“Building” Characters?

Hey Folks,

Some writers (and probably all of them/us at first) believe they have to “build” or “create” characters. Some folks even go so far as to create a “character sketch” to one degree or another.

The character sketch might be so detailed as to include the character’s educational background, childhood experiences, and anything else. It’s the story of the character.

Most often, writers who do this begin with a stick figure and then flesh it out. Those writers “assign” various physical, mental and emotional traits and “know” the character thoroughly before they begin writing the story.

Most often, these are the same writers who plot every step of a novel before they ever begin writing.

Of course, there are “hybrid” writers who create and use character sketches but also write without an outline when the time comes.

If either of these is how you write, that’s perfectly fine. Seriously, whatever works for you.

The way I see it, regardless of all the various ways there are to create a story, all writers fall into one of two overall categories:

The Almighty Writer On High — This writer is the god of his fictional world. He dictates (again, to one degree or another) who the characters Are (education, life experiences, etc.) and what the characters say and do. In short, this writer is in complete control of his characters.

This writer also most often dictates plot points, twists and turns, and most often knows what will happen “next” in the story, often all the way to the end. But this topic is about characters.

The Recorder — This writer has ceded control of the story to the characters.

So yes, he is also in charge at first. After all, how can you “cede” control if it isn’t yours to cede?

But this writer’s control ends where the characters’ control begins. Basically, it ends when the writer puts his fingers on the keyboard.

This writer realizes this is not “his” story but the characters’ story. So he chooses to let the characters tell it.

As a result, the characters go where they want, say and do what they want, and pretty much dare the recorder (the writer) to keep up.

After all, he isn’t part of the characters’ world or their story. He simply happened upon some interesting people, thought their story would be interesting, and asked permission to come along for awhile so he could record it.

Fortunately, the characters thought that would be fine.

What ensues from that moment forward is the characters’ story without so much as a single heavy fingerprint of the human “writer” on it.

Maybe the best part of this approach is that the writer learns about the characters as they develop, just as he does with “real” people he meets. The difference is, if he doesn’t like these characters, he can cause them to be killed off without having to endure all the bother of formal charges, a trial, and possible prison time.

Again, whether you choose to be the Almighty Writer on High or The Recorder is strictly up to you. Either way is fine with me. Whatever works.

But just in case you’ve been the former and are interested in trying on the latter, here’s one way (my way) to get there.

Back when I first decided to become the interested but non-controlling Recorder, I envisioned myself on a battlefield of sorts, one with trenches.

The trenches are the story, and that’s where the characters are: down in the story.

When I first started writing, I set myself up in a tower, far distant from the battlefield, and observed the action through a powerful telescope.

I watched what happened, could see what was coming, and anticipated what would happen if this character moved here and that character moved there, and they did and said this or that or the other.

And I directed them.

Now get this — because I’m only human, I was unable to think any thoughts that were different than the thoughts any reader might think if he were standing in the tower with me. So the stories “I” told were not only distant, but boring and predictable.

Later, I realized if I got closer to the battlefield I could see the action in greater detail. But I was still directing the characters and events. The stories improved — they weren’t as distant and  were more detailed — but yeah, they were still ridiculously predictable.

Finally, a couple years ago, for some reason I thought what great fun it might be to get closer still.

I sat down on the edge of a trench and dangled my legs over. Only now I was too close.

I could no longer see an overview. Oh oh.

I could no longer tell what might happen next. And next. And next.

I began to hyperventilate.

The only way to enjoy the tight proximity to the characters AND find out what happened next and next and next was to be in the story itself.

So when a character raced by I yelled, “Hey!”

He stopped and looked back. His brow wrinkled. “Say, you’re not from around here, are you?”

I shook my head. “Nope. But you guys are really interesting to me. I wanna come along.”

He frowned. “But you’re not part of our group.”

“Yeah, I know. But I wanna be.”

He looked at me for a moment. “Hey, aren’t you that guy used to sit up in the tower over there and tell us what to do?”

“Uh, yeah. But see, I—”

He turned away. “Sorry. You can’t. We don’t care for control freaks.”

“But I don’t wanna control anything anymore! It’s YOUR story. I just wanna be in the story with you!”

He turned around again, eyed me. Finally he said, “Well, you can’t be in the story. It’s out story, got it? You’re living your own story out there.

“Tell you what, though, you can come along if you want. You can be our Recorder. Just keep up. Take notes. Write down what happens, what we say and do. That’s as close as we can let you get.

“You’ll be in the thick of it, only you can’t participate. A’right?”

“Deal!” I said. Then I released my grip on all things Writerly and dropped off into the story.

From then on, I’ve only been out of the trenches between stories.

Now I learn who my characters are as they reveal themselves through their actions and words (just like “real” people do) while running through the story. I describe events as they happen. Sometimes I see things coming, but most of the time I’m as surprised as the characters are.

And that tells me the readers will be surprised too.

Oh, and the plot? For that I harken back to Mr. Bradbury: “Plot is only the footprints the characters leave behind as they run through the story.”

‘Til next time, happy writing.

On Specificity and Clarity in Writing

Hey Folks,

I was going to write a whole post on this topic, but really, that isn’t necessary. It’s a personal pet-peeve kind of thing. And far be it from me to foist my “beliefs” on anyone else.

What pet peeve?

Well, people who write things and then postulate—not even apologetically but more apoplectically and with a wag of the hand—that “The reader will know what I mean.”  Those folks get on my nerves. Deep and hard.

But I have come to understand that such things don’t matter, by and large, to many people, writers and readers alike. Or at least it seems so to me.

For example, despite published writings that are replete with inappropriate instances of absolutes (all, never, always, everyone, nobody, etc.), apparently no writers write like that. Ever.

If you don’t believe me, ask them.

And despite published writings that are chock full of eyes wandering out of heads and doing things on their own (her eyes flew across the room and came to rest on a barrel of metal shavings), again, no writer put those words on a page. Again, ever.

And the same goes for other body parts: “her legs raced along the sidewalk” or “his nose smelled something strange” or “her ears listened closely” or “his finger dialed the telephone” or “his hand crept into his pocket to retrieve his revolver.”

No writers that I’ve been able to find write like that either. Ever.

But based on the hard evidence contained between the covers of some books, some do. Or maybe the publishers are sneaking that stuff in.

Anyway, if you mention those faux pas to the writers, they grin the grin of a thousand braying jackasses, wag that hand in the air as if you and they are old buddies and say something like, “Aah, you know, the readers know I didn’t mean it like that.”

And most often I smile and say something noncommittal, like “Hey, when you’re right, you’re right” or “Ah.”

But the truth lurks in my mind: No, Sparky, they don’t.

Readers read for either or both of two purposes: entertainment and-or information. If you write “never,” they read “never.” They don’t automatically substitute “seldom” or “sometimes” or some other less-inclusive, less blanket-clad word.

If you write that “her legs raced down the road,” the reader sees disembodied legs racing down the road.

If you write that “her eyes came to rest on a barrel of metal shavings,” the reader will wince. Because face it, that had to hurt.

And it isn’t the reader’s fault that they take you at your word(s). It’s your fault.

After all, the reader has no choice but to accept what you put on the page, whether it’s in your novel, in your Essay On Some Topic Of Major Importance or on your Facebook page.

I’ve never known a reader who was hungry for a verbal repast to go looking for a soup sandwich. But that’s often what they get.

It is up to the purveyor of the repast to determine whether he or she is going to serve a nutrituous, delicately balanced meal or something that’s half-baked and barely slopped together.

Am I being nitpicky?

Yes. But only where my own sensibilities are concerned.

Hey, if you want to continue slopping grey, watery soup over stale bread in a bowl, go ahead. If you want to hit it with a dash of sea salt, proclaim it prime rib and hand it out to weary, gaunt-eyed travelers who are starved for sustenance, that’s your business.

I’m only giving you notice that I will not partake. Nor will I sidle up alongside you in the soup kitchen, grab a ladle and begin flinging greasy dumplings at the wall in the hope they will stick and “be something good.”

So anyway, I was gonna devote a whole post to this notion that writers, not readers, are responsible for the clarity or lack thereof in writing.

But it’s a personal thing, so I won’t.

I’ll just pass along a wish that your characters’ eyes will remain in their head. Unless it’s a horror novel and they get whacked really, really hard.

‘Til next time, happy writing.


PS: If you wanna see what I do when I’m having fun, swing by Harvey Stanbrough Writing in Public (https://www.facebook.com/HarveyStanbroughWritingInPublic/) and take a gander. For the month of June, you can watch short stories grow there scene by scene.

Write Honest Dialogue, You Racist Swine

Hi Folks,

The following is a guest post by my friend, professional fiction writer and ghost writer Dan Baldwin.

Billy Ray Watkins stood in the doorway of the old shack where the unfortunate sharecropper was kept prisoner. Watkins, 300 pounds of angry bigotry and hate, pounded his fist, sneered and wiped the chewing tobacco spittle from his lips. He grinned and said, “You lacking-in-a-proper education, fatherless son of the African veldt, I’m going to smack the doodoo out of your ebony tushie.”

Writers have an unspoken contract with their readers and that is to write with honesty, especially dialog. To write any other way is to break that contract, disappoint or even enrage your reader, and put your writing career on the fast track to the “$1 Each” cardboard box at the front of the foodstore. To write any other way produces drivel like the lead paragraph in this post.

My thriller Sparky and the King takes place in the 1960s Deep South. The plot involves members of the Klan and organized crime figures bent on vengeance against the influence of “race music” embodied by one Elvis Presley. Honest writing demanded that I used the language of those people when I wrote sections of the book in which they appeared. Some of that writing was uncomfortable, but necessary.

Honest dialog can challenge a writer not only in the writing of it, but also in the selling. I tried to explain to an agent who objected to the racial hatred in the terms used by my characters. I said, “Three hundred pound murdering racists in the Deep South don’t say ‘people of color.’”

Honesty isn’t always easy to write. I’ve heard “How can you write such filth?” more than once. Honest writing invites criticism, much of it off course and unfair. My mother was a devout Christian lady and every time I gave her one of my novels I always warned, “Now Mom, remember it’s not me saying and doing all those bad things; it’s the characters.” She understood. I gave a copy of Sparky to my doctor and she understood – I think. However, every time I’ve been in for an exam since, she’s had an armed guard in the room, so….

The bottom line for a writer is basic: If you want to write about certain people and aspects of our culture, you have to use the language appropriate to that time and place and those people. You’ll have to use foul language, unpleasant scenes, and despicable characters doing despicable things. If you can’t do that honestly, choose another subject so you can honor your contract with your reader.
Dan’s Quote of the Week: “If the Creator had a purpose in equipping us with a neck, he surely meant for us to stick it out.” Arthur Koestler

To learn more about Dan Baldwin and his work, please visit his websites at http://www.danbaldwin.biz or http://www.fourknightspress.com/. You can subscribe to either or both by emailing him at baldco@msn.com.

S-stuttering an’ St-stammering an’ St-stuff

Hi Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 9/10/2013. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.

As I write this, I just had an excellent question from an acquaintance in Tucson who wrote that she had bought my Punctuation for Writers a few years ago at a Society of Southwestern Authors (SSA) meeting and had found it useful. However, it had not mentioned how to write a character’s stuttering, stammering speech.

I thought her question laid a great foundation for a blog post. She wrote,

“I am now doing a “down and dirty” edit/proofreading of a work for a friend. The main character stutters, and the way the dialogue is presented is very distracting. … I have been on-line looking for guidance in writing stuttering, but I need a source that I know is legitimate (for lack of a better word) and is one that I can say to the author, ‘Harvey Stanbrough says do it THIS way. He knows what he’s talking about!'”

She’s such a nice lady, isn’t she? 🙂 So anyway, here’s my response, expanded just a bit to provide a little more extensive example:

I r-r-recom-m-mend you wr-write st-st-stuttering like th-this. Just remember to s-spell the entire first sound of the st-stutter before the h-hyphen. (And be careful not to overspell it, by which I mean, don’t spell what you don’t want pronounced.)

After all, s-stutter is not quite the same as st-stutter or stu-stutter, and p-pronounced is not the same as pr-pronounced or pro-pronounced. Read them aloud and you’ll see what I m-mean.

M-most often you’ll w-want to repeat only the f-first letter of a word, or a single conson-n-nant later in the w-word. B-be careful of repeating the f-first l-letter of a w-word like l-letter though because the lower-case L l-looks like a one (1) and c-can be distracting all b-by itself.

However, you’ll w-want to use the first t-two letters of a word like th-though b-because the TH forms a single sound, almost as if TH is a letter b-by itself.

And as with all phonetic and other d-dialect spellings, d-don’t o-o-overd-do it. The g-good p-part about spelling s-stammering is that it’s n-not quite as labor intensive as other t-types of phonetic spelling. Th-those who s-stammer often d-don’t s-stammer on the s-same word or syllable all the t-t-time.

Okay, enough of th-that. When you spell stammering speech, be sure to use the hyphen to indicate the “break.” It isn’t really a break, and it definitely is not a pause (as that created by a comma or em dash, for example).

As I mention in Punctuation for Writers (get it at Smashwords or Amazon) the hyphen is the only mark of punctuation that actually speeds the reader up, making him read two words as if they were one, as in “It was a dark-green Cadillac.”

So we use that speeding-up property of the hyphen to indicate the stutter or stammer by rushing the reader through two individual but repeated sounds as if they were one.

Next time you get m-mega b-bored, write some s-stammering speech for a little while. It b-becomes ad-d-d-dictive.

‘Til next time, happy w-writing!


I am a professional fiction writer as well as a copyeditor. For details, or just to learn what comprises a good copy edit, please visit Copyediting.

If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up. In the alternative, you can also click the Pro Writer’s Journal tab on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.

Write What You Know — Seriously?

Howdy Folks,

How many times has some pundit told you to “write what you know”?

Uh, no. That is bad advice. Maybe the baddest advice ever, and I mean that in the old sense of “baddest,” before we started dumbing down the language. I mean “worst.”

It’s bad advice because the connotation is that you should write ONLY what you know.

So what? You’re supposed to write what you DON’T know?

Yes. Of course. You should also write what you know, but not ONLY what you know.

If everyone wrote only what they know, there would be very little science fiction, zero science fantasy (or other fantasy, for that matter), very little mystery, very little suspense, and so on. You can only “know” what actually exists and what you’ve actually experienced.

But think about it. Can you write a police procedural if you’ve never been a cop? Of course. Can you write a spy/thriller if you’ve never worked for the CIA? Yep. Can you write a romance novel if you’ve never been involved with a “shuddering, heaving breast” or a guy with flowing hair, broad shoulders, a thick chest with just the right amount of hair on it and trim, athletic hips? Yep.

If you couldn’t, novels wouldn’t exist.

All you need is Interest. If you’re Interested in writing Science Fiction, create a character, give him a problem, and drop him into a setting. Okay, then what happens first? Shrug. I don’t know. He’s your character. All I know is he has to solve the problem. (This might not be “the” problem of the story. Just a problem to get the character/situation started.)

If you’re interested in writing Mystery, create a character, give him a problem, and drop him into a setting. In this case, it’s a good idea if the problem is that the character just stumbled across a body. (grin)

If you’re interested in writing Romance, create a character (or two), give him a problem, and drop him into a setting.

Beginning to notice a trend here?

All you need to begin a story (of any length) is a character with a problem in a setting. That’s it. By and large, the setting determines the genre. Most characters and most problems can be cherry picked from one setting and dropped into another. And you’ll write an entirely different story in an entirely different genre.

If you don’t believe me, try it.

And what do I mean by “setting”? For purposes of this topic, the setting is where the character suddenly realizes he has a problem, and where he works through the problem. The smaller and more focused the setting, the better. (More on that next time.)

For now, create a character, give him a problem, and drop him into a setting. Then write an opening.

The opening will be around 300 to 500 words, probably. Be sure to include the character’s sense of the setting (sight, smell, taste, feel, sound) and have him either solve the problem or get well underway in solving it.

If the opening takes off (most of the time it will take off), just write the next sentence. Then write the next sentence. Then write the next sentence until the character leads you to the end of your new short story, novella, or novel.

If the opening sags out and dies, so what? Toss it. Then if you like the idea, write it again from scratch. And if you don’t like the idea, create a character, give him a problem, drop him into a setting and write another opening. (grin)

Seriously. Character + problem + setting = story opening. Try it. You won’t be disappointed. Add resolution and stir well. Bake for one hour per thousand words, spell check it, slap a cover on it and publish it.

‘Til next time, happy writing.


Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, Thanks! If you can’t make a monetary donation, please at least consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. Again, thank you.

Real Dialogue Tips

Hey Folks,

Because dialogue comes directly from the character’s mouth to the reader’s ear, no other part of your story is more intimate with the reader. No other part of the story will do more to engage the reader directly.

Dialogue dialogue consists of three elements: two parts narrative and one part nuance. The narrative parts are tag lines and brief descriptive narrative. Nuance is composed of the subtleties of implication. What your character says is never more important than how she says it, as dictated by your use of punctuation, word choice, and sentence structure.

Tag Lines

The purpose of tag lines—Tag lines exist ONLY to let the reader know which character is speaking. (Some call these narrative beats.) They do not stand alone. They consist of either the character’s name or the appropriate personal pronoun and a simple intransitive verb that indicates utterance. The best verb to use is “said.”

More exciting tag line verbs—If someone tells you to use more exciting tag line verbs they don’t know what they’re talking about. Always using “he said” or “Susan said” is boring, but that’s a good thing. Tag lines should be very brief and boring so the reader can skip quickly over them and get back to what matters. An “interesting” tag line will pull the reader from the story line.

Reverse constructions—There is never a good reason to use a reverse construction (verb first) in a tag line, said Harvey. Again, that calls attention to the tag line. And again, the tag line exists only to let the reader know which character is talking. It doesn’t set mood, tone, or any of those other literary terms.

Punctuation with tag lines—When the tag line occurs before the sentence, or when it occurs after a sentence that would normally end with a period, the tag line is always attached to the sentence with a comma.

Brief Descriptive Narrative Passages

Descriptive narrative passages sometimes are confused with tag lines, but the key word here is descriptive. Also, BDNs stand alone. They are complete sentences, separate of the line of dialogue. The descriptive narrative passage enables the reader to see a bit of the scene.

Use action verbs in descriptive narrative passages. When you use action verbs, you will automatically use fewer adjectives and adverbs. Any unnecessary adjectives and adverbs will fall away of their own accord.

Because it will set the tone or mood or voice of the dialogue to come, the brief descriptive narrative passage should appear before the dialogue:

An impish smile creased her lips. “Almost finished there?” (This way we see the smile and hear her tone as she speaks.)

Most often, if the BDN appears after the dialogue, the reader will back up and re-read the dialogue with the new information in mind. This is an interruption in the flow of the reading, and every interruption is a chance to stop reading your story or book.

Brief interruptive narrative passages are used in the midst of dialogue to enhance the rhythm or to give the reader a brief glimpse of a changing setting. Dialogue is wonderful but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

In this excerpt from “Mama’s Taste in Men,” a short story, you’ll find no tag lines at all and only necessary brief descriptive narratives. Study it to see why the BDNs are where they are:

My fist relaxed and I reached for Joe Ray’s hand. “Mean it or not, you shouldn’t say bad things about my mama.”

He took my hand and I helped him to his feet. “I just said she had bad taste in men,” he said, wiping cow spit off his face with one hand and dusting off his coveralls with his hat. “Besides, it was only a joke.”

“Well, some things you just don’t joke about. Besides, that ain’t exactly what you said. You said if Mama’s taste for men was in her mouth, her breath would smell like dung.”

“That was the joke part.”

“Well, in the future, keep your stupid sense of humor to yourself.” I thumped his chest with my forefinger. “Else you could wind up covered with cow slobber. Besides, Jake’s okay. He just ain’t got no nose holes.”



Sam spoke up. “Nostrils. Nose holes are called nostrils.”

“How do you know?’

Lester, who generally knows what everybody knows, put in his two cents. “Everybody knows that, Vernon. Nostrils is short for nose holes.”

I snorted. “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”

“Maybe dumb and maybe not so dumb, but it’s true all the same.”

Lester was tired of arguing, so Sam closed in for the kill. The Broden Brothers Tag Team. “We’ll wait ’til school and ask Miss Durb. She knows all about such things.”

That was my cue to end it. “Fine. We’ll ask Miss Durb. But school ain’t ’til Monday and Mama’s wedding is tomorrow. So we’re on truce ’til Monday.” I stuck out my hand, palm down, offering them the sign of the truce. “Agreed?”

And the nuances of dialogue? That’s just how your character delivers the part within the quotation marks. The voice should be unique from one character to another. It’s whether the character says “Do you want to?” or “Do y’wanna?” or “You wanna?” It’s whether the character speaks tersely or succinctly or vaguely.

The character should always speak the way a REAL person (of the same gender, same race or ethnicity and same education level) from the same area in the same situation would speak. Not complicated at all, is it? (grin)

Use tag lines only when it’s absolutely necessary to let the reader know which character is speaking.

Use brief descriptive narratives (introductory or interruptive) to enhance the scene for the reader.

Follow these brief tips and your dialogue will be miles ahead.

‘Til next time, happy writing!


Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, Thanks! If you can’t make a monetary donation, please at least consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. Again, thank you.