Lessons From James Scott Bell: Characters That Jump Off The Page

A week (ish) ago, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop with bestselling author and writing coach, James Scott Bell. It was a fantastic day of learning how to look deep inside our characters to understand what made them tick, and how structure can lay the framework for a compelling internal arc.

write from the middleThe day left my brain bursting, and very excited to look back into my novels to discover the “mirror moment” something that Jim discusses in his new book, Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between.

The mirror moment is at the midpoint of the story where the character is faced with these questions: who am I? What have I become? And, who must I become to continue?  This is the point where the hero is weighed down by his situation and has a moment of internal reflection. He sees that the odds are too great and he must grow stronger to succeed, or that who he is now is holding him back and to move forward he must transform, leaving his old self behind. (It’s a short book, but one you absolutely should add to your collection. Click on the link and come back…trust me. Go on, I’ll wait.)

Back? Awesome!

Another thing he left us with was a neat checklist of what can make a character leap off the page. I thought I’d share it here.

Originality

Characters who are original in some way–a unique blend of character traits, a witty sense of humor, interests or a job that is unusual, a vibrant  outlook or attitude–make the reader want to get to know them, and see inside their inner world.  Strive to provide a character that is unexpected and fresh.

Unpredictability

Readers are engaged by characters who do not always act in a predictable way. Think of how to have your character make decisions or respond in ways the reader won’t see coming. The easiest way to do this is by looking at the situation and decide what most would do.  Then, brainstorm a list of other things your hero might do. Get as crazy as you like, and then read through your ideas until you hit on the perfect match.

Desire

Every character should have something they yearn for, something they want deeply for themselves. Readers identify with wanting such a strong desire or need. Make it meaningful and important to the character, and it will become meaningful and important to the reader as well.

Wounds

All characters should have a back story wound, an emotional hurt that still affects them today. Emotional pain is compelling, deepening a character as well as humanizing them. Look for ways to show that pain in the present, symbolized in the setting and events, acting as reminders of the past. (Need some help figuring out your hero’s Emotional Wound? Check out our handy list of Common Themes for Emotional Wounds.)

Passion

A protagonist that feels passionately about something (his role, his goals, his beliefs) is able to form a powerful connection with readers. Don’t be afraid to show a character’s passion.

Complexity

There’s something compelling about a character who has opposing needs or desires, and who experiences conflicted emotions at turning points in the story. This “pull” in different directions creates inner turmoil and complexity that will draw readers in.

Resourcefulness

Characters who have special talents and skills (hey, there’s a thesaurus for that!) can be resourceful, helping them get out of a tight spot or solve problems in a unique way. This elevates them to readers, making them more interesting and likable! Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when it comes to talents or skills that can turn your character from ordinary to extraordinary.

Gutsy

Walking the walk, talking the talk. Characterization happens not through telling, but showing, especially when a character is faced with a less-than-ideal situation. Showing them doing something even though they don’t want to do it is both gutsy and memorable.

Nobility

Having strong morals and beliefs and acting on them, even when it might be easier not to, earns admiration. Giving your character a noble purpose will win the hearts of readers.

~~ *  * ~~

Jim stressed a  character doesn’t need to have all of these of course, but choosing a few and fleshing out your character with some in mind will help you build a hero that readers can’t help but be drawn to.

Do your characters have some of these in their make up? What would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to Lessons From James Scott Bell: Characters That Jump Off The Page

  1. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writer’s Links | No Wasted Ink

  2. I absolutely loved this book! While reading, it was as if all the missing puzzle pieces finally fell into place. I’m going to use it on my current romance novel–almost finished–to try and make the character pop even more.

    Of course, had to go and search out more JSB books from the library, so have “The Whole Truth” sitting here ready for me to devour this weekend! Thanks, Angela and James!

  3. Hi, thank you for these valuable resources. I forget that I can ask for help! The Emotion Thesaurus looks like a useful tool as well. I think I need to look at how I react to life situations (predictable) and think about how my characters can react (unpredictably). So many times my characters react how I would in real life, kind of boring.

    • One way to help find those unusual reactions would be to write a list of 10 different ways a character might react to the situation, each using different emotions. Maybe a scene sets up that happiness would be the right response. Ask yourself, what if it was disappointment instead? Embarrassment? Gratitude? Relief? Anger? How would the character react to express that?

      This can be a fun exercise, and also a good way for you to have better insight into the character. Maybe you’ll discover that relief is really unexpected and fits the character & screne better than happiness. Or, you’ll reinforce that happiness is the right emotion to go with. Once you have the right emotion, do the exercise again. List 10 or more ways she can respond that will show her happiness–get crazy, think outside the box. Pick the one that seems like it’s the best fit, but also is uniquely her. :) Good luck!

  4. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 06-05-2014 | The Author Chronicles

  5. Celtic Rose says:

    Hello from the United Kingdom!
    Thank you so much for featuring this book……it is great and just what I needed. I have returned to writing after many years away from it and am currently writing a novel and am having a great time…..really enjoying the process and all the new learning.
    Thank you also for the thesaurus…….I now have all three…..so very useful when my brain needs help!

  6. Great list, and as I read it, I couldn’t help but think how much your site and thesauri will help with several of these. Thanks!

  7. Janet Smart says:

    These are great tips. I’m going to print them out and keep them close.

  8. Mart Ramirez says:

    And thank you for linking your Talent & Skills Thesaurus Entries!

  9. Mart Ramirez says:

    Oh, Angela! Thank you! Thank you! I’m a HUGE fan of Jim and anything he shares I love to hear! JSB is da bomb! I got the honor to meet him and take a workshop several years ago. I’m actually reading his newest writing ebook now. This one has been on my list so thank you for reminding me! And thank you for sharing the list! This will be a big help when I start my next project.
    Xo

  10. :Donna Marie says:

    I remember you mentioning this in a post and it sounded intriguing, for sure. I love this list you’ve shared. The book must be great!

    Thanks, Angela :)

    • It is, and I actually like the fact that it’s a quicker read. There’s one very big concept shared, and so there’s not a bunch of filler, helping a person concentrate on this important area of a story.

  11. Karla says:

    Oh! I loved this :)
    Came at such a perfect time. I’m doing some hard revisions right now, and my characters’ personality (esp. my mc) are things I have on my “To Do” list.
    This has has given me a lot to think about! I’m excited to start brain storming. In fact, as I was reading one of the paragraphs, a whole new idea/solution to one of my problems came to mind.
    Thank you!

  12. Hi Angela, Thanks for sharing your workshop with James Scott Bell. The “mirror moment” sounds like questions for a YA or older character. Does it apply to my middle grade and chapter book characters?

    • Great question! I think it applies to a lesser degree to any young fiction, because no matter what the story, the character must either grow stronger and more resilient to defeat someone or win, or he must shed a bad habit or flaw in order to succeed. So that mirror moment would be the point where they realize that what they are doing now or have done up until now isn’t enough, and they must change or grow more skilled or prepare in order to win/overcome/defeat. Make sense?

      If a character right on page one has all the tools to succeed, it’s a fast trip to the end of the book. Obstacles force the character to grow in some way, and that is what creates a really satisfying story. :)

      • Yes, that makes sense. I understand that characters must change or there is no story. And MG characters do have moments of self reflection. But I never considered that my 8yo MC would ask such big questions.
        Thanks!

        • For a younger protag, questions might be, why can’t I do this/why aren’t I good enough? How badly do I want X? What would help me achieve x? And then the decision to do what it takes to achieve the goal, be it changing, letting something go (like bad habits, an inability to ask for help, etc.) or growing stronger (researching & learning, practicing, training, etc.)

  13. I think I just commented but in case it didn’t go through, Thank you for the post.

  14. Wonderful reminders. Thank you so much. I’m in the middle of a revision and my hero is NOT jumping off the page. This helps.

    • Sometimes that’s the case, and for some it’s only after writing the first draft that we really start to understand our characters better. If it helps, check out some of the personality-focused tools on the “tools for writers” page above. You might find they help you hone in on personality traits, both good and bad that make your character more vibrant and memorable. Good luck!

  15. Great advice!! I’m working on doing this with my own characters. It’s such a great service when other authors who’ve become before, help those after them.

    • I agree! I am so grateful to everyone I’ve learned from. It’s hard to imagine what would have become of me if I hadn’t gotten myself online and in the writing community all those years ago when I first started writing!

  16. Julie Musil says:

    James Scott Bell is my ultimate favorite writing coach. I swear, I reading through Plot & Structure as I plot each new novel. And his Self Publishing Attack is awesome. I haven’t bought Middle book. I think I’ll download it today!

    Thanks for the great tips on how to write compelling characters.

  17. Tim McCanna says:

    I know I’m being dense, but the only link I see is to Bell’s “Middle” book. I’ve already purchased that but haven’t had time to read through it yet. Is the character discussion in that book?

    Thanks in advance, Angela. You and Becca are the greatest thing since truffles.

    Tim

    • Hi Tim…I would have to check my copy, but the above list was one that Jim went through for us during his workshop in Calgary two weekends ago.

      Just had a quick look–he does discuss what makes a character stand out, but doesn’t hit on all of the above. That said, he does go into what makes a bad guy compelling as well, and how to start your story with a bang.

  18. Thanks for the writeup, Angela. It was great meeting you and all the writers in the workshop. When we think of the novels and movies we enjoyed, we usually think of the characters first. Scarlett and Rhett. The Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man. Atticus Finch. “Jump off the page” characters are remembered long after we finish the story.

    Thanks again.

    • We all appreciated you leaving the warm blanket of California to spend some time with us here in Canada, Jim! It was a great workshop (despite the freaking gong show in the next room!) and nice to finally meet you in person. Hopefully we’ll see each other around again sometime. :)

  19. Diana Beebe says:

    Angela, I love this book! It has opened my eyes to structure in ways I didn’t expect. How fun for you to get to go to a workshop!

  20. Beth says:

    This book sounds terrific, and I’ll definitely check it out. Your post gives me good food for thought on my current WIP.

    What a great workshop to attend!

    • Beth, definitely check it out. Like I said, it will really help you add meaning to your character’s inner journey by strengthening the arc. The middle is such a difficult area for many, and Jim has written about the very heart of what we struggle with. Let me know what you think of it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>