Creating Compelling Characters

Writers are fortunate when they encounter someone in real life who has “character potential,” someone who fills a page with story without effort. A man who has traveled the world hunting rare animals is such a character. A woman hiding with her children during a riot is another. For readers, these characters and their stories are immediately engaging. But writers can’t wait for these “characters” to fall into their laps.

Writers must learn to create such characters who elicit emotion from a variety of readers, without the godsend of such “real life” personalities. How do writers do this?

As Sol Stein (Stein on Writing) says, the writer must learn “the art of characterization, adding details and depth until he has created a character whom we may know better than all but our closest friends.”

Stein suggests that in real life, we writers are lazy. “We say the first thing that comes into our heads.” As an example, he describes a ticket-taker at a movie theater. That person interacts with a stream of people, and deals only in generalizations. That man is tall. That woman is skinny. But a writer must deal with such people differently.

“Frank is so tall, he entered the room as if he expected the lintel to hit him, conveying the image of a man with a perpetually stiff neck.”

That man is not just tall, as Stein writes him, but he is “being characterized through an action.”

As for the skinny woman,

“She always stood sideways so people could see how thin she was.”

Again, the character is described by action.

Characters are best individualized when we see them doing things and saying things, not by the author telling us about them.

One of the first pitfalls of most writers is telling our readers what the characters look like. Don’t ever stop your story to tell what a character looks like, or what a character is wearing (unless the clothing is vital to the scene or the characterization). Let the reader see your character talking and doing things.

Or, have another character describe that character:

I almost missed her at our meeting. She was lost in the crowd on 51st Street. Couldn’t even see her head, which is nuts considering that flaming red hair. I finally spotted her boots among all the other feet: polka-dotted rubber boots. I knew it had to be her.


I had trouble following what he was saying, ’cause I was so caught off guard by his lisp. What grown man lisps? Well-dressed in a nice suit with a nifty tie in a navy-and-green stripe, hair parted and combed to a gloss, and a lisp? How did drug dealers take him seriously?

Find the details that will embed the character in your reader’s mind’s eye and bring that character to life.

Generations: Know Your Characters’ Pasts

Old store in rural North Carolina

This is a post about generations, about how the lives of our parents were so much different from our own.

Visits to family roots are important, because it gives the younger generation a better understanding of where they have come from, who the folks were in  past generations. Many of us today take our advantages for granted: we have computers, smartphones, passports for travel, and the opportunity to move far beyond the confines of the city or town where we were born.

But it hasn’t always been that way. In the Middle Ages, people rarely left their villages, and there were no street signs pointing the way from village to village. If you left and went any great distance from home, you likely never found your way back. Those who traveled generally stayed wherever they landed.

It’s important to know your own family history if you are going to people your books with believable characters. Not that you have to include all of their history in the book, but that knowledge will help you to understand your character’s motivations.

My parents were poor, but they worked hard to give their children every opportunity for education and the social graces. We grew up not poor, on solid ground (I was unaware of how we struggled, thanks to Mom and Dad guarding us from that knowledge). And now, our children have grown up with the same opportunities and similar solid ground, but it’s important for them to know where the family started, and not that long ago. My father’s mother had to let two of her children leave the house and find their own ways as teenagers, because she couldn’t support four children on her own. She was married, but life circumstances forced her to raise the kids without her husband for a period in their life.

In turn, my father was the most devoted husband and father possible, even when life made separations inevitable, as it does when you’re in the U.S. Army. But his background made him who he is, and influenced my life and who I am, and my expectations of husband and family. I was molded by my parents’ lives and by the life they made for me as a child. I am who I am in large part because of them.

Look to your past. How were you raised? How were your parents raised? If you now live in the United States, there’s a real chance that your grandparents or great-grandparents emigrated to the United States. What were their lives like before and after? How did that affect who they became? Did that influence your parents’ lives, or yours?

None of us lives in isolation. We all come from somewhere, and we either embrace that past or run from it or try to ignore it. But the past exists, and it influences who we are. When you are creating your characters, keep that in mind. Let something in their past dictate who they are today. Use that knowledge to give substance to your main characters.

Know who the characters are now, but also be aware of their past, and of generations before them. This will enrich your characterizations, and give you unexpected food for story. Try not to simply create the characters you need, but allow them to become. Nourish their past, and you’ll see amazing results as you write.

Disturbing the Universe


I am, and have long been, a huge fan of Madeleine L’Engle (d. 2007). Most people know her as the author of A Wrinkle in Time.


I discovered her through the Time series, and later through the Austin Family series, as a child.


As an adult, I read her numerous books on faith with great interest. She was an Episcopalian, a woman of strong faith and convictions, but a woman who wrote: Do we have the right to impose our own religious beliefs, from no matter which direction they come, on the rest of the world? I don’t think so.

If you haven’t yet read her speech on “Disturbing the Universe,” I highly recommend it. It’s available on Kindle for less than $2, I think. If you have read it, perhaps you won’t mind a refresher on her thoughts about writing.

The stories she cared about, wrote L’Engle, “the stories I read and reread, were usually stories which dared disturb the universe, which asked questions rather than gave answers.


“I turned to story, then as now, looking for truth, for it is in story that we find glimpses of meaning.”

She goes on, “But how apologetic many adults are when they are caught reading a book of fiction! They tend to hide it and tell you about the ‘How-To’ book, which is what they are really reading. Fortunately, nobody ever told me that stories were untrue, or should be outgrown, and then as now they nourished me and kept me willing to ask the unanswerable questions.”

Think about the stories you read when you were younger, either one-reads or those multiple-reads. Why did they enchant you? intrigue you? embrace your imagination? Did they open new thoughts to you, as well as expose you to new worlds?

“A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few sources of information left that is served up without the silent black noise of a headline, the doomy hullabaloo of a commercial. It is one of the few havens remaining where a [person’s] mind can get both provocation and privacy.”

L’Engle wrote adult fiction as well as children’s fiction, but I think her most powerful fiction was that written for children. For it was there that she opened my mind, and exposed me to new ideas, and allowed me to grow in the safety of her pages.

“I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children’s books ask questions, and make the reader ask questions. and every new question is going to disturb someone’s universe.”

Is disturbing the universe a bad thing? I don’t think it is. Without such disturbances, we become zealots, I think, convinced that we have all the answers and that everyone else should believe as we do. And zealotry is NEVER a good thing. As writers, we must be willing to shake up our own universes if we are to continue to nurture our readers. Entertainment is one of the main goals of fiction, of course, but that entertainment should also offer the opportunity for growth, I think, both for the writer and for the reader.

“Writing fiction is definitely a universe disturber, and for the writer, first of all. My books push me and prod me and make me ask questions I might otherwise avoid. . . . I have a pretty good idea of where the story is going and what I hope it’s going to say. And then, once I get deep into the writing, unexpected things begin to happen, things which make me question, and which sometimes really shake my universe.”

Shake your universe. Grow from your writing, and write with the intention of allowing your readers to grow. Shake their universe: ask the hard questions, and prompt them to ask more.

Living Language Slash You Bet!

I came across an interesting article on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary website the other day. (I use the site regularly, along with the Oxford Dictionary Online.)

It was a post by one of the site’s editors, and she discusses a new word currently in use in a new way, a change of which she approves.

The new word is “slash,” as in, I’m going to visit slash stay with my best friend in Colorado. While this is typically written as visit/stay with, Emily Brewster (the editor) explains that writing out the word “slash” now gives new meaning to the punctuation mark. 

It’s acting like a conjunction, or a follow-up word: I’m going to Colorado to visit my best friend, and moreover, I’m going to stay with her.

Brewster points out other instances where punctuation has become part of spoken language, but I won’t paraphrase here but will let you read about that on her blog. Period.

As an editor, I have to stay current with the changes in the English language, both here and in the UK, so it’s interesting to run across an article such as Brewster’s and wonder when publishers will take note of the use of slash and admit it to the publishing lexicon.

I hope slash fear it will take a while, since I need to get used to slash accept the idea of its new use.

A New Reader

Our friend Arthur is a young Brazilian neighbor. We spend Wednesday evenings sitting and chatting. He wants to improve his already-excellent English, and we just thoroughly enjoy spending time with him.

At our last meeting, he mentioned that he had finished reading Tom Sawyer and was looking for more books to read. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I told him I’d draw up a list for him to begin his journey into American/English literature. He wants to read in the original language, not Portuguese translation, so I made sure the books were at a fairly fundamental level. Lots of “juvenile” fiction that is foundational for American students.

He plans to study abroad for graduate school, and perhaps live abroad for a while, and understands that the best way to get to know a culture is through its literature. My plan is to begin reading Brazilian novels, for the same reason. Then, together, we can discuss the books and clarify for one another whatever mysteries lie within: cultural, language, or historical.

Here’s the list of books I gave him (it’s only a start, so if you have suggestions, I’ll consider adding them!):

  •  To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  • The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
  • Alex Rider Series (Stormbreaker, Point Blank, Eagle Strike, etc.), by Anthony Horowitz (series, British)
  • Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley  (British)
  • A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin (series)
  • The Giver, by Lois Lowry (series)
  • A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
  • Lost Horizon, by James Hilton (British)
  • The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton
  • Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
  • Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
  • The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper  (series)
  • The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
  • 1984, by George Orwell
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
  • Treasure Island, by Robert Lewis Stevenson
  • The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
  • Watership Down, by Richard Adams
  • Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh (British)

His reply: The list looks amazing, some of them I had already heard of before, I think it’s gonna be an amazing journey.

My reply: It makes me so happy to encounter a reader! Books open our world and our hearts and minds. … We might never finish!

Now I have to go back and reread all of them. I know I still have miles to go before I sleep, but I can’t help rereading my favorite books. My grandmother used to call any repetition “chewing your cabbage twice.” But, I must read these books for a second, third, fourth, maybe fifth time. Why? Because they’re classics, and so worth the time!

And next, I shall read a Brazilian translation of The Little Prince. I know the story, so I can concentrate on the vocabulary and grammar. After that, perhaps another translation, or a jump into Brazilian short stories.

In Defense of Editors

I’m an academic book editor, a fiction editor, and a writing coach. Most people have only the vaguest idea of what I do. Some suspect that I must be an expert in all fields in order to edit all the academic books I edit. Not exactly. I leave the expertise to the authors, and it’s my job to make sure that their expertise is rendered in a way that can be comprehended by the educated reader.

For my fiction clients, I offer writing expertise in the form of editing, and as a writing coach, where I am part guide and part cheerleader, encouraging them in their endeavors, but also showing them how best to achieve story.

My academic dissertation writers tend to have confused ideas about what I offer. One client sends me her manuscript and protests that her mentor says it isn’t ready for publication. She asks me to fix it. I, of course, decline, stating that since it’s her PhD, she should be the one to write the darn thing!

Another PhD client wants me to take an “ax” to his prose, help him to hone it. That, I am happy to do. But, I’ll highlight the problem areas; I won’t fix them. Again, that’s his job, not mine. Once he has made the edits, I will “fix” the manuscript, but the thoughts and progression of ideas must be his.

Think of it like this. A copy editor cleans up the text, she doesn’t create it. As John E. McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun writes in regard to copy editors:

“Think of a copy editor as a parent trying to clean up a teenager’s room. You open the door and, God above, there are discarded articles of clothing on every surface. You start to dig in and discover dirty plates, some with unconsumed food on them; notes and uncompleted homework assignments; still more malodorous articles of clothing, along with the unspeakable sheets; and, under the bed, dust bunnies the size of tumbleweeds.

“The basic function the copy editor performs, in all circumstances, is cleanup. We regularize the punctuation, correct the misspellings and typos, fix lapses in grammar and usage, untangle knotted syntax, and the like. And in public perception, that’s about it; we are essentially proofreaders, and we can keep our opinions about the prose to ourselves. (Some writers share that perception.)”

But, that’s not all that editors do. Not every copy editor is a glorified proofreader:

“But copy editors who are allowed to edit do more. They are not merely hauling the teenager’s dirty clothes down to the laundry room; they are putting the room to rights.

“Proper copy editing includes examining the focus, dredging the main point up from the tenth paragraph to make it more prominent. Proper copy editing addresses the language: rooting out cliches, substituting an ordinary term for jargon when it would serve the reader better, altering infelicitous wording. Proper copy editing prunes, deleting the irrelevant, tightening the language. Proper copy editing raises serious questions, including the kind that can identify plagiarism, fabrication, and libel.”

In defense of copy editors against writers who say editors have a pathogenic need to spoil the written text, Dick Margulis writes:

“Typically they do what publishers ask them to do. Publishers have style guides, most of which are crotchety and old and full of zombie rules and are sacrosanct because they were written by someone long gone and long forgotten but revered nonetheless. Managing editors are bureaucratic functionaries responsible for moving the project along, not necessarily skilled editors or people knowledgeable about linguistic subtleties, and they require the copyeditors they assign to follow the style guide as written, not quibble about zombie rules. Publishers see copyediting as a low-level mechanical function, and they don’t pay well for it, so there really is not time available for copyeditors to give serious consideration to doing more than they’re being paid to do. However, what they’re paid to do is mark up the manuscript to note everything questionable and let the author and the managing editor make the final call on which changes to make and which to stet. Blame the publisher, not the poor copyeditor.”

To Margulis, I say, “Amen!”

I love my job, but it’s a tough one, especially since my clients include numerous different publishing houses, each with their own set of style guides that supersede the Chicago Manual of Style, the APA, or the Oxford Style Guide, to name the top three I know and use. I edit in US and UK English, which means knowing spelling, phrasing, spelling, and grammar rules of both. Some days, I feel like a multiple-personality editor, unsure of how to spell my own name!

I leave the last words about editors to McIntyre:

“The blunt truth is that most people, and that can include many academics, are not very good writers. Their prose needs the basic cleaning up, but it also needs the clarification, the sharpening and pruning. The sad truth is that many professional writers are not particularly good at it either, and I can speak from the experience of one who has dealt with the prose of hundreds of professional journalists. As my former colleague Rafael Alvarez once said after a stint on the metro desk, ‘Reading other people’s raw copy is like looking at your grandmother naked.'”

Fifty Boobs

I have some favorite words, some that I love to speak, and some that delight me just by their appearance.

One of my favorite words to say is “Euclid.” I love the feel of it on the back of my throat. Similar for “ungulate.” Now, neither of these words is particularly appealing on the page, however. In fact, ungulate is distinctly unappealing.

But I love to see the word “fifty.” I don’t know why. I simply find it elegant. It’s like the old Roger Moore movie that I liked just because of the name, “Ffolkes.” Double-f? Awesome! And the word that makes me smile every time I see it, purely on visual enjoyment alone, is “boobs.” It’s so playful! It’s so round. It’s so pleasing to the eye.


It makes me smile.

Then there are the words I simply hate to read, not because of what they mean, but because of how they look. Lung. Oxen. Rotten. Blanche. Quixotic. Coarse. Hunch.  … Ack. Keep them away!

I’m not just indulging myself here. There is a writing point to this entry. Name selection is vital, especially for your main characters.

If the name isn’t pleasant to look at, your readers aren’t going to want to see it on the page time after time. And if it can’t be said in your mind easily, that could also be a turn-off. Think Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the main character in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Being Russian, Dostoyevsky can get away with giving his character such a handle, but that’s probably not something you want to do on a regular basis. The patronymic Raskolnikov doesn’t roll of the tongue of the mind, and your readers would likely find themselves “bleeping” over the name, time and time again.

Plus, I hate reading a book where I can’t keep the characters straight, because there is nothing distinctive about the names or the names are too similar to one another to keep them straight. Ishmael, Dr. Nemo, Holden Caulfield, Tom Joad, Dr. Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Voldemort, Scout and Jem and Boo Radley…these are memorable names that stick with you, unique from the others in the book.

Play with the language to choose your names, as well. What other meanings might the name have? Nemo = Omen. Ishmael as an outcast, one set aside. Say the names aloud. Does it sound right? Does it look right on the page? Does it say something about the character: Huck Finn vs. Tom Sawyer.

Enjoy words. Play with them. Be aware of the different ways in which your readers experience words. Not all will experience them as you do. Make use of  that knowledge.