“I wouldn’t say that!” He replied hotly.

I’m reading a bad book right now.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m in revision mode, or maybe it’s because I enjoyed this book as a kid and don’t find it living up to my expectations. The book is Vendetta by Peter David (yes ST:TNG for those of you clicking along at home). Normally I find David’s writing to be spot on and funny, but this one…

Here’s where it started:

“You’re not the one who was ankle-deep in blood,” said Crusher.

“I sure was!” said Geordi hotly.


Yes, the writing’s bad but that’s not what’s bothering me. What’s bothering me is that this isn’t how these characters would act.  Guinan wouldn’t say sir to Picard, Picard wouldn’t reveal his frustrations openly, and Geordi (hot-head that he is) would have a better comeback than “I sure was!” Sounds almost cheerful doesn’t it?

This got me to thinking about my characters, are they full enough that something could seem OUT of character, or even IN character.  How do I give my characters a distinct personality, one that can have variation certainly, growth most definitely, but never have a moment like this one that jars you out of your suspension of reality and makes you think about checking your e-mail.

1) Understand your character’s relationships to other characters: Your character has friends, enemies, family members, co-workers, and everything in between. Each relationship has a slightly different dynamic, but all stemming from the base of your character’s personality. It may be that your character doesn’t like to make enemies and so tries to be his gregarious self around someone who doesn’t like him, but awkwardly. Some relationships with co-workers are strictly professional, whereas others are more casual. One might think of this as a spectrum of intimacy, or the amount a character can be their “real” self around another character. What’s important is that this remain consistent. A superior is always, sir, until a situation arises to naturally make the relationship more casual.

2) Characters will change with experience: But these should be experiences we see. If your main character is a gregarious and funny person and becomes somber and reflective, you had better show us why. Change is good, it enriches our understanding of the person we’re trying to bring to life, but that change needs to happen on the page. If a cop changes after he loses his partner, a partner who was alive and drinking in the previous book, then he’d better kick the bucket somewhere on the page. Otherwise we’re being left out of the important experiences of our character’s life, and that changes the reader’s level of intimacy.

3) Know more about your character than your readers do: Your character’s favorite color may not come up on the first page. The kind of whiskey they like, their hobbies, a good story reveals these details gradually. If the leg work’s been done up front to establish this character, then when a new detail is revealed it is shown to be a part of the whole, even when it seems inconsistent. One of my favorite examples of this is Ron Swanson from Parks & Rec. He’s a gruff libertarian man, who likes to play as Duke Silver, a saxophone playing jazz lethario. He remains consistent in that he keeps this part of himself separate from most of the people in his life, and it provides color to his outward gruffness to see such a suave and fun loving side.

4) A measured response is often better than a freak out: Geordi freaks out all over the place in this book, with little provocation. It’s overly dramatic, even if the reasons for it are sometimes understandable. It’s like in singing, the louder moments are made all the better by the quiet ones around them. Frustration is best kept on a low boil that is then allowed to burst rather than constantly bubbling over. I’m not saying there aren’t people who react to crisis this way, and it may be that you want to portray a certain level of immaturity in your character, but make sure that’s what you’re going for. This could also probably be distilled down to eliminating all or most of the “[character] said [blank]-ly” tags from sentences.

5) It takes time to build a relationship: No character is fully formed in the first sentence they utter. There definitely is room to change the direction of a character, or flesh them out in later chapters, or even in later books. A certain about of leeway can be afforded so you don’t have to feel locked in. Just make sure that new details aren’t too drastically different from established norms, unless they’re a contrast like our good friend Ron.

6) Your moral compass: Briefly it’s also a good idea to know what your character’s values are, would they never kill, do they oppose mastication, that sort of thing. Again, morality can change over time, but rarely all at once.

What makes your characters distinct? What would be out of character?


Filed under Writing

103 responses to ““I wouldn’t say that!” He replied hotly.

  1. How disappointing: to expect a book to be awesome only to feel like it was written by a child – he should’ve just changed “I sure was!” to “Was so! Was so!”
    I love your points about characters. It can feel embarrassing, but sometimes you just have to grab someone to read dialogue out loud with you. It definitely helps to tweak conversations – make them true to human character.
    As for your last question: the last thing I picture Alex from The First Series doing is cat-walking into a salon to get her nails done. Same goes for me, actually. 😉
    Nice post, Ben!

  2. Coming up with good, believable characters is something I struggle with a lot. They all tend to be too much like me. :-/ And I agree with you about striking out the adverbs when possible.

    So, uh…who opposes mastication? O_o

  3. Love this reminder. I just started back on my second rewrite of my first book and it is so important to remember this! I am fleshing as I go and hope that readers don’t check their email too often while reading….
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • Good luck with your rewrites. I tend to work the opposite on drafts (write too much then winnow it down to essentials). That said, I may cut 30K in words, but then add another 10K of new content. Are you self-publishing or submitting to publishers? Thanks for reading and your congratulations and good luck 🙂

      • I have done the same thing. I cut tons out of the first draft and rewrote the ending. I started back on it yesterday. The tweaking is fun now that all the scenes make sense. That’s a good thing… I am keeping in mind your points about characters and motivation. My goal is to rewrite 30 pages a day and get this rewrite done in 11 more days. I think the continuity will help me to remember the details so I don’t have as many mistakes…
        I am not sure what I am going to do with publishing. I will send it out for professional editing and then see if I can get an agent. Then we’ll see. I definitely want it to be on e-books.
        What are you doing?

      • I’m mostly pursuing the self-publishing game, though I still have aspirations of “professional” publication. I think I’m assessing on a project by project basis. I’m not entirely happy with the Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing model, but I suspect I’ll use it for some things. I’m much more of a fan of DRM free content though, so I’m pursuing options (like Smashwords) that allow for that flexibility. Good luck on your revisions. You are far more motivated on the continuity than I’ve ever been able to be. My limit is about 30 pages a week!

      • Talk is cheap! Hahaha! I am up in the mountains with family and have yet to get to the 2nd day. I am planning on rewriting a chunk this afternoon…. 🙂

  4. Peter David is the best author of the Star Trek Series! I am surprised you only posted 6 points!

  5. Consistency with characters is something that I am worried about messing up. I plan on writing my first novel this year and I hope I can remember these things. I tend to write more by feel than by the rules of writing which I think can make for powerful writing, but I know I will need a strong editor who focuses more on concepts like these to help balance my work. Great post.

    • Yeah I can’t say I follow any “rules” of writing, though over time I’ve developed a few “best practices”. In general my feeling has always been that the only way to get better at writing is writing, then re-writing. A strong editor is a great asset (I lucked out by marrying mine). Good luck with your novel, I’d be excited to hear about your progress.

  6. These are some great points — the sort of things that seem obvious, and yet are easily forgotten.

    By the way, is this post’s title another quote from the book? Because if so, David apparently like the adverb “hotly”…

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed with this brilliant post! 🙂

    • Not another quote from the book, though it might as well have been. It’s actually getting a little better in the third section, but there are still some groaners. Thanks for stopping by and your congratulations!

  7. Good points! But I don’t know anyone who is against mastication – that one really jumped out at me!!

    • Well Ducks for one 🙂 But I’m glad it jumped out. As I was explaining to Brian, it’s one of my favorite words that sounds bad but isn’t. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. I write nonfiction most of the time, but am venturing into fiction lately. It’s much harder, partly because of the consistency of character issues you bring up. I’ve found it useful to have imaginary interviews with my characters, e.g., “What were you thinking when you said this?” It helps make them real for me. Great post, congrats on the FP!

    • I like the idea of conducting interviews with characters. I’ve also tried those lists where it’s something like 50 or so questions about your character, most of which will be completely irrelevant to your story, but help you fill in a lot of the details you wouldn’t otherwise have thought about. I’ll have to dig up a good list at some point and share some of my character’s responses. Good luck with your fiction and non-fiction writing (anything published yet?). Thanks for the congrats!

  9. It stinks when a book totally lets you down. I started a series and the first book was written so wonderfully, then the second and third were less than pleasing. It’s never fun to get into a dull book, best of luck in finding one that suits you! Nothing beats a good read. Also, congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • I agree, nothing beats a good read, or a good bad read. Fortunately this book is getting a little better toward the end, but still David’s done better. Thanks for the congrats!

  10. Brilliant, your post really gave me some food for thought. Thank you 🙂

  11. Tom Elias

    This post is a great reminder about characterization. It makes or breaks a story. Thanks for keeping all of the writers out here on our toes. And contrats on the FP.

    • Always happy to be part of the discussion. I’ve found a lot of great writers on WordPress, and have learned a lot from them as well. Being in community can only help us to be better. Thanks for stopping by!

  12. Thanks for writing this post. I found it very useful. And congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  13. Hi Ben,
    I stumbled on your blog thanks to Freshly Pressed, and the headline quote from Vendetta made me do a double take. I suppose all writers get lazy and drift occasionally, but you’d imagine an editor or publisher would catch obvious ones like this. I’m currently rereading a book I read and remember loving fifteen years ago. It’s the clever and amusing travel book Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson. I’m enjoying the read, but now, sadly, I find much of the humor adolescent and too much of the writing sloppy. I don’t know if its because I’m getting older or that, as a writer myself, I’ve become more particular. It’s probably a bit of both and, to be honest, I’m glad. I think readers deserve the very best from any professional writer.

    I love your blog and will be back.


    (J. D. Fencer http://jdfencer.wordpress.com/)

    • Yeah, the title definitely seems to have the effect on a lot of people. One of the other comments said they nearly didn’t read the post because of it 🙂 I’ve definitely had the disappointed experience with humor more than almost any other genre. For instance, I remember kind of liking the Chapelle Show back in college, but even a few years later I just couldn’t take it. Hopefully the same won’t happen to Key and Peele. Glad you found the blog and come back anytime!

  14. Robin

    Hi Ben, Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  15. mastication was the real part. Man! I almost fell on the ground laughing!
    By the way, Congratulations, on being Freshly pressed!

  16. It certainly is quite disappointing to find out that an awesome book is badly written, especially if it has been well publicised.

  17. Reblogged this on Anastasia's Journal and commented:
    This post emphasizes what is truly important to have in your books when it comes to character development. I couldn’t have written it better myself.

  18. Thank you for the well-worded insights on character development in writings. Reblogged it! I’ll be sure to make note of your points in my own books. After all, there is no good story without good characters.

  19. Like the insights into character development. Good stuff. Subtle and makes the reader’s imagination work. That, I think, is the key to any good writing – fiction and non-fiction,

    I am not surprised that a Trek novel failed on these counts.

  20. I’ve never been big on reading “fan fiction” (which is what I consider most movie and series based novels), just because it’s so hard for authors to grasp the personalities of characters that weren’t originally their own.

    Characters are such an essential part of a story, not just because you need them to write one, but because they are what makes the plot come to life. It doesn’t matter how amazing your plot is if your characters are dull and two dimensional.

    You offer up some great advice on how to avoid that pitfall! Great post, Ben. 🙂 And congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • I definitely don’t envy the challenge of picking up someone else’s well established characters and playing with them (though in TV that actually happens a lot). I like your classification of Trek Fiction as fan fiction (I entirely agree they just get paid for it). Thanks for the congrats, and glad you liked the post!

  21. Thanks for these simple, but vital points! I am working on revising my first novel that I wrote during NANOWRIMO, and this made me realize I don’t know my charcters well enough. Excited to get to know them better and focus on consistency.

  22. (First time reader. Congratulations on what seems to be a well deserved FP for the writing world).

    One of my favorite characters is the Gunslinger from Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series. King has a way, for the most part, of developing characters, and then breaking Point 4 (there are a couple of steps I think he skipped in “Dreamcatcher,” while anyone who knows “The Shining” can see an-almost-too-fast break in the father, despite the cabin fever). But then, this is an artist breaking the rules. However, in the DT series, he does a great job of developing characters, even one-timers or those who die in the middle.

    Never ever, ever, ever, use adverbs to express how someone says something in a dialogue; the context of the situation, and the text around it, should provide that (I almost didn’t read this post because of the title… “hotly.” I shuddered).

    • Glad you took the plunge and read anyway. I mess around with the titles of posts a lot (sometimes not too effectively I think), but this just seemed appropriate for the topic at hand. Haven’t read the Dark Tower (since a friend of mine basically said King makes an aside in the last book and apologizes for the ending). Seems a long way to travel for something that ultimately fizzles. I agree that context should be all you need (notice the no dialogue tags in my latest 40 min story 🙂 ). Thanks for stopping by!

  23. This is a poor treatment of ST-TNG for sure. I loved this series and would find such a sloppy continuation as an affront and likely would exclude it from my reading list. Your 6 points are spot on concerning the characters and being true to them.

  24. I like number 6. But the moral compass can swing south if the character’s life is threatened or where there’s a financial benefit. Greed and slef-preservation are great tess of your character.

    • Absolutely. Situational moralism is an important thing to consider in your characters, especially it’s impact in the aftermath. But such an experience would forever change your character and make it unlikely for them to revert to their original personality. Thanks for stopping by! Get some rest wearywanderer 🙂

  25. Really excellent points on characterization. Thanks.

  26. So many great points that I’ve realized as I’ve been reading something either really good or really bad – that you just elucidated brilliantly.

  27. very insightful…thanks… a happy 2013 to you!!!!

  28. Pingback: Hello Greetings! | [BTW] : Ben Trube, Writer

  29. Poorly written books often lead to the best insights. The errors become easier to avoid.
    While I haven’t read Star Trek novels, I’ve read my share of Star Wars spin-offs. I concur with the frustration of watching beloved characters act inconsistently with what we know about them without cause.

    • And a bad book is fun now and again, if nothing else to make you feel better about your eventual chances of getting published 🙂 It can be frustrating as well, but it does at least give you something to learn from. Thanks for stopping by!

  30. I enjoyed your writing tips, especially in the face of reading a star trek novel. Every time I have gotten involved in a star trek marathon on Netflix, it is usually because of the depressive side of my mania. But these days I am working for http://www.playgroundentertainmentgroup.com and write for http://www.kidssoccerblog.com I wish I could say my life has improved since the “star trek” days, but it really hasn’t.

  31. Character development’s such a head ache. I’m not really into plots rather the dynamics of the players. Good post. Will check on this once in a while when I’m in story-mode.

  32. lviti

    This advice is so sound…mind if I borrow it to pass on to my students?

  33. Great Post. As a screenwriter the first thing I do is write the backstory on all of my characters. I get into their child hood, likes, music, clothes and personality. Before I write one word of dialogue I could describe these people like I could a friend from twenty years ago. The story just flows out.

  34. This article truly hit home for me. It’s precisely the sticking point I’m having in ‘fleshing out’ a 3rd level character in the sequel to my book, and moving her forward into more light. The points you make are well considered. Thank you!

  35. Reblogged this on In The Land Of Nubia and commented:
    Just what I needed to read today as I work towards bringing a character to greater detail in the sequel to my book, Nubian Sun!

  36. I think that in dialog you must have honesty and if someone freaks out it has to be in his/her voice. When I hear somthing like “I sure was!” said Geordi hotly. It was writting to dumb it down or play nice so kids can read it.
    I liked your ideas and agree with them.
    Writing sucks. Getting something from the keyboard to the screen is hard and editiing is boring and everyone wants to screw the write. I say this having published one book about 30 years ago and nothing except short stories since. Getting a book published was like a drug to me until I learned to let it go. Now Its not an addiction its more like a bad girlfriend you cant get rid of.

  37. This is a great checklist. Thanks!

  38. You’ve got some great tips here, Ben. I recently wrote a post about characters. I have a weird way with mine. I usually sit down with a friend (in the evening with a glass of wine is good) and they ask me questions as if I’m the character to find out about my life and history. It really works because I get to know my characters so well that I know what they’re going to do and say throughout the book 😉

    Here’s the link if you get some spare time http://diannegray.wordpress.com/2012/12/21/put-some-flesh-on-the-bones-of-my-dreams-4/

  39. You’ve got great advice about character development! I agreed on you that understanding different characters is the key to good writing! Thanks for sharing.

  40. You forgot one: ‘Kill Your Darlings.’

  41. Worthwhile read. “Freshly Pressed” is well deserved. Looking forward to future excellent pieces.

  42. Two things made me check out your article: the outlandish title and the fact that it was on writing. I absolutely love the piece. I think you’ve picked out some of the most common eyesores in fiction. I am no expert, but I agree with many things you’ve said, and shall definitely keep those in mind, when I get down to writing a novel!
    Congrats on the FP 🙂

  43. very useful thank you for this…:)

  44. Pingback: Saturday Link Round-Up 1 « Emilie Hardie

  45. icittadiniprimaditutto

    Reblogged this on Pier Carlo Lava.

  46. Thanks to “Freshly Pressed” I can offer this word which can be conjured with “FECUNDITY”

  47. Paul

    Excellent post! I can learn from this! Thank you! 🙂

  48. I really liked reading this blog. Thanks for writing it.

    P.S. Want to learn how to make money with your blog? Go here to find out more. http://earncashathomeideas.com

  49. Pingback: Writing a 40 Minute Story | [BTW] : Ben Trube, Writer

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