Beginners’ Mistakes

(Originally published June 27, 2007).

This week’s blog entry is an excerpt from a workshop I delivered. I should point out that my advice is a synthesis of numerous books, workshops, critique, and painful rejections.


  • Base your characters on character archetypes. Incorporate the desirable and less desirable traits to create a credible character with credible motives. Tami Cowden provides great descriptions of the basic archetypes on her website.

–          Male archetypes: Chief, Warrior, Bad Boy, Professor, Lost Soul, Best Friend, Charmer.

–          Female archetypes: Librarian, Boss, Seductress, Spunky Kid, Free Spirit, Waif, Crusader, Nurturer.

–          Villain Archetypes: Tyrant, Bastard, Devil, Traitor, Outcast, Evil Genius, Sadist, Terrorist, Bitch, Black Widow, Backstabber, Lunatic, Parasite, Schemer, Fanatic, Matriarch.

  • What the character does is not as important as why the character does it. According to Tami Cowden, “The archetype tells the writer about the most basic instincts of the hero:  how he thinks, how he feels, what drives him and why he chooses both his goals and his methods. The skilful writer, in turn, conveys these instincts to the readers or audience, who, knowing at a glance the character of this hero, settles down to watch the tale retold anew.”
  • Know your characters inside and out. Know every detail of their likes, dislikes, back story, sexual preferences, colors, favourite food, etc. I like to use a character template. Another technique is to interview your character, or to pretend you are the character and write about yourself using first person.
  • Give your characters realistic flaws the reader can relate to. Do not create characters with perfect looks or perfect bodies. Conversely, give your villain a sympathetic side, or at least a credible motivation; readers may not like the character, but they need to understand what drives the person.
  • Make your characters’ greatest fears come true. For example, in my book, the heroine’s mother is an alcoholic, so I created a hero who is a recovering alcoholic. My hero’s greatest fear is helplessness (his sister committed suicide and he was unable to help), so naturally, I place him in situations where he must confront his helplessness.
  • Give your characters a fatal flaw (e.g. avoids commitment because of fear, too impulsive, jealousy, workaholic, too shy, etc.). Have the fatal flaw trip them up (part of the internal conflict).

Goal / Motivation / Conflict

With thanks to Debra Dixon, author of ‘Goals, Motivation, and Conflict’. In my opinion, Debra’s book should be mandatory reading for every aspiring author.


  • What the character NEEDS (not just wants, and definitely not just more of what he/she already has).
  • Goals must be important, urgent (never subtle), and achievable.
  • If the character does not achieve the goal, there will be dire consequences.
  • In a romance, the heroine’s goal should NOT be to fall in love and get married (usually just the opposite).
  • Goals may change over the course of the novel, but must retain their urgency.
  • The author should know every character’s GMC, even if they are secondary characters (GMC of a secondary character may not necessarily appear on the printed page, but they will act in accordance with them).
  • Characters must have External and Internal Goals:

–          An External Goal or ‘outer goal’ is plot -related, and has nothing to do with emotional needs, spirituality, or life’s lessons. It is concrete, physical, and achievable. You can see it, touch it, taste it, hear it, or smell it.

–          An Inner Goal deals with the emotional or internal landscape of the character, often dealing with an emotional trauma from the past or present situation.

  • In a romance, the hero and heroine’s goals are generally in direct opposition to one another, thus creating strong and natural conflict.


  • WHY do your characters want this? WHY do they have to achieve their goal (external and internal)?
  • Motivation is what drives your character to achieve the goal.
  • Keep it simple. Keep it strong. Keep it focussed. Do not make the reader guess at the motivation.
  • Exaggerate your characters’ motives, and make them over-the-top, larger than life. Ordinary garden variety motivations are not strong enough.
  • The motive must give your characters the push they need to surmount impossible obstacles.
  • NEVER replace motivation with coincidence.


  • WHY NOT? The reason why your character cannot have what he/she wants. The obstacle your character must face in obtaining or achieving the goal (external and internal).
  • Know what the major impediments to your characters’ goals are and clearly define the conflict. Keep away from peripheral issues (red herrings) and unrelenting conflict.
  • Bickering is not conflict. Misunderstanding is not conflict (can sometimes work in a romantic comedy).
  • Never base the characters’ conflict on a misunderstanding that could be resolved in minutes if only the idiots would talk to one another.
  • Conflict tests your character, resulting in character growth.
  • Internal conflict is emotional conflict. Internal conflict is what keeps the character from learning life’s lessons.


  • Set every scene in the first paragraph. At the beginning of every scene, situate the reader. Let the reader know where the scene is taking place and who the protagonist (POV character) and antagonist(s) are.
  • A new scene designates a change in location, time, or Point of view (POV).
  • Do not switch POV within a scene. Editors and agents are on the watch for this kind of slippage. I know, I know, Nora Roberts does it, and does it well. Well handled, her POV changes are seamless. But beginners should not tackle this difficult undertaking. If you want to switch POV, start a new scene.
  • Structure your scenes in such a way that an ACTION is followed by a REACTION (which, in turn, triggers another ACTION). This is not the same as a sequential progression of events. Another way to say the same thing is: Strive for CAUSE and EFFECT. This will keep the reader turning the page.
  • If you are a novice writer, avoid scenes with multiple characters (more than three). If multiple-character scenes are not well-written, the reader will become hopelessly confused.
  • Make sure every scene serves a purpose – moves the book ahead, either from a plot or character perspective. If not, be ruthless. CUT THE SCENE, even if it is hilarious.
  • Have your characters engaged in some sort of activity within the scene (no talking heads).
  • Try to have more than one character per scene. Too much thinking and ruminating gets old very quickly.
  • Each scene should have a protagonist and an antagonist with conflicting goals.


  • According to Donald Maass, remove ALL back story from the first 7 chapters and stick it into Chapter 14. When I looked at my first draft, my first five chapters were mostly back story. They disappeared. Slowly. Painfully. Completely.
  • Torture your characters. Make their lives difficult. Put them in danger. Make them struggle. When the situation gets bad, ask how you can make it worse. THEN DO IT.
  • Physical description: Do not use the hackneyed old ‘looking in the mirror’ trick to describe a character. Also, a character never thinks of her own ‘sapphire eyes’, never sees her own blush. Either describe one character from another’s perspective or have your character worry about her appearance, for example, in my book, The Jaguar Legacy, my heroine is concerned about the hero’s reaction to her: “Desperately aware that her curls had corkscrewed into a tangled mass of unruly frizz, likely resembling Medusa on a bad hair day, she struggled to come up with something clever to say. All that emerged was a hoarse croak.” … “She felt positively petite for the first time in her life.”
  • According to Stephen King, “The adverb is not your friend.” Remove adverbs wherever possible and use punchier verbs (e.g. change ‘walked slowly’ to ‘strolled’ or ‘sauntered’).