Building Characters that Sizzle

My local RWA chapter, River City Romance Writers hosted a workshop this past weekend that featured Debra Dixon, as the guest speaker.  Ms. Dixon is the author of  Goal, Motivation and Conflict, as well as a host of fiction novels.  She is also publisher of Bellebooks and BellBridge Books.  Ms. Dixon was kind enough to give me permission to share some of my impressions of her discussion.

The workshop focused on characterization.


According to Ms Dixon, characters generate the plot.  A common mistake made by new authors is to focus on creating elaborate plots and twists and then allow their characters to fall into common stereotypes.  They believe that describing the physical characteristics of the character and throwing in periods of internal monologue defines memorable characters.  But in fact, these two-dimensional characters often leave the reader flat.

Take a moment and see if you can think of some memorable character from fiction or movies and TV.  Scarlett O’Hara, Harry Potter, Jack Reicher, Dr House?  As you thought of these characters, as well as others, a three-dimensional image popped in your head, didn’t it?  So, how did those authors do it?

Characters are revealed by:

  • actions and reactions:  a character’s emotional response to the plot, twists and conflict
  • speech and dialogue: do they have an accent?  do they tend to be longwinded?  or are they flat and monotone?
  • thoughts: how do your characters process what has happened to them
  • appearance: what do they look like? how do they move?
  • other characters; how they think, feel, react, respond to your protagonist
  • goal, motivation and conflict

Goal, motivation and conflict are the factors that make characters come alive.  Understanding this aspect of your character brings specificity to stereotypes and helps to minimize cardboard cutouts.

  • goal:  what does your character want?  this includes both internal and external goals.
  • motivation:  why does he/she want it?
  • conflict:  what are the things standing in his/her way of reaching that goal.  Conflict shows your protagonist in action and you identify with them

So, let’s take a look at a revealing action from the protagonist of my novel, KAOS,  Detective Micah Langston Hughes

“He sat in a chair.”

Hmm?  It doesn’t tell you much, does it?  The statement is accurate and reports the character’s action but gives little insight into the character’s nature or motivations.

Let’s try this one:

“Micah reached back for the arms of the chair and carefully lowered himself down.”

What details stood out?  Did you get any expectations or impressions of the plot?

Ms. Dixon emphasized that everything in your scene is an opportunity to characterize.

Use the Five Senses:

Every detail in your scene should both advance the plot and reveal something new about your character.  Ms. Dixon offered the following example:   if your character is a recovering alcoholic, the sound of tinkling glassware, empty liquor bottles may be meaningful and would likely generate an emotional response. But tinkling glassware and empty liquor bottles may be an irrelevant detail to a suburban housewife who does not have a drinking problem.

Details will trigger a character’s reaction and give the reader an opportunity to understand and develop empathy for your character.  The character traits can be both positive and negative.  So, don’t neglect to give details to your  antagonists too.  Emotion directs the character.  It’s what makes her live and breathe on the page.

I had such a strong empathy for the bad guy in The Silence of the Lambs.  Not Hannibal Lecter but the serial killer who was kidnapping the young girls to make a skin suit.  The author showed how this character’s past and lifelong interactions helped to develop him into the monster he became. You couldn’t help but sympathize with the pain and torture he had gone through.  Mind you, I didn’t think his actions were justified, but those details helped me to bond with the character.


The second half of Ms Dixon’s talk focused on the Dominant Impression,  a term I believe I heard her say may have been coined by Dwight Swain?  Y’all correct me if I’m wrong.  This section had the biggest impact on me and I want to give it the space it deserves so  . . .

It will have it’s own post on Thursday, June 24.

Y’all come back.

3 thoughts on “Building Characters that Sizzle

  1. Angelyn,

    I love your blog. And I have to agree the section on Dominant Impression opened up my mind to a different way of thinking about characterization. Deb’s workshop was awesome. Great recap.

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