Conflict Thesaurus: Getting Caught in a Lie

Conflict is very often the magic sauce for generating tension and turning a ho-hum story into one that rivets readers. As such, every scene should contain a struggle of some kind. Maybe it’s an internal tug-of-war having to do with difficult decisions, morals, or temptations. Or it possibly could come from an external source—other characters, unfortunate circumstances, or the force of nature itself.

It’s our hope that this thesaurus will help you come up with meaningful and fitting conflict options for your stories. Think about what your character wants and how best to block them, then choose a source of conflict that will ramp up the tension in each scene.

Conflict: Getting Caught in a Lie

Category: Power struggles, failures and mistakes, relationship friction, moral dilemmas and temptation, losing an advantage, loss of control, ego

Examples: Though most people believe lying is wrong and strive to avoid it, no one is 100% honest all the time. Here are a few scenarios where a character might be tempted to lie:

To save someone’s feelings
To protect someone
To keep from getting into trouble
To hide their true opinions or feelings
To get what they want
To tell someone what they want to hear
To project or maintain a certain image
To impress others
To keep the peace
To sabotage, manipulate, or control others
Because they’re a pathological liar
Because they don’t believe that lying is wrong

Even when a character’s motivations are good, there are consequences when others discover that they’ve been lied to.

Minor Complications:
The other person questioning the character’s honesty in the future
The other person being reluctant to broach certain topics with the character
Relationship friction
People dismissing the character’s ideas or words because they never know when they’re lying

Potentially Disastrous Results:
The character’s reputation being damaged
Important people in the character’s life outside of the event (a spouse, children, friends) questioning the character’s honesty
Being called out publicly
Being fired or demoted (if the lie reflects badly on the character’s employer)
Important relationships being seriously damaged
Losing friends
People losing faith in someone or something important (if the character was an influential person)
The character losing their influence or platform
An entire company or organization suffering (and the people associated with it) because of one person’s lie
A hurtful stereotype or bias being reinforced
Conflict arising from the character digging in their heels and refusing to admit to the lie
Trying to save face or reverse the narrative (by telling more lies, discrediting the accuser, etc.)
Lashing out in anger instead of taking responsibility

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict):
Struggling with insecurity, guilt, shame, or self-loathing
The character believing that the lie was justified
Misremembering or being blind to the facts, believing that the lie was the truth
The character doubting him or herself

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: The person who was lied to, anyone impacted by the lie being revealed (employees, co-workers, certain people groups, etc.), people who looked to the character as a mentor or inspiring figure and now feel let down

Resulting Emotions: Anger, anguish, anxiety, appalled, apprehension, defensiveness, defiant, desperation, devastation, disbelief, discouraged, disgust, dread, emasculated, embarrassment, fear, guilt, horror, humiliation, insecurity, panic, regret, remorse, resentment, sadness, self-loathing, self-pity, shame, stunned, tormented, unease, vengeful, worry, worthlessness

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: Antisocial, apathetic, callous, childish, cocky, confrontational, controlling, defensive, hostile, hypocritical, ignorant, impulsive, inflexible, macho, manipulative, martyr, oversensitive, paranoid, resentful, self-destructive, stubborn, tactless, uncooperative, vain, vindictive 

Positive Outcomes: 
Recognizing the importance of always telling the truth
Realizing that a person’s character can be destroyed with a simple word, and vowing to protect that
Eventually becoming grateful for being called out because it led to important revelation and growth
The incident inspiring a moral status check, resulting in growth and change

If you’re interested in other conflict options, you can find them here.

Need More Descriptive Help?

While this conflict thesaurus is still being developed, the rest of our descriptive collection (15 unique thesauri and growing) is available at our main site, One Stop for Writers

If you like, swing by and check out the video walkthrough, and then give our Free Trial a spin.

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This Happened…and Then This Happened: The Dangers of Anecdotal Writing

Does your story suffer from anecdotal writing? It’s an important question, because that’s what happens when we write this way: our stories suffer. Michelle Barker is here to explain what anecdotal writing is, how to identify it, and ways to fix it.

One of the issues I come across often in my work as a fiction editor is anecdotal writing. I encounter it in scenes, in chapters—and sometimes as the plotline of an entire novel. It’s one of those things where, when you read it, you can tell there’s something wrong, but you can’t put your finger on what it is.

An anecdote is a self-contained story, something you might tell a friend. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end: I went to the grocery store. This man had a meltdown over the price of coffee and started throwing things. I ran out before I got hit.

If you’re writing a non-fiction piece on anger management, the above anecdote, expanded with details, might be a good idea. An anecdote in non-fiction can bring a concept to life by showing its practical application.

If, however, you are writing fiction, anecdotes are a death knell. Basically what you’re doing is giving the reader slices of your character’s life—this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.

There are two main reasons why this is a bad idea.

Anecdotal Writing Supplies an Early Resolution 

Because an anecdote is self-contained, it has resolution built into it. When you tell your friend that story, you supply an end—and usually things end well. You left the grocery store before anything bad happened to you. Phew!

If you end the chapter by telling us your character made her narrow escape and went home, what have you done? You’ve given the reader a place to put the book down. There’s no lead-in to anything else. You have closed the story door and taken away the crucial impetus that powers a novel forward: the desire a reader must have all the way through to find out what happens next.

There’s a reason we authors are in the business of making bad things happen to our characters. We don’t want things to end well. What we want are problems. Instead of escaping, what if your protagonist was hit with a jar of Nescafé and got a concussion?

That’s better, but making something bad happen isn’t enough. The concussion must lead directly to another problem. For example, if the chapter is all about the trip to the grocery store and the subsequent concussion that happens just before a critical job interview, then you’re ending with tension. There is a slight denouement (the angry man is arrested), but there is no resolution. You leave the story door open. The reader is eager to find out what happens next.

Leaving the story door open means you create forward momentum. Imagine your character mid-step. That is how you want to end a chapter. The reader doesn’t know where her other foot will come down and is compelled to turn the page. 

Every chapter must end with that story door slightly ajar—something left unresolved. A lack of resolution creates both tension and forward momentum. You want your reader to be constantly grasping for resolution, but you don’t want to give it to them until the end.

The moment you supply resolution, you stop the plot from moving forward. There is only one appropriate time to do this: at the end of the book.

Anecdotal Writing Lacks Causal Connection

When you write anecdotally, you’re creating an and then story rather than a because of story. You are giving us slices of life that stand side by side without any connection between them. But a plot requires causal connection. ‘A’ happens. Then, because of ‘A,’ ‘B’ happens. Because of ‘B,’ ‘C’ happens. 

Think of a domino show. In order for it to work, the dominoes have to be close to each other so that each one falls BECAUSE the one before it fell. If you’re writing anecdotally, you are spacing the dominoes too far apart. When one falls, it falls—nothing happens as a result, and that wonderful ripple effect stalls. Again, this is all about forward momentum. A chapter that stands alone contains no propulsion.

Let’s return to the meltdown in the coffee aisle.

In the anecdotal version, ‘A’ happens—the meltdown. The woman escapes the aisle in time and goes home (B). The next chapter begins when she’s at work and something new happens that is totally unconnected to the grocery store event (C). 

In the causally connected version, the meltdown happens (A). Because of it, the woman is hit with a jar of Nescafé (B) and gets a concussion—perhaps without realizing it. Because she is unaware of the concussion, she continues to the important interview for the job she’s wanted from the beginning of the story (C). Because she is concussed, the interview goes poorly (D). Because the interview goes poorly…

Notice the constant escalation? Things keep getting worse for our poor protagonist. But these are not solitary events. Every single plot point in a novel must be causally connected. You want every domino in the pattern to fall.

How to Know if Your Writing Is Anecdotal

  • If you can pick up a chapter or scene and move it elsewhere without any consequences to your plotline, that’s a red flag.
  • Ask your critique partners or beta readers to note any moment they feel they can set the book down without needing to know what happens next. 
  • List your plot points from beginning to end. Can you connect them with causal words such as because, but, or therefore? Or do you find yourself using the dreaded and then?

If Your Story Contains Anecdotal Writing, There Are a Few Ways to Fix It

First, this kind of writing is often a clue that your protagonist is aimless. Ask yourself: does he or she have a goal? Make sure your protagonist wants something from the very beginning of the novel. It should be specific (not, I want respect, but I want that senior executive job) and meaningful (to prove to my sister that I’m reliable, so she can trust me again). Nearly every plot point should involve the protagonist trying (but failing) to get what they want. And the goal should be quantifiable. At the end of the novel, the reader should know if they achieved it or not.

Second, take a closer look at your scene and chapter endings and ask yourself: 

  • Is something different at the end? It should be. Does your character finish the scene with a different emotion than when they started? Has something new happened? Has your character learned something? If any of your answers are no, revise with an eye to previous scenes. Think in terms of cause and effect.
  • Have you made the situation worse for your character instead of better? While good pacing calls for some breathing room where the protagonist catches a break, anecdotal writing often involves resolving the protagonist’s problems too soon. In your dealing with the latter, consider replacing that resolution with another problem—ideally one your protagonist has created for him or herself.

Anecdotes have their place. They are a perfect accompaniment to a glass of wine. They work well in non-fiction to illustrate a key concept. Just don’t try to build a novel out of them. 

Michelle Barker is the award-winning author of The House of One Thousand Eyes. She is also a senior editor at, a novel development and editing service, and a frequent contributor to its blog for writers, The Chopping Blog. Her newest novel, My Long List of Impossible Things, was released this spring with Annick Press. You can find her on TwitterFacebook, and her website.

Posted in Endings, Guest Post, Pacing, Plotting, Revision and Editing, Story Structure, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 9 Comments

Reflections on Some Favorite Writing Quotes

Do you collect writer quotes? You should. They can be inspirational and instructive. It’s great to turn to them in times when you feel in the writing doldrums. Here are seven of my favorite writer quotes, and why I like them. 

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.

Ray Bradbury (Zen in the Art of Writing)

Bradbury spent the first part of almost every day in “the zone.” For him, getting up in the morning was like stepping on a “landmine,” and the “landmine is me.” He’d explode on the page with what came bubbling up from his subconscious, and only later try to figure out what it all meant. And when he was in that delightful, creative space he wasn’t thinking about the absurdities, inanities, and barbarities that are so much a part of the “real world.” Bradbury once remarked about his stories that he wasn’t trying to predict the future; he was trying to prevent it. 

Do not look toward writing as a profession. Work at something else. Dig ditches if you have to, but keep writing in the status of a hobby that you can work at in your spare time. Writing, to me, is a hobby—by trade I’m a farmer.

– William Faulkner (On Being a Writer, 1989)

The practical wisdom here is that writing, if it’s going to be any good, should be something you simply must do, even if you don’t get paid for it. If you don’t have a love of writing first, but think, Hey, I can make some big bucks here, you’re most likely to follow trends in the market, which is almost always a failed strategy.  

When I was younger and first beginning to write, I’d think I was going to get the Pulitzer and the Booker and the Nobel Prize. Now I don’t give a damn. I’m content to know that I write . . . good. I’m a good writer and that’s all I care about.

Evan Hunter, aka Ed McBain (Writer’s Digest, Sept. 1996)

Yes, it’s fun to win an award. But as Rick Nelson put it in his hit song from the 1970s, “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.” It’s a great feeling to get to the point where you know your craft, and know that you know it. If you win the fandom of a number of readers, that’s an “award” in and of itself. I’ve read most of Even Hunter’s books (literary) but I and the majority of his readers prefer the Ed McBain police procedurals and legal thrillers.  

Don’t quit. It’s very easy to quit during the first ten years.

– Andre Dubus (The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, 2016)

George Bernau wrote Promises to Keep and other novels. He was a practicing attorney when he got into a car accident and almost died. In the hospital he took stock of his life and work to date. “I decided that I would continue to write as long as I lived, even if I never sold one thing, because that was what I wanted out of my life.”

If you have the desire to write, then make the decision now that you’ll write – strongly, fiercely, with a commitment to your craft – no matter what. Why quit? You have an imagination and a keyboard. Keep them always working together. If nothing else, it’s good for your brain. 

You must avoid giving hostages to fortune, like getting an expensive wife, an expensive house, and a style of living that never lets you afford the time to take the chance to write what you wish.

– Irwin Shaw (Writers on Writing, 1990)

There’s a simple principle here that applies to anyone doing anything. Don’t live above your means! And don’t overestimate the means coming your way. Many a young writer received a huge advance, quit their day job, bought a big house…then were back-burnered or even dropped by the publisher when their book didn’t sell through. A certain panic sets in then, and perhaps the writer desperately tries to claw back with a book they think will sell, rather than the book they really want to write.  

Dickens put the words in Mr. Micawber’s mouth: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen  and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

If you want to write fiction, the best thing you can do is take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass. If the feeling persists, you probably ought to write a novel.

– Lawrence Block (Writing the Novel, 1979)

Don’t think that writing a novel is easy. A good one, that is. And don’t think it’s a way to make some easy money, either. Yes, there are some who have used publishing platforms to gimmick their way into some lettuce, but they aren’t really writers. They’re hustlers. Write fiction because you feel, in some way, compelled to. Stories swirl in your head and you want—need—to get them out.  

I write to entertain. In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape, moments of delight and forgetfulness.

– Dean Koontz (How to Write Best Selling Fiction, 1981)

This is one of my favorite all-time writing quotes. For so many years, like most of the 20th century, there was a stigma attached to unapologetically commercial fiction. Like pulp stories and paperback originals. The only “real” writers were those who produced high-brow or middle-brow hardcover novels that got reviewed by the New York Times. Yet for every “important” book there were a thousand commercial novels gobbled up by an appreciative public. I can think of a few “name authors” of the 1950s (e.g., James Jones, Norman Mailer) who hit it big early with a first novel, but wrote dreadful stuff afterward. Why? Because they had never been put through the grinder of learning to spin a tale that grabbed readers, that entertained. Don’t let that be you.

If you learn to tell a ripping good story with unforgettable characters, and strive to do it over and over, readers will find you and give you their dough and their thanks for givng them a good read. 

How about you? Have a favorite writing quote you’d like to share?

James Scott Bell

Resident Writing Coach

Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him on

Posted in Motivational, Resident Writing Coach, Writer's Attitude | 9 Comments

3 Ways to Differentiate Your Characters

We’ve invited Resident Writing Coach Sacha Black to give us an extra dose of wisdom as she’s just released a new book that I think will help a lot of writers: Anatomy of Prose: 12 Steps to Sensational Sentences. This guide looks at the sentence-level improvements, which are SO important. A few years back I attended a Margie Lawson retreat to level up my sentence description. It was a great help so I know Sacha’s new guide will be right up my alley!

(May include affiliate links, etc. etc.)

I often hear writers worrying that their characters all sound the same. The worry is either over description or dialogue. Today, I’ve got three tips to help you differentiate your characters. They come from my new book The Anatomy of Prose: 12 Steps to Sensational Sentences which is jam-packed full of tips to help you improve your story and craft at the sentence level. 

There are lots of ways you can differentiate your characters at the sentence level, but three of my favorites are: impact, details, and dialogue.

1 – Impact Over Sight

What makes a new character more memorable than their physical description is how they make your protagonist feel. 

Forget eye color and clothing. Yes, those things are important, and yes, you probably need to describe them at an early opportunity because it creates a picture of the character, but they don’t tell you about that character. They don’t give the reader anything memorable to take away or think about after they’ve put the book down. 

If a character comes into the scene and makes the protagonist feel jealous or afraid or hot under the neck, then your reader is more likely to remember them because they’ve had an effect on the hero. They’ve done something.

Another trick is to have your protagonist notice the new character having an impact on another character. When you describe this impact, it deepens both character’s personalities.

Whenever it’s time to describe a new character, I ask myself a key question:

When the character leaves the scene, what one thing do I want the reader to feel about them?

2 – Details Matter

Another way to create differentiation is to ensure your protagonist notices the unusual details…ones no other character would. This creates something unique to your hero or heroine and also shows readers what’s important to them. 

If, for example, you have a character who’s super empathetic, they’re more likely to notice small body language changes, emotions, and subtleties in human nature that others miss. Knowing this will help you create more authentic actions, thoughts and descriptions. The protagonist’s empathetic side will be shown through your word choices, be present in their dialogue, and flavor their observations about other people.

For example, if we were in an angry character’s POV, their observation might read like this:

She was short, stocky I guess. Full of attitude.

Whereas an empathetic character’s POV observation might read like this:

She was short, and at first glance, you’d think she was standoffish. But when you looked closer, there was an ache in her gaze, as if she was protecting herself from old pain.

This not only deepens your protagonist in the eyes of the reader, it also deepens the character being observed, too.

3 Differentiated Dialogue 

Of all the character worries I hear, differentiating a character’s dialogue is the biggest. But there are a stack of ways you can do this. 

Just like the details a character notices, the most important factor in differentiating dialogue is understanding your character’s personality. 

If for example, you have a stuffy professor, they’re likely to use long stuffy words in their conversations. Words like: 

  • Furthermore
  • In addition
  • The definitive conclusion
  • That’s unsubstantiated

But if your character is a gang member, then they’re unlikely to use the same vocabulary. Instead, they might use slang words or gang-specific words that might not have a meaning in common language.

To help keep you on track with these differences, create mini vocabulary lists for your characters with the most distinctive personalities. It will be a refresher and help you bring out their true voice every time you write their dialogue.

Don’t forget to look at the rhythm and flow of your character’s dialogue, too. The professor, for example, might use longer, more flowing sentences—especially if he’s pompous and likes the sound of his voice. You could edit his dialogue to have longer sentences, use more commas and more words than necessary. Though a word of caution here, reading dialogue like that all the time would be hard going for a reader. It only takes a sprinkling of personality to create the effect you’re after.

Likewise, the gang member might use shorter, sharper sentences with fewer words, if you reflect that right down at the punctuation level, you’ll augment their personality and deepen their characterisation. 

So that’s quick three ways you can differentiate your characters. The most important thing you can do is to truly know your character. Who are they and what do they value? Once you know that, you can let it influence your sentence-level choices. If you enjoyed these tips, you can get lots more in my new book, The Anatomy of Prose: 12 Steps to Sensational Sentences.

Angela here again. If you don’t already know, Sacha also has a podcast (The Rebel Author Podcast, check it out–it’s fantastic) and I see she’s created a video introduction of her book. It gives you a great glimpse at what you’ll learn, so I thought I’d add it here:

I’ll be gifting someone who comments a e-copy of Anatomy of Prose, so chime in with your biggest sentence-level struggle below!

Posted in Characters, Description, Dialogue, Editing Tips, Emotion, Focus, Pacing, Resident Writing Coach, Revision and Editing, Show Don't Tell, Subtext, Uncategorized, Villains, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 27 Comments

Character Building: How Much Planning Should I Do? (PART 2)

As I mentioned in my last post, knowing exactly how much to brainstorm when it comes to character building can be a question mark. How deeply you need to plan depends on the character’s role and importance, and the writer’s own comfort zone. Obviously a main character is going to need more development than a secondary character or a walk on.

This is why we build a role guide into our Character Builder. It contains suggestions on what to plan based on a character’s importance in the story and relationship to the protagonist. That way, no matter what the person’s role is (a mentor, sidekick, love interest, or someone else), you’ll know what details will come into play in the story.

The Character Builder is incredibly powerful, and if you use it in full, you’ll be able to dig into backstory, personality, emotions, motivation and more. While secondary characters they might not need a full workup, the biggest players in a story (the Protagonist, Antagonist, Love Interest, and Villain) will. Let’s look at what the Role Guide suggests writers should know about each.


As the center of your story, a protagonist requires the deepest level of planning, especially since they will have an arc to follow as events unfold. An exploration of their backstory (including painful past wounds and the fears attached to them) will give you the information you need to accurately write their behavior and emotions in the story, and supply the reasons (internal motivation) why they feel driven to achieve the story goal (outer motivation).

Personality is another big factor, because traits show readers what makes them likeable, unique, and worthy. A character’s negative qualities and poor coping mechanisms humanize them and represent what they must overcome if they are to succeed in the story.

You’ll want to plan their appearance and the aspects of their daily life that will be part of the story, plus know their job and talents as these may showcase skills that could play into the story and help the character achieve their goal.

The protagonist, more so than any other character, must be developed enough to carry the weight of the story. Investing in brainstorming process gives you a clear understanding of who this character is, what they want most, what motivates them, and which internal challenges (the lie, fear, and fatal flaw) they will need to overcome to be successful.

Love Interest

In many stories, the level of planning needed for a love interest is similar to that of the protagonist. What draws the two together will impact not only the story line but shed light on the protagonist’s insecurities, fears, and unmet needs while indicating what sort of inner growth is necessary. When choosing how much to plan, first consider the importance of the romance: Is it the primary plot or a subplot? Then ask yourself: How big is the love interest’s role? The more important a character is to the story, the more you will need to plan.

If their role is significant, they will have their own goals, fears, and reasons for what they do (that may be completely different than those driving the main character). You will want to brainstorm the same areas as you would the protagonist, acting as though the love interest is the main character.

If the love interest has an arc of their own (and many do), it’s especially important to know their backstory, including any wounding events. Behavior and emotional range are also important to define in a push-and-pull story line, as readers must believe that the characters’ actions and choices are logically grounded. When it is time to dismantle whatever negative friction is keeping them apart, this too must be handled in a way that ties back to both the protagonist’s and love interest’s inner motivation and the internal growth they have achieved.


An antagonist is the force (a rival, enemy, competitor, etc.) that opposes your protagonist, standing in the way of their goal. As such, they play a big role in the story. If your antagonist is a person (as opposed to an element, like nature or society) they will almost certainly have a mission or agenda of their own, which means they’ll have a character arc. In this case, they require deep planning—the same as a protagonist—starting with their backstory. You especially want to to capture any critical details about how their skills, connections, assets or knowledge will obstruct the main character.

It’s important to be clear on this character’s motivation as understanding what drives the antagonist means the difference between a flat character and one that is credible. Why are they opposing the hero or heroine? Also when you plan their personality, have some of this character’s traits and morals clash with the protagonist’s. Their strengths, along with their talents and skills, can also help to make them a real threat, forcing the protagonist to work harder to win (if this is your intent).

Another important piece of information to know is the character’s fatal flaw. If the protagonist succeeds, it means that the antagonist’s fatal flaw will be their downfall. This is the most likely scenario. This information is equally important if your antagonist is going to win. Both characters will have a fatal flaw, but rather than the antagonist’s getting the best of him, the protagonist’s will be his undoing, resulting in a failed arc.


A villain is different than an antagonist in the sense that there is an element of evil or specific intent to hurt. They are not merely competing with the protagonist for something or trying to prevent them from achieving a goal that clashes with their own; they actively wish to do them harm. Understanding why requires digging around in this character’s dark places and the history the two characters share. Spend a good amount of time sifting through this character’s backstory, as the villain’s darkness will be rooted in a past wounding event (or events). Whatever happened has warped how they see the world—especially how they view the protagonist. There will be an element of blame (deserved or not) directed toward the protagonist as a reason for the animosity.

Brainstorm this character as you would an antagonist or protagonist, as the deeper you go, the more realistic and credible a villain will feel. To avoid an evil-for-the-sake-of-evil-type villain, readers need to understand why such hatred for the protagonist exists. To write this effectively, you as the writer must first understand it yourself—both where it comes from and how to show it through the villain’s emotions and behavior.

If the protagonist is to prevail in your story, the villain must lose. If this is the case, pay close attention to the villain’s fatal flaw, as this will tie in to the outcome and be part of the their undoing.

Character planning sometimes takes time but knowing a character and their motivations deeply means we can write their actions, choices and decisions with authenticity.

And here’s a tip – if you use the Character Builder, make sure to plot according to the Character Arc Blueprint this tool will create. That way the character’s inner journey will perfectly mirror their outer one, and you’ll build a powerful story where every piece seems to click into place!

Want to see planning recommendations for secondary characters like the Mentor, Sidekick, Friend & others? Fine them here.

When you plan your characters do you consider their role in the story?

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Character Building: How Much Planning Should I Do? (PART 1)

Not sure how much brainstorming needs to go into each character? You’re not alone.

It’s a struggle for many, and unfortunately, there’s no single “right” answer. It really depends on the character’s importance in the story, their function or role, and the writer’s own process.

A rule of thumb might be to dig as deep as you need to in order to understand what is motivating them in the story. But honestly, what does that look like? And that might not help Pantsers who do most of their character building during the discovery draft.

Characters are the heart of a story, and to build one that readers won’t forget, you need to dig deep.

When we built the Character Builder at One Stop for Writers, we wanted to give writers a way to uncover their character’s deeper layers like never before, getting to the root causes of their personal pain, fears, insecurities, and unmet needs. These personal details don’t just humanize the character, they provide a road map of their motivation in the story. Their goal becomes their “missing piece,” and to gain it, they will have to move past the fears and flaws that hold them back. Or should you decide the character will fail, this tool’s Character Arc Blueprint can plot that out too.

The Character Builder helps you plan every detail step by step, prompting you with information as you go. But what if the character you’re brainstorming isn’t the protagonist? What if they have a supporting role and no arc in the story–how detailed do they need to be?  

Again it depends…but never fear! We created a Role Guide that looks at each character’s relationship with the protagonist, and based on that, provides guidelines on what sort of detailed planning may be needed.

Below is a shortened version of One Stop for Writers’ role guide to help you identify what information to brainstorm for each character type. (I’ll look at supporting characters now and tackle bigger ones like the Protagonist and Love Interest in another post.)

The Sidekick

A sidekick is a character who is pulling for the protagonist, helping them in some way, while also acting as a contrast of some kind (a foil) that highlights the protagonists’ own qualities. They may have different strengths, skills, education, ideas, or a worldview, but in some meaningful way the sidekick completely aligns with the main character, making them a natural companion.

This alignment is what you need to uncover. If the two have a shared history, that part of the backstory should be explored. If they have the same goal but want it for different reasons, or they have values that align, know what that looks like.

With the sidekick, spend time developing their personality and behavior. This character usually has something “extra special” about them that makes them memorable to readers. Also consider their function as a foil, and what makes them different than the hero or heroine. Do they challenge the protagonist’s beliefs in some way? Is there’s a lesson hidden in the sidekick’s attitude or traits that will help the protagonist grow? If so, know what this is. Of course you’ll also need to know their appearance, and if they have valuable skills, hobbies, or an occupation that will benefit the protagonist in some way, plan that too.

Sidekicks can have their own goals that exist as subplots and if so, a higher level of planning may be needed to fully understand their motivations in the story, as this is what gives them depth. In some cases they may be flat characters who don’t really change, but I urge you to give them substance rather than simply make them a vehicle for comic relief or someone for the protagonist to talk to during the journey. Characters close to the protagonist should never feel hollow.

The Friend

This character’s main function is friendship—to support the protagonist and be the voice of reason (or their conscience). They may lightly steer them regardless of whether the main character wants guidance or not. With a friend, the protagonist can be more open and vulnerable, so answer this question in the planning stage: Why is the protagonist this person’s friend?

A friend may not have a huge role in the story, but they will have commonalities with the protagonist (likes, dislikes, beliefs, worldviews, etc.), that explain why they are friends. If they have a shared history (perhaps they are school buddies, or met in Alcoholics Anonymous), focus on backstory that brought them together, and any shared experiences that explain why the friend looks out for the protagonist. For example, if the friend witnessed past train wreck relationships where the main character was with narcissistic women, he would try to steer the protagonist away from choosing another one as a love interest.

Personality is another area to plan, especially positive traits. Readers should be able to easily see why they are liked by the protagonist.

The Mentor

This character has a pivotal role: to teach or advise the character in a time of need or to offer periodic help over the course of the story. The biggest thing to uncover about this character is WHY. Why does the mentor care enough to help the protagonist? The answer to this question will dictate what sort of planning is necessary.

If they share history or have similar backgrounds, dig into that. If the protagonist’s goal aligns with the mentor’s in some way (a common enemy, righting a past wrong, fulfilling the mentor’s missing need, etc.), think about why this is. The mentor’s motivation needs to be credible, especially if they are enduring hardship or sticking their neck out to help the protagonist (and this is often the case).

While you should know their personality, it is their skills or knowledge that will be more important as this is what will help the protagonist.

Another question to answer is why the mentor disengages at some point and the protagonist forges ahead alone. Know the why: are they forced to step back (due to age, a handicap, responsibilities, or story circumstances)? Do they choose to because of a danger or threat? This will need to be revealed in the story, so know why.

The Minor Character

Minor characters require the least development of all. Focus on key personality points, behaviors, occupation, or skills that further the plot, and don’t worry about the rest. Often minor characters will have a quirk to make them more interesting. If you go this route, choose one that’s meaningful rather than random. Their appearance doesn’t need much planning; focus on a mannerism or how they can move or speak in a way that helps to characterize them so readers can imagine what they look like.

Other Story Players

Occasionally you will have a character who cannot be easily defined by the usual roles. This might be a supernatural force, a deity who has influence over the world, or even an unreliable narrator overseeing the story. Whatever this “other” is, think about their impact on the story, connection to any main cast members, and the motivation behind their actions. This information will help you narrow down what needs to be planned because your goal here is to fully understand these connections.

Uncovering how each character relates to the main cast members is the key.

Even if you don’t use the Character Builder, understanding roles better will help you unearth specific details that will give your secondary characters (and therefore their relationships with the protagonist or other main characters) greater depth.

If you’d like to check out the Character Builder for yourself, why not give the 2-week free trial a spin?

Here’s a character profile we built with this tool.

Posted in Backstory, Basic Human Needs, Character Arc, Character Flaws, Character Hobbies, Character Traits, Character Wound, Characters, Description, Diversity, Fatal Flaw, Motivation, One Stop For Writers, Stereotypes, Tools and Resources, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 1 Comment

Conflict Thesaurus: Running Out of Critical Supplies

Conflict is very often the magic sauce for generating tension and turning a ho-hum story into one that rivets readers. As such, every scene should contain a struggle of some kind. Maybe it’s an internal tug-of-war having to do with difficult decisions, morals, or temptations. Or it possibly could come from an external source—other characters, unfortunate circumstances, or the force of nature itself.

It’s our hope that this thesaurus will help you come up with meaningful and fitting conflict options for your stories. Think about what your character wants and how best to block them, then choose a source of conflict that will ramp up the tension in each scene.

Conflict: Running Out of Critical Supplies

Category: Increased pressure and ticking clocks, failures and mistakes, duty and responsibilities, moral dilemmas and temptation, losing an advantage, miscellaneous challenges

Running out of food in a remote location
Having no access to water
Running out of gas in the middle of nowhere
Running out of medication
Emptying the last clip in battle
Experiencing a food shortage in a time of crisis
Having mo more emergency supplies to distribute (blankets, rations, vaccines, etc.)
Running out of medical supplies in a crisis
Having no seeds to plant
Having no feed for one’s animals

Minor Complications:
Discomfort (hunger, weakness, thirst)
Wounds going unattended
Pain resulting from a lack of treatment
The psychological discomfort of anxiety, fear, and dread
Sacrificing to secure what is needed (trading money, promises, or something else of value that one would rather not give up)
Having to think of temporary solutions that are less than ideal
Having to lie or hide information so people don’t panic
Going without personally so others have what they need

Potentially Disastrous Results:
Infections or a worsening of a condition
Becoming physically compromised
Disorientation or weakness leading to a serious injury or mistake
Being captured in battle
Being forced to surrender
Having to give up something of importance to survive (power, security, freedom, etc.)
Seeking help and becoming lost, stranded, or injured
Having to do something that one is unsuited for or inexperienced in (performing emergency surgery when one is not trained, for example)
Trying to remedy the situation out of desperation and doing something dangerous (stealing and being caught, drinking contaminated water, etc.)

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict):
Feeling like a failure (if the character is responsible for others)
Guilt for worrying about one’s own needs when everyone is suffering
Trying to think of ways to secure the necessities for loved ones even if it means others go without
Lying to others so they don’t panic yet also feeling they have a right to know
Weighing the moral cost of leaving a group in need because it may be easier to survive as an individual
Jealousy toward those who have enough
Weighing the right and wrong of breaking the law when survival is at stake
Wanting to obey the laws but feeling abandoned by those who made them
Anger directed inward for not being better prepared yet knowing there was no way to forecast what would happen

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: Family and loved ones, people the character feels responsible for, others caught in this situation who are known to the character

Resulting Emotions: anger, anguish, anxiety, betrayed, connectedness, defeat, denial, despair, desperation, determination, disillusionment, dread, fear, frustration, empathy, gratitude, guilt, hopefulness, horror, obsessed, overwhelmed, panic, paranoia, powerlessness, regret, resentment, self-loathing, self-pity, shame, shock, vulnerability, wanderlust

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: addictive, confrontational, controlling, cynical, disloyal, extravagant, frivolous, gullible, haughty, hostile, impatient, impulsive, jealous, lazy, materialistic, melodramatic, needy, paranoid, pessimistic, possessive, resentful, spoiled, ungrateful, whiny, worrywart

Positive Outcomes: 
Experiencing a shortage will lead to gaining a better appreciation of resources that will change the character in the future
A collective loss or trying situation can lead to community as people come together to navigate the difficult experience
Shortages often lead to creative thinking and innovation in order to circumvent the problem

If you’re interested in other conflict options, you can find them here.

Need More Descriptive Help?

While this conflict thesaurus is still being developed, the rest of our descriptive collection (15 unique thesauri and growing) is available at our main site, One Stop for Writers.

If you like, swing by and check out the video walkthrough, and then give our Free Trial a spin.

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Critiques 4 U—Guest Editor Edition!

It’s time for our monthly critique contest, and I’m excited to be able to introduce a new guest editor! We’ve been working with Christina Kaye on a couple of marketing fronts, and we’re so happy to have her here today to give you some expert feedback on your first pages.

If you’re game, here’s the amazing person you’ll be working with: 

Christina Kaye is an author coach, book editor, public speaker, and writing instructor, as well as host of the podcast for authors, Write Your Best Book. Through her business, Write Your Best Book, Christina and her team of editors offer a wide range of book editing and author coaching services, including content editing, line editing, proofreading, and even blurb editing. She specializes in all subgenres of romance and suspense, but she works on projects from all genres, if they are the right fit. Christina Kaye is also an award-winning, bestselling suspense novelist in her own right. 

To learn more about Write Your Best Book and their team of editors, visit Or, to learn more about Christina Kaye’s suspense novels, visit

Contest Guidelines

Contest Closed!

This month’s contest will work exactly the same as it usually does, only Christina will be the one contacting you if you win.

If you’re working on a first page and would like some objective feedback, please leave a comment. Any comment :). As long as the email address associated with your WordPress account/comment profile is up-to-date, Christina will be able to contact you if your first page is chosen. Just please know that if she’s unable to get in touch with you through that address, you’ll have to forfeit your win.

Please be sure your first page is ready to go so she can critique it before next month’s contest rolls around. If it needs some work and you won’t be able to get it to her right away, let me ask that you plan on entering the next contest, once any necessary tweaking has been taken care of.

Three commenters’ names will be randomly drawn and posted tomorrow. If you win, Christina will be in contact to get your first page and offer her feedback. Best of luck!

Posted in Uncategorized | 39 Comments

Might as Well Jump—into the Third Act

Have you ever been burned by your story?

Often, authors get burned in the second act, and when it’s time to start the third act, the writing can feel like a relationship gone bad. By this point, it feels a bit like we’ve been living in a Van Halen song.

I get up, and nothin’ gets me down
You got it tough, I’ve seen the toughest around
And I know, baby, just how you feel
You got to roll with the punches and get to what’s real

I’ve Seen the Toughest Around

Our second act is the toughest around. By the end of it, we are tired, and our characters are bruised, battered, broken. They’re often alone, have destroyed relationships, or have gotten themselves into a dark place and can’t see the way out. They’ve seen the toughest parts of their story so far.

But we gotta…

Roll with the Punches to Get to What’s Real

Your story finds its central truth in the third act. And it’s often in the third act that you figure out what went wrong in the first act (more on that in a future post!). Here in the third act, your character puts to use all the things they’ve learned over the course of the story. From losing their relative innocence in the first act to dodging obstacles in the second, your character has stretched and grown since those first few scenes. 

The third act is the final test.

Ow Oh, Hey You!

Ow oh, hey you
Who said that?
Baby, how you been?

So here we are, ouching our way into the third act. It’s at this moment that our main character’s friends and allies are coming back on the scene, ready to make amends, asking, “Baby, how you been?” 

We start reconnecting and healing broken ties. Our character’s allies take a deep breath and decide to team up one more time to fight this final battle. Because despite the dark moments of the second act, our Big Bad is still out there, and it’s bigger and badder than before.

And there will be moments that you, the author, face the risk of your story burning you again. Even though you see the end in sight, there will still be moments of the unknown, of finding that you’ve written yourself into a corner, or you’ve forgotten about a secondary character, or something you’ve long imagined no longer fits the story. Your character, too, still makes missteps and mistakes that they have to work through.

But there will be moments of brilliance.

You Won’t Know Until You Begin

You say you don’t know
You won’t know until you begin

At this point in the story, you probably have a good idea of what secrets you’re about to reveal to your reader. That is an exciting part of the process. Your readers have no idea how you can possibly pull all those puzzle pieces together, and you get to show them the final picture. 

Even if you don’t know exactly how to tie things together, this is where your subconscious goes to work, pulling in ideas and moments you’ve already written, but didn’t realize were important until now. Because you simply won’t know until you begin the writing of this act and get the words on the page. 

Might as Well Jump

Ah, might as well jump (jump)
Might as well jump
Go ahead an’ jump (jump)
Go ahead and jump

Sure, the second act burned. It always does. And the third act is tough to write. You have to consider all the loose threads you’ve got dangling around your story and make sure there is a satisfying ending, as well as, if it’s a series, a good hook to keep reading the next book. There’s a lot riding on the third act. A lot of room to be burned.

I think Van Halen has the best advice for us here. You, and your character, well…

You might as well jump. You’ve seen the toughest there is. You are prepared to face the coming battle. You’re ready.

So go ahead. Jump.

Christina Delay

Resident Writing Coach

Christina is the hostess of Cruising Writers and an award-winning psychological suspense author. She also writes award-winning supernatural suspense under the name Kris Faryn. You can find Kris at: Bookbub ǀ Facebook ǀ Amazon ǀ Instagram.
Cruising Writers brings authors together with bestselling authors and industry professionals on writing retreats. Join Cruising Writers this November in the Easter Caribbean with Writers Helping Writers co-founder Angela Ackerman and New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author Darynda Jones!

Posted in Middles, Plotting, Resident Writing Coach, Story Structure, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons, Writing Resources | 4 Comments

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Being Physically Assaulted by a Stranger

Conflict is very often the magic sauce for generating tension and turning a ho-hum story into one that rivets readers. As such, every scene should contain a struggle of some kind. Maybe it’s an internal tug-of-war having to do with difficult decisions, morals, or temptations. Or it possibly could come from an external source—other characters, unfortunate circumstances, or the force of nature itself.

It’s our hope that this thesaurus will help you come up with meaningful and fitting conflict options for your stories. Think about what your character wants and how best to block them, then choose a source of conflict that will ramp up the tension in each scene.

Conflict: Being Physically Assaulted by a Stranger

Category: Power struggles, loss of control, ego

Being attacked as part of a mugging or robbery
Being randomly victimized by a violent or unstable individual
Being targeted by a gang or group of attackers

Minor Complications:
Discomfort from minor scratches or bruises
Inconvenience arising from trying to avoid the attackers or the site of the attack
Embarrassment arising from having to explain the injuries to others
Decreased productivity due to distraction and difficulty focusing

Potentially Disastrous Results:
Suffering from severe physical injuries (broken bones, lacerations, teeth being knocked out, etc.)
Long-term physical effects (spine or brain injuries, migraines, etc.)
Living with scars that act as constant reminders of the attack
Developing a mental illness (agoraphobia, a panic disorder, etc.)
The trauma of having to testify in court about the event
Loss of innocence
Being unable to successfully function at school or work
Abusing alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism
Becoming paranoid about the safety of family members; driving them away by holding on too tightly

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict):
Struggling with embarrassment, humiliation, or shame
The character wondering if they were somehow to blame
Distrusting people who are “like” the attacker (race, gender, physical appearance, etc.)
Plummeting self-esteem
Living in constant fear of being attacked again (if the perpetrator was never caught)
Developing a victim mentality
Retreating inward; being reluctant to stand up for oneself

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: The victim’s family members, the attackers (if they’re caught and punished)

Resulting Emotions: Anger, anguish, anxiety, apprehension, depressed, dread, emasculated, embarrassment, fear, hatred, humiliation, insecurity, panic, paranoia, powerlessness, rage, remorse, self-pity, shame, tormented, vulnerability, wariness

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: Addictive, compulsive, controlling, cynical, gullible, insecure, martyr, needy, nervous, nosy, obsessive, paranoid, prejudiced, self-destructive, timid, withdrawn, worrywart 

Positive Outcomes: 
The character becoming more aware of their surroundings
Being proactive about safety and security
Realizing that life is unpredictable, and vowing to live more fully
Gratitude to the people who helped save the character making him or her want to follow in their footsteps (as a cop, paramedic, doctor, physical therapist, etc.)

If you’re interested in other conflict options, you can find them here.

Need More Descriptive Help?

While this conflict thesaurus is still being developed, the rest of our descriptive collection (15 unique thesauri and growing) is available at our main site, One Stop for Writers

If you like, swing by and check out the video walkthrough, and then give our Free Trial a spin.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment