Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I'm Only Human

By: Mieke Zamora-Mackay

Photograph Beautiful eyes by Alma S on 500px
Photo Credit
All stories involve characters.  They drive the story and carry the reader from the first page to the last.  Through them, we learn to care about what happens. Characters interact with and affect every element of fiction.  Without characters, there is no story. 

In our reading lives, we’ve each found characters we absolutely fall in love with. They become so endeared to us that we can’t get them out of our heads. We become invested in their journey.  When we re-read their stories, it often feels like having an old friend come to visit.

Think about a person whom you’ve wanted to befriend for sometime.  What is it about that person that is interesting to you?  What characteristics do they possess that you find attractive?  Chances are, there is something about that person that you identify with; possibly admire? Covet?

Now, ask the same questions of your favorite book characters. What is it that makes you care so much about him or her?  What makes them interesting or intriguing? What has the author done to make you identify with that person?  Most likely, the author has successfully created a very human character.   

“But my character isn’t human,” you say.  It doesn’t matter.  Our readers are humans. Therefore, our characters must be as human-like as possible, even if they are anything but.  To make a character relatable, we must make our characters embody human-like qualities. Humans occupy space, have thoughts and feelings, move and utilize their senses.  Humans evolve and change; sometimes they progress, and at other times regress.  All this captures our humanity.  As writers, we must create characters that do the same in the world of our stories.    They must be so well developed that if they reached out from the page, we’d actually feel their touch.

How do we make our characters seem more human?  Here are a few things to keep in mind when crafting our characters. 

Photograph 11000lei by Alessandro Galantucci on 500px
Photo Credit
Humans occupy space.
We are physical beings that have size and shape.   We occupy space, and we have a sense of place.  When people look at us, they see something.  Our physical presence can be measured and observed.

When we create our characters we need to know what they look like.  We start with the basics, like eye color, hair, height, weight, and skin color.  Does he/she wear eyeglasses or hats?  Take into account everything you need to create the visual. 

You will want to go beyond this and determine certain physical gestures and mannerisms your character has.  Does he or she fidget, or does he bow his head down often avoiding eye contact.  Are his shoulders hunched over while he walks, or is her head held high, with her gaze going down her nose?

Humans are complex.
We are complicated beings.  We each carry our own histories, memories and experiences.  These form our attitudes toward things.  They either make us fear the world, strengthen our attitudes, or encourage the biases that affect our decision making process. They dictate how we behave, pushing us to either be consistent in our actions, or whether we waver in our convictions.

Now think about what kind of background your character has.  What is his/her name?  Does it mean something?  What is his birth order within the family?  Does that affect how he treats others? how he treats himself?  Explore his education, profession, his life experiences, and his family life.  As you dig deeper, you will find that many of these factors affect their feelings and the conflicts in their lives.

We all have inner conflicts about certain things.  These conflicts are driven by our backgrounds, our desires and how we react to them. 

What is her worst secret? Does she practice a certain religion? Is she devout? How was she disciplined as a child? Do the answers to these questions have an impact on how she presents herself to her friends? to strangers?

This is your opportunity to think about contrasting qualities within your characters 
Not all good characters are good all the time.  How exciting would a story be if your main character always chooses the right path?  What trait resides in her that would make her turn left instead of right?  Explore that with questions like, “What  would your character lay down her life for?   What is her biggest fear?  Who knows about this fear?”

On the converse, not all bad characters or villains are bad all the time, either.  In fact, most villains believe that they are doing the right thing; pursing a greater good that only he understands.  It is his complexity that makes him believe that. Sometimes, the most interesting villains are those you seem to understand; who might possess or exhibit a trait that you have, or identify with.

Think about what your villain’s parents were like, or did she have any parental figures in her life at all.  Where did she grow up?  Where does she live now?  What are the turning points in her life? What does she like most about her life? The least?

Humans want something.
All of us have desires. Some are so strong that we are pushed in a certain direction to take action, to make choices, and take risks.  Our characters must desire something so compelling that they must move.

Think about what material possessions they feel are most important to them.  Or what secrets she keeps.  From whom does she keep them?  Why does she keep them secret?  What would be his perfect happy ending?  What makes your character laugh out loud? Cry? Bawl?  What are his goals for tomorrow, next year, ten years from now? 

Depending on your story, your character’s desires will play big part in choosing the paths they take, what goals they seek to attain, and what will get in their way.

Humans are capable of change.
We are living creatures and are constantly evolving.   An experience can change us for the better, and sometimes for the worse.    Sometimes we do things out of the ordinary because of a series of small successes that embolden us.  In certain circumstances, our failure at a minor challenge can frighten us from going out and doing bigger things. This too should be reflected in our characters.

Our characters must evolve, learn, and modify their behavior.  The experiences your character goes through must change him/her.  In the context of your story, think about how each trial faced by your character changes their behavior, thoughts, feelings, or actions.  What did they learn from that experience?  How will they approach the same situation the next time it comes around? 

Your characters must either progress and realize their dreams, or accept their fate and move on.   The former is the most ideal, but life doesn’t really work that way. Despite that, he  must have evolved from the time your readers met him on page one.  If at the end of the story, your character remains unchanged, your readers are going to ask, “What was the point?”

All these facets of humanness cannot be developed in a vacuum.  Each one is part of a whole and affects the entirety of your character.  For example, think of a female character with blue eyes, blonde hair, and is particularly tall.  She’s taller than all the rest of the people in her family and in their orchard farming community.  Does she revel in her difference and keep her head held high? Or downplay her height, and keep her neck bowed and shoulders hunched so she doesn’t seem so unusual.  How do the boys in town react to her?  How do the girls treat her?  What happens if she’s the only one tall enough to reach the very last fruit of the tree that is meant to feed her family? 

Character Worksheets.
When brainstorming about your main character, it might be helpful for you to develop a character worksheet to make sure that you take into account everything you need to know about him/her.  These worksheets can help ensure you cover every aspect that is important to you for your character’s development.

For main characters, you can be as elaborate as you wish. I’ve heard of writers who go as far as creating a biography for the character.   We must do what is necessary to know your characters on such an intimate level.  Your intimacy with the character will show in your writing.   You don’t need to put everything about your character in your story, but knowing how he/she will react to any situation will only benefit your story. 

For secondary characters, you don’t necessarily have to delve so deep.   A running list of qualities, traits and characteristics may suffice to get a sense of who this person is and how they will affect your main character.  Remember, secondary characters are the members of your cast that serve to enhance and highlight your main character’s story.

There are many worksheets available for download around the internet, including one here which is based on this article. You can also develop your own.  Just take into account some of the basics, like their appearance, background, personality, and primary identity.  Build on that by adding questions that you feel will reflect or dig deep into the humanity of your character. 

We all want to care about the characters we read about.  We want to see what they see, and feel what they feel.  Certain characters endure in our minds.  We learn from them, we cheer for them, and sometimes we even scold them.

As a writer, do not be afraid to stand by your characters, especially if you’ve made them as human as they can possibly be.  Let’s make them memorable, worth the time our readers put into getting to know them.  Hopefully one day, a reader will tell you how one of your characters reached out from the page and touched his/her heart.

Mieke Zamora-Mackay is a wife and mother of two kids that are growing up faster than she can imagine.  She works full-time as a paralegal in the Philadelphia area, and writes women’s romance, young adult and middle grade novels and short stories. Follow her journey through writing and reading on her blog, The Author-In-Training, at and on Twitter as @MZMackay.

All photographs shown under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Tethered Book Trailer

"Tethered" the new book by author and South Jersey Writers' Group member, L.D. Davis.

Release date: April 4th, 2014.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Breaking Into Writing for Children and Young Adults

The South Jersey Writers' Group brings Kidlit Authors to the William G. Rohrer Memorial Library in Haddon Township, NJ.

On April 12, 2014, Saturday, at 2:00 pm, the South Jersey Writers’ Group is presenting a free panel discussion on how to write for Children and Young Adults at the William G. Rohrer Memorial Library, 15 MacArthur Boulevard, Haddon Township, NJ.  Published authors of children's and young adult fiction Elisa Ludwig, Alissa Grosso, K. M. Walton, and Alison Ashley Formento will share their experience and insight, talking about the most popular genres, and what it takes to break in.

There will be a Question and Answer portion at the end of the panel.  The authors will be selling and signing their books at the end of the afternoon.

Author's Bios:
ELISA LUDWIG studied writing at Vassar College and Temple University, but she wanted to be a writer long before all of that. Technically, since she started writing, editing and publishing The Elisa Bulletin which she printed out on a dot matrix printer and sold for ten cents a pop. She has been pick-pocketed twice, and once caught someone mid-pocket. Other than occasional jaywalking, she’s a law-abiding citizen. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and son. Her first novel, PRETTY CROOKED, was followed by PRETTY SLY in 2014, with a third installment due out in 2015. You can visit her online at

ALISON ASHLEY FORMENTO is the author of multi-award-winning nature picture books This Tree Counts!This Tree, 1, 2, 3These Bees Count!, These Seas Count! and These Rocks Count! (2014). Her debut young adult novel Twigs is published by new imprint Merit Press Books, helmed by The New York Times bestselling author, Jacquelyn Mitchard. Alison has written for publications including The New York Times, The Writer, Parenting and numerous international and regional magazines. She loves visiting schools and libraries and donates a portion of her book sales to

ALISSA GROSSO is a young adult novelist, among other things. Alissa’s books have been published on four continents. She’s the author of the novels Popular (Flux, 2011), Ferocity Summer (Flux, 2012) and Shallow Pond (Flux, 2013). She is a member of  The Class of 2K11, The KidLit Authors ClubThe Elevensies and The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

K. M. WALTON is the author of Cracked (Simon Pulse 2012), Empty (Simon Pulse 2013) and the co-author of Teaching Numeracy: 9 Critical Habits to Ignite Mathematical Thinking (Corwin Press 2011) for mathematics teachers K - 8. She is a graduate of West Chester University, with a degree in elementary education. As a former middle-school language-arts teacher she's passionate about ending peer bullying. She gives school presentations on the topic "The Power of Human Kindness." She lives in PA with her husband, two sons, cat, and turtle. Visit the author at or follow her on twitter @kmwalton1

NANCY VIAU, a former teacher and freelance writer, is the founder of the KidLit Authors Club.  She is the author of the picture books Look What I Can Do!(Abrams Books, 2013), Storm Song (Amazon Children's Publishing/Two Lions, 2013), and City Street Beat (Albert Whitman & Co., 2014). Her middle-grade novel, Samantha Hansen Has Rocks In Her Head (Abrams Books/Amulet), was published in 2008. Nancy enjoys giving assembly programs and writing workshops to elementary school students, and in her spare time she hikes, bikes, and travels anywhere her frequent flyer miles take her.

The South Jersey Writers’ Group, founded in 2007, provides networking and development opportunities for local writers. The group meets regularly during the month for topic-based discussion about the craft of writing and the publishing industry.  The group welcomes writers of all ages, background, genre, and experience level.  For more information on the group and when the next membership enrollment will be, visit, follow them on Twitter @SJWriters, or like them on Facebook.

In December 2012, the group published their first short story anthology, Tall Tales and Short Stories from South Jersey, which is available in paperback on Amazon, select local coffee shops, independent book sellers and other vendors. It is available in e-book format on Smashwords. Their second anthology will be released in the spring, and a third in the fall of 2014.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

AAUW Book and Author Champagne Brunch

Marie Gilbert with the SJWG anthology
By Marie Gilbert

Four of the writers featured in South Jersey Writers' Group's anthology Tall Tales and Short Stories from South Jersey, were invited to speak at the Medford Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Champagne Brunch held at the beautiful Medford Leas Community Center on Route 70 in Medford.

This event was to help benefit AAUW’s 2014 Scholarship Fund for women returning to college. The four SJWG writers and guests of the event were Dawn Byrne, Joanne Costantino, Jennifer M. Eaton, and Marie Gilbert, who were warmly greeted by everyone there at the Champagne Brunch.

The AAUW’s goals are to advance equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research. The President of the Medford Branch of AAUW is Mary Ann Brookes and was helped in preparing for the brunch by Elsie Behmer, Nancy Sauer, Lynne Poag, Cidnie Richards, Dian Hattrick, Gladys Lowden-Metz, Linda Chamberlain, Mary Strickler, and Rita Manno.

Rita Manno and Elsie Behmer
Rita Manno, who has promoted our group since our book’s launch, interviewed the writers a few weeks ago and her interview of us was featured in the Burlington County Times and the Central Record. Dawn and I set up the book table as soon as we arrived, which gave us time to chat with the lovely members of AAUW.

After brunch, Joanne Costantino stood at the podium to give the AAUW members a little background history of the South Jersey Writers’ Group and what the group’s goals are and where we’re heading. Joanne spoke about her writing and her inspirations for her stories. Before introducing Dawn to the members, Joanne read one of her poems called “A Flowing: An Ode to a Kidney Stone” to the rousing applause of the assembly.

Dawn Byrne
Dawn Byrne then stood at the podium to talk about her published works with Chicken Soup for the Soul, and about her facilitating the Critiquing Program with fellow SJWG member Kevin Stephany. Dawn explained to the AAUW members the importance of a critique group and how she and Kevin go about orchestrating this program for our group. Dawn also detailed the work she and Marie do with marketing and promoting the group and the anthology.

Marie Gilbert was up next and explained where she gets her inspiration for her horror and ghost stories, using her ghost hunting investigations as an example. Marie also talked about writing for the Pop Culture website Biff Bam Pop!, and Go Jane News and ended with her blog stories on family and especially the weekly Life with Fred & Lucy posts. Marie was asked to read one of her stories from Tall Tales and Short Stories.

Elsie Behmer and Mary Ann Brookes
Jennifer M. Eaton was last up at the podium and spoke about her books, her experience in getting her books published, and the pros and cons for a writer in today’s publishing world. The members of the audience asked Jennifer questions on publishing, agents and her newest books, The First Day of the New Tomorrow and Paper Wishes. The floor was then opened for people to ask questions from all four writers.

It was an enjoyable day spent with the lovely members of the AAUW and it was for a great cause. Check out the Medford Branch of the AAUW or their main national website to see all the good work they’re involved in.

We sold a lot of our books and we’re hoping to be invited back again when our group’s next two anthologies are published. Thank you to everyone with the Medford Branch of the AAUW responsible for this wonderful event.