Tag Archives: Characters

Updating the Character Worksheet: Emotions

Confession time: “Hello, my name is Courtney McIlwain Sloan and my writing Emotional Intelligence Quotient is low.”

“Hello, Courtney.”

There, it’s out there now. What a load off.

What I mean is in “real life” ® I can watch my friends, family, colleagues, etc and read their varied and personal expressions of emotion, interpret them and react accordingly. Non-verbal communication, folks, it’s where all the cool kids are at. Hell, I teach it in my communication classes. People trust non-verbal cues far more than their verbal counterparts. Why? We can’t shut them off and most of us don’t actively control them. If someone tells you something very sincere then rolls their eyes as they walk off, you’re going to believe the eye roll more than the controllable word choice. It’s human nature.

The same applies to our characters in writing. Their non-verbals have to express the underlying truth. As Mark Twain said, “All emotion is involuntary when genuine.” Very often it is the only way to express a character’s emotion and still show instead of tell.

“Jack gripped the wine bottle until his knuckles were white. I was worried the vein in his forehead would explode before he made it out the room.”


“I could see Jack was pissed.”

This hits a new level when writing in first person, as in my latest works.

“My stomach churned at her callused words. I turned away, willing the tears in my eyes not to fall.”


“She upset me.”

Both of these are identifying an emotional state without spelling it out. They also help guide the reader to feel the emotional reactions themselves rather than just stay a casual observer. And words should do that. Choosing the right word does more than paint the correct picture for the reader. It also paints the right emotion behind that word for the reader to experience.

Hence the different picture a someone paints when they describe the young under average weight heroine as “slender” or “bony” or “petite” or “gaunt” or “emaciated”. Each experience is different for the reader. This I get.

BUT this is where my trouble starts. I often go to the same areas of the body for each emotion. One BETA reader a book back actually asked me, “What’s your obsession with backs?” I didn’t know what she meant until I looked back and realized half of all my emotional descriptions were happening with everyone’s back. Boring and inaccurate to human experience. It needed more dimension.

Enter my emotional savior: Vicki Leigh. She saw my conundrum and came to my rescue with the suggestion of one book. That book is Emotional Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman.

"See it, Smell it, Touch it, Kiss it!"

“See it, Smell it, Touch it, Kiss it!”

This book is amazing. 75 major emotions are each broken down in helpful suggestions in the categories of definition, physical signals, internal sensations, metal responses, cues of acute or long-term, and cues of suppressed. So no matter if characters are experiencing emotions personally or observing it in others, this book has great and varied examples of each.

More than giving my books more variety, this is allowing me to personalize each character even deeper than I have before. I am so impressed that I am now also adding a section to my character sheets where I can ID each major characters major tells of different emotions. Thus from the start I can make each characters reaction distinct based on their background, and allow others to learn and respond to emotional cues with a more grown up emotional intelligence.

So, thank you, Vicki, you have helped far more already than you know.


Old Dog, Newest Trick

The more I think about it, the more in love with the assignment given by agent Brooks Sherman (@byobrooks) of FinePrint Literary Management in his query contest. The assignment in order to enter was this:

“Write a 100 word short story from the POV of your antagonist/villain.  It can be his/her/its perspective on an event that actually occurs in your story, but that’s not required.  Before, after, or an unseen event are fine, too.”

At first I was daunted by the 100 word limit. Whoa, that’s barely a paragraph. I outlined out a whole scene to show my villain in his full glory, then realized my outline with 67 words. So, time to put my short story writing to the test and condense everything into 100 words and still show my villain. Also, I wanted to get his GMC (Goal Motivation and Conflict) to come out in the short segment as well. After some hard work and repeated and repeated revision I came up with this entry.

“Never partner with an idiot, no matter how good a patsy they’d make. He had to deal with that psycho who was smuggling his brothers and sisters into this putrid hole, nothing like the home in the stars they deserved. The deep stations were theirs; the cattle just didn’t know it yet. Staring at their “meals” hung on the girders, he sneered at the smell of human blood. Once it had been his whole existence. Now he ate higher on the chain. Reassured for another shift, he put on his security uniform and Bio-Com to climb into the station proper. “

The best part about this is that I think he ended up sounding like a hero in his own head. Isn’t that the truth with many complex villains? I wish that I had done this first. This really let me get even deeper inside of him and know him more, as icky as that concept may be. It’s coming across like the elevator pitch for the individual character. It limits the wordiness that can be a battle. I had to stream-line and be extremely specific. And it was a blast to have the finished project.

Goal, Motivation and Conflict is so important to have three dimensional characters, and on common character sheets they are there for the protagonist. They are needed for all the main characters. Even if there is a main POV that the story is from, each character is experiencing their own story at the same time. In order for them to act as they should and not simply be a plot device, GMC is vital to guide their actions.

Let's look under the hood. What's seems to be your issues?

On top of that, this small exercise let me listen in on the character’s voice, even if it was only in his head. This would have made dialogue and actions so much easier to write if I’d had it from the beginning.

So, thank you, Brooks Sherman (@byobrooks) of FinePrint Literary Management and Emma Trevayne of Nailing Shadows to the Wall for hosting this contest. Through your great ideas, a new slot on my character sheets have been filled, and I look forward to the birth of deeper and more realistic characters.

Photo Credit: “Mechanics of People Mind”

I Hear Imaginary People

Voices, voices everywhere, all telling me what to do.

Ganhdi once said “The only tyrant I accept in this world is the still voice within.” Does this mean that authors have worlds of little tyrants all demanding they be written into existence? We created and hone these voices until they gain faces and style and story and quirks and finally a voice that others can hear as well. See, it’s not schizophrenia if others can hear it too, right?

Characters and characterization tend to be very important to me. There’s the plot and conflict carrying them along from misadventure to misadventure until they learn how to be masters and mistresses of their own fate (well, at least for a short time). However, the characters have to be relatable and real to make the story interesting and my readers care. And that’s not just the good guys. We all want to feel a part of the hero/heroine. See something of ourselves there in the hope that we can raise ourselves to such heights and overcome the obstacles we encounter. Thus making the characters real and concrete enough for others to hear and see while making them broad enough so everyone can slip into their shoes if they try is no mean trick.

Aww, but look at the teddy. He LOVES me!

But what of our villains? Villains need love, too. This doesn’t mean you have to like the villain by any stretch of the imagination. Nor should you want to cheer for them. They have to be just as relatable and real as the hero/heroine or they lose their punch and become caricatures. Even in the movies, some of the villains I most remember I don’t like at all. I HATE them, but I LOVE hating them. Very often it is because their motivations and actions are believable. Not understandable (we’re not psychopaths) but believable. We are not all murderous cannibals, but something within us loves the suave control of Hannibal Lecter and his intellect. Moriarty is a cold blooded killer with no regard for human life, but his ability to think around Holmes makes us marvel at his brain. Very often we love the villains because they represent the darker shadow side of ourselves just begging to be let out. They do the things we want to, only to a much greater extreme.

But hero or villain or sidekick or reflection, each character has his/her own voice. How he sounds. What vocal pauses she uses. Vocal ticks. Voice helps the image of the character come more alive in the imagination of the reader. I use full character and vocal sheets to create the character fully so I won’t forget who says what in what way, especially over multiple books.

Then comes the added trick of writing a character’s voice from a time not our own. I am faced with that right now. I am writing character in the 1830’s, a time with speech and etiquette very different from my own. Added to that, my main character is a male Irish doctor living in the 1830’s. Having to get the gentile nature of the time, the turns of phrases and the accent all wrapped up into one phrase is fun, exciting, interesting and a pain. But he’s starting to take fuller shape on the page, especially as people are dying all around him. It’s sink or swim time and the devil’s at the door, maybe for real, and his voice is reflecting it.

Benjamin Disraeli said it well, “There is no index of character so sure as the voice.”

Choosing Wisely

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:/All mimsy were the borogoves,/And the mome raths outgrabe.”

How else would you describe this guy?

Ahh, Lewis Carrol. Your turn of phrase and insane descriptions lead us down paths beyond where Alice dared to tread to the outcome of most people crying “huh?”

In Real Estate the answer may be “location, location, location,” however, in writing it’s often argued the answer is “word choice, word choice, word choice.” Authors create worlds of beauty and horror and love and despair from nothing more than words. From mood, to character type, to voice, to setting, writers make or break their creations based solely on the words and synonyms chosen. Words even affect the pacing of a story. Does it read short and crisp or long and flowing?

Characters are not spared this judgmental sweep of the keyboard. How you describe your characters and how they see each other begin in the very first remark written about them. Your heroine is being introduced to the reader for the first time, and you can sway your audience’s views, even unintentionally, through the mere letters you use to show her. Is she thin, skinny, scrawny, slender, lean, bony, athletic, slim, gaunt, emaciated? Each word changes a reader’s inner eye and emotional connection on the character, and that’s only ONE WORD. Most people tend to write a paragraph or more enhancing simple descriptions. That’s a lot of emotion and descriptors to set up and rely on.

And that’s only one aspect of word choice and its governance over character. Another major aspect of word choice and molding characters is voice. Each character requires a distinct voice and the words they choose to speak should be an individualized as the ones we hear from the populace around us every day. Does a character use contractions and shortened vernacular speech, or elevated language? Is the elevated language natural or forced? Does this character curse, or curse only in front of certain other characters? There is so much that comes into voice and voice is important to every character. It must be natural but unique for each player on the field.

I discovered this first hand. One of my characters, Dr. Elias, speaks with elevated SAT language that he forces into every conversation. He also never uses contractions. He is old and rambles and his elevated language only elongates this process. But it fits with his character, even if it blows traditional writing dialogue ideas. In order to write him clearly, I had to educate myself on further words. What is an elevated way to name call? I now have some idea. He is now unique to anyone else in the story (even if his language was the hardest to write). Expanding my vocabulary was worth the final product.

As I write more and more, learning more and more words to choose from is vitally important and an adventure in its own right. I look forward to the perpetual exploration into my love affair with words which I can share day in and day out with my characters and celebrate with our friend Lewis Carroll, “Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

Personality Growth, uh, Regression

I am learning so much about my characters as I do these rereads and rewrites. Truly I know more now than when I created and wrote the story. As I mentioned before, there were times when I was writing I wanted to scream at my characters, “No, what are you doing?”, “That’s not what I had planned, stop it”, “Why did you say that?” Now as I am revision and rereading the piece again, it all makes sense. They knew exactly what they were doing and why.

Creating the character and background with personality and history and quirks allowed for very organic characters that made decisions and changed as they interacted with different characters. Very much like life. We are not the same person with the same voice when we talk to our friends and our boss and our love and our enemies. Everything from the way we hold ourselves to our vocal patterns change. Even if we are the most casual laidback person, we tend to try and speak and hold ourselves more impressively in front of a boss, and in a different way, in front of a potential date. We relax among our friends, and very often we are still a very different person when speaking to the person we spend the rest of our life with.

Authors often tend to create a voice for a character and try to stick to it. But is that natural? I’m finding there are nuances of differences that are vital to a believable character and loving it.

For example, I have a main character that is very put together and practical. She loves keeping control and making others feel happy with that confidence. So she speaks with a slightly elevated and very deliberate speech pattern. With her husband, she is relaxed and loving, but still rather reaching with her wit. She wants to continue impressing him as he impresses her every day. She wants to be worthy and acts accordingly.

Then comes the complication of a very annoying man out to turn everyone’s world upside down. He is also very in control and capable, but highly immature. He rubs her every kind of the wrong way. But the funniest thing is he regresses her speech patterns. She reacts and responds to his juvenile jabs and antics by spouting back to him with near teenage level comebacks and sarcasm. She realizes this after their mental sparring matches, but finds herself always regressing, in a very cute though annoying to her way.

Realizing this and seeing these different vocal patterns based on the characters interacting made me happy. So, in the end, trust the characters. They know what they are doing. It’s their lives on the line after all.

Hollywood Hookup

I was told by one teacher a short cut to visualizing your characters is to figure out who would play them on the big screen. This takes your characters and makes them real. Actual  solid pictures you can write your character bio on. This can also help with dialogue because you can imagine you’re character’s vocal patterns and nuances based on the actor’s work.

Using this is a great shortcut, but I always worry it could limit my characters too. I don’t want my characters to only be available actors/actresses; my imagination has more versatility than that. Also, I may see Ron Perlman’s body with Tony Curran’s attitude, or vice versa. I take it as a good place to start and build from, but not the end of my characters by any stretch of my imagination.

As such, I tend to make my characters first then match them once they’ve solidified. Working on my revisions with my cast clearly in my head, I’m finally having the fun of casting them.  This will be an ongoing process as I search IMDB and my movie memory. But after, I’ll be able to tweak my character bio’s based on both the actors and my work, thus making it stronger through the rest of the story and series.

In fact, just in today’s revisions, I needed to add description that hadn’t been solidified by this point in my first draft. Bringing up my pictures of the actor allowed me to find better descriptors than just my mind had. A useful tool, especially when trying to write fast.

Without further ado, my list as it stands now:

Jax- Victor Webster

Michael- Chris Hemsworth

Ventri- Tom Hardy

Brac- Cam Gigandet

Russ- Josh Hutcherson

Lester-Avery Brooks

Ian Nethers- Tony Curran/Ron Perlman

Elias- Gary Oldman

Alex- Lena Headdy

Tressa- January Jones

A Date with a Vampire

Revising has slowed down. This has more to do with life getting in the way, less to do with my desire to finish this work. The best laid plans and all that. As a writer, I know often I set great goals and ideas then that little thing called life steps in and says, “Oh, no, no, no , silly woman. You have other things to do.”

But that is no excuse, and I refuse to accept it as such. Time management is essential to any writer. It is time to take control. Authors describe writing as a full time job. It must be treated as such. Your job does not accept you couldn’t meet your deadline today because you had to do dishes or laundry or take your three year old for a walk to the park. Your job is also not okay with your shirking because you have to work your other job. Every job has to be treated separately, and the energy must be found, no matter what.

As such, it is time for me to set regular dates with a vampire. And a vampire hunter. And the woman between them.


Let me check my schedule

I mean who wouldn’t want to spend time with an exceedingly hot and talented vampire with deep chocolate eyes and mischief on his mind. Not to mention a depth of heart to rival most mortals. Certainly not a fate worse than death.

Therefore, instead of the job before me, I plan on setting consistent and regular dates with my characters and their story. Specific date times to take them out and wine and dine them. Showing them a good time and hopefully they will return the favor.

Six Foot Two, Eyes of Blue


How do the characters measure up?

As authors, we create these living/breathing people of multiple layers and quirks which we hope people will feel connected with. We want our audience to see a little of themselves in at least one character we give life to in our writing.

This is why modern suggestions for character creation encourage keeping description to a minimum. The author should try to give enough to get everyone on the same basic page with the character, without outlining every exact detail, letting the audience fill in the rest based on their own perceptions and experiences. Instead of saying of the heroine, “Her hair was the color of buttered rum, and as she moved, you could still see the wavy strands that glistened from the summer sun as they cascaded down her back below her shoulder blades”, the author might ask, is it so important to know exactly the color of the character’s hair and exact measurements. Why is it “buttered rum” colored instead of sandy, chestnut, sorrel, sable, chocolate, or any other? If the writer is trying to build the ideal character, very often different people will have different ideals.

On a similar note, I have made myself smile quite often reading or writing when characters meet someone. “She looked up at his well built six foot four frame.” How often in life can we tell immediately that someone is exactly a certain height?  Are all these characters running around with tape measures in their pockets? Plus, perhaps that’s tall to someone, average height to another and short to a third. Using that exact description and not giving the audience any wiggle room can actually limit the impact my character may have. Leaving the description more vague and letting the reader fill in how tall is tall to them, may leave space for much more adaptive characters and a wider audience.

Before this current project, I had been following very organic methods for character creations, but it has lead to a great deal of looking back to make sure that my character has followed their own voice, patterns and descriptors.

As I moved from book one to book two of my series, I realized there needs to be more structure to my process, if it is to maintain itself through three or more books. This is especially true as my characters evolve through these different trials in their lives. So, I am now gearing up to create full character packets on each of my main characters and important/prolonged sub characters to move with me through the books. As it was put to me lately, this makes sure your character is still the same character on page five and page six hundred fifty-five. This promises to be a long process, but I hope well worth it.

Character Behavior or These people think this story’s all about them

Who are these people anyway? Characters are often the catalyst to get a story going, the driving force to propel it to new heights and the salve to fix the catastrophes the story created. However, they are also the procrastinators who don’t want to leave their safe environment, which causes the authors to create bigger and badder reasons to kick them out, the stubborn mules who want to do it their own way instead of the neat and orderly procession of ideas outlined by their creator, and the knives that tear holes through the storyline so carefully crafted.

It is a constant love/hate relationship with my characters. Often I find I have my story going full force, know where it is headed, and suddenly, my characters are reacting very differently than how I wanted them to. Characters that are planned to make up are now at each other’s throats and bringing up even greater hurts. I am yelling at my screen for them to behave and act like the proper character they are supposed to be, but they blithely continue on with how they think their lives should be led. Teenagers, all of them, I swear. Yet somehow in the end, when I’ve sworn I will erase all their indiscretions and make them the characters I intended, I look at their ideas and realize they knew what they were doing all along. They have taken me to places I was either scared to go, or didn’t even think about in the first place. And through their real decisions, the story has gone where it should have in the first place.

But to do this, character creation is everything. Two-dimensional characters do not have the inclination or ability to take you on this journey. And if they can’t take you as a writer there, how are they ever going to get the more critical reader to go along and believe the ride. For me, this has been a learning process for character building, taking the character out for a spin and seeing how they end up, then cleaning it up to make sure they are that person throughout the book. But I think this is changing. I am now planning and seeing my characters more, getting to know them, before we take the first drive around the block.

No matter the process an author uses, and it is different depending on the author, the key thing to remember is your character is not and should not be stagnant. If you have the same exact hero/heroine as you had at the beginning of the story, what was the point of the story at all? You have to let your teenagers out to face the world and change into the adults/heroes they were meant to be.

So I remember while yelling at my characters as they misbehave, “Being an author is like being in charge of your own personal insane asylum” (Graycie Harmon), and the inmates really are running the place.