Deepening Character Complexity with the Help of Psychology

Psychologists will often conduct a case formulation when a client presents in our office. If we want to be part of the change the client is seeking, then we have to have a good understanding of the client and all the factors that influence them. Now, are you seeing any parallels with a writer and their character? As writers, we want to understand our characters in a nuanced level that will allow us to create an authentic connection with our readers. We want a character who others can relate, empathise, or connect with, even if they don’t need to like them.

When psychologists aim for this level of comprehensive understanding, one framework we’ll use is the Four Ps. We apply this model to gain information about how to instigate change and move forward. Interestingly, stories are also about instigating change and moving forward, so it’s not surprising that writers can gain from this framework. Using the information you create from the Four P framework allows psychologists to understand their clients and their environment in a comprehensive manner. I believe writers can do the same for their characters and the story world they’re building.

Predisposing Factors

Although psychologists call this part of our world ‘predisposing factors’, in the world of writing, this is your character’s backstory. Psychology allows us to delve into this backstory with a deeper level of nuanced understanding. This is because psychology knows there are biological, psychological and social factors that impact on our personality and behaviours.

For a writer, this means considering both the internal and external factors that have shaped your character. Although not every point will be relevant to every story, reflecting on the following areas is going to give you a deeper understanding of your character when they enter the story.

  • What traits does your character already present with? Are they extroverted, introverted, highly intelligent, impulsive, have a family history of cancer or mental illness?
  • How has your character managed stressful situations in the past? Are they avoidant, do they rationalise, do they go on the attack? Are they quick thinkers, or do they need time to process the events that unfold around them? These personality and psychological structures are going to predict how your character responds to the challenges your plot is about to throw their way.
  • How has their social world influenced them? Cultural and sociodemographic influences are what every writer needs to consider when crafting an authentic character. If your character is a Caucasian, middle-aged man who grew up in middle-class suburbia, their childhood environment is going to be quite different to a Hindu girl who grew up in the slums of India.

Precipitating Factors

Precipitating factors are actually described as inciting incidents in the psychological literature, which serendipitously aligns with story structure terminology. When we consider precipitating factors in our story, think of the inciting incident that may launch your hero into act two or three, but also all the little instances where their wound or misbeliefs are triggered which will allow you to show what really pushes their buttons.

  • What situation/s would directly challenge your character’s understanding of the world?
  • Two people may experience the same precipitating event, but react differently depending on their backgrounds, life experience, social support, coping strategies and current circumstances. Which of these influencing factors are relevant to your character and story?
  • How can you use this knowledge to challenge, trip up, or even confirm, your character’s perception of the world in small ways throughout your story?

Perpetuating Factors

Perpetuating factors are very much the nuts and bolts of your story world. These are the factors that maintain your character’s thoughts and response style, and will either reinforce them, or challenge them. Perpetuating factors are likely to be a carefully considered mix of the following:

  • We all see the world through our own perceptions and beliefs. Consider what this lens looks like for your character; are they an optimist or pessimist, do they struggle to understand social cues, are they depressed, do they believe no one can be trusted?
  • What social relationships are currently impacting on your character? Do they have a supportive teacher, avoidant parents, a broad peer network or only one trusted friend? What does this mean for your character’s choices?
  • Consider your broader story world—a dystopian society is always going to impact on its story world inhabitants (particularly depending on which side of the social ladder you got allocated to), but how does it impact on your character personally? How does this information relate to everything you’ve already learned?

Protective Factors

Deep character brainstorming with the four P's - unearth the deeper aspects of your character to plan backstory

Protective factors are one reason I love the Four Ps model—protective factors delve into your character’s strengths, resilience and support. It allows us to explore our character’s assets, but in detail from their internal traits, to the world you’ve created around them.

  • What traits does your character have that will aid them as you drag them through hell—I mean, the story? Are they street smart, are they great at problem solving? Are they empathic, optimistic, funny, determined, disciplined or dedicated? Take a little time to consider the strengths your character already had when they first walked onto the page.
  • Who are the people around them that support and help them? Some of these already existed in the details of your backstory, like the grandmother who taught your character to stand up for the underdog, through to a new mentor that teaches them the rules of the fantastical world they’ve just discovered themselves in.
  • What strengths does your character have that they aren’t aware of? The external perspective of a psychologist, or in our case, the writer, holds an objectivity and understanding a person may be too close to see. Consider how your character may discover these strengths, and what that could mean for them.

What do you think? Can you see the wonderful link between case formulation and character building? By reviewing and applying the four Ps, what have you learned about your character? Your story world?

Tamar Sloan is a freelance editor, consultant and the author of PsychWriter – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers. Tamar is also an award-winning author of young adult romance, creating stories about finding life and love beyond our comfort zones. You can checkout Tamar’s books on her author website.

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Posted in Basic Human Needs, Character Arc, Character Flaws, Character Traits, Character Wound, Characters, Emotion, Motivation, Resident Writing Coach, Subtext, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 11 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Store Cashier

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

What is your character's occupation? If they are a retail store cashier, this post will tell you all about that type of job. Occupation: Store Cashier

Overview: A cashier is someone who handles transactions, accepting payments for goods from customers (who might be buying milk at a grocery store, a plant from a flower shop, or a meal at their local pizzeria). Cashiers are usually stationed at a specific checkout with a cash register and remain there as customers come to them. Occasionally they may have other duties they perform during a lull in traffic, such as straightening the checkout area (which often contains magazine racks, gift card, chocolate bars or other store-specific impulse items).  If the bagging of items is required, the cashier may also do this, and remove tags if requested.

Cashiers handle a variety of payments such as cash, credit cards, gift certificates, coupons, and the like. They require basic math skills and need a good memory as they must apply store processes to ringing in items, know codes for different departments or those assigned to goods being purchased (such as fruit and vegetables being weighed). Cashiers are also the “front line” when it comes to dealing with customers, so they must be personable and able to problem solve or deescalate situations where customers are upset or frustrated.

Cashiers with seniority in larger stores may be put in charge of the front end (customer support), working more with management and less on cash, performing duties such as scheduling hours for cashiers and clerks, creating break assignments for front end employees, restocking the checkout area, attending to price checks and re coding prices  within the store’s computer system if required. They will also handling customer inquires and some paperwork.

A character may have a cashiering job at a grocery store, gas station, convenience store, retail shop, restaurant, cafeteria, movie theater, hardware store, coffee house, fast food or takeout place, recreation spaces, or any service industry business that sees regular foot traffic.

Necessary Training:  Most cashier jobs require no formal education level, but on-the-job training is provided. Cashiers either attend special training sessions to learn how to run the cash register and perform related duties, or they are shadowed for the first few shifts by more experienced coworkers. Cashiers may also have to memorize store codes for certain products (such as a grocery store). Lists of these codes are provided by the store and employees are expected to memorize them on their own time. Because cashiers handle money, trust is paramount. For this reason, it is unlikely that someone with a known criminal record would be hired as a cashier.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A knack for languages, charm, empathy, enhanced hearing, exceptional memory, gaining the trust of others, good listening skills, hospitality, making people laugh, mechanically inclined, multitasking, photographic memory,  promotion, reading people

Helpful Character Traits: calm, charming, cooperative, courteous, diplomatic, disciplined, discreet, easygoing, efficient, friendly, honest, hospitable, independent, loyal, obedient, observant, organized, proactive, professional, witty

Sources of Friction: Angry customers who feel they are being overcharged or can’t find the product they like best, people soliciting customers outside the store without permission, ethical issues when customers wish to buy products to get high with or underage customers try to buy products that are not age-appropriate (condoms, pregnancy tests, etc.),  other employees who don’t show up for their shift and cause staff shortages at peak times, coworkers who use seniority to get out of certain duties, money that goes missing from the till, customers who are inebriated or belligerent, customers who act violent, shoplifters, robberies, having one’s hours reduced when one can’t afford to lose out on income, being blamed for something so the management can save face

People They Might Interact With: customers, other store employees, management, delivery people

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: A character who is unable to find employment elsewhere due to job shortages may feel underemployed and unfulfilled. Trapped by financial circumstances, they are unable to pursue other passions or higher education.
  • Esteem and Recognition: People may look down on cashiers because this work doesn’t require much education and a character’s self-esteem may suffer as a result.
  • Safety and Security: As a cashier with direct access to money, your character will be in danger should someone come into the store looking to rob the place.
  • Physiological Needs: Because this job pays very little, the character may find they are unable to secure basic needs (food, shelter, etc.) depending on where they live and who they are providing for in addition to themselves.

Common Work-Related Settings: bakery, bank, bar, bookstore, bowling alley, break room, casino, casual dining restaurant, cheap motel, circus, coffeehouse, convenience store, county fair, cruise ship, deli, diner, farmer’s market, fast food restaurant, flower shop, gas station, grocery store, hair salon, hardware store, high school cafeteria, ice cream parlor, jewelry store, laundromat, library, liquor store, mechanic’s shop, movie theater, museum, nightclub, pawn shop, psychic’s shop, pub, race track (horses), shopping mall, spa, sporting event stands, tattoo parlor, thrift store, trade show, train station, trendy mall clothing store, truck stop, upscale hotel lobby, used car dealership, video arcade, zoo

Twisting the Stereotype: Cashiers are often portrayed as run-down women who have fallen on hard times and hate their job. Why not give us a character who genuinely loves the work and interacting with people?

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Outlining Your Future Book in 30 Minutes

To plot or to pants? That is the question—one with as many different answers as there are writers. As an avid plotter, the idea of pantsing gives me the heebie-jeebies, but I understand that my over-the-top planning would probably make other writers break out in hives. That’s why I’m happy that Lesley Vos is here to share a quick outlining method that pretty much anyone could use to lay the framework for their story.

We all have a story in us, and the day comes when we feel ready to share it with the world. But writing is hard. It’s often a challenge more than a pleasant pastime. One of the reasons for this is a lack of planning.

Some fiction writers believe that creativity and imagination are enough to take them where they need to go, that if they allow the characters to live their own lives, they result will be a highly readable book. And this does work for a small number of writers. But in many cases, a few weeks or months go by, and neither the authors nor their characters know where the story’s going.

Outline your fiction or nonfiction book project in just thirty minutes.Things work a little differently with nonfiction writers, who seriously plan their books before they’re written. This planning can help fiction authors, too, saving them time and energy and preventing plot and character mishaps, along with writer’s burnout.

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, for those of you who aren’t too keen on planning, I’d like to share my plan for outlining a story idea in just thirty minutes.

Fiction Projects

Understandably, you don’t want your future masterpiece to sound like an academic essay. And yet a summary, together with core facts on plot and characters, would come in handy. It will at least help you avoid hitting the writer’s-block wall and failing to finish the story.

To write an outline of your future novel, follow these steps:

1. (5 minutes) Write a one-sentence summary, or log line, of your story as you would describe it to agents. How would you make them understand that this book is worth publishing? Screenwriters call it a log line—a one-sentence synopsis that shows the potential of a movie based on its premise, characters, and conflict. Blake Snyder perfectly decribed it in his book Save the Cat! For example, here’s the one-sentence log line for The Shawshank Redemption.

Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency. 

2) (10 minutes) Expand it to a three-act structure. The first act will introduce characters, the main conflict, and time. The second one will develop the idea and reveal more about characters. The third act includes a climax and solution to the conflict. This summary can be just a few sentences long or it can go into more details—whatever you’re comfortable with. The following shows how the Shawshank log line can be expanded into a five-sentence summary of the three-act structure:

In 1947, a young banker Andy is wrongfully accused of the murder of his wife and convicted to two life sentences in Shawshank State Penitentiary. He meets Red there, a man who had been to that prison for 20 years already. Thanks to his professional background, Andy becomes useful for guards, helping them to evade taxation, but yet can’t avoid violence and sexual assaults from inmates. He asked Red, known as a “guy who knows how to get things,” for a rock hammer to pick up his hobby of rock shaping and a poster of Rita Hayworth. These are two things allowing Andy to escape: he digs a hole, covering it behind the poster, and reunites with his friend Red after 40 years.  

3) (5 minutes) Specify the main characters.  Write a one-sentence summary of each character: their name, goal, motivation, conflict, and storyline. Who are they? What do they want? What could prevent them from getting it? What part do they play in the plot?

4) (10 minutes) Go back to step two and expand each sentence into a paragraph, including more details. This will help you understand if your whole story works or not. Also, you’ll see whether you need all the characters represented in step three.

Now you’re ready to start writing the book. Go back to the structure; bring characters to life with more details about their appearance, history, hobbies, and the changes they will experience throughout the story. Set the scenes, and re-draft wherever necessary.

NonFiction Projects

Before writing a detailed outline of your nonfiction book, make sure the market needs it. Spend some time on research. Are there any published books on similar topics? What structures do they have and how well are they selling? Do you have anything new to say?

Also, consider the audience. Do they need another book on your topic? What would they like to see in the book?

Finally, ask yourself: is your idea original, or are you just paraphrasing existing books? What unique experience(s) do you have to share with people? What skills will they get after reading your book?

Now it’s time to create your detailed outline.

1) (5 minutes) Specify the main idea of your book. This is often easy, because you’re aware of what book you want to write. It’s also important at this stage to consider your own experience with the topic since this will tell you if you have something exclusive or unique to offer on the topic.

2) (5 minutes) Come up with a title that gives a promise to readers: “This book will help you gain this skill.” Here’s an example of how these two points can work together to help an author zero in on their book’s main idea and how their experience can make it stand out:

Chris Anderson, author of  TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, has 
worked behind the scenes with all the TED speakers for many years. In his book, he shares insights from TED’s favorites on how to speak publicly like a boss. 


The book’s title tells readers exactly what skill they’ll acquire by reading the book (learn to speak publicly). And Chris’s experience offers him the unique opportunity to share insights and advice from industry professionals. This is how he can differentiate his project from other books on the same topic.

3) (10 minutes) Consider a Harvard essay structure. Write an introduction (specify a hypothesis you’ll work on in your book – a “what” component), a body (enumerate arguments you will include into the book – a “how” component), and a conclusion (specify a thesis – a “why” component).

4) (10 minutes) Itemize the structure. Go back to step three and detail each item the best you can. Here’s an example of what this might look like.

After your outline is ready, draft the rest of the details, and your book will be born.

In the case of book writing, planning matters. No one says you need to forget about creativity, sudden strokes of inspiration, and plot twists; they’ll be your companions during the writing process. But before you start, spend just thirty minutes on outlining your future book so you won’t give up the idea of writing it once the first mishap takes place.

Lesley Vos is a seasoned web writer and blogger behind Lesley specializes on planning, researching, and creating plagiarism-free, in-depth, and comprehensive content. Feel free to see more works of hers on Twitter (@LesleyVos).

Posted in Guest Post, Plotting, Uncategorized | 13 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Auto Mechanic

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

A character's occupation can say a lot about who he is while contributing to the story's momentum. This week's entry: Auto Mechanic

Occupation: Auto Mechanic

Overview: Mechanics inspect, repair, and maintain vehicles. Some have a general knowledge of all vehicle engines and parts while others specialize in an area, choosing to focus on a certain type of vehicle (cars and trucks, big rigs, boat engines, imports) or specific parts of the engine (air conditioners or transmissions). Mechanics can own their own shop or work as part of someone else’s organization.

Necessary Training: While some shops require their mechanics to receive post-secondary education and become certified through various programs, not all of them do. Completing these programs does, however, improve one’s chances of being hired and making better money. Educational opportunities can be found at trade schools and community colleges, specialized mechanic schools, and through the military. The apprenticeship or on-the-job training model is also very common in this career field.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: Hot-wiring a car, mechanically inclined

Helpful Character Traits: Alert, analytical, curious, focused, honorable, independent, industrious, meticulous, observant, resourceful, responsible, studious

Sources of Friction: Being unable to correctly identify the problem with a vehicle, missing a problem that results in an accident, inattentiveness on the job that leads to an injury, old or sub-standard machinery in the shop, irate customers, difficulty keeping up with changes in the industry, falling behind in one’s training or certification, not making enough money to support one’s family or achieve desired goals, being pigeon-holed at the shop into a certain area of work when one really wants to be doing something else, wanting to start one’s own business but being unable to do so, constantly being asked by friends to diagnose their cars’ problems for free, being accused of dishonesty by customers who buy into the stereotype that mechanics are swindlers, weather conditions (such as extreme heat or cold) making the job difficult

People They Might Interact With: Car owners, other mechanics, the shop owner, vendors, inspectors

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: A character might become dissatisfied with his career if it began as a temporary endeavor or has turned into something he never intended. Perhaps he wanted to work on race cars or own his own shop, but his plans never materialized, and now he’s stuck doing something he doesn’t enjoy.
  • Esteem and Recognition: While everyone would agree that a mechanic’s job is important, there are those who view people in manual labor fields in a negative light. A character experiencing this kind of prejudice could struggle in the esteem department.
  • Love and Belonging: If the character is struggling financially, it could put a strain on their relationships.
  • Safety and Security: While industry standards require a minimum of safety requirements, a shop owner or employees who are stingy or cut corners could create an unsafe work environment where injuries are more likely to happen.

Common Work-Related Settings: Break room, car accident, garage, gas station, salvage yard, waiting room

Twisting the Stereotype: As with so many other professions, this one is predominantly male. Throw in a female mechanic (think Mona Lisa Vito from My Cousin Vinny), and you’ve got an interesting twist. The field is also a blue-collar one, so what about a mechanic from a white collar family pursuing the career? And when you think about the temperament of a mechanic, likely, the same character traits come to mind. Consider some unlikely possibilities (nurturing, romantic, flamboyant, etc.) to turn the stereotype on its ear.

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Characters in Cars Thinking, or, How to Deal with the Passage of Time

jennie-nashI have been seeing a lot of issues around the passage of time in the fiction I have been coaching. It isn’t the content that’s the problem. The problem has to do with the way time loops around on itself in an illogical way.

Before I explain, let me say that time looping around on itself is a completely and totally different thing than a character going back in time to draw on an incident or memory from their past to make sense of their present. That’s backstory, or flashback, and you want that in your story.

In real life, our minds are constantly pinging around in time as we work to figure things out – pinging back to second grade, back to tenth grade, back to when we were twenty, that time in Denver with our Dad. In other words, the way we experience time in real life is not strictly chronological. Our brains are all over the place as we recall things and remember things, all in service of making sense of what is happening.

Don't confuse the reader! Keep the time sequences straight and your pacing plugging along with these tips

For your characters to feel 3D and real and alive, they need to remember and recall and process events the way real people do – pinging back in time then forward to story present. Jumping around time within the moments unfolding in story present, however, is confusing for the reader.

Those little time loops tend to look like this:

  • We are going along with X action.
  • Then suddenly we loop back to a A FEW MOMENTS BEFORE X action to learn some small nugget of information.
  • Then we jump forward and proceed with X action where we left off.

The reason this is a problem is that it’s very hard on the reader. When time loops like that, we feel like we are being yanked around, and we are forced to think too hard – and not about the things we WANT to think about, like what’s going to happen or why people are doing what they are doing. We are forced, instead, to think about where characters are in time and space – to figure out the logistics. And it’s frustrating.

Let’s break down the time loop in one of Abby Mathew’s scenes (Abby is my co-host on the MomWrites podcast – thanks for sharing your work in progress, Abby!) You can learn how to spot the time loop – and then we can look at her revision to learn how to fix it.

Abby is writing middle grade fiction. The main action of this scene is the main character, Bernadette, having her first kiss with a boy while watching a movie at his house. The scene that follows has the boy’s mom driving Bernadette home (where she is trying to solve a mystery related to her dad, John Thorpe, and to the book Wuthering Heights):

Bernadette looked back at Logan, and saw he was watching the kissing scene, too. Before she could lose her nerve, she reached up and touched Logan’s cheek. He turned to her and just like the movie, their faces were inches from each other. Bernadette leaned in closer, and as their lips touched, she closed her eyes.

That moment someone flipped on the lights. The brightness assaulted their senses, and both of them sat back and covered their eyes.

“I don’t know that the two of you are ready for Wuthering Heights,” Mrs. Brock chuckled. “Maybe it’s time to take Bernadette home.”


Bernadette was thankful that she had left every light in the Thorpe house turned on. Being alone had unnerved her, so the house had been lit up like a Christmas tree since John Thorpe and Miss Amelia disappeared into their books. Conveniently, it made it look as if her father was home and Mrs. Brock didn’t ask any questions about Mr. Thorpe’s whereabouts. Mrs. Brock had driven Bernadette home with the promise that Logan could ride her bike back in the morning, and his mom had also agreed he could stay for the day.

Logan walked Bernadette to her front door, where they stood for a moment. Bernadette felt an odd mixture of embarrassment and happiness… and worry.

Do you see that time loop? The scene goes from the den at Logan’s house to Bernadette’s house, back in time to Logan’s mom’s car, then forward in time to Bernadette’s house.

The solution is to always make sure you are writing in a straightforward chronological way in story present. The clue that you have strayed from that path is often an info dump – the lines about Mrs. Brock and Logan and the bike just plop info down on the reader, and we don’t like that. We want to be present as the story unfolds.

The car ride is a great opportunity for Abby to let us into her character’s head and let us watch her embarrassment and worry unfold. Smoothing out the time loop, in other words, gives Abby the opportunity to simply write a better scene:

Her whole body laughed along, and Logan joined in, too. They shook the sofa with their laughter, and it felt good. Bernadette was relieved that she wasn’t imagining things, that Logan had wanted to kiss her. And the truth was, it was funny. Bernadette wiped her eyes so she could see Logan better, and decided to just go for it. She reached up and put her arms around his shoulders and kissed him on the lips.

“What’s so funn— whoa,” said Mrs. Brock, flipping on the lights.

Logan and Bernadette jumped to different ends of the sofa, but it was too late. Mrs. Brock definitely saw them kissing.


The car ride home was the worst. Bernadette would have preferred to find her way home in the dark on her bicycle. Instead she sat in the backseat of the Brock’s car, trying to avoid eye contact with Mrs. Brock in the rearview mirror. Bernadette was embarrassed that Mrs. Brock had caught Bernadette kissing her son. At least if she had ridden her bicycle home, the exercise might have helped to work out this angry feeling that was consuming her. It had been her first kiss, and instead of remembering a funny, romantic moment, she would forever remember a humiliating one. She kept her eyes fixed out the window, but she didn’t see the houses or the streetlights. Instead she saw the instant replay of Mrs. Brock’s stupid interruption playing on a five-second loop.

That reading experience is so much smoother for the reader. Since we don’t have to worry about where we are in time and space, we can focus on the story.

The next time you find yourself making a little loop back in time in story present, stop. Ask yourself if the important information is happening off stage – if you are just telling the reader what happened and dumping it in. If so, bring it onstage, in the order in which is actually happened, and let the reader move through time and space with the characters as if we were there.

jennie-nash_framedJennie has worked in publishing for more than 30 years. She is the author of four novels, three memoirs, and The Writer’s Guide to Agony and Defeat. An instructor at the UCLA Extension Writing Program for 10 years, she is also the founder and chief creative officer of Author Accelerator, an online program that offers affordable, customized book coaching so you can write your best book. Find out more about Jennie here, visit her blog, discover the resources and coaching available at her Author Accelerator website, and connect online.

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Posted in Resident Writing Coach, Revision and Editing, Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Quieter Protagonists: 3 Ways to Help Them Steal the Stage

While readers love to see larger-than-life characters with passion, take-charge attitudes, and heaps of boldness and daring, not every protagonist wears an extrovert skin. In fact, looking at real-life demographics for a second, I think there’s a lot more people on the quieter side than not. Some of us are introverted, others, on the shy side. People can also be deep thinkers or natural observers. And of course many struggle with doubt and insecurity, and extroverted or not, it’s enough to keep them from actively choosing the spotlight.

Whatever the reason is, it is worth remembering that if we’re to mirror the real world in our fiction, those loud, brash characters are the exception, not the rule. Besides, if all our story cast members have big, BIG personalities it will create a tug-of-war for the reader’s attention, and the story can suffer as a result. We need quieter characters, too…especially because quiet DOESN’T mean boring.

Working with a quiet character? Here's how to make sure they stand out to readers.

The trick with quieter characters is finding a way for them to stand out. If you have a shy woman or a calm and careful man, each will be naturally more reserved with their actions and choices. They likely think before they act, look both ways before crossing the street, that sort of thing. They may be predictable, and if we aren’t careful, they might become forgettable. This is death if your quieter character happens to be the protagonist, so let’s look at three ways to make sure they command the stage.

Use Contrast

Contrast is a great way to bring the spotlight back to your quiet character. Pair them against a flashy cast, like a friend who is bold yet arrogant, or a parent who is feisty and reckless. A teacher who abrasive and opportunistic, or an erratic, superstitious boss. When the people around your quiet hero are creating a lot of drama, then your protagonist can become an interesting and insightful counterweight.

To make this work, ensure that something about them (a trait, a talent, an interest or hobby, knowledge they have, or something else) is special and connected to the current problem or what’s at stake. For example, imagine half a dozen superficial, attention-jockeying teens on a school hiking trip who become separated from the larger group. Between blaming each other for getting lost and hysterics about starving or being mauled by a bear, no one in this group is capable of solving the problem at hand. But imagine that one of the kids assigned to this group is our protagonist, a logical thinker who spends his time Geo-caching for fun. Who is suddenly going to be the focus as he’s the best suited to navigating everyone back to the campsite?

Offer Readers Something Unexpected

People can be meek and mild, but in books, a too-quiet introvert will quickly bore the reader. Imagine a schoolgirl, her perfectly combed hair, her steps careful as she watches for cracks on the sidewalk. You can see her, can’t you, clutching books to her chest, unassuming, polite, so different from the hormonal teen freak show going on around her. She does her homework. Raises her hand enough to stay off the teacher’s radar. Her schoolmates don’t know her name and find her utterly forgettable…and readers will too if we leave her in this Plain Jane purgatory.

Writing a quiet, introverted character? Here's how they can stand out to readers.

Yet, if we give her something unexpected, the very details that made her fade will bring her to life. Maybe we give her a secret, or allude to a desire of hers that is so much bigger than her blah exterior.

We could also reveal something about her that will make a reader’s breath catch.

What if those books she clutches are holding something in place…an injured bird found on the way to school? But she’s not holding it there to protect it. Instead, each twitch, jerk, and flutter floods her body with exhilaration, so much so that she squeezes harder, smothering away its cries as claws dig through her sweater, until finally, all movement stops.

Her carefully controlled demeanor takes on a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?

Create Reader Empathy Using Deep POV

When characters don’t have noticeably extroverted traits and behaviors, they don’t usually express themselves outwardly to the same degree as those that do. However, one thing every introvert has is big, deep thoughts. They might not be showing their emotion as actively as other characters do but you can bet they are thinking, reflecting, and FEELING.

Pulling the reader inside your quiet protagonist is a great way to show their raw emotions as a scene plays out. Deep POV means instead of watching everything from a distance, readers see through the eyes of the protagonist and experience the visceral quality of their emotions. (This in turn lends more weight to any outward expressions because their body language is layered with the context of their thoughts.)

Deep POV means what a character sees and senses becomes a shared emotional experience for the reader. And in heightened emotional moments, they often find themselves remembering their own life experiences when they themselves felt something similar to what the character is feeling. These echoes mean that deep POV is a powerful tool for creating closeness and that all-important empathy bond. Click here to download our One Stop for Writers checklist on Deep POV.

Do you have a quiet character? How do you make sure they capture your reader’s heart? Let me know in the comments!

Need more help? Check out Resident Writing Coach September Fawkes‘ great post on Making Secondary Characters Stand Out.

If you are building your character from the ground up and need to make sure they have a interesting and compelling personality, please take a peek at the Positive Trait & Negative Trait Thesaurus books.

Posted in Character Flaws, Character Traits, Characters, Description, Emotion, Emotion Thesaurus Guide, Empathy, Experiments, One Stop For Writers, Point of View, Positive & Negative Thesaurus Guides, Show Don't Tell, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 24 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Real Estate Agent

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Use your character's occupation to characterize them to readers. Here's information about being a realtor. #writing

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

Occupation: Real Estate Agent

Overview: A Realtor® or real estate agent, oversees the buying and selling of homes (or properties, commercial or residential). For a seller, they will investigate comparative properties to aid homeowners in setting a price, set up the listing, arrange for pictures and obtain home specs to include in advertisements and website listings, arrange and oversee realtor-only showing and open houses, negotiate between parties (including counter offers), and steer the closing process. Often the agent will weigh in on any esthetics that may need to be addressed before listing (both decorative adjustments and home repairs – a realtor will be able to tell clients what improvements are worth doing, and which will not offer a return on investment as far as price and ease of sale.)

If the character’s clients are the buyers, they will research suitable listings based on the client’s needs and price, understand current lending rates and convey this to clients should they need this information, set up viewings, investigate the area for information on schools, services, property taxes or anything else new homeowners may wish to know. They also accompany the client during showings, and once a match is found, the agent will submit an offer on the client’s behalf, negotiate price and terms, steer the closing process behind the scenes, and arrange for a final walk-through and key hand off.

Agents must be flexible, attentive, efficient, and hands on, as often the buying and selling of a home is time sensitive, especially in a hot market. A character in this job must attend to all client needs promptly, and be willing to meet at different hours as often home showings and negotiations happen outside of work time. As real estate agents have multiple clients at once, this can require a lot of schedule juggling and a need for excellent time management.

Necessary Training: Agents take a pre-licencing course (the length of which depends on the country and state) where they learn the terminology of the business, realty practices and processes like how to assess a home’s value, understand banking processes, lending rules, and how to be an effective advocate and negotiator. After meeting the training time of the course, they must take and pass their licensing exam, and then pay for a license to practice.

A character in this field will most likely join a brokerage to start, pulling on the networking of a larger firm, and later on they may choose to set our on their own. In a more populated area, agents usually choose a specialty, be it homes in a specific area of the city, working with either residential or commercial properties, having a practice focus on ranches and farms, or only taking listings in a certain price range (such as high-end properties). A smaller town, they will likely have a variety of clients and listings as this is necessary to make enough commission to live on. How your character specializes can tell readers more about them: who they like to work with, values, and level of hustle and drive. They also require excellent people skills, and have a smooth, pleasant demeanor.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A knack for languages, a knack for making money, carpentry, charm, exceptional memory, gaining the trust of others, haggling, hospitality, lip-reading, lying, making people laugh, multitasking, photographic memory, predicting the weather, promotion, reading people, writing

Helpful Character Traits: ambitious, analytical, bold, calm, charming, confident, decisive, diplomatic, disciplined, discreet, efficient, extroverted, industrious, intelligent, meticulous, organized, patient, perceptive, persuasive, professional

Sources of Friction: clients who aren’t ready to pull the trigger and just want to look and see what’s out there, wasting everyone’s time, competitive agents vying for the same sale (few listings and many real estate agents), clients who are late or especially demanding, clients who are hoarders or leave their home a mess before a showing, a theft that happens during an open house, clients who refuse to get financially pre-approved and them grow upset when they lose out on a house offer, clients who want more for their home that it is worth, clients who have big expectations yet a small budget, a client who likes to hit on the character or makes inappropriate comments and advances, an angry past client who tries to unfairly smear one’s good name, drama at the office, other real estate agents within the firm poaching clients, a break-in at a home resulting from a realtor lock box not being secured

People They Might Interact With: administration staff, bank employees and mortgage brokers, freelance photographers and copy writers, other agents, home inspectors, homeowners, home buyers, family members of the clients

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization:  Because of the huge time commitment and irregularity of hours in this profession, a character may find they do not have the time or energy to devote to meaningful goals or growing their knowledge and skills in other areas that will lead to fulfillment.
  • Esteem and Recognition: Within the industry, quarterly and yearly sales are constantly being used as a metric to judge the agent’s abilities, and competition is fierce. A bad month or two can lead to a bad year, and one’s standing dropping among others in one’s industry, leading to feelings of low self-esteem.
  • Love and Belonging: The non-steady hours and need to always be hustling for work in tough markets means often family and relationships come second. This can make it hard to make time to find a partner to share one’s life with, or to keep current loving relationships intact.
  • Safety and Security: Because an agent may not always know who is going to show up for an appointment or to walk through an open house, it is possible that they could be in danger if caught in a home alone with the wrong sort of people.

Common Work-Related Settings: attic, backyard, bank, barn, basement, big city street, break room, child’s bedroom, coffeehouse, elevator, farm, flower garden, garage, gas station, kitchen, living room, man cave, mansion, nursery, office cubicle, parking lot, patio deck, penthouse suite, ranch, residential bathroom, run-down apartment, small town street, teenager’s bedroom, tool shed, wine cellar, workshop

Twisting the Stereotype:

In fiction and film, Real Estate Agents often seem to come across as a bit pushy and overly friendly, and usually only point out the highlights of the property. Why not have your character’s ethics and values cause them to be overly honest about the property, even if it means costing a sale?

Characters cast in this role are always well-groomed and articulate. Why not try a character who doesn’t care about what others think of how he or she dresses, but is exceptionally good at what they do, so much so that rumpled clothing or  rougher language is overlooked?

Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments

Critiques 4 U!

Hello, beautiful people! I hope you’re all having productive, efficient, kick-butt weeks. It’s time for March’s critique contest, but I wanted to take a moment and thank all of you for your encouragement. Your kind words, reviews, and support, yes, keep it all coming :). But I get just as charged when I run this contest each month and see so many writers putting themselves out there, risking criticism, knowing that if they win, it means more work. You guys are amazing, and I wish you exponential growth and wild success on your journeys!

Critiques 4 U


If you’re working on a first page and would like some objective feedback, please leave a comment that includes: 

1) your email address. Some of you have expressed concern about making your email address public; if you’re sure that the email address associated with your WordPress account is correct, you don’t have to include it here. But if you do win and I’m unable to contact you through that email address, I’ll have to choose an alternate winner.

2) your story’s genre (no erotica, please)

Also, please be sure your first page is ready to go so I 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 me right away, I’d like to 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, you can email me your first page and I’ll offer my feedback. Best of luck!

Posted in Uncategorized | 47 Comments

Deepening Our Story: Theme It Like You Mean It

jami-goldOur story’s themes—our messages to readers of what to value or believe—can add depth and meaning to our writing, but to avoid being too on-the-nose, our themes are usually developed in the story’s subtext. Unfortunately, working in subtext means we can accidentally create unintentional themes—sometimes the opposite of what we intend.

What Creates a Theme?

To understand how we might create unintentional themes, we first have to understand what creates themes within our story—what impressions we’ve created:

  • Story Themes: What’s the premise of the story? Who’s supposed to win or lose—and why?
  • Character Themes: How does the protagonist change over the course of the story? What do they learn?
  • Plot Themes: During the story’s turning points, what do the characters attempt? Do they succeed or fail—and why?
  • Choices Themes: What choices are the characters making? Do the results match the Story or Character Themes (choices that agree with the themes should succeed and vice versa)?
  • Villain Themes: Are the villain’s beliefs reinforced or disproved by plot events?

Themes are powerful to insert into fiction, deepening the story. Visit for how to do it right and pitfalls to avoid. What Are Unintended Themes?

Unintended themes undermine our message. As an example, with a theme of “Friends help us succeed,” we might accidentally weaken our message in the following ways:

  • Story Themes: Our protagonist succeeds because of luck rather than help from friends.
  • Character Themes: Our protagonist never learns to value friendship.
  • Plot Themes: Our characters succeed at tasks when even friends aren’t around to help or fail despite the help of friends.
  • Choices Themes: Our protagonist succeeds despite making choices that dismisses or disrespects friends.
  • Villain Themes: Our villain isn’t defeated due to our hero’s friends or our villain’s lack of friends.

Those story points could create an unintentional message to readers: Luck helps us more than friends. Probably not what we meant. *smile*

Potential Unintended Themes Lurk Everywhere

Every choice our characters make, every plot point, every obstacle—in other words, every cause and effect—can potentially create the wrong message.

  • If our “hero” succeeds even when incompetent, we’re sending a message about what heroism looks like in our story world—and it’s not pretty.
  • If our romance hero’s interest focuses on a superficial or temporary status (such as virginity or “innocence”), we’re implying their relationship will end when the innocence is gone.
  • If our “chosen one” protagonist “earns” the label of hero solely due to right-place-right-time or a certain genealogy rather than heroic acts or sacrifices, we’re saying greatness is a matter of circumstance and not action.
  • If our villain’s eventual failure isn’t related to their “wrong” beliefs, we might create the impression that our hero wins simply due to luck.

How Can We Fix Unintended Themes?

It’s often difficult to recognize unintentional themes in our writing, so feedback from others can be crucial. Once we’re aware, we need to identify what’s creating the wrong impression:

  • Do we have plot events developing the wrong theme?
  • Is the climax (or other emotional turning points) the source of the problem (often the case)?
  • Is a plot event itself a problem, or just the results/decisions for the event or scene?
  • Would changing earlier scenes improve the theme arc by showing a “trying and failing” approach until they learn to do it right?
  • Is it a characterization problem (how they’re shown) or a word choice problem (too harsh of words)?
  • Do minor characters tell one theme but character actions show another?

In essence, we need to pay attention to the cause-and-effect chain in our story—especially the why: Why is the character experiencing each success or failure?

The answer to that question—as well as any results or responses to events—should follow the lead of our theme. Otherwise, we need to refine the theme to fit the realities of our story. A single scene or reaction can be the cause of problems, and the right tweaking can fix the theme for the whole story.

How Can We Vary Results without Breaking the Theme?

That’s not to say that our protagonist should never succeed unless they’re perfectly in line with the theme. In fact, an exception often occurs during our story’s Black Moment, as the purpose of that turning point can be to make characters question their efforts to improve when they fail despite trying to do the “right” thing.

To avoid unintended themes in those cases, we could ensure the character wasn’t doing the “right” thing completely enough yet, or they were doing the “right” thing for the wrong reasons, or we could show how they’ve “lost faith.” Whatever our story’s situation, if we write with purpose, we’re less likely to create unintended themes. *smile*

Do you have any questions about themes—intentional or unintentional?

jami-picture-200-x-300_framedAfter muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

Find out more about Jami here, hang out with her on social media, or visit her website and Goodreads profile.

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Posted in Resident Writing Coach, Subtext, Theme, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 28 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Rancher

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

Choosing the right occupation for your character: Ranching is a good choice, fraught with risk and danger

Occupation: Owning and overseeing a large tract of land primarily used for growing livestock (sheep, cows, horses, alpacas, emus, etc.)

Overview: Ranchers are responsible for the day-to-day operations of running a ranch. Their duties may include choosing which livestock to raise, breeding the animals, feeding and watering them, seeing to their physical health, hiring and overseeing the necessary personnel, selling livestock, and maintaining the ranch’s physical structures. They may also choose to raise crops that can be used on the ranch, so as feed products for the animals.

Necessary Training: Many ranches are family-owned, and the necessary skills are taught from one generation to the next. An outsider entering this career field might sign on with an existing ranch to gain experience, or they could take over an existing ranch and hire skilled workers to do the manual labor.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A knack for making money, a way with animals, basic first aid, carpentry, exceptional memory, farming, haggling, mechanically inclined, multitasking, predicting the weather, repurposing, sharpshooting, super strength, survival skills, whittling, wilderness navigation

Helpful Character Traits: Adaptable, adventurous, alert, ambitious, calm, cooperative, courageous, disciplined, focused, gentle, independent, mature, nature-focused, nurturing, observant, organized, patient, persistent, resourceful, sensible

Sources of Friction: An illness spreading through the herd, a disease spreading through the area that specifically attacks one’s livestock (such as an avian or porcine disease), a predator preying on the animals, poachers, one’s land being taken away (by the government, because of a highway going through, etc.), an accident befalling a careless worker, the animals being mistreated by workers, financial difficulties, a drought or famine, social or cultural changes that make one’s livestock or their byproducts undesirable (the Vegan lifestyle becoming more popular and making beef an unwanted commodity, studies being published that show that cheese is actually bad for you, etc.), strife between family members about how the ranch should be run, bad PR (word getting out that the ranch was acquired through unethical means, people protesting the treatment of one’s animals, etc.)

People They Might Interact With: ranch workers, family members who live on the ranch, veterinarians, farriers, inspectors, delivery people, breeders, customers seeking to buy the livestock or their byproducts

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: A character’s self-actualization might be affected if they’re working the farm out of a sense of duty, rather than because they really want to—if it was a family business, for instance.
  • Esteem and Recognition: A rancher’s esteem could take a hit if they’re really awful at certain aspects of job and are being shown up by their workers. Someone with a growth mindset would likely learn and grow from their employees, but a rancher who is more fixed could internalize his failures and begin to doubt his abilities.
  • Safety and Security: A situation impacting the rancher’s safety or security might be a disease that spreads easily between livestock and humans or a scenario in which once-docile animals become violent toward the people caring for them.
  • Physiological Needs: If one’s survival depends on the ranch’s success, a threat to that success could threaten their physiological needs, making it all-important for them to do well.

Common Work-Related Settings: Barn, campsite, country road, county fair, farm, farmer’s market, ghost town (old west), hunting cabin, meadow, mountains, old pick-up truck, orchard, pasture, pond, ranch, river, slaughterhouse, small town street

Twisting the Stereotype: Again, ranchers are typically portrayed as men. A woman rancher might be just the ticket for providing a twist on this stereotype. Also, because ranches are usually family-owned businesses, the people running them are typically familiar with the setting. What about someone from the outside taking over, or a group of ranches being run by a co-op?

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments