathe life into characters.

By studying real people in dangerous situations, we can then transfer that emotion to our characters. It’s especially helpful for the young writer who has never experienced trauma, thus has an empty well of emotional upheaval to dip into.

Emotions add to the credibility of the story.

In a much-cited experiment, researchers showed several versions of the story of a father whose son is dying of cancer. The goal was to encourage listeners to donate money to charity. The versions of the story that emphasized statistics yielded the least donations. Versions focusing on the father’s feelings for his son’s condition gained the most.

Surprising? Not really. When we connect on an emotional level, we react.

Emotionally infused messages are more memorable.

Researchers have also shown how compelling stories boost hormones, oxytocin and cortisol. These hormones help us forge powerful connections. Stories that unlock strong emotions linger in a reader’s mind.

Evocative storytelling overcomes objections.

If we focus on “Just the facts, Jack,” the reader can experience analysis paralysis. Hence why there’s a fine art to weaving in research. Emotion allows readers to mark choices as good, bad, or indifferent, which in turn allows them to move beyond objections.

Emotional narratives inspire change.

For centuries we’ve told stories around the campfire. We’re wired to respond to traditional narrative structures. And so, emotion encourages empathy (say that five times fast). That emotional connection grounds the reader in the scene. Because they’ve been transported into the story, rather than merely reading words on a page, we’ve changed their mindset. Whether it’s temporary or permanent depends on the story.

A vivid, emotional story packs an extra punch and feels more real, more important. If you look back through times at moments when somebody’s beliefs changed, it’s often because of a story that hit home.

Emotion encourages word of mouth.

Emotion begets emotion. Readers who are moved by a story are more likely to recommend the book to friends, family, coworkers. They may even sing the author’s praises online.

Visceral emotion commands attention and creates a shared experience between character and reader.

Don’t tell the reader how the character feels. Show them through body cues, dialogue—external and internal—and unspoken truths. By doing so, the reader bonds with the characters.

Have you ever seen I Was Prey? Any suggestions for other documentary-style shows that writers can benefit from?

Tips to Deceive Characters and Readers

Fictional truth is never quite as clear as it seems on the surface. Deceptiveness boils down to manipulation, disguise, and misdirection. The writer can deceive characters and readers in numerous ways.

A villain might murder another character, then lie to avoid detection. This leads to more lies, more misdirection, and deepening deceptions, creating tension and conflict.

What if the main character lies to themselves about who they are or their current circumstances? Because the truth may be too difficult to accept, the charade continues. One of the most widely known examples is The Sixth Sense.

*Spoiler Alert*

Dr. Malcom Crowe, played by Bruce Willis, could not accept the fact that he died from a fatal gunshot wound. He was an unreliable character from the start of the movie, but viewers didn’t know it. Because he couldn’t accept his fate, he fooled himself into believing he survived. Thus, we believed. In hindsight, we can see where the writer dropped clues. At the time, though, most viewers didn’t catch any hints the first time they watched the movie.

Creating an unreliable narrator takes a skilled hand.

Fail, and the reader feels tricked. Succeed, and reap the rewards.

The one advantage we have is that trust is often automatic. Because narrators act as our guide, deception isn’t something readers expect. Trust is woven into the fabric of our lives. Thus, we often take it for granted.

  • When we slip behind the steering wheel or into the passenger seat, we trust the wheels will stay bolted to the car.
  • When we eat at a restaurant, we trust we won’t get food poisoning.
  • When we crawl under the covers at night, we trust the legs won’t snap off the bed.

This presumed trust is why and how authors can manipulate readers. It’s reasonable to presume we can trust the main character. And so, we do. Should we, though? No narrator is 100% reliable. Stories that force us to question our own perception are often compelling page-turners, unputdownable, and unforgettable.

Deception can occur anywhere.

We tend to first think of antagonists who are manipulative and deceptive, but heroes can deceive, too. In fact, even secondary characters are capable of deception.

What if a main character lies to protect a child?

What if a foil thrives on deceit? Or it only appears like they thrive on chaos when in truth, they’re hiding a secret? The higher the stakes, the more they’ll lie to protect it.

What if a character believes they’re right? They genuinely want to help and don’t mean to misdirect the detective. I’m talkin’ about eyewitnesses to a crime.

Think about this…

We each view the world through a filter of our past experiences, emotional baggage, scars we carry, profession—past or present—worldview, religion, politics, the list goes on and on.

For example:

When I look at an old mighty oak tree, I see a living, breathing being who’s survived for decades, maybe even hundreds of years, and has provided housing and comfort to thousands of animals. And I think, Imagine the stories it can tell.

Someone else might only see firewood.

Neither view is wrong. We’re admiring the tree through different lenses.

Psychologists refer to this as the Rashomon effect, also known as the Kurosawa effect.

This refers to a phenomenon wherein the same event is interpreted in vastly different ways by different people. The Rashomon effect is named after the popular 1950 Akira Kurosawa movie Rashomon in which a murder is described in four different ways by four different witnesses of the same crime. It is often used to emphasize the point that people’s perceptions about an event can differ considerably based on their individual personal experiences.

Thus, it is entirely possible that an event may be described in different ways by different people without any of the witnesses consciously lying.

The same holds true for our characters. And that’s where the fine art of deception comes into play. If we stay true to our character, deception could be automatic. The reader might not catch on right away, but once the truth unravels it’ll make perfect sense. Why? Because they’ve come to know how the character views the world.

Another way to show a character disguising their actions, emotions, or a secret, is through subtle clues.

Subtle clues of how characters behave can tell the reader a lot about them. Imagine people in real life when they’re not being completely honest. How they act and react say a lot about who they are. Characteristics can also show the reader a character might be deceptive—things like suspicious behavior, not wishing to engage with others, indecisiveness, or apprehension.

Dialogue is another way for writers to manipulate the reader. What characters say—and don’t say—can show a character acting evasive or blatantly lying. Tone of voice also disguises the truth, as does ambiguity.

Symbolism and atmosphere can reinforce a specific message, feeling, or idea. If you look at the setting and the character’s state of mind, think about what you want the reader to see. Is there a symbol or setting that might help foreshadow the truth or reinforce the deception?

For example, the following foreshadows danger:

  • Mirages
  • Heat waves
  • Venomous snakes
  • Fog
  • Poisonous plants

Symbols of triumph and joy:

  • Breathtaking sunrise
  • Rainbow
  • Four-leaf clover
  • Butterfly
  • Cardinal

Both these lists are so common they’ve become cliche, but we can use that to our advantage. What if you took a symbol that commonly brings joy and flipped the script? Now, the reader will no longer be able to trust their own instincts. You’re toying with their perception. Thus, able to deceive.

These are just a few ways to create deception. The possibilities are endless.

What are some ways you’ve deceived a character and/or the reader? Or name a favorite author/novel that hoodwinked you.

What Writers Can Learn from Animal Communication

Zoosemiotics is the study of animal communication, and it’s played an important role in the development of ethology, sociobiology, and the study of animal cognition. Writers can also learn from zoosemiotics. Think characterization and scene enhancement.

In the animal kingdom, the sender and receiver of communication may be part of the same species or from different species. Crows, for example, warn the chippies, squirrels, and numerous small birds when dangerous predators are in the area. They do this with a vocal alarm, and every animal pays attention. When crows are around good people and animals they’re comfortable with, they blink several times per minute and have a relaxed, roaming gaze. If a predator prowls or coasts into their domain, their unblinking, hard stare at the threat warns other wildlife in the area.

Warning Coloration

In species such as wasps that are capable of harming potential predators, they’re often brightly colored, and this modifies the behavior of the predator who either instinctively knows to be wary or has learned to use caution through past experiences. Some forms of mimicry fall in the same category. For example, hoverflies have similar coloring to wasps. Although they’re unable to sting, wasps avoid them.

Coloration changes in characters include reddening or flushed neck and/or face (anger or embarrassment) or the lack of color i.e., pale (fear, anxiety, or nervousness).

Behavioral Changes

Canines such as wolves and coyotes may adopt an aggressive posture, such as growling, head leveling, or baring teeth to warn a potential predator to stay back, that if they approach, the canine is ready and able to fight. Rattlesnakes use their telltale rattle—it means, if you come near me, I will strike. Certain amphibians with a bright colored belly and a back that blends into the environment, flash their belly when confronted by a potential threat, indicating they are poisonous in some way.

Behavioral changes in characters include a snarled lip, clenched fists, pitching forward, or lunging at the threat (anger), mouth dryness, licking lips, avoiding eye contact, clenched hands/arms, jerky steps, fidgeting, defensive posture (fear, anxiety, or nervousness), slumped shoulders, tears, flat speech (sadness), raised eyebrows, eyes widening, slacked jaw (surprise), open body language, smiling (happiness) etc.…

Stotting

An example of prey to predator communication is stotting, a highly noticeable form of running shown by some antelopes such as a Thomson’s gazelle. Stotting indicates the animal is healthy and fit, thus not worth pursuing.

Stotting behavior in characters: Think about the difference between jogging and running for your life. The feet may be sloppy or the character zigzags, trips, or falls (fear).

Predator to Prey

Some predators communicate to prey in ways that change their behavior. The deception makes them easier to catch. Take, for example, the angler fish. Fleshy growth protruding from its forehead dangles in front of its jaws. Smaller fish try to take the lure, thereby positioning themselves directly in front of the angler fish’s mouth.

Describing deceptiveness in characters would take an entire post, but you get the picture. 😉

Human & Animal Communication

We are all part of the Natural World. Various ways in which humans interpret the behavior of domestic animals and/or wildlife fit the definition of interspecific communication. Although dogs can use vocal communication, they mainly display nonverbal communication through the use of body language, such as tail carriage and motion, ear and eye position, body position and movement, and facial expressions. Recognizing the correct nonverbal cue will help decipher what the dog is telling us.

More character nonverbal cues include sweating, trembling, damp eyes, muscles tensing, crossed arms or the drawing in of limbs, the body recoiling (fear, anxiety, nervousness), sudden backward movement (surprise), relaxation of muscles (happiness), etc….

While observing a dog’s body language it’s crucial to observe the entire dog, as well as the situation or context. For example, a dog’s wagging tail does not always mean Fido’s happy. A tail in motion is often noticed first, but the rest of the dog is board-stiff, and the ears are back and the dog’s in a couched position, the full picture tells you Fido’s not happy with the situation.

5 Common Groups of Canine Signals

Keep in mind, a dog could use more than one response at a time. Hence why it’s important to analyze the entire dog, not just one body cue (the same applies to characters).

Fido may start with a display of excitement, then decide the stimuli is a threat and switch to aggressive posturing, or send fear signals, or both.

As we review each group, notice the similarities to us (characters).

Fearful Communication

When a dog is frightened, he’s likely to react with his whole body. He may lick his lips, yawn, keep his mouth tightly closed, cower or lower his body, lower or tuck his tail, or flatten his ears. He may also tremble or shake, avoid eye contact, or lean back to avoid the frightening stimulus.

The body language may be a combination of several signals and/or may appear as a progression through these signals as the dog’s response intensifies. Sometimes, the complete absence of active signals can speak volumes. A dog that won’t eat food or treats, is avoiding people when they approach, or freezes when someone reaches for him—a “shut down” appearance—is demonstrating fear. Sadly, we often see this behavior in shelters if the dog doesn’t get adopted. Shelter dogs also may display high arousal or excitement.

Arousal Communication

The arousal in shelter dogs could be due to many factors, including age, confinement, lack of physical and/or mental outlets, and personality. An arousal/excitement response could indicate joy directed at a certain person, another dog, or toy. If the context is a favorable one, the dog should have soft, relaxed body and eyes and mouth, along with a wagging tail that jumps for attention. He may also play-bow—rear end in the air, front end lowered—to demonstrate excitement. Other cues are jumping, mounting, and mouthing. Mouthing should be soft (no teeth).

Arousal behaviors can also be directed at unfavorable stimuli, such as an unwanted human, animal, or situation. Arousal signals in this context may be coupled with fear signals, such as trembling or a low/tucked tail. Or the arousal signals are paired with aggression—barking, lunging, anxious pacing or spinning, or biting of leash, clothing, or the unfavorable stimuli. The dog’s fur can pilo-erect (hackle), his ears bent forward or at attention, his stance upward and erect. The tail is often up and wagging stiffly, and the eyes are wide-open and focused on the target. He could also bark, growl, and/or lunge.

Anxious Communication

If a dog becomes stressed, he may exhibit excessive panting, pacing, and lack of focus. Similar body language to a fearful dog, when in reality, he’s filled with anxiety. Which is why context is key. A dog that jumps at the kennel door as a person approaches is displaying arousal/excitement. Whereas a dog bounding off the side walls of the kennel displays anxious communication signals.

Aggressive Communication

Aggression is a normal and natural behavior in animals, triggered by a perceived threat. Aggressive vocalizations and body posturing are warning signals.

In dogs, we understand aggression through body language that includes stiffening or freezing, eyes wide with the whites visible (called whale eye), tense mouth or curled lips, wrinkled nose, bared teeth, barking, growling, and air snapping.

Relaxed Communication

We all love dogs in a relaxed position, like he doesn’t have a care in the world. Mouth relaxed, lips slightly parted. A smiling appearance. Head and ears relaxed in a neutral position, body loose, eyes soft. His tail may be swishing back and forth, or even wagging in a circular motion. My favorite is when a dog’s lying in the frog-leg position. Those froggy legs are hard to resist!

Over to you, TKZers! You may be using animal communication and not realize it, because many behaviors are similar to our own body language. If you’d like to give an example from your WIP, go for it. Otherwise, please include different animals and how they communicate.

 

 

MS Word Keyboard Shortcuts

Whether you’re working today, grillin’, or hanging poolside, Happy Memorial Day! For those outside the U.S. a belated but heartfelt Happy Remembrance Day!

I hope the following shortcuts will help save you productivity time when you return to the keyboard. I’ve broken the keystrokes into two sections — Windows and Mac — to act as a quick and easy reference guide.

Please note: Today is all about MS Word. For other shortcuts, such as inserting advanced symbols/characters, WordPress, or YouTube, see Writing Hacks: Keyboard Shortcuts. Please ignore my wonky columns. 😉

COMPOSING & EDITING                          WINDOWS                MAC

 

Create a new document                              Ctrl-N                          ⌘-N

Open document                                          Ctrl-O                         ⌘-O

Save document                                           Ctrl-S                         ⌘-S

Open “Save As”                                           F12                            ⌘-Shift-S

Close document                                          Ctrl-W                        ⌘-W

Print document                                            Ctrl-P                         ⌘-P

Select All                                                     Ctrl-A                         ⌘-A

Copy to clipboard                                        Ctrl-C                         ⌘-C or F3

Paste from clipboard                                    Ctrl-V                          ⌘-V or F4

Delete selection & copy to clipboard             Ctrl-X                          ⌘-X or F2

Undo last action                                           Ctrl-Z                         ⌘-Z or F1

Redo last action                                           Ctrl-Y                         ⌘-Y

Add comment                                             Ctrl-Alt-M                    ⌘-Option-A

Turn revision tracking on/off                          Ctrl-Shift-E                  ⌘-Shift-E

Run spelling/grammar check                        F7                              ⌘-Option-L or F7

 

TEXT FORMATTING

 

Bold                                                         Ctrl-B                         ⌘-B

Italics                                                        Ctrl-I                           ⌘-I

Underline                                                  Ctrl-U                         ⌘-U

Double underline                                       Ctrl-Shift-D                 ⌘-Shift-D

Underline words, not spaces                     Ctrl-Shift-W                ⌘-Shift-W

Strikethrough text                                       Alt-H, 4                     ⌘-Shift-X

All caps                                                     Ctrl-Shift-A                ⌘-Shift-A

Superscript text                                         Ctrl-Shift-+                 ⌘-Shift-+

Subscript text                                             Ctrl-=                        ⌘-=

Increase font size                                        Ctrl-Shift->                ⌘-Shift->

Decrease font size                                      Ctrl-Shift-<                ⌘-Shift-<

Insert hyperlink                                           Ctrl-K                        ⌘-K

Open font dialog box                                  Ctrl-D                        ⌘-D

or Ctrl-Shift-F

PARAGRAPH FORMATTING

Left-align text                                              Ctrl-L                          ⌘-L

Right-align text                                            Ctrl-R                         ⌘-R

Center-align text                                         Ctrl-E                          ⌘-E

Justify text                                                  Ctrl-J                          ⌘-J

Indent paragraph                                        Ctrl-M                         Ctrl-Shift-M

Remove indentation                                   Ctrl-Shift-M                 ⌘-Shift-M

Change to single spaced                           Ctrl-1                          ⌘-1

Change to double spaced                          Ctrl-2                          ⌘-2

Change to 1.5 spaced                               Ctrl-5                          ⌘-5

Remove paragraph formatting                     Ctrl-Q

Open Apply Styles task pane                     Ctrl-Shift-S

Open Styles pane                                     Ctrl-Alt-Shift-S              ⌘-Option-Shift-S

DOCUMENT NAVIGATION & VIEWS

Move up one paragraph                           Ctrl-Up arrow            ⌘-Up arrow

Move down one paragraph                       Ctrl-Down arrow       ⌘-Down arrow

Move right one word                                 Ctrl-Right arrow        ⌘-Right arrow

Move left one word                                   Ctrl-Left arrow          ⌘-Left arrow

Move to top of document                          Ctrl-Home                ⌘-Home or ⌘-Fn-Left arrow

Move to bottom of document                    Ctrl-End                    ⌘-End or ⌘-Fn-Right arrow

Go to dialog box                                       Ctrl-G or F5              ⌘-Option-G or F5

Switch among last four places in doc        Ctrl-Alt-Z

Switch to Print Layout                               Ctrl-Alt-P

Switch to Outline View                              Ctrl-Alt-O

Switch to Draft View                                  Ctrl-Alt-N

Switch to Read Mode View                        Alt-W,F

Split document window/remove split          Ctrl-Alt-S

Display Help                                                 F1

FIND AND REPLACE

Find                                                           Ctrl-F                          ⌘-F

Find and Replace                                       Ctrl-H or Alt-H-R          ⌘-H-R

Find tab (inside Find and Replace)              Alt-D

 

SPECIAL CHARACTERS RECOGNIZED BY FIND AND REPLACE

Type these special characters into the Find box to search document:

  • Em dash
  • En dash
  • Em space
  • En space
  • Copyright symbol
  • Registered symbol
  • Trademark
  • Section symbol
  • Paragraph symbol
  • Ellipsis
  • Double opening quote
  • Double closing quote

SPECIAL CHARACTERS IN DROP-DOWN MENU

Within the Find and Replace dialog box, choose one of the following special characters:

  • Em dash
  • En dash
  • Nonbreaking hyphen
  • Optional hyphen
  • Nonbreaking space
  • Section symbol
  • Paragraph symbol

I find it easier to create my own shortcuts for special characters and symbols I use on a regular basis. For example, if you want to create a shortcut for the em dash, go to Insert > Advanced Symbol > Special Characters. At the bottom of the dialog box click Keyboard Shortcut and a new dialog pops up. In the Press New Keyboard Shortcut box, type Ctrl-E or whatever is easy to remember. Click OK and you’re done. Easy peasy. The same applies to symbols, only you’ll choose Symbols instead of Special Characters.

FORMATTING IN FIND AND REPLACE

Click Replace, then More to expand dialog box

Click Format and a list of different formatting types appear. Search by font, paragraph, tab, language, frame, style, or highlight.

Select the type of formatting you want replaced. A dialog box opens, showing all the formatting options available to search for in that category.

For example, the Find Font dialog box is a copy of the Font Formatting dialog box, with all the same formatting options.

Specify formatting type. Then click OK

Repeat these steps to find additional types of formatting. You can even search for text with both specific font formatting and paragraph formatting at the same time.

Click Replace With

Click Format

Select formatting type (font, paragraph, tabs, language, frame, style, highlight)

This is especially helpful if you need to highlight italicized words for the publisher. In my career, I’ve worked with five different publishers and every house required it be done during final edits.

Click OK

Select replacement option: Replace, Replace All, Replace Next

Click OK

Click Close

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

I’m curious if highlighting italics is an industry standard.

Where are my Indie authors who do their own formatting? Do you highlight italics? What program do you use for formatting? Is highlighting italics a requirement for that program?

Traditional authors, does your publisher ask you to highlight italics during final edits?

 

A BUT Means Complications and Obstacles

As an animal lover, wildlife documentaries are my jam. My husband and I often joke about one particular aspect that is true in the natural world—there’s always a “but.”

Wolves are fierce hunters, but they need to take their prey on the run i.e., predate.

 

Bears can kill with one strategically placed swat of the paw, but they have terrible eyesight.

Unrelated fun fact: If an ant is decapitated during a battle, the disembodied head can continue to fight for hours.

Penguins live in huge colonies—there’s safety in numbers—but they have to swim past their greatest enemy (sea lions) to reach the open ocean to feed.

 

A giraffe’s long neck helps them reach leaves at the top of trees, but that same neck that aids them in gathering food also causes the highest blood pressure of any animal.

 

 

A rhino’s horn is their greatest asset in a fight, but that same horn makes them targets for poachers.

 

Mongooses are carnivores, but their favorite prey is venomous snakes, including cobras, adders, and vipers, and one good strike could kill them.

Boreal Owls are usually monogamous, but when prey numbers peak, males cheat with up to three females and female boreal owls often have at least one beau on the side. So much for monogamy, right?

Using sharp claws on their fore-flippers, seals punch out 10-15 breathing holes in the ice and maintain the openings all winter but using these holes can mean sudden death if a hungry polar bear is nearby.

Fun fact: Sea ice is as important to the Arctic as soil is to the forest. It supports the entire Arctic food chain. When ocean water freezes, it expels salts, causing channels to form inside the ice. As sunlight filters through the ice, algae grow within these channels, creating an underwater garden that forms the foundation of the food chain.

Mudskippers are fish who live in the ocean, but they need to walk on land and dig mud burrows to mate.

Skunks use an overpowering odor for defense and can spray six times in succession, but once their foul-smelling liquid runs out it takes up to 10-14 days to refill the glands.

Roadrunners can sprint at 40 mph, plenty fast to outrun prey, but food is scarce in their dry, desert environment, so they hunt venomous snakes—like rattlers who feed on roadrunners—and risk death.

Fun fact: A rattlesnake can shake its rattle twice as fast as hummingbird wings flutter.

Wildebeests need to migrate to find food once resources dry up, but to make it to the promise land they need to cross croc-infested water.

Corvids are some of the world’s most intelligent animals, but that same intelligence is what attracts ignorant people to hunt them for sport. (Yes, I’m bias. #BlackFeatheredLivesMatter)

Cuttlefish can change shape, color, and texture—20 million pigment cells create a magnificent light show—but they can only mate once in a lifetime.

Gray whales can submerge for 15 minutes at a time, but a mother’s calf can only hold its breath for 5 minutes, so when under attack by orcas the mother will flip onto her back to create a platform for her baby to lay on, but Momma can’t breathe upside down.

See where I’m going with this? All these complications and obstacles make the natural world even more interesting.

The same is true for writing.

So, while crafting your storyline—plotted or pantsed—keep “but” in mind. Because without complications and obstacles, you risk boring the reader.

Over to you, TKZers. In your WIP or recent book you’ve read, give us an example of a “but.” Or share a “but” found in nature.