Thursday, June 23, 2016

Creating Original Protagonists

A few reviewers of my books have asked, rhetorically, how I come up with such original characters. We, as writers and readers, know there is no such thing as an original character. My protagonists have all been written before in one book or another, going back hundreds of years. My only recipe for creating characters is to make them human, with all the flaws of real people, because, you know, no one is perfect.

It’s challenging to write a character who might not be likable—an unrepentant, high-priced call girl (Hooked), a brooding, bordering-on-surly man who spent fifteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit (Murder Déjà Vu),
a cheating wife (Indiscretion), or a con artist psychic (Mind Games)—and make the reader like and even root for them. There are even times when my villain elicits pity, but not for long. Villains are people too, remember, and should be more well-rounded than just evil, though I have a couple of those too.

Where do these people come from?

Writers get ideas for stories all the time. It may be an organic idea or something we see or hear that triggers a story and/or a character. The hooker in Hooked—get the title?—resulted from the true story of a New York governor who got caught paying for a high-priced call girl, after, as attorney general, he broke up prostitution rings. He resigned because of it. Figuring out the kind of man who does that isn’t difficult: he thinks he’s above the law. But what kind of woman sells herself? The research was eye-opening. Actresses, students, and housewives, among others, turning tricks to make extra money is not uncommon. Some, like my character, make a lot of money. Who knew?

My surly ex-con in Murder Déjà Vu came from one of the many stories I heard about how DNA results freed a man who spent years in prison. My guy is released when a cop admits the crime scene had been tainted. That frees him, but it doesn’t absolve him from the murder, so some still think he committed the crime, including his father. What does fifteen years in prison do to a man? He’ll never be the same, never be able to pick up his life where it left off when a murder, trial, and conviction sent him away for what could have been the rest of his life.

My idea for the blind psychologist in InSight
came from watching blind students run at a track meet at South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind when my runner son was in high school. I was amazed and awed, so my blind character runs with a guide. Then I saw a story about a deaf cop and added him to the mix. Could the blind psychologist help the bitter deaf cop? Could they help each other?

I always wondered what happened to the paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum twenty-five years ago, so I wrote a book, Indiscretion, and solved the crime—not really, but it was fun imagining.

Unfortunately, it isn’t hard to find true stories about child abuse and abuse toward women. These are not themes that appeal to everyone, but the subject matter is important. What becomes of an abused child in adulthood? I think I created an intriguing character in Threads, maybe one of my best. Readers agreed. Can he help a woman who was a victim of abuse? What do you think?

I’m drawn to conflicted characters from real life situations, then create a “what if” circumstance. Does the hooker heroine find a better path? Does the architect ex-con get some semblance of his life-before-prison back? Do the two damaged people in Threads find a way to put their pasts behind them and survive? I try to keep the stories and characters real and believable, but sometimes there are no pat answers in fiction. That’s okay. There are no pat answers in life either.

Polly Iyer is the author of seven novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and three books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, and Backlash. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Too Much Information

Click to enlarge
I’m blown away by the amount and variety of information available on the web.

For instance, the scanned archives of the UK Meteorological Office tell me gale force winds blew across England on April 8th and 9th in 1928. It so happens that my story requires a sunny period just then (It’s all tied up with the date of Easter and therefore the Easter school holidays, so I can’t change the dates). What’s more, there were thunderstorms on the 10th.

And talk about floods of detail: “much rain occurred widely” on the 2nd through 5th, especially in the Southeast, where London is, the setting for the book. Oh well, gales or no gales, the temperature was above normal from the 6th to the 9th.

In the old days, I could make the weather whatever I wanted and never think twice about it. Now, I shall make it what I need—and feel guilty. And wonder whether I ought to appease the Weather God and possible research-minded readers with a disclaimer at the end...

At the other extreme, in 1979 I wrote my first book with just a couple of books for reference, Prince of Pleasure and the Shell Guide to England. Not only was there no web overstuffed with data, but there was no Amazon to help find the books, often out of print, that might be relevant. You were limited to what your library possessed or you happened to come across in a book store.

Apart from the problem of whether to fudge the weather reports, an excess of information has one major hazard: the info dump.

Science fiction is particularly prone to drowning the reader in a mass of data that holds up the narrative while the entire genesis of an imaginary world is explained. But such dumps can be found in all kinds of fiction.

Perhaps half the art of writing is the art of knowing what to leave out.

Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies. The paperback edition of Superfluous Women is now available to pre-order. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Are Your Protagonists Powerful or Pitiful?

Grist for the writing mill springs from a variety of sources: strangers, situations, people watching, news or human interest pieces, others’ books, family members, history, personal experiences, and the list goes on. When an idea sprouts from one of those seeds and takes root, we then face the task of choosing the right protagonist(s) to tell our story.

My first novel has one protagonist, several strong supporting characters, and multiple points of view. The second has three protagonists, also multiple points of view, and is growing into a series despite my reluctance. The three simply have more to share than can fit comfortably into one volume. Because the protagonist can make or break a story, even if it is plot driven, we need to give serious thought to this vital element. Will our intended audience connect with him or her? Is she a fully developed, three-dimensional character with endearing qualities and annoying faults just like us? Does he stand up off the page and invite us into his cheering section? Can she adequately engage our readers to follow her story page after page all the way to the end?

My protagonists’ personalities often evolve from bits and pieces of people I know, have read about, even myself. Then, before committing a single word to paper (or hard drive), I get to know them. How? By creating detailed character sketches that include parents, grandparents, siblings, education, ethnic background, likes and dislikes, quirks, good and bad experiences, and so forth. I study their vulnerabilities and learn what makes them tick. Then I bring them to life. Powerful individuals whose hidden strengths might not at first be evident, these protagonists pick themselves up when they are knocked down, face their foes with determination, and touch the hearts of all who venture into their pages.

Pitiful protagonists, on the other hand, don’t engender sympathy or inspire readers to care what happens to them. They lie on the page feeling sorry for themselves, do nothing to improve their lives or anyone else’s, and discourage readers from ever buying another novel by that author. They don’t inspire readers. They don’t sell books.

How do you develop your protagonists? Are they based on real people? Are they composites? What techniques do you use to connect them to your readers?

Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Fishing And Writing

It's been a while since Slim Randles has been here with an update on how Dud is progressing with his book. He's been writing his for more years than most of us put into a single book, and he shared some of his thoughts on the writing process in a post here on October 2013. He still isn't finished with his book, but, then, he seems to be having trouble with his characters. This is probably a good illustration of the importance of putting believable protagonists together. (See how I slipped the June theme in here.)

Dud was down at The Lunker Hole on Lewis Creek before it even turned yellow in the east. He had some thinking to do, and, as everyone knows, there’s no better way to think than fly fishing.

And The Lunker (and it’s capitalized on purpose) is a good trout to think by. Why? Because everyone also knows you’re not going to catch him, so it gives you thinking time.

Just about the time Dud could make out The Lunker’s rock at the head of the hole, he had gotten a tiny midge tied on some leader and sent it on its way to the general vicinity of the rock.

It floated slowly downstream without being bothered by piscatorial pirates, and when the line told him he’d reached as far downstream as he could on this cast, he picked it up, waved it dry and cast back up at the rock.

Okay, that was a decent thinking time, so it was well to get started.

It’s the book, of course. Dud’s worked on it for years now.

Why do I do it? It doesn’t make any sense. If I spent that time washing dishes down at the Mule Barn truck stop, I’d make more money. And the title? I like Murder in the Soggy Bottoms, but my friends keep calling it The Duchess and the Truck Driver. Maybe I should change it?

Okay, pick up the fly and send it back up to that rock again.

And the love stuff … the truck driver and the duchess are nuts about each other and have a kid in common from when he was in Europe on special assignment the last time. And the language problem. The duchess speaks a couple of European languages and the truck driver is from the South and likes to use air brakes as he comes down the hill past her castle. But if they are so different, how did they have a kid together?

Cast upstream again. Wait. False cast until the fly is dry then … yeah, like that.

You know, it doesn’t make any sense, but some people actually write more than one book!

They have to be cheating somehow… they’ve GOT to be cheating…

The Home Country radio show will be coming soon to a radio station near you! New, from Syndication Networks.

Slim Randles writes a nationally syndicated column, Home Country, and is the author of a number of books including  Saddle Up: A Cowboy Guide to Writing. That title, and others, are published by  LPD Press.

Posted by Maryann Miller - novelist, editor and sometimes actress. Visit her Amazon Author page to find a list of all of her books, and you can see her editing rates and references on her website. Maryann is on Facebook and Twitter, and her Twitter handle is @maryannwrites. Her most recent book releases are Doubletake and Boxes For Beds, both mysteries that are available for Kindle and in paper. When not working, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas. Slim Randles always makes her laugh.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

When Do You Fire A Protagonist?

Image from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen/Illustrator: Charles E. Brock (Macmillan & Co, 1895)

I picked the wrong protagonist. It took 20 versions and 100 pages of my historical novel-in-progress for me to admit fellow work-shoppers were right. I value feedback from writers I respect, but I do take care to avoid group-think. In this case, colleagues simply called to my attention what my manuscript was already screaming: “You have to rewrite me from a different point of view!”

The problem was that I had chosen to write a story revolving around a girl who was only three years old at the start of the tale. I thought she would turn thirteen within a couple of chapters. She didn’t.

I had one other point-of-view character to play with, but he was already playing the role of antagonist.

Many great adult novels have child protagonists—To Kill A Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and The Secret Life of Bees to name a few—but rarely are they toddlers. Francie Nolan spends only the briefest time as a baby in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and author Betty Smith deftly handles that with an omniscient voice. That was not the most effective voice for my story.

Me? I was about to saddle readers with the limited perspective of a barely verbal child. I don’t believe a protagonist is required to be relatable, but this was a bridge too far: a character too young for self-reflection, empathy, or the ability to decode social cues. She lacked the vocabulary for complex sensory experience or dialogue, was incapable of hiding secret motivations, was unaware of mortality. I had written this kiddie into a corner.

She would have turned thirteen halfway through the novel, but that was too long. I could not start the story later because of the way the plot was designed to move toward a shocking but inevitable event.

I had to fire my protagonist.

For her replacement, I turned to her twelve-year-old sister, whose relationship with the little girl was central to the story. This was not a matter of simply making whatever happened to the little sister now happen to the big sister. Although the basic plot and events remained the same, I had to filter those experiences through a different mindset.

In some ways, I was starting from scratch.

What’s more, the two sisters could not be together every moment, so I had to give up many scenes I had imagined and replace them with something as yet unimagined. I was crushed to realize that the antagonist and the little sister would be the only witnesses to the event I believed was most critical, which meant readers would have to witness it through the antagonist’s perspective instead of the protagonist’s. I felt as if I were leaving readers alone with a bad man. Worse, I feared I was leaving the new protagonist out of a critical piece of the puzzle.

I was wrong.

Writers don’t put together ready-made puzzles. We create puzzles through the process of writing.

My new choices forced me to face the way events in a family ripple outward, to dig deeper into what family means, to consider why we try to protect our loved ones and why we fail, to explore sexual politics. I spent more time developing the antagonist’s relationship with the new protagonist. Then I used his effects on her to forge her into a hero I never expected.

At first, my new protagonist seemed to me to lack fire. She was domestic, obedient, motherly, unambitious, feminine. She married at thirteen, a tragedy in itself. I married at 39, which some might consider tragic, but it was my choice.

I could not relate to her at all.

My challenge was to find reflections of her within myself, and to ask: how can I give victory to this girl within the confines of her historical era, domestic sphere, and economic limitations. How can I liberate a pre-feminist woman?

It’s not a new trick. Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Louisa May Alcott all came into their powers before women’s suffrage. They were feminists before feminism, their protagonists as subversive as many modern female protagonists—for simply insisting their viewpoint mattered. I’ve also sought to honor my protagonist’s role in the sphere of hearth and home, to reveal how sacred that role can be.

As with any worthy endeavor, I’ve faced unexpected challenges, which have taught me unexpected lessons, which have led to unexpected conclusions. All because I fired a protagonist for being underage.

Have you ever fired a protagonist?

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation PressRivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s an editor, ghostwriter, and coach who has collaborated on more than twenty books. She teaches young writers at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a TV journalist and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Ventura, California.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Protagonist Doesn't Have to be Perfect

Image by Susan, via Flickr
I watched the movie adaptation of Brooklyn the other night. In it, the protagonist snubbed someone. I admit the person snubbed could get on anyone's nerves. Still, the charitable thing to do would have been to be nice to that person. The snub made me lose some respect for the protagonist.

Since up to that point I really liked her, a dilemma presented itself. Could I be charitable enough to forgive her shortcomings? If I didn't, wouldn't I be following her bad example?

When I thought about it, I realized real people aren't perfect, so why should I expect a book or movie person to be ideal? If a fictional person is too perfect, that can be just as irritating as one who slips up.

Still, there's only so much I'll forgive about a book or movie protagonist. Once that line is crossed, I'm very disappointed.

I can't tell you exactly when or how that will happen, because I never know. If an author or script writer is adept at presenting motives or excuses for behavior, or even presents erratic behavior in a fascinating way, I'll go along for the ride.

All I can advise is, when creating a protagonist, consider the pros and cons of that character's behavior. Make sure to take into account your prospective audience. Then, decide how real you want that person to be. Going into deep point of view is one way to achieve that end. For more about deep point of view, see this post by Heidi M. Thomas.

Experience Morgan Mandel's diversity and versatility. Check Out Her Standalone Romantic Comedy,  Girl of My Dreams, the romantic comedy series, Her Handyman, and A Perfect Angel. For Mystery/Suspense, try Killer Career or Two Wrongs. For the small town of Deerview series: Hailey's Chance: Will Baby Make 3? and Christmas   Carol.Websites:Morgan Mandel.Com Morgan Does Chick Lit.ComTwitter:@MorganMandel

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Avoid Sad Sack Protagonists

Your characters should be multi-faceted. They should have strengths and weaknesses.

Wounds from life that haven't healed can supply internal conflict or motivate them to take on the overall story problem.

However, if your character is so lacking in self-esteem that he is not equal to tackling the overall story problem or so sniveling or pathetic the reader can’t get behind him, it is a serious plot fail.

If you decide to burden your characters with low self-esteem at least understand the why and how. Use the problem judiciously to motivate them, not from a standpoint of ignorance. Choose the degree of affliction carefully.

As children grow up, there are several ways in which their self-esteem is damaged.

1. Healthy self-esteem requires competence.

A child needs to feel self-confident and independent. If Dick, as a child, is not allowed to master things, to build self-confidence and independence, he becomes weak and helpless and develops an inferiority complex.

These problems can complicate Dick's relationships, friendships, social connections, and job performance. Dick's inferiority complex can create conflict in all layers of story problem. Wherever he goes, whoever he meets, he will feel "one down." He will hear implied criticism where none is intended. He will grow resentful of everyone he deems "one up": those who are smarter, richer, or more successful.

How far he goes to level the playing field depends on the type of story you are telling and the type of character he plays. Is he the villain? Is he a foe? Worse, is he a friend?

2. Healthy self-esteem requires confidence.

If Jane lacks confidence, she might irrationally defer to others. She can lack ambition and be pessimistic. This creates conflict with her lovers, family members, friends and business partners. In this state, Jane makes a good foe. It's hard to be friends with her. Her friends will grow tired of her negativity and inability to make a decision.

3. Healthy self-esteem requires self-respect.

If Sally has low self-esteem, she'll have a hard time appreciating other people. The darker side of low self-esteem can drag her into drug addiction and crime. She does not love herself, so she cannot feel the love other people try to give her. She will take every positive comment they make as a personal attack. Sally makes a poor friend and coworker. No matter how hard you try to make Sally feel better, she'll twist what you say to fit her negative self-image.

Misery not only loves company, miserable characters will go to great lengths to drag others down with them.

Severely broken characters do not make good protagonists, unless it is a literary story where you follow the character’s arc from low self-esteem to high self-esteem.

Everyone has down days, but if Dick is depressed, he always feels low. It keeps him from succeeding in relationships, friendships, at work, and in social organizations. He won’t make a good antagonist or hero in a Thriller or action tale because he can’t summon the requisite energy.

Depressed characters can be the protagonist in a literary story where they overcome the problem.

Depressed characters can be friends and foes in the other genres.

I've read a few stories with depressed, self-loathing main characters. It was difficult to root for them.

There is a trend to utilize horrible people as protagonists. For some writers, the ploy has worked but with mixed reviews. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling comes to mind.

I don’t read those books, probably for the same reason I don’t watch “reality” TV where dysfunctional people “show their backsides,” as my granny would say, for public entertainment.

I am troubled by the presentation of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse as humorous rather than tragic. Abuse is a sad reality for too many people. As a writer your manipulation of the characters and plot illustrates abuse as excusable or criminal. But that is a topic for another day.

Your protagonist does not have to be perfect, but he must inspire the reader to root for him. We can root for him to succeed in his overall story goal or fail at it. Either way, by making us care about the story outcome, you supply the needed tension to keep readers turning pages.

Sad sack protagonists can make readers toss your book into the garbage bin and leave scathing reviews.

For more information on building characters through personality types and nature/nurture, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict and SBB: Build a Cast Workbook.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


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