What’s the deal with character questionnaires?

Character worksheets or questions or interviews are pretty commonly recommended to develop characters.  They’ve always had me scratching my head.  I’ve never really understand the purpose—and this is an actual example from one of them—of identifying the time a character drinks tea every morning.

Or even that logic that I’ve heard that doesn’t make sense to me: “You have to know every detail even if it’s not in the story.”

I’d look at it and rather go off and write the story and find out, then do boring, and what would be to me very mechanical, questions.

I don’t even know what my main character’s favorite color is.  Her least favorite color is yellow, but then, that’s the least favorite color of every character in the story because the aliens they’re dealing with are yellow. Ain’t no one liking yellow.

But I also trust that if I need to know that fact, it’ll show up in the story when it needs to be there.

Respecting the characters

I was watching a fourth season episode of NCIS, and it struck me how Michael Weatherly’s departure from the series last month fit right in with the entire arc of the series.

They respected the character, and the viewers.

Then there’s Criminal Minds, which had the departure of Shemar Moore, who played Derrick Morgan.  Also a very popular character.  The show has run nearly as long as NCIS, and like Michael Weatherly, he’s had a lot of really good character development over the years.

And the writers totally botched the departure. 

It was like they just threw it out there, trying to get some ratings.  In the first of the two episodes, the character is kidnapped and tortured.  The torture was the kind you should never ever do to the character because it was at the point anyone wouldn’t survive whole, and you want your characters to survive whole.  Even if they’re leaving, you want to feel like they’re going to live happily ever after.  Severe PSTD is not happily ever after. 

Story-wise, it felt like the actor decided at the last minute he wasn’t returning, so the writers scrambled to come up with a script to get ratings.  But it sure didn’t respect the character we’d come to enjoy.

I just bought a Gibbs’ rules t-shirt, in Navy blue.  The “rules” are one of those things where once you find out where they originated, it’s wonderful bit about the character.

New TV Season–Good, Bad, or Meh?

The new TV season is about to start in the next few weeks. I remember how I used to grab the next copy of the TV Guide when it arrived in the mail on Thursday and rush through to my favorite shows to see what the episode was about.

Now I don’t even subscribe to TV Guide.

And I find I watch fewer shows every year. Partially because the networks are so eager for instant hits (like book publishers) that they cancel a lot of them if they aren’t successful within 2-3 episodes. It’s not worth even getting interested if the show’s not going to survive.

The result has been that I usually discover a show once it’s been on the air for about 3 years, and sometimes when it’s about to get cancelled (Person of Interest).

Anyway, here’s some comments on a couple of shows:


This is one that I got the first season for and just about inhaled it. Loved the characters, loved the stories, and loved the combination of forensics and anthropology.

It’s also one that I stopped watching. I think it really lost something when they recast the boss of the Jeffersonian to Cam, and also when they had Zack go to a mental institution. I get why they probably had to have Zack leave the show in the long run. They’d gone about as far as they could with the character.

But they could have had him hired by someone, and then come back periodically. Instead, they crossed a line I’ve sometimes seen in series books where the author is pushing for the next big thing and changes the series in a very fundamental way.

The casting of Cam also changed the series, too, because it made the series entirely about crime. It might just be my personal preference, but the story was originally about scientists (“Squints”) and law enforcement clashing over how different they were, which was always a fun conflict. Sure, series do change, but this change took it away from the cool stuff of science and just made it forensics.

I stayed watching this one for a while, but I got to the point where everything now feels tired and old.


This is the original one. I didn’t watch it originally because I thought it was going to be another JAG. TV is hugely imitative, especially when anything is successful. I started watching it the year after Tony’s undercover operation to get the drug dealer.

The characters really make the show. It’s even survived numerous cast changes, because they make the effort to develop a new character as a unique person. That’s pretty satisfying for the actors. Criminal Minds, on the other hand, has had problems keeping women because they obviously cast two of the roles as simply “the blond and the brunette,” and still think like that. The result is that the brunette character tends not to feel like a part of the series, but just a placeholder.

NCIS is either in Year 14 or 15, which is astounding that it’s managed to stay fresh. Series usually starting running out of stories about Year 7.

NCIS relies both on story arcs over the season, but also use solo episodes. One of the things I really like that isn’t always present in TV series is that the series refers back to old episodes. One of my early favorite series was Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. But one of the big problems was that each episode hit a reset button. So when the aliens came to take over the ship, it always felt like they were treating it as the first time.

This is such a big thing in NCIS that if a guest star’s character is still alive, they may resurface at a later date. Even some of the dead ones have come back! It makes for a wonderful continuity, and keeps the show same and changes it, because those characters change.

Curiously, the network honchos can’t figure out why the show is so successful. Go figure.

What are you looking forward to this TV season?

Visualizing the Setting

A couple of writers and I were talking on a list serve about describing setting — in this case, having trouble getting it into the story. Right up my alley. One of the writers said she didn’t get a visual image of the setting, so she had a hard time even remembering to get it on the page.

Then there’s me. I’m visual spatial, which means I think in pictures. You’d think that would translate easily into describing setting …

Not so much.

My default, in fact, is to simply leave it all out. It’s in my head, and it doesn’t get on the page unless I make the effort to do it — sometimes a lot of effort.

It’s hard taking a picture and translating it into words.

Add to that I don’t do well with the details, or the telling details as it’s been described for writers. I see more of the big picture, and the details tend to fold themselves up into that. So the woods are the woods. I can see them, and I get the picture, but I lose the specifics. So putting down that the character walked through the woods or that everything was brown makes perfect sense to me because I’m getting the picture, but then everyone says I didn’t describe anything.

But I can see the picture — why wouldn’t it be simple describing the setting?

I have to stop and think “Details.” Then it’s “What details are important to this character?”

I don’t think in details, so I’m having to do two things, both of which are very hard:

  1. Translate the details, which is sort of like translating French when I don’t speak the language.
  2. Sort through the big picture and try to figure out what details are important.

And none of this is like a description exercise where the goal is to treat the setting as if we were looking at a picture. Just about as dull as no description. It’s not about simply writing down what I see, but trying to figure out what the character would notice.

But also, it’s not just describing the setting once and getting it out of the way. If the character stays in that setting, there is constantly new setting information being introduced (about every 500 words) because he is still interacting with that setting. So I’m constantly having to revisit and translate that picture into words, at least two to three times in every scene, and it has to shift because it obviously can’t be about the same thing.

Take this picture of the tulips blooming:

Yellow and red tulips blooming

My default: Tulips were blooming at the side of the building.

Translation: Yellow and red tulips had started to bloom next to the building, soaking up a patch of warm sunshine. I wanted to lay down there with them and get some of that sunshine, against the warm, damp earth, and let the cool breeze carry everything else away.  I also knew I wasn’t going to get that.

This is not something I can let go for later and do a placeholder that says DESCRIBE TULIPS.  When I pulled the character into the description, it becomes a major piece of the scene that needs be in there.  So it’s constant state of trying to translate the pictures for each scene.

How do people think this is good storytelling?!

A woman in a sun dress runs into the surf on a beach.
Okay, I admit it. I picked this for the beach picture.  Isn’t the water pretty? Photo from Clipart.com

For my 10 Stories in 10 Weeks, I’ve been submitting the stories to a new market to complete the week.  All of my stories have women characters.  Not necessarily a woman protagonist — Story #4 has a male protagonist, but a woman character figures prominently in the solution of the story.

I know magazines are hungry for stories with women characters (as well as characters of color, and characters with disabilities).  So I look for places that want that and was quite shocked to see this guideline on Shimmer:

We are extremely unlikely to be interested in rape stories. We encourage you to find other dimensions for your female characters besides their rapeability.

My jaw hit the floor.  How can any writer think this is good characterization or good storytelling?  Worse, the fact that the magazine had to post this particular guideline means that a lot of writers do think it’s a good way to characterize women and tell a story.  Doesn’t all the news about the sexual assaults in the military mean anything?

In my novel Miasma, my male main character has a female sidekick who is a soldier detached out to him.  In the original conception of the story, she had been stalked while at war and beat the crap out of the guy when he came at her with a knife.  Even though it is a reality for women in the military, I took all that out after the story broke on the efforts to make Lara Croft “vulnerable.”

There has to be a better way than making a woman a victim to build a story.

How Many Women Characters Are in Your Book?

A striking photo of a Latina woman at laptop, a painting of a redhaired woman mounted on a bright green wall behind her.March is Women’s History Month, though I actually don’t like these types of events.  They exist because history and even present doesn’t always recognize people outside of a select group.  I remember one time, when I was in the military I was talking to one of of the NCOs.  He was African-American, and he lamented that it would be a long time before he saw an African-American President of the United States.  I told him that it would happen before a woman became President.

You know how that came out.

To look at the high levels of politics and management, and even to look at books, it doesn’t look like there’s many women out there.  I find far too many books where there’s only one woman character.  Even a book with 100 characters, and 99 are men.  How exactly is this reality?  It’s like history months.  We’ll recognize one to sell the books, and everything else will be status quo.  And by the way, we’ll put in skintight leather, too, because the men are the important readers, not the women.

Okay, that may not be accurate, but that’s the impression I keep getting.  And it’s made worse when the lone woman character tends toward masculine and immature.

I want my women characters to be smart.

I want my women characters to be savvy.Three women in their 60s and 70s recline on a beach under two umbrellas, the blue of the sea behind them.

I want my women characters to be mature within range of their age.

I want my women characters not to be sex objects.

And especially, I want there to be more than one woman character in the book.

Is that too much to ask?

Cover of the Darkness Within shoing a monstrous face in shadows.My short story “A Soldier’s Magic” appears in the anthology The Darkness Within, available from Indigo Mosaic Publishing.  It features two women soldiers who have to make a tough decision to save a lot of people.  There are three women in the story.

When All Your Characters Are Seated Around the Dinner Table

Sometimes the strangest things will trigger a trip to Muse Land.  I go to a critique group called the Cat Vacuuming Society once a week.  We were talking about another story and a dinner party was mentioned.  I started thinking about all my characters attending a dinner party.  What would their reactions be if they were seated together?

Since I’ve been playing around with visual note taking, the result was this:

Characters seated around the dinner table with comments written next to them.  See the post itself for a more detailed description.

Screen reader translation:

The top of the page has “CVS,” 15 Feb, 2015 as the title.  A seated striped cat is the left.  A rectangular table is drawn below that.

At the head of the table: Ruby.  She the queen, so she’s on the throne.  It’s hard to see, but prowling at the table next to her is her cat, Vog. There’s a pair of cat ears and eyes peeping over the edge of the table.

To her right (and I really had to think of this, since I had to reverse it in my head) is Keymas, the main character.  He’s the invisible man.

Next to Keymas is his sidekick Olive, who is thinking “I’m going to spill food all over me.”

Separate from everyone else is Keymas’ father, Miles.  He’s present but doesn’t care.

Across from Miles is La Gras, the antagonist.  He doesn’t want to be here = growl.

Silas, the museum curator, is next with, “Party?  I’m ready.”

And last is Cyrillia, the goddess of parties: “Party?  Time to have fun!”

Does Gender Influence How a Character in a Novel is Portrayed?

I’m wandering on over Unleaded Fuel for Writers to with a post on how gender affects characters.    Here’s a preview:

Sometimes finding books with good women characters is really hard.  I’ve spent a lot of time in the bookstore scanning the shelves for stories that I wanted to read.  For a while, I even read romance novels — Harlequin Intrigues mostly because they had action and mystery, too — because it was so difficult to find much.  I’d also look at the covers of fantasy novels for pictures of women.  But then I’d have to flip to the summary to see if the book actually featured a woman.  Sometimes the publisher would put a woman on the cover to get the guys and then she’d be nowhere in the story.

Then there’s the current trend of having a female protagonist because — news flash — women buy books!  It’s most noticeable in Thriller, where the writer often pairs the protagonist with a male sidekick.  Am I ecstatic about this, given all the difficulties finding books?  Read more on Unleaded Fuel for Writers.

The Idiocy of Women Characters

One of the most frustrating things for me as a reader is that it’s tough finding books with women characters who are competent.  We get ones who are smart-mouthed and can’t go a day without insulting ten people; or seem to be smart and then blunder into trouble for the sake of the plot; and then there are the idiots.

That’s the book I was reading.  It’s a typical religious thriller — search for the lost relic, cryptic ancient clues, and murder.  The protagonist is a woman, and she has a male sidekick.  They spend the rest of the book trying to stay alive and find the relic first.

In an early scene, a gunman spots them in a museum and tries to kill them.  The characters flee, but they end up boxed in at a bad location: the restrooms.  Sidekick thinks fast and suggests they go into the ladies room.  What does the protagonist do?  Screech at him about not being allowed in the ladies room.  Not once, but multiple times.  She seems more worried about a man in the ladies room than a man trying to kill her.

I finally had to put the book down because the protagonist continued to be an idiot, while the sidekick got all the stuff the protagonist should have been doing.  I’d like to say this was the exception, but it’s hard for me to find an adult action book where the woman is reasonably competent.  Most of the times, she’s lucky she doesn’t get herself killed because of what she does, and there are plenty where she qualifies as TSTL.  We have women fire fighters, women police officers, and women soldiers, all in situations where they have to be competent because lack of it can mean death.  Yet, in an action novel, a lot of these women not only do nothing to even help themselves, they often make things worse.

And who are the worst culprits?  The male writers generally have trouble making the woman competent.  The TSTL tends to come from women writers.

It makes me wonder if writers feel like they’re somehow devaluing the intelligence of the male characters by making the female characters smarter.  In terms of the story, I’m all for making ALL the characters smart.  It just makes for a better story conflict with worthy characters.

Is Character Change Always Necessary?

The first time I posted a query for critique for Miasma, the first question I got asked was, “What’s your character arc?  How does your character change?”


I didn’t have a character arc.  While the circumstances changed, the characters did not change.

“How can they not change?” the critiquer protested.

That I had to think about, too.  Was it a problem?  No, it was true of the kinds of books I like to read.

There’s comfort in getting a book in a series and having something expected.  When I bought a Clive Cussler book, I always knew I was going to get a cocky, patriotic character who would do the right thing because that’s was who he was.  That was part of the fun of those stories!

Conversely, some of the biggest failures in books for me as a reader have been when the character changed too much.  I came into the book expecting X type of character, and they changed out of that and into something that I didn’t buy the book for.

So … do you want change with that book or no change?  Tell, tell!