Writing Beyond Good: Crafting Memorable Characters

By Alison Balaskovits

In my original Writing Beyond Good post, one of the factors I listed as crucial to crafting prose strong enough to be selected for publication was, “Make sure your characters, whether real-life or fictional, are not background-blenders.” Today I’m going to offer ideas to help you render your characters as glowingly illuminated as if they were in a Warren Beatty/Annette Bening movie.

BenningOur goal as writers is to create that delicious experience we have as readers. Our goal is to have our characters stay with the reader for days after they finish reading, characters who readers think about as though they are real people, as though they know them . . . or wish they did.


• Tap Your Inner Psychologist:

To create believable and memorable characters, start with understanding people. Writers generally are fascinated by people. Take that interest a step further and ponder which specific characteristics—beliefs, education, values, background, physical attributes—seem to lead to specific actions and life choices. Think about how a person changes over time, how as a teen they differ from their adult self and from the person they were as a child. In crafting memoir, spend some time exploring the events of your life and seeing how they shaped you. Those things that make up our personalities reveal themselves in body language, speech and actions. Record your observations about these revealing physicalities along with life histories in a ‘people journal’ for use in shaping your characters.

One of the finest examples of an author laying out for the reader the life events that shape her protagonist and revealing mannerisms is Alice Walker’s Celie in The Color Purple. She is insecure, self-effacing and her ultimate transformation is deeply rooted in story events. When describing her travails, she adds, “but I’m alive,” and by that we know she has a resilience that will carry her through. And at the turning point in the novel, when Celie says, “I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here,” our hearts cheer her coming into herself. Walker’s enduring character Celie is revealed by the content of her character (note the two meanings of the word); she has been rendered as though a real person by her reactions to the events of her tragic life. We care about her journey though the fire, we care when she emerges stronger and finds contentment in the end.

PurpleCelie’s story is deeply rooted in premise & plot, setting & structure, yes, but all take a backseat to character.

• Reveal The Character Of Your Characters:

Show us your character’s character by what he does and says. The word character’s two meanings are: The people who inhabit stories and the other kind. The kind coaches talk about in sports—motivation, inner strength, stick-to-it-ness. Celie’s tribulations are so great she could easily give up on life, and, in fact, contemplates doing so. But Walker wisely builds a character with remarkable inner resources, the stuff all enduring characters are made of. Those traits should be present in your protagonist. And, as in life, those characteristics rise out of difficult situations. Character means nothing if not tested—a football player on team that always wins doesn’t have a chance to develop (or at least demonstrate) character. Make sure to give your protagonist problems which no one else can fix for them; they must rise to the challenge.

In crafting characters or describing yourself in memoir, don’t be too concerned with protagonist likeability. The truth is that readers need to empathize with your protagonist (and to some extent your antagonist), but don’t need to like them. To create empathy reveal your character’s wounds. There are psychological theories which assert that our adult behaviors are driven by childhood wounds. Explore those traumas in a character journal (see below), but know that only rarely is your prose improved by itemizing long-past trauma on the page. Instead, reveal obliquely. Instead use this gathered data to fuel and inform your work.

An unforgettable example of an arrogant character who grows in character by being faced with a live-or-die problem only he can solve is Aron Ralston’s memoir, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” dramatized in the film 127 Hours. The story isn’t about a hiker who cuts off his own hand to free himself from a boulder (the plot). It’s about a guy so engaged with life that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to insure his life continues—it’s about character.


The nature of a character’s character is always dependent, as in Ralston’s book, on the context of story events. The stakes (the consequences of story events) must be high enough to be worth caring about. A person who crosses the street mid-block may not lack character, but if that jaywalker gets hit by a car and the driver doesn’t stop, that driver lacks character. What the character does demonstrates character; what the author does is contextualize his actions.

• Intensity, Passion, Obsession:

In order to be compelling, like that trapped hiker your characters have to want something very very much. Make their desire intense. Celie’s transformation arises from her passion for Shug. Follow the character’s passion—make them nearly obsessive about something, be it surviving a series of abusive relationships, surviving a day hike where they are trapped by a boulder, or surviving a long hike for which they are ill prepared (overly prepared?), as Cheryl Strayed is in Wild. She could have left the trail, abandoned her quest, but rose to the challenge of completing a thousand mile solo trek. Note that this need for compelling, passionate, driven characters is equally true whether fiction or memoir. Finding your character’s obsessive passion is crucial, whether real:



Or fictional:

Reese• Create A Character Journal:

Tap into your character’s desire by creating a specific journal for each character to complement the ‘people journal’ mentioned above. Record the rituals, habits and values of each major character. Write down their biographies and backstories to use in writing your novel or memoir—again, not to itemize in the manuscript, but to inform your writing. I introduced what I call Method Writing in WBG: Creating Emotional Resonance, The Sequel. It’s like method acting where you ARE the character. One way to use Method Writing is in your character journal, writing as fast as you can in the voice of your character, with no thinking or editing. Disconnect your ego, be the character. The speed helps you to immerse yourself, helps quiet your internal editor.

Take care that you don’t love your character description so much it all ends up in your story, making the whole piece essentially a character study. Something needs to happen to the characters; you need a plot (which will be the subject of another post). And if all this seems like a lot of work for words that won’t end up the page, yep, crafting enduring characters is hard, time-consuming work.

• Use Dialogue To Reveal Character:

Introducing your protagonist in action is a good way to show who they are, but dialogue can be fantastic for revealing character as well—“I’ll have eggs over easy. Make that scrambled. Why should the eggs get off easy?”—tells you more about the character than any description of looks, demeanor or thoughts.

Make use of the fact that people don’t necessarily reveal their true selves in what they say aloud. In fact, having your character say the opposite of what’s true can be most revealing. Having your alcoholic character down a couple of shots in secret before a business lunch, then turn down the offered refreshment. “No thanks, I don’t drink,” is more revealing about that character’s goals and motivations than that same heavy drinker saying, “I’ll drink to that,” at every opportunity.

Avoid introducing your characters in dialogue where they are talking about themselves. Just as in life, when we meet a person who immediately launches into their life story, we start looking for the exits. Unless, of course, what the character says about himself is so poetic, so insightful, so moving, you’ve written this scene:

In the movie Amadeus, court composer Salieri was tormented by his ability to recognize genius, as he does upon hearing what Mozart creates, while being unable to create a work of genius himself. About him one could write, “Salieri was frustrated by his comparable lack of talent.” But how much deeper our sense of who Salieri is when he is instead given these lines of dialogue:

All I ever wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing.

 And then made me mute. Why? Tell me that.


• Use Character Traits To Create Narrative Tension:

Narrative tension is created in Salieri’s bit of dialogue by starting with what the character wants and setting about thwarting him. Examine your work to insure you’ve created narrative tension (and not just plot tension):

The character’s thwarted desire can be as transparent as Harry Potter wanting to fit in, then making him live at the Dursley’s where he can never fit in.

Or more subtle as in Water for Elephants where the protagonist greatest fear is growing old, so the author puts him in a rest home.

If your character wants to be alone, put her in a crowd, or, for a more subtle motivation, make your character lonely, so she feels alone even in that crowd. Showcase your character’s deepest desire by preventing him from having it.

• Selective Character Description:

To avoid predicable description, or what amounts to a list of character traits, try my favorite technique for getting at which traits truly matter.

“It is thus with most of us; we are what other people say we are. We know ourselves chiefly by hearsay.”

~ Eric Hoffer

Here’s my ‘Best Friend’ technique: Tell me about your best friend. Let’s say you’ve moved from a distant city and I am your new friend in your new town. What would you tell me about your friend in the city you left that would help me to understand when you talk about her? You want me, your new friend to like and understand your old friend—what would make me like her as you do? Would it be her physical characteristics? A laundry list of height, weight, hair and eye color? Likely not.

Perhaps you’d mention her exceptionally large ears, or hips so skinny you don’t know how she squeezed her kids out, or her amazing green eyes . . . but mostly I’ll bet you’d tell me what kind of person she is.

You might say: She has a funny way of talking that makes people think she’s dumb, but she’s really quite brilliant . . . I wish she had more confidence.

Or: She’s had a lot of problems, but is always cheerful and optimistic, despite things as bad as her mom leaving when she was a kid. She’s really an exceptional person—fiercely loyal to her friends, too.

Or: She’s pretty conservative—wears twin sets and pearls, even with jeans. You’d never know she’s the life of the party when she’s had a couple drinks.

Or: People think she’s shallow when they first meet her, but the truth is she volunteers to teach illiterate people to read. She bought me groceries—just showed up with them every week—when I lost my job.

Do this ‘Best Friend’ exercise for each of the characters you are creating. Tell me (your reader) about them as though they were your old best friend and you want me, your new best friend, to understand them. Villains too. It is important to write sympathetically about all characters. Imagining your antagonist as your best-friend-gone-wrong helps to create believable bad guys with understandable motivations.

Chekhov called revealing the good in the bad guy the pet-the-dog moment, so common is it to show a villain can’t be all bad if they are kind to animals. (A satirized version of this technique is Doctor Evil petting Mister Bigglesworth in the Austin Powers movies.) Unless you are writing formula fiction, avoid such stock characteristics. Write each character as though they are the main character. After all, outside of comic book plots, the antagonist is the protagonist of their own life.

Powers• The Name Game:

Finally, start with naming your character. Early in the writing process (before?), naming your character gives her substance. Decide on both her full given name, and on how she identifies herself, as this shows character.

Remember the adage: for universality, be specific: Eddie isn’t the same person as Edward. Fast Eddie is someone else again, Eddie the Fish yet an entirely different character. Distinguish between how a character identifies himself and monikers slapped on by others: One doesn’t imagine that Tricky Dick, Slick Willy, or The Guy From Texas Whose Village Is Missing An Idiot, selected those nicknames.

If you discover as you’re progressing that the name doesn’t suit, feel free to change it. Margaret Mitchell named her protagonist “Pansy.” That’s right, Scarlett started life as a Pansy. Thank goodness her wise editor prevailed when she felt Mitchell’s heroine needed a more heroic name.

If you draw them well, if your reader invests in your character, they will follow her through suffering and celebration, heartbreak and romance, alien battles and medieval swordfights—every obstacle you throw in her path. And your lovely characters will linger in their thoughts long after they’ve closed your book.

Thanks for reading ~ QLB

Q Lindsey BQ Lindsey Barrett  is a short story writer and novelist, writing teacher, conference speaker, and member of the National Book Critics Circle. She exalts writers and rejects manuscripts as Assistant Fiction Editor of Hunger Mountain and taps out atonement in her ‘Writing Beyond Good’ column at The Missouri Review Blog. One of that elusive species nocte scriptor, she can be sighted on many a starless Pacific Northwest night at her treadmill desk, walking, endlessly walking, fingers arranging and re-arranging words, ever seeking the combination that creates story magic

Writing Beyond Good: Mining for Diamonds

DiamondMiner game

There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island, and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life. ~ Walt Disney ~

By Alison Balaskovits

Last time in Writing Beyond Good: The ‘So-What’ Factor we covered creating meaningful prose using focused writing to connect each story moment to the theme, employing causation and characterization to invest your reader, and taking care to avoid ‘message prose’ while making sure the story is about deeper truths than the surface plot. For a story you fear lacks the ‘so-what factor’ I offered an exercise—look for current events to tie into the story, as creating context increases meaning for the reader.

Exercises have long seemed useful for teaching myself a particular technique or for generating story ideas. But aside from using them as a teaching tool with my students, I didn’t really use them anymore, since my problem isn’t generating ideas—it’s stopping the flow long enough to finish a story before taking off on the next. I had to laugh when I read in Thought Catalogue last week that this writerly affliction, this “stream of ideas is always running — the tap does not shut off,” is a thing we writers hold in common with crazy people (or proves writers are crazy people).

But a few years ago I had an epiphany about how to use writing exercises as a revision tool. I’m excited to share this with you lovely readers who want to take your writing ‘beyond good,’ because it opened my eyes to the possibility of transforming a nothing piece of writing into something diamond bright. It, Mining for Diamonds, has become one of the more popular workshops I teach at conferences.



Here is how the idea behind it came to me. In WBG: Creating Emotional Resonance, The Sequel, I mentioned creating an ‘emotion playlist’ to match the mood of a piece when revising. I was listening to the ultimate revision song, John Anderson singing Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘Old Chunk of Coal:’

I’m just an old chunk of coal

but I’m going to be a diamond some day.

I’m going to spit and polish my old rough-edged self

till I get rid of every single flaw.

 —the track I break out when I need reminding that no matter how coal-lumpish whatever I’ve written is, time and pressure transforms coal into diamonds which can then be polished to dazzling brilliance. Despite the mood music, my usual method of revision wasn’t working—that method being staring at the words on the screen, and/or reading and re-reading a printed-out copy until new or different words magically enter my brain—and I was ready to give up on the unlovely mess before I keeled over mumbling and twitching or threw a brick through my computer monitor (perhaps an overreaction to bad prose).

There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.

~ Charles Dickens ~

I thought of the assignment on the first day of the week-long fiction workshop I had just completed where the leader, Dorothy Allison, told us to write for five minutes using the trigger, “I do not forgive you,” without further instruction. You can imagine the personal demons popping into the writing on that one. Also imagine the participants’ surprise when we were told to go around the circle, reading aloud what we had written . . . Gulp. When we had all finished embarrassing ourselves, Dorothy was puzzled as to how what we had written fit with the three pages of in-progress story we had submitted in advance of the workshop. Um, not at all? My three pages were the start of a story about a shy preteen girl and the boy who ‘takes a shine to her anyways:’

When Buford says, “Hey,” I can’t hardly lift my head, like maybe there’s something mighty interesting down by my shoes or maybe my chin’s stuck to my chest. Same as always. Boys make me get a funny feeling inside. Momma says I talk a blue streak, but I just say, “Hey,” to the rubber toe on my Keds.

Nope. In no way related to anything I would ever think of with a prompt about unforgiveness. Dorothy explained that she meant for us to incorporate the writing prompt into the storyline and characters of the pages we had submitted. She wanted us to use writing prompts to further our work-in-progress, not just as story starters. Ah.

So a couple weeks later, there I was hoping Billy Joe Shaver’s words about blue-pure perfection would lead me to a fix for what the ‘finished’ piece I was working on lacked. I wondered if creating text using a randomly selected writing prompt might strengthen the story. Using a prompt not to start a story, not to further a story, but to make it better.

The thing is, writing is just too damn hard to waste the work product, so I gave it a go. The entirely unrelated prompt I grabbed took a many-times-rejected story in a whole new direction. My re-writing was energized and within a month the renamed story, “The Shape of Desire,” was a Wordstock Ten finalist, selected for inclusion in the prize anthology.

I’ve since discovered that nearly any exercise can be a tool for diamond mining. Here are a few that have worked wonders for my prose as well as for my students’ work:

The Opposite Exercise.  Rescue your prose from yawning predictability by choosing a moment you suspect lacks tension. Whatever your protagonist is doing, have them do the opposite. Have them do the thing that character is least likely to do:

– If your character tends to act out in anger, reverse one of those angry outbursts so the character is dead-calm quiet.

– If your character is handy, always fixing appliances or computers, have them instead break the neighbor’s appliance, have them secretly sabotage a friend’s computer.

– What if your kind, generous character turns cold and calculating in a particular scene? Where would it take your story if your serial killer randomly let an intended victim go free? Explore the ramifications of this unexpected behavior.

Unexpected behavior instantly ratchets the tension, but this exercise is a bit tricky to pull off in memoir. Search through your memories for a moment when your characters (the people included in your memoir) did something unexpected or unpredictable and riff on why to see how that might energize your prose.

Switch The Setting. Alter a scene’s location to see if that increases the tension: Think of a scene where a couple is arguing. Most people wage their battles in private; there aren’t all that many real people who like their disagreements to be a spectator sport. But a writer’s job is to jack the tension and apply pressure to her characters. What if you moved that argument from the kitchen at home to a quiet and elegant restaurant? How would that change the nature of the argument? I’m not suggesting you turn your characters into public screamers—in fact, quite the opposite. How would your characters behave if they had to keep their fury low-key, barely contained?

Changing the setting can increase the stakes as well—getting lost in your own city might make you late, but getting lost in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, or in the wilderness where you’re in danger of running out of food and have no shelter makes for dire consequences. Simply by changing the setting, a character who refused to ask for directions moves from petty annoyance to high-stakes danger.

Thesis Statement. Another exercise to use with prose that seemingly lacks meaning is to create a thesis statement. Pretend that your story or essay is a term paper. Construct a thesis statement for the piece, and see if the prose proves your thesis. This can help you see where your work is weak or your theme vague.

Incorporate Other Writer’s Words. Sometimes finding quotations to frame your story or dropping an unexpected literary allusion in mid-story gives the chapter, story or book a broader view of the world. Freelance writer David Paul Williams (my husband), wrote an article about fly fishing for chum salmon, which are also known as dog salmon. Chum are hard-fighting, strong fish. He started the article with a quote from Julius Caesar: “Cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war,” which set the tone for the unusual style of his sports writing, and set the article apart from the standard fishing magazine feature. Because of the nature of his readership, he selects easily recognizable quotes, but elsewhere, little known, but spot-on quotes can pique a reader’s interest. In an assigned piece about fishing for rainbow trout, David referred to Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Big Two-Hearted River” and compared German brown trout to Henry Kissinger. He got an email from the editor who said he never expected to see a piece that referred to either Hemingway or Kissinger, adding that he was prompted to go re-read Hemingway, and said that David was at the top of his list when making additional assignments. I’ll say again what I’ve said before: Surprise is every editor’s drug of choice.

Switch It Up. Telling a story out of order can also pique a reader’s interest, where the same story told linearly would not. Remember how surprising it was to see Jules and Vincent alive again in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction? In a less extreme example, I got nowhere with my story, Racking The Slide, until I told the story out of order, moving the most interesting paragraph to the start.

Years ago I made a suggestion in a critique group that a woman’s story would work better if X happened before Y.  Her response: “But that’s how it really happened!” Among the pleasures of writing fiction is that you can go anywhere in service of the story—doesn’t matter ‘what really happened’ [she had presented her story as fiction]. But ‘what really happened’ is no excuse for not maximizing the potential of a non-fiction piece, either. There is no rule dictating non-fiction be relayed linearly.

Smash It. Take a competently executed, grammatically sound, perfectly okay story and smash it. If you know the rules and are able to execute the rules, try selectively violating the rules of good writing. Make the story one long sentence; rewrite the whole thing using only dialogue much like a stage play but omit all ‘stage direction’ and action [then submit it here]; rewrite using only sentence fragments; play with punctuation . . .

The photo below is of Michelangelo’s Pietà. Michelangelo certainly knew the rules of proportion, but chose to violate them in the service of the story he is telling with this sculpture. Mary is something like nine times larger than Christ, her full-grown son, but had he been sculpted proportionally, he would look gangly and awkward, limbs extruding far beyond where he is cradled in his mother’s lap. Violating the rules allowed Michelangelo to tell a specific story, to convey a mother’s love and loss—though the dead son was thirty-three, he was still very much her child.



Employ Prompts. Back to where we started—Collect writing prompts to use like jumper cables, zapping life into good, but not yet beyond good stories.

Stockpile. And when you improve a piece by cutting gorgeous-but-unnecessary sentences, or interesting-yet-unneeded characters, or slow-but-scenic scenes, create a document or file where you save these glittering orphans. Troll the orphanage from time to time, particularly when needing to jazz up prosaic prose by adding the unexpected.

We all know writers who have relegated a novel manuscript to the bottom drawer—or these days—to their back-up drive. Perhaps you’ve even deleted a story or essay as unworthy, unsalvageable. Don’t do it. Don’t give up on it. Sure, give it time, set it aside, but then come back to it when you’re ready to apply pressure or pickaxe to extract the diamonds. Sometimes there is a character or concept which would thrive with a new plot; sometimes there are golden sentences surrounded by sewage, but dig deep enough and you’ll unearth the gems in your slag heap of discarded drafts.


Taking old, discarded stories and resuscitating them can be like remodeling, making a dreary home fresh and new. Or it can be more like salvaging the durable parts of a house about to be leveled. Bricks and timbers and fixtures are given new life in other homes by talented masons and carpenters and electricians.

When a book raises your spirit, and inspires you with noble and manly thoughts, seek for no other test of its excellence.  It is good, and made by a good workman.

~ Jean de la Bruyère (1645-1696) ~

So strap on your tool belt, slip on your Davy lamp, and see what treasures you salvage from the wrecking ball.


There are so many more fantastic exercises I’d like to pass along to help you reimagine stalled work ~ But I’ll close with these encouraging thoughts from Bill Kenower:

Within the slog of everyday life lived with someone you love, you can uncover the divine, the lovely, and the meaning in absolutely everything.

            So too is it with a story you love. Every story will become as tangled as a late night argument; every story will appear as hopeless and small as a flat tire. But if you love that story you will discover you have the patience to find your way through a tired middle, will have the discipline to discard an unnecessary character. Love is simply not a mistress you can quit. What you call quitting is only a search that will lead you back exactly where you started, where she will be waiting for you to start another story.

Thanks for reading ~ QLB

Q Lindsey BQ Lindsey Barrett  is a short story writer and novelist, writing teacher, conference speaker, and member of the National Book Critics Circle. She exalts writers and rejects manuscripts as Assistant Fiction Editor of Hunger Mountain and taps out atonement in her ‘Writing Beyond Good’ column at The Missouri Review Blog. One of that elusive species nocte scriptor, she can be sighted on many a starless Pacific Northwest night at her treadmill desk, walking, endlessly walking, fingers arranging and re-arranging words, ever seeking the combination that creates story magic


So What by Roy Lichtenstein

By Alison Balaskovits

In our ongoing series about increasing your odds of being published by Writing Beyond Good, Part I and The Sequel covered Creating Emotional Resonance by creating relatable characters, layering in concrete, physical detail, the power of specificity, and tapping into the emotion of a piece while you are writing it — without worrying about what your story means, for either the characters or for the reader while in the flow of writing. Instead allow meaning to emerge.

In fact, deliberately imbuing your work with meaning can have the unfortunate trying-too-hard effect of melodrama—AKA the after-school-special / Hallmark-channel-movie effect. Which is what Sam Goldwyn (the ‘G’ in MGM) meant when he said that movies are meant to be entertaining — if you want to send a message, call Western Union. Make no mistake, however, ‘meaning’ ultimately is crucial to the success of a story.*

*As always, for our purposes ‘story’ includes fiction and all narrative forms of non-fiction.

“The vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence, and even plain plausibility—let alone likeability—than with a larger philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character’s actions are deeply important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters.”

~ James Wood ~

As mentioned in my initial Writing Beyond Good post, most of the stories and essays submitted to journals are competently executed, interspersed with well-turned phrases, and often fine story telling . . . but sometimes missing from those perfectly good submissions is what Hunger Mountain fiction editor Barry Wightman calls ‘at-stake-ness.’ The so-what factor. Meaning.

If the protagonist’s goals are not met, what will happen? Are there potential consequences? What is at stake? The ‘what’ that is at stake is what gives your story meaning.

Because we don’t want to ‘send a message’ or layer meaning thickly over our words, we tiptoe in, taking for granted that readers will somehow intuit the answers to ‘so what’ or ‘who cares?’ That can make our work seem less important or interesting or relevant than if we are more explicit in letting our readers know why what we’ve written matters.

Here is where fiction differs from essay: In an essay, sometimes the best course is to simple state the ‘so-what’ factor. Explain the significance of your basic assertion, the implications beyond the points made in the essay. Let me give you an example.

Sharisse Tracey writes in her essay, “Please Don’t Kill My Son:”

“My adorable 5-year-old boy has been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), autism, and ADHD, all of which make it more difficult for him to submit to any authority, real or imagined.”

On the face of it, the implications might seem obvious. Her statement is clear and easy to follow. But that sentence alone lacks any indication that anyone needs to hear it, unless they have a child with the same disorder. When reading essays we sometimes feel like outsiders to what we just heard, wondering ‘what has this to do with me?’ Tracey adds:

“At first, I criticized myself for having a child at 36 when I’d just had a healthy daughter at 35. I believed I gave my son autism and I thought God was punishing me for being greedy.”

Ah, now we’re getting into the emotional heart of the story: fears and guilt held in common by nearly all parents. But there is more at stake here than a mother’s feelings about her son’s condition. Particularly in memoir or personal essay, theme is important. Take a personal story–where the heart lies–turn it outward, engage with the global. Tracey’s son’s condition has implications for society at large; we all have a stake in her story, and Tracey wisely clues the reader in to the possible societal consequences right up front:


“But now, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s death and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, have awakened a new fear in me that is strongest for my youngest, most vulnerable child. Trayvon was killed because he did not submit to the imagined authority of George Zimmerman.”

The so-what factor in action; a personal story with something larger at stake. Tracey isn’t rehashing old arguments, she’s giving us a new way to think about a story that’s becoming all too familiar—the violent death of innocents at the hands of those with guns. Whether fiction or essay, your story should offer the reader something new to think about or a new way to think about something familiar. Remember that every editor’s drug of choice is surprise.

Perhaps Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie Full Metal Jacket, considered a classic in the Vietnam-movie genre, seemed to offer little reason to keep watching for this film buff because so many movies have since given us cinéma vérité bootcamp experiences, that it no long holds the ability to shock—there is no element of surprise. But there’s more to the movie’s lack of at-stake-ness than that. Watching the endless scenes of a drill sergeant tormenting recruits that make up the first half of the move, I kept wondering, ‘What’s the point?’


Though the bootcamp scenes are but a tiny slice of Gustav Hasford’s novel, Kubrick dwells for an hour on the tedious process of dehumanizing the marine recruits, while giving the viewer not a single inroad to the characters’ lives or histories, not a crumb of detail allowing us to identify with the characters. We don’t feel sad or horrified when they later die, because we are never allowed to experience them as human beings. And perhaps that is the point, but the lesson for us mortals who lack the accolades for having created 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, is that style does not trump substance and an oblique message won’t result in a movie being made—or book published—if we don’t give our readers a stake in the outcome for our characters.

Fully drawn, compelling characters are a good start, but more than that, your story must have a premise or it’s not a story. It might be something else but it’s not a ‘story.’ ‘Premise’ is closely related to ‘theme’ which I’ll address in a bit. And if your audience doesn’t buy your premise—soldiers aren’t actually people?—they’ll have a hard time wanting to read through to the end of your story. To be sure, whether a story is worth the reader’s time is a subjective matter, if Full Metal Jacket’s 94% Rotten Tomato rating is any indication. But keep in mind that once you have a record of publishing successes, your work will be viewed though a this-must-be-genius-if-a-genius-created-it lens, and until then you need to make a reader care enough to keep turning the pages.

“Always keep the reader in mind.”

~ Jonathan Evison ~

Often we focus on mastering writing elements such as characterization, style, structure. All the flashy technique, fabulous phrasing, amazing metaphors will not compensate for the lack of having something worth saying to the reader. Though with experimental fiction sometimes authorial at-stake-ness can make a story work. Which means, the author is so clearly interested and invested in the piece that the reader cares what happens. Remember Samuel R. Delany’s words from my first WBG post, “Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind.” The-thing-that-happens better be something the reader cares about.

Let’s say you are writing about female friendship, couple of twenty-somethings who also like having men in their lives. We all know a phalanx of women who fit that description. What makes the women you are writing about different from one another and from other women? What makes them interesting? Why should a reader care? In other words, so what?

Often the characterization—funny, high-strung, badass, etc—invests your reader in your story. This hard-to-do characterization is the opposite of Kubrick’s reducing his characters to ‘types’ signified by their sergeant-assigned moniker—The Joker, Gomer Pyle, Cowboy. Take the time to make your characters fully drawn.

Sometimes the ‘so-what’ factor is a matter of timing, as with Tracey’s essay in the aftermath of the Zimmerman shooting. My short story about twenty-something female friendship, “Aphrodite Carries Condoms” found a home in the context of the recent spate of public slut-shaming. Take any story of yours that might lack the so-what factor and see if you can place it in the context of current events to increase its meaning for the reader.

A sort of so-what litmus test that I give to my own work as well as each submission in my Hunger Mountain queue is to ask the question, “Is it worth reading twice?”

Humorous writing is among the most challenging in terms of the so-what factor. Once we know the punch line, rare indeed is a humorous piece worth a second read. Another challenge in the so-what test is episodic story lines, which often come off as disjointed, repetitive, predictable . . . one damn thing after another, so who cares? The cure is causation: Make sure this happens because that happened, not just another incident in succession. Episodic also requires expert characterization. Think of any successful television series and it’s clear that clearly drawn and quite specific characters are key. The chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin; the show-biz wanna-be housewife married to the Cuban band leader; the eccentric English detective and his physician/biographer sidekick. The so-what happens because we care what happens to these characters.

Sometimes meaning arises from a text of its own accord. Or rather, from the writer’s unconscious mind. Let it. Then when you become aware of your subconscious’ favorite themes, try writing with meaning in mind. One of my MFA advisors observed that all my work is shot through with the politics of gender. I hadn’t even realized that was an element spanning the breadth of my work, which is written in many different styles and voices. Once she pointed out the common theme, (and how right she was), I began thinking of other ways to explore that theme in my work, leading to blossoming of stories.

“The combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they’re allowed to go to bed together, allows the writer to surprise himself, makes art possible, reveal how much of Being we haven’t yet encountered.”

~ Donald Barthelme ~

As mentioned above, theme is of even greater import in narrative non-fiction than in fiction. Theme is a story’s main external conflict and overriding internal conflict and the resolution of those conflicts. Worthwhile themes make us aware of what is good and true in the world—courage in the face of obstacles, the power of mercy and justice, sacrifices made for others. On the surface, a personal essay is a story about something that happened; memoir is a bunch of those stories strung together. Written-beyond-good narrative non-fiction connects those stories to a deeper truth. Memoir is about something larger than the individual, and the way to tap into larger truths is to focusing on the personal, seemingly insignificant details that make you the individual you are, be vulnerable in the telling and don’t try to tell it all. Just because it happened doesn’t make it interesting or significant. Be deliberate and focus on (or cut down to) only what drives the story forward, what connects each moment to the theme.

As much as we hear in writing programs that writing should be very woo-woo let-it-happen, I’ll wager that there is a word for writers who deliberately write to theme, who keep what’s in it for the reader in mind as they write; who create fiction with meaning. That word is ‘published.’

Thanks for reading ~

Q Lindsey BQ Lindsey Barrett  is a short story writer and novelist, writing teacher, conference speaker, and member of the National Book Critics Circle. She exalts writers and rejects manuscripts as Assistant Fiction Editor of Hunger Mountainand taps out atonement in her ‘Writing Beyond Good’ column at The Missouri Review Blog. One of that elusive species nocte scriptor, she can be sighted on many a starless Pacific Northwest night at her treadmill desk, walking, endlessly walking, fingers arranging and re-arranging words, ever seeking the combination that creates story magic

Writing Beyond Good: Creating Emotional Resonance



Today’s blog comes from Q Lindsey Barrett.

“A story must engage the heart as well as the head; a story cannot just play clever games with language or structure or generic expectations but must have a beating, emotional heart at its core.”

~ Stephanie Friedman

Last summer I ended my guest post, Writing Beyond Good, with a list of additional elements writers struggling to emerge from the slush should tackle to elevate their prose beyond good.  With the difficulty getting your work seen in the world, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the spate of requests I received for more such advice on craft. Here then is the first of a series of WBG posts.


Lisa Cron in Wired For Story says that story is an “internal brain-to-brain, emotion-driven expedition.” Emotion-driven—it’s not about the plot—it’s about how the plot affects the protagonist. When a story, even when crafted with beautiful sentences, fails to have the all-important quality of ‘emotional resonance,’ often the writer has rendered only the surface, the external shell, the things that happen— the plot —without dipping beneath that surface of story events.

Master writing teacher and editor Jessica Morrell says, “Resonance takes place when the stimuli put into our stories evoke meaning or a responsive chord in a reader.” Paragraphs full of beautifully crafted sentences do not make a fine story if the reader feels nothing after having read them. We read textbooks to comprehend; we read literature to feel.

But let’s back up here. Feelings = emotions. But what’s the difference between ‘emotion’ and ‘emotional resonance?’

Merriam-Webster defines ‘resonance’ this way:

res·o·nance :  noun \’re-z?-n?n(t)s, ‘rez-n?n(t)s\

: the quality of a sound that stays loud, clear, and deep for a long time

: a quality that makes something personally meaningful or important to someone

: a sound or vibration produced in one object that is caused by the sound or vibration produced in another

The Oxford Dictionary:

: the ability to evoke or suggest images, memories, and emotions

So ‘emotion’ is what your characters are feeling; ‘emotional resonance’ is about evoking in the reader the emotions your characters* are experiencing in the work. To incorporate M-W’s musical definitions, resonance is a quality in the words on the page that stays with the reader; an emotion produced in the reader by what the characters feel. And, as Morrell says, the writer must place what she calls ‘stimuli’ into a story to trigger a response in the reader.

*By the way, ‘story’ means any kind of narrative prose; ‘character’ isn’t limited to fiction—the people who populate memoir are story characters too.

“It’s not what happens to people on the page; it’s about what happens to a reader in his heart and mind.”

~ Gordon Lish

Now, what stimuli will produce emotion in your reader? One way being developed at MIT to invite readers into your story world and help them feel what your characters feel is a project called Sensory Fiction. Characters’ emotions are relayed through networked sensors and actuators worn by the reader.


Potentially tragic for the many who like to read in the tub?

Short of literally wiring your reader for story, creating characters worthy of and able to carry the reader through the emotional ups and downs should be foremost in the writer’s mind.

Give Us A Character To Identify With Or Care About

Because TV and movies are more widely experienced than a specific book or story, they can serve as examples using a language we have in common. For instance, the TV talent shows I love offer a lesson for writers creating characters. They teach that the power to make the viewer care about the contestants enough to vote for them is not in their singing, it’s in their story. The most talented often don’t garner the most votes, it’s the ones who are talented enough, but who also have a moving story who do. We love the contestants for whom it didn’t come easy more than the ones who seem to have had all the advantages. Emotionally resonant characters must strive, must work, must overcome obstacles in order to achieve their goals. That doesn’t necessarily mean the old axiom about your protagonist needing to be sympathetic; think instead of creating a relatable protagonist.

Here’s another example. In addition to mainlining TV talent shows, caught up as the contestants (characters) strive to achieve their goals, I’m an Olympics junkie. Watching ice skater Jeremy Abbott crash on his first jump in the short program, and crash hard, I gasped, waiting, transfixed, counting the moments he lay there, willing him to be all right. He didn’t get up for what seemed a long time.


When he did pull himself to standing, he was hunched and moving slow, clutching his hip, the point of impact with the ice, his face a mask of pain. I assumed his skate was over. The crowd cheered when he made it to his feet. Hearing the crowd roar, his face changed from grimace to determination. He would find a place to join the still-playing music, he would finish his routine, even knowing he had no chance to medal. He had trouble regaining the rhythm, trouble syncing moves with music. The crowd clapped the beat to help him find his way.

His face at the end bore the emotion swelling from the audience to him; his arms embraced the entire arena in thanks. In a post-skate interview he said he didn’t intend to keep skating, but the audience buoyed him. He owed it to them to continue.

We admire singers and skaters who’ve perfected technique—and writers who create beautifully crafted sentences. But we are moved by Abbott’s struggle, by his triumph over adversity. We care not so much about the plot, not so much about where he landed in the standings; we are moved by his inner struggle—the nature of his character made manifest as we watched.

Even if you hadn’t seen Abbott’s short program, I’m guessing the details I used to describe what happened allowed you to imagine what watching it was like.

Layer In The (Carefully Selected) Concrete Details

The secret to helping your readers feel what your characters feel is in carefully selecting the details. Mastering the power of detail is important enough that I will cover it in, well—detail—in a future post. But here are some thoughts on using detail to power your prose.

Another skater in the Sochi Olympics, Julia Lipnitskaia, reminded me of that power, of the way the right detail can rivet our attention, can carry the emotion of a story.


Her music, the theme from Schindler’s List, her routine, choreographed by Ilia Averbukh, a former Olympic ice dancing medalist who is a Russian Jew, and her red-coat costume were intended to engage our emotions by reminding us of how we felt watching the little girl in the red coat in the movie Schindler’s List.

Schindler's list

Spielberg drew Schindler’s and our attention to the horrific reality of what the Nazi’s were doing to the Jews by highlighting a particular detail. In a starkly black and white landscape, a tiny girl in a red coat creates an emotional turning point for the character and for the viewer. When Schindler later spots the red cloth in a pile of dead bodies, he is moved to take action. Rather than just the facts of what happened in the Warsaw ghetto—the plot—Spielberg employs a specific detail as a touchstone for our emotions. We have a visceral reaction when we notice the coat in the pile.

Because we know we must make our prose stand out in a sea of submissions, it easy to get caught up in being clever on the page, in making something unusual happen rather than focus on small and specific detail. Jeff Kirschner, as quoted on the screenwriting blog, The Black List, said, “As writers, we have a tendency to be overly cerebral. Personally, I’m always worried about adhering to this story principle, or that hitting that plot point, that I often overlook my heart – a true source for emotion.”

A story’s power is not in facts of what happens in the story. In a Salon piece last week, the author, Sonya Lea, first lays out ‘the facts’:

“In the 23rd year of our marriage, my husband went into surgery for a rare cancer, and came out a virgin. At first, I wouldn’t know that in the 10-hour ordeal we termed a “slash-and-burn” — a near-disembowelment and bath of hot poison medically referred to as hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) — he’d forgotten his life. But in the weeks that followed, we would learn that internal bleeding caused a lack of oxygen to his brain, and the resulting traumatic brain injury destroyed his desire to communicate, and completely altered his personality. Gone was any ability to speak, emote, remember.”

While we understand how terrible the experience must have been, see how in a later paragraph employing concrete, physical detail carries us into the emotion of her story:

“In this strange place where we have come to recover, the November wind moves across the chaparral and sagebrush and goldenrod of the San Joaquin hills and down to the Laguna canyon, where it winds through the screen window carrying sand, and the sense of erosion. The wind lifts tufts of my husband’s hair where it’s graying: across his chest, the sideburns of his side-parted, freshly washed mane. His eyes open. They are indigo, wide and unblinking. His eyes disguise no thought; they alight as if to legitimize my belief in innocence.”

“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

~ E.L. Doctorow

Sonya Lea spends a paragraph in a single moment and that allows the reader to feel that same moment. There is a technique taught by Barbara Turner-Vesselago in her Freefall Writing Workshop, (which I will describe more fully in the future post on detail), where I learned not just the why but the how of lingering in a particular moment in a story to dive deep into the emotional impact. (By the way, though many of her workshops have waiting lists, I think she still has room in her Freefall workshop in Edenvale, BC, Canada at the end of May, for anyone interested.)

Sometime after I took her workshop last summer, I was gifted the anniversary edition DVD of Doctor Zhivago, and was struck while watching the ‘extras’ by how similar the technique director David Lean used to evoke emotion was to Barbara Turner-Vesselago’s stay-in-the-moment method. Here is a still from the movie:


That is Uri Zhivago ascending the stairs in a former mansion-turned-army-hospital after the army has moved on along with his nurse/assistant Laura, leaving him alone. The sunflowers, which are at the peak of perfection in a previous scene, serve as a metaphor for the light Laura has brought into Zhivago’s conscripted life. The dying flowers signify his loss when she leaves. Lean takes his time, lingering in this scene, though not much is happening, showing how desolate and alone Zhivago is without Laura. As Uri goes up the stairs, head down, dejected, Lean makes the flowers weep for Uri by tying monofilament to individual petals, which are then pulled by people under the table out of camera range, falling one by one like tears.

Because I am moved by simplicity of symbols and spareness of prose, it’s far too easy for me to fall into the habit of moving forward too quickly—typical first draft stuff—Freefall showed me where to linger, inviting readers into my world and allowing them time to feel.

A sporting event, a tidbit about how a director achieved an effect in a movie . . . what have these to do with creating emotional resonance when writing? As I described in TMR’s Working Writer Series, pay attention to things in the world that speak to you, moments that resonate with you, take notes, gather those ‘wool bits’ to later fuel your writing.

So to create emotional resonance:

• give us characters we identify with or care about

• layer in the (carefully selected) concrete details

In ‘Emotional Resonance: The Sequel’ (AKA Part II of this topic), I’ll talk about tapping into emotion while you are writing.

Thanks for reading ~

 Q Lindsey BQ Lindsey Barrett  is a short story writer and novelist, writing teacher, conference speaker, and member of the National Book Critics Circle. She exalts writers and rejects manuscripts as Assistant Fiction Editor of Hunger Mountainand taps out atonement in her ‘Writing Beyond Good’ column at The Missouri Review Blog. One of that elusive species nocte scriptor, she can be sighted on many a starless Pacific Northwest night at her treadmill desk, walking, endlessly walking, fingers arranging and re-arranging words, ever seeking the combination that creates story magic