Here are some tips on developing characters in your novel that will hold the
reader's interest, from David G. Woolley:
There is a tendency to replace "physical descriptions" for what are essentially
"psychoanalytic descriptions", effectively describing a character by their
psychological profile—painting them into a psychological corner if you
will—from which they may not stray. The result makes the character
uninteresting because, after a certain point in the novel, the reader begins to
see that the character is limited by those psychological parameters and tends to
give the entire novel the feel of going nowhere. No matter how many twists and
turns your throw at your characters, the plot feels contrived and the events
uninteresting and dead because the reader knows exactly how the characters will
react—the author told us when the characters were introduced.
Offering a description of the characters multiple ear and nose piercings, his
blonde hair dyed three shads of pitch black, the silver studs riveted into his
leather jacket along the shoulder and sleeves with matching leather pants that
ride low enough on the hips for him to tan his belly button is enough to let the
reader in on the "possible" personality traits that just might accompany the
dress. But to describe him in psychological terms can destroy interest in your
Tim was terminally rebellious, acting out his rebellion against his teachers,
parents. He was a hardened man, without any remorse for his cruelty. He hated
everyone and anyone who dared to star at him only fired the rebellion in his
soul. It made him angry, always angry, ready to lash out at those closest to
These sorts of descriptions cage the character, trap him into a profile he can
not escape through out your novel. You can get away with this and not damage our
novel too severely if you only use it with minor characters, but using profiles
to describe your major characters will leave your story dead in the water.
Nearly ALL, I repeat, NEARLY ALL AUTHORS who are accused of writing sappy,
sweet, churchified novels are really only falling into the trap of TELLING the
reader about the psychological profile of their main character from which they
may never stray:
Betty was the KIND woman, the sort of neighbor you wanted for your own sister.
She volunteered for the blood drive every year and this year she was the
neighborhood representative to the Red Cross. She had a soft spot in her heart
for everyone on the street including the smiths who had two Dobermans that were
always digging under the fence and getting in her garden. She baked bread for
the Wilsons and the Jensons and the Murtleys ever Tuesday afternoon before the
kids got home from school. Betty was gracious. She never raised her voice to her
kids or to the Dobermans. She wasn't the most popular woman on the block. The
other women didn't invite her to all the parties, because she didn't drink
coffee at their monthly mid-morning brunches. Betty wanted more than anything to
be at peace and the only way she knew how to find that peace was to be kind.
Betty was a Christian.
This overdone, poorly written description of Betty is filled with TOLD character
traits supported by SUMMARIZED actions which are intended to HIDE the TOLD
character traits behind a very thin veil. What is worse, we are slowly but
surely painting the profile of Betty that she must adhere to for the rest of the
novel. Betty is a kind woman. Many authors will paint psychological profile of
their main religious character in order to establish an active, life-affirming,
faith-based character and then they let everyone around this religious character go
to hell in a hand basket while Betty helps sort out their lives. This approach
is not only poor fiction, it gives your main character the feel of a
condescending, holier than thou character. No matter how nice and kind you make
Betty, the reader will see her as unchanging and usually brand her as
condescending at best. Even if you make betty a bad or an in-between good and
bad character, if you provide a profile, you will lose your reader and you will
ultimately lose your story because you have limited the actions and reactions of
your character to a narrow profile. The problem with books IS NOT all the
idioms that are found in the writing. It is mainly a problem with authors
making very poor choices about the techniques they employ to tell their stories.
And, sadly, a good deal of books and short stories are riddled with TOLD
EMOTIONS and TOLD CHARACTER TRAITS which essentially devolve into a profile.
What can you do about it?
Every character you create can be interesting and engaging as long as the reader
isn't sure exactly how they are going to react. Even stories about childhood
foolery like monsters in the attic, or seemingly boring stories that take place
in sunbeam class or swimming lessons can be riveting if the story is left to the
right hands. Readers should get to know the PROFILE of your characters like they
get to know people in real life: gradually. Sure, we get a physical description
up front—what we call a block physical description. And we place those block
descriptions in the opening (introductory) scenes since it is easier for the
reader to remember what the characters look like if you place all of those hair
color, eye color, thick shouldered, large footed descriptions together near the
beginning rather than spacing out the physical descriptions over many pages. But
the character profile should be left entirely for the reader to create.
The author assembles a series of events (you can call them a plot or CONFLICT,
but they are essentially events in the story) and the character reacts to those
events (plot lines or conflict). Meanwhile, while you are busy with the events
in the story, charting out the reactions to events and showing the effect of
characters actions, the reader is assembling the psychological profile based on
the character's reaction to those events (plot lines, conflicts). When your
character's reaction falls outside the reader's "assembled profile" a funny
thing happens: their interest is pricked. Hey, they weren't supposed to react
like that, it isn't in the profile they created for them. She's never raised her
voice like that, wow she must really be mad at the Red Cross. And what does the
reader do? They decide, Oh my gosh, the character is changing and they sit up in
bed, turn the lamp back on and read another chapter because, hey, we have to see
what's going to happen next.
So, may I suggest that the best way to avoid IDIOMATIC WRITING is NOT to
remove the idioms, but rather to make sure that you simply present your
characters reacting to the natural events in the story. PIVOT chapter or scenes,
are chapters where the plot lines of a few or many characters converge and cause
your characters to change and send them off in other directions to follow other
plot lines. And, if the plot doesn't change your character, then the reader will
take notice—Hey, this guy wasn't really effected by that, he's tough under
pressure, or he has no heart or he is hiding something, or what the heck is
going on. And, again, your reader is interested to find out and they stay up
late to read another chapter because, hey, they have to find out what is going
to happen next.
David G. Woolley
In a post I sent out earlier in the day I am concerned that you could
possibly interpret my comments to incorrectly believe that you should NOT write
characters who are ALL GOOD. That is not what I intended. You can and should
write about characters who are good, who lead faithful, life-affirming, happy
lives. Those characters have essentially entered onto the straight and narrow
path. But then there is the dilemma: How do you make those seekers after truth
and righteousness interesting characters when all about you are told to "Give
some conflict. Rock their boat. Give a little bit of bad streak." You are not
wrong if you think that characters who hold fast to the iron rod can and should
be interesting. And, paradoxically, the advice givers are not wrong to insist
that you should "Give em some conflict. Rock their boat." The careful balancing
act that you must perform is to SHOW your iron rod holders struggling to steer
their ship through the stormy seas that roil and rise about them and to do it in
such a believable way that your readers are engaged by that struggle. Oprah does
it every day on day-time TV. What's so controversial about Genealogy—that was
Oprah's topic this afternoon and it brought tears to the eyes. (By the way, I
have only ever watched one Oprah show in my entire life and it was today so now
I can say I have been Oprahized.)
Let me share two examples from my own writing. The first is through the POV of
Ruth, a wife and mother of five children. She is struggling with her own desire
to be baptized while her husband and her second son have rejected that notion
entirely. I indicated in parenthesis the relationship of the two named
characters (her husband and son) in the following passage so you won't be
confused. This was a passage that appeared in a book that was published in
October of last year. Notice how the symbolism of her activity (filling a water
clock and then removing some of the overflow water) acts as a metaphor for her
inner struggle. THIS IS A VERY IMPORTANT TECHNIQUE THAT I USE OFTEN TO GOOD
EFFECT AND IN THE FUTURE WE REALLY SHOULD DISCUSS HOW YOU CAN IDENTIFY A GOOD
METAPHOR FOR A SCENE AND THEN USE IT TO DRAW OUT THE THOUGHTS OF YOUR
CHARACTERS. I USE METAPHORS OFTEN IN MY SCENES—but you will have to remind me
to discuss that in the future. Now, take it away Ruth:
Ruth pushed aside the thick canopy of winter curtains and let the warm breeze
draft into the kitchen. It wasn't really warm, but since this was the first
morning in three months that didn't chill her to the bone, she aired out the
musty scent of winter and waited in the gray dawn for the sun to light the
Ruth leaned a jar out the window and filled the water clock to overflowing
before dipping out two and a half cups to bring the surface level with the line
etched just below the brim and tossed away what she didn't need. If only she
could dip out the trouble in their family as easily as the overflow from the
clock. Jonathan (her husband) sided with the elders and Daniel (her second son)
with Laban, and she could never tell them that she believed the words of the
prophets. She would gladly toss this conflict from their lives like the overflow
from the clock and let the fouled water spill into the cracks between the
courtyard stones and let another harvest whatever tares came of these troubled
times. Ruth leaned against the sill. These troubles were flesh of her flesh and
bone of her bone, and she couldn't rid herself of her kin as easily as unwanted
water, or root them out like weeds from her garden.
The first rays of morning fell over the water clock and Ruth uncorked the spigot
in the bottom. Large drops clung to the red clay bucket like dew on a stand of
ripening winter wheat before dropping to the ground below the kitchen
window—the faint splashing reminding her of the promise of peace that came to
those who took upon them the name of Yeshua. How she longed to find that peace
and she reached out to let the droplets wash over her hand as if they had power
to cleanse her of her troubles. Not a day passed that she didn't raise her
prayers to heaven and beg the Almighty to guide her to the life-giving waters of
the Anointed One. Jonathan was a good husband and Daniel a fine son, but they
did not seek the same waters of faith. Their hearts were impossible captives and
she could neither fight their war for them nor carry their wounded souls back
across the battle lines to the safety of her heart. She could only stand by and
watch their faith slowly trickle away like water from the bottom of the clock
and pray one day they would stop the cork and collected within the well of their
hearts the redeeming waters of her new faith.
This second example is something I finished writing TODAY and, if all goes well,
it will appear in the book I am currently working on. If things go really,
really, really well it will be published this fall. In this scene, Jonathan
(Ruth's husband) is struggling with the death of their oldest son, Aaron, who
was killed by accident when he stepped in front of one of Captain Laban's arrows
intended for Lehi. Jonathan is also defensive of his second son, Daniel, who he
believes is not guilty of burning one of Lehi's many olive groves to the ground.
Jonathan is not inclined to seek help from heaven. He sees the death of his
"RELIGIOUS" son as a waste. He blames heaven, he blames Lehi, he blames himself
for his son's death. And ultimately, since it is absolutely imperative to the
future of this story that he and Ishmael become hated enemies, he must somehow
turn all his anger over this death onto Ishmael which begins the falling out
between these two men. You should also know that Lehi and his family have
escaped Jerusalem and no longer live at the estate, however Ishmael, Lehi's
cousin, still lives at the neighboring home. Sorry if this is too long and if
there are points that you do not follow, however this example shows a LESS
FAITHFUL non-iron rod holder dealing with adversity as compared with his wife's
(RUTH) faithful view in the previous example. Here's Johnny:
The olive trees of Beit Zayit's vineyards arched their twisted, leaf-laden
branches over the dusty road like vines on a forgotten gravestone and Jonathan
quickened his stride through the afternoon shadows. He carried a large satchel
pressed against his chest. It was an awkward way to walk, but this was no
ordinary journey and he let the sweet smell of tanned leather fill him with the
emptiness of the task ahead. The satchel was fashioned from four large skins,
tanned and dried on the roof and sewn together with the finest threads from the
basket beneath Ruth�s foot loom. And instead of fixing cords along the length of
the opening to seal it, she weaved polished brass buttons to keep the empty
satchel shut�she said it was the least she could do to honor their first born
A tear streamed down Jonathan's cheek and fell onto the leather, but since there
was little sunlight filtering through the thick vineyard canopy he didn't bother
to brush away his grief. In this silent place he could bear his soul, but bear
it to whom? There was no God to understand his grieving heart and he was left to
consol himself. If there was any mercy left in the heavens then he should never
have to suffer the task of filling this satchel with the bones of his dead son.
But he�d not bothered heaven with the things of his heart in such a long time
there was little he could do now to attract her gaze. And what balm would he ask
if he knew how? He was not a beggar and he did not need the alms of heaven to
remove this pain and heal his heart.
Jonathan pushed his shoulders forward and hurried his stride, the clip and fall
of his sandals slapping at the shadows in the road. No father should have to
burry his first-born twice. Aaron died once when he embraced the foolish
traditions of Lehi's faith and again when he stood in front of an arrow that was
not strung for him. Jonathan lowered the satchel and draped it across both arms
like a high priest carrying an incense bowl in a funeral procession, but there
was not a holy man in all of Judah who would offer a blessing on the grave of
his son. Aaron was a rebel in life, seeking after a renegade religion and
Jonathan would have to offer whatever blessing he could conjure to pay his last
respects to a boy he loved more now in death than he ever had courage to show in
life. What more could he do now that Aaron was gone, but purchase a small plot
in Jerusalem's cemetery, high on the plateau with a good view of valley. The
boy's remains belonged there, where Jonathan could tend to the weeds and Ruth
could place a flower to mourn his passing, not here at Beit Zayit where only
ghosts were left to care for the grounds and there was no one to mourn the flesh
of his flesh.
The dusty road gave way to cobblestone and Jonathan lengthened his stride up the
rise leading out of the green canopy of summer leaves and hurried past the
burned out grove. No matter how many times the story of Daniel's part in this
fell on Jonathan's ear, it was a mistaken rumor. These charred and withered
trees were a wound amid a hundred lush vineyards that would not heal and curse
the merchants of Beit Zayit for blaming the destruction on Daniel. The
whirlwinds that stirred the skies of early summer uprooted the trees from their
burned moorings and Jonathan turned his gaze away from the fallen trees, his
sandals brushing quickly over the cobblestones. Daniel had no hand in this crime
and Jonathan would not pause on his journey to examine the ruin of common
vandals. Daniel was a fine man, an officer in the military, an honor to
Jonathan's good name and he would not look at a lie.
The road leveled beyond the burned out vineyard, turned past a fountain of
gurgling water and ended in front of the gate to the estate that belonged to
Lehi the olive oil merchant. The mansion house stretched back into the trees so
far Jonathan couldn't see where it ended. Shuddered arching windows graced the
upper floors, and a canopy of vines shaded a host of balconies. The yard stood
quiet, without a soul to disturb the chirping birds in the branches of the
sycamore trees lining the far edge of the gardens. There had to be someone about
to care for these manicured grounds, but there was no gardener chasing about the
yard, no maidservant sweeping the walks, no one with whom he could divide the
haunting serenity of Aaron's burial ground. There was not a stray leaf along the
maze of footpaths leading through the gardens, each branch bordered by neatly
trimmed low-growing hedges. The leafy foliage lining the main path up to the
front porch was freshly blocked this morning—the shoots rounded to a perfect
arching half-circle. There were no weeds growing in the garden. No dust had
collected on the limestone path and fresh water gurgled from a spout near the
top of the yard—piped from lake Beit Zayit—and it gave life to the blossoms of
white, purple, and red poppies filling the estate with the colors of early
summer. It was a peaceful resting place, but Jonathan would find no rest as long
as Aaron lay in these grounds. Jonathan ran his hand over the leather satchel.
The cords were strong enough to hold the rotted dust of his son, the seams were
sewn tight and the leather was thick enough to keep the stink of two months of
death from turning his stomach to vomit.
Jonathan tried the metal latch, but the iron bars refused his push. Cursed gate!
He kicked at the metal rods, but they would not budge. There was no reason for
it to be locked. Lehi and his family were gone from Beit Zayit and hopefully
they took their religion and their foolishness with them. A sign hung from the
gate. It was written in bold Hebrew letters warning that intruders would suffer
the wrath of the groundskeeper. Jonathan laid the satchel over his shoulder and
held the bars with both hands like a prisoner peering from inside a prison.
There was no watchman looking after this estate and he turned the warning sign
on its face before climbing the gate, his powerful arms hoisting him over the
top and onto the garden path. His intrusion didn't arouse any notice from the
neighboring estate on the other side of the wall of trees and when he started up
the path to the main house no groundskeeper emerged from the side gardens and no
maidservant hurried out the front doors to shoo him away.
A swinging chair hung by four lengths of rope near the edge of the long
limestone porch. The windows were barred with iron rods and tied with thick
curtains without any gap except the last one near the far side of the porch.
There was a small opening in the canvass and Jonathan pushed his face to the
bars. A blue Egyptian vase sat on the floor against the far wall of the anteroom
waiting to be trimmed with flowers and placed on the cherry wood table set near
the entry. Three Persian tapestries hung from the walls and a fourth sat atop
the table with hooks and a hammer beside it, waiting to be nailed in place
alongside the others. This wasn't an abandoned estate, not with so many repairs
underway. The banister capping the rails along the length of the stairwell was
missing, but there was a carpenter's trowel set beside a rough hewn piece of
black wood, half shaped into the form of a new hand-rail for the steps. The
floors were freshly cleaned, the brass lamps polished and the scent of incense
lingered on the air. Could the master of Beit Zayit be planning to return? There
was only one reason the servants in this estate would busy themselves with so
many preparations. If he was, Jonathan would make certain Lehi felt the grief of
an arrow that should have been his.
Jonathan stepped back from the window. Daniel said it was here, near the entry
to the house, where Aaron took the arrow, but there was no sign of a struggle.
The thick doors of the estate hadn't been forced, the wood planks were not
damaged and the trim around the frame didn't look to have been repaired, or
cleaned or changed to conceal any . . . .
Jonathan's gaze stopped at the base of the door, down near the threshold. The
stones at the foot of the entry were stained a deep red. The color was faded and
some of it lifted away from the scratching of a tool, but there was no doubt it
was a dried pool of blood. It was the same ugly rust-red color left on the floor
of the blacksmith shop the day Aaron's feet were burned and Jonathan fell to his
knees and ran his fingers over the stain. How did he ever let this happen to his
son? He never should have allowed Aaron to blacksmith for Lehi. The man filled
the boy's head with his odd faith, won Aaron's heart with his wealth, and what
did Aaron get in return? Jonathan's hands began to tremble. Beit Zayit brought
Aaron nothing but death.
"I'm sorry about your son."
Jonathan glanced over his shoulder to find a man standing at the far end of the
porch, but his eyes were blurred with tears so that he couldn't make out the
face, couldn't read his height, couldn't even see the clothes he wore except for
the blur of green, red, and yellow stripes in the colorful cloth. Jonathan
turned his gaze to the ground to clear his vision. He couldn't face another with
his grief welling in his eyes.
"I trust he's healing well." The man spoke in a steady voice without his words
running too fast and little of the sing-song lift and fall that littered the
speech of most men and immediately Jonathan recognized the constant manner of
Ishmael, the cousin of Lehi the olive oil merchant. "I was heading to the city
this morning. I didn't see your horse and I thought I should offer you a ride
back, possibly stop in and see Aaron. Maybe wish the boy well. We certainly
think highly of him. He's a fine blacksmith. You certainly have every right to
be pleased by him."
Jonathan kept his head down. "I can walk, sir."
"Really, it isn't any trouble." The soft fall of Ishmael�s leather sandal on the
stone drew closer until his shadow cast across the bloodstains. "I'd be pleased
if you'd allow me to accompany you to the city. I would very much like to wish
"He isn't getting well." A run of tears streamed from Jonathan�s eyes and before
he could stop them, they landed on the bloodied stones. He pressed both hand to
his eyes to stop the tears. No man knew his grief and he would not share it with
this cousin of the one who should be dead in Aaron's place. Ishmael was an
accomplice and there was every reason to loath his kindness.
Ishmael said, "I'm sorry to hear that. I really should stop by and see if
there's anything I could do for the boy. He liked pickled olives. Maybe I could
send a jar of them with"
"He's dead." Jonathan stood and pushed his face close enough to Ishmael he could
feel the man's breath. "Do you hear me? He died here on your land."
"That isn't so, it can't be." Ishmael stepped back from Jonathan's stern
words. "There was some blood on the porch the day after Aaron was here. I
thought he might have been hurt." He raised his hand toward the gardens.
"There was a trail of blood leading into the trees over there, but I can
assure you, no one died there. I walked the grounds to check for him. I would
have known if . . . ."
"You people think you know all the answers." Jonathan grabbed Ishmael by the
arm. "You preach your foolish faith to my son, fill his head with your ideas
about God and you show off your riches like they were some sort of blessing from
heaven, but when my son needs your help where were you?" He tightened his grip
on Ishmael's arm. "Aaron stepped in the way of an arrow to save your cousin
Lehi. Where were you when he was bleeding to death? You could have saved him."
Jonathan's shoulders began to shake. He forced his hand to his mouth and spoke
through his trembling fingers. "You could have saved my son."
Ishmael shook his head "Lehi was gone from here long before Aaron or Captain
Laban passed by."
"You're lying to me." Jonathan stood on the bloodstained stones, his hands
curled into fists. "You let my son die here."
"I'm telling you, it didn't happen, not here." Ishmael slowly backed down the
length of the porch and onto the garden path. "I didn't even get word about the
"There hasn't been one." Jonathan followed Ishmael into the garden, the leather
satchel raised between them and the brass buttons shimmering in the afternoon
sun. "Tell me where I can find my son."
"He isn't here. Not on these grounds."
"Liar!" Jonathan pushed the leather satchel at Ishmael. Help me fill this bag.
"You should go now." Ishmael kept backing down the path, the hem of his robe
brushing over the hedges and the heel of his sandals catching on the stones. "We
can discuss this another time, once you've calmed yourself."
"You want me to be calm?" Jonathan shook the satchel, the leather slapping about
his hands. "You let my son die on this porch and now you hide his body to cover
your sins. I'll calm myself as soon as you lead me to Aaron's grave."
Jonathan threw the leather bag at Ishmael. Curse him for his part in Aaron's
death, and curse his family and his lands and his olive groves for taking his
son from him. The force of Jonathan's voice scared the robins from beneath the
cover of the sycamore branches, the flutter of their wings drown by his railing
against Ishmael, telling him he was no better than the others who beguiled
Aaron. He was the first to come to their shop and hire Aaron away to this evil
place and Jonathan spit on the ground next to Ishmael's feet. If it weren't for
his white beard and his colorful red, green and yellow robe the same white beard
and traveling robe Aaron said was like the appearance of an angel the day they
first met at the shop Jonathan never would have trusted the life of his son into
Angels? What did Ishmael know about heavenly things? He pushed Ishmael back
against the gate, his shoulders rattling against the stiff metal. If there was a
God, then why would a merciful being let his son—his innocent, believing,
deluded son—die for no reason? Jonathan gripped Ishmael's robe by the collar
and pulled hard enough to rip the cloth down to his chest.
Ishmael tried to push away and order him to take his satchel and leave Beit
Zayit before he called for his sons to escort him off their land, but Jonathan
swung his fist, striking Ishmael across the cheek, the back of his head reeling
against the gatepost. Ishmael wasn't going to threaten him, not after he let his
son die. He swung again, landing a blow across Ishmael's brow and another under
his chin and two more into his stomach. Ishmael fell against the gate and slowly
slid down the metal bars to the ground, blood seeping from a cut over his eye
and his hands pressed to his stomach. That would teach him to never bother
Jonathan for blacksmithing again. He didn't need the man's work or his money
he'd never need this man for anything, not ever! Jonathan picked the empty
satchel off the ground and stepped past Ishmael's fallen body. The gate was
open, left unlocked from Ishmael's coming and he let himself onto the road and
started down past the charred remains of the burned out olive grove. He was not
a man to keep bitterness in his heart, but Ishmael was the only living reminder
of his loss and he could never let go of that hatred.
Ishmael was his enemy.