Actions Speak Louder

One of the first pieces of writing advice almost all new writers hear is the old adage “Show don’t tell.” Back when I first started writing, I fully loathed hearing people say that–mostly because I don’t think anyone ever explained it very well beyond “don’t use to be verbs.” While trying to stay away from weak verbs is generally good advice, even brand new writers tend to realize going on a “to be” witch hunt get you awkward prose (at least I did when I had an English teacher tell us to write a story without a single was or were).


More than being about to be verbs, though, showing and not telling has to do with “showing” the reader actions and emotions rather than “telling” them what your character is like or is feeling. For example, you could tell a reader, “She was a quiet girl and wanted to be left alone” or you could show a little girl sitting at the back of a classroom, her shoulders pulled up to her ears as she prays in her head that no one comes to talk to her. While both make the same general point, the second paints a much more vivid picture and pulls the reader into the scene rather than just giving them statements to remember.

While it’s good to stay away from weak/telling phrases in general (I was; I felt; I wanted; I liked…) showing becomes immeasurably important when it comes to fleshing out characters. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell your readers that your character is quiet and shy, if all you show is your character being the center of attention at party after party, your character is going to read as someone loud and outgoing. When it comes to characterization, actions truly do speak louder than words.

So, instead of telling your reader character traits:

1. Look for scenes that show important traits. For example, rather than telling the reader that your character is a good fighter (or having people talk about how good a fighter that character is–as seems common in TV shows) look for a scene where your character will be able to show off those skills.

2. Shape dialogue to show personality. No two people speak entirely alike. Some people share certain verbal tics, but personality shapes word choice, slang usage, wordiness, and all those other things that make a character sound like a person rather than the author. If your character is shy and quiet, their dialogue will likely be shorter and meeker than a character who loves attention and so pontificates whenever given the chance.

3. Make a point when your character is acting out of character. Sometimes, you’ll need your “stickler for the rules” character to go against type and break into work to steal a file. That’s fine, as long as you show that that’s not who your character normally is. Make a point that your character is nervous/uncomfortable with what’s happening or take the time for them to struggle with making the decision to act against who they are (ideally after you’ve already shown who the character normally is earlier on). By showing what is happening is the exception to the rule will help keep the reader from seeing a strange disconnect between what they’ve heard about the character and what they’ve seen.

Just remember, when it comes to learning about characters, seeing how they act is much more powerful than hearing once or twice or ten times that the character is X. Use showing to your advantage, even if you still need some was and weres in there.

Historical Naming

Interesting question today: “When writing historical fiction, do you have a hard time coming up with names? Is there a list of when particular personal names were first used? I have written some fiction that is historical and I’m worried the use of a name or names that were unknown in that period might put some people off because of the inaccuracy.

I have written before about how names can be astoundingly important to how both authors and readers respond to characters in stories. It makes complete sense that having a “Neveah” and “McKenzie” wandering around Elizabethan England would be a problem.

Luckily writers have a few resources for looking for “historically accurate” names:

1. One of my favorite sites for finding names in general, (and its sister site is a great resource when trying to find appropriate names for historical characters. With popularity lists reaching back to 1880 (with John and Mary topping the charts), you can very easily find names that would suit a story based in the Victorian era forward (it even lists just how popular the names were at the time: 8.15% of boys born were named John and 7.24% of girls named Mary, for example).

For earlier names, you have to do a little more digging, but by looking up specific names you can find out about the history of a name, including first origin, famous bearers, and popularity charts (see above). For example, for ‘Mary’ you’ll find:

In England [Mary] has been used since the 12th century, and it has been among the most common feminine names since the 16th century.

For a name like ‘Jessica’, however, you’ll find:

This name was first used in this form by Shakespeare in his play ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (1596), where it belongs to the daughter of Shylock … It was not commonly used as a given name until the middle of the 20th century.

So where you would be more than safe naming a character “Mary” in the middle of the War of the Roses, “Jessica” is probably better suited for a character born in the 1980s or 1990s (#1 or #2 for most popular name from 1981 – 1997).

2. Historical Figures: If you are writing historical fiction you have most likely (hopefully) done some research into the time period. While doing that sort of reading, you have likely come across people who were important to the time period. For example, following the Elizabethan/Tudor example, you might see Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Mary I, Edward VI, Katherine Parr, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, William Shakespeare, Thomas Moore, Walter Raleigh…and the list goes on and on and on. It is therefore reasonable to assume that you are “time period appropriate” using any of those given names in the time period.

Edward VI--meaning there had already been six other kings with his name by the 1500s.

Edward VI–meaning there had already been five other kings with his name by the 1500s.

If you are interested in genealogy/have done any family research, it is also possible to use your own family tree for inspiration. If you have an ancestor named “Samuel” who fought in the Civil War, you’re likely safe making your 1860’s character’s name ‘Samuel’.

3. Historical Records: Assuming you are writing about a time period that includes a written language/has some “primary source” documents surviving, you are likely to be able to find names off censuses/tax rolls/etc. The more “modern” the time period, the simpler it will be to find these sorts of records (for example, the U.S. Census Bureau released the 1940 Census records in 2012 for interested parties), but it is possible to find things like the 1319 London Subsidy Roll online which will provide you with names such as Johannes (“John”) and Thomas which were both highly popular in London at the time.

1850s Census with names galore (assuming you can read cursive)

1850s Census with names galore (assuming you can read cursive)

(Note: Sources I have easily found online do tend to be highly euro-centric, but as long as you are writing about a “record-keeping” society you should be able to find something [i.e. it will be easier to find records from England or China than it will from nomadic groups]).

4. Figure out naming conventions: This is another one your previous research will aid in, but if you are looking for names on Behind the Name (or another similar site) this should help point you in the right direction. It’s just about following trends. For example, naming oneself after royalty/the ruling class has always been popular, thus you will find more children born after the Norman Conquest with French-based names (from watching how many King Henrys and Charleses there are in both England and France early on, you can see the name bleed-over). Similarly, Puritans were big fans of “virtue” names (Charity, Mercy, Remembrance…) by picking a virtue name for your fictional character on the Mayflower, your name will fit in without “copying” a famous name.

(Note: It is also important to pay attention to naming conventions when it comes to things such as surnames and name order. Would your characters have patronymic names (Greta Hansdatter, James FitzJames, Phillip son of Coul) a geographic indicator (Joan of Arc, Leonardo da Vinci), their family name first (as it common in many Asian countries), or no second name at all? Those details help with the authenticity of your characters).

As with everything else in historical fiction, research is your friend. As long as you know the time period you’re using, you shouldn’t have a problem coming up with names.


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Who are you, again?

To many writers, myself included, names are partially what make a character. I’ve touched on how a new name can completely change a character, but even after an author has found the perfect name for a character, there comes another problem: introducing the character to the reader.

Recently in the NaNoWriMo Forums, a writer asked for advice on, “how to appropriately introduce new characters and offer their names.” The poster acknowledged that there seem to be two ways to introduce names to the reader. 1) Using the character’s name whether or not it has been used before or 2) wait until the names come up in dialogue.

So which should be used? Honestly, a little of both.

Introducing characters is one of those moments when you really have to nail down who your POV character is. With first person and third person limited being the most popular POVs by far these days, writers will most likely be writing with one character relating the story/a scene (either as “I” or “s/he”) It is possible to change POVs between scenes, especially in third person, but each scene should follow one character (otherwise it becomes head jumping). Once you know who the POV character in a scene, it becomes simpler to know when to share names.

1) If the POV character knows another character’s name, use it. Since you are in the POV character’s head, there is no reason to wait for someone to say another character’s name if the POV character knows it. Would you really call your friend “the tall man” or “the blond man” when you know his name is “Tim”? It is forcing in awkwardness where it needn’t be. (Note: The same goes for using nicknames. If POV character calls someone “Tim” in their head, there’s no reason to use “Timothy” in the narrative. Just be consistent [you shouldn’t flip between Tim and Timothy in narrative if you start with one]).

2) If the POV character doesn’t know another character’s name, wait for it to come up. Hopefully, this won’t be a long wait, but it would be a POV slip to say a name when your character would have no way of knowing it. Luckily, people tend to introduce themselves pretty early on when they aren’t known to someone. Stalling some with “the blonde girl”, “the young girl” or “the happy girl” shouldn’t be a problem. As soon as the character is introduced or the POV character gets a name, you can switch to using the new character’s name (e.g. another character in the scene calls “the blonde girl” Sally. It is fine to use Sally from that moment on because the POV character now has a name).

The biggest thing is you simply don’t want to confuse your readers. The sooner you can introduce a name and use it consistently the better.

Finally, if you are using omniscient POV, you should use the names for your characters as soon as they are introduced, unless there is a specific reason not to. As your narrator is omniscient they know all of the character names to begin with. By withholding a name, you are saying there is something important about it. Suddenly using it without any sort of reveal comes off as odd/anticlimactic.


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Personal Experiences and Author Inserts

Thank you to Emma Aveston for hosting my blog today on her site. Pop over to “in a thousand blades of grass” to see posts like this and Emma’s own writing.

Guest Post: Writing with Personal Experiences and Author Inserts

I think it is nearly impossible for writers to keep themselves out of their writing entirely. Personality, life experiences, even friends work their ways into stories—purposefully or not.

That said, I have done my very best to keep much of my own life out of my writing. I fully admit my first novel—now safely hidden away in the depths of my computer—included an author insert. Worse, a Mary Sue (an idealized author insert). Only being fifteen at the time, I do my best to be too ashamed of it, but it did teach me that it can be dangerous putting too much of yourself in a character. As much as it can be fun to put yourself into a world where you can control everything around you (or “your character”) that doesn’t make for especially good story.

Of course, just because I do my best to keep “me” characters out of my books, that doesn’t mean parts of me don’t make it in now and again. There are just a few rules I try to stick to:

1. Don’t change your world for a character
One of the major problems with Mary Sues is that the character is wish fulfillment, and thus the character is able to do things that wouldn’t happen for anybody else in the world you have built. Whether it’s an author insert, a …Read More

Making Your Characters Believable

Thank you to Quality Reads UK Book Club for hosting my post. Tips for making your characters more believable:

Making Your Characters Believable with @JessicaDall #WriteTip

When it comes to writing, I have always been a “character-driven” author. If you don’t have a good plot, of course it’s a problem, but I fully admit that it tends to be the characters that make me interested in writing a particular story rather than the plot (sometimes I’m not even entirely sure what the plot is going to be when I start out since I don’t tend to care for outlines).

Leaving the characters in charge of powering the story, however, makes building believable characters all the more important.  So how do you do that?

1.       Work out a backstory

No character exists in a vacuum. Just like you didn’t magically appear one day fully grown (I’m assuming…) your character has likely has some past that affects the person they are today. While you should certainly avoid info dumping (overwhelming your reader with a bunch of backstory that they may or may not need to know all or once) you, as the author, need to know what makes your character tick. Have they had a great sense of humor since they were a child? Did they learn it from a friend? Is it a reaction to having a very serious family? The answer may not matter to anyone else, but it will help you shape the little things about your character which turn them from ‘Character A’ to a real person.

2.       Use Character Questionnaires sparingly

All right, this comes down to if you find them helpful or not, but Character Questionnaires have only been passingly helpful for me in the past. They are great for getting the basics down, like what your character looks like or if they have siblings, but is thinking about what my character’s favorite ice cream flavor is really going to help make them real? If questionnaires work for you, go for it. You just might be better served working outside a form (I personally like writing in paragraphs when it comes to the basics) or using other character-building techniques. Like:

3.       Take your characters out of your story

Dialogue has always been my strength so I might be biased here, but one of the best ways I have found to develop a flat character is to take them out of the actual story, and throw them into a strange situation. How would Character A take it if she was suddenly stuck in an elevator with Character B. How would Character B act if he was out couch shopping with his mother? Without having to worry about where the story is going, the characters are free to talk to one another and generally interact with the world, which can give you some great insight into everything from their speech patterns to past relationships.

4.       Let your character lead

This one doesn’t happen to everyone, but sometimes well-developed characters get a little headstrong. If you find yourself writing and all of a sudden a character decides that they actually don’t really like a character you meant to make their best friend/significant other, let them make the change. It’s a good sign your character is developed enough to react to a situation as their own person—forcing them back to what you originally were planning will often suddenly shatter the little things that make them a “real”, believable person.


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Antagonist vs. Villain

And the big day is finally here. My new novel, The Copper Witch, has hit the shelves (or at least e-shelves, print comes out soon). You should totally go buy a copy. You know you want to.

See how pretty it is?

See how pretty it is?

With reviews trickling in (which I’m happy to say are generally positive) a common theme I have found is readers either loving or hating the main character. And honestly, I can’t say I’m too surprised. Adela Tilden, the protagonist of The Copper Witch, is a very strong personality–and honestly an anti-heroine. She was never meant to be particularly “likable” as much as she was meant to be interesting (whether that is a good or a bad interesting seems to be entirely up to the reader).

Antiheroes have been a trend for a while now. While there are still certainly stories with true “heroes” as their protagonists (Good vs. Evil as a literary staple has been around since Gilgamesh–I have to say I don’t see it going anywhere anytime soon) protagonists who lack the standard “heroic” traits (antiheroes) are no stranger to fiction these days either. They are written for any number of reason, but they do end up changing the traditional names that might be used when describing characters.

Yay, Antiheroes (who seem to be predominately men, looking at TV Tropes)

Yay, Antiheroes (who seem to be predominately men, looking at TV Tropes)

You see, while performing an author interview for another blog, I was asked a relatively simple question, “How important do you believe villains are in stories?”

This lead me to the answer that antagonists (someone your protagonist struggles against) are very important–or at least conflicts are. Without conflicts, there generally isn’t much of a plot. There has to be something that your character wants and something stopping them from getting that want, or what would your plot really be? That doesn’t, however, mean there has to be a “villain”. You see, thinking about who the villain in The Copper Witch (the character who tends to have a negative effect on other characters) would most likely also be our protagonist. That’s a bit what being an antihero seems to be–the name for a protagonist who would likely be the villain were situations different.

And that is why “villain” and “antagonist” can’t really be synonymous. Often time villains double as the antagonists of stories, but they don’t always. Even in stories with more traditional “heroes” (i.e. no antiheroes) there doesn’t always have to be a “villain” there simply has to be something that causes a struggle/obstacle. Not necessarily someone evil (e.g. if your story is about a student who wants to get the lead in a school play, the antagonist could be another student also up for the role…even if the other student is perfectly nice).

So, The Copper Witch doesn’t really have a villain, but it does have things for the protagonist to struggle against. And so, antagonist is truly the word to use for what is important in stories. Not villain.


The Copper Witch, now available electronically on:
Amazon         Smashwords         Barnes and Noble         All Romance

Print available soon

Your Character as a Roommate

Put together by WriMo “IAmTheFadingYearbookPen“, an interesting thought experiment that takes character questionnaires to the next level. If you were going to live with your character, what would that be like? Some questions to consider:

Would you trust him/ her to pay their share and on time? Why?

What annoying habits do they have?

Which of your habits would annoy them?

What state is their bedroom in?

What five things would you most probably find in their rubbish bin/ lying on the floor?

What five things would they definitely have in their room?

Are they domestic or domestically challenged?

How much of the time do they actually spend in the flat, or are they out most of the time? 

Do they sleep in or run out of the house already late for the day?

Are you friends with them? Do you get along?

Have you ever had any serious spats?

What has caused them to move out/ on/ into sharing a flat with you?

If you gave them the opportunity to decorate, what colours are likely to be painted everywhere?

                     – any patterns?

                     – objects/ decorations.

                     – posters? 

Would you be horrified if you walked in to this newly decorated flat?

                      – or would they be too lazy to even accept your offer? 

What three items of clothing would most likely be thrown over the back of the kitchen chair?

Do they do their own washing? 

What DVDS on the shelf belong to them?

What books on the shelf belong to them?

What music do they like to play?

Do they play it at inappropriate times/ too loud?

Does it annoy your neighbours?

Would they care if it annoyed your neighbours. 

Do they have guests over often?

Do they ask your permission first, or assume you’re fine with it?

Do they ever bring any trouble to the flat?

How many times, if any, has the police been called to the flat/ has the police came to the flat/ dropped your character off at the flat? 

What trouble would this most likely have to do with?

Do you help them, or give them your notice to move out?

What refrigerator magnets do they own?

What mugs do they own?

Do they bring an income?

What food is theirs?

What food can they not go without buying?

If you kept a pad on the fridge door with things to do on that day, reminders etc, what would your character have most likely written down? Would they bother to write anything down at all?

Do they have any medication/ cosmetic products etc. in the bathroom cupboard? 

Do you think they’ll ever move out? 

Would you keep in contact if they did? 

Just a Pretty Face

As I’ve said before, I am a dialogue person. For whatever reason, dialogue is more fun (and plainly easier) for me to write than pretty much anything else. Of course, for novels, narrative, description, and all of that fun stuff is just as important, so my biggest challenge has always been slowing down enough to be sure to write down just exactly how these things I’m seeing in my head actual look (since for some reason, readers aren’t yet able to see exactly what I’m seeing when I write without me actually writing descriptions…odd that).

Of course, when trying to write description, it’s important to have a clear picture of characters and places in your head. There are only so many times you can give a character blond/brown/red hair and blue/brown/green eyes before even your own characters begin to lose shape in your head. When asked a while ago what a character from a book I wrote years ago looked like, I admit even I couldn’t remember. Not generally a good sign.

So while some characters might spring to mind very clearly, what do you do when you come up to a roadblock as to what a character looks like other than tall/short/average with X hair and X eyes?

I’m sure there are a number of solutions people have come up with, but mine, personally, is simple: Look at peopleWhile the first things you might use to describe someone in real life might be the same things you already had for a character (height, weight, coloring) studying a face, a real face, will give you a better picture in your head as to what actually makes a person rather than a person-shaped blob (am I the only one with blobby characters to start with? maybe?)

As for finding faces for inspiration, there are three different ways to generally go about it:

1. Watch people around you. Assuming you don’t live in some remote cabin/underground/in the Australian outback, most people come into regular contact with other humans on a day-to-day basis. By watching the people you interact with, it’s possible to start compiling features that shape your character. The man at the bakery’s hair, the girl on the metro’s chin, looking at what makes a person unique will help you move past X hair and X eyes. Of course, the downside to this can be the creepy factor. Staring at someone next to you at the bank will no doubt make you look odd/suspicious. “I’m a writer” only works so many times as an excuse.

2. Look at celebrities. Since staring at people on the street can get you weird looks, a lot of my writer friends prefer this route. After all, you’re supposed to stare at TV and Movie stars for long chunks of time. Some writers even prefer to “cast” their novel as they go along (Jane would be played by Jennifer Lawrence, Sam by Ryan Reynolds, etc. etc.) By picturing the “movie” version of your novel, it makes it really simple get more about your characters than just hair and eye color (and can serve as some good motivation to keep going when you hit a crisis of confidence–who wouldn’t want to see their story on the big screen?). While I do use this tactic from time to time (one of the characters in my WIP would totally be Darren Criss in my head…) I personally find I still can’t use this solution that often. While you have more of a chance to study celebrities than people in your every day life, you also have more of a chance to get used to their personality (or at least the personality you see on camera). While you might not have meant it to be, basing a character off how Natalie Portman looks in Black Swan might end up giving you a character slightly more psychotic than you originally intended–simply because you start writing that character, not your own.

3. Use Google Image Search to look up headshots. And so we get to my personal favorite solution when it comes to finding faces for characters–using Google Images to look up pictures of random people. While you might still have a little bit of the creep factor (staring at random people online…? Okay…?) it isn’t quite as bad as staring at people on the street.  And while you can spend a long time studying the picture, you don’t also know who the person is and have that coloring your perception (added bonus, you can also find much more “average” people in these kinds of headshots than you can in Hollywood. Not everyone wants the “nerd” in their story to look like  Rachel Weisz in glasses). To use this method, you can just go to, type in what you’re looking for (headshot girl red hair, headshot old man) and you will come up with pages of faces to look at without looking like a creep to anyone but the people at Google recording your searches (but if you’re a writer, they probably already think you’re a druggy serial killer based on those searches anyway, so who really cares?)


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What’s in a Name?

Today’s blog post comes from us courtesy of Roxanne St. Claire (@roxannestclaire), a fellow Twitterling (I’m not sure if that’s something we call people on Twitter, but I like the term, and thus it is what I call people on Twitter all the same.

In under 140 characters Roxanne wrote:

Sometimes just changing a character’s name changes everything. Just did that and heroine feels so much more “right” now.”

Right away, at least for me, that made complete sense. There are some writers out there who can write an entire story with their characters being X and Y before filling in the names. I, personally, can’t. A name means a lot to my characters. Often times, a story idea comes from the name, rather than fitting the name into a completed story. I don’t know, maybe that comes from my not much caring for outlines, but all the same.

Take, for example, Willow. One of the main characters in my novel Grey Areas. To me, she has always been Willow. I’m not quite sure where the name came from at the time (perhaps it’s just that I like plant names. Thinking about it, the Main Character in The Bleeding Crowd is Dahlia…) but from the moment I started writing, she was Willow. From that name, an entire back story came out that her parents had been hippies. Hence the plant names. (And the fact that her middle name became Belladonna). For The Bleeding Crowd, the names are even more set. Dahlia comes from a mother who loves plant names. The twins are Audrey and Zoe (A and Z for the two ends of the alphabet). All the men have biblical names (Benjamin, Jude, Abraham…)

But, ok, those all have plot reasons behind them. It would be a little odd to have all characters in X group have names that start with one letter and stray from that. In those cases, of course names matter. But what about just any old character? Does it really matter if a character is named Jill or Jane?

Of course, to quote Shakespeare, “That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet (II, ii)). Would it really have mattered to the story if Romeo had been named Sam? Or Bill?

Perhaps not. If you wrote the characters exactly the same, perhaps it wouldn’t matter if the play were “Bill and Juliet” but then, the name Bill just brings up a different connotation there, doesn’t it? The 1989 movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure just wouldn’t have sounds the same if it had been “William and Theodore’s Excellent Adventure” now would it?

To quote the great philosophers, the writers of The Simpsons:

Lisa – “A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.”
Bart – “Not if they were called ‘Stink Blossoms’.”

Perhaps a rose would still smell like a rose even if it were called something else. But what would someone’s first reaction be if you were trying to give them a Stink Blossom for Valentine’s Day? I doubt many people would want to even try smelling something that says it stinks in the name. And for those who did, you can’t discount the idea of the mind playing tricks. Something along the lines of the placebo effect. You tell someone something’s going to smell bad, less likely they’re going to accept that it smells good.

Personally, I think the same thing happens to a lot of writers. There’s a picture in our heads associated with names. Take Agnes for example. What’s the first thing you picture? Unless you know someone else named Agnes, it’s probably an older woman. Now Laquisha, or Vinnie. There are some names that are just associated with stereotypes – either because they are most common in one group than another, it’s a name used a lot in media referring to one type of person, or because they have been used as a negative “catch-all” for a group of people (such as someone insultingly referring to a hispanic man as ‘Jose’). There’s such a strong mental connection to some names that it doesn’t only affect how a reader sees the character, but it starts morphing even us writers’ ideas about our characters.

And, so were’ back to Roxanne’s point, “Changing a character’s name changes everything.” It’s probably why it can take so long to find a perfect name for one character, and why you couldn’t change another’s name no matter how much a publisher or agent pushes you to. It’s just the character’s name. It’s how you see them. It’s who they grow to be.

And so, a rose might still smell like a rose, but it wouldn’t be what we expect it to be. And that changes everything.

(If you’re struggling to name someone or something in your story, naming sites around the web can help you find something that seems to “fit.” I made a handy list of a small fraction of these sites available here to help point anyone looking in the right direction.)


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