Friday, January 1, 2021

2021 - January through March

Special Notice: This year, my Writer's Cheat Sheet Blog posts will be updated on the first of every month but quarterly (the next post will be April 1). 

This year's posts will deal with "lists" (also known as Cheat Sheets) that help a writer recall necessary elements before writing (or after) that make for a marketable story, a story worth telling and selling. Such Cheat Sheets are the backbone of a producing writer's Project Bible. 

So, now let's start this new year off with— 




Most romance and fiction heroes (those alpha and beta men) of legendary stories come across as superior to real men in many ways. The same is said for heroines versus real women.

Now, go get a pen and a sheet of paper and recall a book you really enjoyed reading that had memorable characters. As quickly as you can, write down three POSITIVE qualities of the most memorable MALE character in that story. Once done, compare your three to this list of hero-protagonist qualities:














Now, list as quickly as you can, three POSITIVE qualities of the most memorable FEMALE character in a favorite story. Once done, compare your three to this list of heroine-protagonist / romantic-lead qualities:














Did you notice as you went through all the lists, that these are admirable traits? Well, a Protagonist, be they male or female, must be highly admirable. 

Here's the secret, show the reader their MOST ADMIRABLE TRAIT when they come on stage by announcing to the reader their name (the name they will be known as throughout the story, not necessarily their full name). After all, a story is about SOMEONE, a person, so begin with that very special person on the first line of the first page, or within the first sentence or paragraph or within 500 words of the opening of the story. 

Doing so telegraphs to the reader the story is about "someone special" who is a person worthy of a reader's investment in reading the story.

So, how does your protagonist measure up as "hero or heroine" worthy?

A new year is like a blank book. 
The pen is in your hands. 
It is your chance to write 
a beautiful story for yourself 
in this the New Year of 2021!
# # # 

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

2020 - December - Characters Make The Story


Part 12 of 12  of Job titles for Story Characters • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

A lot of information has been included in this year's twelve monthly blog posts. That's why this end-of-the-year post is a summary— and a reminder. 

Topping the list of reminders is that plot is only as effective as the characters who showcase that plot. Write that in big bold letters and post it where you can see it every time you write a story.

Characters are so important that they can be sorted into categories by their job or function in the story. Knowing their story job titles and duties (job description) helps a writer create a far better story and stops overpopulating the story with a "cast of thousands." As you have learned this past year— 

Story job titles fall into categories of:

Major (or Main) Story Characters

The Protagonist (The Hero or Heroine)

The Antagonist (The Who or The What that opposes the Protagonist)

Major Secondary Characters

Romantic Interest or the Romantic Lead

Best Friend, Sidekick, Pal, etc.

Mentor, Advisor, Teacher, Sage, etc.

The Fool

The Entourages for the Protagonist are 

Friends, men

Friends, women

A Love Interest or The Romantic Lead (who is not a Major Secondary Character)

A Mentor

A Coach 

Pals (drinking buddies, poker pals, bowling pals) 

Family (parents, siblings, other relatives)


Work associates

Food industry workers (bar tender, waitress, etc.)

Health workers (doctor, nurse, etc.)

Tradesmen (plumber, mechanic, pool man, etc.)

Professionals (law enforcement, banking or financial, veterinarian, etc.)

. . . and so on.

The Entourage for the Antagonist (if a Who) can be

* Friends 

* Right-hand Henchperson or second in command

* Toadies, Monster-beings, Servants, Minions, etc.

* A Mentor

* Family (parents, siblings, other relatives)

* Professionals (gangsters, crooks, thieves, killers for hire, security enforcers, and others who procure things, obey orders, and carry out the Antagonist's plans and orders, and protect the Antagonist).

Tertiary Characters (Named Minor Characters), Symbolic Characters, and Prop People.

In the last three posts (September, October, and November) we discussed the sound of names (psycholinguistics), the merits of archetype names, tags and traits for names, and the value of having a master character worksheet (questionnaire).

Armed with the information in this year's posts, you should be able to write a story with far more believable characters.

If you're new to reading this blog, feel free to go to January 2020 and begin reading the posts.

And, thank you for being a faithful reader of this blog and for sharing the links with other writers. Your comments and questions are always welcome.

Strive to write well and tell a story well.

Catherine E. McLean



Revision is where the magic happens—

use this guidebook to take the frustration out of self-editing that draft you wrote during NaNoWriMo

Tell Santa you want this guidebook in your Christmas Stocking



Sunday, November 1, 2020

2020 - November - Character Worksheets

Part 11 of 12 of Job Titles for Story Characters 
 © 2020 All Rights Reserved


Hair and eye color are nice to know, but what makes a character tick—how he’ll respond to stress, his fears and desires are what’s really important to give you all the delicious tension and growth an I-can’t-put-this-book-down story needs. — Silvie Kurtz 

I've periodically mentioned writers using a character questionnaire or character worksheet to quickly get at the personality of the story's main characters. Unfortunately, it's mind-boggling what you can find in the way of character worksheets and characterization forms online. One site I stumbled across a couple years ago had hundreds of questions, even including the color of the character's kitchen sink!

In truth, it doesn't hurt to look over a lot of such questionnaires and worksheets, just don't use them as is. What  you want to do is incorporate questions into your own "cheat sheets" that will quickly define and bring to life your main characters. Strive to keep that form as simple and uncomplicated as possible to avoid getting bogged down filling in blanks or checking off boxes.

Producing writers don't waste time. Producing writers rely on their own, customized forms so they get at the core values of their main characters that helps ensure a viable plot.

Here's a secret — ONLY ONE MASTER FORM IS NEEDED. That "cheat sheet" works for the protagonist and antagonist. And, it's also used for a story with a Second Major Character who has Point of View-Viewpoint and without whom the plot will fail. 

All other characters are minor characters and do not need detailed work-ups (when they become heroes or heroines of their own books, then it's time to use the master questionnaire).

Using one master form means asking THE SAME QUESTIONS to the main story characters. Doing so reveals how the characters are fundamentally the same and how different they are. Those differences make for well-rounded characters and allow for an engaging and workable plot.

Working with "cheat sheet" forms is more than jotting in an answer. It's about asking the right questions and, more importantly, asking WHY or looking deeper into WHAT THE ANSWER MEANS. 

There are some common, fundamental, questions that appear on nearly every worksheet or questionnaire and those are below. I've also added in the WHY and WHAT factors to consider: 

1) Character's name — first, middle, last, initials, and nickname (if applicable). 

Be sure the initials do not spell something derogatory, unless you're writing comedy or irony, that is. Evaluate every name for the meaning, how the name looks, sounds, etc. –-  Refer to "Naming Characters," which was the September 2020 Writers Cheat Sheet blog topic.

2) The character's function in the story.

That is, what is their "job title" for the story. Is it Protagonist, Antagonist or Second Major Character (like the Romantic Lead, Mentor, Sidekick, etc.). Remember, each job title has a set of specific tags and traits.

3) Age 

Why that age? Does this character look their age? Older? Younger? Do they feel their age? What advantage or disadvantage does that age give the character in life or on-the-job? (i.e., An 18-year-old doesn't have the maturity of a 50-year-old.)

4) Sex or Sexual Orientation

How do they feel about their sexuality? If applicable, what kind of lover are they (both how they see themselves and how their partner or partners see them sexually, sensually).

5) Marital status — single, married, divorced, widowed/widower, with a significant other, etc. 

How do they feel about that status? If divorced, what caused the divorce? Are they a confirmed bachelor/bachelorette, and why? 

6) Occupation

This is about what the character does to make a living. Why did they choose that occupation? Are they happy in their career?  If so, why?  If not, why?

7) Distinguishing physical characteristics (scars, tattoos, blemishes, etc.)

This is where you-the-writer describe their physical attributes of height, weight, eye and hair color, shape of body and face, tone of voice, etc. Always ask Why that hair color? Why that eye color? The answers can yield clues to tags and traits. Tip: people react to colors on a subliminal level, for instance, blond often equates to "dumb blond" whereas someone with earth-brown hair is seen as "down to earth." You could have a smart blond or a dumb brunette, but you'll have to work a bit harder to convince the reader that you've gone against the stereotype.

8) Personality traits —  the "internal," intangible (abstract) of their character. 

Are they basically a pessimist or optimist? Note: I've found using percentages works best for me because no person or character is 100% pessimistic or optimistic. It's also wise to record the character's level for being an introvert or an extrovert. And ask, how do these traits affect their actions when under stress or in their normal day-to-day life. Or even, how do such traits mold their character?

9) Habits - what are their concrete habits (thumping a pencil, biting nails), speech-diction (formal, informal, use of slang, or repetitive phrases, diction, syntax), etc.

What triggered or triggers the habit? How do they typically react to fear, love, hate, anxiety? If afraid, do they stand and fight, freeze in place, or flee?

10) Background — their genealogy, their family and their social class, monetary status.

This includes their education (as in schooling or military service), the nationality influences of their family-upbringing (Christian, Jewish, Southern Baptist, and so on, and what holidays they love or hate or celebrate), previous jobs (and, if applicable, why they left them).

11) What is this character's greatest strength?  

Most likely it's one of the 7 Cardinal Virtues, or perhaps a few of Aristotle's 12 Virtues, which you can look up on the Internet.

12) What is this character's greatest weakness (their Achilles' heel)?  

Most likely it's one of the 7 Deadly Sins — either the Biblical ones or the Modern ones, which you can look up on the Internet.

And here is a bonus to consider putting on your form: What is the character's self-concept? To get the self-concept, have the character answer this question: "I am . . . " (fill in the blank with whatever the character says, which will be a short phrase). Examples include: I am a self-made man, or I am a disillusioned soldier (corporate executive, etc.), or I am a closet romantic, or I am always the bridesmaid never the bride . . . 

So that's the starting lineup of questions for a get-to-know-your character questionnaire. Where you go from there will depend on the type of genre you write, the information you feel is vital in getting to know your main characters, and looking at dozens of character forms to get ideas on format (arrangement of the items) and the question-content you want to add to your form. 

And, remember — only include what is useful and helps you discover a three-dimensional character that readers will recognize.


Next Month  - 2020 — December — A Summary 


To all who are participating in NaNoWriMo, I wish you success with your word quest!

# # # 

Thursday, October 1, 2020

2020 October - Character Tags & Traits


Part 10 of 12  of Job titles for Story Characters • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Last month's blog was about psycholinguistics — how names resonate as positive, negative, or neutral and how that benefits a story. 

As you learned last month, imagery is tightly tied to the look and sound of a name. Writers should strive for an archetype name for their major story characters because, on a subconscious level, the archetype name triggers deep-seated recognition of tags and traits that go with that particular name.

But you may be wondering: What is a tag? What is a trait? 

They are defined as— 

TAGS are a descriptive detail, a label, repeated almost every time a character enters the story and which serves to identify and characterize him or her. Tags are concrete actions of cracking knuckles, drumming fingers on a table, biting nails, tapping a toe, etc.  Tags are "externals"— they are what can be witnessed, seen, heard, etc. Tags are concrete, specific, and credible (believable).

Now, a character's name is the most important TAG of all because it is THE TAG OF IDENTIFICATION. 

Names, particularly archetype names, come loaded with meaning and even character traits.

However, some tags label traits.  Such tags are physical clues to traits.

TRAITS are a character's characteristic habits, patterns of behavior, and mannerisms. The dominant impression is the trait that stands out the most and which should be shown to the reader from the get-go. Traits include: Is the character an optimist or pessimist? How does the character instinctively react when angry, happy, sad, etc.?

Traits are "internals" and abstracts— they involve the mind-set and personality of a character.  But here's a tip: Traits come in pairs: one is admirable and one is despicable (thus they are opposites, which helps balance out the character). For instance, at their best a character can be down-to-earth pragmatic but at their worst they can be very self-centered.

Traits come in the form of:

a verbal tic (they repeat a common phrase, which peppers their dialogue passages. For instance, in the TV series, Detective Columbo often says,  Just one more thing.

a particular way of speaking, like with an accent or dialect. For example Yoda of Star Wars' If no mistake have you made, yet losing you are . . . a different game you should play.

a physical mannerism or a repeating behavior (they smoke when nervous or chew on a toothpick, they bite their nails when anxious, they crack their knuckles, or they may even fiddle with something (a lock of hair, a token, a coin, etc.)

a way of carrying themselves, which can be their brisk stride, keeping a ram-rod straight spine, a mutinous set to their jaw, the meek hunching their shoulders, and so on.

a scent (their cologne, perfume, bath soap, or after shave, even their body odor from uncleanliness, fear, sweating, etc.)

Even if you love your protagonist and hate the antagonist, keep in mind that nobody is 100% good or 100% evil. It is the balance, or out-of-balance, personality traits that make a character "human," realistic, and believable to the reader.

If you need help with traits, google "Images of Character Traits." Or check out the book, A WRITER'S GUIDE TO CHARACTER TRAITS by Linda N. Edelstein, PH.D. 

One way to get to know a character is to journal in the voice of the character: 

to learn how they talk, speak, think

to get a look into their philosophies on life and death, right and wrong, and what's their moral compass

to learn about their education, job or sports experiences, etc.

to learn about their social-economic upbringing and heritage

to discover weaknesses and strengths of their character and what events in their life molded those

However, journaling is time consuming. Journaling also requires going back through what was written to locate tags and traits and sort them into which seem to dominate (likely three will for the story). And, of course, in the end, only 10% of what was in the journal is needed for the actual story. 

A quicker way to get to know a character is to use a "cheat sheet" called a Character Worksheet or a Character Questionnaire, which may include lists of tags and traits that the writer has collected over time or from various sources. In other words, as the writer goes down the lists they've developed, the subconscious will likely trigger a "ta-dah" or other positive response. Then the writer can look at the traits and tags and which fit will dominate.

Do remember that the only characters who warrant such journaling or character questionnaires are the story's major characters—Protagonist, Antagonist, and possibly the Second Major Character.

Which brings me to—   

Next month we'll look at Character Worksheets and Questionnaires. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

2020 - September - Naming Characters


Part 9 of 12  of Job titles for Story Characters • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Your choice of monikers for heroes, heroines, and heavies often sets the tone for everything that follows, shaping audience perceptions of the characters before your people have a chance to hit their stride.  - Author Michael Newton 

Few writers know about psycholinguistics. The definition is mind-boggling in and of itself so let me give you the simplified definition: sounds affect the way we behave and act or react in the world. 

For instance, hear the hiss of a snake and our primordial conditioning that vipers can kill us has us instantly on alert and afraid — or terrified, or panicked to the point of immobility. On the other hand, if we hear a baby giggling, we have this feeling of contentment, that all is right with the world.

Such reactions to sounds happen instinctively, down on the subconscious level. But some name-sounds can also elicit a conscious reaction, like laughter at a person's named Katz Meow, or Iona Bra, which, by the way, are actual names of real people.

Another factor about sounds is reading words, i.e., seeing a name. When reading a name and in the process of looking at the letters in that name there is both a conscious and subconscious emotional reaction to those letters and the word they form. 

This is especially so when listening to the pronunciation by syllables of a name. Pronunciation affects the interpretation and sorts the name into a feeling that the name-word is positive, negative, or neutral. Here's a tip, the easier it is to see and sound out the name of the story's main characters, the more enjoyable the story becomes for the reader and writer. We're not talking Dick and Jane simple. We're talking James Bond versus Mister Mxyzptlk (of Superman fame).

Here's a secret to ensure a better story— heroes need positive names, villains need negative names, and all other characters in a story who have a name fall under the neutral name classification. This is another reason why having a Master Word List or Style Sheet for a story is important (refer to August's post about word lists or look at examples here.

Yet, far too many writers feel they can "make up a name" for their characters. The truth is that millions of names already exist. And do consider that every person has been exposed to thousands of names from the womb to school, on the job, at leisure, and in being exposed to hours of video, TV, movies, musicians, and print media (books, magazines, and newspapers). Such names are filed deep in the subconscious along with a reference to the name, or filed with the characteristics (archetype) of a person with such a name. 

Of course, there are name generators you can find online, but again, what is the psycholinguistics of such made-up names? Keep in mind that whether it's a person's name, an animal's, a place's, a thing's, a gizmo's, a weapon's, etc., all those names solicit (consciously or subconsciously) a reaction (a feeling) that will be positive, negative, or neutral. 

The most enduring of people names (those passed down through the generations) have imagery and characteristic associations (tags and traits), which makes them archetype names. For instance, these are powerful archetype hero/heroine names: James, Sarah, Jacob, Adam, Michael, Jillian.

Let me stress that it's not about stereotype but archetype.

Archetype names better resonate with readers. For instance, Margaret Mitchell first thought of calling Scarlet O'Hara of Gone With the Wind Pansy O'Hara. I'll bet when you saw Pansy, you envisioned a Milquetoast personality. But Scarlet? Didn't you see the fire and flare that goes with the resonance of the noise of her name?

Mitchell wasn't the only one who changed the name of their lead characters. How about— Sherringford Holmes changed to Sherlock Holmes and Luke Starkiller to Luke Skywalker? Which means, a writer should not entirely trust the source of a name, be the source their own subconscious or their conscious effort to invent a name. Every major character's name needs to be checked before writing the draft. That's right, before writing a draft. That will save hours of edits and rewriting to change the name. 

As a matter of fact, the appropriateness of all names used in a story should be analyzed — be it a machine, a street, an animal, a weapon, etc.  Ask: how does the "name" look? How is it spelled? How easy is it to sound out? Does the name come with tags and traits that make the character easily identifiable? Does the name have a positive, negative, or neutral vibe? 

Next Month  —October - Character Tags and Traits