Tag Archive | characters

The Best Question A Writer Can Ask…

…and Keep Asking!

It’s one little word, and yet it is vital.


Why doairconditioneres my hero want this goal? Why does my heroine go into that haunted mansion? Why does the bad guy in the book want the hero dead? Why…why…why?

The answer to why is the motivation for a character to act. In fiction, the reader has to buy into that answer. Fictional characters have to make more sense than real people. Real people can do odd things for seemingly no reason–but readers want their fictional worlds to make more sense.

Now when you ask that why, don’t settle for the first thing that pops into your head. Anyone who reads a lot is going to go straight for a cliche–meaning a overused answer to why–for motivation.

Oh, the hero has commitment issues because his girlfriend dumped him (cliche).

Oh, the bad guy is just crazy (cliche).

Oh, the heroine goes into the haunted house because I really need  her in danger at this point in the story (cliche and contrived).

So you ask WHY? Then you ask again, and again, and again. About the fifth or sixth, or seventh or eighth time your brain will run out of cliches and you’ll start getting ideas that really connect to your specific character. That’s where the gold is–and you have to dig for it.

Which means next time your story is stuck, go back to WHY is she doing this? Or WHY is he acting this way? And keep asking WHY. It’s the most best question you can ask of your characters.

Likeable Characters

If you have a choice, are you going to spend the evening with folks you like—or with people who make you grind your teeth? I’m going to bet on the former. This holds true in a book, too—readers (all of us) want to spend time with folks we like.

This is a huge issue in any book—it was one I faced in A Cardros Ruby. Initially, the heroine started off as just too cranky and too hard to like. Now, she had her reasons for being that way—and she’s still a little touchy (she’s just seen her brother brought in unconscious, so she can be forgiven for being a little upset)—but I worked hard to make certain she didn’t put folks off.

Lady ScandalMy own experiences with this had taught me the hard way—the heroine of A Dangerous Compromise is a hard-to-like girl. She eventually redeems herself—or at least shows a good side—but that came too late in the story for many readers who just didn’t cotton to her. And I can understand that.

If I’m going to pay money and spend my hours with some folks—even fictional folk—I want to have fun. I want to be with people I like. Let’s face it, if your characters aren’t likeable, you’re going to have a hard time getting readers to settle down, buy the book and the world. That’s the voice of experience talking.

This is particularly true for series characters. I recently devoured the Phyrne Fisher mystery series by Kerry Greenwood. They’re fun, set in 1920’s Australia–but the important thing here is that Phyrne, while she has her flaws, is funny, sharp, and I’d love to sit down to dinner with her (particularly if she has her staff cooking). The books are a delight and I read all twenty because I wanted more time with Phyrne. Others have felt the same for the books have been made into an Australian TV series.

As a reader, I want characters I can root for, characters I can laugh with and cry with, characters with whom I sympathize. Kurt Vonnegut even notes in his Eight Rules to “give the reader one character to root for.” That’s good advice and if you break that rule you’d better have a good reason and even more talent.

But this brings up the question—what is likeable?

This is where subjective opinion gets into it. Even the most beloved characters have their detractors. And good characters are like people—or they should be. This means not every character will be liked by every reader. However, there are some basic things you can do give a character a better chance of being someone that a reader wants to spend hours with, as in give your characters:

Indiana_Jones_in_Raiders_of_the_Lost_ArkMad Skills – We tend to like folks we admire; we like people who are good at what they do. This is why sports figures at the top of their game—we like to see folks doing amazing things. Think of Indiana Jones—we like him because right off, even if things don’t go his way, he’s shown to have extraordinary skills. This is something I use in The Cardros Ruby—the hero’s shown as being able to handle a tough situation right off.

Good Intentions/Actions – We tend to like folks who mean us (and the world in general) well. We like characters who have good reasons for what they’re doing—as in a mother who is out to protect her child, and she may do bad things, but she’s got really good reasons, as in Sarah Conner of The Terminator. We like folks even more when they do good thing. The guy who rescues a stray dog. The woman who goes without movies for a month to buy her niece the prom dress the poor girl has been longing for and can’t afford. Little acts of kindness can mean a lot to a reader—and will put the reader on the character’s side. This is another one I use in The Cardros Ruby—even though the heroine’s heard bad things about the hero (and some of the gossip is deserved), she stands up for him because she recognizes she owes him.

Underdog Status – We like characters that don’t start out with everything going their way—folks who are behind the eight ball and have had nothing but bad luck tend to stir our sympathy. If the main character has everything else stacked in his or her favor, that’s not someone who is earning our praise and sympathy. This is another one I use (and notice that you can layer these on—just don’t go heavy handed with this).

Grit – This could be called strong moral fiber—or even just stubbornness. These are folks who don’t quit when things get tough—characters who preserver, because it’s nice to see that works (even if only if fiction at times).

Humor – Let’s face it, we like folks who make us laugh. This is what keeps comedians in business. These are the witty types, folks we admire for having a fast mind and a way with words.  I actually try to have all my characters be funny and quick because I love people who are sharp—so that’s a personal choice. But think of Tony Stark in Iron Man–it’s his sense irony and his humor as much as his iron suit that makes him stand out in any crowd.

Quirks – Every character needs some flaws—no one likes perfection. A few quirks and a character is both more memorable as well as more likeable. An odd physical trait—a scar, or a handicap overcome such as being very, very short. Or a metal quirk, as in Monk, the OCD detective.

Empathy – Characters don’t exist in isolation—they need to be aware of the world around them. Characters who demonstrate empathy for others earn our empathy—we are prone to like these folks.

Now this is not to say that all characters must display all these traits—that would be too much for any reader to believe. But pick three or four things. Or even a couple. Demonstrate that your main characters—your protagonists—are likeable. And keep in mind that if a character is going to have to do bad or stupid things in the story, that character needs the reader on his or her side early and to a great degree. Even give some of these likeable traits to your antagonists. They need to earn the reader’s sympathy, too, if the conflict is going to be strong. After all, even Hannibal Lecter had the admirable traits of being a cultured man—and very, very mad skills (emphasis on the mad there).

Let your readers get to know and like your characters before you start having your characters do terrible things—and then think long and hard about if a reader can forgive that character for breaking up a beautiful friendship by betraying the reader’s trust. If any reader finds the main character too unlikeable, that book is going to be put down.

Think about making sure your character demonstrates he or she is likeable—it’s not enough to tell the reader these things. The character has to be shown doing things that are worthy of the reader—the character must be shown doing things that show off that character’s traits. (And if you’re not sure about this, read Dick Francis, he’s a master at making you like a character in less than a page.)

Above all remember that you’re asking a reader to spend time in your world. Make sure readers want to stay, want to root for your characters, and start to like them. It all starts off with creating characters you really like—and making sure they show up right off doing some admirable things. At the very least–make sure you like them and find them fascinating.

Conflict From the Inside Out

conflictlockI first heard about conflict lock from Bob Mayer–he does great workshops on this. I don’t know if he heard it from someone else, but it has spread, however, I’m still surprised to find folks who don’t really understand (or put in) strong conflict.

The first thing you have to do, however, is figure out who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist.

In a romance, many people think BOTH the hero and heroine are the protagonist–that’s not possible. There is one protagonist in every strong story–yes, even in an ensemble cast which may have very strong secondary leads, there’s still a protagonist.

Under the Kissing Bough_200The other thing to work out is if the other person in the romance is the antagonist or not–it doesn’t have to be set up that way. For example, in my book, Under the Kissing Bough, the heroine is the protagonist–she has to change the most (she has the strongest character arc, which makes her the protagonist). The antagonist (the person from keeping her from getting what she wants) happens to be the antagonist. Now…let’s look at another book. In A Proper Mistress, the hero is the protagonist (he has to change the most)–but it’s the hero’s father who is the antagonist. He’s the one causing the hero’s conflict–and the hero is causing his father conflict. That’s a conflict lock.A Proper Mistress

Very often what I see in manuscripts is that the conflict is contrived–it comes from the author manipulating characters as if they are paper dolls–and there is no real conflict from issues and goals. There’s no conflict lock.

So…how do you make a conflict lock?

As noted, you start by figuring out who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist.

Now you have to figure out what are your characters’ main goals.

Goals create conflict if this is one thing that only one person can have, or is two opposite outcomes, or is the same outcome with vastly different approaches.

The best summary I’ve heard of this is also from Bob Mayer—know what your characters want, what they really want, what they really, really want, and what they really, really, really want.

What does that mean?

  1. What does a character want?

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????This is the obvious goal, and it’s usually external. This is the goal that drives the plot forward. In one of my books, Paths of Desire, the heroine’s external goal is to get married to a rich man—yes, she’s a gold digger. She has reasons for this buried deep in a past which has left her insecure. But this a surface goal—it’s not what she really really wants.

The obvious goal (external goal) works best if tied to deeper needs and issues, and this is where you start to dig deeper into your characters.

  1. What does a character really want?

Under ever want is a driving need—if a character just wants something, that’s a weak character. So you did deeper and ask why? This why becomes the really want. In the case of Thea from Paths of Desire, her obvious goal of wanting a rich husband comes from her really wanting security—she thinks if she’s rich and married she’ll be safe from an uncertain world. Again, this want has deep roots (the deeper, the better) that go back to a poverty stricken childhood. But this is still not enough.

  1. What does a character really, really want?

When you find out what a character really wants, ask: But what do they really, really want? You’re now starting to dig down into what makes that character tick. In Thea’s case, what she wanted was a rich husband, what she really wanted was security—but what she really, really wants is to not end up like her mother.

This is where you hope the character will surprise you. In Thea’s case, I hadn’t thought about her past, but when this came up it was an “of course” moment. Thea’s mother has ended up abandoned by a man (Thea’s father)—she’s ended up broken because of love. Thea’s determined to be practical to marry rich and have her security—but it’s her secret fear she’ll become like her mother. However, we’re still not done. We have rich material, but you want to dig deeper.

  1. What does a character really, really, really want?

This is where you get down to bedrock in a character’s psyche—this is what drives this person and makes them do stupid as well as smart things. This is where deep emotions brew—and where actions are driven by core issues for that character. In Thea’s case, her brother died when Thea was just a girl. The boy was even younger, and he died because there wasn’t enough money to pay for a doctor. That event both scared the young Thea and drives her still—she doesn’t want herself or anyone she loves to ever be hurt by lack again. That’s what she really, really, really wants—to have enough.

Now all of this is great stuff, but without obstacles (and other characters to stand in the way), you’re not going to have much in the way of conflict. A character that can move forward without problems is going to give you a boring story. So…what gives you conflict. Working out characters who want things that conflict with the main characters wants.

You also want goals with consequences–failure to achieve the goal will mean a change in status (not that things stay the same). The goal works best if it really, really, really matters to the protagonist (and the antagonist). And you want the goal to reflect something to do with the theme–or the story won’t resonate as well as it should.

You also want to look at your other characters, find out what they want and set them up to provide maximum conflict.

In every book, I love it when ever character wants something—and really wants something. And really, really wants something. And all of this causes trouble for the main character. In Paths of Desire, Thea (of course) meets a man who lives for adventure—he’s also married. He’s the last man she should become involved with. But he wants to keep his friend, who is rich, away from her, and that brings them together. His goals are not only different from Thea’s, but tangle with hers in a way so that something has to give—one of them has to change in order for them to find happiness together.

And that brings up the next issue with conflict.

If a character can easily give up his or her goal, that’s not a core, strong goal.

This is where you have to be honest with yourself—and dig deep for those very core goals. You don’t want a character who can casually say, “Oh, never mind, it wasn’t that important.” This leaves readers feeling cheated by the story.

Recently I watched a movie in which Will Farrell plays a man who loses his job and his wife leaves him on the same day (Everything Must Go). His company car is repossessed after he slashes his bosses’ tires and his soon to be ex-wife freezes the bank accounts to try and force him into a quick divorce. And she puts all his stuff on the front lawn and changes all the locks on his house. Everyone thinks he’s having a yard sale, so that gives him some money—and he starts to live on his lawn.

Now this is a character that seems without a goal—but he actually has one. His goal is simply to get by every day—and get hold of drink. He wants oblivion. But it’s not what he really wants. He really wants to get back at his wife and his ex-boss. But that’s not what he really, really wants. What he really, really wants is to get his life back. But that’s not what he really, really, really wants. His old life was a shambles, too—and he gradually realizes that. And what he really, really, really wants is to find his way back to a fresh start.

The really interesting thing about the story is watching the character cling at first to every stupid little thing that is his—all the junk on the front lawn. At first, he’ll sell nothing. He has a signed baseball worth thousands (not that he can sell it given he can’t get anywhere), and he has more stuff that no one needs. He hangs onto everything—at first. But the stuff is a symbol of his old life. As he starts to let it go, he starts to make room for a new life. The stuff becomes a metaphor for living. And letting go of it shows both his conflict and his growth.

Because the stuff is important to the character, letting it go is difficult—if the character had walked away without a look back, there would not have been conflict or a story. And it’s what the character wants, really wants, really, really wants, and what he really, really, really wants that drives the story.

That’s the kind of conflict you want to build into your characters. If you build this into the characters when you are first starting out with the story, you won’t have to contrive additional conflict. You’ll have tons of material all set up.

Character Motivations

writingblindOne of the biggest thing that readers need is to related to and understand your characters. If a character does something–particularly something out of character–the reader needs to understand why the character takes this action.

Why does the reader need to understand your characters?

1-Understaning means a stronger ability to relate to that character. Think about a character such as Dexter who is a serial killer. He is also the hero of his own TV series. How can he be a hero? He can be because a) the viewer understands him by getting insights to him (that’s why he narrates the episodes) and b) he kill only people worse than him. The understanding of WHY he does what he does is vital to making that character work because the viewer can relate to this killer. He’d be a harder sell to anyone if he acted without clear motivations.

2-Understand means a stronger ability to find the actions plausible. Yes, smart people do dumb things. But when smart fictional character do dumb things a reader tends to think that character is dumb. Fictional characters have to be more consistent that real people. This means if a smart character does something dumb the reasons for that dumb action have to be understood by the reader so the action seems plausible. At the very least think about making your characters self-aware enough that they know they’re doing something stupid–but they’re going to do it anyway because they’re desperate or angry or frustrated.

3-Understanding means a stronger chance of making that character likeable. We tend to cut our close friends and close family members more slack. If a reader doesn’t understand a character, the reader is distanced from that character. This means the reader has a harder time liking that character. Understanding is not all it takes to like a character–going back to Dexter as an example, if he killed just anyone you might still understand him but you’d have a harder time liking him. But understanding is a good start.

How do you provide the reader with an understanding of a character’s actions?

Some motivations are obvious to most people. The woman who will take on a tiger to save her baby. The firefighter whose job it is and who is trained to go into a burning building. Or the gentleman who opens the door for a pretty lady. Cultural norms, training for specific jobs, and core human nature behavior are things most readers get without needing the motivations really detailed. But when you get out of these you need more.

If it’s not obvious, make it obvious.

With first person, it’s pretty easy to fit in the character’s thoughts. You can also fit in character thoughts in third person with internal dialogue.

You don’t have to make this too obvious–in other words, you don’t really hit the reader over the head with, “I decided to let the air out of my ex-boyfriend’s tires to let him know I hated him.” That may be a little too direct. Or it may be that you really do need this because it’s the opening of the book and the reader doesn’t know anything about this character. You have to look at where is the scene in the book and do you need to weave in thoughts to let a reader know HOW a character gets to a decision. This is really important if you have something such as a housewife who suddenly picks up a gun and shoots someone–maybe she has a good reason for this, maybe not. If you want the reader to sympathize with the character you need to make sure the reader understands why she picks up a gun and why she’s suddenly able to use it on a person.

Another useful tool is dialogue. You don’t want the dialogue to be too “on the nose” — in other words, dialogue that is only about the plot tends to be stiff and awkward. It won’t sound like the illusion of real people talking. So you want to make sure you have interruption, and emotion, and layers to your dialogue.

With dialogue, you need someone who can talk to your main character. This is often why you include best friends in any story–they’re a great sounding board for your protagonist. Dialogue helps get motivation and understanding on the page. A friend can question the hero or heroine. “A gun? Why did you buy a gun?” the best friend says. And now the heroine can explain–or duck the question, or partially explain how she learned to use a gun from her ex who is an Army Ranger. So best friends can be very useful. They’re great to give the reader insight and an understanding of your main characters.

What about the character who has to act out of character? The person afraid of heights who suddenly climbs up the side of a building? Or the person who is non-violent who hits another person? Or the person who hates water who now dives into  a swimming pool?

A great guideline is that the more extreme the action is in terms of taking that character away from their core set of actions, the more you have to motivate that action.

So a woman who has to shoot a man who is threatening her baby, that motivation is clear and strong. Protection of a child is something every reader will understand. A reader may have a harder time believing a woman who shoots a man because  he touched her front door. The reader is going to wonder if she’s crazy. Or does she know something the reader doesn’t? As in she recognizes him as the man who killed her sister. This is where the reader NEEDS that critical information in order to understand the character.

It’s fine to have a little bit of mystery with characters–maybe you reveal after the action that this woman did know this man killed her sister. However, if you do too much of this remember you may not have a chance to let the reader know this fact. Hide or withhold too much and the reader may just abandon the story before the reader gets to that fact.

One of the eight rules of creating writing from Kurt Vonnegut is:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I’ve read more manuscripts by writers who haven’t mastered their craft where you can tell the writers is holding back on information about the character and either hinting at it or just not saying anything. The usual result is I stop reading. As a reader I lose interest and find the characters unlikeable and I don’t understand them. Why would I want to waste my time with such people?

Lack of understanding–not enough information–is a way to lose readers out of your story. Yes, you can also overdo the information. You’re have to be the middle bear and have not too much and not too little and just the right amount of information. This may means another draft, another set of edits, a read through from another writer or a reader, and some more edits.

But do listen to Kurt. Get your characters onto the page, doing things and going them for reasons that the reader understands. And this brings us to the last point.

Remember there is the story in your head, there is the story on the page, and there is the story in the reader’s head. Those three stories don’t always match.

You may understand your characters’ motivations, but did they get onto the page? Did they make it onto the page in a way the reader understands? Or have tangled sentences warped the meaning? Is the writing getting in the way of clarity?This can be a problem for a lot of writers who love words–you opt for those fancy pretty words. Go for clarity instead.

Think about aligning the story in your head, the story on the page, and the story in the reader’s head. Go for clear motivations in clear sentences that help your reader understand your characters.

Understanding of your protagonist is important–but apply this reasoning to all your characters. And even to your settings.






introductionsReader meet character–character, meet reader.

Character introductions are a bit tricky. Too much information and you risk boring your reader. Too little information and your reader doesn’t know enough about your character to really care what happens. So how do you get this right?

First off, you want to recognize that characters need to be introduced–dump a character on a reader and you risk confusing and that lack of caring. For example, a woman is running through the woods. Okay…so what. Why does this matter, why should I ( as a reader) care? Notice how the lack of information leaves an emotional void. Every character who has a name should be introduced–take a few sentences and sketch in some description or background or details that will make the reader interested in this person. The more important the character, the more important is that introduction.

Next, you want to use information that makes that character unique. A woman running through the woods is not unique–so what matters. What if she’s pregnant? Notice how that detail changes everything–therefore, that detail matters. Does it matter if she’s a red head or brunette? Not really. But it may matter if she’s a long-distance runner, or a housewife. So use the most important information up front in your introduction–you want relevant information.

After that, you want information that is geared to making the reader emotional invested in that character. A pregnant woman running through the woods–and running for her life–automatically generates reader emotion just because most people will care about such a vulnerable person (we’re wired that way). Same goes for a child who is in danger–we’re geared to start caring more for that child. So if you have a warrior swinging a sword, you might not get as much emotion–the reader figures, hey, he can look after himself. So you have to look at what else matters.

What is your character good at?

How is your character vulnerable?

Can you show your character doing something–taking some action–right off that will incline the reader to sympathy or admiration?

A great example is from Dick Francis, the mystery writer who was a  master of character introduction. He would often show his main character in the very first scene doing something that makes a reader “buy into” that character. For example, in one of his books, the hero saves a baby in a pram (or baby carriage) from a horse trailer that’s broken loose and is headed for the kid. That right there is going to make you inclined to like that guy–he is shown being a hero.

And that’s the next big point–be aware that what you SHOW your character doing is more important than what you tell the reader.

If you introduce a character and say she’s a wiz at magic, but you show her flubbing a spell, or show her picking flowers, the reader is included not to believe you telling and instead will believe this girl is a disaster.

The strongest introduction show the character’s core. Think of the opening of Indiana Jones–the first movie–where Indy is shown recovering a golden idol. We get right off that Indy is an amazing guy–he gets through traps that would kill anyone else. We also get his enemy set up (the man who takes the idol from him), and we get that he hates snakes. All useful information for anyone, and notice that we get both how Indy is admirable with his courage and vulnerable with his dislike of snakes. He’s not a perfect guy and that helps us to like him even more.

So step back and look at how are you introducing your characters. Are you taking enough time to handle a smooth introduction, are you getting in the important information, or just details that don’t really matter? Are you making sure you engage the reader emotionally before you dump the character (and the reader) into too much action?

Action without emotional investment will lead to a bored reader–so look to hook your readers into your characters with a strong introduction.

Plotting from Character

rosesI’m going to be teaching a workshop soon on this because it’s something I see in a lot of contest manuscripts–there’s a good start and then the synopsis slips into cliches or takes a left into what comes across as a contrived plot. This comes from forcing a set plot onto the characters instead of developing characters that bring their own conflicts and issues to the party.

Robert McKee who teaches one of the best classes there is on story structure states: story is character and character is story—if you change the story you must change your characters and if you change your characters your story will change.

What this means is that if you approach the plot (the things that happen) from the aspect of forcing certain actions to happen, you’re going to end up with a contrived story—the reader won’t believe the events because they are forced onto the characters. This is where you end up with the heroine kidnapped because she does something stupid, or the hero believes his girl is cheating on him just because he sees her with another guy, or some other external events forces the characters to do stupid things that really don’t match the character’s character.

To avoid this, you look for the story to come from the characters—you set up your characters to generate the plot (the things that happen) because the characters make choices. Those choices have consequences that generate new problems and the need for new choices.

So, how, exactly, do you go about doing this?

1. Start at the deepest point: for every character, find that person’s core need. (And, yes, you need to do this for all your characters, good guys and bad, and secondary characters, too.) Know what every character wants most in this life.

2. Find out why that character needs that one thing. When looking for these motivations for a character’s core need, discard the first two or three ideas. And look for motivations that happen early in life—we’re all shaped most strongly by those things that happen in our formative years.

3. In a romance, set up a potential mate who can’t provide that need for your main character (and know who really is the main character in the story).

4. Decide if your characters recognize their needs and motivations.

5. Go beyond he’s hot and she’s sexy for characters to click emotionally, mentally, and on levels beyond physical.

6. Layer.  Add traits that are strengths and ones that are weaknesses, make them compliment and contrast.

7. Give every character a secret.  Maybe even one that stays hidden in that story.

8. Focus the story on one character’s specific growth—that is your protagonist, and that person’s growth is at the heart of the book. Yes, in a romance you have a hero and a heroine, but one of them needs to be the main focus.

9. Put in clear, specific goals for each character. Avoid negative goals (she wants to avoid being killed)—the reader won’t know if the character archives this goal since it’s an avoidance goal. And make it tangible—a goal to be rich doesn’t mean much since one person’s rich might be a thousand dollars while another’s is a hundred million. In every scene, every character needs a goal. And your characters need a specific, tangible goal that sets the story into action.

10. Make sure every choice (and every failure) has consequences. It’s no good having a character whose goal is a “so what” goal. The character’s life, or at least their image of themselves, should be on the line. If the hero doesn’t get that promotion, he’s got to lose his wife, his home, and never be able to work in that profession again. If the heroine doesn’t find the three hundred dollars to keep her car, she should lose her child because she can’t keep a job and keep food on the table. There have to be costs for failure, otherwise why should the reader care.

Finally, if you get stuck for what happens next, go back to your characters and play the “what if” game with them. Look at throwing more obstacles at your character—how will that person react to this new problem? For example, if your heroine has to get a contract signed to get that promotion to VP to be able to afford the medical bills for her mother’s cancer, what if she finds out the contract is with a mobster? Is she still going to go for it? Or what if the guy does sign—and then shows up dead the next day? What does she do now? Or what if in the middle of the business meeting, she has an asthma attack? How will she handle that?

Look for how to make things worse for your characters—but always look at the story evolving from your characters reactions to those obstacles. Instead of thinking, “Oh, and then this will happen in the story and my character will do that.” Go for thinking, “What if this happens—how would I react to that if I were this person?” And let your story evolve from your characters so that your story is really about your characters, and your characters are your story.

And if you need to know more (or put this into practice), come and take the workshop–we’ll do some hands-on work with this.

Details, Details, Details

One of the biggest challenges with any historical novel is getting the details right. In the modern world, you can often go experience something instead of pulling the research out of the book. You can talk to a doctor, or a cop, or an EMT and get a lot of great details that you need. With any historical, the details often have to come second-hand from someone’s research.  The biggest trick in all of this is what’s enough?

The first thing you will always want to do with a cool fact is to share this–too many cool facts dug up in research and you can end up with a travel guide, not a story. This is where a reader can help a lot.

Border BrideWith my Regency novella, Border Bride, I wanted the details for the elopement to Gretna Green to be as accurate as possible–and I had dug up a lot of great details from Cary’s Itinerary (a terrific travel guide of the era). Handing the story to a reader, however, turned up the issue that the story was now reading like a travel guide, too. Too many details got in the way of the story. A little editing and the story was back up front where it needed to be.

Stolen AwayFor Stolen Away, another Regency novella, again a carriage ride featured in the story–more elopements, but this one not voluntary on the bride’s part. This was where my experiences with horses helped a lot–I know what it’s like to ride in a carriage and a cart, so those details came easily. But, again, the details had to be there to support the story.

But what do details give you?

Details are what make the world come alive for a reader. And the right details make the difference between a flat one-dimensional character and a fully alive character. This is where you have to know your world and your people. It’s more than just the color of someone’s eyes–it’s about how does that person express emotion (what details give away the emotion to the reader). It’s about the tastes, smells, sounds, and other senses that bring the world alive–what’s the weather like (and does the character like cold weather or hot?)? Sounds and smells are often overlooked details, and are some of the most evocative in terms of putting the reader into a place and time.

Silver LinksIn Silver Links, another Regency novella, the coastline became an important setting–the couple in the book met in Devon, near the coast. The smells of the sea became a part of the book–the sounds, too. And the heroine’s retreat from London to Devon was a vital part of the story. It both gave the heroine time to think about her problems, but it also became a symbol of renewal in the story.

And that’s something else that details provide–they become part of the story’s theme (which is why Silver Links is named that–it’s named that for the links of necklace that is broken, and it’s symbolic of the links of trust broken in the story as well).

So next time you’re reading–or writing–think about what are the right details for the scene? What do you need to put the reader in the room with the characters? What details will work with your theme?

Look for details that are not cliche–these will tend to leap to mind, so dig past them. Go for the detail that comes to mind after you’ve discarded four or five other ideas. Maybe the first idea that comes to mind are flowers and the scent of them–but that’s been used so often (flowers for love, flowers for death). That’s a good time to think deeper–to look at your characters and what would be meaningful to those characters. In a historical novel, those details need context, too. And that’s where you go back to your research to find the right detail you need–but just that one right detail.