Tag Archive | characters

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.


LiftWriters, if you do not want to look like a newbie who is just starting to learn your craft, there are a few things to avoid. Things that mark you as inexperienced—meaning your story is going to clunk. These things get between the reader and the story. These are things you need to fix, and that means you need to go hunting for these weak points.

1 – Show more by eliminating dialogue tags that tell everything. This means no more tags such as: he taunted, she exclaimed, he smirked, she pouted, he expounded, she tossed back, he leered, she sighed. All of these are telling the reader an emotion. You want to show emotion on the page.

Replace every telling dialogue tag with an action that better shows the character expressing an emotion. To do this, you must know your characters. How does your character pout? Does she stick out her lower lip, or bat her eyelashes? Does she fold her arm, or twirl a curl around her finger? How does your character leer? Does he overdo it, making it into a joke, or does his stare strip a woman bare? Show the emotion with actions.

2 – Show more, also, by eliminating places that simply tell the reader information. This is where you the author slip in to add a note.

For example, maybe you want to say something about a man’s grin, that it’s infectious, so you write: His grin widened and Sally found it infectious, so she smiled back.

This is you, the writer, are telling the reader the exact information instead of showing and letting the reader figure things out. Again, you have to know your characters—and this is where you show the grin being infectious, as in: His grin widened. Sally’s lips twitched, lifted; laughter rose like a bubble in her chest. Now you are showing Sally smiling back instead of telling the reader.

3 – Watch those lovely “writerly” phrases. Maybe you’ve come up with a clever line. The trouble is, if you’re deep into a character’s viewpoint and emotion, that clever line could throw the reader out of the scene. You have to look at the overall effect of the line—and you may need to cut it if you’re jumping out of character just to fit in the clever phrase.

For example, maybe you’ve described a woman as: Her honey-blond hair floated around her, a golden nimbus, a heavenly aura. That’s a fine description. But if you’re in the viewpoint of another woman who actually hates this honey-blond, you’ve gone for the clever phrase instead of showing the enmity between these women. This is where you save this clever phrase for another time and go for information that shows these two women being bitchy with each other.

4 – Do remember to show; get the emotion onto the page. A lot of novice writers forget about this vital part of the story. This is where you’ve got action, but the reader has no idea what the character feels about all that action.

For example, maybe you’ve got an exciting moment where the heroine of the story has jumped out to save a small boy from being hit by a car. She jumps out, grabs the boy. Great stuff. But…what’s she feeling? Is she frightened? Amped up on adrenaline? Is she angry, furious because this is her son and she’s told him five times not to go into the street after his baseball? Is she shaking? Is she covering up her feelings by acting tough because she’s a cop and she thinks cops should show emotion?

Again, you have to know your characters—and you have to give your readers a chance to get to know your characters, too, by putting in those emotions. Once you’ve finished the book (or any scene) go back and look to see if you wove in all those emotional reactions—or did you get just the action?

5 – If you show, don’t tell. Repetition shows insecurity—it means you are the master of your story. Trust the reader to get the information you’ve shown. You don’t have to show a guy slamming out the door and tell the reader in the next sentence: He was so angry he could spit nails. Trust your readers to get what the actions mean.

6 – Cut the clichés. We’re back to needing to know your characters—and needing to know them as unique individuals who do not have cliché actions and reactions. You want to show who your characters are by having them reveal their personalities with their actions and reaction—if you go for cliché actions, the characters become walking clichés, too.

This means no stalking into the room like a panther. No gazing into a mirror and doing an inventory of hair, eyes, and the standard description. No women (or men) who had their hearts broken once and so that person has vowed never to love again.

You want to know exactly why your character reacts or acts—you need to know that character’s motivations, and those motivations need to be based in deep, core personality issues. Your character must react in character.

7 – Show your character in action right away. This is vital. If you want the reader to believe your character is a kick-ass vampire slayer that character has to slay a vampire right off. It’s no good telling the reader this information, you must show the character being what that character is supposed to be. This is why Superman has to be super right off. This is why a crazy cop has to do something crazy right off so that everyone “gets” this is one crazy dude.

Start off by showing your character’s strengths and weaknesses right away—get those onto the page. It’s no good saying your hero is a healer—you have to have the guy heal someone. And it’s no good saying the healing costs him some of his own life each time—you have to show him aging or losing strength each time he heals.

Show more, tell less. Know your characters better than you know yourself and put that into the story. Get out of the way and let the characters carry the story. Everything else an editor can fix.

The Desert Island Test

It’s contest judging season, and I have to say most of the manuscripts I’ve seen lately have been failing my “desert island” test. It’s a test I put my own plot ideas through—and it sorts out if all you have going is external conflict.

The question to ask is: If I dropped the hero and heroine in my romance onto a desert island, would there still be any conflict? If the answer is no, you know you’ve put all the conflict into external circumstances. There’s a problem with this.

Stories need conflict—the more the better. When you short-change your characters by having them only focus on external issues, you’re short-changing the romance and the reader. We all have issues. And the hero and heroine in a romance need to have personal issues that relate to the external ones you create to the plot—but these should be core issues. Issues so deep that dropping these two people onto a desert island would result in more than a few arguments—it might even result in separate living quarters on opposite sides of the island.

A good demonstration of this actually showed up in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Captain Jack and Elizabeth are stuck on a desert island. Now these two are not the hero and heroine of a romance—the movie’s action/adventure—but you get instant conflict. She has ideas about how he should be acting, and he has ideas about getting drunk on rum, and since she’s here maybe he’ll have sex with her. The rum goes into an alert fire, thanks to Elizabeth. And now he’s ready to feed her to the sharks. She’s proper—he’s not. She’s focused on being active, facing their situation, taking charge—he’s focused on trying to avoid most everything, particularly the situation. You have personality conflicts showing up in action. That’s what makes a good romance into a great one.

Here’s the trick with this—it’s no good just giving a character arbitrary personal issues. These issues have to rub against the other person’s issues—if she likes cats, he has to be  dog guy, and vice versa. They have to be motivated in the character’s past—that makes the character more believable as a real person. And they work best if they have something to do with the external issues as well. As in, if these are cat and dog people, animals should probably come into the external problems (which is why you see stories about shape shifters and he’s a wolfman and she’s a cat-person quite literally—that’s amplified personal conflict since cat and dogs don’t even speak the same language).

For example, if you have a heroine who has been brought up a tom-boy, she’s going to have a pretty blunt way of taking action. She’s going to be insecure about having much skill with feminine grace, and she may end up pushy and take-charge. This is going to rub against a guy who is also take-charge and who has a pretty blunt way of taking actions. This is where being too much alike creates as much friction as does two opposites. I used this in Barely Proper for part of the conflict between here and heroine. I also did something similar in Under the Kissing Bough—the hero and heroine are two people with deep insecurities. They have different ways of hiding that they don’t feel adequate, but their insecurities keep cropping up and coming between them. For A Proper Mistress I went for the opposites. The heroine is level-headed and practical—she’s had to be due to her past. The hero is a bit of a wild cannon. They both learn from each other—she learns to enjoy spontaneity, and he learns a bit about responsibilities. So their issues become strengths to the other person—that makes for a very satisfying relationship, and a satisfying read.

So take a look at your characters—what would happen if you dropped them onto a desert island? Would they get along fine? Would one take charge and the other would allow it and all is good? Or would they fight and argue best plans for rescue? Would one be all about accepting the situation while the other is fighting it? Would one be exploring the island while the other hugs the beach, refusing to go into the dark jungle? How would their personalities clash—and how would their personalities complement each other?

Characters and Contests and Stories–oh, my

Been doing the contest reading thing, and have to say, people–writing skills are good, but story telling skills?  Bleh.  Are all the writing classes/workshops out there focused on technique, and not how to build a story (as in how to build solid characters)?

Two biggest mistakes I’m seeing on a regular basis is that folks seem to mistake backstory for characterization.  People, backstory is what happened to someone.  Characterization is how a person deals with, or has dealt, with those happenings–it’s their innate ticks that make them unique.  You can have two people both with the same event in their past–and you’ll get two different reactions.  But what I’m reading mostly just has characters shoved through a plot.  Not good.  And that brings up the other big mistake–plot needs to come from characters, folks.  If you make up events and throw them at your characters, the characters need to react ‘in character’.  If they don’t, plot comes across as ‘contrived’ — it feels made up.

And, yes, I know–fiction is made up.  But this is a magic act, people.  Story telling gives the illusion of real people. Fake people have to be more internally consistent, more structured, more real than real people ever are, or the illusion doesn’t work.

So–is this not being taught anywhere?  Are we producing people with writing skills, but no story telling skills?  I have to say, I’d much rather be bitching about untangling sentences, or making paragraphs make sense, or even adding tension to a scene, or how to punch dialogue–those are all common enough mistakes, but that’s craft you can learn.  Or is this the thing you really can’t teach?  Is this something you figure out on your own, the skill that isn’t a skill, but is a knack or a gift, or is something that you have or don’t?