Friday, October 10, 2008

Guest Blogger Carla Stewart on Characterization

Seekerville. What a lovely place to visit and greet old friends. Hang out with new ones. You girls thrill me with your cyber banquets and encouragement to one another. Congratulations on an excellent first year! I counted and think I met at least nine of you last month in Minneapolis, and you are just as much fun in person as you are here. Thanks for inviting me to share my thoughts.

This year I was fortunate enough to place first in the Young Adult category of the Genesis contest. You probably noticed a faint glow in the sky over the center of the U.S. following the conference. That was me, polishing the faux gold wreath on my plaque, sitting on a cloud, reveling in my accomplishment. Trust me. It didn’t last long. Before I got my suitcase unpacked from the conference, I received my scores from the finals’ judges. Whoops! Falling off the cloud is not nearly as much fun as getting up there. And that, my friends, is what entering contests is all about.

Fame is fragile . . . fleeting. But the judges’ scores are the gold mine . . . the nuggets that show me where my weaknesses lie and what I need to improve on. So now, I am heavily into revisions, taking my scores and seeing what I can do to improve my writing.

It had been awhile since I’d studied Donald Maass and his Writing the Breakout Novel. I had even purchased the workbook, but not cracked the spine, so I blew the dust off the cover and dug in. The first section is on character development, and the questions and exercises are worth noting. My apologies to the great Maass for summarizing here. You can learn much more from reading his theory and examples, but for today, I’ll just hit the high spots.

From the second chapter of the workbook, Multidimensional Characters:

1) What is your protagonist’s defining quality? What trait is most prominent in his personality?

This struck a chord with me because I had developed a character whose most prominent trait was self-centeredness. Not good if you want people to like your character.

2) What is the opposite of that quality?

After making some adjustments, I made my character one who takes responsibility seriously (more likeable). Now, the opposite of that is being irresponsible.

3) Write a paragraph in which your protagonist actively demonstrates the opposite quality.

Oh good. I could show my character being self-centered and irresponsible, but as an opposite trait that I want her to be loved for.

Note from the workbook: Often, after completing this exercise, writers will incorporate this paragraph into their novels. It shows that a character is multi-dimensional, more realistic, and more human.

Inner Conflict:

1) What does your protagonist most want?
2) What is the opposite of that?
3) How can your protagonist want BOTH of things simultaneously? What steps would she take to pursue these conflicting desires?

This was much more difficult for me to grasp, yet when I started working with it, I saw that in gaining what a character wants, she must concede other desires. For example, my character wants to find a hidden letter, but as she pursues this, she gets negative attention which reflects back on her as a responsible person. If she gives up her goal, she will no longer be in trouble, but must admit she failed. Showing both sides of her wants makes her a character that is memorable and lingers in the reader’s mind.

Creating larger-than-life qualities:

1) What is the one thing your protagonist would never, ever say?
2) What would she never, ever do?
3) What would she never, ever think?
4) Find places in your story in which your protagonist MUST say, do, and think those things? What are the circumstances? The consequences?

I had a lot of fun with this, but it also made me quite uncomfortable. I found, though, that this is the golden opportunity we have as writers to write those zingers we would never say in real life, but wish we could. Put your protagonist in the hot seat and see what happens (remember there are consequences).

Other chapters on character development take you through raising the stakes, handling character exposition, and developing antagonists that are worthy of their own story. For the essence of time, though, I want to share the last exercise that really helped me in honing my cast of characters. Since I write about small-town America, where people know everyone in town and all their family members as well as pets, I end up with too many characters. Here is a way to reduce your cast and enrich your story.

Combining Roles:

1) Make two columns. In the first, list the names of all major, secondary, and minor characters. In the second, write down the purpose for each character in the story (ex: support the protagonist, support the antagonist, provide special knowledge, etc.)
2) If you have ten or fewer characters, cross out the name of one. If more than ten, cross out the names of two. You get to decide which ones go.
3) You now have fewer characters, but their functions remain. Assign those functions to one or more of the remaining characters.

This makes the characters you are left with more interesting (multi-dimensional). I eliminated three from my current WIP and immediately saw a difference. I haven’t worked out all the details, but I’m having fun with it.

This should get you started on making memorable characters. To bring the point closer to home, my goal (want) in entering a contest is, of course, to win. I’ve put myself out there to be judged by others, and I cannot say enough in the way of thanks to other authors, agents, and editors who give of their time to judge contests. Their experience and opinions are invaluable. But if all I ever do is file the critique and not use it, I have missed the most critical part of entering a contest—using the information to point out the weaknesses in my writing and correcting them . . . even when the critique stings and the rewriting is hard work.

A study of Donald Maass’s book is the avenue I’ve chosen this time to examine and improve my writing. What about you? Do you have a favorite way to distill the information you receive from writing contests? What are your favorite ways to improve your writing?

Thanks again, Seekers, for having me here. You have a lovely island and I see some of the natives are preparing to launch to the mainland. God’s speed to all of you!

Carla Stewart writes women’s and young adult fiction. She lives in Tulsa, OK, where she can be found plotting writing strategies with her critique partner, Myra Johnson. You can learn more about Carla at She’d love for you all to visit her blog, Carla’s Writing Café.


  1. Carla, Congratulations on your win and thanks for sharing your take on characterization. I love Donald Maass' Breakout Novel and Workbook. On his website, he is offering a pdf format of his book, The Career Novelist, as a free download.

  2. Welcome to Seekerville, Carla! I enjoyed meeting you at the ACFW conference and cheered your win. Fame may be fleeting, but great feedback makes for stronger books. One of the many reasons we love contests here in Seekerville.

    The Donald Maass workbook is a wonderful tool to beef up characterization and all aspects of our books. Thanks for the reminders for writing memorable characters!


  3. I like this Carla. I need to do more of this characterization work BEFORE I start a novel because, instead, I work it out as a writer and sort of graduatually discover a character, then I have to do a lot of rewriting.

    I think this is really solid, useful advice.

    And it was so much fun hanging around with you and Denise at ACFW, thanks for being so sweet and treating this crowd of goofs, myself especially, like you were excited to meet it. We were just as excited to me you.

    And congrats on the Genesis Contest

  4. Thank you Seekers, for having me today. It's always fun to see what you are up to and share in your "community."

    Lisa, thanks for the information about the free download. I will check it out. I wonder if he has anything to say about those who are still waiting for their first contract.

    Janet, thanks for rooting for me. It is so much fun at the awards banquet to hear the name of someone you know or have just met. And no matter how many times I go over Donald Maass's book or workbook, I am amazed at the great information, so sometimes reminders are a good thing.


  5. Thanks, Mary, for being so kind and humble. You don't know, but for Denice and I--we were the ones who felt honored to rub shoulders with the Seekers. You had been sitting at our table for awhile that first evening. I was talking to that "happy" couple behind me. Then, when I turned and said, "I've not met you. What's your name?" and you said Mary Connealy, I about wet my pants. THE Mary Connealy! You are quite famous, you know. And I had so much fun getting to know you.

    As for great characters, Mary, you are worlds ahead of me, but if we can find anything that makes it easier, we need to go for it :-)

  6. Thanks for a really informative post, Carla. I need to get serious about digging into my Maass books again.

    Sure enjoyed talking writing over lunch with you yesterday!

    But be careful about flattering Mary so much. You'll give her a big head. We wouldn't want her to think she's getting famous or anything just because she has about a trillion books coming out this year.

  7. Myra, I'm so glad I have one of the seekers here at home to hang out with--the lunch was great. And I'm just trying to get on Mary's good side, so when she's rich and famous, I can drop her name in my casual conversations. Uh, "My good friend, Mary, says . . ."

  8. Great Blog Carla. Congrats on your win. That's exciting, and how wonderful that you were able to accept it in person.

    I took Donald Maass' breakout workshop a couple weekends ago. It was fabulous (but exhausting) and really made me dig deeper into my characters. For the workshop I chose my hero as the protagonist I did the exercises on and came up with a couple paragraphs of some really different and emotional stuff to add to my story.

  9. Hey, Carla! We met at the conference. Congrats on winning first place! Awesome.

    You are so right about Maass's Breakout Novel Workbook. I highly recommend it, too. I think I'm going to have to buy a new one, though. I've written notes in mine from two different WIP's already, and I don't think the margins are big enough for another set of characters!

    It was fun meeting the Seekers, wasn't it? I felt a little intimidated and shy around them, especially when Mary, who had invited me to come and meet everybody, promptly left and didn't come back. Oh, well. Everybody else was really friendly and nice! (Ha, I'm kidding, Mary.)

  10. Thank you, Cat, for the congrats. How great for you that you were able to do a Maass workshop live. Doing the exercises really helped me, too. NOW, I just have to get the rewrites done.

  11. It was so good to meet you, Melanie! And so glad that the Seekers let us tag along. That's one thing I noticed, they were all so friendly and encouraging.

    I didn't write in my workbook, just highlighted the good stuff, then got a notebook and wrote everything down for the exercises. Like you, I'll be using in over and over since I'm pretty sure I won't remember all the good stuff on my NEXT project.

  12. Well, you were smart not to write in your workbook, Carla. Impulsive me, I didn't hesitate to write all over mine!

    Yes, the Seekers are some of my favorite people. I was so worried I wouldn't get to see Julie that when I did see her in the hall, I squealed, "JULIE!" I just got my photos back from the conference, and if I can figure out how, I'll email them to anyone who wants me to. I got some good pics of Julie, Mary, and Janet at the book signing and the banquet. I wish now I'd taken my camera around with me more and taken more pictures.

  13. Good morning, Carla! Welcome to Seekerville : )

    Thanks for your insight on characterization. I must admit, workbooks alone do not help me, but brainstorming traits with other writers does. Thanks for taking segments of characterization and offering your take on their personalities.

    Congratulations on your Genesis win!! I love judging Young Adult category the most. I think, after all these years, my outlook on most categories is jaded, but Young Adult has so many unique topics, I'm always surprised by writer's originality.

    Great job!!!

  14. Melanie, there is something about filling in the blanks that beckons me, too, but I just wrote half a notebook full of what I wanted to add or change. Now, if I can only apply it to my WIP.

    Audra, thank you for the welcome. Did you judge YA this year? No nits from me if you did because I was very pleased with the feedback I got. I only talked to one other finalist in YA and she had a great story premise, I thought. I think she got third, and I hope it was an encouragement to her. A lot of the YA is fantasy so I had no idea if my little tale (definitely not fantasy) would make the cut. For the first time in the three years I've been going to ACFW conferences, there was quite a lot of buzz about YA, so that was encouraging.

  15. I remember that couple behind us. TOTALLY making out. Carla kept trying to break it up.

    I think she succeeded and the two actually had a conversation. I hope that didn't ruin their relationship!!!!

    Anyway, good work, Carla. It needed to be done.

  16. And Melanie, it's good you didn't bring your camera. I always look so much better in my imagination. Cameras, with all their enforced REALITY (shudder) force me to see that I truly am an old fat woman.

    I'm young and slender inside my head. Well, youngish and slenderish. Even I don't have that good an imagination.

  17. LOL, Mary. That couple took PDA to a whole new level, didn't they? And they were at least 40 years old, not hormonal teenagers. That's what's fun about getting out of our writing caves once in a while--seeing all the quirkies in the real world and not just on our book pages:-)

  18. Hi Carla, WONDERFUL blog this morning -- gosh, anything that has Don Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel book or workbook in it HAS to be good! In fact, Mr. Maass is responsible for inflicting polio on Faith O'Connor and killing her twin sister in A Passion Most Pure -- deeper characterizations I desperately needed to make Faith more likeable and less "whiny," per a number of contest judges.

    It was SO great meeting you at ACFW too, my friend!

    Hey Mel, not sure which of us screamed louder in the hall at ACFW when we first saw each other, but it was well worth the turned heads!!

    And, Mary, I think we ALL look better in our imagination. Of course when I take my contacts out and look at the blur in the mirror, reality doesn't look quite so bad ...

  19. Oh my goodness, y'all. If you want to really psych yourselves out, turn on your Web cam some morning when you first sit down at your computer in jammies, messy hair, and no makeup! I accidentally did that this week and scared myself really bad!!!

  20. I should ad that the overly-affectionate couple wasn't (I don't think) attending the ACFW conference.

  21. Oh, Mary, you look good. I'll prove it to you. Just as soon as I figure out how to upload a disk of photos to my computer. Sigh. If I only had a (techie) brain.

  22. Julie, thanks for the welcome, and you made me smile. I wonder how many horrible things we do to characters after having read Donald Maass's books? And the things we make our characters say? And yet, we must have these ideas lurking in the backs of our heads for us to latch onto them so quickly and torture our poor characters.

    It was a delight meeting you at the conference. So glad I had the opportunity.

  23. Mary, you are absolutely correct--that couple was not part of our group, but they were intrigued about the writing conference--at least when they weren't playing footsies under that dime-sized table where they sat.

    And to Myra and Mary both, all this talk about photographs and playing with cam-whatevers early in the morning is making me very uncomfortable--squirmy, in fact. I have yet to see a photograph that displays my "inner beauty." All I get are bug-eyed, wrinkled neck folds, cheesy smiled images of me that surely are NOT the real me!

    And Melanie, we share so much in common in the techie world. I am definitely out of my element there.

  24. Welcome, Carla! It was so nice to meet you in Minneapolis! And thanks for the great post. I'm going to drag my WTBN workbook out as soon as I sign off! Gosh, gotta find it in one of my stacks first, though.

    Julie, I cracked up at your comment about using Maass's influence to inflict polio! :) I wonder what fun, torturous things I'll come up with (once I find the book). LOL


  25. It's good to see you here, Missy. And what a treat to meet you at the conference. When I decided to use WTBN workbook, it was at the bottom of a pile of very dusty "how-to" books. The funny thing is, I actually outlined his WTBN book on my computer before the workbook came out so the info was not new, but a great refresher course, and made more real by actually DOING the exercises and not just reading them.

  26. Carla, first of all congratulations. Second, thank you so much for the timely advice. I was just realizing my protag needs some big time help, and I'd forgotten about that chapter in the workbook. Your explanations of how you applied those ideas were a great help.

  27. Yay, Carla! I finally made it over to Seekerville today. I've taken to rewarding myself with Seekerville after I put in my quota of work.

    As to WTBN...that book scares me RIGID! I read it, know that it will be so helpful to me to up the stakes, to write better conflict, to deepen characters...then I get paralyzed. What if? What if the story won't hold up to this kind of scrutiny? What if I'm just not that good a writer? What if I just flat-out can't do it?

    I'm thinking a book about a writer in the grip of total writer terror would have enough conflict in it to keep the story going for a long while. At least I feel conflicted enough for a saga-sized tome.

    Anyway, congratulations on your Genesis win. I'm not sure if you heard the ruckus on the far side of the ballroom when they called your name, but that was me whoopin' and hollerin' with joy. And I completely understand how the returned scores knocked you for six. I got some of mine back today. Oh, my sainted Aunt Jemima. What a train-wreck.

    Thanks for letting me hang with you and Denise at the conference, and that couple in the Navigator Bar was...good material? Educating anyway. :D

  28. Very interesting! I loved reading this! Thank you for sharing.

  29. Lorna, I understand exactly what you mean about forgetting that chapter in the book. Even though it's not my first time with WTBN, I completely forgot some of the things he mentioned.

    Erica! So glad that Seekerville is your reward. I love to come here, too, and see what all the cool writers are doing (and saying). I'm not saying that WTBN is the only way to write, but Maass certainly gives you lots to chew on, and he says you cannot overdo the tension, the gut-wrenching characterizations, and the stakes. I get the personal stakes, but often struggle with the public stakes--like the world is not going to end if my protag's are not successful. I do love that the book challenges me to make new connections between my characters and well, about a million other things. After you finish the NaNoWriMo, this book might help you layer in some meaty stuff. Or make you break out in hives--your choice!

    THANK YOU to all the Seekers for having me here. I had fun and hope to see you again soon. I'll check back before bedtime to see if any stragglers showed up. Hopefully, we all have exciting weekends planned. You're the best!

  30. Oops! Didn't see that Margie had left a comment. Thanks for coming by. Interesting, yes. Fun to be here at Seekerville. See you all later.