Getting to the Heart of Character Development

– by Autumn Birt

Every story needs a unique idea (or at least a new spin on a classic!), but good character development can keep a reader going despite plot flaws far longer than a brilliant plot with flat characters. At least for me. And if you go by the comments and complaints out there, for most people as well. We write in a era of character driven novels.

The typical problems are stories with great ideas and cardboard characters. There are so many levels of poor character development: no interaction with other characters, speeches that are information dumps, no nuanced emotions. What is your pet peeve? Mine – have you ever begun a story where it felt like the character showed up the same time you did? A character who knows as much about the fantasy world as you on page one, but they supposedly grew up there?! Those books get tossed onto my “too frustrating to read” pile pretty quickly.

a-game-of-thronesOf course, characterization can be too good. I’m a huge fan of George R.R. Martin’s writing. I keep a few passages from A Game of Thrones mixed with my writing notes to inspire me. But I stopped reading the Song of Ice and Fire Series in book 2. Too many characters that I liked had died and the pace was too slow. Despite brilliant writing, I cared too little about the plot and too much about the characters to continue!

When it comes down to it good characterization, especially with several unique individuals in a novel, is tricky.

I’m editing the final book of my epic fantasy series. By this point, I know all the characters so much they feel real to me. Which is great! There is nothing easier than having a character with a strong personality to make your writing flow. Set up a scenario, drop in person X and let them have it. Chaos ensues and you are left trying to keep up.

But I had a recent reminder that getting to this point wasn’t so easy. When I started writing book 1, things didn’t go so well. Actually, I scrapped the whole book after the first draft, deciding there were a few good ideas but it needed reincarnation more than CPR. Part of the problem was the characters. I was only dealing with four at that point and I still didn’t know who they were or why they did what they did.

So, I jumped into all the typical techniques of character development: bubble charts, character sheets, photos for visualization, and world building to understand lifestyles. I was ready to write!

Color - that is where I went wrong! I didn't use colors!

Color – that is where I went wrong! I didn’t use colors!

Only I didn’t. They were still, at best, reflections of me. Not unique and rounded.

I was getting pretty desperate by this time, wondering why all the tried and true characterization tips weren’t working (and were making me feel like an obsessed stalker). I’m really not sure where the idea came from, but one day I sat down and wrote a short story from Niri’s point of view, in first person, that took place the day before Born of Water began.

Her world opened to me.

I knew she had been taken from her family by the Church of Four Orders when she was nine (the bubble chart told me!). Feeling how that affected her, described in her voice, changed my entire perspective of… well her. AND how she viewed the world and the Church and even why she chose to save Ria, despite the consequences.

So, of course, I wrote ‘before stories’ for each of the characters and learned more than any bubble chart ever could have told me (I still do use the character description sheets though. They help me keep physical details straight!). I realized why Ty had come home to Mirocyne and why he had left for his apprenticeship nearly a year late. Ria’s fears became understandable as much as Lavinia’s optimistic hopes.

RofF-Cover-final smallAlmost as good as finally having a true understanding of my characters, it placed them firmly in their world. They had lives before the novel began (on a day when everything went crazy). The problem of having them feel ‘dropped in’ to their world evaporated.

And another strange advantage that came out of this technique was that I realized how differently each character interacted with their world. Niri is educated. She uses big words in dialogue AND in her thoughts to describe what she sees. Ty and Lavinia, siblings that grew up sailing, can name every board, line, and sheet of a boat. They would never think ‘left’ or ‘right’ but ‘port’ or ‘starboard.’ Character mindset is anchored in far more than highlighting associations and past experiences. Lives are shaped by more than the big events you might jot out in a bubble chart.

I’m looking ahead to the next story I’ll write, wondering if I will use this ‘before’ story method again. And then I realized, I did. I’ve spent quiet a bit off time thinking of the characters’ lives prior to the novel’s opening. I might not have written it down (yet), but I still worked out the details before I ever started typing.

So, here is a new method to add to the character development list. What else have you got? I’d love to hear of other character development techniques that worked for you!

Autumn is currently editing the final book in her Rise of the Fifth Order epic fantasy series while holding a smash-up competition between WIP to see which one will be written next. Unfortunately, the dystopian military scifi seems to be winning… go figure. She shouldn’t have let them keep their guns.


My favourite proofreading tips

By Scott Bury

Don’t you just hate it when you see a typo in work you’ve just published, posted on a website or sent to a client?

Every writer needs to learn how to proofread. As a professional editor for over 30 years, I have a few
favourite techniques for effective proofreading. Here are some, plus a few ideas I picked up from some other professionals.

1. Plan for proofreading. Set aside a number of hours in your schedule. Proofreading is a step as essential as researching, outlining or drafting. Never send your work to an audience without checking it over. Set aside enough time to allow you to proofread your work more than once.

2. Leave it alone. When you re-read your own work, you often don’t see what you actually wrote — you see what you intended to write. Put the document aside overnight, if you have the time. Leaving some time between writing and proofreading will help you spot the keystrokes you did not intend to make.

3. Post a list over your desk of words you often misspell, and the conventions for the document — whether you’re using Canadian, British or US spelling; acceptable short forms; units of measure; whether you use the Oxford comma or spaces around em dashes, and so on — that could change from one project to the next.

4. Proof once on-screen. Take advantage of the spelling checker function of whatever word processor you use. Look for the wiggly red lines and fix the errors they identify.

5. Don’t depend on the spelling checker. It can’t tell whether you meant form when you typed from, and it doesn’t always know when you typed its when you should have typed it’s.

6. Don’t depend on your on-screen proofreading. We don’t read words on screen in the same way that we do on paper, so you’ll find different kinds of errors — and miss different errors, too — depending on which medium you use. Print out your document and read it on paper.

7. Proof BIG. One of my favourite proofreading techniques is to print out the document at large size, twice as big as you would normally. When I was a magazine editor back in the days of waxed paper galleys, we would copy our 8 x 10 inch pages onto double-size ledger paper (11 x 17 inches). The mistakes would practically jump onto your face. If your printer can’t handle large-format paper, you can still print out your document with 18-point type. You’d be amazed at the difference.

8. Use a brightly coloured pen to mark the errors. If you use a graphite pencil, it’s harder to see the corrections you made when you’re entering them into the computer file.

9. Read it backwards. This will take your attention away from the meaning of the text, and reduce the tendency to fill in errors with your intentions.

10. Read it aloud. Hearing the wrong word reinforces reading it.

11. Read headlines and sub-headings in a separate pass. I find that the errors that I miss are often in display text, which seems counter-intuitive, as this is larger and more visible than body copy. After you’ve read and re-read the body, go back and pay close attention to only the display text.

12. Review different elements separately. Take another pass through the document to proofread image captions, tables, page headers and footers, call-out text, etc.

13. Take another pass to review numbers, facts and the spelling of names.

14. Read it over once more, just to make sure.

15. Get someone else to do it. Someone unfamiliar with the text will find more errors more quickly than the author will.

Thanks to Bards and Prophets blog

What’s your favourite proofreading technique? What’s your most common error?

Scott Bury is author of The Bones of the Earth and One Shade of Red. He’s based in Ottawa, Canada, but you can visit his GoD Author page or his own blog.

The Story of Backstory

by Bruce Blake

A couple of days ago, I stopped by to visit the blog of Ella Medler, my editor and a fine author. She often posts about writing-related subjects and, in this particular post, was asking her readers what they would like her to write about. Being a supporter, I wanted to contribute to Ella’s poll but, since I’ve worked with her for five books and know her point of view on grammar and such, the options she gave didn’t tickle my fancy.  This led me start thinking about not only what would I want to know about, but what do I see in the writing of other authors that would make for a good subject.

One of the things I suggested was dealing with backstory. I liked the idea, so I’m stealing it.

Being a good writer, you do plenty of research and planning when getting ready to write your novels, so it’s natural to want to share all those tasty tidbits with your readers, but you have to ask yourself a few questions:

Orc via Creative Commons, orc, warlock, orc battle

Orc via Creative Commons

1. Is it necessary? Just because you know what your character had for breakfast three days before the orcs attacked doesn’t mean the readers need to know. If you’re planning on getting some backstory in, take a step away from your manuscript and decide if it really needs to be there. Is the detail you put in about the dog your main character owned when she was four years old pertinent to the story and important to the reader, or are you showing off the depth of your world in a display of authorial masturbation? Please, do not masturbate on your book (erotica authors can choose to ignore this piece of advice).  The real question is: If you left it out, would everything still make sense? If tossing it aside makes no difference to the narrative, perhaps it should stay secreted in your little writer’s notebook with the fact that your character has a special love of haggis.

2. Who needs to know? Is it one of your characters who needs to know, or are they already aware and the information needs to be relayed to the reader? The answer to that question will in part determine how the information will be relayed. If your character needs to find out, then your reader gets to discover it right along with her; they discover together, and that makes for good reading. If it’s something the character already knows, then you need to find subtle means to introduce the information: a diary entry, a stray thought, a reminiscence over a lost-but-now-found object.

3. How do I fit it in? A few years ago, I started reading the first book of an influential and highly regarded fantasy series (which shall

Photo by Brian Smithson vis Creative Commons

Photo by Brian Smithson vis Creative Commons

remain nameless). This is not a recent book, but one written in the late 70s. Part way through the book, two characters have a conversation about the history of the land in which they lived, detailing all the trouble and turmoil the country had seen. I threw the book across the room and never went back to it.

On its own, this is not necessarily a taboo way of getting information across to the reader; the problem was, THEY BOTH ALREADY KNEW ALL THE DETAILS.  People just do not talk like this and it’s a blatant info dump disguised as a conversation, written by an author who wants to get as much as possible across to the reader as fast as possible (some of it likely just to show-off).  If you ever find yourself writing dialogue, and you type the words ‘As you already know…’ or ‘Remember when…’, in the name of chocolate and everything else holy, please stop and press your finger firmly on the backspace key until it’s gone.

Backstory should never be a dump. Instead, it needs to be feathered throughout the book, with each piece revealed in a natural manner. If how a certain religion in your story operates becomes important, don’t tell the reader about it, create a situation in which you can show them. Sound familiar? Show, don’t tell. But remember…if it’s not important to the plot, keep it to yourself. Your job as a writer is to find interesting a plausible ways to relay the necessary bits of minutiae that makes them not only understand and envision that element of your story, but also keep them reading.

Learn to tell the difference between what your readers need to know and what you would simply like them to know and they will be less likely to dent their walls with the spine of your book. This is especially appreciated by those of us who read on eReaders…they’re expensive to replace.

Do you have any examples of backstory handled well? How about poorly?


Bruce Blake is the author of six books: the Khirro’s Journey epic fantasy trilogy and three books in the Icarus Fell urban fantasy series, including his latest, Secrets of the Hanged Man. When he’s not writing, he is often thinking about writing. and when he’s not doing that, he’s probably asleep. He would also like to say that, although he made disparaging comments about the lack of refinement of his voice in season one, Bruce is deeply saddened by the passing of Cory Monteith, a fellow Victoria boy.


And a Canucks fan, too!


Show and Tell

There are numerous adages for writers to follow. They are bounced around classrooms, websites, and editing groups.

“Write what you know”

“Write every day”

“Use active voice”

“Have the courage to write badly”

“Edit mercilessly”

“Read – a lot”

Working on editing my current work-in-progress Rule of Fire, I’m doing my best to keep them in mind without being overwhelmed by the clutter (It is a lot to fit in my head!). Sometimes I think it is best to edit in layers: clean up the plot and look for holes or breaks in logic (yes, even fantasy has logic!), double check characters for consistency, work on sentence structure, polish every word, and finally send to editor/beta readers for suggestions before beginning the sequence again (this step can be done earlier, but you might not like what they say). I’m looking forward to the polish phase!

But right now I’m still on the big edits, taking out chunks of chapters and building new blocks. Every once in awhile I find myself working on some of the nuances. One of the biggest to clean up early is “Show, don’t tell.”

Let’s face it, too much description and too much explaining, is just boring. But when you are writing, explaining everything to get it right in your head as the author can be important. More than that, describing a scene is a neat trick to overcoming a dose of writer’s block. However, the reader doesn’t really need to suffer along with the writer.

Since this is about showing rather than telling, to demonstrate, though I’m embarrassed to share something I feel is so bad (and has happily been deleted!), below is a snippet that when I going through the first read of my manuscript got me rolling my eyes, snarling, and circling in heavy, black marker. It just wasn’t going to do!

There had been nothing beyond the stunted grass and scrappy pines fading to the north. Only once had they seen a group of horses in the distance. Khodan’s heart had leapt to heights he had not known existed, growing greater with warmth than the sun. He had expected to see children at any moment tending to the sleek ponies. His ears listened for the call of a greeting on the wind.

But there had only been a faint neigh and the sound of hooves over the sodden earth. No riders appeared, no nomadic village of lightweight willow huts with skin coverings. The horses, they could see when they finally walked stealthy close enough, were covered in mud with untrimmed hooves. There was no one to care for them.

Khodan had remembered the springs around which his people had camped. He’d found them. But there had been no sign of people nearby, no trampled grass or mud, no signs of grazing or manure. The moors rolled on endlessly in all directions, each as blank as the next. After the hope born of the horses, Khodan felt hollow in comparison. He was as empty as his homeland.wildhorses2

After a bit of work, it became:

It was over an hour later Laireag stopped abruptly.

“What . . . ,” Niri began, but he held up a hand, tilting his head.

“Don’t you hear?” Laireag asked. Then Khodan did.

Over the next hill, a horse neighed, another snorted. Khodan dropped his satchel and bedroll, running up the last of the ground to the hilltop. Over a mile away, a herd of horses jogged across the higher grassland. He had found his people.

It was like the sun had risen within him. He could not contain the joy as it leaked tears from his eyes. Any moment, he knew, riders would cover over the hill. They would be children, who tended the herds. The little group of four would be seen, greetings yelled in a language he only heard now in his sleep. Khodan held his breath and waited.

The breeze whispered through the stiff grass. The horses, a group of over twenty, slowed, bending their heads to eat. The sound of their hooves died away. The world was silent.

“No,” Khodan whispered without meaning to say the word.

“Perhaps,” Laireag began, but stopped.

Together, they walked cautiously toward the herd. The stallion watched them come, his ears flicking forward and back as they approached. Khodan guessed that Laireag calmed him somehow, but he couldn’t be sure. The stone he wore blocked all sense of such things. It didn’t matter though, he didn’t have to get very close to see what he feared.

Mud caked the horse’s hides. Untrimmed hooves were long, sinking into the damp earth. The animals were uncared for. Khodan closed his eyes, unable to look at them.

“A wild herd from animals that escaped?” Niri hazarded. Ty snorted. Khodan’s hand curled tight as his side, then the heat in him disappeared.

After the hope of the moment before, he felt empty. As empty as the moors. Khodan swallowed, taking back his satchel from Laireag, who had picked it up for him.

“The camp is still a few days away,” Khodan said. His voice finally spooked the wild animals. They tossed their heads, galloping away as if they had never seen people before.

Harry-and-Marlowe-escape-by-Carrie-Vaughn-575x442I hope you see an improvement! And I’m not done yet. I still have a lot of that polish to rub on! Oddly enough, to prep for that, I follow the last adage: Read – a lot. I keep a few of the best stories or sections of chapters I’ve run across on hand. I go through those as I edit to see why I find them so incredible (the list is top secret, sorry). Then I turn back to what I’m working on.

I wanted to share a recent find that truly swept me away: Harry and Marlowe Escape the Mechanical Siege of Paris by Carrie Vaughn. Even if you are not completely in love with the characters and story by the end, I hope you can see it is a fantastic bit of writing! Does Ms. Vaughn tell at all? Man, I have so much work to do . . . .

What are some of your favorite writing and editing proverbs?


Autumn is the author of the epic fantasy novel Born of Water, its Novel Companion, and most recently the compilation of adventure travel stories Danger Peligros! All are available at Amazon, Smashwords, and other retailers of enovels.