Developing characters for your novel.

The Protagonist
The Protagonist (Photo credit: mønsterdestrøyer)

When I begin to write a novel, I’ve already formed a picture in my mind about the story’s protagonist. I know the role that character will play, and I have a general idea about how he will interact with the other characters in the book. Those other characters will support and build my main character.

It’s important that whoever you create to carry your story to the readers has some likeable characteristics. Not that your protagonist must be a goody two shoes, but there should be some element that attracts readers to him. There must be some commonality, one that readers can identify with—it can even be a flaw.

Once I’ve formed a general idea about the fictional person, I begin to jot down a description, including physical characteristics, education, family, interests, strengths, weaknesses and maybe even some idiosyncrasies. As I begin to write the novel, I will make additional changes that either strengthen or make the main character more vulnerable.

As for the antagonist, he doesn’t always need to be the archetype villain. He or she can be somewhat normal, and posses only one flaw. However, that one flaw must be one that causes him to create the conflict every good story needs.

Supporting characters are born as my story progresses, or as needed. I have a “skeleton crew” of characters already in my head. Some will contribute greatly, while others may only be needed to create an important scene. After that, it’s possible they may never be mentioned again.

Whether your story is complex or simple, it’s necessary to maintain what I refer to as a character log. The log will contain information such as physical descriptions, how the characters relate to other characters, etc. It is essential that you keep the log handy by your computer. Refer to it often to ensure you keep your characters honest, meaning, “in character.” Update it often to guarantee your players are fully developed.


Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone

"Writing", 22 November 2008
“Writing”, 22 November 2008 (Photo credit: ed_needs_a_bicycle)

I’m a member of the PSWA (Public Safety Writers Association), which means all of the members share a connection with public safety. As a result, we write about things we know, things we’re comfortable with, e.g., police work, firefighting, dispatching, etc. And while it’s not easy to write a novel, an article, or short story,being intimately familiar with the topic about which you are writing is certainly a plus.

There’s an old axiom advising writers to “Write what you know.” Good advice? Maybe. While writing about things you are familiar with makes the task less arduous, it also makes your writing more predictable. I think a better piece of advice to writers might be, “Write what you feel.”

In the past couple of years, I’ve been travelling that path. Having written several thrillers and dozens of training articles, I began to realize my writing was becoming too pre-packaged. It all seemed to reflect the same theme. Therefore, I started to experiment. I discovered a genre called flash fiction. This particular short story template limits the word count to a paltry sum of less than 1,000 words. Some formats, I found, were even more stringent, allowing less than 500 words.

Daunting as it seemed, I nonetheless accepted the challenge. To my surprise, the words flowed quickly and easily on to the page. Being constrained to a word count made my writing much tighter. My prose was crisp, my characters and scenery fresh and vivid. I wrote about love and hate, about loss and renewal. My endings were sometimes happy and other times sad and unpredictable.

In short, if you find yourself in a writing slump and everything begins to look the same, try something different. Write a love story, a poem, or a piece of science fiction. Tackle a topic you never thought you’d ever write about. This past year I even wrote several technical manuals—boring, but challenging nevertheless, and the exercise took me out of my comfort zone.

Writing is a gift we should never take for granted. This unique craft gives rise to emotion and passion, not only in those who write, but also in those who read. As with any living thing, writing needs nurturing. Don’t ignore your muse. Tend to it; baby it. Don’t ever let the writer in you become apathetic or comfortable. Challenge yourself, you won’t be sorry.

The Online Critique Group

English: Hands collaborating in co-writing or ...
English: Hands collaborating in co-writing or co-editing or co-teaching in online education. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my last post, I discussed the importance of having one’s writing critiqued. In order to improve, constructive criticism is a necessity. That short story, poem, or novel may seem perfect to you the way it is written, but with a little help it may become fabulous and worthy of publication.

If you do not have a critique group in your area, consider joining one online. Make sure that it truly is a critique group, and not merely a writing group. The difference is that a writing group will be just that: a group of writers who form together to produce a story or other work. The problem is they never critique, they just write.

Once you’ve begun researching online critique groups, consider the group’s makeup before making a decision to join. Who are the members, are they writing in the same genre as you? You may not get the feedback you need if you are a novelist, and you join a group consisting primarily of poets. How many other members are in the group? If there are more than a dozen or so members, that may be too many.

What are the guidelines regarding how much a writer can submit, and what’s the turnaround time? Be prepared to have your email inbox filled with questions and comments from group members. Depending on the group’s rules, you may easily become overwhelmed answering queries.

You may find the first group you decide to join is not a good fit. Members may be excessively harsh in their criticism, or the number of submissions may be too burdensome. If your search for an online group results in failure, it may be time to start your own. Just make sure the makeup of the group includes a good mix of established writers and newbies.

The bottom line—don’t be afraid to put your work out there. If you want to be successful, writing is like any other discipline, it’s best learned from those who have succeeded, and by trial and error.

Should You Join A Writing Critique Group?

English: Edward Albee and Al Filreis in discus...
English: Edward Albee and Al Filreis in discussion at the Kelly Writers House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the problems writers encounter is assessing their work. How does one determine if the piece they’ve so studiously worked on is worthy of being published?  The danger in asking one’s spouse, or other family members for their opinion, is that an honest answer isn’t always forthcoming. Who is comfortable criticizing their partner? Criticism can lead to other problems. Moreover, unless the person from whom the opinion was requested is also a writer, how useful is the feedback?

The answer may simply be to join a critique group. Depending on where you live, there may be several to choose from. If none exist, you may want to start one yourself, or join an online group. My preference, however, is for the face-to-face group. There are advantages to sharing your work in person:

  • By reading your work aloud, both you and your fellow writers get a better sense of how the piece flows, and whether the writing and/or dialogue is smooth and natural.
  • Instant feedback quickly allows the writer to edit the problem areas while the critique is still fresh in their mind.
  • The writer can gauge the reaction their work is meant to elicit. If a line is supposed to be humorous, yet none of your fellow writers laugh, you know that particular line or remark needs tweaking.
  • Fellow writers can help you with any problems in a manuscript, poem, or short story.
  • Critiques groups are a great place to meet other writers, particularly, those that write in the same genre as you do.
  • Analyzing other people’s work improves your ability to judge your own writing.
  • Listening to remarks from others can teach you different writing techniques and demonstrate what works and what does not.

The disadvantages to meeting face to face can sometimes be uncomfortable and cause insecure writers to abandon the group:

  • If there are no other writers in your genre, you may feel it necessary to search for another group. However, even though there may not be similar writers, basic writing mechanics can still be critiqued and improved.
  • Sometimes personalities clash. There may be one or two critique members who dominate the session, or who seem to be overly critical. The group leader should exercise control and ensure the group’s guidelines are adhered to.
  • If the group is large, it may be several meetings before you are able to read your own work.
  • The meeting time and place may conflict with your schedule.

How do you choose the right group? Do a little research first, attend a meeting or two just to see how the group operates, and whether or not you feel the people are a good fit. If you don’t like the group, move on to another one or try an online group. People come and go all the time in critique groups—no worries. The important thing is to have your work looked at by other writers. Feedback is sometimes difficult to hear, but without it, the alternative is writing in a vacuum, something that will never help you improve.

Next up—online critique groups, pros and cons.

Meet Author Bob Doerr

Today, I’m pleased to welcome a friend and fellow author to my blog, Mr. Bob Doerr. Bob served our great nation for twenty-eight years as a criminal investigator in the Air Force. His background is exceptional. He graduated from the Air Force Academy and also later received a Masters in International Relations. Bob is a counterintelligence expert, having worked espionage and terrorism cases all over the world. Learn more about Mr. Doerr at his website: Bob Doerr, Author.No One Else To Kill

Please introduce yourself and tell us about your writing journey.

I grew up as a kid in a military family and then spent nearly thirty years in the Air Force in a small organization known as the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. After the Air Force, I spent eight years as a financial advisor. For the past five years, I’ve been writing professionally and have thoroughly enjoyed it. To date I have had five books published, all in the Jim West mystery/thriller series.

Do you write every day, and are novels the only things you write?

I try to write just about every day, but probably average five days a week. I have written short stories and have been published in two anthologies, but for the most part I write novels.

I know that you recently won a prestigious writing award for one of the books in your successful Jim West series.

My book, No One Else to Kill, was selected as runner-up to the winning book in the commercial fiction category of the 2013 Eric Hoffer Awards. The Eric Hoffer Awards are held annually and are open to any book that is published in English by anyone except for those books published by the big six publishing houses. The books can come from mid size presses, university presses, very small publishers and can even be self-published. This is a very large contest with 1000 – 1200 books submitted for consideration each year, so as you can imagine, I was extremely pleased to have my book selected as runner-up. No One Else to Kill was also selected as a Finalist for the DaVinci Eye award in the same contest that is awarded to the book with the most outstanding cover.

What authors most inspire you?

Tough question! I read a lot when I was younger – guess I still do, so it’s hard to pick out the authors that have inspired me the most. Guess I would pick John D. MacDonald, Rex Stout, and maybe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

What is your most rewarding writing experience?

Getting emails from people I don’t know who say they have just finished one of my books and have really enjoyed it. I’ve gotten comments from India, Australia, and Canada, in addition to those from here in the USA. I have also found it very rewarding to have met other authors and people involved in the writing world.

Where and when do you write? Do you create a certain environment for writing, i.e., certain music playing, favorite chair, etc.?

I like to go out to a coffee shop and write. It gets me away from everything, and I seem to be able to focus better despite the crowds or noise around me. I do most of my rewriting at home where I have a large desk in our master bedroom. I don’t put on any music, nor do I create any special environment to help me in my writing. I enjoy writing and find it easy to dedicate time to do it.

Are you working on a new project?

I wrote a short novel with the assistance of my twelve-year-old granddaughter. It’s a fantasy targeting middle grade readers and should be out late summer. Currently, I’m working on an international thriller that will not be part of my Jim West series. Hopefully, that book will be available by the end of the year. I do plan to write more books in the Jim West series, but not this year.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

I like feedback and would encourage any of your readers who happen to read one of my books to kindly let me know what they think. I also want to thank you, John, for having me on your blog.

You’re welcome, Bob. Thanks for sharing your background and writing career with my readers, and good luck in all your future writing endeavors.