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March 15, 2012 by in category Archives tagged as , ,

One of the nicest compliments I ever received was from a reviewer who called “Josie Bates (heroine of my witness series) one of the best characters ever”. For an author, that is the highest praise.

Think about the millions of words written about thousands of fictional people, and then ask yourself how many stuck in your mind, reside in your heart, or continue to haunt you years after reading the book? If you’re like me, there are a handful of such characters in your memory. My list includes:

Gone With the Wind: Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler and Miss Mellie.

Princess Bride: Buttercup, Inigo Montoya, Westley

The Hunger Games: Katniss

Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Lisabeth Salander

Johnny Oops: Johnny Oops (a fine Indie book)

Analyzing these characters helped me become a better writer, and here’s what I have learned. Memorable characters are:

Spiritually Unique: Villain or hero, each one has his or her own demons and desires, strengths and weaknesses. Strength on its own is uninteresting without weakness.

Physically identifiable: A great character manifests his or her uniqueness in dress, mannerisms, and speech patterns. Imagine an actor tackling your character on screen. Can you hear them? See them? Are they so real you would know them walking down the street?

Logical: A character with a unique speech pattern may amuse your reader for a while but if the words coming out of that character’s mouth aren’t appropriate to story, plot and core of that character, the affectations is illogical.

Unapologetic: Readers may not always embrace your vision, but if you give a character an unusual life, let them live it. Do not be swayed by fear of political incorrectness or tempted to take the safe route. Writing is about nurturing your bold voice.

Purposeful: A character’s journey is guided by principles born of experiences. In Josie Bates’ case, she is formed by her mother’s abandonment (personal) and her belief that the law and justice are two separate things (professional). The author’s objective is to create a passionate character who is willing to go to great lengths to protect what they believe in or secure what they desire.

For Example…

• Katniss’s (Hunger Games) and Scarlett’s (Gone With the Wind) fight for basic survival.

• Westley’s (Princess Bride) relentless search for his lost and true love.

• Salandar’s (Dragon Tattoo) desperate desire for self-determination.

• Rhett Butler’s (Gone With the Wind) code of honesty.

• Melanie’s (Gone with the Wind) passionate belief in Scarlett’s inherent goodness.

• Johnny Oops’ (Johnny Oops) wry but heartfelt search to define his teenage self.

Don’t be afraid to refine your characters. We are not born the people we will become; neither are those who populate your books. Nurture them, define them, polish them and they will live in the reader’s memory for a very long time.

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Love Notes: Hitting the Right Ones

February 15, 2012 by in category Archives tagged as , , , ,

It’s Valentine’s Day once again. Time to express our love, admiration and/or adoration with candy, flowers, and cards in colorful envelopes.
It is the card in a colorful envelope that makes me sweat. Over the course of thirty-five Valentine’s Days with my husband, I have penned every permutation of ‘I Love You’ that I can think of. Sitting with the yearly card in front of me, wishing it was already in the envelope, I was stumped. My mind wandered to the words we choose as authors to express love between our characters.
To that end, I took my favorite passage from Hostile Witness and analyzed why I found it sexy, deep and real. Every author is different, but here is here is how I believe I hit the right love notes between Josie and Archer in the Witness Series.*


Introduction of my characters’ relationship

Josie got out of bed and searched for her clothes. She found her muscle shirt and panties but the sweats and sports bra were missing in action. (Sure I could have said ‘naked’, but I liked that the action implied that. This passage felt sexy to me) She shimmied into what she had, glanced at the picture of Lexi, Archer’s dead wife, and then went looking for the man they shared. (This note creates an instant characterization of Archer as unafraid of commitment and Josie as a woman who honors his first love). She found him on the rooftop balcony, a perk of owning the building.

“Morning,” Josie walked up behind him and wound her arms around his waist. He was a big man; made her feel downright dainty. She loved the smell of his shirt. Starched and pressed by the man who wore it. (Archer is a guy who can fend for himself, something an independent woman would love. Josie’s note about his size making her feel dainty, tells us that she is not a small woman and that she doesn’t mind feeling feminine.)

“Don’t move,” he commanded.

Josie didn’t but only because she didn’t want to. (Josie chooses to do what her lover asks.) She held her breath, loving the feel of him when he was excited by what he saw through his lens. His gut tightened beneath her hands. A solitary muscle rippled. Quick like a snake. A click. He sighed with satisfaction and stood up slowly, surveying the beach once more before turning around to kiss Josie. (To me, a detail is very telling. Her notice of the one muscle rippling speaks to how familiar Josie is with her lover’s body.) She kissed him back just long enough for them both to be happy. (She cares about his needs). When she slipped out of his arms, he let her go. (He understands her.) No nonsense. No jealousy. No neediness. Respect. Affection. Comfort. Chemistry. It was the kind of relationship people who could take care of themselves did well. (Deep love in a nutshell).

Writing love scenes is as challenging as writing sex scenes. Sometimes they are one and the same, sometimes they aren’t. The way to create successful, believable relationships between characters is to ‘show’ their reality and shade a your character’s lives with the extra notes that provide a background to the more prominent melody.

The end result of communicating a fabulous fictional relationship should seem effortless despite all your hand work – just like real life love.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

*Josie and Archer’s love has lived on for 4 books, the fifth is being written. I love lasting relationships!

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The Santa Shop Entertains & Inspires

December 15, 2011 by in category Archives tagged as , ,

This morning (Sunday) I was supposed to work on my new book – the one I intend to complete for a December release. Instead, I snuggled down in my warm bed and finished an e-book called The Santa Shop (The Santa Conspiracy) by Tim Greaton.

The Santa Shop is a short novel, but it was epic in its affect on me. This wonderfully crafted work held my attention, played on my emotions (yes, I wiped away a few tears at the end), made me think, and made me want to be an author just like Tim.

After I got over the heady reader-delight of having just read a good book, I also realized that I had been given the gift of professional inspiration. I realized that if I was agonizing over my work, maybe there was something wrong. If I had a good story, it should unfold; if I couldn’t figure out which direction to go, perhaps I was trying to fabricate a story where one didn’t exist. The Santa Shop was a story waiting to be told. It really was as simple as that and here’s why it worked.

I was instantly invested in the main character, Skip. I knew his circumstances, the joy and tragedy of his backstory, the pain of his current situation, and the torture in his heart and soul within the first chapter. I went with Skip on a journey that was equally spare and eloquent in the telling. I saw through Skip’s eyes. I felt with his heart. I worried that he would not survive. I wanted a happy ending. I longed for a happy ending and, as anyone who reads my books knows, I am not a happy ending, ribbons-and-bows kind of gal.

However, it wasn’t until I reached the last page and read the very last word that I realized it was not Skip who was leading me on, it was Tim. If this author agonized about word count, it didn’t show. If he struggled to find just the right turn of phrase, it didn’t show. If he edited this baby for a year, it didn’t show. Therein lies the brilliance of what he accomplished. I never had to work for my literary pleasure. For a reader, there is no better experience; for a writer, there is no better lesson.

So, on this chilly Sunday morning, I want to thank Tim Greaton for reminding me of the very simple lessons to creating a good book:

1) Have a story, not an idea.

2) Know your character, not just his or her name.

3) Write as if you are pointing the way not giving directions.

4) Stop when the story is told.

Finally, no matter how complex the plot, no matter how many characters are in a book, no matter how intricate relationships we create for our fictional friends, we, as authors, should not be present in the books we write. Simplicity – whether natural or hard won – is the key to writing a wonderful book.

Thanks, Tim, for the gift of The Santa Shop.

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Add Conflict to your Story with a Down & Dirty Fight

August 18, 2011 by in category Archives tagged as , , , , ,

by Jenny Hansen

Today we’re going to talk about Dirty Fighting. What is it, and why do you want to do it?

To start at the beginning, last weekend my honey was cleaning the office and he came across a piece of paper that made us laugh our faces off. This four page document he found – called, “Dirty Fighting Techniques” – helped save our relationship back in 2006.

Note: Dirty Fighting isn’t about some how-to guide on Jujitsu or Street Fighting. Nope, it’s actually a list of twenty-two items given to us by our counselor to teach us the difference between the Dirty Fighting Techniques practiced by most people and the clean-as-a-whistle fighting he wanted us to strive for.

We’ve got to understand the goal before we can turn it upside down on its head, right?

What is clean fighting?

Clean Fighting follows these basic rules:

  • Take responsibility for your own stuff. Also known as “cleaning up your own side of the street.” I know it sucks when you’re mad and you clean up your side while the other person leaves their big cow patties steaming, but lead by example on this one. It helps when someone steps up to be the bigger person.
  • Leave the other person an “out with dignity.” This is most often achieved by understanding that there might be facts you don’t know.
  • “I” statements are always going to work better when you’re pissed off than “you” statements. And don’t try to cheat with crap like, “I understand that you’re a selfish bastard.”
  • Talk about the behavior in those “I” statements, not any personality disorders you think they should address.
  • Stick to the point. Resist throwing in the kitchen sink of laments spanning back over months of why they’re a (fill in the blank).
  • Deliberately pushing buttons is REALLY dirty. The weak underbelly is to be avoided, even if you’re thinking your partner is lower than a yellow-bellied toad for siding with your mother-in-law over you.

Here is a clean fight summed up in 4 easy steps:

1. How you feel (use an “I” statement for this)
2. The behavior that prompted that feeling
3. Why it’s important/the background (i.e. what button did they push)
4. What would you want them to do differently next time

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Go try it. It’s really hard to do when you’re mad. Most people who are angry fight dirty. Clean fighting takes some rigorous training.

 Now let me ask you something. Do you really think your characters have had any of this sort of training? It’s pretty unlikely unless you’re writing about a psychologist. It’s much more likely that your character will be flawed like the rest of us.

What Makes Great Fiction?

  • Great books are filled with conflict.
  • And great characters (who learn important lessons).
  • Great fiction rips emotion out of us readers.
  • Oftentimes a great book will make you see yourself inside those pages.

Understanding the difference between clean and dirty fighting will give you a TON of mileage in your own stories. If you need plausible arguments and dialog, Dirty Fighting Techniques will help you achieve this. These techniques can be applied with a friend, family member or a significant other…it doesn’t really matter.

Every entry I’m sharing is guaranteed to make the other person see red. If you’re writing fiction, that anger and tension is a REALLY good thing. If I give you all twenty-two at once, it will be like taking a drink of water from a fire hydrant so we’re going to start with the five that will work best in fiction.

FIVE?? That’s all the Dirty Fighting I get off that list, you might ask… Yep. Five is all you get…until the next time we discuss the topic. I’m gonna make this a multi-part post so you have time to really roll around in the Dirty Fighting Swamp. Go ahead, get dirty. Be the bog.

As I said earlier, great books are filled with conflict. And great characters who learn important lessons. Plus, dialog is the number one way to do several fun things like move your story quickly and legally bring in backstory.

Note: For a rundown of the perils of Back Story, read Kristen Lamb’s Monday post.

OK, now that you’re into the Dirty Fighting spirit, let’s discuss your dialogue. A few wonderful posts come immediately to mind:

 However, one of the problems I have with reading about dialog is that every character is unique and, even though the examples are usually awesome, my characters would never say those things. How do you think of creative things to say that would apply ONLY to our character?

One answer is to make him or her fight.

Since gratuitous fighting in a story is like gratuitous sex (kinda boring if there’s no real connection or reason for it), the author needs to find a great reason for the fight. How you use the fight is up to you but I think the easiest way to pave the road to this rad fight is to discover what your characters really want. Then dig down for what they really, really want. (You’ll remember this trick from Leanne Banks.)

DON’T give it to them. Or at least, don’t give it too soon.

Then flake away more layers to uncover what your character really fears. Then what they really, really fear. DO give that to them!  This is where things get interesting. You not only have characters who are upset, you’ve also found a myriad of ways to slide everybody deeper into your story. To do this, ask your character questions.

Perhaps you’ll use the 9 questions I discussed a few weeks back in my post on Character Engagement or new ones that are all your own. Below are some of mine to help you get started.

1. What matters most to this character? (What is he or she most afraid to lose?)
2. Who matters most? (This is usually the person they are most afraid to lose.)
3. How did the character’s parents fight?
4. How did the character’s parents interact with him or her?
5. What does this character wish he or she had gotten in childhood?
6. What does my character want to be when they grow up

All of these questions can provide you with cues about where your character is “broken” and give you ideas about fixing the broken part (i.e. Fix = Lesson).

Now it’s time to unleash that fight! BRING. IT. ON!!

Below are my top five Dirty Fighting Techniques for adding tension and plotting options to your story. I’ll save the rest for a later post so you can really play with the first five. (Your sarcasm muscle – which is always used in a Dirty Dogfight – should get a quick flex before you begin.)

#1 – Triangulating: Don’t leave the issue between you and your conflict partner (could be a family member, friend or love interest), pull everybody in. Quote well-known authorities who agree with you and list every family member whom you know has taken your side (and lie about the ones you haven’t spoken to yet).

Uses: Triangulating is incredibly useful in fiction because you can expand the discussion to more characters and stir up some real drama. Let’s not keep this issue between just us, one character says to the other. Oh no, lets involve everybody.

If you have extreme Dirty Fighting Talent, you can stir the pot and then step back and play a new game called, “Let’s watch the other two people fight.” That’s good times.

#2 – Escalating: Quickly move from the main issue of the argument to questioning your partner’s basic personality, and then move on to wondering whether the relationship is even worth it. Blame your partner for having a flawed personality so that a happy relationship will be impossible.

Uses: Excellent tool for keeping two love interests apart. BUT, the fight better be about something that really, really matters or you risk falling into the Bog of Coincidence and most stories don’t have enough muscle to climb out of that place.

Escalating also allows for plausible use of Back Story. When you’re moving from the main
issue to the REAL issue (often happens at the black moment / end of Act 2), escalating the argument will make someone lose control enough that they blurt out something juicy. Way to go, Author!

#3 – Leaving: No problem is so big or important that it can’t be ignored or abandoned all together. Walk out of the room, leave the house, or just refuse to talk. Sometimes just threatening to leave can accomplish the same thing without all the inconvenience of following through.

Uses: My favorite use of this is employing it when the two characters really need each other. It completely ups the betrayal factor: I can’t depend on you, I don’t trust you, You’ve let me down.

You noticed how dirty that last statement was, right? Not a clean fight to be found anywhere with “leaving,” which is fantastic for your story! The farther your character falls, the harder the journey is on the way back up, right?

#4 – Timing: Look for a time when your partner is least able to respond or least expects an argument.

Uses: Think about this from a story point of view. A really great time to pick a fight is just before the main character embarks on a journey, has a new murder to solve, is called on to save the world. Anything with high stakes works great. Be sure the character ambushing them is a likeable one so the reader REALLY gets drawn into the conflict.

#5 – Rejecting Compromise: Never back down. Stick with the philosophy that only one of you can win.

Uses: This is a kickass Dirty Fighting trick to use on the main character. If there is only one winner, there is automatic conflict involved for the person who “loses.” The solutions are endless.

What do you think? What are some other ways you could use a good fight to help your
character grow or advance your story? Do you use any of the five techniques in your own life…come on, you can tell us! Let’s hear your fabulous Dirty (Fighting) Thoughts!


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Keep Your Characters True To Themselves

June 10, 2011 by in category Archives tagged as , ,

By Sharla Rae

Hey, who’s telling this story?

I can make my characters do or say anything I want them to.

Many beginning writers subscribe to this theory.

I hate to break anyone’s bubble but that’s hogwash.

When introducing characters, the author breathes life into them with a physical description, personality, goals and motivations. They look, act and think in a particular manner. Just like real people. If the character doesn’t stay true to themselves, their actions will make no sense and readers are pulled out of the story.


  •  The drunken, hardnosed character Rooster Cogburn, (John Wayne in True Grit) suddenly goes soft on Mattie Ross, Kim Darby’s character?
  • Mary Poppins takes a belt to her charges?
  • 007 gives up his cool and goes mushy over his many sexual encounters.

Would you believe it? No. Because in each case the writer showed the reader who these people are – on the surface and deep down.

Two of the most common out-of-character traps involve age appropriate problems and inconsistent behavior. Ask these questions:

  • Do my characters act their age? A mature woman or man of 30 to 35 years of age will not act, think or speak like a teen or young person fresh out of college. Recently I read a published book where a 32 year old female executive talked like a teeny-bopper when she got together with her thirty-something girlfriends of the same age. It totally threw me. Women of all ages talk a little trash with girlfriends but the nature of their conversations, even the language is different between age groups.
  • Do my characters act and react in a manner consistent with their personality?Someone afraid of heights doesn’t climb a ladder. A grouchy loner doesn’t suddenly play slap-stick jokes on people. A prissy little girl won’t want to play baseball with the neighbor boys.

If a character does something that would never come naturally to them, they must have a good reason/motivation for the change of behavior. Example: The character who is afraid of heights might climb a ladder if a rabid dog is on her heels. An honest cop might rob a bank if villains are holding his family hostage.

My favorite tools to keep my characters in line are Character profile sheets, Horoscope personality profiles and Research.

The number one rule in using these tools is: Always connect the dots between them. Character profile worksheets serve as fast and easy reminders to writers. They include a list of physical descriptions, best friends, dress, enemies, ambitions/goals, sense of humor, temper, basic nature, personal quirks, habits, talents, hobbies, family backgrounds, profession, educational background etc. .

A common weakness in these profile sheets is that they shed little light on personality. That’s why I dig deeper. I search horoscope signs for personalities that best match my characters. Whether you believe in horoscope readings or not, the personalities listed under sun signs provide a great basic outline of a particular personality.

Horoscope personalities are especially helpful in determining how a character will react to a particular situation. Example: How would a hero with a Cancer personality react if he lost all his money or fell into a fortune? Money is no joke to the taciturn crab.

There are many horoscope books but I love Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. This treasure lists the general characteristics of each sign and more. For instance, Goodman describes the Taurus child, Taurus adult male and female, Taurus boss and employee — the total personality package. She also explains how these personalities interact with each other.

What about a character’s romantic relationships? Linda Goodman’s Love Signs  is amazing. Each sun sign is listed and then coupled with all the other signs to point out what the good and bad matches may look like, why they work or why they won’t. Example: Aries with an Aries, Aries with a Capricorn, Aries with a Taurus etc. Goodman further breaks it down into the female and male of each sign. Example: Aries female with Capricorn male or Capricorn female with an Aries male etc. .

Note: While Linda Goodman has passed, her books are still available. I recently looked at another Linda Goodman book on Amazon called Linda Goodman’s Relationship Signs. The contents suggest it contains a relationship chart worksheet. Sounds very interesting!

Do your research.

Horoscopes don’t cover nitty-gritty idiosyncrasies. What if you’re writing about a thief, a slave, an ad executive etc.? Research types of characters by reading autobiographies and biographies of real people who share a similar background with your character. Writing about a serial killer? Read serial killer profiles. Writing about a Hollywood star? Read up on their lives, their business and what it’s like to walk in their shoes. Then connect the dots. Determine for instance how your Aries female will handle her stardom.

Okay, say you’ve chosen your sun sign and done your research, but the personality thing still doesn’t quite jive with what you had in mind. We all know people who don’t fit the mold and characters are no different. So, can we color outside the lines or are these personalities set in stone?

Color outside the lines but don’t let the crayon slide off the tablet.

Here’s a real-life example: My friend is a Gemini but she was born on May 24th making her very close to Taurus. Most of the time she is more Taurus than Gemini, but she does share traits of each. It’s okay to combine personalities if it suits your purpose. It actually makes for a more interesting character, perhaps one with more layers. Just make sure to outline the personality carefully and keep the character true to him or herself.

What about character arc/growth? While characters learn from experience and goals may change as the plot evolves, their basic personality won’t change. The manner in which they handle situations or problems should always reflect who they are – even when they’re pressured into something that isn’t natural to them. Connect the dots.  Like all tools, profile worksheets, horoscope personalities and research aren’t failsafe, but they are great guides for new writers and even for the seasoned writer who is writing a complicated character.

Helpful Links:

So, how do you keep your characters true to themselves?

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