Characterize Your Character

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Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days is designed to shape a not-yet submitted, rejected, or self-published manuscript with low ratings into a book that shines. The method can also be a guiding resource for writers starting a manuscript. See details below.

A writer builds a protagonist’s character using a character arc. He develops the changes in how the character thinks, chooses, and acts throughout the story. The protagonist is able to do something at the end of the story that he couldn’t do in the beginning. Perhaps forgive someone or feel at home in a place where he felt like an alien. But this is not characterization.

A Definition of Characterize

The New Oxford American Dictionary says characterize means to “describe the distinctive features or nature of.” 

What are these distinctive features that are observable?

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  • Choices: sports car
  • Attitude: uncaring
  • Behaviors: goes to church
  • Career or job: lawyer
  • Dress: muu-muus
  • Dwells: High-rise
  • Education: high school dropout
  • Gestures: snaps his fingers when he makes a point
  • Habits: sucks his teeth
  • Name: Buddy
  • Personality: introverted
  • Physical traits: button nose
  • Quirks: dresses her dog in mini-sized replicas of her own blouses
  • Station in life: middle class
  • Sex: male
  • Speech: enunciates each word
  • Values: the love of money

The writer may tell these features. Or the writer may show them through the protagonist’s actions and dialogue. Or the writer may show them through how other characters react to the protagonist.

Examples of Characterization

Let’s see how we might characterize protagonists with their physical traits, actions, and dialogue.

  • Molly turned down Bruno’s help and loaded her twin headboard and stained armchair into the bed of her 1995 Chevy truck.

What this one sentence may tell us: Molly is independent, strong, and not well off, or doesn’t care about new things. Other sentences will make these assumptions clearer.

  • Trenton pulled on the cuff of his starched sleeve, revealing a diamond-studded cufflink.

What this one sentence may tell us: Trenton is well off and cultured, or wants people to think he is. We’ll be given other clues to help make a clearer picture.

  • Carmine sent her hands flying in all directions as she screamed at Doug for telling Marco about her day in the big city.

What this one sentence may tell us: Carmine is fiery. She lives outside the city, possibly in a rural area or small town.

  • Skylar grinned, showing her two front teeth were missing. She held up the furry feline. “I knew Daddy would let me have ish kitten.”  

What this one sentence may tell us: Skylar is six or seven. Possibly spoiled. She knows how to get what she wants from Daddy.

Of course, we can’t fully characterize a protagonist in one or two sentences, but we can learn a few traits quickly.

What features could you add to my list?

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Zoe McCarthy’s book, Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days, is a fresh and innovative refocusing of your novel or novella. Through a few simple—and fun—steps, Zoe helps writers take their not-ready-for-publication and/or rejected manuscripts to a spit-polish finish. Writing is hard work, yes, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. —Eva Marie Everson, best-selling and multiple award-winning author, conference director, president of Word Weavers International, Inc.

If you want to increase your chance of hearing yes instead of sorry or not a fit for our list at this time, this book is for you. If you want to develop stronger story plots with characters that are hard to put down, this book is for you. Through McCarthy’s checklists and helpful exercises and corresponding examples, you will learn how to raise the tension, hone your voice, and polish your manuscript. I need this book for my clients and the many conferees I meet at writer’s conferences around the country. Thank you, Zoe. A huge, #thumbsup, for Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days.  —Diana L. Flegal, literary agent, and freelance editor

Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript is a self-editing encyclopedia! Each chapter sets up the targeted technique, examples show what to look for in your manuscript, then proven actions are provided to take your writing to the next level. Whether you are a seasoned writer or a newbie, you need this book! —Sally Shupe, freelance editor, aspiring author

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Show Your Characters’ Wounds

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The last two weeks, I’ve given examples showing characters’ love for each other and examples showing characters’ flaws.

This week, I give an example of a character exhibiting a wound. I chose being stalked. I consulted The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma (Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. For brevity, I offer a telling synopsis that depicts a woman wounded from being stalked.


Artist Lola has entered an oil painting in a contest. Damien’s oil hangs next to Lola’s. He opens a conversation. She’s glad to have the company. Damien offers a suggestion of how she could have improved her painting. His boldness surprises her.

Lola’s oil wins. Damien looks confused, then his face reddens. He glares at her and stomps away. Lola feels guilty that she’s the cause of Damien’s anger.

The next day, Lola sees Damien at an outside market. She wonders if she should wave, but decides against it. He made her uncomfortable at the art show. With the size of Chicago, she won’t see him again anyway.

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But she does—the next day in a grocery store. He doesn’t acknowledge her. She doubts the coincidence. Is he stalking her? Her skin crawls.

The following day, she spots Damien looking at a magazine at a newsstand outside her apartment building. Her heart pounds. What are his intentions?  Unless he actually does something, the police won’t stop his stalking. Why had she been friendly with Damien at the show?

After weeks, Damien begins glaring at her and making threatening gestures. She can’t sleep and is exhausted during the days. Her clothes hang on her body.

Then his stalking abruptly stops. He’s probably out of town. Or in jail. He’ll be back.

An acquaintance, Cade, asks her out. Like Damien, does Cade see how weak she is and wants to hurt her? Obviously, her judgment about men is flawed. At the art show, she should’ve recognized Damien was a threat.

Lola turns down Cade. Will her rejection upset him? She hurries home and locks the door. Is Cade lurking in the hallway outside her door?

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On the street, Tom, her friend from art classes, comes up behind her and covers her eyes. She screams, scaring Tom. She apologizes. Before she can stop him, Tom snaps a photo of her. Lola ends the conversation. She shouldn’t be too friendly with Tom, who looks like Damien. He could become obsessed.

Tom and several guys are friends on Facebook. Will Tom put the photo he took of her on Facebook? She shuts down her Facebook account.

Lola finds excuses to stay home from church and art class. Her best friend, Caitlyn, becomes annoyed at her frequent calls and invitations to come over. Lola needs Caitlyn to help her make good decisions about attending art shows and putting her works in galleries. She dreamed the owner of a gallery who was interested in her paintings started stalking her.

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Lola hopes Caitlyn will join her at a self-defense class. Better yet, she could move. Then she could stop looking through the slits between her curtains every few minutes.

Show characters’ wounds through their behaviors. Click to tweet.

What other behaviors might a stalking victim display?




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Candace Parks lives a passionless life in Richmond. The computer programmer returns to the empty family home in the Blue Ridge Mountains solely to evaluate her job, faith, and boyfriend. Her high school crush, Trigg Alderman, who barely remembers her, visits his Gram next door. Sorting her life out? How about nothing of the sort!



Alana Mulvaney’s life is in a holding pattern. Consumed by day-to-day operations of the family business, Alana has no time for fun or romance. But a little fun and a whole lot of romance is just what Alana’s sisters have in mind when they learn childhood friend Donovan O’Reilly has returned to town.
Donovan O’Reilly has loved Alana Mulvaney since he moved in next door to her at the age of five. But he broke her heart when he was forced to leave town, and now that he’s returned home to Winding Ridge he has a second chance to prove himself. But is it too late to earn her trust…and her love…again?


Toni Littlebird believes that when she meets the man God created for her, she’ll know—and she’ll love him in that very moment.
But then Dax Hendrick roars into Hummingbird Hollow on a noisy, crippled Harley, stinking up the air and chasing away her beloved hummingbirds. One look into the intruder’s eyes and her heart sinks. He’s “The One.” She’d been right about knowing, but wrong about something far more important: She will never love this man!


Cara Peyton is content with her life, her trendy Baltimore bookshop is perfect for her. But when her ex turns up to remodel the store, asking for a second chance, she’s torn and unsure about risking her heart again. Can he convince her to trust him, and God, before the job is finished?



Another Valentine’s Day and Quinn Randolph prefers to spend it with her sweet rescue lab. Who needs men and their broken promises? Especially Pierce Karson’s! Years ago, his desertion shattered her. Now he’s trying to steal the property she targeted to expand her florist shop! Pierce only wants to belong…and for Quinn to choose him. His Valentine Promise…