Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere

When Characters need a tune-up


Making up characters to star in your story is one if the best parts of writing fiction, at least in my mind. In my debut novel, I created this awesome character and cast her as a strong female protagonist, a woman in a man’s world who can hold her own.

Every main character should have something to round them out: a realistic background, a family of some sort, maybe close friends or pets, and often some challenge in their history that they have overcome or are working to overcome in the current story. Sometimes the obstacle is an addiction of some sort, like Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan (alcoholism–oh man, I never noticed that before. Get it? Temperance is a recovering alcoholic). Maybe the character experienced a divorce or death in the family, like J. A. Jance’s Joanna Brady (first husband died). It doesn’t have to be a major hurdle; it could be as innocuous as losing a job, like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum or Kellye Garrett’s Dayna Anderson. And sometimes the character’s past is instrumental in shaping their present, like the abuse suffered by Eve Dallas and the life-on-the-streets struggle of her husband Roarke in J. D. Robb’s “In Death” series.

My protagonist survived her own trauma six years before the story starts. Not only did her ex-boyfriend stalk her after she dumped him, but he tried to kill her. By now, she’s taken back control of her life. Then he’s released from prison. No worries–he’s, like, over a hundred miles away–but little by little she notices things that make her question just how safe she is.

Oh, did I mention the detective on the case (psst, love interest πŸ™‚ ) suspects she had something to do with the dead body she found? So, not only is my MC wary about the return of her ex-boyfriend, she’s trying to prove her innocence by looking for the culprit. Conflict? Check. Goal? Check. Obstacles she needs to get through to reach her goal? Check.

This is a mystery, so the MC should work on solving the case in some way, right? Cool. She shuffles the few puzzle pieces she has, and picks a direction based on what she knows. Then the Big Bad Ex shows up and proves he knows where she is.

Now, I’ve (thankfully) never gone through the type of trauma one would experience after being attacked like she was, but I can believe she would have some PTSD. She’s got her life back on track, but now the old fears and anxiety return.

Where does the tune-up come into play? Well, after talking things through with my editor and my agent, I realized my MC stopped working on the mystery once the baddie resurfaced, and instead spent her energy fighting against the old emotions.

In other words, she became a victim again, which weakens her role as a strong protagonist. She does break out of the victim archtype, but not to work toward the story goal; she breaks out to save her skin (and in the process discovers something that cracks the case, which does work toward the story goal). The main mystery-solving efforts now come from the male MC (yeah, I know it’s his job, but he’s not the headliner).

Once I finally figured that out (took me long enough–sheesh), how do I fix it? Enter my wonderful Writing Sisters and the brainstorming wall. We hashed it out and came up with a couple small things I can add. Those bits will help my protagonist break through the victim archetype and refocus her energy toward the main story goal. It also tunes up her character by reminding her of her strengths, and that the black moment in her past can help her in the present.

Bottom line, it’s okay for the MC to lose power, or become a victim (the midpoint crisis), but s/he needs to come back strong in order to keep his/her position as the star of the show.

On the non-writing related front, here’s what my daughter got me for Mother’s Day. I think my book dragon will like the company:


It’s a sort of terrarium–there’s some dirt under the purple rocks, and a succulent behind the dragon. There’s a bit of moss as well. Here’s another angle:

The little dragon is so adorable! The container is a teardrop shape, with a twine hanging loop. I don’t have a good spot to hang it, or a decent spot to set it right now, but it’s too cute not to put someplace where I can see it every day.

Now my Muse has two junior muses to contend with. Mwahahahaha! Heh, it’s a good thing he’s out on a pub crawl. πŸ˜€

Spring/summer (ugh, 80F is too warm for May) is here–woo-hoo! No garden planting plans quite yet, but I do have to clean last year’s debris out of the asparagus patch so I can find the spears when they start to come up. *rubs hands together* I can’t wait!

Have a great writing weekend!

Author: Julie Holmes, author

A fiction writer since elementary school (many years ago), and NaNoWriMo annual participant for over a decade, I have been published in small press magazines such as "Fighting Chance" and "The Galactic Citizen". I write adult mystery with a touch of romance, mystery with extrasensory elements, contemporary fantasy, and epic fantasy, and I'm represented by the fabulous Cynthia Zigmund of Second City Publishing Services. My debut novel, "Murder in Plane Sight", has been released by Camel Press (an imprint of Coffeetown Press/Epicenter Press). In real life, I am a technical writer and empty-nester with a wonderful hubby, one cat (what writer doesn't have cats??), two dogs, six chickens, and more chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits than any garden should have to deal with. My garden, our hobby farm, and Nature's annual seasons are some of my muses.

19 thoughts on “When Characters need a tune-up

  1. That’s a beautiful terrarium! And I agree with you that major characters, especially the protagonist, are more interesting and well-rounded when they go through life’s bumps. I think it can be overdone, but the fact is, we all have our ups and downs. Our characters should, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely, Margot! To be more 3-dimensional, our characters should go through the struggles of life we all do. And yes, it can be overdone (I think I did some of that in my book before my editor pointed it out πŸ™‚ ). I really like the terrarium; I just wish I had a good spot to put it. I might have to improvise!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Julie, I am already taken with the plot of the book you are writing. What is the title going
    to be? I know I want to read it. It is wonderful the way the protagonist finds strength through
    taking a stand and walk away.
    I do love the terrarium, so beautiful and meaningful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Miriam! Once I have a cover and a release date, I’ll be adding it to the blog. The title is “Murder in Plane Sight”, and it’s due out next year, but I don’t know when exactly. This publishing stuff takes for-ev-er. πŸ™‚ Have a great weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great overview, mde even more powerful by your personal experience. I ran each through my mind with my WIP MC. Yep, did that–and then (when you showed your MC distracted), did I do that too? Really helpful, Julie.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post, Julie. You explained the situation perfectly and how to shift the MC into a more active role. Nice! And the dragon is adorable. What a lovely gift from your daughter – she knows you well! Move over muses. Happy writing and gardening!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Diana! The dragon is sooo cute! My hubby did find a temporary spot for it, but I’d like to find a better spot. Hoping to at least get the garden tilled this week. I think my tomatoes are anxious to get outside πŸ˜€

      Have a great weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Your daughter knows you well–of course. And now you’re complaining about it being too warm? That state just can’t please you! πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just think, three weeks ago we had a blizzard that dumped a foot of snow on the ground! I love spring, but 80F is like skipping spring and jumping right into summer. The asparagus is starting to come up, and the little blue flowers that come up every spring are blooming. Might even get the garden tilled this week!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I can see how having MC with history or challenges makes them more real, Julie. I like learning more about fiction and you are a great teacher. Love the Mother’s Day gift. I want one!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Julie, I love the sound of your main protagonist and thank you for sharing a little bit about her! Her flaws and background add a wonderful amount of conflict, the looming danger always present, until actually so! I’m glad you and your writing sisters could hash out the couple of niggles regarding her return to strength and power.

    Ahh… what a wonderful present from you daughter… she knows you so well. This is adorable and one to treasure!! Enjoy the weekend, my friend! We have a long holiday weekend, lots of sun, very warm – last night we had the firsts BBQ of the year – bliss! Hugs xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Annika! I transplanted my peppers this weekend from their original seeding flat to individual “pots”. It’s been nice and staying warm here, so I expect my hubby will till the garden soon. And we should get our first meal of asparagus this week as well!

      Enjoy your holiday weekend, and have a great week!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The lesson you explained in this post is one that didn’t come easily for me. In my earliest work, my MC often ended up in the victim role, not so any more. I’ve made sure to keep the MC as a strong protagonist, though it did take me a number of decades of writing before the lightbulb went off in my head. Doh!

    P.S. I love your new dragon. What a great gift!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isn’t that little dragon cute? Now, if I could find a real one just like it (kinda like fire lizards from Anne McCaffery’s Pern series), it’d be an awesome companion πŸ™‚

      It took me a while to figure this lesson out as well. I know I’ll have to go back through some of my other projects and make sure the MC comes back strong after working the victim role. The trick now is to adjust the plot and catch all the places where the new bits should be.

      Have a great week, Mae! PS: let me know when you’re doing the tour/launch for Cusp of Night–put me on the list πŸ˜€

      Liked by 1 person

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