Should there be messages/morals in children’s books?

Growing bookworks 2

The idea that children’s picture books should contain a strong moral or message seems to be very popular among authors of books for young people. This notion probably emanates from parents and caregivers who are of the view that books are a tool for instructing their young, especially in our modern world of so many more risks to the welfare our children than ever before.

This idea does, however, always bring to my mind the lyrics of the song, A British Nanny sung by David Tomlinson, from the original movie of Mary Poppins:

“A British nanny must be a general!
The future empire lies within her hands
And so the person that we need to mold the breed
Is a nanny who can give commands!
Mr Banks: Are you getting this Winifred?
Mrs Banks: Oh yes dear, every word
A British bank is run with precision
A British home requires nothing less!
Tradition, discipline, and rules must be the tools
Without them – disorder!
Anarchy – In short you have a ghastly mess!”

This is an amusing song and you can listen to it here:

The idea of a story or picture book containing a message is not a bad one. It is very much about how the message is presented in the story that will decide whether the book appeals to children or not. After all, children’s writers want to write books that children want to read again and again, not books that their parents think they should read.

My own children have taught me that children run a mile when they think that a book contains an overt moral or message. With this in mind, how then can a parent or caregiver select a book that both teaches and entertains?

Firstly, what the reader will takeaway from the story should be considered. It is not necessary to write out a moral at the end of a tale in the manner of Aesop’s Fables, the message can be subtle, for example, a polluted river that poisons a river or lake and results in all the fish and water creatures dying and the resolution of that predicament by cleaning up the river and preventing future contamination of the water. Children will understand the message without it being spelled out for them.

Some other tips for choosing books that will entertain as well as teach children are as follows:

  1. Make sure that the book is character driven with memorable characters that make the reader care about them. For example in Heidi by Johanna Spyri, the author makes the reader really care about Heidi, Clara and even Grandfather as he changes from a grumpy old man into a tender caregiver. I can remember crying when Heidi goes away from Grandfather to live with Clara in the city;
  2. The language and voice of the story should be suitable for a child and should be interesting and fun. The idea of family members all helping each other and their parents is strongly conveyed in Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series of books through the expectations of the parents and the behavior of, and awareness of their family dynamics by, the children;
  3. Showing and not telling is another essential ingredient to a good children’s story. I think Roald Dahl is a master and demonstrating exactly where unkind and selfish behavior gets you in life, think of the fate of the two aunts in James and the Giant Peach or the Twits from the book of the same name.

What do you think about children’s books that contain messages? Should they be subtle or overt? Let me know in the comments.

About Robbie Cheadle


Hello, my name is Robbie, short for Roberta. I am an author with six published children’s picture books in the Sir Chocolate books series for children aged 2 to 9 years old (co-authored with my son, Michael Cheadle), one published middle grade book in the Silly Willy series and one published preteen/young adult fictionalised biography about my mother’s life as a young girl growing up in an English town in Suffolk during World War II called While the Bombs Fell (co-authored with my mother, Elsie Hancy Eaton). All of my children’s book are written under Robbie Cheadle and are published by TSL Publications.

I have recently branched into adult and young adult horror and supernatural writing and, in order to clearly differential my children’s books from my adult writing, I plan to publish these books under Roberta Eaton Cheadle. My first supernatural book published in that name, Through the Nethergate, is now available.

I have two short stories in the horror/supernatural genre included in Dark Visions, a collection of 34 short stories by 27 different authors and edited by award winning author, Dan Alatorre. I also have three short stories in Death Among Us, a collection of short murder mystery stories by 10 different authors and edited by Stephen Bentley. These short stories are all published under Robbie Cheadle.

I have recently published a book of poetry called Open a new door, with fellow South African poet, Kim Blades.

Find Robbie Cheadle



Goodreads: Robbie Cheadle – Goodreads

Twitter: BakeandWrite

Instagram: Robbie Cheadle – Instagram

Facebook: Sir Chocolate Books

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Creating and Developing Character: Writing a Character Readers Will Relate To

Ask the Author (Round 2)

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Today’s topic on Ask the Authors is character development. We’ll talk about what makes a good character and and a bad villian, and how to create characters the reader will care about. Our author panel this week includes Tom Johnson, DeAnna Knippling, Cynthia Vespia, RA Winter, Dan Alatorre, Lilly Rayman, Jordan Elizabeth, Ashley Fontainne and Margareth Stewart. They may each have a different approach to developing their characters, and we might be able to glean some good insights from them.

You can have a great story, but if no one cares about the characters, it won’t matter. Characters must be unique, well rounded individuals who readers can relate to on some level, or they won’t even finish the book. Your characters carry the story, so it’s important that we portray in ways that will make readers interested in what happens with them, so that they will keep reading.

What makes a character interesting?

DeAnna Knippling

deannak Different people will find different characters interesting, by whatever standard they find other people interesting. Some people want to see everyday people in extraordinary situations. Some people want to see characters worth gossiping about, whose behavior is over the top or otherwise out of bounds (Gone Girl). Some people want to see characters doing what they wish they could do and having what they wish they could have. Most people want to see a mix. And it depends on the context of the story.  You wouldn’t want to see the unspeakably evil villain of a superhero comic move into a light romance, most of the time. “Interesting” is kind of a narrow window where a character meets eighty percent of the reader’s expectations, but still has a little bit of surprise to them.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy Layers. If a character is too perfect or one dimensional you lose me. There has to be some shades of gray in there. Some imperfections and flaws that are relatable to the reader.

RA Winter

RA Winter Flaws and dilemmas give a character depth and relatability. Quirks help too.

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre Different characters are interesting for different reasons. The hero can be somebody who works hard and does things the right way even when it’s difficult. They have to overcome challenges that would have put a lesser person on the sideline. A funny character has to be funny. But what makes them interesting? Why do people want to continue to read about them?

Usually it’s because they demonstrate characteristics we want to emulate. We wish we were the funny person (and everybody enjoys a joke). We wish we were that hard-working. We wish we were that honest. We wish that if our parents died and we were forced to live with our mean uncle in a closet under the stairs, that we wouldn’t become bitter but would rise above it.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman A character with a history. One that’s not born just off the first page. When a character has a past, it shapes and moulds them into who the reader first meets. If there is trauma in their history, and they come through stronger then that can also make for an interesting character. A sense of humour can also engage the reader with a character. The most important element of an interesting character is one that is as large as life – there’s no point having a 2d character that the reader can’t relate to.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan The voice has to engage the reader.  If the voice falls flat, there’s nothing you can do to revive that character.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne Strengths, weaknesses and relatability to the reader.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil The character needs to be relatable to the reader.  They can be anything, but if the read can’t relate to them on some level, then the character seems flat.

We don’t want all the characters to carry the author’s perspective or to all sound like the author’s voice. If they did, it would get pretty boring because everyone would agree and there would be no conflict in our stories.

How do you give your characters unique perspective?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I once read a comic book I picked up and saw that the artist drew every face exactly the same, even the females resembled the males’ facial features. He just couldn’t give individuality to each of his characters. When I create characters, I want them to be completely different from each other. Maybe one limps. Another may laugh a lot. Another problem I found in a recent book I reviewed, where the main character is a female (written by a male), but she comes across as one of the boys. She needed to be more feminine to set her apart.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak I try to give them strong opinions about things, a cohesive way of seeing the world that isn’t necessarily accurate, but that lets a reader see where they come from.  I write a lot of ordinary people in extraordinary situation characters, though, so I have to ground them in some kind of normal thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors.  I like finding out where the character’s point of view is inaccurate, though.  For example, I have one character who comes from a very wealthy background and who doesn’t know when she’s being cruel to her friends; another one doesn’t recognize that he’s going through PTSD.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy There’s those flaws again. We all have them in real life. Little idiosyncrasies that make us who we are. The best part of first developing a character is finding out what makes them tick. Their back story is what’s going to drive them to do certain things.

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre My characters are usually very intelligent and witty. As a result, they are unique because they will interrupt each other and disagree with each other and resist each other, even if they are friends. That differentiates them and creates unique perspectives. In Double Blind I have two detectives that are good friends, Carly and Sergio, and Carly is getting a bad vibe about another character. Sergio convinces her that she’s over blowing it – but in fact, he’s wrong. In a scene where they talk about her intuition, he’s very sympathetic and understanding, but he explains it away, and he does it in a very friendly logical manner, thinking he is genuinely helping his friend. Then it turns out he was wrong and she almost gets killed as a result. So the characters care about each other, and they are smart and funny or whatever, but they are also human and make mistakes. Readers like that and want to see more of it.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Having an idea of where my characters life has taken them. If I know the reasons behind what motivates each character, what has shaped them and moulded them into who they are, then I can bring that experience through in their perspective. Of course, the reader doesn’t necessarily know all the backstory that I do, and it’s not always needed for the reader to understand my character, so long as my character has a depth that makes them believable.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I try to base my characters after people I know.  Some characters take on a life of their own, but most of them do mirror real life.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne Each person sees events from their own limited perspective and react based upon their knowledge base.

In Blake Synder’s Save the Cat, he talks about making characters likeable by having them do something heroic to show readers how good they are; essentially by having them save the cat, because you just have to like someone who would rescue a little kitty, right?

How do you make your characters likeable?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture My characters, male or female will not hesitate to put their life at risk to save another, whether a cat or man, woman or child. Jesus said to give your life to save someone else is the greatest thing you can do. I follow those words of wisdom in my writing.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak I have a couple of tricks up my sleeve.  Whatever the character does that is maybe not so likable, I’ll put it in context so that someone else told them it was the right way to behave or someone’s doing even worse to the character.  I’ll have the character notice the unlikable things about themselves and laugh at themselves or admit that it’s not the greatest thing and they’re trying to change.  What makes you overlook someone’s flaws in person?  Humor, charisma, wittiness?  I like to present plusses and minuses to the character, which means I usually have to mitigate the minuses for the reader.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I make them relatable. They don’t always have to be the hero. They can be the good friend or the sidekick. The hero may save the day begrudingly but if they’re pulling cats out of trees like Superman they get a little too vanilla and were back to them being perfect. You simply just have to write them with morality and they become likeable. However, in some of my novels I’ve been told by my readers they liked the badguy more than the hero. That’s where you take a step back and ask why that happened. My answer was exactly what I’m trying to explain here. The hero had too much saccharin…too sweet, too perfect. Give them flaws and a little bit of attitude, it’ll make all the difference.

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre Likable characters come around by a certain methodology. If somebody is funny and they say funny things, but they are likable, it’s probably because the funny things they are saying aren’t hurting anybody’s feelings or they are taking a certain statement and twisting it so that it’s funny. We may like a hero because the hero usually has characteristics we went to emulate. Then, that likability transfers. If we like the main character and the main character likes the secondary character, then we as readers give the benefit of the doubt to the secondary character and we like them right away. It’s only if they say or do something that interrupts that goodwill that we begin to question it. And of course, if they are the bad guy, we obviously will have enough evidence over the course of time to thoroughly dislike them – as we should.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I give my characters traits that I like in the people around me. Strong independent characters, or meek and mild, they can both be equally likeable if you know they are fiercely loyal and the reader knows that they can be depended upon at all times.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I don’t try to make my characters likable!  I try to make them true.  The likability comes from realizing that everyone is human.  We make mistakes, but we try out best.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne Private thoughts or conversations with others regarding simple things each of us face every day.  One of my characters from my newest book, Fatal Agreements, rescues a kitten during a storm. Some of the moments between the pair, when the character is speaking to the cat allow the reader to get inside her private thoughts.

You have a literal save the cat scene in Fatal Agreements?

Ashley Fontainne The main character,  Samantha Chapman, saves a kitten during a storm, realizing it’s mother was the dead, dismembered cat she found on her back deck the day before, sensing the disgusting act was done by her former boyfriend.
The kitten is barely 4 weeks old, a tiny mite she names Wee Thing. I always have a pet in my books, usually based off my life.
The idea for Fatal Agreements is based off the building I work in and the kitten incident activity happened to me in the parking lot. I found a sickly kitty one day and took her home. I named her Wee Sing (inside family joke).

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I try to give my characters depth… in one situation they may save the cat, but in another situation they may run it over.  Sometimes I don’t want a particular character likeable.  My heroes are sometimes not the good guys and so this is a very tough question to answer.

Margareth Stewart

Margareth Stewart That is so true – developing a strong character so the reader can look up to him or her is one trick of the many carried by writers. I would rather say it is a little more complicated than just saving the cat; the book needs to bring into life not only something heroic as saving a cat but something we-humans have always felt like doing, but had no courage to accomplish it. There should be a link between what the reader deep inside wants to do and what the main character does – this is the strong connection between reader-character. For instance, somebody who is not fond of cats might not enjoy as much that kind of reading as someone crazy about them, and who has got three or four at home. The last one will be into the scene on the verge of a second to save the cat together with the character. It is the same for other situations and books. In my novel Mademoiselle–Seine, the main character Louise is a successful businesswoman – CEO of her own marketing agency in NY. She is in her middle forties, and due to stress she has been having heart problems. in her business life, but on love, sex and emotions, she says she has only got bad luck. Her doctor recommends her to take a break, maybe a month vacation in a place away from the city. So anyone who works lots and feels this lack of passion in person life will go to France with her and find out pleasure with the lessons taught by Madame–Seine – a retired cabaret dancer. This “click” puts us-humans right into the fictional world; and out there, who knows… we can learn with them and change our lives as well?

In that same sense, you must create antagonists that are equally unlikeable, because the more terrible the villain is the harder we cheer when the hero overcomes them.

How do you create a villain that we can love to hate?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Yes, the villain should be as evil as you can make him/her. We’ve tended to blur the vision is the past few decades, where heroes are not always good, and villains are not always bad. But if you want a great villain, give the readers a really evil person who just might kill that cat if your hero doesn’t act fast enough.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak I write a lot of horror, so a lot of the time, my protagonist is the antagonist; the characters get into situations that they have created for themselves and have to subsequently overcome.  I build the character as likable, then show the cracks in the facade.  Nobody likes to be wrong; for some people, the worst thing they could ever have to do is change their minds.  That, all by itself, is a kind of horror.  A lot of ghost stories are about a character, or the descendants or relatives or employees of a character, who took advantage of someone else and won’t admit it. Only when someone admits that the ghost or the original victim of the ghost got a raw deal can the story be resolved.  In some ghost stories, nobody ever really, publicly admits that “mistakes were made”–and somebody winds up dead.

For other books, I write more traditional villains.  In that case, I try to write antagonists who are the heroes of their own stories.  Not just protagonists, but heroes.  They put themselves up on some kind of pedestal.  If only other people could see how great they are!  That’s a satisfying kind of person to see get knocked down.  There’s a German word, Backpfeifengesicht, that means, “face in need of fist”. I like to write smart, well-developed villians who have that kind of face.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy Villains are fun to write because you take off the gloves. They do what they want with no morals and plenty of malice. But I always say that the best villains have a purpose just as big as the hero’s is. Unless they’re a stark raving madman they need to see what they’re doing as the best route to take for a certain reason, not just because its in the plot. Its important to ask why any of your characters do what they do. A good example is in the Netflix series Daredevil. The infamous Kingpin (played beautifully by the amazing Vincent D’Onofrio) is on a mission to “clean-up” Hell’s Kitchen. He has some unscrupulous methods for doing that but in his mind doing dirty deeds is worth it if he can reach his goal of making the place he grew up that much better.

RA Winter

RA Winter I like my villains to play on emotions and the insecurities of characters.  But, there has to be a goal for each character, even the bad ones, and it has to be something attainable. A good villain brings out the hero in the MC by allowing the MC to overcome their own shortcomings.

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre If we like the hero because they possess characteristics we wish we had, then it stands to reason we’ll dislike the antagonist because the antagonist possesses characteristics we don’t like. We don’t like that we are sometimes similar to them and the way they behave. There are certain things that are kind of universal. Dropping the tray in the lunch room and having everybody stare at you and being embarrassed, everybody has been in a situation similar to that. By the same token, we recognize when somebody is being mean to us, or teasing us, or pretending to be nice so they can get what they want from us. And then that’s just for openers. Then if we see them kick the dog as they walk down the street, or as soon as someone’s out of earshot they talk bad about them, they reveal their true character. We hate meanness and duplicity. So you give all those characteristics to your bad guy, and reveal them slowly so we are gripping our fists and yelling at the page.


Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Giving them traits that you find distasteful in people around you. Arrogance can be borderline as a love or hate trait, depending on how that particular trait is balanced. For example, an arrogant hero would be loyal and have traits that make a reader love them despite their arrogance. In a villain, however, you would pair the arrogance with violence and narcissism, giving them many traits that the reader will find unlikeable.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I try to make my villains true to life too.  I love switching perspectives in a story so the reader gets a well-rounded view.  There are plenty of villains in real life.  While everyone does have a sense of good in them, that sense of good can be really small.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne I try to make my villains true to life too.  I love switching perspectives in a story so the reader gets a well-rounded view.  There are plenty of villains in real life.  While everyone does have a sense of good in them, that sense of good can be really small.

Margareth Stewart

Margareth Stewart I created a great villain in Open/ Pierre’s journey after war. He was a contradictory old sir—owner of a second-hand bookshop. At the same time; he was a war-fanatic, perverse and authoritarian who undermines Pierre all the time. But, he speaks great truths – about men finding the meaning of life through war, that killing has always been a method of keeping population balance in the world and that peace is very artificial–men are born to war. Besides all that, he is always suspecting that Pierre might rob him and it is him who robs Pierre. It is a tricky situation just like in real-life situations which unfolhds when there is no more time for action. When Pierre finds out the truth, and how he was completely fooled by the owner, he’d do anything else as he goes back and take on revenge.

In order to act, characters need to be motivated by a goal, which they strive to meet, or to avoid unpleasant consequences. The motivation can be personal, being important to the character, such as loss of one’s life or harm to a loved one, or it can be external, such as avoiding the total destruction of the world.

How do you motivate your characters?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Very good. In 1932 Lester Dent gave his character Doc Savage a motto to live by. I wish I could print it here, but basically Doc and his team would go anywhere to fight evil, and save the world from bad people. They lived by that motto. Doc never took a life, knowingly, though many foes he faced fell into their own traps at the end of the story. My characters have this same motivation as Doc Savage’s men. However, not all my heroes refuse to take lives. When they go up against the underworld, they fight gun against gun, and hoodlums die. In Carnival of Death a Ninja penetrates The Black Ghost’s Central Control and fights Hui Yo Chae in a death match.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak The way you see the world kind of drives the actions you take.  If you believe the world is out to get you, you might lash out at the world before it can.  Finding out new information, especially if it has an emotional impact, can make you change your actions suddenly.  Most people react to what they perceive about the world; they don’t necessarily see themselves as having motivations or even goals on a daily basis.  Why do laundry? What’s your motivation?  Tell me about your goals, when you wash dishes.  That kind of thing.  Some people are ambitious, which is nice, because the character is already acting assertively toward the world.  But not every character needs to start out with a goal.
A lot of time, I’ll set up the way the character sees the world and let the character react.  I used to struggle with this.  I’d try to force an essentially passive character to have goals, motivations, ambitions.  It was like trying to motivate Jell-O.  But give a character an opinion about the world, a past that still affects them, and a future that they either look forward to or dread or don’t really much care about, and I can provoke them into a reaction.  Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy didn’t have a motivation or even a goal.  He just got dragged through the books by outside events (until he found his passion, making sandwiches).  That’s really how most of us live, ricocheting from one provocation from the universe to another.  It’s really only when we’ve reached a threshold we can’t tolerate that we decide to get proactive.  Sometimes that happens in backstory and a character comes across as driven; sometimes it happens on the page, and you get to see them change.
Dan Alatorre

Alatorre Alfred Hitchcock once said a good story is life with the boring bits taken out. So how you motivate your character is you distill their story and their characteristics a bit. You boil down their motivation to something that is large and crystalline in their eyes, and then you have them focus a lot of attention on it so that the reader knows it’s important and big. And then you put things in the way of them achieving that goal, and by seeing they are willing to go through huge lengths to get over those obstacles, it says that goal is really important to them. So we the reader start to buy into it. You put obstacles in their way and show how determined they are to still get to that goal. That how you motivate your characters and that’s how you show they are motivated.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman The motivation depends entirely on the plot line of the story. By knowing my characters as well as I do, I can ensure that regardless of what is happening at any point in a story or plot line, that my characters act according to who they are, being true to themselves and the characters around them. Most of the time that action or motivation comes from love. Love for their partner, family or the world/life as a whole. There’s little point, after all, being a romance writer, if love isn’t the deciding factor in all character motivations.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I come up with a plot first and the characters fall into place.  I pick characters who will strive to fulfill the object of the plot.  Normally I motivate the characters by putting a loved one in danger.  I also tend to put the main character in a perilous situation and they have to find their way to safety.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne Throwing a curve ball into their path, forcing them to figure out how to deal with an unexpected obstacle.  Sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don’t.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil My characters are motivate by love, family and loyalty.  When dealing with these three things, all differences can be cast aside and they can work together.

Characters change and grow through the adversaries that they face and the obstacles they overcome. Give us an example of this in your own writing.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Jimmy Malone, The Black Ghost was just a boy when he put on the cape and hood. He grows stronger and more motivated in each succeeding story, and brings aides/agents in to assist him in his fight against the underworld. But he tries to never put his agents in harms way, always attempting to understand the foes next move before he acts. Always anticipating the move on a chessboard, so he doesn’t fail.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak My favorite ones are the ones where characters have to face their own past attitudes. I hate to give examples, because having to face down someone you used to be–or someone you could have been, or who you fight not to become–makes for a really excellent plot twist.  Oh, you thought you were fighting literal demons?  The demons were the easy part!
The flip side, where the characters resist facing themselves and try to treat their adversaries and obstacles as purely external, is also fun to write. I have one character, Frank Mallory from my series Company Justice, who is probably the best character at resisting change that I’ve ever written. I’m working on book 3 and he’s still like, “I refuse to change, despite everything that has happened to me.” It’s not that he’s a bad person or that he does bad things. But he’s been through so much trauma that he really needs to take a break and stop pushing himself, and he won’t. I really wonder what will happen when he does admit that’s he can’t function anymore.
Cynthia Vespia
colorheadshot - Copy Adversaries come in many forms, not just another person. In my last novel Karma (Book 1 in the Silke Butters Superhero Series) my main character Silke is initially faced with the obstacle that her father has died suddenly. This sets an immediate tone right out of the blocks. From there she is faced with the challenge of her developing superpowers that, up until this point, she knew nothing about. Throughout the novel my supporting characters, and even my villain, all have their own obstacles and challenges to get through. It makes a meatier plot when you throw in several swerves and keep you characters dancing.
RA Winter
RA Winter In RedHorse, the second in the Spirit Key series, Jack RedHorse is hurt in Afghanistan and loses an arm. Rehabilitation doesn’t come easy. He has to learn to love himself before he can give his love to someone else. Compounding the situation is the spirits of the ancients who talk to him constantly. RedHorse is bombarded with self-doubt and has to learn to trust himself or seek help from others.
Dan Alatorre

Alatorre In The Navigators, I had a group of post-graduate college students who were kind of pampered. And after they discover a time machine and all the bad things it does to them, they grow up. One in particular was a girl who, at the beginning, everybody would think she was just there to round out the bench. No, she ends up having to overcome many obstacles and she ends up being the lead character, because she didn’t run away when the opportunity to run away appeared. She hung in there. So by the end of story, she’s realized she’s gonna start making her own decision, that she’ll start being in charge for myself. She went from a good person who cared about others but was a little spoiled and naïve, to somebody who was still a good natured and cared about others but who is deciding to be an adult. Before, she was floating along and letting others make her life decisions; now she decided she’s going to be an adult.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman One of my characters from my Unexpected series, Quintessa, came from a wolf pack, where her alpha is a mean hate-filled character, and all the unmated she-wolves are basically treated like slaves, domestically and sexually. Quintessa meets her soulmate from another pack and she discovers that there is a different way to live, and that relationships between male wolves and she-wolves can be on a far more equal footing. Now of course, this doesn’t happen overnight, and we see Quintessa’s character grow and change over the series until she comes into her own after a long period of training with another character and learning how to love with her mate. There are other characters from the same pack that undertake a similar transformation, again over a period of time, slowly growing and changing until they all blossom into amazing characters that the reader is invested in.

What tools do you use to help readers get to know your characters?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Most of my characters are married or family men and women, and I want the readers to think of them as their families also. I look for families in all walks of life. The mother might say something your mother would say, or the father.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak Wordcount.  I don’t throw readers straight into action anymore.   I build an actual POV before I break out the monsters.
Cynthia Vespia
colorheadshot - Copy This is where POV, interaction with other characters, and how they face their obstacles comes into play. I give each of my characters distinct personalities so I know them to their core. This way when it comes time for them to react to something, each of them will react a different way based on their beliefs, morals, attitudes, etc.
Dan Alatorre

Alatorre Dialogue. You can take pages to show somebody demonstrating lots of good actions, or you can have two characters have a chat while they’re doing something else and inadvertently reveal it. A lighthearted conversation can suddenly drop in something really deep, as can two characters having an argument or a romantic moment. I tend to use dialogue to help the reader get to know my characters because it’s easier to see somebody being smart in dialogue than it is to see them being smart by doing something.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I guess the same tools we use to get to know people in real life. My characters talk to each other, they get to know each other by sharing snippets of their life with each other. Sometimes it might not be dialogue that the reader see’s that introduces elements of my characters, but rather their actions, or the clothes they wear, that give away who the character is, for example my main character in An Unexpected Bonding, Livvie, is sat in a bar wearing a pair of dusty jeans, and a worn plaid shirt with a tear from a barb-wire snag. She’s shown as not being bothered by her appearance, being comfortable in her own skin from the simple fact she went for a drink in her work clothes, including her spurs.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I sneak in hints about past trauma.  Most of my characters have troubled pasts, but it can be difficult not to start info-dumping.  Its a fine balance of information versus too much information.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne Memories,  conversations with other characters about the past, and sometimes dreams.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil Teasers featuring quotes from the book, Q&A sessions in my reader group and character takeovers.

Amy, I think this is a great idea.

Can you explain more about how you use promotional tools to let readers know about the story?

Amy Cecil Sure… we’ll I think the whole quote and teaser thing is pretty self-explanatory so I’ll just go into the Q&A and character TO’s.

For the Q&A- First I give my readers a brief bio about the character with a google form where they can submit questions. I don’t always get a lot of submissions so i always make sure I have at least five questions as back up. Then I present it a couple of ways. Sometimes in one post as if I’m interviewing the character or each question as it’s own post with responses. Just depends on my mood, which I call a Character Takeover.

How do you give each of your characters a distinctive voice?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I think through their background. Using The Black Ghost again: George Freeman is a newspaper reporter, but he is also a retired Army Ranger, and still keeps his hair cut short, and uses Army life as a conversation starter; Paula Marsh owns a small boutique; Lamont Rogers is a professor with a lab and does scientific studies; Hui Yo Chae is of Korean descent, master of taekwondo and electronics, and monitors Central Control, The Black Ghost’s network of computers and telephone communications. None are alike. Believe me, George Freeman can tell you how to prepare desert snakes and scorpions for a tasty meal.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak I step into their shoes, their history, their opinions, how they see the world.  I don’t know that my characters really do have distinctive voices.  I mean, they’re all filtered through me, so I feel like there are some pretty glaring similarities.  But I try to care about what they care about, at that moment, and I hope that keeps them reasonably distinct.  A character who is trying to hide the fact that they’re consumed by a desire for revenge, even if that revenge will be served cold, should sound different than the person who angered them in the first place, just because of what’s going on in their lives.  Or at least that’s what I hope!
Cynthia Vespia
colorheadshot - Copy I draw from real people to develop my characters so they are fully fleshed out before I even begin. I know who they are, what they want, and how they react to certain stimuli. Their character makeup tells me what their voice is. And the more multi-faceted they are the better.
RA Winter
RA Winter This may sound odd, but I have a playlist for each MC. When I’m writing their scenes, I listen to their music.  This brings me closer to the character and my writing changes for each unique voice.  I have everything from classical, rock, rap, and country music on my playlists depending on the mood I want the MC to have for each scene.
Dan Alatorre

Alatorre Giving each character is distinctive voice is really fun. One of the highest compliments I can pay to a writer is to say we know which character is speaking even if you don’t identify them to us, because you had made them all so distinctive and unique. Without writing cliché characters, what you do is you make somebody not neutral. Think about the seven dwarves. I’m sure they were all good workers and I’m sure they were all good managers and I’m sure they were all good friends, but give each one a nickname then make sure that Sleepy yawns a lot and that Dopey acts silly. Grumpy might act silly on occasion, too, but Grumpy always needs to let you know how grumpy he is. So you start out with that core, and then you add some other elements to the core so that they’re not two dimensional cardboard characters. They need to be distinct, so they have to always come from their core. Don’t make them two-dimensional, but make sure their core shows in everything they do. When I was reading Game of Thrones, Circe’s bitterness and ugliness and venom came through every time she opened her mouth – but because her scenes were spread over a 1000 page book, it wasn’t overwhelming. The right amount of salt for the soup. If you took all her scenes and put them one after another, it would’ve been too much and she’d have been cartoonish. Blend them into the proper scenes at the proper time for it not to be overkill. Balancing that is fun, and it’s really fun to see somebody else do it as well.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Knowing who each character is, and understanding their traits helps to create a distinctive voice for each character.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I base my characters off of real life.  Everyone is a unique person to me, and therefore they grow their own voices.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne I do my best to delve into each one, good and bad, and allow their essence to flow from my mind to the keyboard.

Which of your characters was the most fun to write? Why?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak Generally any main character in a novel is going to be at least my temporary favorite to write, because I get to know them so well, and they have the room to act like complete brats.  But I’m going to say that anytime I get to write Alice, that’s the best.
(Note: DeAnna’s Alice takes you on a trip to a steampunk Wonderland in great Carrol-esque fashion in her book Clockwork Alice. You can see my review of it here.)
Dan Alatorre
Alatorre Hmm… That’s a tough question because my answer probably will be a little opposite of what you would think. My main character is almost never the most fun character to write. His or her task is to carry the story.
Sergio in my new murder mystery Double Blind is the main character, and he was a lot of fun to write, but usually it’s the secondary characters that are most fun. Father Frank in An Angel On Her Shoulder, Sam in Poggibonsi. I love writing comedy, so I love when I bring in somebody who is a little goofy or quirky or who gums up the works unintentionally.
They are fun to write because they say the witty and funny things we all wish we could say, and they do some of the things we all wish we could do, but they almost always create additional hurdles for the main character to get over – in a fun way. We like them.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Lady Jacqueline, Duchess of Wolvarden from Red Wolf was the most fun for me to write. She is a very strong and independent character, but you also see a softness to her and moments of weakness that makes her human. She also has an innocence that tempers the strength of her character giving her a femineity that her aggressive nature would otherwise dominate.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil Ripper – do I really need to answer that? (LOL)  Everyone knows that Jack the Ripper was never caught, nobody knew who he was or what happened to him.  Nobody knows why he murdered.  Getting into his head and making him the Ripper that I wanted was empowering. He took me down the streets of Whitechapel.  He was my guide into his world.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan Amethyst Treasure! She is outrageous. Nothing was too much for her. She had me laughing so many times. I started off thinking she would be a typical rich girl, but as I wrote, she developed into something much more than that. (TREASURE DARKLY)

Which of your antagonists is your favorite? Why?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak The Queen of Fairies from the Fairy’s Tale books.  She’s not evil or bad or even uncaring; she’s just not human, and she’s trying to save her people, and humanity’s just kind of in the way.  We’re like evil Guinea pigs to her.
Dan Alatorre
 Alatorre Similarly, a really good antagonist has to have every single reader cringing and gripping their fists and wishing they could punch the book in the nose.
You just have to think of the absolute worst thing this person could do, and then you have to do it. Maybe that’s embarrassing the main character, maybe it’s teasing them, maybe it’s ridiculing them, maybe it’s – well, it’s almost always getting in the way of them achieving their goal, but a lot of times when the villain really enjoys what they are doing, and doing it with a cruel and sadistic enjoyment, readers hate that person. And that’s what you want. You want them to hate your bad guy.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I don’t have a favourite antagonist. I can’t help but hate each one I’ve written. None of them have any redeeming traits to allow a reader (or the writer!) to feel any connection to them. You find yourself cheering for everything they get in the end.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan Elizabeth Clifford (ESCAPE FROM WITCHWOOD HOLLOW). She’s the bad guy – hurting people, ruining families, killing. However, there’s a dark past to her and she’s really just an injured young woman. It was fun writing about her from the POVs of her victims and from her. She’s more than just a bad guy.

Nonfiction authors don’t create characters, they portray people, but it’s still a matter of bringing out qualities that they need the reader to see. When well done, the reader sees a well rounded person, with both positive and negative qualities of personality. Nonfiction author Mark Shaw is very talented in giving readers a glimpse inside his character’s, who happen to be true life people, heads in a manner that makes readers sit up and take notice. So let’s ask him to help us examine the differences.
When writing nonfiction, the author doesn’t create the characters, but instead must figure out how to portray traits that exist in real life characters.
Do you feel this is limiting for you as a writer, or does it make character portrayals easier for you?
Mark Shaw
MarkAtSFTS (1) Since I strive to portray the subjects I write about through their own words and through primary sources who knew them, there is no limitation at all. Writers who speculate too much are the cause of many distortions of the subject’s portrayal, a common occurrence on the internet.
What draws you to a subject which compels you to tell their story? 
Mark Shaw
MarkAtSFTS (1) Stories about fascinating people seem to find me especially when they have to do with themes such as women’s rights, courage and justice. With Dorothy Kilgallen, I also was intrigued with the fact that this remarkable journalist was forgotten, erased from history and I knew I have to do something about that. Words are the writer’s weapons for change, words that make readers stop and think about important issues, that is why we write.
What kinds of things do you do to get inside someone’s head so you can tell their story, since your subjects are not available to give a firsthand account? 
MarkAtSFTS (1) I very rarely ever, if ever, use information that is not firsthand, that is not from primary sources. And if I do use material that is not a firsthand account, I find confirming evidence from another credible source. I do not speculate.
What tools do you use to reveal the characteristics of your subjects to your readers? 
MarkAtSFTS (1) Interviews with those who are eyewitnesses to accounts about my subjects.
How do you give your subjects a distinctive voice?
MarkAtSFTS (1) By using their voice, for instance, with Dorothy, her newspaper columns, articles, etc. that she wrote as well as articles about her where she is quoted.

In real life, even the best, most saintly people have flaws which may make them unlikeable.

How do you balance the traits of your subjects to make them relatable to readers? Do you gloss over their negative aspects and emphasize the positive? Or?

MarkAtSFTS (1) No, I write a balanced portrayal of my subjects, good, bad and ugly. For instance, in The Reporter Who Knew Too Much and the upcoming Denial of Justice, I point out Dorothy having had two affairs, one of which resulted in the birth of her youngest son, Kerry.

So it seems that interesting characters are full of surprises, and kind of quirky aith an engaging voice and intriguing history. They are not two demensional, but well rounded with many layers and they are flawed or imperfect in some way.

In nonfiction, you start by choosing a compelling subject for your story, but still the characters must be balanced and true to life. This is accomplished through thorough research and interviews to capture their voice.

Characters which catch the reader’s interest may emulate qualities we would like to have ourselves, but above all else a characters must be relatable for the reader in some way. They have a distinctive voice Readers must be able to like and relate to our characters and they must be able to hate our villians in order for the story to work. 

There also must be conflicts for the character to face. The hero’s goodness must be balanced out by the evilness of the villians. The greater inner fears they must face and the bigger the external obstacles he must overcome, the better the hero.

I want to thank our panel members for sharing from their own works and offering us their insights. I invite you all to join us here on Ask the Authors next week, when our author panel will discuss world building, sensory details and effective dialog. 

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Ask the Authors: Character Development


Let’s talk about developing characters. What makes them tick? What motivates them? Are they based on real people or achetypes or created from the gray matter in the writer’s head? What are they afraid of? And how do we as authors know these things? And how do we give our characters depth? Readers need to walk away from the story feeling as if the characters are whole, complex human beings, complete with personality and history. Let’s Ask the Authors about their methods for creating character, and feel free to share what works for you in the comments if you’re so inclined.

There are many methods we can use to create rich, in-depth characters, with backgrounds and histories, and belief systems ingrained from childhood. Some authors people watch and build from their observations. Others use the Proust Questionaire or similar tools to develop charaters and give them depth. A popular practice these days for bloggers to promote new releases is to interview the protagonist of the book instead of the author. I’ve never employed this practice here on Writing to be Read, but I have entertained the idea thinking it might be fun. 

What methods do you use to develop your characters?

DeAnna Knippling: I copy real people, or amalgamate real people, into a single character.  I’m trying to strip them down to one identifying “verb.”  My favorite example of a character who’s been simplified into delightfulness is Ash Williams from the Evil Dead franchise…his “verb” is “DO THE WORST POSSIBLE THING, BABY.”  Another good one is Heath Ledger’s Joker, whose “verb” might be something like, “do the thing that makes the situation not funny anymore.”  Like I said, still working on that.

Jordan Elizabeth: I’m not sure how to answer this one.  I write the first draft as the characters guide me.  Usually advanced character development happens in the editing phase.

Chris DiBella: I try to make my good guys likeable and I try to make my bad guys complete jerks. All my books have the same cast of main characters (good guys), so I want the reader to enjoy them enough to want to keep coming back for the next thirty novels I put out. I try to make them bad-asses, but also believable with how I project their characters. I also try to inject a lot of humor in my dialogue so that they appear like normal everyday folks. On the flip side, I want people to hate my antagonist so much that they actually scream out in cheer when Mercer kills them. I even get excited when I think about how I want to write their demise. It’s all just a fun part of the process.

Chris Barili: I start with a basic character triangle. What the character wants, what she needs, and her fears/faults. For shorter works, that’s all I do. For novellas or novels I’ll do a biography sheet on each major character.  That bio is four pages long when blank, and can be as long as 15 filled out. It has everything from their looks (which I often fashion after famous people) to their inner workings.

Tim Baker: My one and only method of character development is the story itself. At the beginning of the story each character (with the exception of recurring characters like Ike and Brewski) are strangers to me. I might know their basic personality but I learn about them as I write because I use their interactions with other characters, as well as their role in the story to bring out their individual personalities.

Cynthia Vespia: No matter the genre I build my characters with realistic qualities so they are more relatable to the readers.

Art Rosch: If a writer is not a psychologist (I mean one who studies human nature and matters of heart and mind, not a certified this-or-that) I’m likely to put down the book or story by said writer.  Psychology is fundamental to writing.  Where to start?  With yourself, of course.  You, in your mind/body system, are a living laboratory of human nature.  Extend your field of observation to your family, your friends, and then keep going.  We are more the same than we are different.  I’ve been helped immensely by reading psychology books.  I’m a Jungian and a great fan of James Hillman.  Jung gives us the archetypes.  We write in archetypes and flesh out our characters with individual quirks and traits.

It’s not only the protagonists that needs to be developed into a deep, rich character, but also our supporting characters. Like real people, experiences affect how the character relates to the world around them and to the other characters in the story. Characters have to have relationships and the backgrounds and histories of the minor characters plays into how these relationships function within the story. The nature of a relationship may also affect the protagonist’s actions and it need to be clear to readers why this releationship has such an effect.

Although characters with minor roles my not need to be developed as deeply as your main players, and their roles may be so minute that there’s not room to share their background with readers, we as the authors should at least have a vague idea of where each character is coming from. Backgrounds should be more detailed for the more major characters, with more of where they each are coming from being exposed to viewers.

Different methods of doing this may be dependent on the point of view(s) with which the author choses to tell the story. A Point of View (POV) offers the reader a window into a story which allows them to see a certain angle or perspective. When using a single POV, one of the drawbacks is that it is limiting, in that the reader will only know what the protagonist knows or experiences, and nothing more, which can make it difficult if you need to let readers know what the antagonist is up to. Multiple POVs, on the other hand, remedy that particular problem, but you risk getting the reader confused if you don’t make it clear who’s head we are in at all times. Let’s see if one is more popular than the other among our author panel members.

Do you prefer single or multiple POVs?

DeAnna Knippling: Depends on the story.  I do both.
Jordan Elizabeth: I love multiple POVs.  I get excited being able to explore different minds.
Carol Riggs: I much prefer single points of view. Limited ones, where the reader is locked into one character’s head throughout the novel, and no info is gained except from what that character learns. I love this setup because it’s exactly like our experiences in life—we only know our POV. It adds to a sense of mystery, with that not-knowing. I’ve thought about writing a multiple POV novel a couple of times, but I’ve actually never written one!
Chris Barili: Depends what I’m writing. Short stories are always single POV. Well, almost. I did sell one framed short story that had two POVs, and wrote another like that. Longer works, it depends. The stories in the Hell’s Butcher Series are one POV, either Frank’s for the larger books or someone else’s for t he shorter works. Smothered, my PNR novel (as B.T. Clearwater) has three points of view, one of which is a ghost. And the fantasy novel I sent to an editor this weekend has four POVs. It’s whatever works to advance the plot and make the story complete.
Tim Baker: I prefer multiple POVs. In my books I tend to write different parts of the story from the POV of one character or another. When I do – the reader only knows what that character knows. To me it’s more entertaining to learn the story at the same time the characters learn it.
Cynthia Vespia: As I’m developing a few new series I have found that multiple POV is alot more fun to write in, and it helps create a fuller world.
I think that, as our creations, our writings are a part of us. After all, everything we write has a little bit of ourselves in it. Whether we base your characters on real life people that we know, or invent them in our minds from the depths of our imaginations, they are bound to have traits in common with their creator. Let’s see what our author panel thinks.
Have you created any of your characters based on people who you know in real life?
DeAnna Knippling: All the time 🙂
Jordan Elizabeth:  Oma from Goat Children is the character most closely based on a real person.  She is my maternal grandmother personified.  (Goat Children is about a girl caring for her grandmother, who has dementia.  I based much of it off my real life experiences.)
Janet Garber: I take the 5th. Seriously, most characters are a blend or composite of people or I use some characteristic of their lives and take off from there.
I like to start with a person I know slightly or not at all  and make up a fantastic backstory. I did this with the wife of my husband’s work colleague – took a few details from her real life and embellished like crazy. I’ve been praying ever since that she won’t get her hands on this story! More recently after spending time with my 95 year old mother, I turned her into a character who decides to try online dating. At her age. And meets with success of a kind. I took care to describe a young relative in another story and made up a story of the rest of her life. Most often, I use elements of a living person as a starting point.
Carol Riggs: Sure! But not exactly like them. I just borrow a trait, whether a physical look or an attitude or so on. Like I see someone walking down the street with a certain gait, or I notice someone has allergies and is breathing through his mouth because his nose is stuffed up. Even something as simple as someone’s unusual name or my first high school crush’s name as a tribute to him. Real life is great fodder for spicing up my characters and making them more real.
Chris DiBella: I tend to use a lot of people I know in real life as references for my characters, and I even use the actual names of those people in the books. My two biggest examples of this are Pat Vigil and Tim Baker. Pat was my best friend in real life. He passed away unexpectedly a few years back and I was having a rough time dealing with losing him. At the time, I didn’t have a partner for my main character, so I just wrote Patrick in as that character. I decided to write him exactly how he was in real life. So every smart-mouthed reply or gesture he makes is how he would act if he was in those circumstances. It’s my way of honoring my friend and keeping him alive in the books. The parts about him always being the person I counted on for anything is also true, and even though he’s a snarky guy with a comeback for everything, he was the one friend I knew would come running no matter what I needed him for.
Chris Barili: Yes, both intentionally and unintentionally.
Art Rosch: Are you kidding?  Of course I have. See my answer on methods of development. I’ve portrayed my family and invented an extra sibling who is something of a composite with my sister’s qualities mixed with traits that are far more malignant.  It wasn’t difficult to turn my mother into a villain.  She was the kind of person who made everyone else miserable.  This is how I define evil: someone who escapes pain by transmitting it to other people.  My poor mom is gone now, so I can write about her with some objectivity.  What writer doesn’t use the human material, the people who populate his or her world?
Have you created characters from archetypes?
DeAnna Knippling: Meh.  I think archetypes are looking at character from a reader/critic’s point of view.  What makes an archetype an archetype and how do you write that?  Far more interesting.
Jordan Elizabeth: Not that I can think of.
Chris Barili: No, but after catching a class on that by Rebecca Moesta and Chris Mandeville at Superstars Writing Seminars, I plan to try it.
Tim Baker: I try to avoid this at all costs. I want my characters to ring true as real people. I don’t like clichés.
Art Rosch: Oh.  Again, see my answer on methods of development.  Looks like an archetype.  Feels like an archetype.  Smells like an archetype.  Has the texture of an archetype.  Good thing we didn’t step in it. (this is an old joke, one that I find very funny.  One of the other funniest things I’ve seen is the cartoon of two Indians (native Americans) walking in the desert.  A huge mushroom cloud is growing on the horizon.  One guy looks at the other and says: “It’s for you.”
It looks like archetypes aren’t very popular with these authors. Only Art Rosch admits to using archetypes in character development. In my studies I learned that archetypes are there, even when we don’t purposefully use them. I’ve found that some stories lend themselves to more obvious archetypes. While my Playground for the Gods series is science fantasy, encompassing world mythologies, it lends itself to the obvious use of archetypes. It is non stretch to see Enki as the trickster or to identify Inanna’s hero’s journey. While Delilah‘s hero’s journey may be a little less obvious, it is there, non-the-less. Every story has a hero and a villian, which are both archetypes, but it seems not all authors conciously set out to use them.

This quote found on “It’s All About the Words.

Anything we write which we have passion reflects that passion in the writing, the thoughts and opinions expressed coming from within ourselves. It’s inevitable, unless we’re writing ad copy or technical manuals. How can we expect to not inject at least a little of ourselves into our chacaters?
This post has me thinking about these things, and it occurred to me that Delilah is like my alter-ego. Delilah is tough and gritty and she she never fails to stand up for what she believes is right. She faces down outlaws and lynch mobs without showing the face of fear. She’s all the things I wish I was, but can’t be, at least not in polite society. Let’s see how our panel members see it. 
Do you have traits in common with any of your characters?
DeAnna Knippling: Sometimes.  More often it’s just that I empathize with them.  I have one character that I based on myself, for a series I don’t have out yet.  THAT was a weird writing experience, let me tell you.
Jordan Elizabeth: There is one character in a manuscript not yet published who I based strongly off of me.  Critique partners hated her!  They kept commenting on her flaws and they were things I do.  It was embarrassing! Since then I’ve tried to improve myself by being less like that character.
Janet Garber: 5th again!
Carol Riggs: There’s likely a little bit of me in every one of my characters. Although it’s awfully fun to write characters who are different from me in some way—more bolder, reckless, daring, and adventurous. They do things I wouldn’t have the personality or interest for. I can live vicariously through them. Even so, they still have basics that I value: a caring for others, a willingness to sacrifice for a greater cause, and a spirit that will get back up again and try again even after it’s been broken and stomped on.
Chris DiBella: I keep the answer to this question heavily guarded, and my wife is the only one who knows the answer with all the juicy details, so when you do an “Ask The Authors Wives” segment, perhaps this will be revealed…
(Kaye: You know Chris, that’s not a bad idea. Hmmm….)
Chris Barili: Of course. Anyone who says they don’t is lying. If nothing else, our characters pick up traits from us as writers the instant we put them on paper. I do have a woman with Parkinson’s as a character in a PNR novella I’m currently writing, though.
Tim Baker: People have asked me quite often, “which character in your books is the most like you?” I always give the same answer…”There is a little bit of me in all of my characters. How could there not be?”
Art Rosch: In my autobiographical novel, Confessions of an Honest Man, I have a character whom I love very much.  He is the jazz saxophonist Zoot Prestige.  He is Aaron Kantro’s mentor and  he knows enough about Aaron’s struggles during childhood to anticipate that Aaron is heading for difficult times. He admonishes his young friend.  He tells him “Ask for help when you feel overwhelmed.  You can’t get out of a crisis by yourself.  Remember what I’m telling you, ’cause I don’t like to give advice.  People who give advice are boring.  Just remember…when you feel like you’ve hit bottom, ask for help.” Aaron is a surrogate for myself.  I did ask for help.  And I found it.
Characters, especially your protagonist, must take action in order for the story to move forward. In order to take action, charactors must have some type of motivation. Motivation can come in many forms, usually an obstacle to be overcome. External obstacles such as nature, illness, or the institution must be tackled, but your character still needs to have some sort of inner motivation to take on the job.
The character’s flaws or fears are the basis for all character motivation. I mean think about it, if the character has a secret or a flaw they wish to keep hidden, it can be a motivator. Fear of what might happen may prompt a chacter to take action to avoid a negative outcome, whether that outcome is not being eaten by the monster, avoiding a punishment from the law or their parents or holding on to the love they’re afraid of losing. But, if you get right down to it, it’s not really the secret that motivates the character to action, but the fear of discovery that prompts them to do something about the situation.
What kinds of fears or flaws do you give your characters?
DeAnna Knippling: I love having characters who have blind spots, like the character who has issues due to PTSD remembering exactly who a serial killer was, because he was tortured by same, or the little girl who doesn’t have a lot of empathy until she’s experienced a situation or seen the consequences herself–and ends up hurting her friends.  I used to want to be a psychologist when I grew up, so there’s a wide variety of mental things going on with my characters.
Jordan Elizabeth: I try not to make my characters clumsy.  That feels overdone in YA literature.  I aim for emotional insecurities that they can overcome to be stronger at the end.
Tim Baker: I try to make my characters as “real” as possible. I give them whatever fears and flaws are necessary to fit the story. In other words I won’t disclose that a character has a fear of spiders if it isn’t relevant to the plot. I also trey to do the same thing with their flaws – without getting to cliché…you know, the alcoholic ex-cop bent on revenge…or the egomaniac villain stroking his white cat. Like I said – I try to keep it real!
Margareth Stewart: The main character usually takes the lead in actions, writing tone, and pace of the narrative. I give my characters autonomy to be doing so. This is something I have been trying to work out more and more with – the matching of the narrative and the main voice within the plot. If it´s a young girl in her thirties using slang and never settling down, the pace of the novel should be like that, too. That is in my new thriller Zero Chance. In Open/Pierre´s journey after war, for instance, I have crafted Pierre in slow motion, in pain, also moving slowly in time and space, and the narrative follows that way, too. So actually, it is all about giving the main character: the voice, the narrative, and the POV. I get a little tense if readers are going to understand that, anyway it´s how I have been working work my novels out.
Cynthia Vespia: Again, I like to base my characters in reality. That means giving them flaws and fears. The more rich development you can give to a character, the more the reader can identify with them.
Art Rosch: We all fear the same things.  We fear illness, pain, poverty, failure, loneliness.  Some of us fear death.  I’m not particularly afraid of death but I’m terrified by the processes that will inevitably take me there.  When I passed sixty five years I began a more intense conversation with death.  It changes things.  I transfer these emotions into my characters.  That’s what writers do.  We personify our feelings through the tools of literature.  I’ve noted that it’s much easier to identify with a flawed character.  People with addictions and weaknesses are much more approachable, they give us a warm and cuddly sensation.  Who loves perfect people?  High achievers give me the creeps.  I prefer characters who eat too many cookies in bed….or maybe have an appetite for substances….or maybe talk too much…you know…human beings.  In The Shadow Storm I have a world leader who is afflicted with bi-polar disorder.  It proves to be his un-doing.  The only characters who have no flaws are the villains.  Sometimes a villain can achieve an icy smoothness which is impenetrable.  There’s no way to approach a character like that.

Some authors claim that their characters come alive and not only talk to them, but take control of pen or keyboard and guide the scene in directions the author never expected. I personally experienced this while writing Delilah. Whenever I’d get stuck and not know where the story was supposed to go, I’d close my eyes and ask her, and she would make the scene unfold in my mind. And yes, there were times when the results surprised me, but the story was better for it. So, let’s ask our author panel what they think.



This quote found on “It’s All About the Words”

Do your characters ever do things that surprise you? Can you give an example?
DeAnna Knippling: My characters tend to annoy me.  “Oh my God, would you just stop being so…yourself?!?”  I tend not to remember specific examples because it all works out in the end, I’m just annoyed.  I have a real-life teenaged daughter, and she’s nowhere near as annoying.
Jordan Elizabeth: Constantly!  I never know where they will take the story.  An example I can think of is Treasure Darkly.  I didn’t expect Amethyst to play a big a role as she did, but she just kept jumping back into the scenes.
Janet Garber: My character decided to have an affair.  I was shocked. It didn’t fit in with what I knew about her, but as I wrote the scenes, I saw how it perked up the story.
Carol Riggs: Oh yes. In Bottled, my genie main character was supposed to get together with the love of her life after 1000 years of not seeing him. I imagined it in my head as this swoony and touching romantic scene. But when I got her together with her hot guy on a tropical island, they started arguing! It was really annoying. LOL After much frowning and deliberating, I decided to go with the flow and embrace the conflict.
Chris DiBella: Pat Vigil is always doing stuff that surprises me because I don’t even know what I’m going to have him say until I get to that point. I just imagine what he would have said or done in real life, and then I write it down. I’ve always been happy with the results. For example, there’s a scene in Whispering Death where the NESA team has been invited to dinner and they’re seated at a table with Thailand’s Prime Minister. The PM asks Vigil if he liked the lobster bisque, and Vigil blurts out, “Like it? I wanna bathe in it?” The best part about this scene is that it actually happened in real life back in my Executive Chef days. Pat was a server at my restaurant and one of his tables asked him if he liked the lobster bisque I had prepared that night, and that was his reply to the customer. So, there’s always that fun element for me when I’m writing.

Then there’s Tim Baker (yes, the same Tim Baker who’s part of this panel). I met Tim when I was 13 and he became a great friend and mentor to me after my dad died two years later. His friendship was much needed and appreciated, and that friendship is now going on over 30 years. He’s another person who’s character is close to how he is in real life, and I portray his book character in the same way as I just did here. I always try to interject him in the book one way or another, whether it’s just a friendly phone call to ask for advice, or as in my most recent novel, Blood Dawn, he actually has a role in the book. I didn’t make it too big of a role though, as I fear this would cause his head and ego to inflate to levels we wouldn’t be able to control…

Chris Barili: Sure they do, but of course I can’t think of one right now. Usually, it’s the bad guys who do it. But in Guilty (Prequel to the Hell’s Butcher Series), Frank Butcher surprised me with  how he ended the book and settled whether he’d go to heaven or hell. Totally was not planned. (No spoilers…read the book.)

Tim Baker: I would have to say that almost everything they do is a surprise, since I am basically learning about them the whole time I’m writing. I won’t give a specific example, but in my first novel, Living the Dream, one of the main characters is a perpetual loser named Kurt. His exploits surprised me so much that sometimes, as I was writing, I would literally laugh out loud at some of the situations he got himself into!

Art Rosch: My characters surprise me all the time.  Especially as I like to give them numinous powers and skills that are pure fantasy and wish-fulfillment.  I wish I could be more like Aaron Kantro.  Or more like Garuvel Zimrin, a man who has ultimate power but declines to use it any more than is absolutely necessary.  My characters talk to me and they appear in dreams.  They say things like “Go left”.  Or, “That spoon is funky”.  You know what the shrinks say: you are the main character in all of your dreams.  And this one from Jung: “Your pathology isn’t about what your parents did to you.  It’s about your fantasy of what your parents did to you.”

I was very surprised when Aaron Kantro went to Afghanistan and fell in with the Mujahiddin.  He was trying to buy and smuggle opium into the U.S.  He had sunk that low; become a criminal drug dealer and addict.  I was surprised by the way he was able to use his experience to change and heal his addiction.  I had to go through fifteen years of therapy.  Aaron found his healing in the cauldron of a Russian attack.  The friendships and bonds with Afghan warriors brought out the warrior in himself. Surprise is pretty much continual in writing.  I ‘m surprised I can write anything, much less finish so bold a project as a fantasy trilogy.  I’m surprised that I’m even conscious.

In more recent work I’ve created a world and a political situation that is based on the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.  This is my trilogy, The Shadow Storm.  I’m pleased with the first book.  The characters are from a completely different milieu than the one in which we live.  I have nothing in common with them except my membership in the human race.  This is a project that involved huge amounts of research.  I read everything I could get my hands on with regard to Balkan history.  In school I studied Russian for four years.  That helped me build a world with a strongly Slavic flavor.  World building is a great pleasure for me.  Creating new and bizarre religions, mapping out geographical features, the entire endeavor is one that challenges both my imagination and my erudition.  I have the additional satisfaction of avoiding the High Fantasy genre, the medieval world of dragons, knights, the whole kaboodle of Game Of Thrones lore.  I love the stuff, but it takes masterful writers like Jack Vance to hold my interest.  If you’ve never read Jack Vance, start now!  He passed recently, at the age of 96.  He left behind a body of sci fi and fantasy that must add up to nearly a hundred books.  I read them and re-read them every few years.  Vance is a better writer, technically, than Philip K. Dick.  The late and sadly lamented Phil Dick is more widely known, has sold more movie scripts than Jack Vance.  Between the two of them, I’ve learned almost everything I  know, which amounts to about a bowl of split pea soup.


Do your characters talk to you? What kinds of things do your characters say?
DeAnna Knippling: Yes, although it depends on the character.  Often a very strong character will make observations about the real world.  I have one guy I’m writing who doesn’t like to eat all that much, and mainly eats sandwiches.  He looks upon some of the things I eat with suspicion.  I mean, the guy doesn’t even particularly care for cheese.  “It’s fuel.”
Jordan Elizabeth:  They don’t literally talk, but as I’m writing, I can see them acting out the parts.
Chris DiBella: I don’t know that they talk to me. I just try to write dialogue and plot as it comes naturally to me. I do, however, feel like I have a strong emotional bond and connection to my characters. Every time I start writing a new book, it’s like seeing some old friends after an extended timeframe and I can’t wait to see what they’re up to next.
Chris Barili: No. I don’t exist in their world. They talk to each other sometimes and I overhear…
Tim Baker: I would have to say no to this one.
And now for the fun question.
If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead? Why would they be a good choice?  
Jordan Elizabeth: Megan Fox would be perfect to play Krieg in Kistishi Island.  She has Krieg’s attitude and looks.
Janet Garber: Dream Job, Wacky Adventures of an HR Manager’s protagonist, Melie Kohl, should be played by actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead because she can be goofy, smart and appealing.
Chris DiBella: I’ve been thinking a lot about this one lately, because I’m hoping my books will one day be on the big screen. When I began writing my first novel in 2001, I had a vision in my head of which actor looked most like my main character. That actor was Matthew McConaughey. Of course, Clive Cussler’s novel, Sahara, came out in 2005 and dashed my hopes of that ever happening…fyi: Cussler is my favorite author, so I wouldn’t want to steal his Dirk Pitt….but ya never know. If there was anyone more recent, I might have to say Jeffrey Donovan (Burn Notice). He’s got the charming personality and bad ass moves to get the job done….but only if he brings Fiona with him!
Margareth Stewart: Open/ Pierre´s journey after war has Pierre as the central character – I can easily portrait either Jeremy Irons or Clint Eastwood playing the main role in a film. They both have similarities with Pierre – tall, charming, with profound eyes – gentlemen. They have an inch of outsiders, a little bit like Pierre, too. It would be lovely to see them acting as Pierre.
Tim Baker: The lead character in most of my books is an ex-Navy SEAL named Ike. The prototype for him was originally the character of Wade Garret in the movie Road House (played by Sam Elliot). Since Sam is getting a bit old, I think the next actor best for the role is Anson Mount (from Hell on Wheels).
Cynthia Vespia: My latest Silke Butters Superhero Series was written with an Indian protagonist to showcase more diversity. While I was writing her I used actress Priyanka Chopra as inspiration so it would be a dream come true to have her play my lead Silke aka Karma.
It seems that we may all be different in our process, but our characters all come from the same place: within us. Everyone who answered it, said they use real people that they know to develop their characters and it seems our characters can’t help but have a little bit of us in them. Our stories and our characters are drawn from our own experiences, even if they are fictional, and our characters seem more real to readers when our writing comes from the heart. Be sure to drop by next Monday, when we will Ask the Authors about action and dialog.

If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I recieved from panel members.


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