Tag Archives: Characters

Torturing Your Characters

Through my years of writing, I’ve read that it is important for my characters to suffer in some way so that they can grow and become what they need to be in their minds and hearts. I typically do not like to torture my characters too much. I’m as soft in my writing as I am in real life.

Along my journey, I came up with a heroine that was put into an American classroom as a child and spoke nothing but Russian. Moving at a young age had a big impact on how she grew up and moved into the American culture, forgetting her Russian past, despite her parent’s disappointment. To prove her merit, she had to face danger and keep it to herself.

My first sell had a hero with panic attacks, due to an attempt on his life. My second sell had a hero, a rancher that struggled with the wolf entering the county and eating livestock. My third sale had a hero that came back from being a surgeon in the Civil War, recovering and searching for purpose in life.

I had a heroine that lost her family and suffered over selling the family’s vacation home, the emotions on her sleeve affected every move she made. I had a heroine that placed herself in danger in the 1860s because she naively thought she could survive in a man’s world.

But how much is too much? How much can a reader take without being lifted from the page and out of the story? I was told by an editor not to put my heroine on an anti-anxiety pill, even for a short time. Then I had a villain who was mentally ill. He was a bad guy, which seems to be more acceptable, I guess.

I began writing a story about a heroine that had a father with multiple sclerosis and a brother with low functioning autism. Hey, between my family and my job, I know these topics well, but I didn’t enjoy writing about it. Even though it’s said to write what you know, some things can be too close to home.

Lately I’ve been thinking about “torturing” my characters, because I started thinking of an acquaintance I met when I was in college who suffers with bulimia. I thought maybe a supporting character could have bulimia, but when I researched the subject, it was like opening a Pandora’s Box.  For that matter multiple sclerosis can be the same way. Yet, I know there is at least one heroine in a romance novel who has suffered with breast cancer, but I heard it was hard getting the book out there in the first place.

Okay, your turn. How much is too much?


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Nonverbal Communication and Writing

Some of the information in this blog comes from Body Language 101 by David Lambert and The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I recommend these books and they can come straight to your e-book reader at a reasonable price.

Body language/Nonverbal communication is the means by which humans convey information through conscious or unconscious gestures, bodily movements or facial expressions.

I didn’t know much about nonverbal communication until I studied it in college and the reason it became important to me is because I work with students on the autism spectrum. We become adept at reading others without a word being said, yet it can be hard for a person on the spectrum to understand nonverbal communication. This is important as communication is 7% verbal and 65 to 93% nonverbal. Researchers claim that the body’s unspoken signals carry five times more weight than the spoken word… even when we try not to show our feelings. The nonverbal message is more accurate and is usually believed over the verbal message, but the nonverbal expression and the verbal message must be considered together.

Research has identified 9 smiles. There are at least six facial expressions found throughout the world, which suggests they are inborn rather than learned. Happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger and disgust.

Nonverbal communication can be broken down into three elements: physical signals (body language and actions), internal sensations (visceral reactions) and mental responses (thoughts).

There are subconscious ways that humans show nonverbal communication. It is the mental activity not directly perceived by the consciousness, from which memories, feelings, or thoughts can influence behavior without realization of it (from Encarta Dictionary).

Nonverbal writing is hard to master and some writers shy away from it choosing to rely more on dialogue and thoughts.

All successful novels have one thing in common: emotion. Without emotion, a character’s personal journey is pointless. Stakes cease to exist. Readers want an emotional experience. Emotions fuel our communication.

 A high school senior brought me the first chapter of her manuscript. It read like a synopsis with lots of telling. Who didn’t do this in their early years of writing? But, readers don’t want to be told how a character feels; they want to experience the emotion for themselves. We need to make sure our characters express their emotions.

Ninety-nine times out of one-hundred you need to show not tell. It adds extra words to the manuscript, too. And of course, nonverbal emotion can’t be told. It has to be shown. Telling puts distance between the character and the reader. They need to feel the emotion. That is by showing the physical and internal response. Emotion is strongest when both verbal and nonverbal communication are used in tandem.

Coming up with something new is hard. A grin for happiness or knocking knees for fear, but they lack depth because they don’t allow for a range of emotions. A single tear says sad, but how sad is she? Will she be crying five minutes from now? Your reader needs to know how upset she really is.

When writing a certain emotion, think about your body and what happens to it when you’re feeling that way. There are plenty of internal and external changes that, when referenced, will show the reader what your character is feeling.

Watch people at the mall or characters in movies. The face is the easiest to notice but the rest of the body is just as telling. How about changes in the voice, speech, or overall bearing and posture?


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Do your characters have issues?

It’s human nature to have issues. It’s part of what makes us human.

Incidents happen in our childhood that we carry with us. It could be something as simple as your mother smoothing your eyebrows every morning to make certain you look “perfect”. Or it could be something more intense like your family surviving a house fire with nothing but the clothes on your backs.

As an adult, maybe each morning you stare into the mirror trying to find anything out of place. Maybe everything has to be “just so” in your house. Maybe you can’t stand flames as a result of the childhood trauma. Candles are absolutely forbidden.

Through the years other events/people/traumas happen that also help shape the people we are today. It’s what makes us each so unique and intriguing.

And it is so important in our writing when we are creating our characters. To add that third and fourth dimension to them.To make them as unique as we are and to allow our readers to relate to our characters.

Some of my favorite characters from movies and books have absolutely crazy issues. I love the sharks from “Finding Nemo” who are in a self help group to keep them from eating other fish. Sookie Stackhouse from the novels by Charlaine Harris can read minds which has always set her apart from both the human and the non-human characters. Indiana Jones had a whole host of issues from commitment to an intense dislike of snakes.

These are the things that draw us to these characters. The things that keep us buying the next book in the series and adding the movie to our home collection. The characters aren’t perfect. They are human and they are flawed and we love them and cheer them on.

Do you have any favorite characters? What issues do your characters have?



Posted by on October 3, 2012 in Idaho


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What is a Cozy Mystery?

Wikipedia says, “Cozy mysteries, also referred to simply as “cozies,” are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. The term was first coined in the late 20th century when various writers produced work in an attempt to re-create the.Golden Age of Detective Fiction …emphasis on puzzle-solving over suspense, a small-town setting, and a focus on a hobby or occupation are all frequent elements of cozy mysteries.

I love a good mystery and I’ve always thought I’d like to write a cozy. I’ve imagined something like the Snoop Sisters (1970s television series), retired and snooping into some crime or another when no one suspects a couple of old broads to be any trouble. Their life experience helps solve the crime.  As a matter-of-fact, I’m growing older, so soon I may have some of my own experiences to write down on pages.

What could be finer, I think, than writing about a crime where the murder happens quickly and I don’t have to worry too much about the forensics of it all? I wonder if the book would be much easier to write without romance in the story. Yet, I imagine it is just as difficult to write without these elements, to create good material that focuses on puzzle solving.

For inside information, the sleuth could be married to a police officer, or medical examiner. Or, a good friend, neighbor, niece or nephew could be on the inner circle. Who wouldn’t share a tough work situation with someone who listens and cares and is trustworthy?

The sleuth most likely has a college degree. She is usually a woman and might be occupied as a homemaker, cook, librarian, teacher, retired, own a bookstore or flower shop, involved in a hobby, when not fighting crime. says, “I think that people who read Cozy Mysteries probably have their own unique ideas about what they think Cozy Mysteries should be…”

My contemporary books have a weave of mystery through them, but they identify with romance. I love reading and writing romance into a story, so how can I weave romance into a cozy? Maybe by throwing in a couple that’s important in the sleuth’s life. Yet, cozy mysteries are supposed to have a quick plot, not labored down with a relationship. After all, the cozy is foremost about the mystery. adds, “I have to admit that lately, authors of what are considered to be Cozy Mysteries are adding more graphic language and “adult situations” >>> I am not sure if this is because their publishers/editors want this or if it is because the public wants (buys) more “adult situation” Cozy Mysteries.”

I guess I’m not alone in wanting romance. Will readers and writers change the definition of a cozy mystery? I find it sad that they might. I want the old definition to stay the same, as sometimes there’s nothing like reading a good cozy mystery.

Do you have any favorite cozy mystery authors?


Posted by on September 13, 2012 in Blogs, Boise, books, Cozy Mysteries, readers, reading, writers, writing


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As writers, we spend a great deal of time considering motivation and conflict. We dissect, document and explore the different ways people and their respective value systems collide. And they most certainly do collide.

The first three definitions of ‘value’ offered by Encarta denote ‘worth’. If we add an ‘s’ . . . then values, according to Encarta, morphs to ‘principles or standards’.  But what this means to individuals, groups, and societies is the stuff of longstanding historical conflict.

People suppress, disparage, maim and kill for ‘principles’.

Unfortunately, most of us face some challenges in articulating our value system, but it’s a human failing to hold an undeniable belief in its transferability. That’s where Milton Rokeach can help us.

Decades ago, Professor Rokeach postulated that people use a relatively short list of values to guide attitudes, opinions and behavior. Differences in people are not tied to what they value, but the relative rankings of those values. Not only do people have the same basic set of values . . . and his research has held across time and various cultures . . . but people differentiate between a set of values used to assess what they want to accomplish (terminal values) and those values guiding how they want to operate (instrumental values).

I use this material for discussion in classes and community training sessions. People can usually come to general agreement when something isn’t particularly important to them (e.g., the values ranked from 12 to 18), but as values become more privileged in each person’s moral hierarchy . . . well, let’s just say the battles ensue. Even in an artificial setting, where the stakes aren’t high, people get rather agitated about the ‘right’ way to view the world.

The two Rokeach value lists have been enormously useful to me in considering motivation. My characters might hold very different terminal or ‘end game’ goals, but take the same basic approaches to achieving those goals (e.g., have similar instrumental goals guiding how they operate). Things get even dicier when my characters have similar end games, but their paths diverge dramatically.

Try it out for yourself (and let me tell you it’s loads of fun to have a significant other take this and then compare). Number the list of terminal values from 1 (most important) to eighteen (least important). It doesn’t mean a value isn’t important, just that it’s least important. Do the same for the separate list of instrumental values. This is not easy, especially when I add the instruction – you must rank order. You cannot have a ‘tie’ between values.

Now, for our characters . . . value rankings change over time as our personal circumstances change (aging, illness, families, etc.). Value rankings also change over time in response to evolving social conditions and new information (perhaps we learn about poverty, discover injustice, or fall in love).


Terminal Values – the end game – Rank these from 1-18, with 1 being the most important
A Comfortable Life   (a prosperous life)
An Exciting Life  (a stimulating, active life)
A Sense of Accomplishment  (lasting contribution)
A World at Peace  (free of war and conflict)
A World of Beauty  (beauty of nature and the arts)
Equality  (brotherhood, equal opportunity for all)
Family Security  (taking care of loved ones)
Freedom  (independence, free choice)
Happiness (contentedness)
Inner Harmony  (freedom from inner conflict)
Mature Love  (sexual and spiritual intimacy)
National Security  (protection from attack)
Pleasure  (an enjoyable, leisurely life)
Salvation  (saved, eternal life)
Self-respect  (self-esteem)
Social Recognition  (respect, admiration)
True Friendship  (close companionship)
Wisdom  (a mature understanding of life)

Instrumental Values – our process – rank these from 1-18, with 1 being the most important
(hard-working, aspiring)
Broadminded (open-minded)
Capable (competent, effective)
Cheerful (lighthearted, joyful)
Clean (neat, tidy)
Courageous (standing up for your beliefs)
Forgiving (willing to pardon others)
Helpful (working for the welfare of others)
Honest (sincere, truthful)
Imaginative (daring, creative)
Independent (self-reliant, self-sufficient)
Intellectual (intelligent, reflective)
Logical (consistent, rational)
Loving (affectionate, tender)
Obedient (dutiful, respectful)
Polite (courteous, well-mannered)
Responsible (dependable, reliable)
Self-controlled (restrained, self-disciplined)

Rokeach, M. (1968).  Change within value-attitude systems.  Journal of Social Issues,  XXIV(1).
      .  (1973).  The nature of human values.  New York:  The Free Press.
      .  (1979).  Understanding human values:  Individual and societal.  New York:  The Free Press.


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The Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c.1588.
George Gower. Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, UK.

About once a year I try to sit down and read a writing reference book. This year I picked, The First Fifty Pages by Jeff Gerke since I have the hardest time putting together the first part of a manuscript, but once I get through this section my characters come alive and I sail through the rest of the story. Below I share some of Gerke’s thoughts.

During the Renaissance period a person’s portrait included items that conveyed much about his interests, background and life. For example, look at the picture above of Queen Elizabeth I.  See the globe, and her hand resting upon it? Perhaps she wants to rule other countries besides England. Is she pointing at a particular land that she wants to have? Why does her crown sit beside her and not on her head? Look out the window on the left. Looks like the queen is in favor of a large navy or, perhaps it symbolizes her power. What’s out the right window? I’m thinking maybe it symbolizes the fate her opponents faced in battle. Your guesses are probably as good as mine.

I started to think about myself. What would be a representation of me? A typewriter or computer, a cat, my books, a teacher’s bell, something like a rosary to symbolize my faith in a higher power, a picture of my family on the table and a pecan mud slide from Diary Queen. My setting would probably be in a forest, or at least be out of one of the windows. Think about all the things that make you who you are and put them in your picture (at least mentally).

If your hero had a portrait done such as this, how would he want to appear? How about your heroine? What would be the setting? What will he/she wear? What would be in his hands? On the table? Out the window? If you know your hero in his essence you can figure out how to display it.

Further, if your hero/heroine could be anywhere else in the world what would she be doing, wearing, or talking about? How about putting her/him into a different time? How would your character get around if there wasn’t a car? What would be the ultimate-for-him activity?

Designing this portrait will help you figure out who your hero is. When he is tossed into trouble how will he handle it? Come back to this picture and look for clues.

Gerke says the most important thing to consider: Why would this be what the character chooses? How is this the ultimate expression, or revelation, of the person’s core?

What would be in your portrait?

More about Jeff Gerke:

He says, “Please point people to, which will be my site for online video training when we go live later this month.”

You can find Jeff’s book at:


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Boundaries, Borders, and Boudoirs

I began writing this blog with no clear idea how to use the ‘boudoir’ part of the title. Today I’m meandering, but bear with me and let’s see where we can go together. Along the lines of ‘favorite words’, I segued into considering a blog topic I’ve been itching to hit for months now:  boundaries.

Often, I begin academic papers by reviewing one or two concepts and their accepted (and usually inaccurate) definitions. This often leads me to a nice little procrastination where, paper forgotten, I lose track of time flipping to one page or another tracing etymology and the nuanced differences in meaning between presumably similar concepts. Only another writer would understand this compulsion (whether or not you share it).

I read dictionaries.

And let’s not neglect my new favorite, The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 2nd Ed.   ‘Oxy’ (and yes, I’ve named my car, laptop, and brown cowboy boots ~ if you love it, name it) is 4lbs of well-thumbed, literary goodness ‘bound’ with duct tape and covered with unknown food and beverage stains.

Oxy, my steadfast companion, tells us of several words clustered around the noun, ‘boundary’.

Euphemisms include:

division . . . cutoff point . . . limits . . .periphery . . .perimeter . . . partitions . . . margins . . . edges . . . fringes . . . perimeter . . . limits . . .parameters . . .confines,  . . . ambit . . . compass

A counselor once shared the notion of healthy and unhealthy ‘boundaries’ with me when I confided how guilty I felt in disappointing others by not anticipating their needs (and yes, as I type, I’m reminded of this irrationality.


Everyone does this to some extent because we all struggle with setting ‘invisible barriers between self and others, limits beyond which will we will not go and beyond which others are not welcome. A good sense of where our feelings/opinions start and stop and where another person’s feelings/opinions begin and end comes with experience and wisdom’ (so, I think you have to be 39 or maybe 43 ~ am not sure who explained this, maybe my mother).

The handouts my one-time counselor, now good friend, provided didn’t have the originating author to whom I can attribute the previous definition or the following concepts, but I would happily do so. This material did not originate with me or my research. I do, however, use it to remind myself about boundaries (inviolate, even sacred) and borders (possibly crossed by invitation). I’ve found myself considering this material in looking at my characters, especially as a way to demonstrate internal conflict.

Letting go of responsibility for the uncontrollable demands a boundary, something absolute over which you can stand guard. Thus, dividing line, cutoff point, limits, periphery, perimeter, or confine capture the definitive nature of this critical life skill.

From the aforementioned handouts, I’ve culled a few of the 20 responses to the rallying cry for the boundary-less, ‘it is never my responsibility to’:

  • drain my strength for others in doing more than I have time to do (so weird we need a reminder of self-care when we nag friends on this point, but . . .)
  •  be anyone but exactly who I am or apologize for being myself (especially when doing so harms no one)
  • endure my own negative thoughts (perhaps self-flagellation was fashionable at one time, but give it up, sweetheart, it’s a crappy way to live)
  • meekly let life pass me by (think Dylan Thomas . . . ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light)
  • sacrifice my integrity to anyone (it’s all about choice, isn’t it?)

Why should we consider these boundaries? Perhaps if only to be clear on how they might, for each of us, differ from borders in terms of frequency, severity, or saturation.

Borders warrant more flexibility, even negotiation and a decision rule or two. Partitions, margins, edges, fringes, perimeter, limits, parameters, confines, ambit, and compass might mean less absolute than important touchstones to retaining our sense of self. Consider borders as useful reminders, especially when well-kept and patrolled regularly.

Signs of unhealthy boundaries range from talking intimately to a stranger, to letting others define you, or accepting food, gifts, touch, sex, favors you don’t want.

What can writers learn? Aside from continuing to protect your writing time and creative energy, we can demonstrate these tensions in our characters when they ‘have negative thoughts’, ‘apologize for self-expression’, or ‘act as people-pleasers’. Our readers will get this on an intuitive level just as they understand the self-destructive behaviors and scenarios attendant to unhealthy boundaries.

So, what would you add to the ‘it is never my responsibility to’ list?  Have you used these concepts to demonstrate a character arc in your work? And, most importantly, do you read the dictionary too?

 PS: And yes, because I honed a boundary or two, I painted my boudoir purple. Hah! You didn’t think I remembered.


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