For Writers: Know Thy Characters

This article was originally printed in Ms. Career Girl. http://www.mscareergirl.com/2017/02/23/know-thy-characters/

If you want to write a book, you must Know Thy Characters.

It’s an invisible writing rule that must not be broken or the Writing Fairy will come and cast a bad spell on you.

You must know your characters down to the teeniest, tiniest detail. You must be them. You must think for them.  If you don’t know your characters, your readers won’t either, and you will have a literary ship wreck on your hands.

So let’s chat about what you need to know about your character, and how to get there without losing your sanity or slugging down too much tequila.

First, the basics. What does your main character look like? Try sketching him or her in your journal if her face doesn’t materialize in front of your eyes. Or, cut out photos from a magazine and put them together. Maybe the main/minor character is you. So, picture yourself – on your best day, or your worst. Take note of her age, weight, how she walks, and how she talks.

Name her. First and last. Should the name mean something personal to you? Eh. Maybe. Use Grandma’s first name. But maybe not. Do not give her the first and last name of someone you love or hate. Don’t. Especially if you hate someone. If you write about that person, with their real name, especially if she is a hideous, scary, axe wielding corporate witch, expect an expensive lawsuit to come rolling down the pike at you.

Figure out what she does for work, if she likes her job, or if she is getting ready to quit. Why does she want to quit? Maybe she knows she’s going to be fired. Why is she going to be fired?

Maybe it’s a stepping stone job. Maybe she’s making a bunch of money at one of those high end, exhausting law firms filled with vultures, and will put all of the money she’s saved into a lavender farm in the country and start a new life.

Knowing what job your character has is important as our jobs say a truckload about us.

Know Thy Character’s Family.

You need to figure out your character’s family and what her childhood was like. Our childhoods effect us well into adulthood in a multitude of ways. Were both her parents around? Did one abandon the family? Did one have an addiction? Too strict, too flighty?

No one really knows you unless they know the nitty gritty about your childhood, right?  So don’t leave your character’s childhood out unless you want a gaping hole in your story and in your character’s personality and development.

In my book What I Remember Most, my character, Grenadine Scotch Wild, lives happily with her wandering, hippie parents until she’s six. Then they disappear. She can hardly remember anything about that dark night in the woods except hearing them yell, “Run, Grenadine, run.”

She runs and she’s later found wandering down a highway by a trucker. She goes into the foster care system.  That loss, and what she can’t remember, shapes the rest of her life.

What about friends? Does your character have any? Are they healthy relationships or not? Does she have a best friend, or was there a falling out? Is she lonely? A loner? Why? Are their trust issues that started long ago or does she generally love being alone?

What are her internal issues? Low self esteem? A wild streak or impulsiveness? Is she scared, repressed, or angry? Is she reeling from a break up or a death? Is she lost emotionally? Does she suffer from depression or anxiety or agoraphobia or commitment? WHY? Why does she have the problems she does?

I’ve given my main characters all sorts of problems. Isabelle Bommarito in Henry’s Sisters, is on the edge emotionally, which is why she sits naked on her patio in the middle of downtown Portland on a rainy day and then burns her bra and her thong.

Another character, Stevie Barrett in Such A Pretty Face, weighed well over three hundred pounds before bariatric surgery. She ate her grief away. At the end of the book, she is done eating her grief. Your character must have emotional issues to solve or work on.



















On the flip side, what’s humorous/original/admirable about her? Is she super smart? Does she finish the NY Times crossword puzzle? Maybe she is constantly volunteering in the Big Sister program. Does she sing like a drunk angel or dance like crazy on tables or create animals out of paper or paint fantastical paintings? Is she a peacemaker or crazy fun and gets arrested now and then?  What makes her special?

What problems does she have in her life? The problems she has could be problems that you have had in your life. You can borrow them. Or borrow the problems of someone you know or read about.

Where are the conflicts? Who does she have them with? A man? A mother? A sister? Maybe she’s a rock climber. It’s woman against nature and she has to conquer nature. But why is she a rock climber? What drives her to climb up and risk her life?

Know thy character’s struggles.

Your character must have external struggles, too. In My Very Best Friend, my character, Charlotte Macintosh, is trying to find her best friend, who she hasn’t heard from in months. Charlotte is quirky. A time travel romance writer, she had a stroller made for her four cats and has an obsession with physics. Charlotte flies to Scotland, where she was raised, falls in love, and becomes the person she would have been had she not endured her own tragedy in childhood. She finds her best friend – along with other complications.

Simply put: Your character must have inside and outside problems.

A question I’ve gotten before is this: Should your main character be likable? My answer, to anyone writing her first book, is yes. Readers need someone to hold onto. They need someone to root for and relate to. They need someone to escape with.


Now, many people will disagree with me on this. There are exceptions to what I just said. Lots of people did not like the main characters in Gone Girl or The Girl On The Train. But they loved the gripping, fast moving, unique plot lines. Those books were blockbusters, in print and in movies.  I loved both books. Couldn’t put them down. But if you are going to make an unlikable character, you better have a gripping, fast moving, unique plot line. No kidding. So be careful of that.

Write on, friends.


Here is a handy dandy check off list to use when you’re creating your character …

By Cathy Lamb

What does your character do for a living? Why that occupation? No, really. WHY?

Delve deep into her family history. What did you find?  Is she close to her family or estranged?

Who are her friends? Does she have friends? Is she doesn’t have friends, does it bother her? Is she a group person or a loner?

Where does she live? What does her home look like? Does she like her home? If not, why?

Describe her childhood. Good? Bad?  Both?

How does her childhood still impact her life?

Where is she now in her life? A good place? A lousy place?

Is she married? Divorced? Separated?

What does your character treasure? A family tea pot? Recipes from her mother? Cookbooks from friends and family

Does she like men? Hate men? Distrusting? What prevents her from being in a relationship if she’s not in one now? Does she like being in a relationship?

What does she want to do? What is motivating her? What’s keeping her back?

What are her stronger characteristics?

What does she hope for?
Where is she weak or flawed?
What mistakes has she made? What mistakes does she continue to make?

What does she do well? Poorly?

How does she dress? Does she like clothes?

How much money does she have? Is it important to her?

Does she have hobbies and activities? What are they?

What irritates her?  What will make her temper explode?

Is she a leader or a follower?

What are the worst three things that have happened to her?

Does she have pets? Does she talk out loud to the pets? Does she think her pets are part human?

What are the three best things that have happened to her?

Is she aggressive? Shy? Depressed? Easily amused? Practical or a dreamer? Describe her personality.

What do other people think of her? Does she care what they think?

What has she overcome? What is she struggling to overcome?

Do you like her? Why or why not? Is it important to like her?

If you went to lunch, how would it go?

What advice would she give you about your life? What advice would you give her?

Where do you want her to end up? Where do you think she’ll end up?

What is she capable of doing? What is she not capable of doing?

Where will she be in ten years? Twenty?

What will she regret when she’s dying? What will she be proud of?

How is she as a parent, if she is a parent?

What are her quirks or odd habits?

What does she like to eat at two in the morning?

Does she like china? Does she throw plates when she’s mad? What does she think of the color pink? Does she like formal dinners or picnics better?

What makes her laugh? What makes her cry?

Does she have a secret? What is it and how has it affected her life?

Is her inner life in uproar? Why?

If confronted by an obnoxious person, what would she do?

If she was fired, how would she react?

If she was falling in love, how would she feel?

What does she look like?















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Bashing My Head Through A Wall

I am on my ninth edit of my next book.

Translation: I want to bash my head through a wall.

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One Chocolate Chip Cookie


Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone out there who believes, as I do, in the truth: If you cut chocolate chip cookie bars into one big heart it counts as “one cookie.”

Add a book and a blanket, and you have an excellent Valentine’s Day evening.


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Give A Kenyan School Girl A New Desk

Want to give an impoverished school girl in Kenya a new desk for Valentine’s Day? Rebel Dancing Daughter’s school, Daraja Academy, needs new desks for their students.

The desks are $60, so buy one, or part of, a new desk and tell your Valentine you bought it in their name. Rebel Dancing Daughter just got back from Kenya and they REALLY need new desks. Donating is easy, and you can even send your Valentine an e – card telling them, “Happy Valentine’s Day, you just gave a nice new desk to a school girl in Kenya!”

I promise it will last a lot longer than flowers or lingerie.

To donate (Look for red button, top right): https://www.crowdrise.com/be-a-better-valentine-gi…/…/daraja

Daraja’s Website: http://www.daraja-academy.org/

Happy Valentine’s Day!




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Old Letters from 1905, New Ideas For A Book

I’m often asked how I get my ideas for my books.

This is one way….

A friend of mine gave me letters from a great, great, etc. grandfather to his wife. As you can see, the date is 1905.

They were sent to Wenatchee, Washington.

Now I get to read them….

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Lie. Love. Lust. Laugh. Yes, You SHOULD Write That Book in 2017

For you writers out there…I am writing a monthly column in Ms. Career Girl on how to write a book in 2017. This is the first one.

Lie. Love. Lust. Laugh. Yes, you SHOULD write that book.

So You Want To Write A Book in 2017?

Want to write a book this year? Don’t know where to start?

Get a journal.

Go out and buy yourself a pretty, interesting, edgy, funny, odd journal and start writing.

Take that journal with you everywhere as if it’s your best, coolest friend.

Make it a habit to write in it at least once a day.

What do you write about? Anything. Everything.

What makes you cry?

What makes you laugh?












What is the worst thing that’s happened to you? What’s the second worst?

What’s the best?

Who’s your closest friend? Whose friendship have you lost and why?

What are your secrets? How do they control you?

What do you worry about?

What do you like about yourself?  What are your faults?

What do you want out of life?

What does your dream home look like?

What scares you? What do you have to change in your life to be happy?

What makes you so angry you could pluck your own hair out of your head?

Who ticks you off? Why do you hate them?

Who do you love so much you would step in front of stampeding bulls for them?

You need to pour heart into your journal as if it’s a liquid thing.  Why?

Because your writing must come from an honest place. It must come from authentic emotions, tears, laughter, love, hate, vengeful thoughts, and feelings of passion and lust.

If you are laughing when you write in your journal, super. If you are crying, even better because it means that your journal is helping you find more of the true you.

You need the true you if you’re going to write. She’s gotta be sitting right beside you saying, “Be honest now. Go to those dark memories hidden around the corners of your brain and write ‘em down.

Don’t lie to yourself, don’t be vague. Write about the adventures you want to have, the hope that still glows deep inside you, the losses of the past, the failures, the plans that you can’t share with anyone else.

Write about your childhood, including the shattering times. You have to. Do it. Write real.”

When you’re ready, after a day, a week, a month, look through your journal. What strikes you the most? What interests you about your own life, your own self, so much that you want to explore it further? Run a yellow highlighter over it.

If you’re writing fiction, as I do, give your character the issue(s) you deal with. Give her something from your past that you still wrestle with. Give her that horrid ex boyfriend of yours, but this time she slays that dragon, he doesn’t slay her. Give her that difficult, whiny aunt, or that whisky-drinking uncle, or that crazy cousin who works as a stripper.

Give her a life that has completely fallen apart, as yours did last year. Give her grief or self esteem issues or a wild streak that constantly gets her into trouble, but it’s so much fun.

Go from there. Develop that character based on some of your answers above. Draw a picture of her in your journal.

Then write down fifty different things about her, from where she lives to what toothpaste she uses to her pets and her job and if she likes sex or not. (Don’t worry, we’ll talk about developing characters next month.)

Be open to visions, too, as you write in your journal. That sounds weird. But you know what I’m talkin’ about because you’ve had visions, too, I know it.

Let me share with you one of my visions. When I was in college, I had a vision of a young woman throwing a fluffy, smothering white wedding dress into a scraggly tree on a deserted, dusty street in North Dakota.

She was crying and flamin’ mad. She was trying to toss that wedding dress onto a branch but it kept floating back down on her head, which made her even madder.

That vision made me ask, “Why the hell is she doing that?”

Years later it launched my first book, “Julia’s Chocolates.”

I gave Julia an abusive fiancé she was running from. I put her on a farm in Oregon with an Aunt Lydia who painted her house pink, “like a vagina,” and the front door black to “ward off seedy men.”

I put flowering toilets in her front yard and a rainbow bridge. I gave Julia three new friends – a minister’s wife who was suffocating in that role, a mother who was married to an alcoholic and couldn’t get the courage to leave him, and a psychic.

All from that one vision.

Sit quietly for a bit, every day, with your journal.  First, clear your mind. Then let the visions wander through. Embrace your visions, no matter how wacky, unbelievable, or ludicrous.

Maybe your vision is a woman who makes donuts while crying. Why does she cry making donuts? Maybe your vision involves a crazy family. What are they hiding?  Maybe your vision involves life in the future. What does the future look like? Is there a threat to the planet?  Maybe there’s a magical element. What is it? How does it affect your characters? Maybe your vision is flat out frightening, and it would make a gripping thriller.

Write those visions down in your journal. Start playing with them. Again, which one grabs you the most? Get out that yellow highlighter again.

One more thing? Writing and art are closely related. In my journals I sketch pictures of people and cut out pictures from magazines for inspiration and ideas. Try it.

Once a month we’ll chat about writing a book this year.

If I can do it, you can do it. Truly. You can.

Write on, friends.



























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Cool Giveaway. Eight Books, One Winner

If you’d like to enter this giveaway, below, eight books, one winner, go to this facebook page,


request to join the Readers Coffeehouse group, we’ll approve you, and go to the post at the top of the page with the same meme.

The books are by Kimberly Belle, Barbara Claypole White, Jo-Ann Mapson, Catherine Ryan Hyde, Steena Holmes, Laura Drake, Kimberly Brock, and me.

Cheers and good luck.

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Want To Join An Online Book Group?

Please come and join us on Readers Coffeehouse on facebook in 2017.

We chat about books, hold giveaways, host authors on our Q and A’s, have a monthly book club (list of authors below), and we send out a fun newsletter.

Our founding authors? Catherine Ryan Hyde Steena Holmes Jo-Ann Mapson Laura Drake Kimberly Belle Kimberly Brock Barbara Claypole White and me.

Cheers and happy readinng!



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I worry. And worry.

I worry.

Specifically I worry about Rebel Dancing Daughter, Adventurous Singing Daughter, and Darling Laughing Son.

They laugh at me and my worries.

I glare and worry back at them. When they’re parents, they’ll get it, and I will cackle with glee.

I drive my own self crazy. It’s as if there are two of me in one body.

“Worrier Cathy” claws her way out and has all sorts of things, on a growing and alarming list, that I – Real Cathy – should worry about.

I envision Worrier Cathy hunched in a corner, biting her nails, her hair looking as if it’s been electrocuted, her knees to her chest. She whimpers to me, “What if THIS happens to the kids…what if THAT happens…could THIS happen, oh my God. It COULD…what would we do then?”

Real Cathy, me, tries to stay calm. I am a rational and practical person. I work a lot, I am the product of two parents who worked a lot and believed that idol hands could possibly be the devil’s play things. I love my friends and family, and I am fairly emotionally stable on my good days.

Worrier Cathy, however, gets Real Cathy all riled up and nervous.

What does Worrier Cathy make me worry about?

Cliffs that The Offspring might accidentally fall off of into the wild blue yonder. (That’s YOU Adventurous Singing Daughter, who hikes too high.)

Skiing through trees. (That’s YOU Darling Laughing Son. Don’t do this. And no back flips again on the slopes. You can break your neck. Did you HEAR me?)

Getting lost/sick/or attacked by terrorists abroad. (That’s YOU Rebel Dancing Daughter!)

Last fall I worried about rabid bats.

Couldn’t help myself.

Adventurous Singing Daughter was working in Yosemite for a term and getting bit by a rabid bat COULD happen so I warned her about it. But. There hasn’t been rabies in Yosemite for at least five years.

When a chipmunk nipped Adventurous Singing Daughter I talked to a doctor there about this who was polite when I drilled him with many, many questions about rabies, but still. Worrier Cathy had Real Cathy worried!

I am currently worried about lion bites as Rebel Dancing Daughter is in Africa. She left me for Africa for a few weeks so that Worrier Cathy could lose her head.

I picture Worrier Cathy wandering around with her head propped up in her hands with that electrocuted hair, her neck headless, muttering, “I’m so worried about Rebel Dancing Daughter in Africa! Diseases! Stampedes! Wars! Snakes! Bad water!”

This weekend I worried about the twins driving back to college. Darling Laughing Son drove his sister down to school. We had had an ice storm. The ice was gone on the freeways when I let them go, but still.

I had to pester my friend Keily about the freeway, which her kids had recently driven down. I think Keily thinks I’m a loon. I am okay with that because I can blame Worrier Cathy for all those texts.

When there is the slightest threat to my kids I can go from 0 to 90 miles per hour in my head in about ten seconds. You mothers out there might relate.

I don’t worry with the rest of my life.

I don’t worry about book sales, although as an author I probably should. But why would I do that? All I can do is write the best damn book I can. The results are out of my control.

I could worry about my health, but except for some slight hypochondria that lurks around now and then (Why does my left boob seem to hurt on Wednesdays? Do I have Shaking Leg Syndrome? My eyes feel fuzzy! Does this mean I’ll be blind by tomorrow morning?) I just don’t. It’s too boring and I feel too healthy.

So I have a goal for 2017: Worry less about The Offspring.

It is true that worrying has never changed one outcome in the history of this planet. Ever. Never.

I need to say a prayer for beloved Adventurous Singing Daughter, Darling Laughing Son, and Rebel Dancing Daughter, and let it go.

I need more peace, more calm, more zen.

I need Worrier Cathy to relax and find something else to do. Like fishing. Or golf.

And lion attacks are rare, aren’t they? Same with rabid bats?

Happy New Year!

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At Least Naughty Kitty Is A Reader

Darling Laughing Son brought home this kitty from college.

This kitty LOOKS sweet, but he was a terror.

Chased and stalked our old cat, until KC was cowering upstairs.

Bit and scratched when playing.

Attacked the flowers in a vase on my table.

Pretended he didn’t know English or the word ‘no.’

Used my couch as a scratching post.

But at least he’s a reader, that’s all I can say!

(And now that he’s back at college, I kinda miss him.)


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Cathy Lamb
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