Characters and Plot – Make Your Characters Work For You.

Why do people read novels?

I think people read to find out what happens next. But what happens next is only interesting if it the “what happens next” involves characters or something important to a character.

Characters ARE your story. They act and react. They create emotion. They show motivation. Without any of this, you don’t have a story. That’s a tall order for your characters. So how do you make sure you’re getting the most out of them?

You edit your story and rewrite until your characters are performing at their best.

Characters and Novel Structure

Once you’ve finished your first draft, you most likely know who your characters are, what they look like, where they work, and so on. But what about how they fit into your story structure? To understand this and make the most of it, you must evaluate your characters in the context of the structure of your novel.

By this point, you know if you’re writing from first-person point of view (POV) or third person. You’ve also decided if you’re writing from multiple points of view. In essence, you know who is telling your story.

When thinking about the POV character for each scene, ask yourself:

  • What is the POV external goal for the scene?
  • What is the POV internal goal for the scene?
  • How does the goal relate to the plot?
  • What happens if your POV fails to achieve the goal?
  • How does scene impact your POV character?
  • How does the scene impact your protagonist (if not the POV for the scene?)

Once you’ve answered the questions, check each scene to ensure the reader will understand the answers. You can show, tell, or imply the answers. It’s up to you to find the right balance. You’re the creative one!

The more important an event, the more you should show the reader what’s happening. “Tell” the less important events, so the reader can move on to the good stuff.

Taking on the task of editing and rewriting your first draft doesn’t have to be overwhelming. A bit of organization will help you complete your rewrite without it taking forever. We created Fictionary to help writers perform their own story edit in a knowledgable and efficient manner.

Below is a look at my work-in-progress, Evolution, within Fictionary. Fictionary helps me focus on my characters on a scene-by-scene basis. It keeps me from convincing myself a scene is okay.

When I review each scene with a focus on the POV character’s goal for example, I know what my character wants. If a character doesn’t want something, the scene will lack tension, and hence be boring. In the scene below, Jaz Cooper has the POV. Once I know the goal, I can decide if she will achieve her goal or not. Sometimes she will. Sometimes she won’t.

I can assess her external goal versus her internal goal. The reader may or may not know what the internal goal is, but if I do, I can be consistent with my character throughout the novel.

It takes work, but I’m serious about making my story a great story, so to me, it’s worth putting in the time and effort. I’ll evaluate each scene focussing on characters, then I’ll evaluate with a focus on plot and setting.

Characters Per Scene

Fictionary shows you how many characters are in each scene. This gives you a chance to determine if you have too many characters in a scene. Too many characters might confuse your reader.

Scenes Per Character

Fictionary will also show you how many scenes each character is in and the order they appear in the novel. You can see I have 33 characters in my novel.

Jaz Cooper is in 85 scenes (good news for me as she’s the protagonist). Eighty-five is the maximum number of scenes a character is in. The minimum number of scenes a character appears in is 1. Dr. Patron is an example of a character who appears once.

Jaz is the first character to appear in the novel. Also good news. The less important a character is, the later he/she can appear in the story.

Fictionary is the first online tool for editing your story, not just your words. Think characters, plot, and settings. Find out more at

How Fictionary Works

A writer imports a manuscript. Fictionary automatically creates a character list, links characters to scenes, plots word count per scene, and draws a story arc.

The writer enters data regarding each scene, evaluates and edits the manuscript based the reports, and then exports the updated manuscript. The reports are dependent on the writer’s input and are created specifically for each manuscript. There are rewrite tips associated with each key element of fiction if you get stuck and need guidance.

Fictionary is designed for the serious author who wants to produce a high-quality manuscript.

Download our free eBook, Story Editing: 15 Key Elements of Fiction To Ensure Your Story Works and learn how story editing is all about evaluating the major components of your story.

Turn Your First Draft Into A Great Story

Try Fictionary for free. The first 10 days are on us. No credit card required.

Write Better Fiction: Characters in a Scene – too few/too many?

Today on Write Better Fiction we’ll cover the Characters In A Scene. Write Better Fiction is a process to help you critique your own manuscript and give yourself feedback. This will help you improve your novel, so you’re ready to submit it to an editor. Check the bottom of this post for links to previous Write Better Fiction articles.

We’ve discussed using our spreadsheet to balance the number of scenes the protagonist and antagonist are in. But what about other characters? There is a columns for that too.

In the column called characters, list all characters in the scene. This includes characters that don’t have a name. The bartender, the skier, the person on the street, etc. I include animals as characters. The animal may or may not have a name. If you’ve read DESCENT, you know Chica is a character that is a yellow labrador. In BLAZE, a grizzly bear has a scene, but it’s not named. They both get listed in this column.

The character column helps

  • keep track of characters from one scene to another. If a character is in one scene, and the next scene is in the same location, then either the character has to still be there or you must write his/her exit. This column will keep you from having randomly disappearing characters.
  • you assess whether you have too many characters or too few in a scene.
  • you count how many times the protagonist and antagonist appear together.

If you get feedback from beta readers that you have too many characters, this column will help look for places you could cut characters or combine two characters into one.

Your challenge this week is to list all the characters in each scene.  Have you given your protagonist and antagonist a fair amount of time in your novel?

Please me know in the comments below if keeping track of characters in a scene helped you tighten your writing. Did you edit out any characters?

Thanks for reading…


If you’d like to check out DESCENT or BLAZE the links are below:

When Kalin Thompson is promoted to Director of Security at Stone Mountain Resort, she soon becomes entangled in the high-profile murder investigation of an up-and-coming Olympic-caliber skier. There are more suspects with motives than there are gates on the super-G course, and danger mounts with every turn.

Instead of exchanging vows, Kalin Thompson spends her wedding day running from a forest fire near Stone Mountain Resort, and the pregnant friend trapped with her has just gone into labor. Meanwhile, Kalin’s fiancé, Ben Timlin, hangs from the rafters of a burning building, fighting for his life. Can the situation get any hotter?

Mystery Mondays: Jayne Barnard on Spicing Up Secondary Characters

This week we welcome multi award winning author Jayne Barnard . First, let me tell you about Jayne’s latest release is Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond, and then we’ll move on to Spicing Up Your Secondary Characters.

Maddie DD frontMiss Maddie Hatter, renegade daughter of a powerful Steamlord, is scraping a precarious living as a fashion reporter when the story of a lifetime falls into her lace-gloved hands.

Baron Bodmin, an adventurer with more failed quests than fingernails, has vanished in circumstances that are odd even for him.

While he is supposedly hunting the fabled Eye of Africa diamond in the Nubian desert, his expeditionary airship is found adrift off the coast of England. Maddie was the last reporter to see the potty peer alive. If she can locate the baron or the Eye of Africa, her career will be made.

Outraged investors and false friends complicate her quest, and a fiendish figure lurks in the shadows, ready to snatch the prize . . . at any price.

Spicing Up Secondary Characters by Jayne Barnard

A good character, we’re often told, is loyal, patient, loving… oh, wait! That’s a good dog. Our characters must be more interesting than our dogs, or readers – at least, those who don’t love dogs deeply – wouldn’t stay with them page after page. Received wisdom is that mystery characters (except the villain) should be likeable, relatable, engaging, dynamic, memorable, competent, fully fleshed-out, well-motivated, and a little unhappy.

Is it always true? How many fictional crime-solvers have been depressed loners who drink too much? Are they likeable? Not hardly. We forgive them, and keep reading, because they’re competent, well-motivated, and, on some level, relatable. Maybe they treat dogs well.

Then there are Inspectors Clouseau and Gadget, both likeable and memorable but failing the competence test. They succeed by the competence of secondary characters.

Good secondary characters are a challenge. They have at least some traits of a good lead character, and have to some degree an individualized appearance, personality, and skills. They fulfill vital plot functions. They never, ever become so interesting that they steal the sleuth’s limelight.

They also don’t burn up a lot of word count. A neophyte’s first chapter I once critiqued hit the right marks: a handful of characters individual in appearance, personality-rich, explicated in just a few sentences each. I was panting to see how they would all interact through the coming 250 pages. Tragically, all those well-drawn characters never appeared again. They were so many wasted words from a plot perspective and, worse, they made a promise to the reader that was never to be fulfilled.

Because Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond is a humorous adventure rather a serious mystery, my answers won’t work for everyone. While some of my secondary characters are written as engaging humans, other characters’ appeal relies not on them seeming realistic but on the outright caricature of well-known characters or types.

Caricature is not to be confused with cliché. The latter, by definition, is a trope or trait so often copied that it has lost all meaning. Caricature, on the other hand, starts with a copy but exaggerates or twists familiar characteristics to create a desired effect.

Here’s Maddie’s first sight of one memorable secondary character:

Before the steam grate stood a rotund man in a camel-hair topcoat finished with both a shoulder cape and a wide astrakhan collar of some chocolate-hued fur. In the mirror above the mantle, he was admiring his extravagant moustaches, carefully waxed and shaped on either side of a small, pink mouth. Did he notice her beyond the doorway? No. He merely stroked a finger along one hairy arabesque with a satisfied smile.

Did you think of a certain Belgian detective made famous by Agatha Christie?

Hercule Hornblower has the recognizable features of waistline and facial hair, and also claims to be Britain’s greatest living detective. However, he’s also bombastic, endlessly self-promoting, cannot pass a mirror without grooming his handlebars, and he has a flaw that gives him more kinship to Inspector Clouseau than to Agatha Christie’s famously dapper sleuth. Hornblower is narcoleptic. He frequently falls asleep just when he might learn some fact that could crack the case.

As with any sound secondary character, Hornblower serves the main character and the story. His erroneous suspicions and conclusions help Maddie find correct ones. His incompetence highlights her competence. His bombast and lapses into slumber inject incongruities into otherwise serious scenes. In a novella featuring stolen idols, invisible airships, and eccentric adventurers, an intense conversation or introspection – which must sometimes occur in order for the real sleuth to solve the mystery – might mar the zany atmosphere. A caricatured secondary character like Hornblower is worth his considerable weight in light relief.

In a more serious mystery, a Hornblower would throw off the tone. A less intrusive secondary character might be the dog, who finds the victim’s bandanna just where it shouldn’t be, and then digs up the flowerbed of the one old man who might have answered the sleuth’s questions willingly if he hadn’t had to chase the dog.

Before you ask, there are no dogs in Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond. Maddie’s pet is more suited to airship travel. He doesn’t dig up flowerbeds, either.


Jayne launch headshotJayne is the author of author of the Steampunk Stories:

Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond (Tyche Books, 2015)

The Evil Eye of Africa – a guess-the-murderer game in two acts

Parasol Dueling: An Epistle on the Infamous Hungarian Imperial Rules

Dueling Figures in Daily Life, in A Guidebook to Parasol Dueling – the Brandenburg Variation(Written by Kevin Jepson, with original artwork by Audra Balion)


Next week on Mystery Mondays we welcome Eileen Schuh, Canadian author of SciFi novellas and the young adult Backtracker series.

Thanks for reading…

Are Your Characters Likeable?

Do you find this hard to answer?

I’ve been reading Elements of Fiction Writing by Orson Scott Card and am finding it helpful. It’s an in-depth book that is giving me a lot think about.

In real life, a person might only see the best in their friends and family and ignore the flaws. This can happen in fiction too. A writer might not notice if a character is annoying, whiny, obnoxious etc. But how to you judge your own characters?

One thing I like to do is put my writing away for a while, then when I re-read the scene I ask myself: do I like this character. I’m using like broadly, in the sense of am I interested? do I want to keep reading about them?

The other question to ask is: Does the character have a motive? And what is there strongest desire?

When I meet a person, again in real life, I tend to be interested in them if they are interested in something. When a person talks about their passion, the light goes on, the eyes sparkle, the voice trembles, the tempo picks up. This is what I try to do with a character.

There is so much written on this subject, so I thought I’d mention Elements of Fiction Writing in case you’re looking for tips by an expert.

Please share your thoughts, if you know of a good book on the subject of characters.

Thanks for reading . . .

Character Development

Anyone else out there spending the holidays thinking about their characters in a novel instead of real people? A hazard of being a writer, I’m afraid.

Introducing new characters, especially if you are writing a series can be a challenge.

Do you ask yourself:

  • What did the character do before the start of the novel?
  • How did they enter the protagonists life?
  • What motivates them?

I find even if I ask these questions it’s not enough for build a well-rounded character.

I use Scrivener to write, and I add a section for scenes that happen before the novel starts. When introducing a new character I ask myself, what was the character doing one month before the novel started, 6 months before and sometimes well back into their youth. Then I write a scene from this time frame. Something dramatic that happened in their lives that changed them usually works. This helps to fill out the character and know them before the story has even started.

You don’t have to do this before you begin writing, sometimes I do this after the first draft. Once I discovered a character fit the criteria of a sociopath. After writing the first draft, then writing scenes that happened prior to the opening,  the sociopath opened up some interesting story lines. These, of course, found their way into the second draft.

For me, it’s not enough to ask questions about my characters, I need to write about them to understand them.

What about you?

Thanks for reading . . .


Opening Your Story

Do you read books on how to write?

The latest I read talked about opening a story and checking for four criteria.

Does your opening start with:

  • the protagonist,
  • conflict,
  • movement,
  • setting?

This is a lot for an opening, and I’ve been studying novels to check if authors do this.

The first point, the protagonist, doesn’t seems to happen consistently. There are books that start with the protagonist, the villain, a minor character, or a character that doesn’t appear in the rest of the novel at all. I like all of them. So I guess on this one, you have to decide for yourself if your protagonist is the best place to start. I do agree the protagonist should appear early in the story.

Conflict: This one seems more consistent. Sometimes the conflict is quiet or subtle. Sometimes it’s a full-out battle, but it’s there.

Movement: I find books with no movement boring. Even if the character is walking, it’s better than sitting still, or worse yet, if there’s no mention of what the character’s doing.

Setting: This might only be one word, one line, one paragraph or this could be more. To me the setting it important at the beginning. I like to know where the character is. Are they in a city, in the country, on a mountain or in outer space? This helps me figure out what kind of story I’m reading.

Do you follow any guidelines for opening your story?

Thanks for reading . . .