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May 15, 2019

Sharpen Your Main Character by Using Books on Writing

By Max Vonne. 

Making sure that readers connect with your main character is a critical point of focus for your writing.  This is an especially tough challenge for new writers.  Thankfully, there are some great tools available to us.  

In my last article, I spoke about, which I’m just going to briefly mention here.  Getting your work in front of others and getting their feedback is key to understanding if your main character is resonating.  Other writers will not only tell you if they like the character but will also make suggestions on how to improve him/her.  I can’t imagine developing my characters without this process.

While it’s great to get feedback, it’s not your only resource, and you shouldn’t treat it as such.  Don’t expect other writers to do the work for you.  A five-minute revision to your work and repost is probably not going to help you unless the issues with your work are incredibly superficial.  Typically, the issues are deeper, at least with the work I’ve seen there.  And I should add, that includes my own.

When I first ran into technical issues with my writing, I asked around for suggestions for books on technique.  And of course, I ran my search on Amazon.  It turns out there are many inexpensive books available that address specific writing techniques.  Marcy Kennedy has books on point of view, description, dialogue, and other important topics.  She has a mini-book for Kindle only about writing strong female characters.  I recommend it because the book market is made up of seventy percent women.  Even a short book like that has valuable insights.

I wasn’t really looking to solve a character problem when I came across Deborah Chester’s “The Fantasy Fiction Formula.”  To be honest, I don’t remember why I decided to read it, other than I was impressed by the fact she had written so many best-selling fantasy books and that she was a college professor.  As part of my daily commitment to writing, I like to read books on technique to sharpen my skills.

My book, Star Faer - The Queen of Zori, deviates from the typical protagonist/antagonist formula.  It’s a multifaceted story with multiple protagonists.  So, I went into her book with a fair degree of skepticism.  I didn't like the idea that fantasy could be boiled down to a formula because, at that point, it sort of turns into fast food.  I’m not interested in flipping burgers.

Nevertheless, I committed to reading it, and I’m glad I did.  I figured that if I was going to deviate from a formula, I should at least understand what the formula is.

I ended up being very pleasantly surprised by Deborah Chester’s structural analysis of scenes, characters, plot, point of view and more.  The book is over 300 pages long.  I ended up buying a paperback copy, just to be able to refer to it more easily.

So, getting back to the title of this article, one of the gems in Deborah’s book is the section where she talks about the emotional content of the character.  What does the character feel?  How is this expressed?  She uses examples from her own books.

By drawing out the emotions of your main character, you deepen the experience for the reader.  They live vicariously through the thoughts and actions of your main character.  I never thought of the character’s emotional reactions as being a part of the character, but that’s changed for me now.  I’ve found a character’s emotional expressions inseparable from the character’s other attributes.  How the character feels about what is happening in a scene helps define that character.

In my book, an eight-year-old girl, Dari, has to live with the guilt of her mother dying giving birth to her.  In my first draft, I would have written something like:

“Father, are you sorry I was born?” Dari asked.
Of course not,” her father said.  “Why would you say such a thing?”
Dari looked up at him.  “If not for me, mother would still be alive.”

In this example, the dialogue is doing all the work.  It’s fairly flat.

Here’s the snippet from my current draft:

Dari didn’t want to press him.  They never spoke of her mother.  She could see it made it him sad.  But she had to know.  “Father . . . are you sorry I was born?”
Her father jerked his head to one side as if someone had struck him.  “Of course not.  Why would you say such a thing?”
Dari’s throat tightened and her bottom lip quivered.  Her eyes were stinging.  “If not for me, mother would still be alive.”

By focusing on what Dari was feeling, I was able to add depth and more life to the character.  She doesn’t want to upset her father.  It shows she is caring.  Her physical sensations in talking about her mother show that she carries a lot of pain with her.  Those are things that help define character.  You can’t get the character out of this small snippet, but you can clearly see the difference between the two examples.  Dari is more present in the second example.  That presence gives the reader insight into the character.  One little block alone won’t do it, but a character is made up of hundreds of these little blocks that aggregate into a greater sense of who the character is.

Deborah Chester’s book also includes a long list of questions you can use to profile your character in your notes.  I was already doing something like this, but her list is more comprehensive.

She also provides analysis of the different roles that characters play in a story, how much weight they carry.  It’s a little formulaic for my taste, but I think the idea is sound.  You should know what role characters play in a story and how much weight to give them.  Diagraming it can help you plan your story arcs.

The focus of this article is on character, but Deborah Chester’s book covers many topics.  It’s a worthwhile read for anyone writing fantasy.  If you’re not writing fantasy, she has other books, including “Fiction Formula Plotting.”

One of the great things about writing is the low barrier to entry.  It doesn’t cost much to write.  The investment that you make in technical books is nominal.  A good book on technique is worth its weight in future franchise gold.  Cheers.


Max Vonne is a sci fi writer who blends science fiction and fantasy.  The Kaedra galaxy is at the heart of his work.  To develop it, he wrote a custom computer program that created thousands of stars and planets.  His books explore stories involving those worlds.  You can visit these worlds at www.