Inside your characters

I’m one of those writers who lets my character do the acting. Quite often, I’m not sure what particular character will do and am often surprised by their actions. When I’m describing the who, what, where, when, and why, the scene is quickly boring. I must get inside the body and mind of the character and let him or her see, feel, and respond to the situation. If I can lose my ego and become the character, the scene flows well and is authentic. This isn’t always easy to do.

Of course the character is my invention, so she will have my thoughts as the genesis of her will, but as a story progresses, she personifies her role and becomes an actor on the stage, with unique patterns of behavior and judgement. As an example, Take Ai-mei, the villain’s accomplice in The Ruby Spider Conspiracy. She believes fervently that all the world’s troubles result from overpopulation and the only solution is to kill off ninety percent of the people on earth. Crazy, you say. Not to her.

Ai-mei has only a few POV appearances in the book, but when she is on-stage,  I must enter the mind of this woman and identify with her concerns and prejudices. I see the people she has seen suffering and struggling, living in overcrowded slums, unable to get enough food, medical attention, or education. I’m angry at a world that allows this and keeps bringing more children into this veil of tears.

Damir, on the other hand is not concerned with any of this. he smuggled weapons to both sides of many conflicts and was eventually caught. He retained his freedom by going to work for international security firms that smuggle weapons to nations favored by the United Nations. He lives dangerously, but has been infatuated with Raisa from the time he first met her. His main goal in the story is to marry Raisa.

Raisa, the antagonist, is driven by guilt. She created the tool that allows manufacturing the nanobot plagues that kill billions. When used as weapons, these nanobot cultures  are capable of


At the core of any story is the premise, what the story is about. Often this is a moral statement. For the Ruby Spider Conspiracy, it consists of seven elements that I combine into four clauses, creating a simple statement that is the flesh of the entire story. I then reduce it to one sentence that summarizes the story, similar to a tagline.

  1. It identifies how your story starts: Raisa develops a deadly plague under contract to what she believes is a legitimate institution. Her carelessness allows an evil cabal (the Ruby Spider) to steal it for the purpose of reducing human overpopulation.
  2. What does the main character do about it? Having seen the results of the plague in Mombasa, Raisa sets out to develop a mechanism to fight the plague.
  3. What climactic event forces the main character to increase her efforts? The next two attacks take place worldwide and kill almost four billion people, seriously threatening the underpinnings of civilization.
  4. How does the main main character respond to complete her objective? Raisa finds herself at the center of the world crisis and directs an international council to end the Ruby Spider’s threat.

Combining these clauses into a statement, I have:

Raisa develops a deadly plague under contract to what she believes is a legitimate institution. Her carelessness allows an evil cabal (the Ruby Spider) to steal it for the purpose of reducing human overpopulation. Having seen the results of the plague in Mombasa, Raisa sets out to develop a mechanism to fight the plague.The next two attacks take place worldwide and kill almost four billion people, seriously threatening the underpinnings of civilization. Raisa finds herself at the center of the world crisis and directs an international council to end the Ruby Spider’s threat

Summarized as:

When a biochemist allows the release of a deadly plague, she must destroy an evil cabal to prevent them from using it to destroy civilization.

Sentence Structure

Sooner or later in your writing, someone will criticize your sentence structure. Most often, they’re not remarking about a single sentence but concerning the use of various structures to add variety to your prose. Most of us learned a long time ago that a sentence contains a subject, verb, and object:

“Bob threw a ball.”
“Suzie jumped rope.”
“Rover chased a cat.”

Those sentences are descriptive and full of action, but an entire book written in simple declarative sentences couldn’t go anywhere and would become tiresome immediately. We could tie the sentences together and give a composite picture:

“Bob threw a ball while Suzie jumped rope and Rover chased a cat.”

This is a compound sentence and adds some variety over a number of simple declarative sentences. It’s still subject, verb, object and that will get old quickly. Also, it is a way to vary sentence length, but be sure to avoid comma-splicing, which is just adding commas to put together two or more stand-alone sentences.

We can add variety by inserting prepositional phrases or dependent clauses:

“While throwing a ball, Bob watched Suzie jumping rope and saw Rover chasing a cat.”
“Bob, who was throwing a ball, watched Suzie jumping rope and saw Rover chase a cat.”

We have added a point of view (Bob’s).

It’s easy to fall into the pronoun (or name), verb, object trap where your sentences repeat the same structure and have the same length. Review your entire manuscript to ensure that you vary both.


I love to watch opera, and watched La Traviata yesterday. Before any actors take the stage, the music sets the mood and we get a view of the setting before the performers move or sing. In the opening, everyone on stage is positioned at the party like manikins in a storefront. When the action begins, I know exactly where I am and what is going on.

In today’s action-oriented novels, it is easy for a reader to stop and ask: “Where am I and how did I get here?” When I drafted Chapter 44 of The Ruby Spider Conspiracy, I moved quickly from venue to venue without adequate transition.  As one reviewer said, “It looks more like a synopsis than a novel.” I had rushed through the sequence of events, eager to  wrap it up and transition to the  crucial moments in Chapter 45. Of course, if I lost the reader in Chapter 44, they would never read 45.

Chapter 44 is from Kassar’s point-of-view, the antagonist. After writing in Raisa’s POV for three chapters, I had to change the mood to get into Kassar’s soul. Just as the music and scenery change in an opera when the villain comes on stage, I had to change my own mood and perception when Kassar appears. He is in Mong-la talking to Jonathan Pembroke when the scene opens.

His mood changes from relaxed to anxious when Pembroke threatens his position. This results in a flurry of activity to put their scheme into action, moving from Mong-la to Pingyang to several locations in Lagos. When moving from place it is essential to maintain Kassar’s POV while transporting the reader from the domestic setting in Mong-la to the militaristic order of Ai-mei’s lab in Pyongyang to the chaos of Lagos.

The changes in setting are compounded  by his dislike of Pembroke, squabbles with Ai-mei, and the gang-like atmosphere in Lagos. I am currently rewriting Chapter 44.

What’s it about?

Before I start a new section or chapter, my first question is what needs to happen next and from whose point of view? Even though I have a rough outline, there can be a hole that needs filling to keep the story moving or smooth out the action. In the Ruby Spider Conspiracy, each side knows it must either win the battle or cease to exist. There is no middle ground, so it becomes a punch and counter-punch battle between the ICC (Raisa and Cholpon) and the Ruby Spider (Kassar and Ai-mei).

In Chapter 44, the Ruby Spider prepares to test its most virulent weapon against the city of Lagos, Nigeria. The battle lines are being drawn as the ICC identifies the conspirators and collaborators. Kassar knows that a successful demonstration in Lagos will increase recruitment for the Ruby Spider and make it less necessary for them to operate in a clandestine manner. They will have proven their power so that they can increase their numbers to eight hundred million and have a weapon powerful enough to eliminate the remaining three billion people who are against them.

In Chapter 45, Cholpon informs Raisa about the Ruby Spider’s activities in Lagos. Raisa rushes to produce a universal inoculation that will counter Ai-mei’s plague. She knows she doesn’t have time to create a perfect antidote, but takes it one step at a time, waiting for Cholpon’s direction to proceed. All of this activity lays the groundwork for the next three chapters leading to the third plot point, in which Raisa and the ICC suffer a major set back.

Each section and each chapter leading to the third plot point in Chapter 48 must answer the question: “How does this expose the weakness in Raisa’s character that leads to a major change following the third plot point?” All through the novel, to that point, Raisa has fed the misconception that she cannot be a successful scientist without sublimating her emotions and shutting out other demands.

After her failure in the third plot point, she will set aside her misconceptions and step into the role of emotional leader. As a leader, she will recognize that the battle is not only for people’s lives, but also for their minds and dedication to making a better world. The final quarter of the story will concentrate on that growth in Raisa’s character.

Love Interest in Non-Romance Novels

Whether or not to include a love interest for the protagonist in a non-romance novel is a matter of choice for the author. Most people have at least one love interest in their lives, so my choice usually is to include some sort of love interest even if it’s just an intimate friendship.

The advantage of having a love interest is that it shows a different aspect of the protagonist’s character. One doesn’t have to dwell on personal habits and everyday hygiene, but how your protagonist treats her lover tells much about  her attitude toward others. The challenge is in meshing the romantic scenes in your novel with the overall plot and protagonist’s arc. How often have we skipped through pages with the obligatory sex scene that makes no sense in the story at all.

Of course, the love interest is a major character and has to show up at least ten percent of the time. This isn’t always convenient for the protagonist, but isn’t that the way it is in real life? We’re cruising through the day and our honey calls up and asks if we’d like to go to dinner or a movie. We’re not likely to say no. Six hours later, whatever we were doing has slipped our minds.

The trick is to make the love interest an integral part of the plot, perhaps as a collaborator, or maybe as a victim. Then, when they show up, the reader knows that something is going to happen. It’s a way to insert a plot twist that doesn’t appear artificial or contrived.

In Angel of Mortality, at the third pinch point, when Raisa is faced with the new challenge of creating an antidote to the nanobot plague, she asks Damir to come visit–partly to share her misery, but also to bolster her confidence. Damir, whose goal is to marry Raisa, is disappointed that she has no interest in that, but still supports her emotionally.

Writing Habits and Personal Preferences

I believe most writers, most human beings, are creatures of habit. I need seclusion with no distractions to write. I get into each scene mentally and emotionally so any disturbance that breaks me out of that ruins the spell. My friend Kee Briggs wrote anywhere, using a pencil and paper. I admired that, but in many cases, his protagonist was a paper projection of himself.

With Phu going into the hospital this week, I realize that when he comes home, I will have to change my writing habits. It’s doubtful he will be able to take care of himself for a while, so I will have to adjust. I started writing again when my wife was fighting breast cancer, so I understand what has to be done.

To organize my activities, I separate tasks according to the time I will give them. Even with careful planning, any individual task can vary considerably. Some things, such as personal hygiene, meal preparation, and household chores are controllable, if not predictable. Many other items are not because they depend on others, or are complex. Doctor’s appointments, for example, are wholly up to the physician and may not happen in a timely fashion.

My daily goal is 1,200 words, which takes six hours on average. I like to write when I am fresh, which means I often take a nap before starting a section. It is not unusual to vary that, although I seldom write for more than ten hours straight. With Phu out of commission, I will have to rearrange my schedule to meet his needs and take on the chores he normally did before. I may have to settle for four hours and 800 words.

The Calm before the Storm

Chapter 39, the chapter before the next pinch point, is where both Raisa and Ai-mei prepare for battle. Ai-mei knows it won’t be the knockout blow that she desires, but the sooner she strikes, the more damage she can do. Raisa is aware she doesn’t have her ultimate defense deployed, but hopes to survive the weaker attack in shape to prepare her ultimate defense and allow the ICC to stop the Ruby Spider using conventional weapons.

The whole world is alert, preparing for curfews and watching for the first signs of a nanobot attack while the intelligence community seeks to pinpoint Ai-mei’s base of operations and attack points. Neither the ICC or the Ruby Spider bureaucracies will react as swiftly as Raisa and Ai-mei on their fields of maneuvering, so the coming combat will catch the national leaders unprepared.

Section length and chapter organization

When I lay out my outline, I do it by sections, assuming each section will be about 1,200 words and aiming for the word length I believe fits my subject. For the Ruby Spider Conspiracy, I chose 75,000 words, which I chose to break into 64 sections. Initially, this is arbitrary, based on a best guess at how the story will flow. I don’t worry about chapter layout at first because that will become more evident as the story unfolds.

Ultimately, I would like for each chapter to be about what someone would read if they took the book back to the bathroom. It’s easier to leave a book and come back to it if you can do it at the end of a chapter.

I like for each section to stay with one Point of View character in one location at one point in time. Like most rules, that isn’t hard and fast, but it’s easier for the reader if it works that way. Like most rules of thumb, I’m not against breaking them when necessary.

As I’m writing Section 38, coming toward another pinch point, there is action in four venues. Raisa is developing the intelligent nanobot entity EVE in Bishkek; Kassar is dealing with the Ruby Spider cabal from his home in Mongolia;  . Nicoleta Văduva is deploying the original nanobot defense system from Manas; and, Ai-mei is creating an improved version of the plague at her laboratory in North Korea.

At this point,  I have decided to do two things that are less uniform. First, I will break some sections into sub-sections of 500 words or less; and, second, I will allow one of the non-main characters (Ai-mei) to take a POV role temporarily. One of my intentions in doing this is to bring the Ruby Spider out of the shadows and have their representative, Johnathan Pembroke start to play a larger part as their scheme moves toward completion.

It’s still a first draft, so I may juggle all these parts differently in the next draft, but for now, I want to get all of the story down on paper in some form.

Keep on writing. David

Characters and Voice

I’m coming to a point in writing Angel of Mortality (about the sixty percent mark) where the action speeds up and the characters voice may be the only clue as to what they are feeling. As I write, I get to know the characters better. Damir, who is Raisa’s paramour and a professional arms dealer, fluent in seven languages, doesn’t express himself in the same way as Shyamal, who is an Indian biochemist. Sonya, Raisa’s companion and secretary, who has only a basic education in Kyrgyzstan, isn’t going to talk in the same way as Raisa, who has a doctorate in biochemistry and has lived in four different countries. Kassar, who is the basest sort of criminal and oversees activities throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa has his own voice.

As many of you know, the 67% point in a novel is the second pinch point, when the antagonist, Kassar delivers a body blow to the protagonist, Raisa, reminding her that this is not about winning battles to save lives, but is about winning and world domination. She must show compassion for the dying but determination to defeat Kassar. Her voice must be firm, but feminine and sympathetic. Kassar must be demanding and somewhat desperate. To make this believable, I’m going to review the novel as written up to now and make sure the characters have a consistent voice appropriate to their roles.