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!
Catastrophe!
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

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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

Blog: https://bakeandwrite.co.za/

Blog: robbiesinspiration.wordpress.com

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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Setting the Tone with Point of View, Tense, Narrative Distance and Voice

Ask the Authors (Round 2)

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Every story has a distinct tone. Some are light hearted, while others are grim, while still others are sad and heartbreaking. The tone of the story is created by a combination of elements: point of view, tense, narrative distance and voice. Today our Ask the Authors panel discusses how they use those elements to create the tone needed for each particular story. On our panel today, Dan Alatorre, DeAnna Knippling, RA Winter, Mark & Kym Todd, Tom Johnson, Jordan Elizabeth, Margareth Stewart, Mark Shaw, Cynthia Vespia, Lilly Rayman, and Amy Cecil. 

Tone is what determines the mood of the story. Is it a humorous story with a light, playful tone? Or are you aiming to create a dark story, with scary elements? Or perhaps a sense of mystery? The tone of the story doesn’t just occur on the page. It must be crafted with precision just like all the other elements of story, and the choices the author makes will determine if they are sucessful in achieving the desired tone, and if it is effective for the story.


Who is telling the story? There are basically four different points of view the story can be told from: first person (I), second person (you), third person limited (narrator with access to a single character’s view), or third person omnicient (narrator with access to the thoughts of multiple characters). 

Do you have a preference between first person, second person, third person limited and third person omniscient, or does it just depend on the story you are telling? What do you see as the advantages or disadvantages of each?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre I prefer writing in first person because it forces you to pay attention as a storyteller. You don’t know what’s going on in a room you aren’t in. I also enjoy third person limited, because it’s fun to be different people instead of “I“ all the time. The big advantage is, they make you be disciplined. You’re much less likely to do head hopping in first person.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I’ve dabbled in first person but I prefer third person, especially since I like telling multi-viewpoint stories. This way I can get in the heads of each character rather than one single character mindset as you do in first person.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy We have a definite preference for third-person limited POV. We like the distance it gives us (and readers) from the story and the opportunities for weaving in dramatic irony. We never use first-person because it’s too intimate for the kind of stories we tell – plus it makes it harder to surprise readers without resorting to what feels to us like storytelling gimmickry.

RA Winter

RA Winter  I always write in third person limited with a deep point of view.  It brings out each character’s quirks, reactions, fears etc adding depth to the story. As far as third-person omniscient, I don’t like the distance from the characters and it’s very hard to pull off properly.  First person point of view isn’t something I read for pleasure, so I’d never try to write in that niche.  I know that it is the ‘in’ way of writing, but for some reason it grates on my nerves.  I’ve noticed that the setting, descriptions, etc, usually lack in first-person stories and other characters aren’t as developed as they could be.  I’ve only written in the second person once as a writing prompt with a crit circle.  It was too hard to get into and not for me.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak If you’re going to lie to your audience or have an unreliable narrator, do it in first person.  I write in all three.  The second-person stories kind of require some kind of hypnotic element to them, one that you want the reader to be hyper aware of.  “I’m mind controlling you, see?  Mind controllling!”  Third person stories are for when you just want the reader to sink into the narrative with as much trust of the narrator as possible.  It’s one of those things where the way you write the story should reflect the content of your story.  The contents of my stories sometimes lead me into weird POVs.  I do like books where mixed POVs are used, too–try to imagine The Fifth Season without the POVs!

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I prefer third person omniscient, that’s how I learned to write, and it has stuck with me throughout my writing career. I don’t find myself limited in scope.

Margareth Stewart

Margareth Stewart The easiest way to write is in the third person. The first person may get boring although I used that in a self-help book-guide I wrote while trying to avoid by all costs sounding egocentric. I also did some experimental writing on the second person. I tested it and it worked fine. It is a critical piece in which a subconscious voice dialogues with the main character while pointing out how she does not change her life, and keeps repeating the same mistakes. The narrative is dense in this short story called “Acid: a view from below”. I publish it for free at facebook.com/AuthorMargarethStewart. The main character is silent all the time, and the reason I used this technique was to lead people reading it to change their own. The silence holds the potential for change. My novels are all in the third person as that is the safest path. Nobody feels intimidated or bored with them and I recommend it for long novels and first-time authors.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan It all depends on the story I’m writing.  I usually stick with third person because I can explain more about what’s going on, but sometimes it just has to be told in first person.  The main character wants to tell it her way.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Depending on what I want to convey with my story, depends on whether I write in the first person, or whether I write in a third person omniscient point of view.
My Unexpected series is written in 3rd Omni – with a couple of 1st person mini scenes to add a little intrigue to what is actually happening as that character is an unknown entity at that point of the story.

I have other works in progress, or in anthologies that are written in 1st person, simply because I needed to have a more in-depth thought process for the character that I follow, for example “A Reluctant Roxana: An Unexpected Short Story – Dare to Shine: Anthology” – The anthology was to raise funds for the Sophie Lancaster Foundation – a young woman who was killed for looking different in the way she choose to dress. I wanted my character, Roxana, to have some deep internalising about how important it is to be who you are and comfortable in yourself. I felt a 1st person point of view allowed for that kind of in-depth writing, something that a 3rd person would be hard to pull off.

3rd person omniscient is a great style for a lot of character and action that would get too complicated for a 1st person to follow.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I used to write in third person, past tense, but now I prefer first person present tense.  I really don’t see any advantages other than I find it easier to write.

Have you ever written a story in one POV and then later rewritten it in a different POV to see if it worked better? Did it? Why or why not?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre I started one story in one point of view and then rewrote it to change the point of view. I did it because I needed to be able to be multiple characters in the story, and I thought that worked best in third limited versus first. And it worked out really well because the story was a big hit.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy Actually yes, twice. I started my Demon Hunter series in third person then decided to switch and tell it from a 1st person perspective because I wanted it to be Costa (my main character) telling his own story. When I started writing Lucky Sevens the opposite happened. I began with Luca “Lucky” Luchazi telling his story in 1st person and decided it didn’t work. So halfway through I switched to 3rd person and added in a multi-viewpoint approach. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to 1st person as its not as fun for me to write in.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy Sure. And it’s why we answered the above question like we did! We think we lived-and-learned from the experience.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak If I have, it’s been long ago that I don’t remember.  I’ve tried two different 3rd person tight POVs before, but not lately.  I tend to have pretty specific reasons why I pick a character and a voice before I sit down to write.
Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture No, never, I stay with the form I’ve used from the start.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I haven’t done that yet, but I have taken a story told entirely from one POV and added in another chracter’s POV.  It made the story feel more well-rounded.

Most fiction is written in third person, allowing the author to define who their narrator is, and whether they are omniscient, having access to the thoughts and actions of all or at least several of the characters, or have access to the thoughts and ideas of one specific character. In the first person, the protagonist becomes the narrator and the story is told from a single point of view. The most prevalent example of this that comes to my mind is Hunger Games, and even though well done, there were places where the first person felt awkward.

Do you prefer to write in first or third person? Why? Or does it just depend on the story? How do you decide what POV to use?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre Readers want to climb into your story and get lost in the fantasy. They don’t necessarily want to be the main character. That’s why third person is so appealing. However, certain types of stories lend themselves very well the first person. Humor, for example. Or when the author is intentionally messing with you. Ishmael was not the main character of Moby Dick; he was the narrator. He was a small player. I used that device in my book The Navigators to great effect; as you go along, you’re thinking the narrator is just a nice, quiet guy and all of a sudden you get surprise after surprise because he’s being surprised – and he pulls a few surprises. That makes it fun for me and the reader. Other books like Poggibonsi are written in first person because I wanted “you“ to be all these things and find yourself halfway through kind of rooting for the bad guy and then put yourself back out of it.

But I don’t like first person present tense. I do this, I do that. Can’t stand it. I like first person past tense: I went here, I went there – as if you’re sitting down at lunch or over a cocktail with somebody who is telling you their story. They are saying, then I did this, then I did that. First person present? I run, I jump – no thanks. I have read several books that are written that way and the first few chapters are almost impossible for me to get through. It’s like nails on a chalkboard to me.

RA Winter

RA Winter My first draft is usually in present tense as I work my way through the story but I change it to past tense.  Present tense for me just doesn’t work and the voice becomes passive. I’ve also notice that while trying to write in the present tense that I will automatically switch tenses and that leads to reader confusion.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak Depends on the story.  I like to mislead the reader, but I also like to be fair about it.  If you see me writing in the first person, you are 95% guaranteed an unreliable narrator.  I’d say that’s 100% for second person, and maybe 50% for third.  The third person narrators tend to be less unreliable, too.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Third person, always. I agree, first person can feel awkward at times, and I prefer to broaden the view, so to speak.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan While I’m brainstorming, I try out different ideas in my head.  One or the other will always stick, and the story starts playing out.  I’ll hear it in third person or first, and I just go with it.  I’ve only had to switch once.  GOAT CHILDREN was originally third person and my original editor had me change it to first person.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I use both first and third, depending entirely on what I am trying to get across to the reader.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil Basically the answer to this is noted in all the questions above.  I prefer first person, because it is easier, but in some stories, I’m required to write differently because of the story or the particular character.

Seldom do you `see anything written in the second person, because it’s hard to do. This technique decreases the narrative distance between the reader and the character, because the reader is placed within the story in a way. Essentially the reader becomes the character, using ‘you’ instead of ‘I’ or ‘her’ or ‘him’. I tried it once, and it’s a very difficult thing to do well. It usually comes off feeling rather awkward.

Have you ever tried to write anything in second person? What did you find most challenging about it?

Dan Alatorre 

Alatorre I don’t mind writing things in second person, because it’s like anything else; you have to practice it for it not to be awkward. If you don’t like it or you’re not practiced at it, it will be awkward to write and therefore it will be awkward to read. If you work at it, it can be very smooth, and a very satisfying reading experience. I don’t prefer it, because I think the types of stories I tell work best in other deliveries.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy French authors pretty well worked second-person POV to death in the 50s and 60s, and there’s not much unturned earth left in this POV, so far as we’re concerned, within traditional narratives. So we’re content to let video games and choose-your-own-adventure stories keep this technique.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak I feel like using second person increases, rather than decreases, the narrative distance. It’s begging the reader to scream, “Don’t tell me what to do!!!” I write a number of stories in the second person. What you have to do is give the reader a story that they’re feeling especially cynical about, something that they want to react to in a negative manner. If you write a story from a bad guy’s point of view as they justify themselves, then a second-person narrator can sometimes be very effective. Another technique is to address the story to a universal “you,” an impersonal “you” that the reader won’t take personally at all, much as in this paragraph that you read just now.

Also? If you’re going to write a choose-your-own-adventure type book, you have to do you. I love Ryan North’s To Be or Not To Be and Romeo And/Or Juliet.

A story can be told from a singular perspective in the first person or with a limited narrator, or it can be told through the eyes of multiple characters, with an omnicient narrator. Each has benefits and drawbacks. Multiple points of view offer the author more options as to how much to reveal to readers and open up opportunities for subplots to be played out more fully, whereas a single point of view can create a more focused story. Multiple POVs may be necessary when the reader needs information that the protagonist isn’t privy to. (Super hero comic books use this technique to increase tension, by making readers privy to the perils the victim to be saved faces if the hero is not sucessful.)

Do you prefer single or multiple POVs? Why?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre If you can have multiple, have multiple; it’s more fun. I prefer multiple POVs as far as what I write because it gives you the ability to get a scene to a very dramatic point and then jump away to a different story or a different person, in a different place. And then you build that story segment up to high point of drama and then jump back to the other story. If you do it right, people can’t stop turning the pages because they have to find out what’s going on with the other stories.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy We love third-person limited shifting. It’s our POV device of choice and probably why we usually write for ensemble casts. Little Greed Men uses 3p-limited-shifting in spades and by the story’s close, the characters each think they have the story figured out whereas only the reader knows what really happened – maybe.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak Depends on the story.  I tend to revolve around a single POV, because I find sagas and epics to be kind of frustrating to read at times.  But I don’t worry too much about popping over to check in with another character now and then.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Single. Though I have used multiple POVs before, when I wanted my readers to see what was going on in both camps.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I love multiple POVs.  The story opens up in a new way when you explore other thoughts and feeling, and see the world through different eyes.  Plus, its fun to play around with split personalities! I realy have to force myself to write in first person if a story calls for that voice.

L Rayman It depends on the story I’m writing. If I’m writing in 1st person, I keep my story to one POV. When I’m writing in 3rd person omniscient, there tends to be multiple POV.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil It really depends on the story.  Some of my books are multiple POVs and some are single.  It just depends on the story I am telling what fits best.

When using multiple POVs, does each character get equal page time? Do you switch POVs within chapters, or on the chapter break?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre Equal page time? No. Not a chance. You have stars and you have bit players. The stars get the limelight and the majority of the pages. Everybody else only gets as much as is absolutely required.

I will switch point of view within the chapter, at a chapter break, however often as needed. I’d do it midsentence if I could.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy We use additional page time with a given character as the way to signal to readers who our protagonist(s) is (are). But we also sometimes give extra page time to an antagonist – either to make characters hate them or else to make readers like them despite what the antagonist does. And we stand by the dictum that an antagonist is simply a character who opposes the intent of the protagonist. We never paint characters into villains for our stories – too simplistic for us.

As for POV shifts, we often change scenes to switch POVs within a chapter. It largely depends on whether or not it serves the story arc. Also, we love switching POV scenes with mini-cliffhangers. (We do it to keep readers from being able to go to bed.)

DeAnna Knippling

deannak NNNNNNNOOOOOOOOO. The main character or the main narrator gets the most page time, period. Then again, I have to admit that I don’t write a lot of romance–that’s a situation where often (not always) the two main love interests get approximately equal page time. I’m fine reading that. But I generally loathe the “rotating POVs of calculated fairness” book structure. That one thing that I’ve been in suspense to read for the last four chapters? I no longer care. Book, meet wall on other side of the room.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Always in scene breaks, not necessarily chapter breaks, though. We must have a clear break in the scene if we switch POVs.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan It depends on the progress of the story.  I never decide when the POV will switch.  As I’m writing, the other character sneaks up on me, demanding his/her turn.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Depends on the story and its flow. I try to keep to individual chapters where I can. Usually though, its my characters that dictate to me their story and how it should go.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil Not always.  I usually switch POVs at the beginning of a chapter, but in some instances, its important to add the alternate POV within the same paragraph.

One of my pet peeves is head hopping, switching back and forth from one character’s head to another without clear indication to the reader.

How do you indicate to readers that a switch in POV has occurred?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre I don’t think I mind head hopping as much as a lot of other people. That’s kind of like people who drink beer AND wine versus people who ONLY drink wine (and then the people who can only drink robust read deep with lots of tannins… ) Head hopping is usually a writer making a mistake. It often lessens the reading enjoyment for the reader. If you’re not writing for an audience, then it doesn’t matter, but if you have an audience that’s going to pay money for the show, they need to get their money’s worth. Most of them won’t feel they did if you head hop. Of those who don’t mind, I think they won’t feel the story is as good as it could’ve been, even if they can’t articulate why.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy Oh boy head hopping really bothers me too! I try never to do that and the way I make sure is to start a new chapter whenever I want to switch a character, or at least put in an obvious break in the current chapter so you know it’s a different character POV.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy We agree with you, Kaye. We hate head-hoppers. We feel like it’s a cop-out and the resort for lack of craft control. To shift POV we use the time-honored convention that ellipses mean one or more of three things: change of POV, change of place, or change of time. Most readers intuit this just fine, and we’ve never had complaints from fans.

RA Winter

RA Winter Most of the time I change chapters for different POV’s.  However, if the scene isn’t finished and there is another character who could add a different depth, stakes, or a call to action for a character, I use a scene break symbol, a *** in the middle of the page.
DeAnna Knippling
deannak I don’t do it often, but sometimes that’s just how it has to go.  I pull back on the POV depth on character one, so you might be inside their head or outside of the their head, then switch over to the second character’s POV, again at a very light depth.  I only add a personal, internal POV to the second character if I have to, too.
Nettie felt that she would never be able to understand her cousin Matthew.  She flipped several pages as the candlelight flickered.
Matthew walked around the outside of the room.  To see him, you would never know that he was suffering.  A black despair always fell over him at this time of year, at the memory of his wife.
Nettie said, “Would you like me to read to you?”
“Yes, please.  What are you reading?”
She paged back to the beginning of the story, considering whether the story was an appropriate one for the moment, or not.
–Like that.  We hopped from Nettie to Matthew and back again.  Neither POV is all that rich with observation, but sometimes you have to at least suggest what’s going on in the other character’s head so the reader doesn’t misinterpret the subtext.  But I’m still new enough at being able to do it that I just about have a panic attack every time I have to try to pull it off.
Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I won’t ever jump from head to head with POVs. It might work in comic books, though.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I break up the screen, making it clear that the previous scene is over, or I start a new chapter.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman As an omniscient writer, it can be hard to strike the right balance between an omniscient pov and a head hopper. My chapters might follow one particular character for the duration of that chapter, with a touch of another character’s perspective, but, I’ve never had any complaints, and a really good editor is a god-send to pull up any head hopping moments. I try to provide clear indication within the first sentence or two as to which character is the main lead for that chapter.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I use a heading with their name on it.

 

How close are we to the story? Do you want your reader to feel as if they are at a distance, watching the story unfold or do you want them to be right up in the action. Each approach has a different effect. You must be careful not to distance readers so much that they loose interest, yet there are times, such as when your character needs to remain unaware of certain aspects of the story, when you may not want them to be right in the thick of things. This can be manipulated through the narrator, using past or present tense, or through voice.

How much narrative distance do you like to give for your readers?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre I don’t know what that is, so I’m gonna say none. * Looks it up. * If it means what I think it means, how much space you allow between your reader and your story, the answer remains the same. None. I want them immersed up to their eyeballs, unable to stop reading, unable to put the book down, and their hearts broken when they have to close the book and after the ending and leave these people they have come to love. If a character gets cut, I want the reader to bleed. I want the reader so close, they feel the killer’s breath on their neck.

RA Winter

RA Winter I start each chapter with setting the scene to orientate the reader. This is done by a more distant narrative, but as soon as possible I draw readers into the character by delving deeper inside the scene and the motivations behind the actions. I want the reader to be inside the story, know where they are in time and place, what’s going on, the motivation, the stakes, the hidden agendas. Each character’s action should be clear and logical with the scene painted in- to add depth to the story. A deeper POV has the pull to bring a story to life.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I try to suck the reader in as much as possible.  Even if they aren’t exactly like the narrator, I want them to feel the same emotions and sensations, and hopefully identify some part of themselves in the main character.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Whatever is required for the story as it flows along.

I recently read Webs of Perception, by Darlene Quinn, (you can read my review this Friday, October 19). Darlene used the first person POV for her main character, but used third person for the multple POVs used in her story. The character had amnesia, so in a way, it was what made the story work, but I had never seen this done before and found it an interesting technique.

When using multiple POVs, have you ever used multiple narrator’s voices in the same story? Was it difficult to make that work? Why?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre Sure. I did this in The Navigators. It was first person as the narrator, but whenever the narrator wasn’t present in a scene, it was third person limited. It works fine. I think one or two reviews mentioned it, but they didn’t ask for a refund so I guess it wasn’t that bad.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy It can be a useful exercise, we suppose. But we find this sort of POV slight-of-hand a bit gimmicky. By its very nature, first-person is the most intimate but also the trickiest since readers have to learn to trust the author when getting so close to a character. And switching POV modes feels heavy-handed, more flash than substance in most instances. Our stories are already as complicated as we want them to be.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak Eh, I’ve seen it done and I’m fine reading it, but when I do that kind of thing, it’s a prologue in third and the rest of the book in first.  The prologue sets up the crime for the rest of the book, and then the rest of the book is the investigation by the (unreliable narrator) detective.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Third person throughout the story, I never change this format.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I haven’t done that exactly, but PATH TO OLD TALBOT  is written in first and third person for the same main character.  When Charity is adventuring in Old Talbot, the story is in third person.  She’s detached from the emotional trauma of real life and just living in the moment.  When she’s in the present dealing with her father, the story is told in first person, showing all of her hurt.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Only on occasion has I slipped a scene or two in for characters POV in first person when the rest of the story has been written in third person. This has been a deliberate choice when planting in certain little plot bunnies to tease at the reader until it all comes together at the end.

We are taught to use an active voice, leaving passive ‘to be’ verbs like ‘were’ or ‘had been’ by the wayside. It’s difficult to write in an active voice when the story is in the past tense yet, using the Hunger Games example, being first person, present tense may have been the reason it was awkward at times. (I think first person, past tense may be a little easier.)

Do you prefer to write in past or present tense? Why?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre  I prefer to write in past tense only because the vocabulary is much more limited in present tense. When you start thinking about your verb usage, there’s about 10 times as many when you use past tense – and people are more used to telling things that way, therefore they are more used to hearing things that way. But it’s all personal preference. If your story kicks butt in first person present tense, then stick with it.

As far as active or passive, I really don’t worry about it too much. There’s so much going on in my story, and the characters are so lively and the dialogue is so engaging, I could probably use all the passive verbs I want and nobody would care. The simple fact is, words are like paint strokes on a painting, and you dip into whichever one is going to suit your purpose best for that section.

Once you know how to write an engaging story, you get to choose which types of words you need to deliver it best. When you were learning to drive a car, it was all you could do to keep the car on the road. Now you drive with one knee while you’re eating a cheeseburger and talking on the cell phone. You don’t even think about it. That comes with practice. Hone your craft. And there’s something else I notice a lot, which is: the really great storytellers don’t pay that much attention to the rules because they’re telling great stories. A great story hides a lot of sins.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I prefer present. To me it feels more active, like the story is unfolding right now in front of the reader.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy Almost exclusively in past tense. We use dramatic present very sparingly and only when we want a sense of suspenseful immediacy for a short burst.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak I hate present tense for fiction.  I find it comes across as breathless and melodramatic, especially in YA fiction.  That being said, if a story needs a breathless tone of voice, I’ll use present.  I’ll complain about it to myself the entire time.  Why, subconscious, why?!?

Margareth Stewart

Margareth Stewart I prefer to write in the past tense, but I use lots of dialogue and that is all in the present. Writing in active voice is also a great choice as it makes narratives direct and straightforward. Thus, the writing narrative is kept clean and clear avoiding redundancy and lack of objectiveness. We should use words as precious things and avoid using them merely to fill in the blank space or getting into details that make no difference to the story. So, my tip is: “write as you were opening fields in the jungle with your words, cut, chop and do not get stuck if things are not perfect, move forward and take the reader with you – on top of all that – enjoy the journey.”

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I prefer past tense.  It flows better for me.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I tend to write in the past tense when in 3rd person POV, this feels more comforatble to me. Yet I slip into present tense when writing in the 1st person. Although, I have written 1st person in past tense as well.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil Present tense.  I find it easier.

How do you avoid the use passive voice in your writing? Or do you?

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre I write such awesome stuff, nobody’d notice if I used a passive verb. They might even be grateful I let them catch their breath.

Seriously, I don’t worry about “avoiding” using the passive voice, because I’ve just realized that most people don’t write stories that are engaging enough, so the passive voice weighs the story down. If the story is engaging and the characters are lively and the dialogue is witty, some passive voice here and there isn’t going to hurt anything. I don’t worry about using it. I don’t use it much, but I wouldn’t worry about using it at all. If a reader sees it and notices – not an editor, but a regular reader – then your story sucks anyway. Write great stories and you can do whatever you want – and nobody will care. Here’s a great example. Star Wars didn’t win best picture. Critics said it was a space cowboy movie. But it changed our whole culture. A great story makes its own rules.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy Editing…lol.

Mark & Kym Todd

Todds - Copy Simple, we never use it. Passive only has two functions – 1) when you don’t know who the subject is (e.g., the initial JFK headline “The President has been shot” and no one knew at the time the name of the assassin), but in fiction, we know such info already and can control such revelations in other ways; and 2) when you don’t want to reveal who the subject is. In the latter case, we always construct other storytelling strategies to avoid revealing identity.

RA Winter

RA Winter Crit cycles.  My writing undergoes numerous drafts.   There are between seven and eight critters who comb over my writing at every stage and thankfully they stay with me until the end.  My editor helps with the development of my story and is a  huge help at with every draft, I don’t know what I’d do without her expertise and input.  Each crit brings another depth to the story and every draft focuses on one aspect including passive voice.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak I don’t.  The use of passive voice in writing is often a necessary element.  Breaking rules is something that writers get to do when it provides a specific benefit to the reader.  I spent a lot more time breaking long, convoluted sentences into smaller parts so they’re more readable.  That’s my sin.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Oh, passive voice is easy. When I went to school we learned all about verbs and adverbs, and how to use them, past tense and future tense, etc. That’s what learning was all about. Only now do we find out that passive voice and “ly”s are not wanted. I’ve got an idea our language is even changing as I write this. Soon we may be replacing “you” with “u” and other single letters replacing words. Who knows what writing will be like in thirty years – or fifty, or a hundred years from now? I’m reminded of writers in the 1930s and ‘40s that wrote for a penny a word, and had to fill their stories with adjectives and verbs to make a living. It was called purple prose back then, and if you could sneak a “had been” in there for an extra two cents, you did it. Cowboys didn’t just turn and draw their revolver; they turned quickly and drew their six-shooter lightning fast. Anyway, it was all about words, and how many you could get in a sentence.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan Spell check finds a lot of it!  I always send my stories by multiple critique partners to make sure nothing slips by.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I guess plenty of re-reads and editing rounds to make sure the passive voice is weeded out if it does make an appearance!

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I rely on my editor to fix that.


Writing fiction and nonfiction have many similarities, but in the case of nonfiction, true life stories, such as those that author and panel member Mark Shaw writes, the story determines the tone, so the above questions don’t really apply. Yet each of Mark’s works carry a distinctive voice and tone. So, I asked Mark how he decides which elements of voice to use and what tone to take in his story telling.

In the nofiction that you write, you tell the stories of others. In The Reporter Who Knew Too Much, you took a third person investigative approach, in Courage in the Face of Evil, you took a different approach, telling the story from Vera’s POV, and in Beneath the Mask of Holiness, you told the story in third person as a narrator. In each of these cases your story telling skill was spot on. If told in a different way, it wouldn’t have been the same story. How do you choose the right voice in which to tell your stories? 

Mark Shaw

MarkAtSFTS (1) Regarding “voice” and the storytelling method utilized, three of my books illustrated different methods of doing so. In Beneath the Mask of Holiness: Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair that Set Him Free, I chose to be the narrator, the guide to telling the story of how late in life the famous monk finally found true love through an affair with a student nurse half his age. While doing so, however, I wove into the story excerpts from his diary so that his “voice” was apparent to the reader as he expressed strong emotions about the love affair and what it meant to him, most important of course.
In Courage in the Face of Evil, based on a true story as captured from a Holocaust diary, I told the story through the main character Vera’s voice since I wanted readers to learn of the horrors of the Holocaust with a firsthand account as she wrote it in the diary. This also permitted the inspirational aspect of the story to come forward, the part where she trusts a German prison guard whom she hated to help her save the life of a little Russian girl who would have been killed otherwise. Vera’s own words indicate her courage and permit the reader to become emotionally involved in the book start to finish.
In both The Reporter Who Knew Too Much about Dorothy Kilgallen and the upcoming follow-up book, Denial of Justice (Nov. 20), I tell the story as the narrator, but weave in as much of Dorothy’s own words in her columns and what she said to others about how she was investigating the JFK assassination. Using as many images of Dorothy and never-before-exposed government documents, I enhance the story and provide the reader with the path Dorothy took to learn the truth just as prosecutor would do for a jury. Once again, though, the key to TRWKTM becoming a bestseller with hopes Denial of Justice will just as successful, is that the story touches reader’s emotions by their bonding with the famous reporter who did not receive justice when she mysteriously died in 1965. Many readers have told me they grew to respect and love Dorothy, emotions on their end that warm my heart.

It seems the story itself, determines the number of POVs used, and what tense it is told in, and sometimes a change in POV can make a world of difference as to how the story comes comes out and what tone is set. Finding the right tone can be the difference between a really great story and a mediocre one. Although fiction is different from nonfiction in many ways, you can see from Mark Shaw’s answers on nonfiction how important finding the right view point and voice is to the story.
Most of our panel members avoid headhopping, although a few find it useful at times and make a purposeful effort to do it well, when they do use it. Also, in most cases, narrative distance is close and personal, drawing the reader right into the thick of the story. Although I felt second person might distance the reader, DeAnna Knippling feels it brings them in closer, decreasing their narrative distance from the story. I suppose it might depend on how well it is done.
Most of our panel members give much credit to editors, critique partners and beta readers to help weed out passive voice and accidental head hops. I think it really helps to get additional sets of eyes on our work. One technique that I have used that works very well to find these errors as well as others, and helps you to know if the tone is that desired is reading your story aloud. This helps in knowing if the flow is smooth as well. You don’t even have to have someone to read to, although you can and then you have an additional opinion, but I’ve read it aloud to myself or even to my dog. (He’s a good listener, but he doesn’t give a lot of feedback. Lol.)
That’s it for this week. I hope you all will join us next Monday, when our panel members will discuss character development. 

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