Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Folks are more than a Pretty Face

Welcome, Joyce Henderson.  I'm so glad to have you here today.

Hello Everyone! Thank you, Sue, for having me on your lovely Blogspot today. I wasn’t sure what to discuss today until I read the recent blogs on Characters. All authors approach writing differently, and how we characterize our stories is a case in point. My approach is yet again uniquely…mine!  So let’s get started.

CHARACTERIZATION: Folks are more than a pretty face.

Have you ever read or heard that stories are plot-driven or character-driven? I have found many writers to be strong in one area but must work like a son-of-gun to develop the second.

Plot-driven stories are usually fast-paced, and show the writer's strength at inserting hills and valleys, bends and switchback, and surprises to produce a page-turner.

In a Character-driven story the writer develops people so real they jump right off the page. I'm accused of writing this story type.

There are various ways to jump-start your muse once you have that all important idea that won't let you rest until you write something down. Perhaps you see a character or scene in your mind's eye. Or, maybe the name of a character niggles at you. Names aren't always so easy to come by.

Consider Gone With The Wind.

Scarlett: the name paints a picture of brilliance, and brilliance can be hard-edged. A diamond is brilliant and can cut glass. Scarlett is selfish, willful, spoiled, determined to have her way. How would the reader picture Scarlett had Ms. Mitchell chosen the name Melanie for her? No, she chose Melanie for the meek, though strong soul in her story.

"Miss Scarlett! Miss Scarlett!" No doubt about it Prissy is a twit! You want to shake her every time she flits onto the page. The name fits the character to a T.

Rhett: Glory be! Now there's a name that conjures recklessness. The man's a rake who doesn't give a damn what people think of him, and he's determined to have Scarlett. He marries her, but he never conquers her. So what does he do? Were his name, say, Algernon or Percevil, I could picture him slinking off to lick his wounds. But a character named Rhett certainly wouldn't do that. Nope. He sinks into a bottle, becomes violent, and forces Scarlett to his bed. One tough hombre, but dousing himself with liquor proves there's vulnerability there.

Another character who's name conjures vivid visions is Hannibal, the "merry" cannibal in the Silence of the Lamb. Gives me the willies just thinking of that name. Had the author chosen Elmer, Clement, Timothy…eh. No contest. Right?

Do avoid similarities in your characters' names. A reader might become annoyed if Michael and Mira hook-up. If a Stella and Stephan lurk throughout the story, the reader might become downright hostile. 

Beginning, or not so beginning, writers often paint "perfect" characters. B.o.r.i.n.g. Often our heroines are statuesque or perfectly petite. That slight thickening in the waist didn't happen by osmosis, you know. Why not make her guilt-ridden (real or imagined) because she eats a Hershey bar. Or, maybe she tries to hide the fact that she picks the pecans off the top of a rich pecan pie. (I did that when I was a kid! Although, I’ve always eaten whatever I please and don’t gain unwanted weight. Drop that gun! )

Hair is the heroine’s crowning glory. Maybe not. Flyaway thin, perhaps. Or she wanted a change, bleached it blonde, and now it's a mass of straw! Know what your characters look like, what they wear, and how they live in/with their bodies.

Learn to really look at people. Millions may have strolled through the tapestry of your life who are fodder for your pen. Mix visuals from one person to another to produce interesting characters. Snap a panoramic photo at Disney World, in the mall, wherever, then peer at the folks in those photos. Wow! Look at that craggy face. Wow! That face and this guy's body would be interesting, or…oh, yeah, a heart-stopping hunk!

Okay, you’ve named the character and know what he looks like. Now you must spend time, sometimes a lot of time, to discover what's inside your character. What makes him tick? What makes her react a certain way? What was his life like before the opening page of the book? What kind of work are the protagonists involved with. College graduates? One of ten? Maybe the middle child?…who would act and react differently to any situation from the eldest sibling. Or how would an only child act or react?

Now let's look at how a person speaks, which can tell the reader a lot about the character's personality, even the era in which the story takes place. If you write contemporary, you'd express words and feelings differently than in an historical, or even different historical periods.

In an historical novel a line might read: The flame-haired beauty seethed.

In contemporary: The redhead was pissed!

Put another way… Flame-haired tresses whipping in the wind, Brianna glared at

Steven. "Leave me be!" Or…Flaming red hair whipping in the wind, Brianna glared at Steven. "Get outta my face!"

A good exercise for a writer is to take a line like that and try to write it in several eras. How would "Get outta my face!" read in say, a medieval? "Get thee gone!" or, futuristic, or…?

Another character-defining tool is how and what she says. "How dare you speak to me that way!" Or… "Button it, buster!"

The first is highly offended, and speaks in a stilted manner. Which leads the reader to believe she's prim and proper. The second? Well, she’s ticked all right, but she's streetwise and earthy in manner and speech.

Did you know that scene setting can tell you a lot about a character? Every line, every sensory perception you write, should move your story forward and/or explain something essential about the character/s.

To me scene setting tells a lot about characters but, please, don’t write a laundry lists to set a scene. That's the author speaking. And you won’t fool many savvy readers if you write a boring list in the guise of your character's thoughts. Consider…

Jessica loved her upstairs bedroom, the smell of apple blossoms from the potpourri pot sitting next to her gold-and-white French telephone. Tired from spending most of the long day writing a new lease contract for the Meteor Company, she shrugged out of her brown tweed suit coat and hung it on a satin-covered hanger.

When the phone rang, she picked up a Vogue magazine and stowed it in the bottom shelf of the table and sat in the pink-and-white, chintz-covered chair next to her neatly made bed covered in a matching quilt. Etcetera…

You could write…

Jessica strode into her upstairs bedroom, the scent of apple blossoms strong from the potpourri pot beside her gold-and-white French telephone on the bedside table. She shrugged out of her brown-tweed suit coat, stepped to the closet, and hung it on a satin-wrapped hanger. It had been a long day. She’d worked for hours writing the new lease contract for Meteor Company.

The telephone jingled. She picked up the Vogue magazine from the pink and white, chintz-covered, chair cushion and stowed it on the table's bottom shelf. She sat, and picked up the handset. "Hello?"

"How's my girl?" Brett's baritone purred in her ear.

She smiled and absently brushed her hand over the bedspread that matched the chair's covering, smoothing an imaginary wrinkle on the neatly made bed. "Your girl has been wondering when you'd call."

On the other hand… Listen to this character's traits…

Jessica strode into her upstairs bedroom, the scent of apple blossoms strong from the potpourri pot hidden behind a pile of books on her bedside table. She shrugged out of her brown-tweed suit coat and dropped it atop a scatter of clothes on the foot of the unmade bed. It had been a long day. She was bushed from hours of writing the new lease contract for Meteor Company.

The telephone buzzed. Now where had she left the phone? It bussed urgently again while she rummaged behind the books, knocking Nora's latest In Death novel to the floor. On the third ring, she unearthed the white cordless from beneath a blue blouse and snatched it up. "Hello?"

"How's my girl?" Brett's baritone purred in her ear.

She smiled and swept off a Vogue magazine from the pink-and-white, chintz-covered, chair cushion. "Your girl has been wondering when you'd call." Sprawled in the chair, she lifted her tired feet to rest on the side of the rumpled bed.

Essentially the same scene, but a far different character.

If you have drawn your characters well enough, often you need not use tags, "he said, she said." When a character's voice is strong, from speech pattern or actual wording, you have done your job very well if the reader recognizes them from the moment they speak on the page. And, it's oftentimes better to use the simple "he said, she said" tags rather than trying to be "writerly,” such as…

"Don't do that!" Cora barked. Trust me, people don’t bark words.

"Don't do that!" Cora cried. That works, but with the exclamation point we already know her speech is agitated.

"Don't do that!" Cora snapped. That works, too, but it's still better if you must add a tag to simply say… "Don't do that!" Cora said.

Why? Because "said" slips by unnoticed. It doesn't take the reader out of the story.

You may also add action tags.

“Don’t do that!” Cora grabbed the book from the boy’s hand.

In my work, the better educated characters speak grammatically correct. (That is they do once my grammar guru whips me in line!) Others are the "down home" types who drop "g's" or use "me" when "I" should be the pronoun of choice. As for my Indian characters… They never speak in contractions, and sometime turn sentences around when speaking English. As in,

"What you do here?" rather than "What are you doing here?"

Coming May 27, 2011


ISBN: 1-60154-918-0 & ISBN: 9781601549181 in print and digital. Available at The Wild Rose Press, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon May 27, 2011


Neely’s first thought was that he was the handsomest man she had ever seen. Then she noticed his full lips, pressed together as if they didn’t smile with ease. When he started toward her with catlike grace, she fought the urge to flee.

“Garrett Montez.” He extended his hand. “Miss O’Conner?” he said, displeasure apparent.

“Ye...yes, Neely O’Conner,” she said, irritated at her shaky voice. Her cheeks flushed, and her hand
felt burned clasped in his much larger one. A not unpleasant earthy smell of leather and horses surrounded him.

She had never thought of herself as a small woman, but looking up at Mr. Montez, she felt diminutive. This man bespoke power, and not just physically. As he released her hand, she lifted her chin and looked into eyes that were silver more than gray, and definitely not a mirror to his soul.

“So, you think you’re a housekeeper.”

Jutting her chin up a fraction more, she surprised herself when she retorted, “No, sir, I am a housekeeper.”

“You’re too young.”

“Must I be decrepit to qualify?”

His solemn expression didn’t change, but his frosted-glass eyes danced with amusement for an instant. Or had she imagined it?

“How old are you?”

Her back stiffened. She would not let him intimidate her. “Twenty-four. I’ll be twenty-five the end of May. I have good teeth and a strong back. I’m never ill, and I’m alone. I have no family.” Her spirited reply was at odds with the ladylike poise taught her by Aunt Grace, but Mother Mary, she needed this job. “Anything else?”

“Not at the moment.” His lips quirked in the barest hint of a smile. “What do you drink?” He strode to a sideboard and laid the whip on the polished wood surface.

Pent up breath escaped her. A gallon of water sounded about right to quench her dry mouth, but she said nothing.

He glanced over his shoulder. “Wine, perhaps?”

She didn’t partake of spirits, but under the circumstances she might take to drink. The man’s abrupt manner was plain rude. Of course, she was in his house. And, God help her, she intended to stay.

“Wine will be fine,” she finally said.

Her feet felt glued to the floor when he walked toward her. He handed her the half-filled glass, then
motioned toward the nearest chair. “Sit,” he said, as if ordering a dog.

Once again, Sue, thank you for having me.

Joyce Henderson was born in Texas, raised in Southern California, and now lives on the banks of the Caloosahatchee in Southwest Florida with her husband of 58 years. She holds a certificate from the Newspaper Institute of America. Besides news stories, she wrote by-lined columns for local newspapers during the 90's.

Joyce is a member of Romance Writers of America, a charter member of Southwest Florida Romance Writers, Florida Romance Writers, Published Authors Network and Published Authors Special Interest Chapter, as well as Novelists’ Inc. Her books have been nominated for National Readers’ Choice Award, and Georgia Romance Chapter’s Maggie Award. During Joyce’s 27-year writing career, she has mentored dozens of writers.


  1. Joyce, you have a new fan here. After reading your excerpts and characters study, I've decided I have to read your books. I may ask you off line if you would mind reading my first scene and give me an honest opinion before I send it to an editor.

  2. Sue, You are finding way too many good sounding books. I don't have time to read so many. I'll just have to find the time. Great blogs about characters.

    Linda Burke

  3. I really liked the advice about the use of tag lines. If it's obvious what character is speaking then "he said" and the like shouldn't be necessary. THAT really hit home. Thank you.

  4. Great advice. I've always thought I did characterization fairly well, but you've got me thinking. I also agree regarding tags. I rarely use them anymore. I think they're largely unnecessary. Great post. :)

  5. Joyce, this is a great post. I love the way you used examples to make your points. What you did with the characters from Gone With The Wind is so creative.

  6. Joyce, you did a nice job with examples. I'll remember these as I write today. Thank you!

  7. Wonderful post, Joyce! Packed with great tips and examples, the best of which is your excerpt! Would make a fantastic workshop. Congrats on the upcoming release.

  8. I responded to some of these posts earlier. Or thought I did. Writing is what I love. The computer? Not so much. Anyway, Allison, I do a workshop on this, and it's much longer. But my voice has gotten so bad over the years, I don't like listening to myself, let alone foisting my scratchy vibes on others.
    I said in the other response... When I write I see entire scenes in my head. I have to use all the things I pointed out and more to get those scenes and characters on the page so they speak to readers. Sometimes I fail, but I try again. I also have two superb critique partners who rip my prose to bleeding shreds if I step out of line. We're known as the Three Musketeers in SWFRW.

  9. I see entire scenes, too, Joyce. It's like watching a movie inside my head. Getting it all down so a reader can visualize it along with me is getting easier, but I always manage to miss something. I try to catch the missing parts when I edit.

    You are a delight, and I'm anxious to read your books. Thanks so much for coming on the blog.

  10. What an interesting blog...and your comments are right on. Reading through the examples, I understand why your characters leap from the pages of your books. Thanks for sharing, Joyce.

  11. What a great blog Joyce, and your words of wisdom are just that, wonderful words of wisdom.
    Thanks for sharing!

  12. Color me the character based!!!! Great post!!!!

  13. It's near the witching hour in Southwest Florida. I'm going to call it a day. Thanks again, Sue, for having me on you blog today. It was fun. I hope to return the favor in some way at some point. And thank you ladies who took the time to read my blog and comment.

  14. Thank you for a great tutorial blog. I write character driven stories, and often feel jolted when I begin reading a plot driven story. It takes me a bit to click in to the pace and rapid gunfire approach, but I enjoy them as well.
    Gorgeous book cover, and I enjoyed the excerpt.
    Thanks a million -

  15. Joyce, great advice! Thank you. I know I try to write action for my dialogue instead of tags, but I put them in occasionally. Wonderful excerpt!

  16. I really liked your exercise of writing the same thing in different eras. Brilliant!
    Joy Held
    Writer Wellness, A Writer's Path to Health and Creativity

  17. Hi Joyce,

    Lots of wise advice in this article.