Keli Gwyn
10 Ways to Make Our Characters Stronger

Readers want strong main characters. No one wants to read a story with a weak one.

I knew that. Really I did.

Why, then, did I end up with a weak heroine?

Soon after my awesome agent offered representation, I received my first set of Revision Notes. One of several concerns she expressed was that my heroine was wimpy.

To be honest, that wasn’t my agent’s word. What she really said was, “Elenora is a strong person, yet there are times she becomes weak and whiny and terribly unlikable.”

That stung a bit.

At first.

After I had time to absorb the feedback, I viewed my story through a new lens and was shocked to find out my agent was spot on. Elenora, as a character, had major problems.

What did I do?

My first step was to accept the truth, which I did.

My second was to dissect my heroine. Not literally, of course, but literarily.

I plopped dear Ellie on the examination table and took a thorough look at her, inside and out. Why was she strong at times and weak at others? What made her lose the appeal she’d had in the first part of the story? How had she gone from likable to “terribly unlikable?”

I ended up with a list of problem areas I needed to address and attacked them. The brutal battle waged for weeks as I took Ellie apart and put her back together again.

Here are 10 ways Ellie became stronger . . .

1. She stays in character. Once I established her character, I worked to keep it consistent. She starts as a strong woman and grows even stronger as the story progresses.

2. If she acts out of character, she has a good reason. I make this clear through Ellie’s thoughts, through the thoughts of the hero if we’re in his POV, or through dialogue.

3. She has a firmly established goal, one worthy of a heroine. In the earlier version of the story my agent read, Ellie lacked a clear goal. As a result she came across as wishy-washy, shifting her course of action based on a whim, or worse, upon a surge of emotion. In the revised version, she has a clearly stated goal, which is an admirable one.

4. She pursues her goal with determination. Although her chances of success are limited, Ellie gives her all to reaching her goal, putting forth hard work and lots of heart.

5. She doesn’t let doubts deter her. Discouragement is inevitable at times, but Ellie refuses to listen to the voices telling her she can’t achieve her goal. She talks back to them instead, adopting an “I’ll show you” attitude.

6. She takes others into consideration. Even though Ellie is eager to reach her goal, she doesn’t live for herself alone. She cares for her young daughter, the hero, and his mother. Because of this, there are times Ellie puts her own needs and desires aside for the sake of others.

7. She periodically reassess her goals, making adjustments as necessary. Ellie begins the story with one course of action in mind. When things don’t go as planned, she accepts the need for change. Although she’s disappointed and discouraged, she understands that there will be bumps in the road, unexpected turns, and even some dead ends. When she encounters them, she charts a new course of action and pursues it.

8. Even though she’s strong, she’s imperfect. Perfect people don’t exist. Perfect characters sometimes do, as was the case with the hero in my story, but they’re boring. Readers can’t relate to characters who aren’t “real” or flawed. While Ellie knows a great deal about many things, there are areas where she’s lacking. During the story, she’s forced to face some of her emotional, psychological, and spiritual weaknesses.

9. She encounters challenges bravely. Sure, Ellie’s scared at times, but she knows that courage is action undertaken in spite of fear. To paraphrase an old saying, she feels the fear but does it anyway.

10. She knows when to seek help. As her situation worsens, Ellie is forced to turn to others and to the Lord for guidance, support, and practical help. Early in the story she is unable to do so. As she becomes stronger, she realizes that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness but of wisdom.

Making such major changes to my character wasn’t easy. I went through many of the steps above myself as I transformed Ellie. She grew as a character, and I grew as a writer.

The good news is that Ellie became stronger through the process and much more likable, so much so that my agent was able to sell the story. I like to think I became stronger, too, and better equipped to deal with the inevitable revisions that are a necessary part of getting a story ready for publication.

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If you’re a fiction writer, how do you go about creating strong characters? Do you use some of the steps above? What are some steps you use that aren’t listed?

If you’re a reader, what are some attributes you like to see in a strong character? Is there such a thing as a character who’s too strong?

Can you think of examples of strong characters from stories you’ve read? What characteristics contribute to their strength?

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Keli Gwyn
Two Tips for Punctuating Interrupted Dialogue

In this segment of Copyediting with Keli I’m discussing how to punctuate two different cases of interrupted dialogue using the em dash.


The em dash is the long dash that used to be shown, back in pre-computer days, by typing two hyphens.

Those who use Word can make use of the program’s “auto correct” feature to replace an old-fashioned two-hyphen em dash with an actual em dash (—).

First let’s consider one character being interrupted by another. Here’s an example.

“You don’t get what I’m saying, Tiff, but if you’d just let me expl—”

“I get it all right. You never want to do what I want.”

To show the angry wife cutting off her husband, I used an em dash. When one comes at the end of a sentence like this, it’s followed by the close quotation mark. No period or other punctuation is used.

The second example involves the writer interrupting a line of dialogue to insert an action beat, tag, or other information.

“I’ve waited years for my first publishing contract, and now that it’s here”—her voice broke—“I hardly have words to describe my how I feel.”

To show the emotional state of the jubilant writer, I broke into the sentence with an action beat. The dialogue goes inside the quotation marks, and the em dashes setting off the break go outside of them. Note that an em dash used in this case butts up against the quotation mark on one side and the text on the other with no spaces in between.

When it comes to showing interrupted dialogue in either of the cases I’ve covered, think of a car screeching to a halt, leaving a long black trail of rubber on the asphalt. The em dash is the literary equivalent of a skid mark, showing an abrupt stop in the dialogue.

Now you know two uses of the helpful punctuation mark known as the em dash.

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You can view other segments of Copyediting with Keli on YouTube.

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Do you have fun making some of your characters interrupt others?

Do you like to interrupt dialogue to give your reader further information?

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Keli Gwyn
Giving Thanks

This week thankfulness is on the hearts of many. I’m thankful for you, my blogging buddy.

Gwynly and I attended our annual Thanksgiving service Sunday evening, heard many members of our church family share the ways the Lord has blessed them this past year, and took a tray full of turkey cookies. We decided this year marked the end of a long-time tradition. Our daughter is away at college, and making them without her isn’t the same.

I’m taking a blogging break this week to spend time with my family.

I wish those of you in the U.S.A. a very happy Thanksgiving.

See you on November 28 with another installment of Copyediting with Keli.

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Keli Gwyn
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