Tag Archives: character building

Subterfuge in Dialogue

Dialogue—good dialogue—is tricky. Mechanics can be learned; the rules are readily available and are hammered into us by teachers, editors, critique partners, and countless Facebook memes. The hard part of writing good dialogue is nailing the back-and-forth, the natural ebb and flow that turns dialogue into convincing conversation.

This is the part that will make or break you with readers. They’re intimately familiar with conversation; it’s how they communicate, how they connect with others. So when a bit of dialogue falls flat or doesn’t ring true, it’s like an off-pitch violin sawing away in an otherwise harmonious orchestra.

So how do we make our characters’ discussions authentic? One way is to showcase what they’re hiding

In the real world, we’re rarely 100% honest in our communications with others.  It may not be conscious, but we’re always withholding something—hiding how we feel about a subject, suppressing information, agreeing with someone when in actuality we don’t agree with them at all…Much of the time, we’re only telling part of the truth. 

This will be true of your character, too, and for their dialogue to resonate with readers, you need to be able to show what’s being repressed. To discover this, you first need to know what the character is hoping to get out of the discussion. 

When a person engages in conversation, they do so with a certain objective in mind (even if it’s subconscious). When you identify that goal for your character, you’ll know what they’ll be likely to hold back. So ask yourself: Which of the following outcomes is my character trying to achieve with this conversation?

  • Connecting with others
  • Getting information
  • Giving information
  • Persuading someone to their way of thinking
  • Being affirmed or agreed with
  • Gaining an advantage
  • Being proven right
  • Getting attention
  • Gaining an ally or advantageous contact

Once you know what your character wants, it’s a matter of figuring out what they might be holding back during that exchange. Consider the usual suspects:


Feelings are largely what make us human. We connect emotionally with others, so being able to accurately communicate our feelings is important. But emotions also make us vulnerable, so in many scenarios, your character may think it’s in her best interest to mask what she’s feeling. If she’s attracted to someone, she may downplay that until she can see how the other person feels. Sadness is often perceived as weakness, so she might not be willing to put that on display. The same is true with fear. Personality also plays a part in how your character conveys emotion, so there’s a lot to consider when figuring out which feelings your character is likely to hide. 

COOL TOOL TIP: One tool to simplify this process is the One Stop for Writers’ Character Builder. This tool helps you explore all the important aspects of your character so you can be sure all their pieces fit together.

When it comes to hidden emotion, the Emotional Range section in the Behavior tab allows you to play with some vital pieces of information: Is your character reserved or demonstrative to begin with? What emotions are they uncomfortable expressing? What is the character in denial about (and is therefore unwilling or unable to access their true emotions)? What situation might cause them to overreact (possibly because it hits too close to home and touches on emotions they’d rather not share)? 

Questions like these provide insight into your character’s emotional range. They can help you determine which feelings your character is comfortable with and which ones she’s likely to whitewash. 


We all have opinions about stuff, and we like to share them. But we’re also social creatures, wanting to be accepted by others. Sometimes, those two desires are at cross purposes, meaning we can’t both share our opinions and connect with people. This is why your character might not be entirely forthcoming about his true beliefs at a job interview, on a first date, when he’s meeting his future in-laws, at church, or in any other situation where doing so could undermine his goal in that moment. 

COOL TOOL TIP: The Character Builder’s Family and General Life section (part of the Daily Life tab) contains tons of questions that could flush out their opinions—ones the character feels really strongly about and those they’d rather other people didn’t know:

  • How does the character feel about their job/school?
  • Who does the character despise?
  • What are they passionate about?
  • Are they religious?
  • What topics of conversation will get them riled up?
  • How does the character spend their free time?

Personality Traits

Strengths and weaknesses commingle to form our individual personalities: we’re patient but selfish, generous but impulsive, irresponsible but encouraging. Our strengths are easy to show off because they make us look good. 

But weaknesses? While everyone has them, we don’t want people to know what they are. So we hide the traits we deem as being less valuable, the ones that could hurt our standing with others. Maybe it’s a flaw that isn’t appreciated in society, like cruelty or intolerance. Perhaps it’s something an important person in our life doesn’t value, like a father who can’t stand indecisiveness or a grandparent who thought generous people were suckers. It may not be a conscious decision, but we all highlight our admirable traits and hide the ones that make us look bad. The same should be true of our characters.

COOL TOOL TIP: Figuring out your character’s flaws and attributes (and which ones they may want to downplay) is super easy with the Character Builder. Brainstorm the reasons behind their traits by examining past influences that may have caused them to form.

Then explore various traits to see how they’ll manifest and what emotions might be tied to them.


Rarely do we reveal everything we know. Communication very often is about the give and take of information, so unlike some of the other things we might hide, this one is usually more purposeful. Our characters should play their cards close to the vest, not sharing information that could hurt them, make them feel uncomfortable, or impede their goals. They may choose to hold an important tidbit back until they have a better feel for how the conversation is going or where the other person stands. Information is always currency; in dialogue, it should be doled out carefully and thoughtfully.

Knowing what your character wants out of a conversation and what he’s going to hide while engaging in it will help you write dialogue that rings true, because readers will see themselves in those ambiguous moments. Granted, there’s a knack to writing the inconsistency between your character’s words and what they really think or feel. That’s a post in and of itself. For now, this tip sheet has some great advice on how to write subterfuge in dialogue. (You can see all our tip sheets about various aspects of storytelling on the OSFW Tip Sheets page.)

What else might your characters hold back in their conversations?


Source: writershelpingwriters.net

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4 Ways Your Protagonist Is Sabotaging You (And How to Fight Back)

By Marissa Graff

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!

Source: writershelpingwriters.net

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Fear Thesaurus Entry: Change

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

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.
Loyalty (to people, a job, a community, etc.)
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

Flaws That May Emerge
Confrontational, Controlling, Cynical, Defensive, Evasive, Hostile, Ignorant, Inflexible, Irrational, Judgmental, Nervous, Obsessive, Oversensitive, Paranoid, Possessive, Resentful, Stubborn, Uncooperative

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


Source: writershelpingwriters.net

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One Quick Reason Readers Cheer For Unlikable Characters

By Lisa Hall Wilson

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.

I came across this post from Writers Helping Writers on 10 Ways To Make Your Character Likable. You could do some of your own research into any of the methods mentioned there to strengthen your writing.

Locate The Main Story Thread

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.

Some Examples…

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!

Source: writershelpingwriters.net

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Want Readers to Connect to Your Character? Include this Element.

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.

Two of the best places to look for common ground experiences that will really resonate are Emotional Wounds and Meaningful Goals.

Emotional Wounds

Trauma is an unfortunate side effect of life. We all carry the burden of painful 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.

Watch how the Character Builder helps you uncover your character’s backstory wounds.

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.

Meaningful Goals

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.

Your character’s goal can be anything: To find a lifelong partner. Succeeding where they once failed. Forgiving themselves. Pursuing justice, Protecting a loved one. The only qualifier is to make this goal meaningful so they have strong motivation to achieve it. When obstacles appear, or adversity and conflict batters them, hope that they can get what they need most keeps them on course.

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.


Source: writershelpingwriters.net

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Using Vocal Cues to Show Hidden Emotion

By Becca Puglisi

Any Tolkien fans in the house? I remember, as a teen, readingThe Hobbitby the fire on a rare cold evening in Florida. It became a favorite that I would re-read until my copy literally fell to pieces.

One of my favorite scenes comes right at the beginning: the Unexpected Party. There are a lot of reasons it works so well—one of which is everything Bilbo is not saying. When the dwarves arrive (and keep arriving), he wants to know what they’re doing there, but instead of asking, he puts on his Happy Homemaker face and gets to work being hospitable. As it gets late, he doesn’t show them the door. He refrains from telling Thorin to get off his high horse and show some gratitude for Bilbo funding his little reunion, though you know that’s what he’s thinking.

The interactions between Bilbo and the dwarves ring true precisely because of all the subtext—the contrast between what the character says and what he’s really feeling or thinking. This subtext is a normal part of most real-life conversations; for this reason alone, it should be included in our characters’ conversations. But it’s also useful because whenever a character is hiding something, there’s inherent emotion involved. Emotion is good for our stories because well-written, clearly conveyed character feelings will often engage the reader’s emotions, pulling them deeper into what’s happening. So subtext is good on a number of levels.

But writing hidden emotion is challenging. Authors have to show the character portraying one emotion to the cast (pleasure, in Bilbo’s case) while showing his true feelings to the reader (confusion, frustration, and indignance). It’s a tall order, but this is where vocal cues can come in handy.

Vocal cues are shifts in the voice that happen when someone is feeling emotional.While we may be able to hide our feelings by masking our facial expressions and minimizing certain body language giveaways, the voice is harder to control. In a written scene, these vocal fluctuations act like signposts, leading the reader to the conclusions you want them to draw about the character’s true emotional state.

So when you need to show that a character is hiding their feelings from others, consider the following vocal cues.


Does the voice get high and shrill or go low and rumbly?


Does the character move from a moderated level to almost yelling? Does the voice drop to a near whisper? Is it clear that they’re struggling to maintain a reasonable volume?


Does a clear tone turn breathy or husky when someone is aroused? When the character is close to tears, does the voice become brittle or cracked? Does it lose all expression and become flat when anger hits?

Speech Patterns

Does your verbose character suddenly clam up? Does her timid, verbally stumbling counterpart start running at the mouth? Might poor grammar appear in a well-educated character’s dialogue? Does a stammer or lisp announce itself?

Word Choice

What words might slip into a character’s vernacular when they’re feeling emotional that they wouldn’t normally use? Profanity and slurs? Words and phrases from their first language? Pat clichés?

Nonspeech Interruptions

What sounds begin to pepper your character’s dialogue? Um, Hmm, Uhhh, throat clearing, and coughing can be signs that the character is uncomfortable and needs time to pull him or herself together.

For your character, consider which of these cues might be a possibility, then write it into the story when their emotion changes. Used consistently, they’ll signal the reader that the character is hiding something or that a certain emotion is in play.

Source: writershelpingwriters.net

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Setting Description Mistakes that Weaken a Story

When you think about the key elements of storytelling, characters and plot immediately come to mind, but what about the setting? Do you view it as 1) a vital story component, or 2) just the place where story events happen?

If you picked 1, nice job. If you picked 2, no worries. Go here, scroll down, and buckle in. Reading through these setting articles will transform the way you view the setting.

The setting tied to each scene carries a lot of storytelling weight because it had the power to touch and amplify anything to do with characters, events, and emotion. Used correctly, a location can characterize the story’s cast, steer the plot, evoke emotions and mood, create windows to allow for active backstory sharing, provide conflict and challenges, and act as a mirror for what the protagonist needs most, reinforcing his motivation at every step.

When it comes down to it, the setting is storytelling magic. What other element can do so much to enhance a story?

Here are five mistakes with settings that can drain power from your story.

1) Treating The Setting Like Stage Dressing

Each setting holds great power, deepening the action as it unfolds and characterizing the story’s cast during the scene. If we only use a few words to summarize the location, it can really impact the reader’s ability to connect with the characters and what’s happening. Vivid, concrete details not only help readers feel like they’re right there, planting specific description and symbolism within the setting also adds layers to the story itself.

2) Focusing On Only One Sense

Another common struggle for writers is choosing to describe through a single sense, specifically sight. While we rely heavily on this sense in real life, our world is multisensory, and our job as writers is to make our fictional landscape as rich and realistic as the real thing.

We want to make each scene come alive for readers so they feel like they are right there next to the protagonist, experiencing the moment as he or she does. This means including sounds which add realism, smells which trigger the reader’s emotional memories and help create “shared experiences,” tastes that allow for unique exploration, and textures that will shed light on what’s important to the character through their emotional state.

Textures are especially critical to include, as a point of view character must directly interact with the setting to bring it about, and every action in the story should have purpose. What they touch should have a “why” attached to it, revealing the POV character’s mindset, and showing, rather than telling, readers what’s really important in the scene.

3) Over-Describing Or Describing The Wrong Things

Sometimes in our enthusiasm to draw readers into the scene, we go a little crazy when it comes to describing. Trying to convey every feature, every angle, every facet of the setting will not only smash the pace flat, it will likely cause the reader to skim. And, if they skim, they are missing all that great description you’ve worked so hard to include. So, to avoid over-describing or focusing on the wrong details, try to make each bit of description earn the right to be included.

It isn’t just about showing the scene—the weather, the lighting, the colors and shapes—it’s also about offering detail that does double duty somehow. Ask yourself, is the detail I want to include doing something more than showing the reader where the characters are? Is it also characterizing, evoking mood, reminding the POV character of his goal and why he wants it so bad? Is this detail creating a challenge in some way, standing between the character and his goal? Is it helping to convey his emotional state, or does it symbolize something important within the context of the story?

Setting description should always be adding to the scene, revealing more about the characters as it helps to push the story forward.

4) Not taking Advantage of POV & Emotion Filters

Another area that can water down the effect of setting description is a very distanced narrative where every detail is explained, rather than shown through the emotional filter of the POV character. A character who is anxious is going to view the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of any given setting differently than a character who is excited, or disappointed, or even filled with gratitude.

Being able to filter the character’s world through their senses and emotions helps to pull the reader close to the character, and creates a deeper understanding of who they are, laying the groundwork for empathy.

5) Choosing A Setting That Is Convenient Rather Than Meaningful

Because the setting can steer the story, evoke emotion, remind the hero or heroine of missing needs and create a window into past pain, we need to get specific when we choose a location. Three questions to ask ourselves as we hunt for the perfect place is 1) what is the outcome of this scene, 2) how can I use the setting to generate conflict and tension (good or bad) to really amp up what is about to take place, and 3), how can I create an emotional value in this setting?

Emotional values—settings which mean something to one or more characters– are especially important. For example, imagine a character who is about to be interviewed for an important job. He’s confident because he’s got the skills they need, and the experience this company covets. His potential employer decides on an informal lunch interview, and our character is eager to impress. A restaurant setting makes sense…but why would we choose just any old restaurant for this scene to take place? Instead, let’s pick the very same restaurant where our character proposed to his girlfriend two years earlier and was rejected. By having this interview take place in this particular restaurant, we have created an emotional value—it represents something to the character: rejection.

Choosing this restaurant will put our character off balance, and the echoes of his past failure will be with him during the interview. This will almost certainly affect his behavior, creating tension and conflict. Will he get the job? Will he blow the interview? The outcome is now uncertain. Take the time to choose the best location for each scene, because the storytelling currency will be well worth the effort!

The setting is a powerful component to storytelling, but only if we fully activate it. So when you choose a setting, consider carefully how the right location can amp up the tension and point the reader’s attention to the very things you want them to notice, be it a symbol in your setting, your character’s behavior because the setting is activating their emotions somehow, or a danger or obstacle tied to the setting that’s about to challenge your character and disrupt their progress to their goal.


Source: writershelpingwriters.net

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9 Tension-Building Elements For Character Dialogue

By Becca Puglisi

I’ve been thinking a lot about dialogue lately, because when it’s done poorly, it pulls me right out of the story. There are a lot of issues that contribute to weak dialogue: incorrect mechanics, stilted speech, characters calling each other repeatedly by name (Hi, Bob. Hey, Mary. Could you help me with this, Bob? Sure thing, Mary!)…The list goes on. But instead of talking today about the wrong parts of our characters’ conversations, I want to focus on an important element that’s often missing: tension.

Tension is that gut-curdling, oh-crap feeling you get when you realize trouble’s coming. It’s the rising emotion that emerges at the onset or even the barest hint of conflict. Tension is incredibly important because it stirs the reader’s emotion and builds their interest. It should exist in every scene, and an easy way to add it is through our characters’ verbal interactions.

Think about recent conversations—verbal or written—that have generated tension for you. They probably come to mind pretty quickly. This is because every person is different, and when these differences manifest in our communication, it can result in misunderstandings that lead to heightened emotion. The same should be true for our characters. So if you’re looking for ways to up the tension in a scene, plan any verbal exchanges thoughtfully by incorporating one or more of the following elements.

Personality Clashes

At her core, who is your character, and how does she communicate? Maybe she’s very efficient—a fixer who quickly and accurately analyzes and applies information. Now suppose she’s talking to someone with a disorganized mind and rambling conversational style. This can cause frustration for your character, who just wants her friend to get to the point already. She responds by cutting him off, or nods her head impatiently while he’s talking. This triggers the friend’s defenses, putting him on edge. When you build your cast with personality and the potential for conflict in mind, those tension landmines are easy to set.

Opposing Goals

Characters often have conflicting story and scene goals, but what about opposing goals in conversations? We do this all the time in real life—talking to people with a subconscious objective in mind. Your protagonist might be communicating with someone because they want to be heard and appreciated. But what if the other party just wants to prove they’re right? Each character will try and guide the conversation toward what they want, and someone—maybe both parties—will be thwarted. When even our small goals are threatened, our emotions kick in, so this can be a good way to add tension to a scene.

Emotions in Play

We’ve all experienced this situation: you start a conversation with someone who, out of nowhere, bites your head off. Upon closer examination, you realize that the person was upset about something that had nothing to do with you. This universal scenario can be used in our stories. Pile on the emotional baggage just before an interaction, then sit back and watch the sparks fly.


Our insecurities hobble us all the time. We’re sensitive to certain kinds of comments or tones and read unintended meaning into harmless banter. Think about how this might play out with your character. What are his insecurities—in general, but also regarding this particular person or situation? How might they impact him in an upcoming conversation?


How often have you engaged in conversation with an expectation in mind for what the other person will say or how it’s going to go? Sometimes our biases are confirmed, but just as often, they taint our interactions, dooming them to failure before they even begin. We may have a chip on our shoulder that sets a negative tone for the entire exchange. Expecting certain things, we might read into what the other person is saying, misconstruing their true meaning or intent. When it comes to your character, ask yourself: Is there any bias he might bring into this conversation that could result in misunderstanding?


Maybe you’ve heard the old saying about the word assume: it makes an ass out of u and me. How many arguments and mix-ups have come about because of incorrect assumptions? How can we apply this common occurrence in our stories? Think about what knowledge your protagonist may take for granted—something they think the other person knows or doesn’t know. Or maybe they believe that the person shares their opinion about a certain topic when they really think the opposite. How might assumptions like these cause a conversation to go south?

Small Annoyances

Your protagonist might begin a scene with great intentions, expecting to enjoy a happy chat with one of their favorite people. And everything is fine—until that person starts doing something that grates on your character’s nerves. Frequent interruptions, talking with their mouth full, listening while checking their email, consistently mispronouncing a certain word—it could be literally anything that drives your character bonkers. What might that thing be for your protagonist? What quirks can you give the other party to add an element of tension to the conversation?

Cultural Differences

A character’s culture is going to impact their communication style, determining what is acceptable and what isn’t, what’s respectful and what’s offensive. Gestures, eye contact, word choices, personal space—these things vary from one locale to another. Your character’s ignorance about these factors could result in all kinds of fallout, from busted business deals and problems at work to the death of a budding romance. This is definitely something to keep in mine in a multi-cultural cast.


I’ve saved this one for last because it plays a very subtle part in most conversations, but it’s so understated, we don’t always pick up on it. Subtext is what you really mean, as opposed to what you say. It’s saying He seems nice when what you really mean is He is a tool of the highest order. We’re not always 100% honest with our words, and the same should be true of our characters. When we take the time to figure out what they really think or want to hide, we end up with interactions that are realistic and nuanced. And the potential for tension and conflict are huge.

These are just some of the elements that can contribute to misunderstandings and tension in our characters’ conversations. Regardless of which you choose to explore, there’s one thing they all have in common: unrealized expectations. The protagonist expects Character B to share her beliefs, want what she wants, have a base of knowledge on which to build or communicate the same way. When these expectations are shattered, it sets her back on her heels and triggers frustration, embarrassment, hurt, and a range of other emotions. So figure out what your character expects out of a conversation, then block her, and tension is sure to follow.

Source: writershelpingwriters.net

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Fear Thesaurus Entry: Relational Commitment

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 illness, 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.

A Fear of Relational Commitment

What It Looks Like
A lackadaisical attitude and approach to dating and friendships
Dating many people at once to maintain superficial relationships
Breaking things off if a relationship gets too serious
Sabotaging serious relationships (treating the other person badly so they’ll leave, picking fights, ghosting them, etc.)
Being disloyal—cheating on a romantic partner or abandoning an old friend for a new one
Abandoning a fiancé at the altar
Continually postponing a wedding date or refusing to set a date
Reluctance in making future plans
Being nonchalant about even short-term plans, such as not preparing for date night until a few hours prior
Not dating at all or investing in new friendships
A lack of excitement, passion, or interest in the relationship or the other person
Thoughts of commitment causing physical or emotional distress (shortness of breath, anxiety, hyperventilating, nausea, etc.)
Having many casual friends but few deep and long-lasting ones
Frequently canceling get-togethers with friends
Being a one-sided friend (only reaching out when the character needs something, only getting together when it’s something the character really wants to do, etc.)
Being inflexible
Always having an “escape plan” so the character can leave an event early if they want to
Living on the outskirts of true community
Being more comfortable with strangers and acquaintances than with friends
Keeping a lot of pets to fill the void

Common Internal Struggles
Wanting connection but being unable to move past a certain point to achieve it
Experience fight-flight-or-freeze responses when commitment becomes a possibility
Doing things to push the other person away, then feeling guilt, shame, or self-loathing
The character knowing something’s wrong with them but not knowing what it is
Wanting to change (recognizing the fear and knowing the unresolved wound that’s behind it) but not being willing to do so

Flaws that May Emerge
Abrasive, Addictive, Antisocial, Dishonest, Disloyal, Evasive, Indecisive, Inflexible, Inhibited, Manipulative, Pessimistic, Rebellious, Self-Destructive, Self-Indulgent, Selfish, Stubborn, Temperamental, Uncommunicative, Uncooperative, Volatile, Withdrawn

Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Spending a lot of nights along
Being perceived as selfish and superficial by others
Being a third wheel at social events
Having no one to confide in
Experiencing a crisis and having no one to care for the character
Constantly having to explain the latest breakup to people
Unpleasant conversations with parents or siblings who see the truth and confront the character

Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
A romantic partner proposing marriage, suggesting they move in together, or asking to meet the character’s parents
A romantic partner saying I love you
Someone important to the character dying and reinforcing the knowledge that everyone eventually leaves so it’s best not to get too close
Playing a bonding game with friends, where personal information is shared
Being invited to vacation with friends
Being asked to play a significant role in a friend’s wedding
The character being asked point-blank by a trusted loved one about their commitment issues.


Source: writershelpingwriters.net

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When to Kill a Character

Well, Valentine’s Day is in the rearview, so it’s time to move on to a less lovey-dovey topic: killing people. Fictional people, of course!

Let’s face it, some of our characters have to die. Sure, we may have spent hours (days, weeks, decades?) shaping them, planning their backstory, filling their hearts with hopes and dreams. But in the end, it just isn’t their time to shine.


That deer crosses the icy road at the wrong time.

The cable hoisting a plate glass window to the third story breaks.

Or the psycho with the ax chooses your character like he’s Pikachu.

Tragic, right?

But here’s the thing: when it comes to killing, there’s a time and place.

We don’t kill because the scene needs some spice.
We don’t kill because we’ve spotted a plot hole, and killing a character seals it off.
We don’t kill when it’s the easy way out. (Bring on the suffering!)
We don’t randomly kill someone to show readers how bad our baddie is.

And most of all, we don’t kill 1) when the death serves no purpose or 2) if readers aren’t invested in the character. So, make sure the death pushes the story forward in some way and readers have a soft spot for the target (Rue from Hunger Games, for example) before you snuff them out. Emotional currency is king.

I know, I know, you’ve got a sad now, like I smashed your ice cream cone on the ground. So here’s when you can kill:


Sometimes our characters must hit rock bottom or lose everything before they can find inner strength. Taking away their safety net can trigger devolution or evolution and support their arc’s trajectory.


Sometimes, there is a cost to holding to a belief or following a certain path, and death may be necessary to fully underscore the weight of the story’s theme. Sometimes, there is no justice. Evil triumphs instead of good. Safety is an illusion. Love means sacrifice, or finding one’s purpose in life may mean surrendering to it. Think about your theme and if this death will support the underlying meaning of the story.


Stakes can be primal, and it needs to be clear to everyone, including readers, when failure means death. If you go this route, invest time into the sacrificial character. Give them goals, needs, and people they would do anything for. Most of all, make readers care about them so their death has impact.


Some people deserve to die. They take risks, fail to heed advice, or are just plain toxic and awful. To show the cause and effect of their actions or provide a satisfying death scene for readers, take the character out in a way that makes sense, is ironic, or rings of poetic justice.

See? Lots of good options for killing. Challenge yourself to make it count so it serves the story in some way.

If you’d like to grab this “When to Kill a Character” checklist to save and print, just go here.

How do you decide when to kill a character? Who was it, and why did you do it?


Source: writershelpingwriters.net

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