Character: O is for Outcast

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the master of magical realism and author of the exquisitely complicated novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, has died at 87.  Rest in peace, sir.

Image: Wikipedia

O is for Outcast.

I could caution about writing a character like this.  A true outcast is one for a reason.  He isn’t going to suddenly become all warm and fuzzy because someone takes him in.  He may be an outcast because he’s an intolerable ass, a dangerous psychopath, or severely antisocial.

At times, Sherlock fits all three.  But we love him anyway.

At times, Sherlock fits all three. But we love him anyway.

Image:  Splash News /

An outcast probably has something wrong with him.  You could get into his head, but I would suggest not making him too sympathetic, because warm fuzzies don’t work with someone nobody wants to be around.

You could also explore how someone otherwise okay becomes an outcast.  Take Carol Peletier in The Walking Dead—she suffered huge changes and losses.  Over time, she became so concerned with survival that she SPOILER: 1) began giving the children in the prison knife lessons, and 2) murdered other survivors to keep illness from spreading, thus shocking Rick to the point where he banished her.  Interestingly, Rick then had to kill survivors to protect Daryl, Carl, and Michonne in Season 4, something he was trying desperately not to do.  END SPOILER

Things to think about when writing an outcast:

  • Does the reason he’s an outcast make sense?  Meaning, if he kills baby puppies, yes, but if he drinks the last of the milk, no.  Wait….let me rethink that last one.
  • Where will he live if he’s not with other people?
  • If he is, will they be polite to him, or will they throw things at him when he appears, either literally or figuratively?
  • How will he survive if the story is not set in modern times?
  • If a modern outcast, will he be one everywhere or just in a certain circle (everywhere could be interesting, especially if you involve Internet stuff like doxing)?

All this assumes your outcast is a bad guy.  What about anti-heroes?

An anti-hero is a different kind of outcast.  Though he lacks the qualities that make a typical hero (bravery, selflessness, nobility, etc.), we end up rooting for him anyway.  He could be someone like Hannibal Lecter, who is irredeemably damaged but who we love because he’s just so incredibly unique (and we can’t wait to see what he’ll do next).  His motives for doing the right thing despite himself can be incredibly complicated or devastatingly simple.  Either way, he’s not going to be the most popular kid in school.

Classic Hogwarts outcast.  Good or bad?  Discuss.  If you haven’t read HP, DO IT NOW, GRASSHOPPER.

Classic Hogwarts outcast.  Good or bad?  Discuss.  If you haven’t read the books, DO IT NOW, GRASSHOPPER.


If you’re going to write one of these characters, you’ll have to work hard to make him sympathetic (if he’s your protagonist) and not make him a caricature (if he’s your villain).  It’s harder than it looks to give someone noble motives and still ensure that readers don’t like him.

Have a favorite literary outcast?  Share in the comments.


Character: N is for Negativity

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N is for Negativity.

So many people tell you to think positive and positive things will come your way.  A bright-eyed view of the world helps some folks cope with adversity.  Not everyone believes this, and everyone knows a relentlessly positive person who, like Pollyanna, always believes the best of people and situations no matter what.

Rubbish.  People are awful and you know it. 

Rubbish.  People are awful and you know it.


A negative character (we’ll call him Mr. Neg) will affect everyone around him. Other characters will probably get tired of listening to him whine.  You’ll have to consider the reactions he elicits and whether it’s appropriate to your protagonist or POV (point-of-view) character.

In this article at, Lori Deschene writes, “When you think negative thoughts, it comes out in your body language.”  She’s right.  Mr. Neg, accustomed to resisting efforts to cheer him up or help in any way, may exhibit mannerisms that smack of No.  Examples:

  •  Crossing his arms (defensive or protective posture)
  • Holding anything in front of him (book, papers, etc.)
  • Narrowing his eyes, as though he is suspicious
  • Not making eye contact.  In certain situations, this may simply indicate discomfort or shyness (or that you’re minding your own business), but it can also be incredibly dismissive.
  • Rude behavior, like flicking a hand at someone or walking off.

Negativity is often accompanied by (and a symptom of) depression, so some of Mr. Neg’s actions may indicate this as well.  Signs include sleeping too much or insomnia, lack of interest in sex, eating too much or barely doing so, and withdrawing from activities he previously enjoyed.

It’s very difficult for someone like Mr. Neg to snap out of his pattern of bleah.  Believe me, I know from personal experience, though lately several things have combined to make it better.  While it’s possible to have a huge sea change like Scrooge, for some people, even the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future wouldn’t be enough.  A story about how a negative character affects everyone might be interesting, but if you’re looking for a happy ending, you might not find it with him.

Happy for me is when everybody leaves me alone.

Happy for me is when everybody leaves me alone.


You could use Mr. Neg to challenge your protagonist, rather than make him the focus of your narrative.  If your main character is more like Pollyanna than Scrooge, he could work as an adversary.  He could even drag her down to a dark place from which she has to fight her way back up.  The journey could be worth writing (and reading) about.






Character: M is for Mannerisms

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M is for Mannerisms.

Think about all the little things people do, their habits and their quirks.  These are mannerisms.  They encompass both speech and gesture, and the combination makes for interesting characters.

Some examples include:

  •  Always has a cup of tea at exactly the same time every day
  • Sticking her hands in her pockets and rocking back and forth on heels when bored
  • Reading the newspaper in a certain order every time, and even re-ordering it if it isn’t the way they want (John the serial killer does this in Rose’s Hostage)
  • Pulling at an earlobe or his bottom lip when thinking
  • Mindlessly playing with glasses or hair
  • How Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix politely coughs when she wants someone’s attention (“Ahem, ahem.”)

Speech patterns are mannerisms too.  When the character speaks, does he talk a lot, like stream-of-consciousness dialogue?  Maybe he thinks best by doing it aloud, or maybe he just likes to hear himself.  Back to Literary Sherlock Holmes—boy, does he love to explain how he figured something out.  Poor Watson can hardly get a word in edgewise.

I tried to tell him he was about to walk off the kerb, but he wouldn’t stop nattering. 

I tried to tell him he was about to walk off the kerb, but he wouldn’t stop nattering.


Others don’t talk much or use very short sentences when they do.  Speech to them is a way to convey important information.  They don’t have time to babble on, so you’ll get the straight answer from them, and it might even be rather blunt.  Cursing can also be a mannerism.  So can constantly interrupting people.

Some people bite their fingernails when they’re nervous. They may exhibit habits like sniffing (allergies?) or knuckle cracking.  The Smoking Man character in The X-Files had a very distinctive (and smelly) mannerism.  The way people walk, sit, and even stand tells you something about them.  Think of Hannibal Lecter in the film The Silence of the Lambs when you first see him, standing very still while he waits for Clarice Starling.  He’s a predator, like a cat at a mousehole.

Remember that we often adjust our behavior in different situations.  Your character might like to take a bit of snuff, but he probably won’t do it when he meets the Queen.  Of course, some people, like Jack Sparrow, are the same no matter where they are.

But you adore me anyway, don’t you, luv?

But you adore me anyway, don’t you, luv?


Mannerisms are important in crime fiction, too.  Investigators who track serial offenders look for what they call signature behaviors.  These are things the perpetrator does that are over and above what they need to do to commit the crime.  Though they can be deliberate (the Wet Bandits in Home Alone leaving the water on), they may do them unconsciously or out of compulsion.  A killer can change his M.O, or modus operandi.  He may come in a window one time and pick a door lock another time, but his signature will always be the same.

The victims he chooses are often a part of that signature.  For example, serial killer Theodore Robert “Ted” Bundy often chose victims who had long, dark straight hair that was parted in the middle.  Supposedly, they reminded him of a former girlfriend who had rejected him.

A criminology instructor I had once told our class about a perpetrator they called “the Ether Burglar” who broke into women’s occupied homes and sedated them with a chemical substance.  They caught him after one of his would-be victims put a hole in his guts with a shotgun (he survived).  They never found out what he did after he knocked the women out—nothing was missing, they couldn’t find evidence of any sexual activity, etc.

My instructor said he even approached the suspect’s lawyer offering a freebie—if he told them, they wouldn’t use the conversation in court (there’s a legal term for this, but I can’t remember what it is).  She said no.  We told him if he ever found out he had to tell us.  I think we’ll all go to our graves not knowing, although we all agreed he probably did get nasty somehow.

Just sic Hannibal Lecter on him.  He’ll figure it out.

Just sic Hannibal Lecter on him.  He’ll figure it out.

Image: /

Mannerisms should make sense—a confident politician will walk proudly, head up, not stare at his feet like a mopey teenager.  (By the way—don’t do that when you walk; you’ll get mugged.)  A cool secret agent type probably wouldn’t nervously tap his foot.  Choose them carefully for your character, and you just might wind up with someone unforgettable.


Character: L is for Looks

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Today is April 14, the 102nd anniversary of the sinking of Titanic.  (I know; technically, it sank on April 15, but hitting the iceberg started the whole thing.)  I don’t have a commemorative post this year, but you can refer to this post if you want to do something in memoriam.  I will most likely watch the film tonight.

Titanic at the docks of Southampton

Image:  Wikimedia Commons

L is for Looks.

You might not think looks are important.  We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we’re told.  But in truth, the first thing people notice about other people is how they look.

After all, we are mostly visual creatures.  Our brains process a huge amount of information from our eyes, which are our primary sensory organs.

If you’re writing a character who is handsome, he will be treated differently by other people than if he were ugly.  I had to think about this for Rose’s Hostage.  I made bank robber Joshua Rose handsome because 1) it disarms Libby, his hostage, and 2) it bothers the serial killer (once they find out who he is).  If I wrote him as ugly, it would have been a completely different book.

In addition to that, it complicates things.  Joshua even says it himself:

“You are hot.”  She blushed as she said it, and warmth spread through him.

“Thanks, beauty.  I’m glad you think so.”  He was teasing and she got it, grinning at him.  “But people look at me the same way they would if I were deformed.”  He saw her mouth open in protest and continued, talking over her objection.  “See, they’re responding to something unusual about the way I look.  I’m not above using it to get my way.  In my line of work, it’s dangerous because people remember my face, especially women.  Makes it hard to hide.”

Think about all the ways we judge by looks.  Good-looking people are often treated as if they are better than they are and may become spoiled as a result.  Some of them hate it; they feel their skills and ability aren’t taken seriously because of their looks.  Average-looking people may resent the beautiful ones, especially if they think the person is coasting on his or her physical attributes.  And they may be jealous.

Could that be why certain members of Scotland Yard don’t like him? 

Could that be why certain members of Scotland Yard don’t like him?


This is definitely true for women.  We seem to take the brunt of this stereotype—if a woman is beautiful, she doesn’t need or can’t possibly have any brains.  Of course, that isn’t true, but your character could fall prey to the same notion.  A female character might have to work harder to prove herself than a male one in certain professional situations.  Your male character’s kryptonite could be his outdated attitude toward the gorgeous colleague who saves his bacon (or the sexy villain he thinks he can outsmart).

There’s also the danger of making a character good-looking for the sake of it, as with a Mary Sue or Gary Stu.  Let’s face it; most people don’t measure up to Hollywood standards.  Most of us are average.  A protagonist who is too good to be true loses something important for readers—they won’t relate to him/her.

Mary sue


Let’s talk now about unattractive characters.  Unattractive girls are called dogs, or worse.  It’s a tired old trope that the guy will always go for the hot girl, and if you have an ugly duckling character, she better transform herself before he takes her to the prom, because if not, that would be social suicide.

Guys suffer just as much, especially during adolescence.  In our society, it’s on them to initiate most romantic encounters.  How hard is that, even for a good-looking guy?  Imagine your character trying to do it when he looks in the mirror and hates what he sees.

If the person has a deformity, or perceives himself to have one (like Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon), then that will change how he reacts to other people.  We telegraph our inner thoughts about ourselves in subtle ways, and they treat us accordingly.

Think about how that happens.  How can you show that a character has these thoughts, especially if you don’t get inside his head?

  •  Dialogue:  You could have the character use straightforward, self-deprecating language, such as “Oh, nobody will go out with a lard-ass like me.”
  •  Mannerisms (next post!):  Confident people move with authority, carry their heads high and shoulders back, and look people straight in the eye.  Your self-hating character may shuffle, avoid eye contact, and have poor posture, as though he is trying to hide.
  •  Reactions of other characters:  Think about someone you know who has a poor opinion of himself.  How do you feel when you’re around that person?  Do you get irritated with him when he makes remarks like the one above?  Do you feel pity for him and overcompensate to help him out?
Nobody feel sorry for Hulk.  Hulk smash!

Nobody feel sorry for Hulk.  Hulk smash!


If you’re tempted to make your character resemble your dream man or woman, take time to consider why.  Try to brainstorm—would it make your story more interesting if the character were average, or even unattractive?

Character: K is for Kryptonite

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Sorry yesterday was so busy.  The Ent funeral is over, the tree is gone, and all is well.

Tree pile









Photographs: Elizabeth West



K is for Kryptonite.

Thanks to friends Michael, Jeremy, Amber, and Jane.  I was going to save the topic for W (weakness), but this was a better title.

In the Superman comics, kryptonite is an element from Superman’s exploded home planet, Krypton.  Kryptonite is radioactive, and it’s the only thing that can affect Superman’s powers.  It makes him sick, weak, and defenseless.

Might want to get that checked out, Superdude. 

Might want to get that checked out, Superdude.


A well-rounded character HAS to have a weakness.  Everyone has them.  EVERYONE.  This isn’t a critical flaw, which the character might not even be aware of; it’s something that the character isn’t particularly strong in or has no defense against.

An astute person will seek out ways to turn a weakness into a strength, or he will acquire a helper who is strong in that area so they can complement each other.  These don’t have to be practical skills; they can also be personality traits. The weakness can make the character sympathetic or not.

Think about Christian in Cyrano de Bergerac enlisting Cyrano to help him woo Roxanne.  Of course, Christian doesn’t know that Cyrano loves Roxane (and Roxane thinks all this brilliance of wit and poetry is coming from the hot guy, not the guy with the funny nose).

My education has been abysmal (or I wasn’t paying attention—probably this).  Though I knew the events of the play were fictional, I did not know that Cyrano de Bergerac was a real person.

I apologize, sir, for thinking you were just a character Edmond Rostand made up.


We have sympathy for Cyrano because he’s doing all the work and not getting the love.  He’s weak in that he can’t profess his love when he should, and Christian can but doesn’t know how to do it effectively.  Christian turns his weakness into a strength and in the end tries to be honest, but it bites them both in the ass because neither ends up with Roxane.

You can make your character do this and have everything turn out fine, or you can engineer a tragic ending like this one.

Most people don’t like to make their kryptonite known.  They fear someone will take advantage of it, or the worst will happen.  If you want to mess with your protagonist, give the villain a way to use that weakness against him.

Pressure points, anyone?

Pressure points, anyone?


Your character will have to find a way to overcome his kryptonite in order to accomplish his goal (or stop the villain).  If he can’t do it directly, he’ll have to find a way around it.  Be careful you don’t make this process take too long, blind him to solutions he should see, or have him avoid them for really stupid reasons. You’ll frustrate your readers and lose them.

The journey of overcoming a weakness can be as interesting and engaging as the end result.  A good story has internal conflict within its characters as well as a Big Bad that they must conquer.


Not A-Z because K is for Krazy

Things are a bit crazy today, so I will have to put off my K post until tomorrow.  But no worries; I’ll get it done.  Today I had to clean the house because I won’t have time to do it tomorrow.  And this happened:



Yeah, I actually yelled that.  Had to.  Not apologizing.

The sweet gum tree was dropping those evil alien gumballs on my neighbor’s driveway (and heaving it up with the roots) so it had to go.   That’s a screenshot I snipped from a video I took.

Now I have a thing with some people at a place.  But I will be back tomorrow with my K post.  Happy Saturday!

Character: J is for Job

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Sad news today.  Sue Townsend, British author of the Adrian Mole book series and a delicious book about the Royal Family called The Queen and I, has died at 68, of complications from a stroke.  We’ll miss you, Sue.  Rest in peace.


Image:  Eaomonn McCabe /

J is for Job.

If your character were a real person, what kind of job would he have?  In the U.S., we tend to define ourselves by what we do for a living.  When we meet someone, one of the first getting-to-know-you questions we ask is, “What do you do?”

Here are some questions you can ask yourself when choosing a profession for your character.

Why does/did he decide to do this work? 

Tunerville’s protagonist Chris owns his own landscaping business.  Although he’s college-educated, he likes being outside, working with his hands, caring for his clients’ outdoor spaces.  He’s no Einstein or Donald Trump.  He’s just an average, everyday guy who works hard.  He has expenses and lives in an inherited house.  He didn’t go to school for it, but he enjoys what he does.

Though Chris is doing all right, he doesn’t make big bucks.  This makes him vulnerable to a TV network’s offer to buy his ghost tuner—a few million dollars is enough to blind him to what they are actually planning to do with it.  Not only that, but he loses clients over the tuner.  While he no longer needs the money, it affects his reputation, and that is troubling to him.  Once he can see his mistake, mitigating the damage becomes more urgent.

Your character’s job could also just be something he does to pay the bills.  Whether he loves it or not can make a difference when conflict arises.  If he does, he’s going to be a happier person than someone who dreads going to work.

Maybe if I ignore the alarm, it’ll go away.

Maybe if I ignore the alarm, it’ll go away.

 Image:  David Castillo Dominici /

If the conflict results in his losing the job or abandoning it, who is more likely to struggle with that—a protagonist who likes going to work, or someone who runs out of the office at five o’clock like the building is on fire?

What time of day does he go to work?

Most of us work during the day, but a whole lot of people go to bed when we’re just getting up.  The night shift shows you a different perspective on the world.  Though it’s not for me, I’ve done it, and it is a little weird.

Rotating shift work is hazardous to a person’s health (all that readjusting your body clock).  In the dark, you can’t see the monster coming.  And all the bad people like to come out at night, when there aren’t as many witnesses to their shenanigans.  You can punch up a cop story just by setting your detective’s shift (or certain activities) after sunset.

This affects the kind of crimes he would investigate.  Most bank robberies, for example, happen during the day when the bank is open.  The detective isn’t likely to work one at 2 a.m., but he might handle vice cases and certainly will deal with murders after dark.

Does his job relate to the events of the narrative, or are they secondary to the plot? 

Writers like John Grisham and Michael Palmer (also RIP, dammit) root the stories and characters of their best-selling thrillers in the worlds of their own professions (Grisham in law and Palmer in medicine).  By doing this, they provide their protagonists with ready-made conflicts they can mine for dramatic effect.  It’s easy to manufacture hair-raising scenarios in either job.

If a character’s job is sufficiently varied, you can set up a whole series around it.  Real detective work, public and private, can be pretty mundane, though it does carry the potential for mayhem.  There is a lot of uncomfortable conversation with witnesses and suspects, far less espionage and gunplay than most people think, hours spent combing through records both digital and on paper, boring surveillance, etc.

But everybody loves a baffling mystery.  Add an unusual protagonist and a juicy villain or two, and you can have a series many people find tremendously exciting.

Likes it enough to follow Sherlock Holmes around for over a hundred years. 

Likes it enough to follow Sherlock Holmes around for over a hundred years.


Will his job enable him to find resources on his own, or will he need to get help from someone?

The protagonist of a techno-thriller is going to have a much easier time tracking down an evil sentient computer bug if he already knows everything about computers.  A character who can barely work his smartphone is going to have to find an expert.  If the gap is too big between what he knows and what he doesn’t, you’ll waste a lot of story time while he tries to figure it out.

Some writers get around this by dropping experts into their character’s laps, but you shouldn’t just make them appear out of nowhere.  The deus ex machina died out with classical Greek drama.  There has to be some reason the protagonist would know to go to that person, and any character who tells him to do it should have a sensible reason for being there.


Try different hats on your characters.  Make them more interesting with non-traditional jobs.  It might require some research on your part, but that’s one of the things that makes writing fun.  Switch up gender stereotypes—a male nanny, a female dock worker, etc.  You can do it as a writing exercise, or use it to drive the plot of your story.

Character: I is for Independence

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I is for independence.

We think of independence as part of adulthood—taking care of ourselves without parental assistance, or providing for our own needs.  Other types of independence exist, however.  Which ones will your character have or attain in your story?

This depends on several factors.  Is this person a child?  Then he may not be very independent in actual practice, but he could be in personality.  If an adult, what kind of independence does he have?

  •  Physical independence (PhI):  Lives on his own, can travel alone, and takes care of his own needs, like food, clothing, and shelter
  • Emotional independence (EI):  Can regulate his own feelings; they aren’t contingent on what other people think and don’t control him
  • Psychological independence (PI):  Makes his own decisions and trusts their efficacy

(Abbreviations are mine; I didn’t want to type independence 4,238,681 times)

Dependent people may find themselves in relationships that aren’t good for them because their EI is weak.  They may not leave the parental home in a timely manner or return constantly because they aren’t competent in PhI yet.  A low PI means they might make hasty decisions or choose something because it’s the opposite of what another character thinks they should do.

At opposite extremes, a very independent character may not seek help from others or reluctantly accepts it because he is afraid of appearing weak or is used to having to do everything alone (like Harry Potter).

This Chosen One crap is bloody stupid.  Somebody help me!

This Chosen One crap is bloody stupid.  Somebody help me!


The different types of independence and how they evolve—or clash—in a character lend themselves to story conflict.  And as we all know, you can’t have a story without conflict.

A character who is a minor probably won’t be physically independent, but he could definitely have EI and PI.  While these could be personality traits, the character could also develop them if he has no reliable adults around.

Children’s and young adult fiction, particularly dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction, often renders adults incompetent and/or ignorant or restricts their assistance in some fashion.  It even sometimes removes them entirely.  A good example is a book I read as a kid called The Girl Who Owned a City (1975) by O.T. Nelson.

In this story, ten-year-old Lisa and her little brother Todd find themselves on their own after a plague kills everyone over twelve (PhI).  Lisa has to step up to take care of not only her brother but also other children who begin to see her as a leader (PI).  In the process, she has to learn to trust those who are close to her and can help (EI), like Harry Potter does.  Lisa is forced by circumstance into all three forms of independence.

If you create an adult character, you could make things interesting by leaving one of them out.  For example, your grown-up takes care of himself—he holds down a job, pays his bills, does all basic self-care, etc.(PhI)  But he could have crippling anxiety that causes him to vacillate wildly on making any decisions (no PI).

He could be really clingy in romantic relationships (no EI).  How independent you make him will affect his family relationships too, assuming you decide to let him have children, parents, or siblings.

Oh, for God’s sake, Mycroft, stop being so annoyingly fraternal.

Oh, for God’s sake, Mycroft, stop being so annoyingly fraternal.


Destroying independence is another way you could create conflict in your story.  You could take a previously self-sufficient character and render him incapable in some way.

  • Maybe he becomes ill or injured and can no longer take care of himself
  • An emotional trauma causes him to cling to someone or something that offers comfort but isn’t necessarily good for him
  • He makes a huge mistake and begins to second-guess his decisions to the point where he is completely frozen

Whatever you decide to do with your character’s independence, remember that the vast majority of people need each other.  We’re not built to go through life’s trials without any support.  If you can twist this truth enough in either direction, your story could rocket to places you never dreamed possible.

Character: H is for Happiness

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H is for Happiness.

Most people think of happiness as an end result.  However, it can actually be something that happens along the journey.  Think of all the advice people give regarding happiness.

 You must be happy with yourself before you can be happy with someone else.

 Enjoy the small things.

 Take time every day to be grateful.

 Remember those who helped you and give back twice what you got.

Lots of good advice, but how often do people heed it?  Complications wrought by the pursuit of happiness make good fodder for stories and for character development.

Is your character relatively happy with her life?  If not, why not?  What motivates her to be happy?  Think about what a person needs to reach this state of being.  It will vary between each one.  If a character is not happy, and you offer her the means to be that way, to what ends will she go to achieve it?  Is that the goal for this character, or will she find it on the way to something else?

A character may seek happiness by pursuing a specific thing.  But maybe you could have her go after something she thinks will make her happy (like monetary success), only to find out that it is a complete lie, and she finds it by being honest with herself.

 Or not.  

Or not.

 Image:  Rosen Georgiev /

Some people enjoy being miserable all the time.   How many of us have been suckered into helping a whiny friend or relative repeatedly, because nothing seems to get any better? They may use it to control others—making them miserable too, eliciting sympathy or even tangible goods and services from them.

Maybe they like the drama misery brings.  Their lives are pretty good, but adversity brings attention.  If they don’t have any, they manufacture some.

They may hide in misery.  Fear of change, or of taking a risk at being happy and crashing to the ground in flames, they prefer to stay where they are.  The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t, right?

The first major conflict in the story will affect your character’s happiness level.  He may be pretty content at the start, but when he runs headlong into a huge change, he’ll have to choose a path.  Will it be the safe one, or the dangerous one?  Which will bring him closer to his goal, or help him achieve it?  Will he be able to return to his previous content state, or will things change so much that he’ll have to accept a new normal?

 @DrJohnWatson tweeted:  Really just want a nice, quiet cuppa with my sweetheart and my best mate and—oh bloody hell.  Bring on the danger.  #addictedtoacertainlifestyle 

@DrJohnWatson tweeted:  Really just want a nice, quiet cuppa with my sweetheart and my best mate and—oh bloody hell.  Bring on the danger.  #addictedtoacertainlifestyle


(WARNING: Don’t click the image link if you haven’t seen Sherlock: Series 3 yet.)

If he’s miserable, try shoving something terrific at him and watch him squirm.  Decide where you want your character to begin.  Then you can mess with his life in all sorts of ways.  Muwahaha, writing is fun!

Character: G is for Gender–of the writer!

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How do you write a character of the opposite gender as yourself?  The first caveat is to beware of stereotypes.  Otherwise, you’ll doom your protagonist to a fate worse than death:  the dismissive eye-roll!

I’m a female writer who creates a lot of male characters for some reason (don’t ask why; I really don’t know).  I’ve had male readers look at my work.  So far, none of them have said I didn’t get it right (although I’m sure not every single detail was completely accurate).  My brother read Rose’s Hostage and said Joshua was exactly as a man in love thinks and behaves.  (Yay!)  Even so, that’s still only one man’s opinion.

Overall, men and women are more alike than different.  Aside from our naughty bits and reproductive organs, we have the same basic anatomical structures.  Heart, lungs, gallbladder, intestines, liver, eyeballs, etc.—all the same.  We all poop, pee, sneeze when we have a cold, and bleed when we’re cut.  And it’s all red.

 Except maybe for this guy.

Except maybe for this guy.


We both get hungry and feel better when we eat.  We get tired and feel refreshed after a good night’s sleep (unless there is some kind of underlying health issue).  We have the same emotions, the same hopes, fears, and dreams.

Still, dissimilarities exist.  What might a female writer need to consider when creating a male character and vice versa?

The genders are different in certain ways.  Physiology is probably the most obvious.  Men are generally larger than women.  Agent Scully might end up crawling through the ductwork because Agent Mulder won’t fit.

They have more upper body strength, proportionately.  Mulder can probably carry Scully out of the burning building, but she might have to drag him out.  Anatomical differences will dictate how characters do certain things.

Re the naughty bits:  how do you describe physical sensations?  What does it feel like to get socked in the nuts?  How does a male orgasm differ from a female one?  What’s it like to have menstrual cramps, or give birth?  How many men want to know that last one?  Not many, I’d guess.

Nope nope nope nope. 

Nope nope nope nope.

Image:  artur84/

You could read a lot of literature about men that describes similar feels.  You could Google it (believe me, it’s out there).  Or, you could ask someone of that gender and hope they can describe it to you in a way that makes sense.

Men and women are pretty much the same when you’re talking about personality, intellect, and things like values and qualities.  Your biggest difference is going to be socialization.

It’s definitely something to consider.  You should start with personality and socialization, because those two things will dictate a lot of the following elements:

  • Language choices:  Men use fewer words on average, but does this occur due to a guy’s personality or societal norms?  You could have a male character who talks everyone’s ears off.  That wouldn’t necessarily be considered feminine, nor would a woman who doesn’t talk much be thought of as masculine.
  • Perception:  The cliché is that men don’t notice the same details that women do.  This study seems to think there are differences in literal sight (and they favor the men on small detail!).  But a trained observer—male or female—is going to notice more things overall.



In Thomas Harris’s brilliant novel The Silence of the Lambs, agent-in-training Clarice Starling excels at victimology because she sees details about the female victims that drew the gender-confused killer.  Her observation that kidnap victim Catherine Martin owns bespoke clothes for large women leads her to Jame Gumb, the murderous tailor who is making himself a woman suit—out of real women.  Clarice doesn’t do all the work (she’s too inexperienced), but her perception hones in on things the male agents do not notice.

Remember, this is a female character written by a man.

  • Expressing emotions:  Women are often perceived as being more emotional than men, even when they’re acting rather reserved and businesslike.  Your female character doing so-called non-traditional work (a firefighter, for example) might yell at a fumbling trainee in exactly the way a male character would.  Because of this stereotype, her coworkers may react differently.

Bob yells at trainee Walter.  Everyone says, “Bob’s a tough trainer.  He lets you know when you screw up.”

Catherine yells at trainee Walter.  Everyone says, “Damn, Catherine is a bitch.  She’s too emotional for this line of work.”

Yes, I know.  You’re thinking Dafuq? But it’s real.  And male writers, you have to consider it, because it could change the way Catherine acts in certain situations.

Below, I have listed some books I particularly enjoyed where the author was a different gender from his/her protagonist.  If you have any recommendations, feel free to post them in the comments for other readers to check out.

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris 

Discussed above.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden 

This book was so good it made me insanely jealous I didn’t think of it first.  You would not guess a man wrote this if you didn’t know.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

All the main characters are men.

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

This series has male and female characters of all ages, but the main protagonist is a boy.