Creating Characters According to Jim Butcher


The main piece of advice is this: your characters need to be interesting in some way. They can’t be overly ordinary, because that would bore readers.

If you’re wondering what really makes a character interesting, Jim mentions there isn’t any one thing. However, a combination of 5 things can work together.

  1. Exaggeration.
  2. Exotic position.
  3. Introduction.
  4. Verisimilitude.
  5. Empathy.

Note: Jim Butcher says this is primarily “for writing fiction that people will actually want to read.”

1. Exaggeration is overdoing 1 or 2 character traits. One example is “Jack O’Neill is not merely wiseass and cavalier, but suicidally so.” Note that overdoing this can potentially lead to Flanderization in your story, so it’s a bit of a fine line. A larger-than-life character will naturally be more interesting than an ordinary person with an ordinary life, though.

2. Exotic position is putting your character in extra-interesting settings when they’re introduced. The “exotic” aspect can be a social, geographic, intellectual or moral position. One example is “A sentence about a thirty-five year old man sitting in an office is fairly simple and very boring. But it becomes something else entirely when it’s the OVAL office and the youngest president in the history of the nation has just been advised that a nuclear terrorist is loose in DC.”

3. For Introduction, Jim says “You never get a second chance to make a first impression. When your reader meets any given character for the first time, it is critical to make sure you get the bare bones of your character into his head immediately…. A solid CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION consists of introducing your character to the reader by bringing him into the story in the course of an action which clearly, sharply typifies who and what he is.” An introduction has to quickly and firmly establish who your character really is.

4. Verisimilitude refers to a range of things, but mostly making sure your characters are consistent and believable. “When you are writing your characters, it is absolutely critical that you convey to the reader the sense that your character is a whole, full person with his own life outside the purview of this particular story.” This doesn’t have to be elaborate, but it should extend to every main character you have. Doing it to minor characters can be done to great effect as well, as long as there’s a limit to how many characters. Too many, and readers may become confused.

Jim Butcher says you need to show your character’s emotions, reactions, and decisions. Reactions to events should be appropriate.

He also adds a section on a technique he uses when writing. There are two things he thinks about when creating a character, and makes notes of them.

  • Tags: words to describe your character’s appearance. You can use them to link to certain characters. “For example; Thomas Raith’s tag words are pale, beautiful, dark hair, grey eyes. I use them when I introduce him for the first time in each book, and then whenever he shows up on stage again, I remind the reader of who he is by using one or more of those words.”
  • Traits: trademarks, props, attitudes, etc. Easy identifiers for the character. “Harry’s traits include his black duster, his staff, his blasting rod and his pentacle amulet. These things are decorations hung onto the character for the reader’s benefit, so that it’s easy to imagine Harry…. Bob the Skull’s traits are the skull, its eyelights, his intelligence, his role as a lab assistant, his obsession with sex and his wiseass dialog. It works for the same reason.”

5. Empathy is making the reader care about a vivid character. “Or put another way, if you can make people love who you want them to love and hate who you want them to hate, you’re going to have readers coming back to you over and over again.”

“The articles here are just basic writing craft. They aren’t meant to be a comprehensive guide to written fiction. They’re just an introduction to a structured approach to story craft. First learn walk, then learn fly Daniel-san.” – Jim Butcher

Stanley Kubrick and Story Units

“A story is comprised of six to eight non-submersible plot units. This is what Stanley Kubrick told writer Brian Aldiss… [Kubrick’s] approach is to look at a long story as a group of short stories, which come together to create something far greater than a long narrative ever could, Kubrick’s method focuses on scenes, each with its own mood.” (Source)


  1. Status quo
  2. Changes
  3. Trials and tribulations
  4. Mission start
  5. Low point
  6. Indications of success, beginning Act III
  7. Confrontation
  8. (Epilogue: new status quo)

Read More »

8 Tips from Kurt Vonnegut on Writing Short Stories

(From Open Culture)

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Like most tips and rules about writing, these aren’t set in stone. Vonnegut once wrote “The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor. She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”

Other pieces of advice from Vonnegut:

  • Find a subject you care about.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Sound like yourself.
  • Say what you mean.

How to write a novel, according to Stephen Power

In author Stephen Power’s blog post “How Do I Write A Novel? Or, Hugh Howey Is My Co-Pilot” he says finding the Wool series led to a breakthrough of sorts:

“It dawned on me… that in today’s digital world, a novel doesn’t have to be 100,000 words. It could be far shorter, and who couldn’t bang out 40,000 words? You probably write that many words in memos and emails each month. Brandon Sanderson writes that many in 10 days.”

He goes on to talk about how outlining can give you a book in 4 steps, more or less. 40,000 words is often considered “novella” territory (20k-40k). Still, you can scale up the wordcount goals until you get to where you want to be. Power says he ended up with a draft of 105,000 words without originally intending to – and already has sequels on the way.

This is how he does it:

  1. 2,500 word pitch. A very rough and basic outline on the story’s premise, characters, etc.
  2. 10,000 word outline. Here you fill in more details, laying out each act and major scenes.
  3. 20,000 word storyboard. This is a scene-by-scene outline going through each beat and general emotion.
  4. 40,000 word first draft. (Note: Most fiction novels have a wordcount of 50,000 to 100,000.)

Breaking a large task into smaller, more manageable pieces, is how a lot of people do things. Why should writing be any different?

Short beginnings and endings

“Effective stories introduce the apparent primary challenge as quickly as possible.” – Tameri

So what does ‘quickly’ mean? Tameri has a concise guideline depending on what form your story is in.

Short story

  • Plot introduced in the first paragraph (or within 50 words)
  • Story established within 150 words


  • Plot introduced by page 3-5
  • Story established by page 10


  • Plot introduced in the first 25-50 pages, (or within the first 3 chapters)
  • Story established within 50-100 pages

Script for a movie

  • Plot introduced in the first 5 pages
  • Story established within 10 pages

Script for a TV show

  • Plot introduced in the first 10 pages
  • Story established within 25 pages

It’s then suggested that ending is also quick, “like a roller coaster ending with a steep drop,” and is shorter than the beginning. For example, a novel whose beginning is 3 chapters would have an ending that’s 1-2 chapters long. In general it seems the end of your story should be 50-65% of the beginning’s length.

12 Writing Errors Even The Best Authors Make

Today I found an article all about mistakes that are easy to make, and hard to avoid.

It’s a good article and well worth reading. It includes explanations and examples, plus advice on how to fix the errors. It’s a great reference to look at after/during writing something. (Mostly this is for fiction authors, though some mistakes crop up in nonfiction writing as well.)

For the people who don’t have the time or inclination to see what the 12 errors are, here’s the list!

  1. Show, don’t tell
  2. Weak opening narrative
  3. Over-describing the action
  4. Unbelievable conflicts
  5. Point of view
  6. Assumption of knowledge
  7. Misuse of punctuation
  8. Misplaced and “dangling” modifiers
  9. Disruptive or incorrect dialogue tags
  10. Inconsistencies in names and spelling
  11. Misuse of tense
  12. Homonym errors and commonly confused words

Several, like “show instead of tell,” are things we hear all the time. But that doesn’t stop people from doing it. Accidents happen, even when you know what to look for.

Commercial fiction versus literary fiction

From the New York Times. The article’s main points can be condensed into two parts:

So these are odious categories, “commercial” and “literary.” Mind-forged manacles. But they exist, yes, they do exist. We could point at their different velocities, commercial fiction being produced faster (and read faster) than literary fiction. We could say that commercial fiction is the stuff people want to read, while literary fiction is the stuff they think they should read.


To make the distinction between literary and commercial both meaningful and slightly less capricious, I prefer to use functional definitions for commercial and literary fiction.

Fiction that aims to, and often does, reach a wide audience and make a lot of money is, in effect, Commercial Fiction. Fiction that, one argues, has a value that exceeds its commercial appeal would be Literary Fiction.

And maybe Commercial Fiction is really great, or maybe it’s great the way a Dorito is great, but Commercial Fiction is in some way consonant with the market.

TVTropes always has something to say when books are involved, even if the site name is “TV” tropes.

Lit Fic – short for “Literary Fiction” – is a nebulous, broad term which emerged during the 1960s. Though it is usually contrasted with Genre Fiction […] in some respects, it is a genre unto itself, characterized by an aspiration to literary merit and a greater focus on style, theme and psychological depth – as opposed to the focus on plot and narrative typical of genre fiction.

[…] Rather, a piece of Lit Fic is much likelier to be about everyday people doing everyday things, dealing with everyday problems and eventually coming to realizations or personal transformations. A family struggles with cancer. A man struggles with death. A couple struggles with alcoholism. A child struggles to become an adult. There is very little escapism or Wish Fulfillment in Lit Fic.

One of my friends, who is always correct about everything, describes literary fiction as (more or less) a fancy language exercise. Characters and plots are secondary aspects to how an author composes sentences. Snippets of direct quotes:

  • the focus on plot rather than beauty of language is really awful for literature
  • it shouldn’t be character driven or plot driven, it should be language driven
  • the characters and the plot are “physical” things in your story, tangible more or less, as opposed to the language which is air, it’s words, but the language is what you’re sending to the reader, via the plots and characters that enable you to make use of really special formulations
  • the language is the “beauty” aspect of the work, and the characters and plots embody that beauty to give it a means of transportation, or a means of being “visible”, but the sense of beauty is the whole point of the effort you’re making when you’re writing it
  • I mean, I suppose the whole “character and plot” focus is the most commercial side of literature, GRRM type stuff, but if you want to be an artist it’s language where it begins and ends
  • you know, I remember Nabokov writing something really neat about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He liked the story, but he said that it was written in the completely wrong way. It lacked any tension, any focus on the sense of “I can not get out” that makes a tragedy like that really gripping. Now, Jekyll and Hyde is a classic story and it’s very famous and successful, but I really get where Nabokov was coming from and it could have been so much fucking better if it had that tension of frustration and anxiety that marks the core of the story.

Today is National Grammar Day

Should we worry too much about proper grammar? People like H.L. Mencken don’t think it’s a big deal:

“…The plain people will always make their own language, and the best that grammarians can do is to follow after it, haltingly, and often without much insight. Their lives would be more comfortable if they ceased to repine over it, and instead gave it some hard study. It is very amusing, and not a little instructive.”

Still, expect people to  point out the “they’re/there/their” differences!

Grammar Girl is doing a week-long celebration. She has a grammar checklist which is a couple of years old and still plenty useful. The BBC and other news outlines also have information.

National Grammar Day was established on 4 March 2008. It’s the brainchild of Martha Brockenbrough, founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG).

Stories in five sentences

The idea came to me as I was waking up this morning, perhaps a part of some forgotten dream. (Although I hardly ever remember my dreams, so that’s not saying much.)

I’m sure someone has done this before, but I didn’t see anything when I looked on Amazon. It was entertaining to condense 25 ideas into just five sentences, and I’d recommend the idea to others. It wasn’t quite as easy as I assumed it would be, but it was definitely more fun than work.

I read through the flash fiction I’ve written over the past couple of years, revised the shorter pieces, and put them all into an ebook. Twenty-five unconnected mini-stories, all five sentences. They’re arranged in (roughly) chronological order but I haven’t included the dates in which I wrote them. Didn’t seem important.

Here are the end results:

The cover will probably be redone several times over the course of the year (if not by the end of the week) since it was so quickly done. If I think about it for a while I can come up with a better design.

Unrelated: I’ve been watching A Matter of Life and Death today.

Do the British tell better children’s stories?

The overall point of the article seems to be that USA stories are more “real” and tend to feature a moral. A lot of information is there, and it’s worth even a quick read.

Popular storytelling in the New World instead tended to celebrate in words and song the larger-than-life exploits of ordinary men and women: Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Calamity Jane, even a mule named Sal on the Erie Canal. Out of bragging contests in logging and mining camps came even greater exaggerations—Tall Tales—about the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan, the twister-riding cowboy Pecos Bill, and that steel-driving man John Henry, who, born a slave, died with a hammer in his hand. All of these characters embodied the American promise: They earned their fame.

Of course cultures approach storytelling in different ways. Reading tales from around the world is a fascinating experience. Whether a particular way is better than another… it doesn’t seem entirely clear-cut. The Atlantic’s article posits that the British are better than Americans because of their approach to fantasy.

It turns out that fantasy—the established domain of British children’s literature—is critical to childhood development.

It’s interesting to think about. And one final portion of the article really caught my eye:

“Stories serve a purpose beyond pleasure, a purpose encoded in analogies. Story arcs, like dreams, have an almost biological function.” – Jerome Griswold