Making Stories Come Alive

Our characters are more than just the creatures of our story world, they are the lens through which readers see into that world. It is possible to tell a story without using this lens, but the resulting story world can be gray and lifeless. Characters interacting with that world and each other give it color, make it seem more real.

I learned this the hard way.

I wanted the hero of More Deaths Than One to appear to be an insignificant little man though he was rich, had a couple of influential friends, and once had been a secret agent. Despite several rewritings, I could not make him come alive. He seemed dull and boring rather than the mysterious character I wanted him to be, and when the information about him unfolded during the course of the novel, it too was uninteresting. No matter what I did, I could not make him or his past three-dimensional.

In desperationfireworks, I created a love interest for him. (It seems like an obvious solution, but originally I wanted him to be a loner. Oddly, the love interest made him seem even more of a loner by comparison.) When I began to see him through her eyes and her amazement, all of a sudden he burst into full color.

Using one character’s viewpoint to show another character also allows us to be enigmatic when it comes to characterization. If we as the author/narrator were to describe a character as being kind, he must be so; if another character describes him as being kind, he might be kind, but he also might be kind only to her and mean to everyone else, or he might be abusive to her and she interprets it as being kind because she is not used to having anyone pay attention to her. While learning about him through her eyes, we also learn about her.

In this same way, when we see the story world as the character sees it rather than how we as the creator of the world envisioned it, the scenery comes alive. For example, here is a brief excerpt from A Spark of Heavenly Fire:

Kate jumped out of bed like a child on Christmas morning, ran to the window, and opened the drapes.

It looked as dim as dusk. The sunless sky embraced heavy dark clouds that hung so low she was sure she could reach out and touch them. The howling wind blew a few snowflakes around and rattled her leaky window. The icy draft made her shiver.

She laughed aloud.

What a lovely day!

In this way, we learn about the weather, we learn about the character, and we make the story world come alive for readers. We make readers a part of the story because they identify with the characters. They see the world through our characters’ eyes.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Dealing with Myriad Characters

It’s amazing how much I have forgotten about my work in progress, the one that’s been paused for the better part of three years. (I’ve been writing it on again and off again for six years, actually. Life and death have so often broken me away from the work, that it’s progressing on an average of 8,000 words a year. At this rate, it will be finished in three more years.)

During the first third of the book, my poor hero was mostly alone as he dealt with the affects of a world gone berserk, which created many writing challenges. It’s much easier to write with two characters so they can play off each other, butt heads, have dialogues, or whatever is necessary for the story.

The second part of the book presented an entirely different challenge — too many characters. I’m typing up a stray chapter, one I wrote three years ago, and it astonished me to count fifteen characters: my hero, his nemesis, three starfish-like aliens, plus ten supporting characters. Ouch.

Luckily, I’d done research on group dynamics shortly after I started writing this book, and so I was able to give each human an identifiable role in the group. As I found out, at times groups act like a single entity, so that also helps in dealing with myriad characters. As I wrote in On Writing: Characters and Group Mentality:

massesThere are five stages of group development:

1. Coming together and finding roles
2. Defining the task
3. Disenchantment with the leader, each other
4. Cohesion, feeling like a team
5. Interdependence, acting like a team, becoming more than the sum of the parts.

Most groups unconsciously assign roles to the members, and once these roles have been assigned, tacit agreement maintains them. The most common group roles are: leader, seducer (wants to bewitch others), silent member, taskmaster, clown, victim, oppressor, conciliator, combatant, nurse, young Turk (wants to take over the leadership), the naïf, and the scapegoat.

Groups tend to isolate one person as the source of any conflict, whether warranted or not, and they deposit their negative feelings on that person. Because my hero keeps to himself, and because the others think he’s “teacher’s pet,” he becomes the scapegoat. I don’t think he cares, though, so if you don’t care, are you still the scapegoat? Either way, that’s the role the group has assigned him.

Well, the group didn’t assign him that role; apparently I did once upon a time. It should be interesting to see what other treasures I find as I rediscover this story.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Who Wants to be a Character in a Book?

Grief: The Great Yearning is a compilation of blog posts, letters, and essays I wrote while struggling to survive the first year of grief after the death of my life mate/soul mate. We’d been together almost thirty-four years. I thought I was prepared for his dying, but his death shattered me beyond anything I could ever have imagined. The only way I could survive the agony was to write about it. Although Grief: The Great Yearning is non-fiction (obviously), it has all the elements of great fiction — emotion that weeps off the page, a conflicted character who yearns desperately for something, a love that lives on even after death.

Such is the pendulum swing of life that now, one year and four months after the publication of Grief: The Great Yearning, I would no longer make a good character in a book. I have no real wants or desires; no wishes, dreams, or hopes; no great love (no hate, either). I have nothing to avenge, no strong beliefs, no regrets, no guilt, no fears, no anger.

From the beginning, I’ve been bewildered by my lack of change. Shouldn’t such a soul quake cause ripples of change forever after? I didn’t feel any different, but apparently changes were taking place. All the conflicts of my life seem to be in hiatus, as if the slate of me was wiped clean to make ready for the changes that will be coming to my life. Some of the changes will come because of decisions I make, others changes will simply happen as the rest of my life unfolds.

Character change in itself is not enough either to pilot a story or to plot a book. Change in a character is generally the result of other actions, and shows us how the events of the story affect the character. So, basically, a book needs to begin with a compelling character, and I am missing all the elements that makes a character compelling. On the other hand, since I am not a character in a book, I will enjoy this hiatus from conflict and strong emotion. I mean really, who wants to be a character in a book? Life is hard enough without having to deal with all the torments we put our characters through.

How much of yourself is hidden in the characters in your book?

Freud thought every role in a dream was played by the dreamer, and in a way, that’s the way my books are. The emotions the characters feel are mine since I can only write what I feel, and their personal problems are ones I’ve grappled with. In the writing, though, the characters become more than I ever was as they develop in response to the needs of the story. Kate from A Spark of Heavenly Fire is the most like me, maybe because she was the first character I created.

Here are some other authors’ responses to the question about much of themselves are hidden in their characters. The comments are taken from interviews posted at Pat Bertram Introduces . . .


From an interview with A. F. Stewart, Author of Once Upon a Dark and Eerie

I really hope there is very little of me in my characters since many of them tend to be immoral, vicious, bloodthirsty killers, or unwise enough to get themselves into situations where they are maimed or killed. Well, maybe they share my odd sense of humour.

From an interview with Debra Purdy Kong, Author of “The Opposite of Dark”

When I first began writing about Casey several years ago, I think we had more in common than we do now. Like Casey, I wasn’t interested in marriage, I was studying criminology, and my parents were divorced. However, I’ve grown older while Casey’s stayed young so our interests and concerns are quite different. She’s still building her career and attending school, and looking for love. I’ve been there, done that, so I look at her from a different perspective and see almost nothing of myself in her now.

From an interview with Bonnie Toews, Author of “The Consummate Traitor”

There are elements of myself in both heroines, but yet they are stronger than I think I could ever be. The journalist, Lee, lives with my recurring nightmare and my affinity with the Holocaust. I have often said, “I am a Gentile with a Jewish soul.” The pianist, Grace, reflects my more naive, pollyanna side. And yet, the one time I headed into the Rwandan conflict that proved the UN’s promise of “never again” would the world tolerate another genocide to be an outright lie, I went with complete faith, like Grace, that I was protected from harm.

From an interview with J J Dare, Author of False Positive and False World

The aggressive part of my passive/aggressive personality is turned loose in the books. I can let myself go through my characters; I can destroy without regret, lie with a straight face and a cold heart, and generally, get away with murder.

From an interview with Dellani Oakes, Author of Lone Wolf

Matilda is a lot like me in some respects. Her fierce devotion and the way she takes up for those she loves is totally me. Oddly enough, some of the aspects of Wil’s personality come from me as well. Mostly, he and Marc mirror aspects of my husband’s personality.

So, how much of yourself is hidden in the characters in your book?

(If you’d like me to interview you, please check out my author questionnaire and follow the instruction.)

All the Elements of “Daughter Am I” Meld into a Life-like Drama

I don’t often get fan mail, so when I do get a personal message, it really perks me up. And when I get a message like the following, it makes my day:

Hi Pat –

I have a confession to make, and this has nothing to do with the fact that you plan to read my book. No ulterior motives.

Normally I avoid buying/reading books by friends online because 80% of the time (a conservative figure) I find myself stuck with a real clunker, then feel frustrated as to what to “report” when the “writer” friend wants my opinion. I don’t like being dishonest but, you know how it is. Underwhelmed is one thing, but having to read a bumbling, disjointed, retch-worthy error-filled story resembling an eighth grader’s essay makes me nuts. So I tend to run the other way.

Discounting my modesty about my writing side, I will freely admit to being a terrific reader. No reason for shyness or modesty there. I know what I like and can tell the difference between the work of a hack and a real talent. Pat — you have talent.

I’m not sure why I broke my own “rule” when I bought Daughter Am I yesterday — but the book hasn’t disappointed me. It’s a great story. The characters are believable, identifiable, purposeful, & entertaining. The scene description is just enough — not undercooked or burnt to a crisp. And the plot moves, holds attention & makes the reader (me) anxious for more. You certainly understand how to make all elements of a story meld into a life-like drama. There you have it — my unsolicited opinion. I’m really impressed with Daughter Am I and thought I’d say so.

Have a great day.

These words brought tears to my eyes. That someone liked my book so much they felt compelled to write me was an unexpected and most gracious Christmas present.

Quite coincidentally, I am being interviewed on my publisher’s blog today about this very book. If you’d like to know more about the novel and its cast of entertaining characters, please click here: Interview With Pat Bertram, Author of “Daughter Am I”

All my books are available both in print and in ebook format, perfect for holiday gift giving. You can get them online at Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, B&N and Smashwords. Smashwords is great! The books are available in all ebook formats, including palm reading devices, and you can download the first 20-30% free! 

The Soundtrack of Our Lives

I never paid much attention to the soundtrack of my life until a few months after my life mate’s death when I realized all the things I wasn’t hearing. Every morning for decades, I woke to the motorized whine of his blender as he made a protein drink, the shushing of running water as he filtered the drinking water for the day, the clink of weights as he did his exercises. We were quiet people, but during the day, I’d occasionally I’d hear the soft hum of his music or tinny voices from the television in the other room. In the summer I could hear the rustle of the hose in the weeds as he watered the bushes and trees outside my window, and in the winter I could hear the stamp of his boots when he came in from clearing off snow. And always when we were together, there was the lovely sound of his voice as we talked and talked and talked — we talked of anything and everything until he got so sick he couldn’t carry the thread of a conversation any more. At the end, there were the scary night sounds of his falling when he tried to get out of bed, and the even scarier sounds of his yelps when he woke and couldn’t remember who he was or where he was.

Just from those sounds, you get an idea of our life together and how it ended. What is the soundtrack of your life? How has it changed over the years?

If you are a writer, what are the soundtracks of your characters’ lives? What do those sounds mean to your characters, and how does the soundtrack change during the course of the book to reflect the changes in their circumstances. How much can your readers tell about your characters from the sounds they hear?

On Writing: Tell, Don’t Show

In Description, Monica Wood commented: Don’t enslave yourself to showing. “Show don’t tell” is a guideline, not a rule. Sometimes telling is more effective and thrilling as long as the prose is interesting and engaging.”

As a reader, one of my pet hates is when one character is talking to another, and they retell the entire story up to that point, so as a writer, when I get to a place where one character has to tell another what the reader already knows, I write something like, “and Sam told Sally about the woman who tried to kill him and how he ran off instead of trying to find out who it was.” Avoiding repetition is one reason telling is so much better than showing at times. Makes the story move faster. Might not be immortal prose, but it moves the story along.

The worst offenders of the tell, don’t show suggestion are lawyer books. They spend the first half of the book laying out the story, then the second half repeating that story in a courtroom setting. If a reader can skip a whole slew of chapters and not miss a moment of the story, the writer has not done his or her job. If the writer wants to do the courtroom scene, then make sure what is shown is new. Otherwise, simply tell what went on in a few short sentence and get to the good stuff.

Another time telling is better than showing is if a scene has no conflict, no surprises, no twists. If a character sets out to do something and accomplishes it without any problems, then showing is a waste. Just tell it. Don’t build up to  . . . nothing.

A way to know if it’s better to show or to tell is to decide what you want to accomplish with a scene. If the immediacy of a scene is important, show it. If the reactions of a character who was not involved in the scene are most important, then it’s possible to have one character tell the other what happened and then show the character’s emotion.

When writing More Deaths Than One, I worried that I was cheating readers by doing the big disclosure  at the end via letter (in other words, telling), but the importance of the scene lay not in finding out the truth of who Bob was but in the different ways Bob and Kerry reacted to the truth. It was about them and their relationship more than the deeds themselves. It was also about the emotion of the person writing the letter and how that emotion bound all of them together. So basically, the letter was all about telling rather than showing the disclosure, and showing rather than telling the emotion it evoked.

When do you tell instead of show? (I mean you personally, not writers in general.) How do you make it effective and thrilling?

On Writing: Family

If a character has well-defined family members — that never-satisfied mother, that demanding great-aunt, that silent father — then we authors don’t have to create that character. The family does it for us.

The family of Mary Stuart in Daughter Am I truly helped create her. When Mary found out that she was the heir of grandparents she never knew existed, she had to find out who they were so she could find out who she was. Once I set the family dynamic, that determined the character of Mary. Her father was close-mouthed, wouldn’t talk about why he disowned his parents or why he told his daughter they were dead. He also bonded more with his daughter’s fiancé than with her. The mother seemed to be mostly a shadow of the father. Because of this, it was inevitable that Mary got engaged to the guy they liked, and it was also inevitable that she dumped him when she became her own person. And even that “own person” was created by family — turns out she was just like her dead grandfather, with his set of values, a desire to build his own life despite social conventions, and an intense loyalty. Even her “adopted” family helped create her. As she followed her quest to learn about her grandparents, she accumulated a crew of travel companions — all friends of her grandparents — who become a new family of sorts.

Rubicon Ranch, the collaborative novel I’m doing with some other Second Wind authors, is all about family. The birth family who’s been searching for the girl and who fall prey to con artists, the couple who wanted a child so bad that they kidnapped one, the old man who suspects his son of the crime, the woman who suspects her father, the boy who is being abused by his father, the sleepwalker who is still haunted by his dead sister, the woman who is grieving for her dead philandering husband. It’s interesting how the theme of family has evolved in such an extemporaneous project. We never planned this theme, but each of us separately chose to deal somehow with family skeletons.

The family of Bob in More Deaths Than One certainly helped create him, especially since that was the basis of the story. He comes home from an 18-year sojourn in Southeast Asia to discover that the mother be buried before he left is dead again. He goes to her funeral and sees his brother, but they had never been close, so he doesn’t make contact. Bob also sees himself, but a doppelganger isn’t really family, so it doesn’t have any part of this discussion.

Lack of family also helps define characters.

In my just-published novel Light Bringer, two of my main characters found each other when they were searching for their birth parents. Those characters were truly a product of their upbringing and their birth. That is the whole crux of the story — who the characters are and why they were birthed.

How does your character’s family make her who she is? (Or make him who he is.) How do they bind her? How do they set her free? Do they add to her conflicts, either internal or external, or do they help her on her life’s journey?

Feeling Disconnected to My Characters

I’m sticking to my NaNoWriMo schedule, but I’ve developed an aversion to my character. She sounds whiney and self-pitying, though she’s only grieving, but I need to make her sympathetic, special, someone a reader would care about. She is not coming alive for me.

Often books start with a scene that shows the hero in action, perhaps doing something noble or self-sacrificing, or just being strong and vulnerable. Something that immediately makes the reader feel a connection. But how can I make the reader feel connected, when I don’t feel connected to the character? Which is odd, considering that she is me. Sort of. I only know my grief, so that part of me is part of her. The story, of course, is fiction.

One of my problems is that she carried on a cyber affair when her husband was dying (her daughter caught her at it, which is why the mother and daughter are at odds). I have to make the widow realistic enough so that people will believe that she can be in love with one man (who she hasn’t met yet) while grieving another. In today’s society, loving another negates grief, but from talking to people who have had more than one husband die, grief for one man and love for another can live side by side.

So, what problems are you encountering in your work in progress? How are you making your characters sympathetic, special, someone readers would care about? Do you feel a connection to them? Do you need to feel a connection to write the character?

Write for the Dead Whom Thou Didst Love

 A voice calls, “Write, write!”
I say, “For whom shall I write.”
And the voice replies,
“For the dead whom thou didst love.”

—John Berryman

I read a novel the other day where the main character was a grieving widow with a young daughter, but neither character showed any symptoms of grief — at least not what I have come to know as grief. The only indication of their grief was a conversation about how the two needed to be strong and not cry.

If this is the way the non-grieving public learns about grief, no wonder so few of us understand what grieving means until we find ourselves immersed in this strange new world. Because of the lack of characters who grieve properly, I’ve been toying with writing a book about a grieving woman, even going so far as to write a few scenes while the emotion is still fresh in my mind (though I can’t imagine ever forgetting what it feels like to grieve for a soul mate — every single day in a thousand ways, I am reminded once again that he is gone).

After having written those few scenes, I now understand why it’s almost impossible to write a grief-stricken character. All the tears, the pain, the nausea, the inability to focus, the not sleeping or sleeping too much, the not eating or eating too much add up to a character who appears as a wimp and a whiner. We are so used to invincible characters who manage to fight despite grievous wounds or agonizing pain, that a normal character living a normal — though grief-filled life — comes across as a weakling. Another problem is that a character who cries at her own pain, who feels everything herself, eliminates the need for readers to feel that pain, and so they dissociate from the character. But the very nature of grief is feeling pain. It’s by embracing the pain, by letting the tears spill over, by giving in to the grief that we come to terms with it.

Perhaps that’s the way I should write the character — have her actively participate in her grief. Instead of being brave and not crying, she should embrace the pain, make grief a part of her life. And in doing so, she will show her strength.