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Writing Contest Prep: Words from a Judge on CHARACTERIZATION

Monday, February 27, 2012

You know what I haven’t done in a really, really long time? Teach a WRITING SERIES here on the blog!!!

Because I’ve had it suggested to me, many times, by many different people, that I should consider pulling together all of my teaching series and publishing them as an e-book, I took some time this afternoon to pull together a preliminary outline of what that might mean—pulling topics from my Writing Series Index as well as from the ever growing list of workshops I teach at the monthly MTCW meetings (and occasionally elsewhere).

The one that stood out to me as appropriate time-wise, as the deadline for entering the ACFW Genesis contest is Friday, is “Writing Contest Prep: Words from a Judge.” And because the deadline is so quickly approaching, each post will contain quite a bit of information. These are actual comments I’ve made over the past six or seven years of contest judging. So buckle in. This is going to be a fast-and-furious series! (Bear in mind, I judge almost exclusively the romance genre.)

CHARACTERIZATION – 15 POINTS (1-5 points each)

  • Is the main character identifiable yet unique? Does anything about the character feel clichéd?
  • Do secondary characters contribute to the story without distracting from it
  • Do characters’ emotions seem believable and/or provide understandable motive?

Here’s where you either dazzle or fizzle. You want the judges (and your future readers) to identify with your characters right off the bat. So make them as strong and unique as possible right from the beginning.

Suggested Reading:
Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins
Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
Men Are Like Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti by Bill and Pam Farrel (will help with writing the opposite sex POV)
Also read novels in your genre with characters you love—read critically:

Comments I’ve made on past entries:
Having your heroine in such a negative state of mind for the entire entry isn’t the best way to hook a reader. This is a quote from a letter sent to me by an editor when her house was first looking at [The Ransome Trilogy] proposal:

      I found myself slogging a bit through it. Especially the beginning. The writing is fine. It’s clear, crisp, and clean. I think the problem for me was how the book starts. We begin with William and a not very important task. Then we go to a dreary afternoon with a girl who doesn’t want to be where she is and is unhappy with her life. What I wanted was more sparkle to open the story. I shared this with our senior editor, and she suggested I share this with you and ask if you are willing to add a bit to the beginning. We don’t have to necessarily change it, but perhaps we can have a prologue with [the heroine] in a situation in which she is happy. Start the story (a romance) with the heroine in a happier frame of mind.

Once I wrote a new opening scene in which the heroine was in a much happier frame of mind (though it still ended with the rug being pulled out from under her at the end of the scene) and cut the original opening scene in which the hero was going about a “not very important task,” the publishing house bought the series.


The main reason why we read fiction is to escape our dreary, negativity-filled lives. Give us happy characters in the opening scene—before you then start throwing conflicts at them. Just like in real life, we don’t want to spend a whole lot of time with people who are Negative Nancys—and that’s the kind of person [the heroine] appears to be from this short introduction to her—especially the last scene in which she turns on [the ex-boyfriend] for no apparent reason.


In Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card wrote: “Just knowing what someone does while you happen to be watching him or her isn’t enough to let you say you truly know that person.” Right now, the reader is just watching your characters, not experiencing what your characters are experiencing (through deep POV) or learning about your characters’ innermost desires and motivations.

No matter how wonderfully complex and well developed a character is, a reader isn’t going to care about them unless they can identify with what the character wants. There are many names for this: goals, motivations, objectives, desires. In Getting into Character, Brandilyn Collins wrote: “What is your innermost Desire that will propel you through this story? . . . All of your main characters and important secondary characters should have a Desire. Conflicts between characters come into play when they are pursuing Desires that oppose one another” (37).

Right now, not only is a reader not going to identify with either of your main characters, they’re most likely going to be turned off by [the heroine’s] constant negativity and volatility and the way she speaks to the only other two characters who’ve been introduced: [the ex-boyfriend] and [her new boss/the hero] (especially [the hero]). Rather than strong, she’s coming across as petulant, rude, and, toward the end, downright mean and hateful.

[The hero], on the other hand, is very flat and unbelievable. He needs more motivation than just “he had to help her through the surgery.” Why? Why does he feel the need to help her? Would he feel this way about anyone in the office, or just her? Why? Go deeper. Why did he come back? Why did he buy this particular station? He says he’s changed from the person she knew twelve years ago, but he doesn’t understand why she’s still mad at him? He needs to feel guilt over who he was before if that change is going to be something important (as in, he wasn’t a Christian then and is now)—he has to not only want to show her he’s changed, but he has to want to make up for whatever he may have done in the past to hurt her. Also, his scenes are coming across as too naïve, too soft, too feminine. Try to “masculine” him up some.

Try to make sure that you’re giving each scene enough time to get established in the character’s POV, to give the character a scene intention, conflict, and either a resolution or a disaster that keeps them from reaching that goal. Short scene hops of less than 700 to 1,000 words are more like head hopping.


You also need some secondary characters, other than just [the ex-boyfriend], to help develop [the hero and heroine]. Just having the characters sitting around thinking about stuff all the time doesn’t make for compelling reading. They need friends they can talk to. [The heroine] especially needs a friend with whom she can be seen as being . . . well, friendly, instead of hateful the way she is with [the hero] and [the ex-boyfriend].


Be sure to keep everything in narrative from the character’s POV. When write things like, “When life as you know it pauses. . .”, that’s author intrusion, not characterization. Find a way to either say those things in dialogue, or put it into the character’s voice by having it be deep-third POV narrative, rather than second-person.


You have her tell the reader in the opening few pages that the heroine is an anglophile who loves classic nineteenth century British romance. But after that’s told to the reader, it’s never reiterated through her internal narrative. She references Pierce Brosnan (rather than Colin Firth—which every Austenite will connect with). She wishes she could come back with a zinger like Kate Hudson or Sandra Bullock instead of like Elizabeth Bennett when faced with some slight by Darcy or snide remark from Lady Catherine or Miss Bingley. Tap into your characters’ unique interests and lifestyles to make them more realistic, less generic.


Right now, [the heroine] is coming across as somewhat mentally unbalanced and quite immature. Her emotions swing too quickly from one extreme to another (from fury to contrition when she slaps [the hero]). Dig deeper into her psyche and try to balance out her reactions. Even though she’s just twenty-one, as the heroine of a romance novel written for adults, she needs to have much more maturity than she currently possesses.


While it’s okay to have a character in a romance novel who’s widowed still have some sorrow/grief over the lost spouse, for a romance novel to work, the character needs to be at a place emotionally at which they’re ready to move on, ready to put grief behind them. To have [the hero] still “flooded” with grief for his wife isn’t a great setup for this story.


The average-level scores here are impacted by the fact that the excerpt I read is mostly told, from the author’s viewpoint, than experienced in the characters’ viewpoints. [The hero’s] scene is more interesting in the beginning because there is more interaction, more deep introspection, giving us more of a glimpse into who he is. But between the problems already mentioned with telling and clichés, the characters don’t really feel fresh and unique.


Is the main character identifiable yet unique? Does anything about the character feel clichéd?
Because there have been no conflicts to start showing who these characters are, based on how they act in a crisis/what decisions they would make when push comes to shove, it’s hard to see them as unique, identifiable individuals. Right now, they’re just cardboard cutouts floating through life with nothing much happening to them, definitely nothing bad or difficult.


Do secondary characters contribute to the story without distracting from it?
I had to give you a 2 here for a few reasons. Because everything’s staying so surfacy in this excerpt, all of the characters feel like secondary characters. It’s distracting when in [the heroine’s] POV to see her referring to her mother as [First Name] instead of Mama or Mother. (In deep POV, it should be written in the character’s thoughts/language, just as if you were writing it in First Person.) Also, as I already mentioned, I’m much more interested in [the secondary character the heroine befriends] and her story, because [the secondary character] has a purpose and a goal and motivation—and spunk—right from the first time we see her. She has something unique she’s interested in and a journey she’s about to undertake that is sure to be filled with conflict. As a reader, I shouldn’t be more interested in a secondary character who’s only there for half a scene than I am in the main character.


If the character meets no resistance on the path toward gaining what they most desire, there is no motivation, no story. The way I keep my characters motivated is to make sure the character has a goal, then to set other characters and situations in opposition to that goal. If the character keeps coming up against a brick wall, or if someone or something keeps thwarting them from being able to reach their goal, the motivation to reach it grows stronger. Naturally, they cannot always fail in moving toward the desire—they must have some successes to show that this goal is ultimately achievable, if they will just persevere, hold on, keep going.

So we must ask the character:

  • What is her main goal/desire?
  • What will she do to attain it? (go deep here)
  • What will she do when she meets resistance?
  • How far will she go to achieve her goal/desire? (keep going deeper)
  • What internal hindrances does she have that could keep her from achieving her goal? (Dig deeper than just fear—what is the root cause of the fear? What happened in the past to give her this fear?)
  • What external hindrances could keep her from achieving her goal? (This can be the antagonist . . . or even the hero or other main character, family members, cultural restraints, geographic constraints, finances, etc.)
  • Is there anything that could happen that would make her relinquish her goal? (If so, then you need to start over at the beginning, because this goal isn’t the right one.)
  • Is this goal something she would sacrifice everything—her health, her wealth, her family, even her own life—to achieve? (Make her prove it by putting her in one or more of those situations.)


You need to have a scene from the hero’s POV [before the end of the second chapter] to give the reader hope that [the heroine] will eventually get out of this mess. Remember, a romance novel is about the developing relationship between the hero and heroine. By this point in your story, the reader needs to know who the hero is and that the hero and heroine are on a collision course to meet each other—if not by the end of the first chapter at least by the middle of the second chapter. Before I sold my historical series, the editor asked me to cut off more than half of my first chapter so that my hero and heroine—who know each other and have thoughts and conversations about each other from the beginning—came together before the end of Chapter 3. And that’s in a novel of 105,000 words with four POV characters. So an editor is going to be looking for the romantic hero to be making an appearance by now.


In first-person POV, it’s hard for the reader to learn the main character’s name, so you need to make sure that she’s having plenty of dialogue with people early so that they can say her name enough to get it firmly entrenched in the reader’s mind. [The heroine] does come across as somewhat of a cliché chick lit character—she has very strong opinions about anyone whose calling is different from hers (narrow-minded opinions), the slangy-fragmented narrative makes her sound like all of the other snappy/snarky chicks in the eponymous genre, and she spends way too much time wallowing in angst.

So much time is spent on [the heroine’s] internal monologue that all the other characters hardly seem like they’re really there at all. They’re relegated to the background while [the heroine] spends page after page worrying about everything.

I’m not sure [the heroine] is a character I’d want to spend a lot of time with—I don’t know that I like her enough to want to read the whole book. She comes across as overly negative, which can be done if the character has a good sense of humor, but I’m not picking that up. So far, the impression I’m getting is that she’s not going to have any fun in this story—which means neither will I as a reader.


In limited 3rd-person POV, you cannot include anything the character does not see, hear, taste, touch, feel, smell, experience for him- or herself. For example: [the heroine] cannot see that her face turns red—so it needs to be described from the inside through her emotions, through her visceral reactions, through her internal life. Right now, we don’t know much about [the heroine’s] internal life, as we’re kept at arms’ length from her by not seeing what’s going on inside her head.

Neither [the hero] nor [the best friend] comes across as a fully developed, three-dimensional character—mostly because [the heroine] doesn’t react to them emotionally and viscerally.


Along with not getting bogged down in the medical details, you don’t want to bog the story down with too much attention given to minor characters.

I made a comment about halfway through the opening about all of the emotional/visceral reactions [the heroine] is having as the doctor explains everything to her: okay, we get it; she’s scared. While the descriptions of what she was feeling were great, it did get to be a little overwhelming.


Is the waitress going to be important to the story? If not, she shouldn’t have such a role of importance in the first chapter.

Right now, [the hero] seems like a secondary character. There is so much emphasis put on [the heroine’s] past and [her ex-fiancé’s] disappearance, that it doesn’t read like a romance. Maybe you should allow more interaction between [the hero and heroine] when they first meet to give the idea that there might actually be a spark of romantic interest there, because right now, it’s not there.

[Her ex-fiancé’s] mother is too one-dimensional, too predictable.


You cannot change the name of the main character without giving a reason for it, especially in her own point of view scenes.


If you made it all the way to this point, good for you. Now . . . what questions do you have about characters when it comes to contest entries and how you may get judged on them or how you’ve been judged on them in the past?

  1. Carol Moncado permalink
    Tuesday, February 28, 2012 10:54 am

    Thank you so much! I have one entry turned in. The other has done well in other contests but after reading this I’m a bit nervous again because the heroine shows up [relatively] late, though still in the entry. Looking forward to the rest of this series :).


  2. Tuesday, February 28, 2012 4:38 pm

    Great post! My character is rather arrogant to begin with, which gets her into trouble. I hope people put up with her long enough for her to change.


  3. Tuesday, February 28, 2012 8:05 pm

    My dad is an editor (of mainly non-fiction) and he thinks my main character in my medieval is whiny. He is kinda old school and wants a woman/heroine to be feminine, soft, and submissive. My heroine is not. Sigh…

    But then I wonder…I’m sure he knows something, because of his expertise!

    Thanks for starting this series, because I think it is NEEDED! 🙂


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