My debut novel Secrets & Charades released in 2017, ten years after I wrote the first draft and completed a fiction writing course. I received 21 rejections as I pitched that book to 21 different publishers. Each time I’d rewrite and improve the content based on what I was learning at writer’s conferences and on the suggestions I received from the publishers (if they gave any.)
I entered contests to get more feedback. I won the Editor’s Choice Award in 2014, which earned me coaching and edits to hone my story. That lead to publication. Since then, I’ve published two other novels with two more to release this year. And two more that have yet to find a home.
I learned a few important things during that ten-year journey from rough draft to publication.
Never give up on your dream.
Stay teachable, so you are approachable.
Network with other writers, editors, and publishers, you never know when the door will open for you.
Share what you know with novice writers.
Humbly receive critiques and advice from other writers.
Be thankful for all those willing to share their knowledge of publishing.
I discovered all these valuable tools while sitting in writer’s conference classes and workshops. I listened to the author’s journeys and found inspiration. I paid attention to changing trends and gained the encouragement to go on.
Authoring a book is hard work, getting it published is harder and marketing for good sales is the hardest of all. I went into this novel writing thing very naïve of those facts. I assumed because publishers requested my manuscript after my pitch that they would scoop it up. Had I known these same publishers review hundreds of manuscripts a month and may only choose a handful, I might have been less devastated.
If you are just starting your writing journey, learn all you can. And for the published author, never stop learning.
Hope this bit of encouragement benefits someone today.
Do you have a word of encouragement for other authors? Share in the comments.
I am excited to have author Carol Stratton on my blog today. I love her work and hope she inspires you as a write and piques your interest as a reader.
Welcome Carol, let’s start this off with a bit about your writing journey.
When I was in sixth grade, our town paper published an essay in their “Youth Said It” column. That was a thrill and seeing myself in print planted a desire in me to be a published writer. In high school I lived through a hilariously humiliating first date. I submitted it to McCall’s magazine and of course was turned down, but it started me thinking about writing. In college I started to major in English until the head of the English department (himself, a Pulitzer prize winning poet) would write snarky comments in red pen on how I might want to find another major. I put writing aside.
What a horrid man. Obviously, he was wrong.
It wasn’t until 9/11 that God turned a key inside of me and released my passion for communication. I typed up my thoughts on the national tragedy, walked over to our local newspaper, handed the editor my piece and held my breath. He skimmed through it, nodded, and said those magic words – “I’ll take it.”
When my babies grew up and left the nest, I remembered my earlier desires to write and attended Write to Publish in Wheaton Illinois one summer. I wrestled with believing I really was a called writer and prayed for a sign. After the conference I attended church with one of my friends and in the middle of worship, I began to cry. Well, I’m not a crier so I knew God was speaking to me. Suddenly He told me, “Pursue joy and comfort others.” That’s all he said. Not, “Become a novelist,” or “Write devotions.” But I knew it was His way of pushing me forward because it’s truly a joy to share my words with readers.
Expand on your calling to create words on paper to share with the world.
It took a while to realize I wanted to write. My creative outlet as a young mom had always been music, especially writing songs. But writing music became frustrating. When I figured out I could express myself better with words, and there was a pathway to sharing my stories, I was one happy camper.
Do you have a favorite verse that resonates with you?
Yes, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do and he will establish your plans.” Proverbs 16:3.
I love that one.
Now, let’s talk about your latest project.
Deep End of the Lake. It’s a sequel to my first novel, Lake Surrender.
How did you research for this book?
I lived in Michigan and worked with autistic children so most of my story is from memories of life up north.
What inspired you to write this particular book?
Working in an autistic classroom I wanted to write about my students. I also wanted to show the struggle that parents have with a child on the spectrum. These families tugged at my heart.
Next I’d like to ask tow of my favorite questions.
If you could go back in time and give one piece of advice for your younger self about writing what would that be?
Write for the love of it, for the ministry of words. Don’t wait for family or friends to get on board and encourage you. Often they won’t understand.
So very true. Now, Who is your best support system to keep you focused on your writing?
My husband. At first didn’t understand my intense desire to keep on writing even when I had so many rejections (33 on a middle grade novel I’ve never published but who’s counting?) but now he’s my cheerleader and my literary muse as he helps me with my book titles.
That’s so sweet.
As a writer I’m an avid reader. What is your favorite genre to read for fun?
Cozy mysteries and chick lit (humorous).
And my last question comes from the curious minds of new writers. Where is your favorite place to write?
I’d love a warm July day where I can stretch out on a lounge chair overlooking a Michigan lake. Anyone want to offer me a rental? Me too.
More about Carol Stratton:
A novelist, reporter and freelancer, Carol has penned 500 articles, and four books, Changing Zip Codes, the award-winning debut novel, Lake Surrender, (inspired by her work with autistic students), The Littlest Bell Ringer and the sequel to Lake Surrender, Deep End of the Lake. She loves to connect the modern woman to the truths of the bible through her stories.
An avid hiker and baker she also speaks to women’s groups such as Mothers of Preschoolers. Married to her literary muse, John, they have four children and eight grandchildren and reside in Clemmons. She loves to encourage new writers and readers who have moved.
Here’s the link to order her book:
You can connect with her at:
FB: Carol Grace Stratton
Carol is offering a Kindle giveaway for her new novel.
Here is the back cover copy:
Who Says Giving Up Dreams Isn’t Success?
Ally Cervantes has all she wants in life—an upcoming wedding, a chance to prove herself with a writing gig, and two great kids. But her life turns for the worse when the unexpected happen and she soon finds herself struggling with a rebellious teen daughter, a shaky job, and a shakier engagement. With her newfound faith acting as a life preserver, Ally discovers if you’re in the deep end of the lake, you’d better learn how to swim. Although fiction, Deep End of the Lake, is written from the authors’ personal compassion for families who have the privilege and responsibility to care for a child with a disability. Having worked with autistic students, Carol has seen first-hand the stress and demands these parents face and wanted to capture in a story those pressures, all while providing the encouragement that a beautiful hope and faith can bring into the struggles.
It’s simple to enter the giveaway. Comment below and your name will be put in the drawing. Carol will draw a name Friday, April 2nd and contact the winner.
In March we find green decoration and clothing in honor of St. Patrick’s Day and Corn beef and cabbage on the menu in restaurants. And for those who live in Chicago, they dye the Chicago River green. Just so you know, the Irish do not celebrate St. Patrick’s Day eating corned beef and cabbage. That’s an American thing.
By the way, not all Irish are Catholic. My ancestors came from Ireland in the 1840s. They came through the port of New Orleans and they were Presbyterian. More specifically, they were Scots-Irish. Presbyterian Scots who immigrated to Ireland centuries earlier after William of Orange (Protestant king of England) conquered Ireland. Irish lands were awarded to those Scots who fought for the crown.
From the study of World History we see monarchs of different faiths moved their people into the conquered country to spread their religious beliefs. And those beliefs take a variety of forms, which is why a great deal of immigrants, even today, come to America for religious freedom.
Scots-Irish Presbyterians were no exception. The Irish did not embrace the interlopers. They were passed over for better jobs. (Sound familiar) Many Scots-Irish left Ireland for a better life in America. They believed America offered them the opportunity to break through class barriers.
Any immigrant from Ireland who came to America however, be they protestant or catholic in the 1800s were spurned and considered less than human by some. Most could only get the least desirable jobs, at least in the colonized part of America. Many became law-enforcement or entered the military.
Moving away from New York and other large cities gave them the opportunity to better provide for their families. In the book The Other Irish: the Scots-Irish Rascals who made America, by Karen F. Mc Carty traces the history of the Scots-Irish in America. I discovered they were often offered homestead opportunities in areas that had problems with the Natives or during the time of colonization by the French. The Irish were the barrier between the wilderness and civilized people. Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Andrew Jackson were among some of the notable Scots-Irish who made a difference in America’s early history.
Pictured above is Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson.
During the Civil War, any Irish immigrant who got off the boat was offered citizenship, in exchange for fighting in the war. There were Irish units on both sides of the cause. New immigrants didn’t care about the reasons behind the war, only the reward of citizenship. Many died before they achieved their dream of a better life.
When I think of St. Patrick’s Day I don’t think of green beer and rabble rousing but a man who cared deeply about the Irish people and God. That same deep faith came with the Scots-Irish when they came to America.
As a writer, I find the faith element important in my stories. As a historical writer, I want it to reflect the time period of my setting. And as one of Scots-Irish descent, I want to honor my heritage by getting the facts right.
Although they claim everyone is Irish in St. Patrick’s Day, where do your ancestral roots lie?
My mother died a few weeks ago. She was my biggest supporter and fan from the very first poem I wrote in third grade until the day she died. Until she could no longer see well-enough to read, she read every word I wrote. Her encouragement kept me pressing forward, crafting words.
Writer’s need to surround themselves with encouraging people. I am grateful for my writer friends and my sister, Linda, who fill the void my mom left. Building a fan base is hard, stepping out to gather them in is an even bigger challenge.
That’s why I need my cheering section. I need my Word Weavers and ACFW critique partners. Without their input, I wouldn’t be publishing my fifth and sixth historical romances in 2021.
The writer friends I’ve met at conferences and in writer groups on social media make me feel less like an odd-ball while crafting fiction. I need the Serious Writers Family Facebook group and Serious Writer Club to give me additional tools to market my work. I need my editors who have such a gentle way of helping me polish my novels.
Everyone one of these wonderful writers has become like family to me. And after losing my mom, they are more precious than ever. Some have so much more experience and can offer me wisdom and insights into writing craft. Others are like younger siblings. They look to me for help and encouragement.
Writing is a lonely endeavor. And if I had isolated myself, I’d have become weary and my words stale. And I am confident, without their support, that my mother’s passing would have derailed me and I would have given it all up.
Because of this wonderful support, I’m getting my writing legs back and doing a slow plod toward the goals I need to reach before my next book releases. My creative juices are finding their flow.
I know my mom is looking down from Heaven able to once again see every word I am writing. The thought makes me smile and empowers me to keep writing.
Who is your biggestsupporter?
Check out my upcoming historical romance newest release. It’s available on Amazon for preorder.
If you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you know I write Historical Romance. And one of the key things any historical writer or fiction writer in general needs to do is research.
When I get a germ of an idea and the plot noodles around in my mind, I do research. It can take days, weeks or months depending on how familiar I am with the time period, setting and other details beforehand.
Let me share how I research my first novel Secrets & Charades
The idea of a female doctor going west as a mail-order bride formed in my mind. I knew nothing about female doctors in the mid-1800s or if they existed. I’d read mail-order bride stories but didn’t understand the process. My thoughts on ranching came from watching Bonanza and Big Valley as a kid. And although I’d lived in Texas for a while as a child, I still needed to research setting.
First, I used the internet to answer some basic questions. Were there female doctors in that time period? Who were the notable ones? What was the male view of female doctors?
I looked at historical maps (which are really hard to see online) for setting and railroad lines. And checked out ranching of the period.
Pinterest has boards of wonderful pictures of historical dress.
There are websites with photos of the time period and models in period dress. Those photos helped me describe the clothing. I found some interesting faces that helped me picture my characters.
And there are YouTube videos on a variety of historical subjects, from guns to preparing food in a fireplace.
Books, books, books
Where I really hit the mother lode of research was the library and used books on Amazon. My local library has a wonderful atlas of period maps. I was able to see the geography of Texas more clearly and where the railroad lines traversed the state in 1870.
I found diaries and biographies from women of the period, and books about cowboys and ranching. Large coffee table books with town scenes showed me the architecture of the time, and photos of homesteads and ranches. That’s where I learned about soddies and a dugout homes. I spent way too much timing reading about food preparation and how to cook a roast in a fireplace.
Those same books were great reference material for my last for historical romances.
I went to a Civil War reenactment encampment and ask lots of questions of the man playing the doctor. That information along with the research I did on female doctors helped me shape Evangeline’s backstory. I used the Civil War reenactors’ insights to create a deeper backstory for Jake.
I purchased a few out-of-print books explaining the customs of the 1800s.
Some writers use historical accounts from their own families as a basis for their novel. I have some miners as minor characters in my recent novel WIP. My Welch ancestors moved to Southern Illinois and open coal mines. Mining was more privatized in the 1800s and that information changed the way I approached my setting.
Makes it feel real
Research is so important for believability. But you only need a sprinkle of details through historical novels to bring the setting and characters to life. Readers want to feel like they are there but not get bogged down with a history lesson.
And one last key thought. You need to have a passion for what you are researching. Then the story you create is richer because of your investment in your research.
How do you research and what is your favorite resource?
Lawyers are always told never ask a question you don’t already know the answer too. And so it is when a writer is preparing for an interview. Here are tips to get you ready for just that.
Write out a series of questions about yourself and the book you will be promoting. Tailor them to various scenarios. Questions surrounding your writing journey, the what-if moment of your book, and how you got from page one to the end. Write out twenty questions knowing they will only ask a few of them.
Write out the answers to those questions. Then practice before a mirror answering those questions until the responses sound natural.
Often an interviewer will ask for a media kit. This is that lovely packet of info about you and your books. Include a series of suggested questions. Pick your favorite questions to include. This helps both of you to have a smooth interview.
Having prepared a string of possible questions if the interviewer likes to interview off-the-cuff (I hate those) the answers you give will sound natural because they will more than likely be a variation on the list you prepared.
Practice your physical appearance. Sit up straight, don’t fidget, think about the position of your feet if you’re sitting. Do this before a mirror as well. If you can record yourself, you can correct things that might distract from your interview. I find myself wanting to itch my nose or push tiny strains of hair out of my face. It is very distracting on a video interview. While doing a radio interview, sit up straight and focus on the interview. Pretend the interviewer can see your face. I laid down part way through a podcast interview. When the interviewed aired, my voice dropped to almost a muffle at the point where I laid on the couch. UGH!!
Avoid filler words. If you ever took a speech class, you know what I mean. Rather than pause the speaker fills those spaces with Uh, you know, you know what I’m saying, ah, um and other slang word that become a distraction to the listener. After hearing a speech by the CEO of the company I used to work for, my co-worker had counted at least twenty times in his brief speech he’d said you know. Even though what he said was important, his pause words erased its value for that listener.
Talk slower. I talk fast, naturally. During a live interview, even a recorded one, you may find your voice speeding up, wanting to get every point in as quick as you can. Practice talking slower. Record yourself and listen to your pacing and pronunciation.
Don’t just focus on selling your book during the interview. Engage with your listeners. Save the last few minutes to give the audience the information needed for a purchase. If the interviewer asks if you have anything to add at the end of the interview, that is the perfect time to hold up your book, restate the title and give your buy links.
You don’t need to be perfect because your audience needs to feel they can connect with you. But you don’t want to sound so bad that it takes away from the message you want to get across. That’s why practicing the answers to your questions makes your conversation smoother.
Avoid profanity or words that may offend. Know your audience, you want to sound professional and prepared.
Know your audience so you can reach their felt need. As a romance writer, I don’t always focus on the romance elements in my books. I sold New Duet to a male veteran because my hero was a wounded warrior. I focused on the areas of my story that would appeal to my present listeners.
If the very idea of doing an interview terrifies you take a class. A public speaking class at your local community college is an option. There are organizations such as Toastmaster who can give you the tools you need to speak with confidence. Carol Kent’s Speak Up conference is a wonderful place to learn as well.
My last comment. Don’t be so critical of the details after hearing and seeing yourself in an interview that you crawl under your bed in humiliation. Each opportunity to share about your book you will get better. The interview I did where I laid down on my couch part way through to me sounded bad. I talked too fast and my voice wasn’t consistent. I was surprised to learn that interview was the most listened to podcast for three weeks running.
Do you have any tips to prepare for interviews?Share in the comments.
Lonnie Holt’s external scars remind him of his failures, his internal scars torment him. Genny Collins seeks safety at the ranch once owned by Lonnie’s uncle. When Lonnie and his brother arrive, sparks fly and distrust abounds. While Lonnie and Genny fight the love growing between them, his past haunts him, and her past pays them a visit.
As her husband’s evil deeds and abuse haunt a mail-order bride from the grave, can she learn to trust again and open her heart to true love?
On visitation rounds as a lay preacher, the last thing rancher Jed Holt expects is to be shot at from the barn next to a burned-down homestead. But the soot-covered woman hiding inside needs protecting, and Jed is the man to do it whether she likes it or not.
Delilah James’s nightmares began when she came to Kansas as a mail-order bride. Her husband was nothing like his letters. Now that he is dead, she can’t shake his abuse from her heart. Trusting men tops her never-again list, and taking a job on the Holt ranch as a housekeeper is a means to save money and bring her parents west. But her attraction to the compassionate former chaplain both angers and confuses her.
Jed has his own nightmares from a POW camp and understands Delilah better than she knows. Can two broken people form a forever bond?
This year was difficult for me. Unlike other writers who produced a few books during the pandemic, I went into sleep mode. My productivity wasn’t what I wanted. Even after retiring from my job in August I still struggled to get my productivity to the level it needs to be.
The one writer’s conference I attended this year had a week-long class call Soul Care for the Writer. I so needed that encouragement. Most of the time I would choose a continuing class on writing craft or marketing. But not this year. There were four of us in that class. Four women, who were honest about their need for spiritual refreshing. I came away feeling not only reconnect with Jesus but reconnected with who I am and why I write.
The instructor encourages us to take time for ourselves. For me as a believer it is so easy to forget to spend that time in God’s presence when I’m trying to get writerly things done. When I sit before the Lord my day is better.
She encouraged us to journal the insights we get during our quiet time. And have a prayer journal. Taking the time to write our prayers down slows my racing mind and makes me focus on the words on the page and the things in my heart I am praying about. Going back to The Word of God reminds me that I am His and His peace and confidence rest on me.
What a difference that time with the Lord makes in my focus. God gave me the gift of words. Now I am more connected to the source as I write. Even as I write fiction He is there with me easing my doubts and fears.
Tackling the Giant
The biggest giant a writer faces is Fear. We start our writing journey as a wide-eyed optimist expecting everyone to love our words. We believe it is a best-seller. Then our critique groups shows us weaknesses. (We feel they hate it.) Editors reject it with out explanation. (We feel unworthy.)
Now we listen to The Voice in our head that tells us everything we write is crap. It’s a waste of time and why not just quit. This is the personification of the fear within us. We get so focused on what others think or say (our interpretation of what they said with a negative spin.)
This is the time to shine the light of truth on the fear. Spending time in prayer, listening to His voice helps build a wall around our hearts. Affirmation from His Word will help change our thinking. Friends who support our chosen vocation and support us in prayer are priceless gifts.
Failure is an option
The only way to fail at writing is to stop. Stop learning the writing craft. Stop exploring new markets and marketing. Stop going to your critique group. Throw your writing away and don’t look back.
Path may change
We may have the great American novel in us or on our computer. But God may direct us to write something else. A fellow fiction writer was at a Book Expo checking out fiction publishers. She noticed an academic publisher’s table and the germ of an idea came to her. She pitched it right then and there to the publisher and got a contract to write a cookbook. The notoriety she is getting for this book is building her platform. Platform is essential no matter what you write. In the future, her novel has the potential for good sales with her established cookbook fan base. All because she listened to the prompting from God and willingly walked a new path.
Don’t feel guilty
It is important to have time away from your laptop. I am so intrigued by my friend Pegg. She raises sheep for their wool. Then cards it, spins it and knits it into wonderful items. She also cans many things she grows on her farm. All this while writing novels and editing others. Her hobbies keep her grounded. Another writer friend does photography and uses her photos as part of her social media platform. She loves taking a walk with her camera.
I know me and I am not crafty and I often forget to photograph events I attend and the beauty of nature. I love reading and being taken away to new places for a few hours. Do I truly have a hobby? Something that relaxes me and allows my subconscious to tackle story points while my heart listens to His voice.
I color. Yep. You read that write. I enjoy turning on background music and getting out colored pencils and coloring books and spends some time using my hands doing something unrelated to writing. Lately, I’ve discovered Word Find puzzles. I prefer them to crossword puzzles because I don’t have to guess the answer. The hobby doesn’t have to be making gifts for others or something you can sell. But it does need to be something you enjoy. It can be something you share. I love walking with my husband.
This writing life is stressful enough. Add the pandemic and other unexpected disruptions in our lives and we feel bogged down. I hope these few suggestions help you refocus.
For years I fought the notion of a mission statement. I’m a writer, not a company. Why on earth would I need one? And honestly, the idea of writing one was overwhelming. This past October I attended a writer’s conference and in one of my classes, we wrote our mission statements. It wasn’t as difficult as I’d first imagined. I see the value too. My mission statement reminds me of why I write and what I am focused on when I write.
Businesses create mission statements to tell the world what they’re all about in a few short lines. It’s a reminder to the organization of their goals in those few words. It’s the plum line of all they stand for.
As a writer, I need that same plumb line, so I don’t waste time writing anything that doesn’t match my mission statement. This statement reminds me of who I am.
Here is mine:
I believe your past doesn’t have to predict your future. As a writer who embraced a call, I didn’t feel worthy to fulfill I use my words and stories to give readers hope for new perspectives and new tomorrows providing a foundation of God’s love.
Before I could write my Mission Statement, I had to answer four questions. I’ve added my answers so you can see the process.
What do you do with your writing?
I encourage, inform, and teach others with my articles and stories. My novels give hope that a person’s past doesn’t have to control their present or dictate their future.
2) Who do you do it for?
All those who want to mature in their writing and their faith. Women read my novels and I hope the struggles of my characters are relatable.
3) What makes you unique?
I walked through this writing door with no formal education or college degree. I’ve taken the time to glean all I can through conferences and classes. Because God has given me the desire to encourage others to move forward, I share my writing journey in hopes they are inspired.
4) What can your readers expect from you?
Stories with characters that reflect real-life and relatable problems. Despite those problems, they learn to move forward. Blog followers expect posts that give them hope for writing success. Posts that are uncomplicated and to the point.
Begin your mission statement with the words I believe and based on the four questions above craft it. You’ll probably rewrite it a few times before you’ve tweaked it to a concise statement that inspires you every time you read it. This statement will remind you what your heart’s desire for your words.
When I look at my mission statement, I am reminded of what I do and don’t write. I have no desire to write flat characters whose lives are easy and nothing ever goes wrong. That is not life. That has not been my experience. But neither am I comfortable writing dark prose that leave the reader with a shiver and looking under their beds. If I want them to shiver, I take them from the terror they face to healing balms of hope and overcoming before the story ends.
My mission statement keeps me focused on my purpose. And over the years just like Corporate America, we may feel the need to change our mission statement to reflect changes we sense in the writing industry and our writing niche. A mission statement isn’t meant to guide your whole life (but it might).
Writing trends change, and you may feel the need to change with them. At that point, a revised mission statement may be in order.
Care to share your mission statement in the comments/ I’d love to see it?
I’m old school when it comes to calendars. Probably because I’m a list-maker, I find the more traditional calendar with large squares for each day works for me. I turn each daily task into a handwritten list I can check off then throw away. My calendar helps me remember where I’ve been and what’s coming up within my writing career. I sometimes use different colored pens or a pencil for things. I even write reminders in the blank squares of things due to the next month. It is messy, but I’m happy.
The calendar on my phone is for doctor’s appointments, etc. I don’t like to work on my phone because of the keyboard size. However, those who love their phone will find that feature valuable. You can sync it with other online calendars.
Google calendars can be shared. Great if you are working on a project with someone. It makes co-authoring a book less confusing. There are more complex online calendars, like Airtable. You can create a year’s worth of social media ideas and then mark them as done once you’ve posted for the day. Airtable has a free version and a paid version that helps get other aspects of your writing life organized. You can also download printable calendars from the internet and create your own daily, or monthly calendar.
A calendar I find useful for novel writing is the Chunky Method Calendar. Allie Pfeifer author of The Chunky Method created it. She teaches you how to determine your writing chunk. The chunk of words you can write before your creativity dies. For example if you can write 500 words a day then you can use the calendar to calculate what day you will complete your novel, this includes adding in time for edits and rewrite. Knowing the endgame makes writing so much easier.
Dot and Bullet journals
Then there are the dot journals. Each page you can add your own dates and use colored markers to organize your events and daily goals. Some come with stickers or you can purchase them separately. You can draw your own backgrounds or just doodle. For those who are artsy or love neat, colorful calendars, these are for you.
Your choice is the right choice
Whether you prefer a simple block calendar, ,an artistic or an online choice than that’s the perfect one for you. And if you have no idea, take the time to explore all of these options. Use a block calendar and color code it. Try google calendar at the same time. It won’t take you long to figure out which option is best for you.
The goal as writers is to get things done on time. A calendar is only one of the tools in your writing career to help you reach that goal.
Character development is much the same for books as it is for movies. Think of a well-directed movie as a type of power-point presentation, visually showing the construction of a strong character. To make my point, let’s take a look at a fun, book-themed movie, You Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The plot keeps the audience laughing and crying, and peeking around corners for the next scene, but there’s something more—the characters themselves. Hanks plays the part of a mega-bookstore owner, Joe Fox. Joe is comical, boyish, and loveable but also attracted to shallow relationships. Meg Ryan, Kathleen, is also an owner of a small children’s bookstore. Her honest innocence is endearing, but she struggles with a developing bitterness and letting go of her past. Lovable as they are, both characters have defects, and both are evolving. Most authors know that compelling personalities aren’t enough, and real people are a mix of both endearing and annoying traits. But, there is another necessary dimension.
A character’s weaknesses must not only be shown, but it’s vital to reveal how the personality defects came to be. If a nice guy like Joe Fox is dating an annoying, selfish woman, the audience wants to know why. This question is answered in a scene where Joe is reminiscing with his father. With a touch of derision, Joe reminds his father of how he’d dated each of his childhood nannies, discarding one for the next. A light-bulb moment follows—now the audience understands why Joe behaves as he does. Compassion follows and the bonding between character and audience begins. The same principle applies to books.
Now, let’s take a look at the character, Kathleen. While Joe’s competing bookstore is enjoying great success, Kathleen’s business is quickly diminishing. Despite plummeting book sales and the loss of former customers, she stubbornly holds on. Is this good or bad? While viewers and readers enjoy optimism, they also dislike getting stuck in conflict. Kathleen’s lack of resilience could become an annoyance—new insight is needed to protect her likeability. This happens when Kathleen is shown standing alone in her bookstore, enjoying sentimental memories. As she thinks about her deceased mother, a scene from her childhood flashes across the screen. There, we see Kathleen and her mother dancing and twirling together inside a cozy little bookstore—the very same store she’s now fighting to keep. Instantly, the viewers’ hearts are grabbed. Now, we understand Kathleen’s anger and stubbornness. The same strategy needs to be used in books. A backstory behind a character’s quirks and flaws creates a sense of understanding. The reader begins to, not only want to know more about the character, they begin to care.
It’s also important when writing to show the defining moments of a character’s growth. This is clearly demonstrated in the movie as we watch Joe and his girlfriend become trapped in a broken elevator. As he listens to her gripe about her fingernails, his expression of disdain tells all. He’s had it. Meanwhile, Kathleen is listening to her boyfriend ramble about his political ideals in the middle of a movie. She simply stands up and walks out. These are pivotal moments of emotional growth when both characters decide to move on from failing relationships.
Joe, fed-up with his family’s tradition of superficial relationships, begins to pursue someone new—and you guessed it—it’s Kathleen. She, however, still blames Joe for her shop’s failure and tension grows as she thwarts his advances. The dance of romance becomes intriguing as we watch them interact with new life perspectives, working to overcome past scars of love and loss. These types of scenes keep viewers and readers riveted; we all crave emotional fulfillment, and we want the same for our story friends.
Kathleen makes another leap of growth when she realizes she’s not only good at selling children’s books, but in writing them. She closes her shop and starts a new career as a writer. We applaud this move, for she’s become like an old friend who we want to succeed. Meanwhile, Joe, who we’ve come to love and understand, is wooing her with flowers and intimate talks. And, because we know the backstories, we forgive them their faults and want nothing more than for them to kiss and make-up.
The heart of creating strong protagonists is to make them someone we’d like to spend time with. No one likes a perfect person—they make us feel bad about ourselves. In our flawed human condition, we yearn to be better, to be more like our Creator. These are the same principles we want to see in the people we read about. And as curious, relational people, we also long for the intimacy of knowing someone’s past and how they became the person they are today. This insight bonds the reader to the characters, making them much like dear friends or family members. Using just the right amount of a character’s backstory is the secret ingredient to a likable and multi-dimensional character.
I appreciate Zannie taking the time to share her insights into writing characters. If you have an additional tip share it in the comments.
Zanne Marie Dyer
Zanne Marie Dyer resides in Daytona Beach with her husband and has three young adult children. As a former Christian Clinical Counselor, she became increasingly interested in the psychology of the criminal mind. Her dream to write has resulted in a new mystery murder novel, Dark Motives. She is now working on a sequel, focusing once more on Detective Jet Wholeman, and his unique style of tracking down homicidal killers. Additional projects include a series of devotionals on the mindset of being heaven-bound versus earth anchored.
Zanne is currently a Chaplain for Word Weavers International and provides periodic Christian counseling services at her local church. Her hobbies include water activities, painting, ballroom dancing, and spending time with her children and their families.