PEERING OUT FROM UNDER A ROCK: Character Breakthrough

by Normandie Fischer, @WritingOnBoard

Holiday planning and travel shoveled silence on top of my writing time again. In spite of that—or maybe because of the down time and those moments of writing when I couldn’t, of note taking and thinking—I had a breakthrough.

(Isn’t that a delicious word? Breakthrough. Breaking through the confusion. Breaking through the sludge of exhaustion.)

Until then, I hadn’t realized I had a major story question that needed answering. I was pantsing along (as opposed to filling in plot holes ahead of time), writing in snatches, taking those notes, and thinking about the scene in front of me. But because a story written that way tends to stall during down time, I turned to the tried-and-true, outline-so-you-know-what’s-coming-next method that might let me actually move forward.

I already knew my bad guy would have an ah-ha moment, but self-awareness wasn’t his strong suit. And putting someone else first? He’d never done it. Everything he did had a selfish motivation, and consequences to others mattered not at all.

So how did I imagine he’d make this out-of-character decision? I couldn’t just toss in a deus ex machina to rescue him or give him a sudden finding-Jesus moment.

You’ve probably run into a contrived plot device where some unexpected power or event shows up to save the day. Deus ex machina literally means “god from the machine,” a device where a new character flies to the rescue (where did he come from?) or where something unexpected and unexplained happens so that the story problem is miraculously fixed.

I’m not suggesting that miracles don’t happen or that people can’t experience a radical change of attitude and behavior. But these changes have to make sense.

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Our characters should face challenges that either propel their growth or stall it. Many antagonists stall, which is why they get to play the bad guys. Most protagonists grow and change, which is why they get the heroic roles, even if they’re merely the hero of their own life. But whatever a character’s role, there has to be something in his history or his personality that will make his shift (or his stagnation) believable. As authors, our job is to set the stage and provide enough background that readers will think ah ha! instead of huh?

 Remember A Tale of Two Cities? If Dickens hadn’t deepened the character of Sydney Carton to show his hopeless love for our heroine, we’d never have understood the power of his sacrifice—and we’d have felt cheated. But because Dickens fleshed out this bad guy, we rooted for him and agonized for him when he offered himself for the sake of true love. Dickens thus turned an anti-hero into a hero.

Back to my stalled work in progress.I had a beginning and an outcome, along with the shift in circumstances that would set the stage for character change. BUT, an about-face for my villain would require more. There had to be something about him that would propel readers into a sigh and an of course he’d choose that route.

All good stories show character growth and change, but not all have characters who make a truly radical shift in attitude and behavior from bad to good (or good to bad). We love the thief turned hero, the murderer who saves a child’s life, the careless vagabond who morphs into family man. But if we’re going to write these characters into our story, we need to give them a reason for the shift, just as Dickens did for Sydney.

I try to figure these things out when I create character sheets, but this time I’d obviously left a gaping hole or two. I’d figured out what had lured my antagonist to villainy. Now I needed to know what in him (or his past) might propel him to leave his hedonistic life. What about him might allow self-sacrifice?

I’m happy to say that my other books worked their way to character completion in a much more orderly fashion. I wrote; they spoke; the picture revealed itself. But if one must take time off for whatever reason, it’s serendipitous to have that time off present a key piece of information.

Aiming for the gold here, right?

Twilight Christmas

Two orphans. A big sister with Down Syndrome. And a community in need of miracles.

It’s up to ten-year-old Louis to protect Linney from the bad men. He knows what can happen to handicapped kids. He’s seen it before.

Only, it’s getting harder and harder to keep her warm and safe in this old storage barn as Christmas celebrations unfold around them.

And then there’s Annie Mac and her crew, who are involved in the pageant excitement. So is Lieutenant Clay Dougherty, her kids’ faux-father and the man who still makes her yearn for a whole lot more than she’s comfortable offering, especially when she’s plagued by crazy-making nightmares.

So many questions: Can Louis save his sister? And will Annie Mac find the peace she needs? What about poor Clay and the other Beaufort folk?

Normandie Fischer studied sculpture in Italy before receiving her BA, summa cum laude with special honors in English. Known for her women’s fiction—Becalmed (2013), Sailing out of Darkness (2013), and Heavy Weather (2015)—she ventured into the realm of romantic suspense with the release of Two from Isaac’s House. In early 2016, a novella, From Fire into Fire, will continue the Isaac House saga. Normandie and her husband spent a number of years on board their 50-foot ketch, Sea Venture, sailing in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. They now live in coastal North Carolina, where she takes care of her aging mother. You can find Normandie on her websiteFacebook, and Amazon.

Creating Characters We Want To Have Coffee (or Diet Coke) With

by Rachel Hauck

A book is about people. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Or, simpler, extra ordinary things.

But to feel for these people and go on the journey with them we have to see them with the eyes of our heart. Of our imagination.

How do we do that as storytellers?


Beware! I don’t mean physical details although those are great, but I mean personal, down-to-the-soul details.

Describe the protagonist life, hinting at wants, goals, dreams.

Why have they walked onto the page?

Imagine a play if you will.

The stage is dark save for the spotlight.

The main character walks onto the stage, in costume, and begins to speak.

What could they possibly say that will make you lean forward to listen?

What emotion or what story could they share that would make you care?

What opening line would grab you?

That’s how you have to build your characters before you walk them onto the page.

I used to play act as a kid, making up dialog between me and oh, you know, Donny Osmond.

We’d carry on whole conversations.

Now I do the same for my protagonist and secondary characters.

I see them in my mind’s eye.

I do my level best to get to know them in my heart.

Anyone who’s been in a writing class with me has heard the account of how I dug deeper for the characters June and Rebel in Softly and Tenderly, the book I wrote with Sara Evans.

I knew Rebel had been a cheater. And originally I decided that once he fell off the fidelity wagon, he intended not to do it again but just got caught.

Sin will do that — keep you longer than you intended to stay and take you farther than you intended to go.

But as I wrote the confrontation scene it lacked… punch. I felt like I was writing in circles.

I got up to take a break and ended up dialoging with myself, playing both characters, and I know you ALL have done it too, and came upon a break through line.

Here June is confronting him as to why all the affairs. Rebel is a high powered southern lawyer.


“It just got easy, that’s all.”

“Easy? Do you know how many nights I cried myself to sleep… How helpless I felt to stop you… I mentally packed my bags so many times.”

“I told you, it just got easy.”

“Does revenge taste that sweet Reb?” RH: Here’s where I learned June also had an affair. Early in their young marriage when she felt alone during Rebel’s law school years.

Rebel whipped around to face her. “You stole my son, June!” <– BREAK THRU LINE!


I gasped here! What does that mean? I didn’t know but I was going to find out. It felt brilliant!

So I dug around until I discovered the whole story! This bit of news popped the story wide open and created much deeper, more complex characters.

Here’s another example from How To Catch A Prince.

I created a fun, over-the-top media mogul, Gigi Beaumont. She’s both a protagonist and antagonist. I know… I know… but I like to bend the rules.

When we first meet her in the heroine’s POV, Gigi is commanding, smartly dressed with perfect hair and nails.

But when we switched to Gigi’s point of view, we see a different character.



Even when she was a girl running barefoot through the hills of her Blue Ridge, Georgia, home, Gigi Beaumont had a nose for news.

She’d collect all the best gossip by sneaking around the wizened mountain women— who had a knack for telling a yarn or two—as they talked in the Mast General or strolled the town square. Then she wrote their stories and mimeographed them on the machine she found in the church basement, producing her first newspaper at the mature age of ten.

When Mama read it, whoa doggies, she gave Gigi a walloping for the ages on account of what she printed about the mayor’s wife. But when it turned out to be true—an affair with the sheriff—Mama became her chief distributor and fact finder.

Forty-six years later, she still crawled around behind the storytellers and gossips, hoping for the scoop. The scandalous story that would turn the world on its ear.

Mercy knows, Beaumont Media needed a break. A big one. Hiring Mark Johnson was just one stealth move to reignite her newspaper’s faltering brand.


Here we have a bit of Gigi’s character history (which is very different from backstory!) and we see this woman is both hungry for success and gifted.

She’s following a life long passion, her superpower!

Hopefully I created descriptive elements to help the reader know who they are dealing with in this story.

We don’t need a lot of physical description here. We get it in other scenes.

What I needed in this scene was her heart. To show just who Gigi Beaumont was and why.

So, how do you know if you have a dynamic character that can rise off the page and grab the reader?

Here’s an example from award-winning author Deborah Raney’s novel, Home to Chicory Lane.

Still, despite his rough childhood, and a couple of wild years in high school, Chase had defied the odds and turned into a good guy. A really good guy. Their youth pastor from Langhorne Community Fellowship had taken Chase under his wing, and by the time Landyn was old enough to date, Chase was toeing a pretty straight line.

Well, except for the tattoo. Dad had come completely unglued when he heard Chase had gotten inked. She’d finally calmed him down by explaining that Chase’s Celtic cross––on his collarbone, so it was hidden under most of his shirts––was a symbol of his faith and of the permanence of God’s love for him.


I can see this guy, can’t you? Wild, tattooed, but wearing the symbol of his new faith. I get him right away. We see he’s “toeing” the line so perhaps he’s still trying to earn God’s favor. And the tattoo is kind of his reminder, “Behave yourself.” There are a lot of places Deb could’ve taken this. Great description.

Here’s a clip from best selling author Denise Hunter’s Married ‘Til Monday. (Great title, eh?)


After work Saturday Abby showered off the bakery smell, dried her hair, and pulled it back into a messy ponytail. She scrubbed the makeup from her face, exposing the freckles on her nose, and threw on a pair of jeans with her Eagles T-shirt, hating the way her hands trembled. It was just one date. Then he’d leave her alone.


What I love about this is her Eagles t-shirt and trembling hands. We know what kind of music she likes and that tells us a lot about the character. And trembling hands indicates she’s nervous. Funny to me she’s going on a date and trying to look her worst. No make up, sloppy ponytail. Makes me ask, “What’s going on here?” Denise took the opposite of the norm. Good idea to always flip a character or scene upside down and see what’s on the other side.

Here’s a few tips on how to create deeper characters:

1. Be specific. Get down to nitty gritty details. Tell a slice of life and use it to shape the character.

2. Utilize MBT’s Story Equation — the SEQ. Dark wound of the past, lie and fear, contrasted with greatest dream.

3. What’s your character’s happiest moment. (Be specific!)

4. Remember your story is about dealing with a specific issue (notice the word specific is used a lot) so build your details around that one event.

5. Go beneath the surface. Turn a character or situation upside down. Instead of a male character what happens if you make him a her? A character is more than hair or eye color, or skin color. More than she liked cafe mochas and the Beatles. Those are great but you must answer the question: Why does she like those things? Dig deep. Think outside the box.

Now, go write a brilliant character.

New York Times, USA Today ​and Wall Street Journal best-selling, award-winning author Rachel Hauck loves a great story. She serves on the Executive Board for American Christian Fiction Writers. She is a past ACFW mentor of the year. A worship leader and Buckeye football fan, Rachel lives in Florida with her husband and ornery cat, Hepzibah. Read more about Rachel

Common Mistakes in Character Development

Make your characters stand out from the crowd.

Post by Michelle Griep

New writers make all kinds of goofy-butt mistakes . . .

 – an overabundance
   of adverbs and 

 – enough backstory 
   in the first chapter
   to choke a hyena

 – prose so purple it looks like a bruise

But one of the biggest gaffs author wannabes make is found in character creation. Never fear though, little rookies, because here is a handy dandy list so that your writing won’t scream “newbie,” leastwise not in your character development.

5 Things NOT To Do With Your Characters

Talking Heads
Not that I’m dissing dialogue, but too much talking and thinking creates characters floating in a vacuum. Yeah, that’s probably not scientifically possible, but whatever. Tether your reader to your characters by putting them in situations every reader experiences. This is where imagery comes in. Make sure to use sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.

Playing Too Nice
Face it, life sometimes sucks. It needs to for your characters as well. A reader doesn’t care about Suzy Sunshine and in fact may want to punch her in the head for being all Pollyanna. You can’t go deep with your character’s personality unless you torture them, because it’s when a character is stressed that what’s inside comes out. Your hero can’t be heroic unless something dastardly happens to him — repeatedly.

Keep your reader guessing what your characters will say.

Stilted Conversations
Think about this for a minute . . . do you know anyone who consistently speaks in complete sentences? Other than seventh-grade English teachers or academic nerds trying to impress a girl, people don’t talk that way. Neither should your characters. Get over your junior high grammar class and give up the fear of using fragments. You can. See? Just did. That’s how your characters should speak.

One-dimensional characters are boring. If a reader can predict exactly how your hero will react in any given situation, then you’ve made your character too flat. And ditch the stereotypes as well. Just because you’ve got a Native American in your story doesn’t mean the dude is super connected to the earth and has a dream catcher hanging in his bedroom.

Too Many Characters
Make your main characters quirky, fun, and unique, but don’t overdo it by giving every possible character a name or an outstanding characteristic. Readers don’t want to know the nickname of the dogcatcher and don’t care if there’s a bum with a case of psoriasis sleeping on a bench as the hero passes by. If a character isn’t a necessity to moving the plot forward, then feel free to gloss over him.

Keep in mind these five tips and you’ll create characters that will haunt the reader’s mind long after they’ve finished your story.

Like what you read? There’s more. WRITER OFF THE LEASH: GROWING IN THE WRITING CRAFT is a kick in the pants for anyone who wants to write but is stymied by fear, doubt, or simply doesn’t know how to take their writing to the next level.

Michelle Griep’s been writing since she first discovered blank wall space and Crayolas. Follow her adventures and find out about upcoming new releases at her blog, Writer Off the Leash, or stop by her website. You can also find her at the usual haunts of FacebookTwitter, or Pinterest.