Do I like you? (creating LIKEABLE characters!)

I’ve been on quite a few planes lately as I travel to conferences, and one of the blessings is meeting new people. And every once in a while, I get lucky and sit next to something not only unusual and fun, but who is a hero.

Such was the case last week when, travelling from Minneapolis to Dallas, I sat next to a guy named AJ.  Who was a. . .firefighter!  Not a volunteer, but a professional, full-time firefighter for a town in New Jersey.  And, he was willing to talk about his profession and give me a plethora of great story ideas.

It wasn’t just his profession, however, that made him heroic. . .that was just the foundation. It was his quest.  AJ was flying down to Dallas to pick up a DOG of a friend who had passed away and driving that dog to a new home back in Jersey.

Sweet, I know.

We’ve been studying the Character Change journey over the past few weeks (  We started with understanding the steps, and building the Story Equation, staring with the Dark Moment Story.  Then, we added a Goal, fueled by the Why and the What.

But it all starts with the WHO.  Who are you and why should we like you? 

When your character walks onto the page, this is the first obstacle an author must address. . .making a reader LIKE your character.  Often, a reader resists going on a journey because they simply don’t like the character.

It’s a delicate balance because the flip side is that your character must have a FLAW.

The Flaw is key because it is through the flaw that we understand your character’s change.  A flaw is the outward, behavioral expression of a character’s fear.  We avoid relationships because we are afraid of getting hurt.  We are overprotective because we don’t want our children to be killed.  We make rash decisions because we fear losing opportunities.

(I’ll bet if you look at your flaws, you can trace them to either a past fear or a future fear).

Because a great story confronts a hero’s greatest fear, and offers an epiphany, which then heals his flaw.  It’s a visible character change.

But if we don’t like the character enough in the beginning, if his flaw is too great, we’ll never stick around to see the change.

Which brings us back to likeability.  Often authors start too strong with the flaw.  They know their character has issues, and they start with him in that dark place.  Danger! If he’s too much of a jerk, the reader immediately thinks:  why should I hang around with this oaf of a guy (or gal.) They’re suddenly looking through the free books on their Kindle.

Let’s fix that.

Enter, AJ.  I am sure the guy has flaws – I didn’t hang around with him enough to know, however.  But he made a great profile for a character. Someone who, at the core, was heroic.  And that core propelled him to a heroic purpose.

When you’re creating a character, you must start at the core of your character – WHO he is, drilling all the way down to the Dark Moment Story.  But don’t stop there.  Ask your character his Happiest Moment Story as well. This is the opposite of the Dark Moment Story, but it functions on the same way.  It is something in his past that produces a greatest dream and helps cement his WANT.  (You can also use this to determine his happily ever after ending.)

AJ’s father was a firefighter.  There’s a story there, I know it.  (I didn’t want to make the guy ask for a seat change, so I didn’t pry that deep.)  But something in his past – probably good – propelled him to be a firefighter.

The Dark Moment and Happiest Moment stories comprise his core.

Now, everything he does emerges from that core.  Like saving people  (as AJ mentioned, he’s not there to save a house, but to save the lives in that house).  And, saving a dog.

So, how does this translate onto the page?

  1. Start with the core of your character. (Dark Moment Story/Happiest Moment Story).  Who are they at the core?  Teacher? Healer? Rescuer?
  2. How does that translate into a Noble Quest? (saving the dog!)
  3. How can he SHOW that core element at the beginning of the book, just a little (for example, as I was putting up my bag, I saw AJ glance my direction, as if willing to help. . .in a book, the hero might take that step, even if it might be reluctantly.) I call it the Boy Scout moment.  (James Scott Bell calls it Pet the Dog, or Save the Cat (Blake Snyder)).

Now you’re free to add in the FLAW.   Show him helping the gal with her bag, (maybe it’s about to fall on him) and when she turns to thank him, he shrugs it off . . .not willing to engage in conversation.

Characters should be complicated – because people are complicated.  But they also need to be likeable.  Start your journey with a hero (even just a hint of one) and your readers will sit down with him and hang out all the way to Dallas.

Go! Write something brilliant!

smw sig without background



Extreme Character Makeover: Goal Building and the secret sauce of motivation

Who are you and what do you want?

I’m reading a fantastic book right now in my personal life – Mark Batterson’s All In: You Are One Decision Away From a Totally Different Life  I heard him speak at the ReWrite Conference this past February and the book’s message and timing in my life is spectacular.  It talks about going “all in” for God – but also, the power of devotion to something.


“When your life is over, the world will ask you only one question: ‘Did you do what you were supposed to do?’” That’s not just a good question. That’s the question. Did you do what you were supposed to do? It cannot be answered with words. It must be answered with your life.”  (Mark Batterson, All In)


So, in other words, a GOAL.

Last week, I talked about nailing the Character Change journey ( and how a great novel is about the character, and how the plot affects him to change and grow.

We talked about the Story Equation, a tool we use at MBT to understand our character and get the plot on the page, and how it all starts with asking WHO is our character.  Which then leads, eventually, to a Dark Moment Story – that pivotal story in your character’s past that shaped him and made him into the person he is as he walks on the page.

But we’re not done.  See, to create a great story, your character needs a GOAL. Why? Because if he has a goal, then the author can create obstacles to that goal, both internal (fears, lies) and external (flaws, villains, etc.).  And it’s the intersection of a Goal and an Obstacle that make good tension, right?

Almost. Behind every good Goal is two things:  A WANT and a WHY.  See, a character without a strong WHY behind their goal will fold at the first sight of an obstacle.  They need the WHY to power up their actions.  And the WHY causes the WANT, that formless desire that then translates into an external GOAL.

WHY + WANT = GOAL vikings_2013_tv_series-HD

Our family, being Vikings (our school mascot, our MN Football team, our heritage) loves the show VIKINGS.  Yes, there are times when I have to walk out of the room, but it’s an interesting show rife with character layers.

(*spoiler alert!* If you are also a fan and haven’t seen last week’s episode, stop reading here)


In recent episodes, King Ragnar has decided to attack Paris.  Why?  Because a monk he captured in season 1, and with whom he became great friends, cast a vision about the magnificence of Paris.  Ragnar became obsessed with seeing Paris.

MonkThen, the monk was killed by one of Ragnar’s close henchmen, thinking he was securing the favor of the gods.

Ragnar was devastated, took the monk’s cross off him, and began wearing it as he marched off to Paris.

Three episodes later, the Vikings have tried, twice, unsuccessfully, to capture Paris.  Ragnar has been seriously wounded, nearly lost his son and his brother and has sacrificed over 1000 of his men.  Still, he is undeterred in his quest.

By this time, the audience (me) is thinking – dude, it’s not worth it.  I’ve been to Paris, and yes, while it’s pretty awesome, it’s not worth losing your life and your son’s life. Go home already!

The Parisians are starving, so they send terms out to Ragnar – we’ll give you gold and riches to go away.

Ragnar seems undeterred. . .and I’m baffled.  Until he sneaks off to meet with them, and we discover what’s driving all this.  His WANT and his WHY.

He’s dying.  And he, more than anything, longs to be reunited with his monk buddy.  But they have different gods, different heavens, so, in a crazy unpredictable twist, Ragnar agrees to leave Paris alone if he is. . .wait for it. . .BAPTIZED.  Ragnar wants to become a Christian (sorta. Let’s not go overboard here).

That’s what’s been driving his relentless pursuit of Paris.

In other words, Ragnar went all in to attack Paris, with the goal of being reunited with his buddy in heaven.  Why?  Because out of all his henchmen, wives, children and kingdom, (and because he’d been betrayed in some way by them all,) the monk proved to be his most trustworthy friend.

Simplified:  WHY – true friendship (something that often eludes a King).  WANT – to be reunited in heaven. GOAL – take Paris and be baptized by their church.

Now, it makes sense.


Does your character’s goal make sense?  Is it fueled by the secret sauce of Motivation: The Why and a Want?


This weekend, best-selling novelist Steven James and I chatted about about storycrafting principles on his awesome new show, The Story Blender. We talked about how to get into character, connecting with the reader, common mistakes of first time authors, and how to bring your writing to the next level. We also touched on how to create powerful tension and put together all the key pieces to powerful storytelling.

Most importantly, we talked about creating powerful character emotions and tension by understanding what drives your character.

(you can download/listen to it here:

If you want to nail the character change journey, you need to give your Character an Extreme Character Makeover, starting with the Dark Moment Story and ending up with a powerful Why + Want = Goal.  Because once you have the goal, you can really start having some fun.  (insert tension here!)

Go! Write something Brilliant!


Susie May

PS – if you liked this blog, you might want to check our our LIBRARY of free articles.  AND, get our 5 Secrets of a Best-selling novel.

Quick Skills: Act 2 Plotting

Act 2 plotting in 5 easy questions!

I always get the Chapter Seven Blues.  I know it’s inevitable, but I seem to forget that it happens, and often I’ll find myself down in the kitchen, moping (and looking for chocolate) and my husband will say… “You’re at Chapter 7, aren’t you?”

I’ll turn, stare at him, and nod. “How did you know that?”

“Because the excitement of the story has gotten you through chapter 3, and Act 1, and the momentum carried you into chapters 4-6, but now the steam has died in the middle of Act 2, and you’re down here hunting for inspiration.”  (This is usually accompanied by him taking the bag of chocolate chips out of my hand.)

He’s dead right.  I’m smack in the middle of the long highway weaving through Act 2, and it’s been a LOOOONG time since I’ve seen a road sign.

That’s when I trudge back to my office and pull out my plotting roadmap. It’s not long after that I’m pedal to the metal down the highway, headed to Act 3.  All I needed was a little direction.  And that’s where my Act 2 plotting helped save the day.

The truth is, most writers lose their steam in Act 2. But it’s really just a matter of knowing where your character is going, and the stepping stones to getting him there.

Act 2 is comprised of 4 major steps and 5 easy questions.

Step 1: Attempt (and failure) – This happens early in Act 2, when your characters motivation and enthusiasm for victory are high. They can conquer the world! Except they don’t.  It’s imperative that they fail on some level (even if they have a win of some sort), because it injects conflict and a fear of failure into the story. Without this, there’s no contest. If winning is sure thing, then the story is boring. (like when a basketball team wins 87 to 14.  Yuck).

Ask: What can I have my character fail at that makes him doubt himself or victory?

After the Attempt (and failure), your character must consider three things:
The Cost:  What it might cost him to go on this journey – what he might lose.
The Rewards: What prize awaits him ?
Desire: Why does he want to do this? (and this desire must be greater or equal than the cost!)

*All of these should add up to enough motivation to continue the journey.

Step 2: Training for Battle – This is the “fun and games” or the bulk of the story.  Here is wherey your character changes and grows as a person.

Ask: What steps will your character take to win the day?  (break your plotting down to smaller steps – it will help you construct your scenes).

However, sadly, the way we grow is often through struggle.  So, you’re going to have to put your character through his paces.  You’ll do this by causing conflict at each step.  (Note:  Sometimes, something GOOD happens…but it still causes conflict.  Like rescuing the heroine might ignite all of Troy to assemble on your beach!)

The key is…after the conflict, your character must make a decision about what to do next. It’s this decision that both continues his journey and causes him to change and grow. (I call this decision the Y in the Road).

I’ve gone round and round on terms for these, and my last Deep Thinker’s group settled on these: (yes, I know it’s bad grammar, but it works!)
Bad+ Y in the Road

Badder + Y in the Road

Baddest Y in the Road

Ask:  What conflict will I cause for my character, and how will his/her decision after this cause him/her to grow?

Step 3: Attempt (and mini-victory) – Your character has to have some taste of victory, or he/she will simply give up.  If you feel your character needs this victory during the Training for Battle stage…make it happen!  These are simply roadmarkers, but they can be moved around. The key is to always remember to keep enough motivation for every decision your character makes.  However, I like to put this right before the Black Moment, to remind him of what he has to fight for.

Ask:  How can I give my character a taste of Victory, or HEA?

Step 4: The Black Moment Event! – We’ve already plotting this event when we did our Dark Moment plotting and discovered our character’s Greatest Fear.  The confirmation of the Lie and the Epiphany come at the beginning of Act 3, with the Black Moment Effect.

But, as a review, ask:  What is my character’s great fear, and how will I make this happen?

Some people ask WHY do we have to have a Black Moment.  That’s a much longer post, but the short of it is – it is only after our Black Moments that we truly experience deep change. (And, it makes for a fabulous story.)

To help, I’ve created a little Plotting Roadmarker Chart for Act 2:  Quick Skills Plotting Diagram

Quick Skill:  Plot the Roadmarkers of Act 2 before you start on your journey. You can always change it later as you get into the story, but this way, hopefully you won’t find yourself lost in the wasteland of Chapter 7, singing the blues.

Happy Writing!

Susie May

P.S. By the way, if you sign up for the daily Flashblog reminder in your email box, you receivethe 5 Elements of a Best-Selling
Novel.  A quick class on those foundational elements ever editor is looking for!  Sign up at:

P.P.S.  As you might already know, MBT is now offering an advanced membership with access to our full library, advanced teaching through webinars and video talk shows and a monthly advanced class.  For more info, check out:  Hope to see you at practice!


Quick Skills: Sellability

Raise your hand if you’ve seen the new movie, The Vow. I haven’t, but I’m intrigued because it contains a twist on the premise of my new book, The Shadow of Your Smile. A wife loses her memory, and her husband has to woo her all over again.  My story is different in that my hero and heroine have been married for 25 years, with a family and life.  However, their marriage is on the rocks…so while they have a lot to lose, there’s also that sense that they’ve already “forgotten” each other.

Still, as I was building my story, I thought – how will this be different? How can I make this story more powerful, with bigger issues to make it stand out in the market?  How do I make it more sellable than another story with the same premise?

I did this by adding in four powerful elements: Acts of Heroism, Sacrifice, Redemption and Justice.

Acts of Heroism is the journey of a hero or heroine from selfishness to selflessness. In my story, I had a hero who had given up on his marriage because his wife shut him out. He had turned to ice fishing (remember, we’re in Minnesota).  His goal is to stop serving himself…and learn to serve his wife, even if she never remembered their lives together.

Sacrifice is that element that makes a hero sympathetic. It may be at the end of a journey, or at the beginning.  In my story, I put the Sacrifice off stage – my hero and heroine have lost their only daughter in a tragic crime before the book opens.  Worse, they’ve never recovered from this loss.  As the story progresses, the hero must confront the idea of not telling his wife about their daughter in order to help her heal, and thus, lose his daughter all over again.

Redemption is that piece that heals their wounds. It’s the love they find again – but also Eli stepping in to be a real husband, one who engages and protects his wife. He has the opportunity to repeat his sins – or conquer them.  I put Eli in a potentially adulterous situation where he can start over again…with someone else.  And then I let him choose what kind of man he’ll be.

Justice is something everyone craves in a story – for the wrong to be set right.  The bad guy captured, and the memory restored.  (maybe. ) I added a suspense plot into this story so I could create a sense of Justice for Eli, the former police chief. And, I layered in a way to “heal” the family despite all their wounds.

As you’re creating your story, build in these four elements by asking:

  • What are my hero/heroine’s heroic acts, and how do they become less selfish every time?
  • What does my hero/heroine sacrifice at the beginning, that they can repeat at the end? Or, what do they sacrifice at the end to finish their heroic journey?
  • How are my hero/heroine redeemed of his/her mistakes by allowing him/her “another chance?”
  • How will Justice prevail in the end?

With these four elements, your story will have a strong foundation and increase its chances of surviving the whirlwind of the submission pile.

Quick Skill:  Build in the four pillars of a powerful story to keep your story from crumbling.

Susie May

P.S. By the way, if you sign up for the daily Flashblog reminder in your email box, you receive the 5 Elements of a Best-Selling Novel.  A quick class on those foundational elements ever editor is looking for!  Sign up at:

P.S.  As you might already know, MBT is now offering an advanced membership!  And, we have one more week of preview.  Go to: to find out more and sign up for your free trial membership.  No obligation, you get to join in the fun, and you’ll get an invite at the end of the month to join at our reduced rate! Hope to see you on the team!