How do you build characterization?


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I taught a workshop on characterization over the weekend at the beautiful Gold Coast, and was thrilled to be able to meet the local writers and share some of the craft lessons I’ve learned through assessing over 200 manuscripts. At the end of the workshop, one piece of feedback I heard over and over was, “Thanks for giving us specifics to work on.”

On the drive home, I couldn’t help remembering the first time I’d had feedback on a story I’d written. The competition judge told me that my characterization was “thin”, and I remember feeling really confused, because to me, those characters were very real. I clearly had to do something, but I had no practical method of making my characterization stronger.

If only I could go back in time and tell that young writer what I know now!

Of course I can’t. But I can share my hard-earned craft tips with you: so the first and foremost (with both characterization and plotting) has to be Goal Motivation Conflict (or GMC as we call it in the trade).


Write this out for every main character in the story. I keep mine on a file card next to my computer so I can pull it out each time a character is about to step into a scene. I want to remind myself about what’s important to this character and why. Here are a few tips for filling it in:

1. Clarify in your own mind who your main CHARACTER is and give them the lion’s share of viewpoint in the novel (if it’s a two-hander, say a romance novel, give them equal share of the viewpoint). The more viewpoint a character has, the more their characterization develops through the Show Don’t Tell method.

2. Clarify early in the story what GOAL the character is trying to achieve, and ensure there are serious consequences (either physically or emotionally) if they are unsuccessful. This creates a high-stakes novel with a clear thread for the reader to follow through the story (NOTE: ensure all subplots either help or hinder the main character achieve their goal. If they don’t, the plot can feel loose and unfocused).

3. Create strong MOTIVATION for the character to pursue their goal. You’ll want to put obstacles in their path to create tension and reader empathy, but that will only work if readers believe in the character’s motivation to stick with the goal. The last thing you want is readers wondering “Why don’t they just go home?”

4. Create a balance of Internal (emotional) and External (physical) conflicts for your character to overcome on their way to the goal. The genre of your novel will dictate some of this balance. At one end of the spectrum, Romance novels are usually heavy on Internal Conflict, while Action Adventure tales tend to have much more External Conflicts and less emotional angsting.


AidenTurnerToplessYes, well, of course I’d prefer it if this picture actually had anything to do with the topic, but I suspect it’s simply a good looking man with no shirt on. The things you find while you’re looking for content…

Anyway. Character traits. Don’t invent virtues and flaws for your characters unless they’re going to serve a plot purpose. If you do, your novel will feel loose and unfocused. If a character’s virtue is honesty, put them in a situation where they’re forced to steal or lie (for some greater purpose, of course). The take home here is: A strong plotline tests the character’s virtues and highlights their flaws. Try not to forget that.

And my final tip on characterization is on VIEWPOINT, sometimes called Point of View. The more you are in a character’s viewpoint, the more readers will learn about the way they perceive the world (what they actually notice of the world around them), what their biases and preferences are, what emotional baggage they’re carrying, etc. When you are delivering the story from inside a character’s viewpoint, the character’s internal life becomes obvious via their internalizations (thoughts) which Show Don’t Tell us why they’re doing what they’re doing and saying what they’re saying.

When unimportant characters come into the story, don’t give them viewpoint unless you absolutely have to (they have a piece of information to deliver that we can’t find out from inside the main character’s viewpoint). The more you hand out viewpoint in a story, the more you dilute characterization. You can’t bond us to everyone, so make damn sure you use viewpoint to bond us to the main character/s!

If you don’t understand what Viewpoint is or how to do it, please learn! Viewpoint is the most important tool in a writer’s toolbox. Learn it and use it carefully to craft your story.

I hope this is helps you develop your characterization. Naturally it doesn’t cover all the details I’d get across in a 2hr or a day workshop, but it should give you a few ideas to work with. If you have any questions, please feel free to pop them into the comments below. Cheers!


A short dream workshop with Sophie Masson


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I’m excited to be inviting Aussie fantasy author Sophie Masson to share some writing tips with us today. But first a little about Sophie:

Sophie portrait blue and redBorn in Indonesia of French parents, and brought up in Australia and France, Sophie Masson is the award-winning author of more than 50 novels for readers of all ages, published in Australia and many other countries. Her adult novels include the popular historical fantasy trilogy, Forest of Dreams (Random House Australia). Sophie has always had a great interest in Russian myth and history, an interest reflected in several of her books for younger readers. Her latest Fiction novel is TRINITY: The Koldun Code (Book One)

Sophie is also a teacher of writing, and her book By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers is full of practical and entertaining tips on the craft, business and inspirations of writing. From using your dreams to craft great fiction, to writing dream outlines to attract the attention of publishers, from knowing how to make the most of literary festivals to understanding how magical characters tick, from coping with reviews to being inspired by fairy tales, By the Book is bursting with practical, entertaining and illuminating tips on the writing life. Written by an author whose career spans more than twenty years and more than fifty books published, this book offers advice for writers both new, and not so new.

Sophie has very kindly offered to share an extract from the book:

A short dream workshop by Sophie Masson

From time immemorial, human beings have dreamed–every night we go into what one of my sons’ friends once referred to as ‘those brilliant eight hours of free entertainment.’ And from time immemorial, writers have used images or scenes from dreams, or entire dreams, to enrich and expand their creative work in waking life. I’m certainly no exception. My night-imagination has always enriched my day-imagination. Several of my short stories have started directly as dreams, for example, ‘Restless’, a chilling ghost story I wrote not long ago, began as a really creepy and unforgettable nightmare. Another disturbing story, ‘The Spanish Wife’, a vampire story set in the 1930’s, started as a dream in which someone said, very clearly, ‘No-one took any notice of him till he brought home a Spanish wife,’ and that turned into the very first sentence of the short story. Images and scenes from dreams have also gone into my novels, and in one case, a very vivid and intriguing dream inspired an entire six-book children’s fantasy series of mine, the Thomas Trew series. It’s not always fantasy or supernatural stories that have sprung out of dream-compost for me, though; everything from family stories to thrillers to historical novels has benefited from it.

Over the years, I’ve learned quite a few techniques on how to best use vivid, scary, tantalising or intriguing dream sequences in my writing, and how to investigate them for best effects. Here’s a short workshop based on some of the techniques I’ve developed over the years:

*Think of a dream you’ve had. Any dream. It doesn’t have to be anything exciting or unusual. Go back over the dream-scenes, as if you were a police witness being asked to remember an event. Who was in it? What did they look like? What were they wearing?

Were they people you knew or strangers? Were there any animals in it? What sort? What was the setting like? Indoors, outdoors? What could you see? Smell? Touch? Hear? Taste even? What were you in it—a participant, a helpless observer, a godlike figure?

*If you did something supernatural, like flying, what did it feel like, physically? (I’ve often had flying dreams and in them I feel a strong pull in the chest, arms stretching. Once I even woke up with what felt like an actual slight ache in the arm muscles—very spooky indeed!)

*Were there any machines in your dream? If so, what sort?

*Did anyone speak, and if so what did they say? Many dreams in my experience are like silent movies, with thought-subtitles and maybe some music, but a few have dialogue, even if it’s often minimalistic and quite enigmatic.

* Knowledge: Do you know why you were in that particular place, at that time? If you had some supernatural ability, did you know why? If there are interesting objects or gadgets in the setting of your dream, do you know what they can do, and why, and who made or used them? Backstory is very often missing in dreams, but is very important in a story, even if you only spend a few lines on it.

*Now, once you’ve written down as many descriptive details as you can about what was there in the dream, think about what wasn’t there, and write that down. While you were dreaming, did you know for instance why you or other people were doing things(even if it was a kind of weird dream-logic?) Did you understand the sequence of events? Was there a sense the dream was moving towards some conclusion, or just randomly jumping about? Motive, continuity and plot—all very important in actual stories—are often missing from dreams.

*Think of your own self in the dream, however you appeared in it: did you recognise yourself? Did you feel it was fully you or something that was only partly you, or a stranger? Did characters behave randomly? Character development is usually absent in dreams too though it very much needs to be present in a story.

*What about the setting? Were there things missing: for instance, if you were in a house, were there doors? Windows? Furniture? If you were outside, was anything odd: for instance trees growing upside down, or a wall of water appearing out of nowhere?

*Now put those two things together—the things that were there, the ones that weren’t—and you have the beginnings of a real story framework, where the wild imagination of the night and the more disciplined one of the day cross-fertilise and turn into something amazing and wonderful.

bythebookcoversmall_1Thanks Sophie! I’m so looking forward to putting these tips into action. If you’d like to buy a copy of By the Book by Sophie Masson, you can source it here:

Australian Society of Authors or via Amazon if you have a kindle eReader.

You can find Sophie Masson here: Website  Facebook  Twitter

And if you’ve every turned a dream into a story (as I know Stephenie Meyer did with Twilight) I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Happy writing!

Prioritizing your Passions


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As a writing mentor, I’ve heard plenty of clients say they “just can’t find time” to fulfill their creative dreams and write a book or even finish a short story. In the real world, aspiring writers might need to work a forty hour week to pay the bills, or fill their day caring for their family. That doesn’t leave a lot of time or energy to invest in what really lights them up.

If this sounds like you, and you’re wondering how you can carve out time for your own dreams when everyone else wants a piece of you, grab a coffee and watch this 5 minute video from the fabulously inspiring and vivacious Marie Forleo, on how to prioritize what’s really important to you:

Do you have a favorite way to prioritize your dreams and ambitions? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below:

Coping with rejection

Originally posted on LOUISE CUSACK:

Business woman crying head in handsWriters submit manuscripts and get knock backs. It’s a fact of life that even multi-published authors have to deal with. Unless you’re Stephen King or JK Rowling (which I’m not) there’s a chance that your latest offering won’t be adored by the first publisher who looks at it. Intellectually I know that. But the heart and the head don’t always agree. When I started off in this business twenty years ago, rejection felt like this to me:

What? My precious baby isn’t what you’re looking for? How could you say that? I slaved over that manuscript. I poured my life-blood into it. I just offered you my heart on a platter and you stabbed it. Several times. Soon to be followed by: Does this mean I’m a crap writer? Maybe I should just stop kidding myself. Publishers know what they’re talking about. I’m just a woman sitting in her pajamas…

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The Color Thesaurus


This Color Thesaurus is a fabulous resource for writers. I was inspired with fantasy ideas just looking at it!

Originally posted on Ingrid's Notes:

I love to collect words. Making word lists can help to find the voice of my story, dig into the emotion of a scene, or create variety.

One of my on-going word collections is of colors. I love to stop in the paint section of a hardware store and find new names for red or white or yellow.  Having a variety of color names at my fingertips helps me to create specificity in my writing. I can paint a more evocative image in my reader’s mind if I describe a character’s hair as the color of rust or carrot-squash, rather than red.

So for fun, I created this color thesaurus for your reference. Of course, there are plenty more color names  in the world, so, this is just to get you started.

Fill your stories with a rainbow of images!













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Grammar never goes out of style


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grammarWriters need grammar, not so we can be pedantic about semi-colons, but to ensure that what we’re trying to convey to readers has some chance of translating intact from our brains to theirs.

My motto with writing is “Clarity above all”, so I’m mindful of the fact that the way we put words together can either help or hinder our readers when they engage with our stories (or our blogs, Facebook posts, Tweets). Grammar and style are vital elements of writing, yet many creative, talented writers need help in this area.

Because of that, I’m excited to recommend a user-friendly FREE course on Grammar and Style through the University of Queensland (Australia). Here’s some detail:

WRITE101x will introduce you to some marvelous and quirky resources that we have annotated for your guidance, show you video clips of interviews that we conducted with distinguished grammarians, challenge you with quizzes and writing activities that will give you strategies to help you to build skills that will enhance the quality of your writing, and invite you to enter into discussions and assess the work of your peers in an interactive environment.

WRITE101x begins September 22nd   2014 and you can enroll now.

If you want a solid grounding in grammar, or simply want to brush-up your skills, this course might be perfect for you!



Plot driven versus character driven? All bullshit.


Fabulous blog for novelists by Dr Kim Wilkins on how to craft the interaction between character and plot.

Originally posted on Hexebart's Well:

From time to time, aspiring writers ask me what is the best kind of story: one that is plot-driven or one that is character-driven? Somehow the idea that the two are distinct and one can be privileged over the other persists. “Character-driven” is usually seen as the mark of serious writing, while “plot-driven” is understood to be written by hacks pandering to the marketplace. This is a false distinction, and a potentially dangerous one at that. No writer can afford to overlook one or the other: a good story is driven by both good plot ideas and good characters. The trick is managing them right.

1. A story isn’t a story until it has people and problems. These two things (character and plot) cannot in any way be conceived outside of each ot An idea for a fascinating character means little until that character is challenged in some way…

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5 Day Intensive Manuscript Development Program


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Australian fiction writers, I’d like to give you the heads-up about a fabulous opportunity to develop your finished manuscript to publication standard. Romance Writers of Australia are running 5DI, a five day intensive manuscript development program with International best-selling authors as tutors.

t-m-clarkAustralian author T.M. Clark has done 5DI twice and both her novels have sold to Harlequin MIRA.

She said, “I did this 5Di – 5 day intensive – twice, in my journey towards publication. I can’t hold it in high enough regard. By Brother-But-One was my first book that attended, and Tears of A Cheetah (To be publish December 15) was the second. SOOOOOOO worth paying for the help and investing in yourself for the week. Writers – a must!”

Speaking as a tutor, I can attest to the fact that these intensive manuscript development programs really work. Ten years ago I was a tutor for the  EnVision manuscript development program which focused on speculative fiction manuscripts. Over the years I’ve seen many of the EnVision attendees go on to publication, and the quantum leap in writing craft they achieved in that week of intensive learning astonished even the tutors. As I result I’ve advised clients to attended 5DI, and those who have done so have spoken highly of the experience.

These sorts of immersion opportunities don’t come along every week, or even every year. Romance Writers of Australia’s 5DI is for manuscripts “in any romantic sub genre, including mainstream books with romantic elements. This workshop is open to all members of RWA who are aspiring and emerging authors and over 18 years of age.” (Read their conditions of entry for all eligibility criteria.)

Any fiction manuscript with romantic elements (sex, attraction, a love story subplot) should qualify whether it’s a crime novel, a fantasy, paranormal, young adult, etc, and the joining fee for RWAustralia membership will provide you with more writing support and industry information than you can now imagine. You have to qualify to attend 5DI, so do read the entry information carefully.

If you want to take your writing to the next level, I urge you to apply for this opportunity. If you are accepted, I promise you’ll get your money’s worth (and more).

Details are here:



Writers: using a Research Assistant is easier than you think


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This is me mock-strangling Heather Gammage!

Why do writers create historical or fantasy settings that require research, when they hate researching? I have no clue, but I do it myself. It’s one thing to swan over to Rome and Florence to research the Medici at the time of the Italian Renaissance, but when I get home and realize I’ve forgotten some details, I often resent time spent sourcing those bits and pieces.

If you’re like me, help in the form of an on-call research assistant could be easier than you think. Today I’ve invited Brisbane research assistant Heather Gammage (who I’ve worked with – hence the mock-strangling photo) to describe what she does for authors. Heather has a BA in history with a minor in Classical languages (Latin). Her specific “field” is in the medieval, but she admits to a fair to middling knowledge of other eras and is an expert in tracking down hard-to-find references and facts.

So without further ado, here’s Heather:

Thank you, Louise, for inviting me to write about why I love being a research assistant.

I have written stories since I was a small girl. My original inspiration was Enid Blyton and the Trixie Belden books. My very first book was, essentially, a Trixie Belden rip-off I wrote at seven years old–the names of the teenaged detectives were different, and it was set in Australia, but it was clear where my ideas came from.

At the same age, I used to set myself assignments from the encyclopaedia on various things that piqued my interest. One week, I’d be reading about dogs, the next, I’d be copying lines out about the government of Indonesia. They were not brilliant, by any means (and, again, were mostly plagiarized), but looking back, it’s clear that the “research is my life” moniker I jokingly adopted on an online gaming forum in the early 2000s was based in more fact than I realized. Even more recently, I came to the conclusion that, while I love story-making and writing, what I really love about writing is the busywork leading up to it–the research; the world-building and the diving into dusty libraries for things I do not know. Perhaps that is why Trixie, the girl detective, resonated with me as a child.

I still write (and I have workshopped my fantasy novel with the fabulous Louise), but the practicalities of my current life circumstances and my university studies don’t allow me to seek publication–yet. Meanwhile, as a part of those studies, I applied for the 2012/2013 Summer Research Scholarship with The University of Queensland as a research assistant to Dr Kim Wilkins. I was thrilled when I was accepted! Over that summer, I worked with Kim on the research for her book Ember Island (published under her moniker Kimberly Freeman in 2013) as well as referencing and fact checking for her Year of Ancient Ghosts. Ember Island was set in modern and 1890s Brisbane, a fictional prison island based on St Helena Island, and also the Channel Islands (Jersey/Guernsey). As Kim worked on draft one, she asked me to research the things she needed for her historical setting–which varied from trade routes into Guernsey to how a rich boy would dress in 1890s England and Brisbane to how many inmates were on St Helena’s and what the guards were paid.

It dawned on me that I was doing two of the things I loved most, and being paid for it, and oh-my-god-wouldn’t-it-be-fantastic-to-do-this-forever. I could apply all of my very “bitsy” work and life experience: parenting, horses, painting, writing (in fiction, for games, and for academics), referencing in a range of different styles, research, history, small business ownership, gardening, retail, western martial arts, birth experience, arts admin, teaching, Latin, gaming and beta testing, web writing — I am a jack of all trades from work and experience over the years, but there is nothing that screams “hire me!” for one particular job.

But, surely, don’t all authors love researching? Who would hire me? Kim had always done her own research, and done it very well; the research assistant work was due to her publishing time constraints.

Then, in early 2013, I took Dr Kim’s writing class as an elective for my degree, which was, quite suitably, a “doing research for writing” course. As a part of this course, Kim asked other authors to speak at the lectures about how they approached their research. One author mentioned that she despised the research process.

Despised it? Really?

A whole tonne of pennies dropped on my head.

Since then, I have done work for other clients, as well as Kim, and as my undergrad studies end mid-year I will increase my hours to allow for full-time bookings. I absolutely love working with clients on their research as they write and edit their books, and my current rate is $40 an hour which clients pay in advance, usually buying a block of my time to use as they require it. Quite apart from the vicarious thrill of seeing an author’s writing before it is published, my authors ask me questions, often, about subjects I know very little to nothing about (my specialty is the medieval period and Western Europe, but I have researched as widely as 1890s Queensland, 1990s Victoria and London after WW2). So, I am always learning, always searching. My job is to make the process easier on the author, and they can focus on story, while I focus on accuracy (as far as practicable, and to an author’s requirements). It’s win-win.

Thanks so much for sharing today, Heather. I can hear a whole batch of authors out there on the Interwebs thinking How do I get her to work for me! If that’s you, Heather can be contacted at: heathermgammage AT gmail DOT com, and if you’d like to see what Dr Kim has to say about her beloved research assistant, you can read Kim’s blog On Having a Research Assistant.

If you’d like more info, or want to ask a question, please drop that into a comment below and either Heather or I will respond. Thanks for reading!


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