Characterization with J. Scott Savage

I can’t begin to tell of all the wonderful things I learned and of all the wonderful people I met. One of the highlights was definitely being able to hang with two really good friends, Donna & Christine, the whole weekend. We are in a little writing critique group together that meets here in my home, and we drove down together, hung out together – and on the way home they even listened to me read my book to them – the whole way!

I another fabulous friend who has read both of my manuscripts, Monique, was there as well and I loved seeing her again too. I got to see and meet more of the marvelous ANWA (American Night Writer Association) sisters like Stephani and Liz Adair – and the list could go on and on. I met amazing new writers and had classes from astounding authors.

I decided to input a number of my notes and such from some of my favorite classes – in the hopes that if I re-write everything it will stick in my head better, and that some one else might benefit from what I learned as well.

One of my favorite classes was “Creating & Maintaining a Character Bible” given by J. Scott Savage, author of Far World.

First thing was a review of Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient (what kind of character do you need): What kind of story are you writing?

  • Millieu – place story – lake J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series – all about the place
  • Idea driven – plot heavy
  • Character driven  – really being in the head of your character
  • Event driven – usually fantasy/sci-fi – something is wrong in the world – an event occurs that puts the world out of order and the characters have to fix it.

Once we know what kind of story we are writing, then we can decide what kind of characters we need.

Then we talked about minor characters vs. major characters – What role you want your character to play will dictate how much we get to know the character

  • Protagonist – should have the most detail, implied history – we should know everything about this character – their favorite color, most embarrassing moment, the works – we won’t necessarily use it in the book, but we need to know it.
  • Antagonist – we need to know as much or more about the antagonist than the protagonist
  • Secondary (sidekick, mentor, major victim) what is the role they are going to play
  • Background (comedic relief, red herring, minor victim, bureaucracy)
  • Walk-on –

Not every character needs the same amount of detail – minor characters with too much detail detract from the story.  Also, we don’t need to tell every detail – let the reader come to discover the character through their actions, etc.

Character Bible – why is it important? A lot of authors don’t come to know their character until they are 3/4 of the way done.  A character bible can help us think through our characters and get to know them quicker –  some things to focus on:

  • Actions –
  • Motives – probably the most important in my opinion – what does the character want? What they want will drive their actions, make who they are, etc. The motives of the character need to be clear.
  • The past – what in the past effects the characters now.  We don’t necessarily need to read about it in the book, but we need to know what made the character who he is today
  • Reputation
  • Stereotypes – play upon them
  • Habits
  • Talents
  • Tastes
  • Stereotypes (again – because we need to come back and play with them in a different way)

The first impression you create of your character is really important

Ask questions that don’t seem to relate to your character at all – you might find a hidden attribute

Attributes Vs. Gimmicks – its a gimmick unless we know the reason they do something –

For example – he told us about a character who twirls his ring – seems like simply a gimmick, until we learn that he lost his wife and twirls his ring to remind him of who she was and the revenge he wants, etc.

Expressions can be used as well  – if a character has a favorite expression, etc

Characters we love: some one we can empathize with

  • We like what’s like us but it may not be interesting (so enhance what we like to make it interesting)
  • Looks – just enough to know how to recognize (I have to add unless you’re writing a book that has romance in it that girls will be reading – girls like to know what guy looks like – all the fabulous details 🙂 )
  • Victim, Savior, Sacrifice – the three main likable characters we have
  • Noble Goal – a goal the main character has that we can root for – we need to know what it is
  • Courage and fair play
  • Cleverness
  • Attitude
  • Imperfections – how the character is going to grow – motivations need to change. You can start with a perfect character who discovers imperfections – but most often you have a flawed character who overcomes some of the flaws


Characters we hate:

  • The bully
  • Self-serving
  • Dishonest
  • Attitude

The biggest thing about the characters we hate is the ultimate WHY? – Why are they so horrible – motivations for the antagonist have to be as as strong or stronger than the protagonist

Creating you Character Bible:

  • Every time your character responds, is acted upon, or reacts you need to note it in your character bible and note WHY – always ask WHY?
  • The reason? It’s easy to loose track – if you get to a point where you don’t know what your character is doing anymore (or why they are doing it) go back and look in your character bible – remind yourself of your character’s motivations

Finally a list of questions to help you evaluate your characters:

  • Do you have a clear main character?
  • Do you like that character?
  • Do they have flaws?
  • What are they going to learn during the course of the story?
  • Who are the subordinate characters?
  • Is the main character in jeopardy? Of what?
  • What are the consequences of failure? Of success?
  • Are the obstacles to success difficult enough?
  • Is the character acting or reacting. Readers want a hero/heroine that is actively trying to fix things.  Remember – your character can only be acted upon so much until they start reacting

I’d like to add that the evaluation is just as much for the antagonist as the protagonist (but the opposite on some questions – hate rather than like – etc.). After this class I realized while my main character was well rounded and had good clear motivations, flaws, etc. that my antagonist was a bit on the flat side. He had motivations, but I wasn’t taking advantage of those and making his character as deep as it could have been.

I have to say that my personal opinion is that the motivations of the characters are the MOST important and they have to be CLEAR – because the motivations are what drive the characters to act or react in the way they do.

For an awesome blog post about Editing – check out my friend, Christine’s blog – she went to an editing class by Julie Bellon (I was in a How to find an Agent Class) and got some marvelous information – including how to know when you are DONE.


Filed under Writing

6 responses to “Characterization with J. Scott Savage

  1. moniquel319

    Thanks for posting. It was great reading your notes and comparing them to mine to see if I left anything out. Also hearing your take helped too. Thanks again.

  2. moniquel319

    Maybe I should do this too…

  3. Wow, great recap! Couldn’t have written it better myself. I think characters are the biggest weakness of beginning—and sometimes even experienced—writers. We focus on place and plot and don’t realize none of that matters without characters that make us feel something. I’ll have to come hang with your critique group sometime.

  4. Valerie Ipson

    I loved his class, too, and learned a lot. (And that is so cool of him to comment on your blog.)

  5. Thanks so much for posting this. Very informative.
    I didn’t get to make it to the conference, and so I’m soaking up everyone posts about it.
    I am going to take these ideas and suggestions and go through my novel…
    Thanks again for posting, it was great!

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