We love our protagonists. We spend a ridiculous amount of time, blood, sweat, and tears championing their stories. But what if they’re undermining us by behaving in ways that drive readers away? What if they’re not-so-secretly sabotaging us despite all our efforts to advocate for them? Let’s discuss four ways your protagonist is working against you and, more importantly, how you can fight back.
1. They’ve got a case of “chatty narrator syndrome”
Whether a book is in first-person point-of-view or third, narrators who talk at the reader beyond what is needed threaten to wreck your reader’s experience. With every word the character says to the reader, they’re stopping the flow of an active scene. They’re stealing work from your reader. They’re doing the analysis or overly controlling what your reader thinks or feels. They’re hovering like a helicopter parent and not allowing the reader the freedom to engage with the scenes and draw their own conclusions. And oftentimes, they’re pointing out the obvious and giving us way too much information.
Solution: Scrutinize each and every line of narration/interiority. Is what your character/narrator says to the reader something the reader can see through action and dialogue instead? Is it crucial information your reader needs for the scene to make sense? Is the line revealing something the character is hiding from other characters and something we might otherwise not know? If the line is needed, is it done as briefly as possible? When you look at any given scene, are these stops done sparingly so as to not hit the “scene brakes” too frequently?
2. They’ve booked a tour and your secondary characters are their guide
The protagonist is allowing other characters to show them around new settings–new towns, new planets, new schools, and so on. Your beloved character is along for the ride instead of driving the action. They go into the scene with no identifiable goal and follow the path that the other character(s) set before them. Don’t get me wrong. Mentor characters are a great way to world build and orient your character (and reader) with new settings and experiences. But be careful not to let these “tour” scenes effectively stop the plot. All “tour sites” need a purpose, whether it’s to glimpse a place your character will need to utilize later. Or to introduce a plot point that deepens the way the character understands the conflict or other characters or themselves. Or perhaps the new setting contains some sort of purpose. A need or a want the character is pursuing.
Solution:If another character is mentoring or guiding your protagonist, particularly in the first half of your story, craft tour stops that yield plot development or emotional development. Maybe a stop gives rise to a flashback we need to see, or introduces a character we need to meet, or hints at a location that will be relevant later. But as much as possible, find ways to let your protagonist hand-craft their tour. Where do they want to go and more importantly why? How does that setting or new character represent a need the protagonist has? Do they hold information or an object your character needs to keep working on their novel-length goal? Do they face an obstacle on that stop, one that has them pushing through and earning a win? Or one that thwarts them and forces them to reconfigure their plan? Be sure your protagonist is planning their own tour as much as possible.
3. They’re too good of a listener
One of the common concerns I see in client manuscripts is crafting the protagonist’s lines of dialogue in a way that allows other characters to teach them and pass along exposition. The lines are of the tell-me-more variety or even the wow-that’s-cool variety. These types of hollow lines allow the other characters to fill them in with how the world works, its history, and more. We may think this counts as an active scene because this exposition is hiding inside lines of dialogue, but it’s not. The reader can see this information dumping for what it is.
Solution: In any given scene, read your protagonist’s lines out loud and test them for conveying intent. Do their lines reflect a specific need they have? Their scene goal? Do the lines evoke an emotion beyond curiosity? Are their lines hiding how they really feel or what they think? Are the things they ask necessary to formulate a plan for their next action? If you’re feeling extra brave, have someone else read your dialogue to you. Nothing reveals weak dialogue like having to hear it yourself.
4. They’re swimming in a pool of self-pity
Your protagonist tells us how bad they have it. How messed up their situation is. They make sure we know all that they lack or they point out how someone else has it better. They are a victim and they know it. But research shows readers are turned off by self-pity. If the character is all-too-aware that they are a victim, the reader doesn’t want to identify with the character. They don’t want to see themselves in that self-pitying state. They don’t want to identify with them, which reduces the efficacy of the reading experience and the potential for emotional growth in the reader.
Solution: Allow the reader to see the protagonist’s situation for what it is or for who they are. Show their situation honestly through action and dialogue (scenes), but don’t let the narrator/protagonist point to pity. Instead, let their reactions to their circumstances hint at how they feel, how their situation is leading to a lack of what they need, and giving rise to reader empathy.
Comb through your work-in-progress and see if your protagonist might be guilty of these four efforts that undermine your efforts. Consider how you might revise in ways that have you regaining control of your story and the way your reader experiences it.
Can you think of other primary ways a protagonist might sabotage a story? Chime in!
Recently I’ve been reading Marcus Sakey’s BRILLIANCE trilogy. Yes, I know I’m behind the times, but OMG have you read these books yet?
I’m enjoying them immensely, both from a reader and a writer perspective. Mr. Sakey’s use of descriptors is like none other, and while I revel in his genius, it also makes me wonder what I’m doing writing.
Because I know I’ll never be able to write like him.
Has this ever happened to you? You think you’re doing great, then BAM an amazing book or author comes and slaps you upside the head with their talent or story or characters and suddenly, you’re not doing so great.
This isn’t the first time I’ve felt like a hack. It won’t be the last. And after the appropriate amount of self-pity and eating my feelings, I turn toward the tactics I know will help me regain some confidence.
Remember Your Brand
First, it helps to remember who you are as an author. What kind of stories do you write? Do they even fit in the genre of who you’re fanpersoning over? In Marcus Sakey’s BRILLIANCE case, the trilogy is a police procedural with a sci-fi twist. And yeah. I don’t write that.
Second, consider your authorial voice. Is it a close match to the author who is unintentionally making you feel inferior? More than likely, not so. In fact, you may be enjoying the writing because it is so different from your voice.
Third, list your strengths. What are the things you really excel at in your stories? What are the things that readers or critique partners or contest judges call out again and again about your writing and your characters?
Pro tip: It really is okay to print these accolades and place them where you can see them. Writing is hard and sometimes, we need the reminder.
Take A Class
Feeling better yet?
If so, gently analyze what it is about the writing style that you so admire. For me, Mr. Sakey has a very natural way of dropping phrase twists that live within the character’s voice that are so well done that I have to go back and reread the little miracle I just read.
I’ve taken plenty of writing classes before, but perhaps I could use a refresher in cliche twists or character voice. Even if I’ve heard it all before, hearing the information again when I’m at a different point in my writing journey could reveal fresh insights.
What elements do you find yourself admiring in recent reads? I can almost guarantee that there’s a class or book for improving that skill.
Surround Yourself With Other Authors
The best cure I’ve found for the I’m-A-Hack feeling is to get around other authors. It’s one of the reasons I founded Cruising Writers. And it’s one of the reasons I’ve planned a new writing cruise next spring. Being with other authors not only gets the creative juices flowing, it also allows for your craft to grow by an exponential leap. (Also, this particular writing cruise will have Becca Syme teaching about Strengths for Writers and Kirsten Oliphant of Create If Writing teaching about marketing, so you know, it’s a good place to be.)
Sharing struggles and triumphs with authors who understand is one of the best ways to remember that you’re not a hack. Every creative goes through this cycle, and most authors feel that their craft isn’t good enough…yet. That’s important to keep in mind. The yet. It keeps us striving for the next level, and when we reach it, oh man, it’s brilliant.
Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental health condition, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life.
In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.
This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc. Please note that this isn’t a self-diagnosis tool. Fears are common in the real world, and while we may at times share similar tendencies as characters, the entry below is for fiction writing purposes only.
Fear of Change
Notes Most people are averse to change at some level, and a certain amount of unease when it comes to change is normal. It only becomes a problem when a person is so determined to keeping things the same—possibly because they don’t want to give up control or are afraid of the unknown—that their quality of life is impacted, relationships are damaged, and they’re unable to grow and evolve in a healthy manner.
What It Looks Like Dismissing new ideas without considering them Humoring people; giving the appearance of considering something new but always rejecting the opportunity Avoiding making decisions that require change (so the status quo can be protected) Reacting emotionally rather than logically Using outdated sources or ineffective arguments to make a point Becoming emotionally activated when new ideas are being considered Clinging tightly to “old school” methods: resisting technology, ignoring scientific advances, rejecting tools that deviate from what they’re used to, etc. Sentimentality Loyalty (to people, a job, a community, etc.) Inflexibility Repairing and fixing material objects rather than replacing them Living in the same house even when it’s falling apart or the property value has skyrocketed Sticking close to home; not traveling far or taking long trips Frequent strife with family members who want to make changes the character is resistant to Resenting others for moving on and leaving the character behind Going to extremes to avoid change (manipulating others, lying, being mean or lashing out at someone who is suggesting a change, etc.) Being more interested in the past than the future
Common Internal Struggles Disliking being left alone/behind but being unable to embrace the changes required to keep up with others Feeling obsolete Feeling selfish for being so unbending but not knowing how to be more flexible Wanting to go back in time to when things were happier or simpler Struggling with anxiety or depression Feeling stuck in a situation but being unwilling to make changes
Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life Staying in a situation that makes the character unhappy or is unhealthy because it’s preferable to facing the unknown Difficulty making even small changes to a daily routine Missing out on meaningful activities with others (a trip with friends, a family reunion, dinner at a friend’s house, etc.) Becoming isolated from others Difficulty utilizing modern advances that most people enjoy because the learning curve is too great Always having to make excuses for turning down an opportunity Avoiding people who are likely to suggest activities or changes that threaten the character Always needing to do things their own way; resisting new methods or ideas that would make their life easier
Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear New technology or processes at work that must be learned and used A scenario requiring the character to move (the house being condemned, no longer being able to pay rent, etc.) A spouse having to move into a retirement home, leaving the character on their own Grown children moving across the country and asking the character to come with them The culture shifting to embrace ideas the character disagrees with Being given a new phone, a computer, or some other tool the character isn’t comfortable with but must learn to integrate into their life The character’s children wanting to deviate from a long-held tradition
How do we get readers to cheer for unlikable characters? We cheer for anti-heroes and characters who are surly, have anger issues, and even questionable morals. Why? They all have one thing in common but it means we have go right back to the basics.
Sometimes we make things more complicated than they need to be, don’t we? I am prone to creating complicated plots with huge casts and then I get tangled up in my own fictional web. Most of the time, what I need to do is simplify. Get back to the basics and find the main story thread and pull on that. Which other story threads are unaffected by this central thread? Those unconnected threads have to go.
Creating a likable character is directly tied to this main story thread. When I read the above post, I agreed with everything there, but those techniques must be employed with a lot of art and subtlety. I like to go back to the basics first, and in the editing phase, add in some of those other techniques if I feel they’re needed.
So let’s get back to the basics.
What’s The One Quick Way To Create A Likable Character?
Some of the characters I have found hard to like would be: Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games), Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With The Wind), Clary Fairchild (Immortal Instruments), Jack Reacher, James Bond, Ross Poldark, Wolverine, Walter White (Breaking Bad), Bella Swan (Twilight)… I could go on.
Now, you may have loved some of those characters. There’s a lot of personal taste involved in this. I found these characters hard to like, but have wholeheartedly cheered for them at the same time (OK – maybe I didn’t cheer for Scarlett… Mostly I just wanted to smack her). How could I cheer on and root for characters I don’t actually like all that much?
They were the underdogs.
These are all characters who face what seem like insurmountable obstacles. They could turn tail and run and live happily ever after — take the easy road, but they chose the hard thing. They put their lives and hearts on the line because of something they believed to be right. I can cheer for that.
Think of the school-yard bully. This could be the most attractive, smartest, best-dressed kid in school, but you’re probably going to root for the little nerd who has no power, no influence, and no voice but stands up to the bully anyway because somebody has to. Because enough is enough. Because it’s the right thing to do.
“Turns out likability, or niceness, is often the least important factor in convincing a reader your character is worth his time…characters who ooze nothing but niceness are often saccharine, exasperating, and anything but charismatic. Think of a handful of the most memorable characters you’ve encountered in literature and film. I’m willing to bet a good-sized chunk of money that the characteristic that stands out most is not niceness. Rather, we connect with the characters who are interesting…Dichotomies drive fiction. When we write characters who are fighting both their circumstances and their own natures, we create characters who are instantly real. And, thus, instantly interesting.” K.M. Weiland.
Katniss is a loner, at times irrational, romantically-stunted (in my opinion), and is often the author of her own misery. However, she steps up for her sister. She takes on President Snow and the Capitol because it’s the right thing to do even though she doesn’t seem to have much chance at all of succeeding. She goes out of her comfort zone and puts herself on the line for the good of others. I can cheer for that.
Wolverine is surly, has anger issues, is a loner, and you can’t count on him to stick around. However, against his better judgement he goes back and stands in for others. He can’t stand to see kids in danger or bullied. He takes the skills and gifts he has and he uses them for good. I can cheer for that even though I think he’d make a pretty lousy friend day to day.
James Bond. *shakes head* Where do I start? He’s an adrenaline junkie, a womanizer, takes irrational risks, is an alcoholic (probably), and likely has some kind of mental health issue (depression, manic — there’s something there). But he does whatever is necessary, even at great personal physical and emotional risk, to take down the bad guy. He’s often alone and because of that faces impossible odds. I can overlook a lot of traits I don’t like because I can cheer for what he chooses to stand up for.
Did the writers who crafted the above characters use any of the above-mentioned ten tips for creating likeable characters? Of course, they did. Wolverine, Clary, Katniss (and probably a few others too) have tragic backstories. They all have a save the cat (or pet the dog) moment at some point early in their stories and they all struggle with their own personal demons. But when you boil everything down to the basics (when you pull on the main story thread — the obstacle they face in the climax), they chose to stand up to the bully. They take on impossible odds to see right done.
Find the basic story thread and give it a tug — what is your character up against? Is it impossible? Put your character up against a situation, an obstacle, a villain, they have no realistic hope of overcoming. Your reader doesn’t have to like your character to cheer for them to win. Sometimes getting down to the basics is the easiest way to get unstuck!
Some characters have more shape and weight than others, feeling so authentic we can almost believe they walked right out of the real world. Their emotions, vulnerabilities, needs, and desires ring so true, we can’t help but be pulled in by them. These characters hold us hostage while we read, and as writers, we start analyzing why we care so much so we can duplicate this magic in our own stories.
So, what’s the secret sauce that creates such a powerful connection?
When readers see something within the character that resonates, something they themselves think, feel, or believe in, it becomes common ground that binds them to the character.
But wait, you say. That makes no sense! What does my thirty-two-year-old, baby Yoda collecting schoolteacher-slash-reader have in common with the fiery, laser-zapping sky captain in my steampunk sci-fi?
Oh, not much, except maybe…
The pain of a loss
Making a mistake that can’t be fixed
The agony of hurting a loved one
How time stretches in a moment of humiliation
Knowing a love so pure they’d sacrifice anything for it
The dark thoughts that accompany a desire for revenge
Failing and letting others down
The chest-expanding rush of pride or validation
The relief that comes with getting a second chance
Experiencing the sting of betrayal
Worrying the past will repeat itself
Finding the courage to live one’s truth
…and so on.
Experiences, Good and Bad, Connect Us All
No matter who your character is, human or not, protagonist or antagonist, they will have experiences in common with readers. These may look very different, but in the hands of a strong storyteller, they will be recognizable, holding a core truth that stirs a reader’s thoughts and emotions. In some form, readers feel an echo of having lived the same moment, stood at the same crossroads, or felt the same thing, as the character.
Recognition is a powerful tool, hooking readers and keeping them engaged. By thinking about what it is to be human, and how to use that to find areas of common ground, we can create mirrors within our characters that draw readers in and trigger their empathy.
Trauma is an unfortunate side effect of life. We all carry the burden ofpainful experiences – you, me, and readers. People can hurt and betray, they can let us down, and we can do the same to them or ourselves.
Anything that is a big part of the human experience is something we should weave into our character building. By brainstorming a character’s emotional wounds, we make them authentic, and it gives us a powerful way to reveal their vulnerabilities to readers.
Emotional wounds come in all shapes and sizes: Betrayal. Humiliation. Rejection. Injustice. Neglect. They cut, bruise, and most importantly, change the character. Just like us, the person a character was before a traumatic event and who they become after will be different. In the aftermath they carry scars in the form of unmet needs, fears, and false beliefs. They may believe they are less worthy, less capable, or somehow at fault. A wounding event can also reshape how the character sees reality, causing them to think people can’t be trusted, that the world is callous and unfair, or believe life’s cards are stacked against them.
As readers, we may see all the ways their thinking is flawed, yet still understand why they believe what they do. Their experience informs their opinions, just as ours inform us. And even as we root for them to see the truth and be free of their pain, we recognize and relate to the experience of missing what’s right in front of you.
We’ve all experienced wounds and seen loved ones be swallowed up by fear these events create. We’ve witnessed their dysfunctional behavior and unhealthy coping mechanisms cause problems. So when a character misbehaves, lashes out, or holds back because they are afraid of being hurt again in the book we’re reading, we get it. We connect to their struggle. Their fear is our fear. We carry the burden of it together.
Imagine a line where an emotional wound is on one end and the other, a meaningful goal. One represents fear, the other hope. And as powerful as fear is, hope can best it, which is why we give characters goals to aim for.
Hope is having trust and belief that something can change. In the story, hope tips the scales in the moment when a character decides what they want is more important than what may hurt them. They hold to hope, step out onto the ledge, and move forward despite fear.
And beside them as always is the reader, willing them to succeed. Neck bent, readers consume words, desperate to know the outcome because the biggest recognition of all is unfolding: a shared journey.
Character Arc: Where Readers and Characters Collide
Why are readers so fascinated by the character’s journey? After all, it’s only fiction right, a bit of entertainment, an escape.
Or…could it be something more?
Okay, that’s a trick question. A character’s journey to leave behind a hurtful or limiting past and cross into a better, more fulfilling future should remind you of something because life is a series of journeys. Like the character, we are always moving toward a better tomorrow. We yearn for internal completeness just as they do, so when we read, we recognize the steps they take, and the courage, growth, and sacrifice along the way. We root for characters to win because deep down, we are rooting for ourselves to win, too.
So, when you write, find common ground. Put those shared experiences on the page for readers to recognize! Readers should see themselves in the character’s vulnerability and uncertainty, their wounds and fears. But most of all, showcase the character’s hope and goals. These remind readers what’s worth fighting for both in fiction, and in life.
Being able to write realistic, consistent, multi-dimensional characters is vital to gaining reader interest. Doing so first requires we know a lot about who our characters are—you know, the obvious stuff: positive and negative traits, behavioral habits, desires, goals, and the like. But it’s not always the obvious parts of characterization that create the most intrigue. What about the things your character is hiding?
Everyone hides. We hide the goals we know are wrong for us, opinions that may turn others against us, or feelings and desires that make us feel vulnerable—basically anything with the potential for rejection or shame.
The same should be true for our characters. When characters are cagey out of a need to protect themselves from emotional harm, readers understand that. It makes the characters more authentic and can pique your readers’ interest as they try to figure out the secret or worry over what will happen when it comes to light.
7 Things Your Character Is Hiding
To add this layer of depth to your characters, you first need to know what’s taboo in their minds—not only what they’re hiding, but why. Here are some common things your character may feel compelled to conceal from others.
Desires are an important part of who your characters are. These desires drive their actions and decisions in the story. While these wants are often transparent, there are situations in which the character may not feel comfortable sharing them.
Maybe she’s secretly pining for her sister’s ex, or she longs for a career forbidden by her parents, or she wants to fight her boss’s unethical behavior but is afraid of losing her job.
Forbidden or dangerous desires can add an element of risk, upping the stakes for the character and making things more interesting for readers.
Everyone has fears. Many of those fears are perfectly acceptable, which makes it safe for us to share them. It’s the ones that make us feel weak or lessen us in the eyes of others that we keep in the dark.
Think about really debilitating fears, such as being afraid of a certain people group, physical intimacy, or of leaving one’s house.
Fears like these should always come from somewhere—maybe from a wounding event or negative past influencers. Make sure there’s a good reason for whatever your character is afraid of.
3. Negative Past Events
Speaking of wounding events, we each have defining moments from the past that we’re reluctant to share with others or even acknowledge ourselves.
What’s something that could have happened to your characters that they’ll go to great lengths to keep hidden? What failures or humiliating moments might they alter in their own memories to keep from facing them?
Wounds are formative on many levels, so it’s important to figure out what those are and how they may impact the character.
4. Flaws and Insecurities
Being flawed is part of the human experience. There are things about ourselves we don’t want to examine too closely and which we definitely don’t want others to know about.
For characters, these flaws often manifest as insecurities or negative traits (such as being weak-willed, unintelligent, or vain). Whether these weaknesses are real or only perceived, characters will try to downplay them.
Sometimes characters exhibit behaviors or habits they know aren’t good for them. Maybe these behaviors stem from a wounding event or an unhealthy desire. Maybe they really want to change, but they don’t know how.
Whether it’s an unhealthy relationship with food, a gambling addiction, or a compulsion to self-harm, they’ll expend a lot of energy to keep these behaviors hidden.
Revealing these behaviors to readers, while hiding them from other characters, is a great way to remain true to the human experience while also building reader interest.
6. Uncomfortable Emotions
While it’s healthy to embrace and express a range of emotions, characters are not always comfortable with all the feelings. This may occur with emotions that are tied to a negative event from the past. It may be an emotion that makes the character feel vulnerable or is culturally unacceptable.
The character will want to mask any uncomfortable emotions, often disguising them as something else: embarrassment is replaced with self-deprecation, or fear manifests as anger. This duality of emotion is important because it humanizes characters for readers and adds a layer of authenticity that might otherwise be missing.
7. Opinions and Ideas
Everyone wants to be liked. To gain the respect of others, we often go so far as to sacrifice honesty.
If an opinion isn’t popular, your characters may keep it to themselves. If they have good ideas others won’t appreciate, they won’t share them—or they’ll get the ideas out there in a way that allows them to avoid taking ownership.
Peer acceptance is important to everyone; that need, and the secrets that accompany it, are something that every reader will be able to relate to.
The character has to choose between two negative options.
Ex. Katniss Everdeen has to either kill Peeta, or risk killing herself.
b. Irreconcilable Goods
The character has to choose between two positive options.
Ex. A protagonist has to choose between the job of her dreams, or the man of her dreams.
While the categories are helpful when teaching and talking about crises, in many stories, the options may not be obviously “good” or “bad.” For example, in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins gets called on an adventure. He has two options: Refuse and continue to live his predictable life, which invites a sort of personal stagnation, or accept and risk danger and death, which include gaining personal experience and growth. From the audience’s perspective, we may say that going on the adventure is the best, and obvious choice, but that isn’t how it looks to the character. Each option has both negative and positive stakes tied to them: Stay safe and alive, but somewhat stagnant, or risk danger and death, and grow through experience.
While traditionally crises are talked about with pairs of options, it’s technically possible to have more than two things to choose from—the keys are that the choice needs to be difficult, irreconcilable, and hard—if not impossible—to reverse (at least not without significant ramifications). It’s also possible that in some crises, not making a choice is an option, but for that to work, it needs strong stakes.
The crisis is a moment where we lay out current stakes and the directions the story could go, depending on what the character chooses. This reinforces the character’s agency, and what the character selects will reveal a lot about him or her. In fact, a crisis is one of the most effective ways to reveal true character.
When Katniss chooses to risk killing herself over simply killing Peeta, it reveals that, when it gets down to it, she’s more willing to sacrifice herself in an effort to protect the innocent, than others to benefit herself. In contrast, President Snow and the Capitol repeatedly pick the opposite. When a character chooses her dream job over her dream man, it shows she values her career more than her romantic relationships. And when Bilbo accepts Gandalf’s invitation, it reveals he’d ultimately rather risk danger and death to experience adventure.
A crisis helps indicate a character’s true belief system. It’s easy to proclaim we will do something when there are no stakes or competing choices. I might insist repeatedly that I always tell the truth . . . but if telling the truth could get me fired, leaving my family with little to eat, I face a difficult decision. Do I value honesty or food more? To dig a little deeper, we may ask why I value one over the other, or how I came to value one over the other.
Crises can also be very effective in character arcs. If you are writing about a protagonist who changes because of the story, you may use a crisis at the beginning of the story to reveal what the character initially values. For example, I may show our protagonist choosing her work over her boyfriend. At the end, you may choose a similar crisis to show how the character now believes differently. Our protagonist chooses the man of her dreams over the job of her dreams. If you are writing a steadfast (also known as a flat-arc) protagonist, you will show how the protagonist ultimately chooses the same option, despite the added pressure of the climax. Katniss initially chooses to risk sacrificing herself to protect Prim. Regardless of what the Games have tempted her to do, she ultimately makes the same choice to try to protect Peeta.
Because crises emphasize agency, they also put responsibility on the protagonist. When he chooses an option, he’s also choosing its ramifications. If Katniss killed Peeta, she’d have to live with that, but she’d be safe. Because she didn’t, she puts herself, family, and ultimately all of the districts at risk. She now has to deal with the consequences of that.
Crises can be a great way to create internal conflict and also plant seeds of doubt and regret, as the character may be haunted by her choices and the accountability they bring.
Using crises will strengthen any story, particularly by revealing character.
So, you’ve got an intriguing story idea and you’re picturing some of the scenes in your mind, eager to get them down on paper and begin wowing readers. But unless you ground your readers with deep POV right from the start, you’ll have a hard time getting them to care what happens.
There are specific techniques that master writers use to draw readers in and keep them engaged. In this article, I’ll be teaching you about the first and fundamental—absolutely indispensable—technique that pulls readers in and makes them forget they’re reading.
So get out your notebook and prepare to level up your writer’s toolbox. This will be a game changer!
The Ten-Second Audition
Readers have millions of books to choose from. They don’t waste much time on a book that doesn’t immediately engage their curiosity and get them anticipating future events. We have mere seconds to grab them before they move on.
As if that’s not enough of a challenge to a writer, we have to compete with social media, streaming services, video games, and all sorts of other avenues of entertainment. Ours is a tough job, one that requires discipline, dedication, and a willingness to keep learning and honing our skills.
But if you have a passion to tell a good story and serve your readers, this is a good place for you to be!
Notice how I said, “serve your readers.” I believe that’s what it’s all about. The reader.
It’s important to realize there’s an actual person on the receiving end of your words, that they have real wants and needs. Great writing—the kind that sells—is about creating the sort of quality reading experience that living, breathing person craves.
Often, first time writers think it’s all about the story. I was no different. I jumped into creating stories without realizing that the story is just the path to reaching the reader. Writing is about connecting with someone and making a difference, however small or fleeting, in that person’s life.
Readers want to escape into a story, to sink beneath the page so they’re no longer just reading—they are immersed in the story. This kind of reading imparts a sense of immediacy and becomes an experience, a satisfying and sustaining way to spend the precious commodity of time.
It’s our job, as fiction writers, to give our readers what they need so they can have what they want, and the essential place to do this is in the opening pages of the book.
Before we dive into that, there’s a crucial concept I need to drill home, because everything really hinges on understanding this one key aspect.
Your Characters Are Alive
In the context of your story, your characters have a real life, and the reader experiences the story through them. They are the interface. They are what allows your reader to “plug in” to the story and feel the power it generates.
Every word of the story must come through a character’s point of view, whether first person or third person, if you want to pull the reader beyond the page and ground them in the setting of your world. If you allow author intrusion, you risk losing your reader.
In other words, if you—as author—look around and start describing the setting through your own viewpoint, you’ll never pull the reader into the character and story. You must go through your POV character.
This means you have one filter. Your story might have multiple viewpoint characters, may even combine first person POV with third person point of view, like James Patterson does in his Alex Cross novels.
But it’s important to stick to one point of view per scene, with clear scene breaks between. Bobbing around from one character’s thoughts to another’s doesn’t allow the reader to attach and grow inside the viewpoint character’s head.
Worse, it can be confusing and send a reader speeding away from your book.
While it’s possible to tell a story in this superficial manner, you won’t achieve the depth, the absorption, the commitment from your reader that we’re addressing in this article.
One POV character per scene. One filter. And everything in the story comes to the reader, undiluted, through that single viewpoint and filter, in your character’s voice.
When writing, consider the different types of filter words, the details, you’ll need to pull your reader deep and ground them in the story’s setting so they’ll want to stay.
There are six types of details that will help you achieve Deep POV.
Your characters are alive. Readers experience a story through your characters, which is why applying Deep POV is so important. This is done with six details
The goal here is to pull your reader deeply and immediately into the story through a connection with your viewpoint character, making it hard to put your book down.
This POV can be a single character for the length of the book, or dual POVs that each share their own viewpoint.
Regardless, these are the specific types of details you’ll use in the opening lines of your story and the beginning of each chapter to achieve this deep POV.
1. Character-focused details
Remember, your viewpoint character is alive, a functioning individual with a background of experience. And every word of the story is filtered through that character’s experience.
Have you heard of the Rashomon Effect, named after Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film? It describes how people can witness the same event and give substantially different accounts about what happened. That’s because many of the things people notice are unique to them.
Is your character a professional chauffeur? What kinds of details would a chauffeur notice that others might not? Would he pay particular attention to the makes and models of cars? The state of a vehicle’s tires? Would he notice a suspect’s peculiar tan line from wearing driving gloves in a convertible?
Is your character a baker? What kinds of details would a baker notice that others might not? Would she pay particular attention to the quality of bread served in a restaurant? The state of another character’s kitchen? Would she notice that yeast infection rash on a suspect’s hands that comes from kneading too much dough?
When you get inside a character’s POV and deliver the scene to the reader through that filter, the character—and the story—come alive.
This sucks the reader deep into the story world, and tightly holds them to a new character or group of characters they like.
One Great Strategy for Writing Character-Focused Details
In Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing, James Scott Bell writes, “You, the author, must identify with the character so closely that you feel what the character feels, think what the character thinks. This is what great actors do.”
When I’m working on character development, I get into that character. I adopt the physiology of the character, meaning I get up and jump around, energize myself, if I’m writing that type of character. Or I slump in my chair, exhausted, if that’s appropriate to my character’s state. I take on their body language.
I might augment this by running through an internal dialogue in my character’s voice until I sound like he or she sounds. Or pretend I’m choosing off a menu or dressing for a party as they would. And so on.
This technique comes from theater director Michael Chekhov, and the theory behind it is that our physiology informs our psychology. It helps get me into the same state of mind as my character so I can provide the kind of details peculiar to that individual.
And, of course, I try to think as a chauffeur or a baker would think.
It’s always a smart idea to learn from the masters. I’m defining a master writer as an author who’s consistently produced bestsellers over the last thirty or forty years.
So, let’s look at an example from the masters.
The opening paragraph of Michael Connelly’s book The Scarecrow is delivered through the point of view character, Wesley Carver, chief technology officer for a data security firm. Notice the types of details he uses to ground the reader in the setting and inside his own viewpoint:
Carver paced in the control room, watching over the front forty. The towers were spread out before him in perfect neat rows. They hummed quietly and efficiently and even with all he knew, Carver had to marvel at what technology had wrought. So much in so little space. Not a stream but a swift and torrid river of data flowing by him every day. Growing in front of him in tall steel stalks. All he needed to do was to reach in, to look and to choose. It was like panning for gold.
Carver is a computer guy, steeped in data. The details he notices and thinks about relate to the abundance of data and what it can do for him. Like rivers and fields he can harvest and mine for gold. Do you see how these details tell us more about his character and ground us inside his head?
In the opening of your own book, make sure you get firmly inside the head of your viewpoint character and deliver the story to your reader from there. Think about what your character would notice and include fresh, character-focused details that will pull the reader in there beside you.
2. Sensory details
Remember, every piece of information that comes to your reader must pass through your viewpoint character and how do we receive information but through our senses?
Again, this is where “getting into character” is useful. Feel what your character is feeling; see what they see. Hear, taste, and smell what they’re experiencing. Whether it’s the sticky heat of an Amazon jungle or the shriek of brakes on asphalt, pass it on to your reader.
It’s a good idea to use at least four of the five senses in every depth opening during the first third of your book. But another sensory technique you can use to convey a feeling of being overwhelmed is to focus lavishly on one sense.
For example, if your character is assaulted by noise:
The cacophony rose higher, coming in shrieks and great whorls of sound that swelled in a distorted symphony, wracking Joanie’s eardrums. When she thought she could bear no more, a loud maniacal laughter joined the riotous stew, and then a new sound, strange and frightening above all else. It was her own scream.
Or, your character may be plunged into absolute darkness:
Inky black pressed against Paul’s eyelids like coins on a dead man’s face, drenching him in its clutching grasp. The darkness was thick as tar, sticky, smothering him, working gloom-clawed fingers into his mouth, his ears, his nostrils, until he was drowning in it.
Using details that involve the five senses is key to pulling your readers beneath the surface of your book and keeping them immersed—in a good way.
Let’s go to some examples from the masters. Here’s the opening of James Lee Burke’s story Big Midnight Special:
You know how summertime is down South. It comes to you in the smell of watermelons and distant rain and the smell of cotton poison and schools of catfish that have gotten dammed up in a pond that’s about to be drained. It comes to you in a lick of wet light on razor wire at sunup. You try to hold on to the coolness of the night, but by noon you’ll be standing inside your own shadow, hoeing out long rows of soybeans, a gunbull on horseback gazing at you from behind his shades in the turnaround, his silhouette a black cutout against the sun.
Do you see how Burke made his readers smell the watermelon, rain, and fish? See the light and shadow? Feel the searing heat? Did you catch how these details pull us right into the viewpoint character and the setting? Reading this, you know he’s a prisoner on work duty in the fields without being spoonfed the information in a boring backstory info dump. Genius.
Don’t neglect to use thick, rich sensory detail to open your story and pull your reader deep.
Using details that involve the five senses is key to pulling your readers beneath the surface of your book and keeping them immersed—in a good way.
This is where we talk about something my mentor calls a fake detail. You need to understand that the words you write are symbols that represent ideas for the reader. You produce these symbols and the reader interprets them.
If you want the reader to stay immersed in your story, you need to be in control of what you communicate.
That means using specific details that communicate clear pictures and ideas to the reader. We can never transport the story in our heads in undistorted and perfect form into a reader’s head, but we need to come as close to that ideal as we can or risk bumping the reader to the surface.
Here’s what I mean.
Let’s say in your story you mention a dog.
Dog is a very general term, and if the dog is unimportant to the story and won’t be mentioned again, you can probably get away with letting your readers conjure up any kind of dog they like.
But if the dog is to play a role, or in any way re-enter the story, you’ve just put yourself in a dangerous position by using such an unspecific term.
Here’s why: the reader takes the coded symbols you’ve given him and formulates a picture in his mind of what’s going on in the story. You wrote that a dog was running along the street, so he imagines his favorite kind of dog, a Great Dane, loping in great strides.
Your reader is grounded in the setting and things are flowing along smoothly until your story tells how the beagle stopped running and started barking, a whiny, high-pitched yipping sound. And—Bam!—you’ve popped your reader to the surface.
Your coded words don’t match the picture in his head, reminding him it’s just a story, only words on paper, and he might as well put the book down and go to sleep.
Wherever feasible, use specific details. And keep these two rules in mind:
Specify up front. If you had initially identified the dog as a beagle, your reader would have formulated that picture from the start and wouldn’t have been yanked from the story when the dog started in with its beagle bark. Later, you can just say “dog” because the image of a beagle has already been imprinted.
If you’re going to describe something, don’t name it until after you’ve described it. If you name it first, the reader gets an image in her head and when your description doesn’t meet up with her idea, it jangles and can encourage her to surface out of your story.
You never want to do anything that sends a reader to the surface and away from your story.
4. Opinionated details
Your character was not born on page one. Remember, they have a history of life experience which has given them, among other things, opinions. Their opinion should color everything they pass on to the reader, like a hot key combo into their personality.
Those opinions animate your character, making them real, and this helps pull the reader down beneath the surface of your story. Their opinions also make them distinct from other characters in the book, allowing them to stand out and be a three-dimensional individual.
Characters are revealed by their behavior and their interactions with others. By making sure your character’s attitudes and opinions come through to the reader, you’ll ensure a deeper, more satisfying reading experience.
Elizabeth George demonstrates this well in the opening of her book With No One As Witness. She delivers a paragraph packed with opinionated details perfectly suited to her character, giving us a vivid picture:
Kimmo Thorne liked Dietrich best of all: the hair, the legs, the cigarette holder, the top hat and tails. She was what he called the Whole Blooming Package, and as far as he was concerned, she was second to none. Oh, he could do Garland if pressed. Minnelli was simple, and he was definitely getting better with Streisand. But given his choice—and he was generally given it, wasn’t he?—he went with Dietrich. Sultry Marlene. His number one girl. She could sing the crumbs out of a toaster, could Marlene, make no bloody mistake about it.
These details, dripping with opinion, pull us immediately into Kimmo Thorne’s head. We know what he likes and how he feels about it. He loves impersonating female vocal stars and Marlene Dietrich is his favorite. Once we’re inside his head, we’re grounded in the setting and ready to experience the rest of the scene through his perceptions.
When you express your viewpoint character’s opinions, you bring your characters alive and readers deeper into your story world, ready to follow on as the story progresses.
5. Emotional details
Using details that convey your character’s emotion is another key way to pull the reader below the surface and get her actively involved in your story, feeling some of what your character is feeling.
Because your reader is a real and individual entity with life experiences of their own, the emotions of your character will stir your reader’s own emotional embers to evoke authentic, personalized feelings.
What a powerful way to draw the reader deep into your story world and get them invested in what happens to your character.
Focus on describing what it feels like to the character to be angry or hurt or deliriously happy, rather than naming the emotion outright. Show, don’t tell.
What physical reactions are taking place? How do they cope with them? What kind of memories or insecurities do they evoke? Emotions, like opinions, will color the details you choose to include.
For example, here’s the opening of Dean Koontz’s book Sole Survivor:
At two-thirty Saturday morning, in Los Angeles, Joe Carpenter woke, clutching a pillow to this chest, calling his lost wife’s name in the darkness. The anguished and haunted quality of his own voice had shaken him from sleep. Dreams fell from him not all at once but in trembling veils, as attic dust falls off rafters when a house rolls with an earthquake.
When he realized that he did not have Michelle in his arms, he held fast to the pillow anyway. He had come out of the dream with the scent of her hair. Now he was afraid that any movement he made would cause that memory to fade and leave him with only the sour smell of his night sweat.
Notice how Koontz describes the effects of the man’s emotions, rather than labeling them as grief and longing. Did you also happen to notice how Koontz included the character-focused details of a native Californian? And sensory details including sight, sound, touch, and smell?
All in the first two paragraphs of the book.
Including emotional detail creates intimacy and draws a reader inside a character, inspiring empathy. It can also spark an answering emotion within your reader, reaching someplace deep inside and generating a genuine emotional response.
Let’s examine one more type of detail that helps create the depth you need to capture your readers and sink them deep into your story.
6. Consistent detail
Remember, your words are like code to the reader that they decipher to form a picture in their mind, allowing them to join in the story almost as if experiencing it themselves. When this happens, they won’t put the book down unless absolutely necessary, and they’ll come back to it as soon as possible.
Unless you pop them out of the story by some inconsistency.
We discussed head hopping and fake details already, but your reader can also be jarred out of the story if you throw in a detail that clashes with the rest of the image you’re establishing.
Like a well-decorated house, your details can be eclectic and fresh, but they should work together to form a consistent flow and fabric for your story.
Stephen King illustrates this well in the beginning of his novel The Stand:
Hapscomb’s Texaco sat on US 93 just north of Arnette, a pissant four-street burg about 110 miles from Houston. Tonight the regulars were there, sitting by the cash register, drinking beer, talking idly, watching the bugs fly into the big lighted sign.
It was Bill Hapscomb’s station, so the others deferred to him even though he was a pure fool. They would have expected the same deferral if they had been gathered together in one of their business establishments. Except they had none. In Arnette, it was hard times. In 1970 the town had had two industries, a factory that made paper products (for picnics and barbecues, mostly), and a plant that made electronic calculators. Now the paper factory was shut down and the calculator plant was ailing—they could make them a lot cheaper in Taiwan, it turned out, just like those little portable TVs and transistor radios.
Norman Bruett and Tommy Wannamaker, who had both worked in the paper factory, were on relief, having run out of unemployment some time ago. Henry Carmichael and Stu Redman both worked at the calculator plant but rarely got more than thirty hours a week. Victor Palfrey was retired and smoked stinking home-rolled cigarettes, which were all he could afford.
Do you see how the underlined details work together to create a sharp and consistent image of the perishing town? I especially like the bugs flying into the big lighted sign as a metaphor for the death that awaits them all. It suggests everyone present in the scene is just waiting for the zap that will dispatch them to the big light in the sky.
When you use consistent details throughout a scene, each one adds a layer to the fabric of your story, strengthening it while adding something fresh, drawing your reader ever deeper into your story world.
While all six types of details will help you ground your reader into your story with Deep POV, there are also a few more writing tips about detail you should know if you’re to hone your writing style and polish a great story.
Can You Give Too Much Detail?
When I first started writing, I subscribed to the idea that the story should be cut down to the bone, spare and lean, uncluttered by too much detail. I had great plots (or so I imagined), but I didn’t always put much flesh on those bones.
As I learned and grew as a writer, I discovered how vital it is to add color and substance through detail, that a story is more than a series of brilliant plot points.
I remember taking one of the Great Courses, Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft. The professor advocated for lush, long sentences, using what felt to me like a shocking amount of detail, but I began to see how detail can clarify and enliven rather than clutter and obscure.
If you use the right kinds of details in the right way. As I’ve described in this article—through the point of view character. And there’s nowhere in your story more important to establish this richness and depth than in the scene and chapter openings of the first third of your book. This is what it takes to root a reader in your story.
As the book progresses into the later stages and the pace increases, you won’t need as much detail to hold your reader down in the story. Provided you’ve done the work to pull them down in the first place.
If you haven’t, you won’t need to worry about the level of detail in the later stages because your reader isn’t likely to make it that far.
Can You Open With Action?
You might think the most exciting stories start with a big bang of action, but if you go back and analyze the work of master writers—those who’ve consistently turned out bestsellers for a decade or more—you’ll see that the author quickly grounded the reader with sensory detail, opinion, and emotion either before the action began or as the action unfolded.
Here’s an example from the first sentences of Jeffery Deaver’s book The Twelfth Card:
His face wet with sweat and with tears, the man runs for freedom, he runs for his life.
“There! There he goes!”
The former slave does not know exactly where the voice comes from. Behind him? To the right or left? From atop one of the decrepit tenements lining the filthy cobblestoned streets here?
Amid July air hot and thick as liquid paraffin, the lean man leaps over a pile of horse dung. The street sweepers don’t come here, to this part of the city. Charles Singleton pauses beside a pallet stacked high with barrels, trying to catch his breath.
See how Deaver wove sensory, emotional, and character-focused detail into these few sentences to start pulling the reader into the setting? In subsequent paragraphs, he thickened the use of detail to finish the job.
If you’re worried your opening will drag without immediate action, make sure you’re using vivid language and active voice rather than passive voice. And deliver every word through your viewpoint character, pulling your readers into the setting and showing it to them through the fresh eyes of your character.
Open your story with 300 to 400 words of depth, expressed through the viewpoint character in the types of details we’ve discussed, before moving forward into plot points and action. If the reader has no interface with the story, no way to “plug in” via details delivered through the viewpoint character, they won’t care what happens and you’ll lose them.
Make the connection with the reader first, then introduce action and plot.
A Better Foundation Pulls Your Reader Into the Story
Whether you’re starting your first novel or your fifty-ninth, building a firm foundation so your reader can experience and enjoy your story is imperative. If you missed it in your first draft, make this your number one job in revision.
In this series so far, we’ve discussed the elements of suspense and how suspense is a driving force in any type of story. We’ve discussed what suspense is and how it works in tandem with curiosity and surprise to keep a reader moving forward through a story.
In this article, we’ve discussed the types of details you need to pull your reader beneath the surface of your story so they won’t put your book down.
But there’s another piece of the foundation you must build in order for your reader to invest in the story and keep turning pages to the end.
Rhythm is one of the most underrated aspects of writing, but readers sense the rhythm in our words, whether they realize it or not. Rhythm attracts readers to certain authors.
Life itself has a rhythm.
Whether it’s our heartbeat or the motion of the sun, moon, and planets, we’re embedded within a rhythmic world. Hence why rhythm has such enormous power. It’s built into who we are.
Have you ever lounged on a blanket outside at night, stargazing? Nature is never silent. Even a quiet evening has a melodic undercurrent — a pulse, if you will.
The same holds true in writing.
Rhythm Defines a Mood
Rhythm forces the reader to either rush through the pages, flipping one after another, or nestle in the comfy chair to quietly enjoy the story. Words dance. The writer who pays attention to story rhythm creates sentences that waltz, jerk, tango, stutter, tap dance, float, and sing.
Notice the atmosphere Hemingway creates in Farewell to Arms.
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
Rhythm Defines Pace
In music, tone length and dramatic pauses define rhythm. When long notes blend without pauses, the music flows like a swan across still water. On the flipside, short notes with clear pauses draw your attention. The music amps you up.
The same principles apply to writing. Rhythmic writing is defined by punctuation and the stress patterns of words. As a general rule, long sentences are more relaxing, while staccato sentences startle the reader. They draw attention. They force the reader to pay attention.
Tension builds and releases. When a movie reaches its climax, the rhythm increases in pace only to subside as the story resolves. Within the larger rhythmic structure of a story, micro-structures also generate rhythm. Scenes change and plots twist. An interruption in the rhythmic flow transports the reader in a new direction. It knocks them off balance — a gentle slap to ensure they’ll keep flipping pages.
If each sentence follows the same structure and rhythm, the writing becomes boring and predictable. Writers who play with rhythm can create tension in many ways, depending on punctuation and word choice.
In the following example, notice how the intentional repetition of hard -ed verbs create tension in The Killing Song by PJ Parrish
He watched her for the next hour. Watched her playing with the plastic snow globe she had picked up in the souvenir shop. Watched her finish her peach tart, tuck her Fodor’s in her purse and wind the red scarf around her slender white neck.
In the next sentence, the authors slow the pace by varying the sentence structure, adding gerunds, and visceral detail, yet maintain the creepy atmosphere.
In the crowded elevator traveling down from the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, he stood behind her, closing his eyes as he breathed in the grassy scent of her hair.
In White Fang by Jack London, note where he forces the reader to pause.
A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness.
London also uses repetition but not with a hard -ed verb.
There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness — a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.
Does Point-of-View Matter?
Not at all. Using rhythm as a literary device isn’t limited to 1st or 3rd POV, or even past or present tense. Check out the melodic rhythm in Try Darkness by James Scott Bell. The novel is written in 1st POV, but the following excerpt is in 2nd POV to show the protagonist talking to himself.
And then you wonder what makes you go on, what makes you care, because it’s in there somewhere, the caring, even if you don’t know why, even if you don’t know any reason for it. It’s just there and that’s why you don’t sleep.
You look out at the dark, you walk around in it, you think maybe there’ll be a big insight, a sudden realization. And then everything will add up. That’s the hope part, the part the absurdists call a fool’s game.
Are you just a fool like everybody else?
You think of the girl and you think of her being scared and you can’t stand it, and caring becomes torture.
If God was in the room right now you’d scream at him.
That’s what you think about when you can’t sleep.
Next time you read a novel, pay attention to its story rhythm. Where does the author let you pause? How does the author vary long and short sentences? How does the writing ebb and flow? Do you notice a similar rhythm in the writing of your favorite authors?