updated August 1, 2019


Snoopy has it right. Good writing is HARD!

There’s a general rule I tend to give authors, and that’s to really notice what your character is doing on the page and limit it. There are certain things that can really only happen once for a character in a whole book, or it comes across as forced or makes a statement about the character that your readers will pick up, even if it’s subconsciously.

So back in one of my earlier projects, I noticed in the middle of revising that my characters smile too much. Especially my protagonist. And she’s not even happy sometimes. She’s just pretending to be happy for those around her. Only when I tried to fix it, it came out about like this conversation:

Me: You can’t do that!

Protag: But I’m happy. Don’t you smile when you’re happy.

Me: But you smile way too much.

Protag: Seriously? It’s a BAD thing that I’m a happy character. Do you want me to turn all emo on you? Because you really won’t like it when I have to write all that bad poetry to reveal my soul.

Me: It’s not that, really. You just can’t smile so often. Could you, perhap, do something else when you’re happy?

Protag: Like what?

Me: Um… I really don’t know. You could… um… well… maybe…

Protag: What if I SING AT THE TOP OF MY LUNGS A HAPPY SONG?

Me: Um… no. That’s not what I had in mind.

Protag: (tapping her foot, arms folded) So… what should I do?

Me: (strategically start avoiding Protag’s gaze)

Protag: Really, you’ve got issues. Guess I don’t really have to be happy. It’s not like you’re story is this big pile of laughs, anyways. *Stomps away in disgust grumbling ‘I smile too much? How can you smile TOO much…’*

The truth is that smiling isn’t a big deal, but there are other things that you can only let happen once in a book. Count how many times your character does something, such as crying, throwing up, or even their character tics. This is for both the main character and secondary characters. Here’s a list of what I’ve seen happen at least three times in a manuscript and had to comment on:

  • Crying
  • Throwing up
  • Sighing
  • A strong female character allowing the men around her to make her decisions
  • Rape or attempted rape (from various other characters)

There are also other, smaller, character quirks that if they happen too frequently, it’s just a little much for the story. Potentially limiting it to once per chapter, if that, will help. This is particularly helpful if your character always reacts in the same way, because then they feel very one-note without any character depth.

  • winking
  • getting weak knees
  • feeling sick in their stomach
  • biting lip
  • tucking hair behind ear

I also want to point out that, as with every rule, there are great exceptions out there. Turtles All The Way Down by John Green is an excellent example where the character has a character tic (because of her OCD) that makes her respond the same way to a lot of the stresses in her life, and that is a problem that she points out. Monk is the same in his TV show, and the predictability of his reactions actually adds to the humor. Terry Pratchett also gives a lot of his characters verbal tics that come out in dialogue and help distinguish the character. A great example is Solomon in Dodger.

Sometimes Solomon talked as if he had just woken up and dismembered something: a curious little mmm sound that came out something close to the chirping of a little bird, heralding what he had to say next. Dodger never really understood what the automatic mmm stood for. It was a friendly noise and it seemed to him that Solomon was winding up for the next thought; you got used to it after a while and missed it when it wasn’t there.

Now Solomon said, “Mmm, was that any better or worse than being eaten by worms? It is the fate of all mankind, alas. You were with him when he did mmm, his friend? So that is a good thing. I have met the gentleman in the past, and I supposed he must be mmm oh, thirty-three?”

Now there are a few things that Pratchett does incredibly well with this. First, he sets up clearly what is happening before Solomon speaks for the first time to make sure the dialogue tic doesn’t confuse the reader. Second, he sets up the POV character’s (Dodger) opinion on what he thinks of the tic. Yes, it’s annoying or confusing, but really it’s endearing and missed when it’s not there. That helps create the same impression in the reader. Third, he doesn’t use it the same way all the time. First, he starts a sentence with it, then he drops it in the middle of a sentence. And those points are all points where you can almost see the character stopping to pause as he tries to recall something, because you’d be pausing to remember that information as well.

For the audiobook, the narrator does an amazing job with this quirk. I’ll be honest, though. This quirk still really struck out to me because it wasn’t something I’d noticed in people around me. It was just odd.

And then I went to Italy.

Because I was being ambitious, I took several tours in Italian. Let me just say that I have zero skills when it comes to foreign languages, and try as I might to learn, my brain just does not go there. So despite my attempts to learn Italian for months before my trip, I was stuck with two phrases before I went, and then I still kept mixing them up with Spanish phrases (the little that stuck in my head after 8 years of learning and 2 years of applying it on the job–see, me and languages don’t mix well despite all attempts).

But on several of the tours, I noticed that in Italian, instead of saying “Umm… or Uh…” the tour guides all said “Mmm” when they paused. And all of the sudden it made perfect sense.

When you have to bring in those moments of extreme emotion, really pick the best time for that to happen. Emma Thompson has a great interview here, but something I want to highlight is her advice, and also see many of the moments she chose to cry. (found at 8.40)

Question: Is there a particular bit of direction you’ve had over the years that you’ve hung onto and really enjoyed and remembered.

“Jim Ivory saying ‘Don’t sigh ever.’ And just don’t cry. Just don’t, unless you absolutely have to. Lots of actors use sighing … it’s a nervous habit. You’ll notice now when you watch. … Sighs need to be like words. If you’re gonna use it, it has to really mean something, otherwise it’s just noise and it’s really boring. And people who cry in films all the time… you just can’t do it because the film’s very short. You might be doing a film about somebody’s life and in that life there’s lots of pain, so there’s lots of moments where they might cry, but if you show them all in a 2-hour movie, or a 1 and 1/2 hour movie, you just go: Oh my god, this person was just upset all the time. And then you walk out feeling  miserable. It’s also a very good rule of thumb, if you have to cry, cry once. Once is enough! Choose your moment.

– Emma Thompson

As she mentions, if you choose to have your character repeatedly do a certain thing, they will be viewed in such a way. In one of my favorite TV shows, the daughter character (very much a victim/weak character portrayal of the stronger characters in the show) cries at least twice per episode. Granted, terrible things happen to her, but her reaction is always the same: to cry. The actress made several comments about this, such as “oh, it’s my obligatory crying scene” because it was just part of her character, and was actually relieved when her character would respond in anger over shedding tears. She’s a great contrast to her very strong mother, who maybe only cries once during the whole series, but there’s also not a lot of characterization there for her character to stand on.

Angela Ackerman helps give us a solution by providing an EMOTIONAL THESAURUS and other similar books. Check it out!

7 thoughts on “in which my protagonist gets mad at me: or some things can only happen once in a manuscript (or movie)

  1. Such a good post! My character’s tend to have little “tics” like that too. In one of my short stories I had people cocking their heads right and left. Never picked up on it until the revision. It nearly gave ME a tic!

  2. i think it’s the simple phrase “she smiled”, “he smiled” that you have to watch out for. i don’t think it’s a bad thing for your character to have a trait like that, but maybe the smile simply needs to be expanded upon. “the smile spread across her face in a mischevious way, reminding him of the Chesire cat.” that way we’re not drawn so much to the fact that she’s smiling, but rather what she might be thinking beneath that smile…

  3. My characters sigh and roll their eyes a lot. Carol pointed that one out. I think it’s because I sigh and roll my eyes a lot. I’m kind of sarcastic, I guess…and my characters end up being more like me than they should.

  4. Ha, Cheryl, my characters sigh a lot too. And in one chapter I wrote recently, I noticed that my character leans her head back or presses her forehead to things a lot. She’s finding out she’s in a magical world, which is so crazy, so she is pressing her forehead into her arms, against a rock, leaning her head back against a tree. And sighing. All the while, sighing. It made me laugh when I realized it.

  5. Hee hee — I agree, maybe it’s the characteristics we do ourselves that our characters do. (Yes, that’s a poorly constructed sentence, but I’m on a time crunch here!) For me, it’s gasping — which I do like a fish out of water. It’s so sad when I realize I forgot to do something and one of the neighbor kids is over… they think they’re in BIG TROUBLE. Of course, my kids just think it’s normal, so maybe that means they’re in trouble too much???

  6. My characters have an annoying habit of walking into scenes they aren’t supposed to be in. One particularly persistent character loves to walk in from other stories just to pester the people in the scene, especially if they’re the kind of person that would annoy him. This most frequently shows up in my dialogue. If someone says something that’s totally out of character, it’s not my fault, it’s his.

    @Natalie and Chersti: What do you mean, our characters reflect our habits? I would never pester anyone or put words in someone else’s mouth! 🙂

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