Knowing Your Characters – Part Three

For readers to enjoy your book, it is most important that your characters and their behaviours are believable. I remember in my early efforts at writing, I created good characters who did everything right, and bad characters who did everything wrong. It was really hard for me to give my good characters any flaws, or to give the bad guy credit for doing anything right or having any redeeming qualities.

It took a lot of rewriting to shape believable characters for my first novel. But trust me, it gets easier. Think of any person you know and like a lot. Are they really perfect? Just because we easily forgive their shortcomings, doesn’t mean they are perfect and have no flaws. We just like to bury those flaws. Look hard and you will find a flaw that your character might have which the reader will forgive, but which also makes the character more human.

The same goes for someone we may not like. If we took the time to get to know them, we would have to admit that they’re not ALL bad. Give your antagonist some redeeming quality. You’ll be surprised how the reader will then care about what happens to him, or at least feel some empathy for his situation.

Using these flaws effectively can help enrich your novel and make it easier for your readers to believe what your characters do, and it enhances our emotional involvement with those characters. If we don’t care about the characters, why bother to read the book?

So we have to know our characters if we are to tell their story. We need to know their long-term goals and their short-term goals. We don’t want the reader to wonder, “Why would he do a thing like that?”

In building the background for the character’s motivation, we might work in some family background, some incidental things that help the reader understand why the character would react the way he does as the story develops. Short flashbacks can lay the groundwork for what has shaped the character’s emotional growth, his attitudes, and his ways of dealing with situations that will come up in your plot.

How else do readers learn about the characters?

  1. The author can simply tell about the character. This is probably the easiest way but not necessarily the most convincing.
  2. Have the character tell about himself.
  3. Have another character tell about him. (This way is more believable.)
  4. Show what the character is like by his actions.

All of these methods can be used, but the last one is probably the most effective and the most believable.

Body Language

If you take the time to find stronger verbs when the character is doing anything, you can often come up with something that more precisely describes how the character behaves. Does he stand or does he slouch? Does he limp? If so, why? Does he move erratically or are his movements smooth? Find the verb that accurately describes this.

For every action the character does, consider whether the verb you use is the best one to describe his particular way of doing things.


You can show the character’s emotions using physical descriptions (sweat beading on his forehead, slumped shoulders, furrows in the forehead).

Another way is to show some action that tells how he might be feeling. Is he drumming is fingers, sighing heavily, flexing his jaw muscles, squinting or rolling his eyes, waggling his head, lifting his chin, biting his lower lip?


What a person says and how he says it can tell you a lot about how they are feeling and about what kind of person they are. This is a huge topic and I would like to deal with that in a separate post.


Meanwhile, study the people around you and make a note of their flaws and their redeeming qualities. You’ll be surprised how useful these can be when you incorporate them in your writing.

Knowing Your Characters – Part 2

All people have their own peculiar mannerisms. Sometimes they are immediately obvious to others; sometimes they are only noticeable in certain situations (possibly when emotions are running high). A person may make a certain movement with their arms, legs, fingers, shoulders, or facial features when they are particularly anxious or stressed, fearful, angry, or even when they are anticipating a happy event.

It may help your story to give your character some “tell” to bring the reader into the character’s state of mind to raise anticipation whenever this “telling” action happens. In my novel Julia’s Violinist, Karl had a tell. His eye twitched when he was angry and the reader knew that perhaps some explosive action was building.

Other “tells” could be:

slight shrugging of the shoulders

facial tics of all sorts

slight jerks of the hand or shaking of the wrist

rubbing the thigh

squinting the eyes

wringing the hands



quivering lips

chewing fingernails

twirling a lock of hair

biting lower lip

quietly humming a few notes

taking a deep breath through the nostrils.

“People watching” is a good way to gather a collection of ideas for flinches, tics, or subconscious behaviours to add to your list of possibilities.

When you’re sitting in the car waiting for someone, or if you’re in a coffee shop,  always try to have a notebook handy. It’s a perfect time to do some people watching. You may not have time to see the repetition of a mannerism, but you can get ideas for some small actions that you can develop into an ongoing “tell” in your novel’s characters. Jot down the most obvious behaviours or anything special you notice about passersby and you’ll soon have quite a collection to choose from when building your character.

Even if you don’t pick up on a flinch or a nervous tic, you might notice some other bonus — a wild flair in the way they are dressed, or a different gait — something special about that person, that you can use to give your character some unique identifying trait.

If you have introduced the behaviour subtly in previous scenes, the reader can, in later scenes, surmise who the character is without him or her even being named.

A few examples:

“You can’t do that. I won’t let you.” His cheek twitched, as he backed away.

He hummed a few tuneless notes and picked up the carving knife.

She worried her thumbnail down to the quick. She knew what was behind that door, but it was her only chance to escape.


The unique behaviours you choose for your characters need not, and probably should not, be too weird, so as to remain believable. Neither do you want to overdo the frequency of the unique behaviour appearing. A small identifying trait that pops up once in a while is usually enough.


Knowing Your Characters – Part 1

Apologies to one or two people who have read this post about seven years ago. I hope to do more than one post about developing characters. Here is the first, with a link at the end to a related post.

How well do you know the characters you build your novel around? Do you know them well enough that you find yourself thinking about them when you’re not writing? Without realizing that you’ve slipped into their character, do you ever find yourself talking the way they talk? Do you find yourself using their pet expressions? If you do, then chances are that your readers will also be thinking about these characters while they read your book and after they finish it. But, as authors, how do we achieve this level of intimacy with our fictional characters?

When I first started writing, I sometimes caught myself assigning the wrong physical traits to my characters. Maybe the man had blue eyes at the beginning of the story and brown eyes later in the book. Or maybe he was 5′ 11″ at first and a week later grew to be 6′ 2″.  Once published this kind of mistake can be  a serious  threat to your reputation as an author, especially if you have a wide, soon to be dwindling, readership. Luckily, I caught these mistakes in time and I was determined to avoid them in the future.

The discrepancy in physical appearance is not the only problem we need to be aware of. We also need to take care with the actions we have our characters performing. We need to know our character’s personality well enough to determine if they would behave the way we have them doing in the book, or speak the way we have them speaking.

Before you write, it’s a good idea to do a character analysis for your main actors. It need not be fancy or in depth. A few notes will do, but if you have them written down you can refer to them any time you are unsure of what attributes you gave your hero back in chapter two.

Charts and lists are available from a variety of sources. Simply google character analysis  or character profiles for writers and you’ll find them.

I’d like to list some of the basic points of information you should have written down somewhere (be it on post-it notes or on a computer file or on paper) before you begin your novel.

  • Name, gender, age and physical appearance are the first, most obvious, ones.
  • How the character feels about his/her appearance. (This can have a profound effect on his/her behaviour in the book.)
  • Family, friends, education, and domiciles
  • Marital status, job experience, relationships within the family and with co-workers.
  • Sex, religion, political and moral beliefs
  • General health, intelligence
  • Manner of speaking, voice, dialect, slang, accent
  • What is he/she proud/ashamed of?
  • The character’s goals in the story, and what stands in his/her way

Once you have made notes on this character, you will feel as if you know them in real life and this will most likely transfer to your readers’ perception of that character too. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use all of the information in your book. What matters is that what you do write will be plausible behaviour for that character.

My French-Canadian character, Monique, in The Wind Weeps, had a habit of conflating two English expressions when she was trying to learn that language. She had heard, “Sure thing,” and “For sure,” but in her case it came out “For sure t’ing.” While I was writing this novel, Monique was in my head a lot. I felt as if I really knew her. When she reappeared in Reckoning Tide, the sequel to The Wind Weeps, did I recognize her by her speech?

For sure t’ing!

Was I glad I had done a character analysis of her before writing?

For sure t’ing!

Did I get to like her a lot as I wrote this book?

For sure t’ing!

Will it help you to write your novel if you do a character analysis first?

For sure t’ing!

Will readers internalize these characters more readily and love to read about them?

For sure t’ing!


About four years ago I did a post about gathering information to use for my characters while having a bit of fun. It’s all about people watching. If you haven’t seen it, check it out here:

Verb Tense and Other Issues DenisTangneyJr

I followed her down the dark street, gradually closing distance between us. She glanced over her shoulder and her high heels tapped on the sidewalk faster. She’s getting nervous. I could tell from the way she leaned forward that she was hurrying to reach her car faster. It doesn’t matter. I was going to catch up to her in a few seconds and then she will be mine, all mine.

Hard to believe, but this jumble of verb tenses is similar to something I came across in a novel recently. I almost put it down in disgust, but I wanted to know what happened. Still, the poor writing took all the enjoyment out of reading this crime novel. The plot was good, but the delivery was not.

Most of the story was told in third person, past tense. The trouble started when the author switched to the killer’s POV and told us his thoughts in the first person. That, in itself is not so bad, but within these sections, when we see the story from the killer’s POV, the author slipped back and forth between the past and present tense in a way that did not work. It could have been done if we were  made to believe that the killer is thinking in the present, and telling us about a past event, but that was not the case here. The author simply slipped back and forth between tenses haphazardly.

It told me that the author had not mastered the art of writing yet, and that he had not run his manuscript by a critiquing group, and certainly not a copy-editor, any of whom would have enlightened him.  Even his greatest fan, Aunt Mary, would have noticed the errors in the changing of the tense.

When you write, why not have someone else read your first drafts and offer some suggestions? A critiquing group or even a writing buddy can be good for this. You don’t have to accept what these readers say, but it’s always a good idea to get a second opinion and ponder it. Of course I’m going to say, “If you’re serious about publishing, get yourself a good copy-editor,” because that is what I do, but really, having a clean manuscript before you publish is so important.

The book I’m reading now, which has so many problems with verb tense, is full of other small errors. Some are typos, and others are grammatical errors, but the verb tense problem was the icing on the cake.  Although the author has some serious writing issues to resolve, this work was salvageable, if only he had not published too soon. As it is now, this novel will never be remembered as a great book. It could have been a good one, if he had taken the time to have someone read it over and point out the errors, and if he had hired a copy-editor to catch those many small mistakes along the way.

Self-publishing should not mean that the writer does it all himself, without the help of a critiquing group or a copy-editor. Yes, you can upload your ms and be your own publisher, but as a publisher you also need to deal with things like getting a professional to do your book cover and one to check your manuscript for errors before you bare your soul before the world of readers.

Word Surprises

Did you know that impostor is spelled with “or” and not “er”?

Did you know that guttural is spelled with “ur” and not “er”?

In the word for a big fuss, which letters are doubled? Here it is – hullabaloo.


Gimme a gimmick any day,

To tell me a word is spelled which way.

Stationary and stationery are two words that are often confused. One means to stay in one place, and the other refers to letter-writing material.

The difference in the spellings is in the ending (ary or ery).

The “a”  in ary is like the “a” in place. I remained stationary (in one place).

The “e” in ery is like the “e” in letter. I wrote a letter on fine stationery.



Easily Overlooked

You’ve written your first draft and you’ve read it over, perhaps focusing on some particular aspects of writing (like using your pet words too much, or checking for “ly” words), and after rereading your manuscript until you think you could recite it from memory, you feel ready to publish.

Not so fast! First, let’s check for some common mistakes. In a novel I recently read, I was reminded of two kinds of errors that are easily overlooked.

One involves words left out, and the other, words left in.

Here are some examples.

Sometimes, as you re-read, you realize that you’ve used a character’s name too many times within a few sentences, or you might have used too many pronouns when you should have used a name once in a while. So you make some changes. Let’s say you’ve used the name too often, so you put in “her” instead of “Miss X,” but you don’t take out “Miss X” until you’ve had a chance to reread the whole section, checking for a good balance of names and pronouns.

You get into your self-editing and several pages later, you remember that you should read it all over. This is when the brain and the eyes start fighting. You’re already getting tired and as you read, your brain tells you, “I know what this is supposed to say. I wrote the thing. I know what it says.”

Your eyes tell your brain, “Yes, that’s what it says. I know because I’ve read it so many times already. It’s fine.”

But is it?

“Miss X” is mentioned several times in the chapter, but now, one of the sentences has “Miss X” AND “her” as well.

The road was rough and the driver reached over to check her Miss X’s seatbelt.

See how easily that slipped in there?

Very often, mistakes like this are added to the text with the purpose of fixing a problem, but it ends up causing a different one.


Correcting sentences where words have been left out is even harder to do. Again, our brains tell us what we know the text to be, and the eyes go along with it in agreement. But as we read work over too quickly, we think that all the necessary words are in there. That is how many small words are left out (words like: to, at, in, an, it). A good way to catch these omissions is to read your work out loud.

A similar error occurs when we type “and” for “an” or “it” for “if” or “in,”


A word of advice:

Don’t work at your self-editing for too long in one session. Take breaks. I have often noticed that when I find mistakes in the writing, they occur close together within a page or two. This tells me that the writer was probably getting tired at that point.




Oh, Bother

No, I don’t mean “Oh, brother,” but it basically means the same thing.

Here are some words that are a real bother to some people as they try to use them in their writing. (They are also a bother to people who read that writing if the words are not used correctly.)

Recently I read a book of well-written short stories. In the whole book I only came across two mistakes, but one of them really jarred me.

The character in the story went fishing and was waiting for that allusive bite.

I groaned and shrieked out loud. It grated so much and ruined that short story. That is the only thing I remember about the story. Allusive! I suppose it could have been an allusive bite if the fish was referring to something as he took the bait. Maybe he was saying to his school of fish, “Now, class, here is the perfect example of the kind of bait to avoid – the kind I was alluding to in our last lecture.” Of course, the writer meant to say “elusive.”


Here are two more words that are similar and cause a lot of trouble for both writers and readers. I’ll confess right now that this one used to give me headaches before I got their meanings straight.


I used to think those were opposites. They are, in fact, very similar in meaning.

Restive means “difficult to control or keep still.”


The Kindergarten class was restive as the children awaited the arrival of the visitors.

Restless means “unable to rest, fidgety.”

I tossed and turned all night. I had so much on my mind that it made me restless.


Here is one more. These two words can actually have four meanings.


The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. The plains are the flat prairie lands. It’s interesting though, that the plains are flat, and yet to plane something, such as a piece of wood, also makes it flat. Uh-oh! Now I’ve confused you.

Add to that, something plain, or ordinary for transportation and you have a plane that will fly you to your destination.

If you had a workshop in the prairies, on the plain, you could use your planer to plane some wood and build yourself an ordinary, or plain flying machine, a plane.


So do you remember who is known for saying, “Oh, bother”?

I’ll give you a happy face if you guess it.

Scare Quotes, So-called, and Italics

Sometimes we use terms in unusual ways and we want to alert the reader to that fact. Perhaps we want to draw attention to the irony of using a certain word, or the fact that the term is not normally applied this way. By putting quotation marks around the term, it draws the reader’s attention to the unusual usage.


The “caregiver” neglected his patient whenever possible.

The bulldog wore a collar that had a watch as a buckle. Now he was a “watchdog.”


The standard way of using the quotation marks for these so-called scare quotes is with double (rather than single) quotation marks. The British system uses singles, but in my posts here, I will always be using the Chicago Manual of Style guidelines, so doubles it is. (The British would reverse the rules for single and double quotation marks).

The exception to using double quotation marks for scare quotes is when that term is already inside doubles as in dialogue. In that case you would put singles inside the doubles.


When I saw the bulldog walking, I said to his owner, “Oh look at that cute collar. Your pet is a real ‘watchdog’ now.”

If I wanted to refer to the bulldog I mentioned above, I could say that I meant the so-called watchdog. In this case, where the term “so-called” precedes the word I wanted to emphasize, I would not put quotation marks around either word.

It would be:

the so-called watchdog

the so-called caregiver

*Most North American writers use the American style guide and so scare quotes would never be used with single quotation marks (unless they were already inside doubles, as shown above).  Check your manuscripts and see if you’ve used singles instead of doubles.

You may be wondering if you could just put the scare quotes in italics instead. Italics would be used in the case of a foreign word or phrase used in English writing, unless it is a proper noun (such as the name of a city or person).

Italics would also be used to highlight key terms the first time they are used in a piece of writing.


We will be studying biodiversity in these workshops.

Have fun sorting these out. You’ll get used to it after a while.




Words like Gold Nuggets

I was reading “Fortune’s Rocks” by Anita Shreve and had a mixture of reactions throughout the experience.

First, I was dismayed at the use of such stuffy language, but I soon realized that it suited the 1899 New England setting perfectly. This was the way people in the wealthier class spoke and thought in those days.

In a short time I stopped noticing the stuffiness of the language, and felt immersed in that time and lifestyle.

So it was, that I scoffed only mildly when the mother who was hosting guests at her summer home did not want her photo taken. One of the guests had taken up photography and the hostess was not a fan of these new contraptions called cameras. The reaction of the hostess was not out of character, but had me chuckling about her overly sensitive personality.

When I read on, I was absolutely thrilled with Anita Shreve’s description of the photography session that followed.

This quote from the book tells how it played out as the other guests, one by one, sat to have their photos taken.

Even Olympia’s mother, in the end, relents and allows herself to be photographed, albeit behind a veil with eyes lowered, flinching each time she hears the shutter click, as though she might be shot.

This description had me laughing out loud, as I imagined the scene. It was then that I realized that much of the writing was so precisely worded that I was able to picture it clearly in my mind. Reading this book became like watching a movie.

I kept chuckling over the above quote for some time and finally decided I would write a short note to the author to tell her how much I was enjoying her book. I Googled her name to get a webpage contact, but immediately the search told me that Anita Shreve had died on March 29, 2018 at the young age of 71.  My happy mood was dashed and I felt shocked and saddened to find out this bad news.

Still, Anita has left a legacy of many fine books for us to enjoy.

Now I am wondering if you readers out there have had similar discoveries of passages that are nuggets of entertainment.

If you have, why not share them in your comments. Book title, author, and quote. We’d love to see what you’ve found.


Hyphens and Dashes

These little lines that float in the air between numbers and letters can certainly give a writer a headache.
I’d like to talk about three most commonly used “lines,” the hyphen (often simply called a dash), the en dash, and the em dash. You can think of the en dash as a line that is about as long as the typed letter “n,” and the em dash as one about the length of a typed “m.”
Here they are from shortest to longest.
– hyphen
– en dash
— em dash
When do we use them?
Does it matter which one we use?
Very much so.
Let’s begin with the shortest. The hyphen is mainly used to separate word parts such as when you are separating a word into syllables, but more often it is used to join two words that belong together.
In compound words:
Not all compound words are separated by a hyphen.
Some examples are:
downwind, houseboat, farmhouse, driveway, postman.
Some compound words need a hyphen.
long-term, mother-in-law, ready-made, fifty-fifty.
If you’re not sure when to use the hyphen between the two parts of the word, use your dictionary and try to remember the word for next time.
Hyphens are used as separators in numbers that are not inclusive. Telephone numbers, ISBNs, or social security numbers, for example.
Or you can use hyphens to spell out a word.
My name is Anneli. It’s spelled A-n-n-e-l-i.
Now that I’ve told you we use hyphens to separate numbers, I have to add that if the numbers are inclusive, such as “one to ten,” and usually if you can say from one number “through” to another number, you need to use an en dash, which is just a  bit longer than a hyphen.
Basically, with the en dash, you are saying “up to and including.”
Some examples:
The years 1970–1980 were the best of my life.
For more information, see chapters 8–10.
Come by for a visit on Saturday, 2:00 p.m.–4:00 p.m.
I live at 395–5th St.
Then we have the em dash (—). It is mainly used to set off words or phrases that explain something in the middle of a sentence when an abrupt separation is required and a comma won’t do the trick. Also, a sudden break or interruption in conversation can end with an em dash.
My favourite artists—Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Cezanne—were not represented at the exhibition.
I looked like I had aged  ten years overnight—I hadn’t slept a wink—but it was too late to worry about it now.
We stopped at Amy’s house—what a party she had going on—to pick up my sister.
“What should I—?”
There are many more uses for each of the dashes, but these are the most common ones. Sorting these out would be a good start. After that, we’ll see….