Building Stronger Characters

Guest post by Elena Hartwell (Taylor)

I’m thrilled to welcome Elena Hartwell Taylor to the Miss Demeanors. Elena Hartwell writes the Eddie Shoes Mystery Series, and the Wait, Wait, Don’t Query (Yet!) guides to writing, as well as darker mysteries and suspense under the name Elena Taylor, including her most recent novel, All We Buried.

Elena is also a developmental editor with Allegory Editing, and I can vouch for her ability to cut through the morass of a first draft and ask insightful and intensely helpful questions, ultimately helping a manuscript shine.

The second book in her Wait, Wait, Don’t Query (Yet!) series, Building Stronger Characters, is about to launch into the world, and I can’t wait! Elena was kind enough to share some of her insights with us.

Character is Everything

Writers are inherently curious about the human condition, which helps us fill our stories with dynamic, complex characters. But even the most observant of us can use a little help to translate our knowledge of human behavior into the strongest characters that we can invent or record in nonfiction.

Memoirists and writers of narrative nonfiction also deal with “characters.” Those characters just exist in the real world instead of solely in a writer’s imagination. The choices that nonfiction writers make about how to portray themselves or others still impacts the reader’s experience and can use many of the same techniques as writers of fiction.

I wrote The Construction of Character to help all writers strengthen the craft tools in their toolbox and build stronger characters, regardless of genre.

Characters Must Have Objectives

One aspect I investigate in The Construction of Character is the importance of objectives. Here is a brief excerpt:

An objective is a goal. Every character has a goal in every scene. Whether a protagonist takes down a bomb-setting super villain or a waitress carries a plate of food to a table without spilling maple syrup down the diner’s suit, every character has a goal.

It’s true the bomb-setting super villain scenario feels more “important” in the sense of greater far-reaching consequences and immediate physical danger. But consider this for our fictional character Patricia: She’s a single mom, putting herself through school and working the graveyard shift at the twenty-four-hour diner. If she gets one more complaint from a patron, she’ll get fired. Spilling maple syrup on a diner has just become a lot more important.

Character Emotional Landscapes

Another concept I explore in The Construction of Character are character landscapes: emotional, psychological, and physical.

A landscape is the geography of a specific area. It’s how a region appears or feels in its totality. The landscape of England is pretty. The landscape of the Swiss Alps is majestic. They are both wonderful—just different.

Characters also have landscapes: emotional, psychological, and physical. A writer can use those landscapes to heighten tension, increase stakes, and engage readers.

Characters are impacted by their emotional states (temporary), psychological states (long-term), and physical states (chronic versus short-term). Applying landscapes for each of these states can help writers develop more complex characters and dynamic plots.

While emotions are impacted by everything in a character’s environment, a character’s psychology—a complex combination of biology, genetics, and experiences—is a driving force behind behavior, and much more permanent than an emotion.

A character’s underlying psychology hugely impacts their actions. Psychology determines a character’s ability to handle events as well as how they might respond to any situation. The actions of characters create events, and events build plot.

Delving into the relationship between psychology and emotions and using physical aspects of a character to build stakes and increase tension are all useful tools to add to a writer’s repertoire.

Character Building Through Dialogue, Backstory, and Exposition

Dialogue, backstory, and exposition are other areas of character building included in The Construction of Character.

Another common misstep for writers is providing background information much earlier than a reader needs. Referencing a past event or relationship at the beginning of the manuscript, then not connecting it to the character’s present day until one hundred pages later, will likely create a “huh?” moment for the reader rather than an “ah ha” moment. Readers can’t remember everything they read and won’t remember a minor detail if it’s too far removed from its introduction. It can be unclear why readers are being told a particular piece of information if the moment of its importance happens too far into the story.

Distinguishing between backstory and exposition, and how to integrate both into a work in progress will also strengthen character complexity.

Through learning the concepts in the guidebook and using the exercises in each chapter, writers will be able to immediately apply new skills.

Readers remember how characters make them feel even more than they remember plot twists and turns. Regardless of genre, age range, or fiction versus nonfiction, building stronger characters can make a manuscript shine. Whether a new writer learning new skills or an experienced writer needing a refresher, The Construction of Character may be just the ticket to get a manuscript to its final, polished state.

The Construction of Character will launch soon!

Meanwhile, don’t miss The Foundation of Plot, available now through all your favorite bookstores and websites. Available in

eBook, paperback, and hardback.

Elena Hartwell writes the Eddie Shoes Mystery Series, and the Wait, Wait, Don’t Query (Yet!) guides to writing. She also writes darker mysteries and suspense under the name Elena Taylor, including her most recent novel, All We Buried. To learn more about Elena, visit her on the web at & Elena is also a developmental editor with Allegory Editing. To learn more about Allegory, visit or email her at

Want to be the first to learn about upcoming book launches, book news, and writing tips? Join her newsletter either through her websites or email her at




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Emilya Naymark

Emilya Naymark is the author of the novels Hide in Place and Behind the Lie.
Her short stories appear in the Bouchercon 2023 Anthology, A Stranger Comes to Town: edited by Michael Koryta, Secrets in the Water, After Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift, River River Journal, Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, and 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY.

When not writing, Emilya works as a visual artist and reads massive quantities of psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime fiction. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.


  1. Welcome, Elena. I can’t wait to get a copy of The Construction of Character.

    I’ve been wrestling with a character in my mystery series who I thought was the murder victim but she refused to die. So I’m trying to figure out who she is and what she wants.

    In the meantime, I’m going to check out The Foundation of Plot.

    1. Isn’t that amazing how our characters can fight what we think they are until we give in and determine who they really are? I have had something similar happen to me, when I had the wrong killer.

      Consider doing a check in on her super-objective, obstacles, and stakes. Find out what her overall goal is for the story, both internal and external. So, internal, what she’s after that can’t be seen from the outside. External, what others can see her going after. Then find out what is in her way and what happens if she fails.

      When I say internal and external for super-objective, an example would be—External: A detective investigates a crime to bring the killer to justice. Internal: An aging detective wants to know if he’s still mentally capable to do his job.

      By doing some of that work, you may discover the role that she actually plays. It may still be that of victim, but it will give you some insights into why that particular character ends up dead. It may be that she has a different role to play, or it may be that your reasons for why she’s the victim aren’t sound.

      Feel free to reach out if you’d like to chat further! You can reach me at

      Best of luck and I hope you enjoy The Foundation of Plot!

  2. Thank you for visiting, Elena! Catherine, it’s amazing when characters have their own opinions about what you’re planning for them 😁

  3. Elena, welcome to Miss Demeanors. Like Catherine, I’m wrangling with a character who is holding up an entire book. I’m not sure if she’s the victim or the antagonist and it’s making me crazy. It feels like this woman could make the story big if I get it right. I’m hoping your book and the great info in your post will help. Thanks!

    1. Thank you! It’s great to be here. I would likely give you the same advice I gave Catherine, but another possibility is that you’re putting too much pressure on the character (depending on where you are in the drafting process). If it’s a first draft, don’t worry about it. Write the story, let her do what she’s going to do, then go back and rewrite. If you are several rewrites in, and still struggling, are you sure she’s not actually the protagonist? (It can happen! She’s clearly wanting more page time).

      As I mentioned above, I’m happy to chat through your problem. Shoot me an email at if you’d like to discuss further.

  4. Elena, thanks for the great blog. Any writer should read this essay on building great characters!

  5. Welcome, Elena. I’m struggling with a character whose objective keeps changing. I know what she wants, in general, but every time I try to make it more specific, it seems to squish away. I look forward to reading your book!

    1. Characters are so good at misbehaving.

      A couple thoughts. Rather than working on her objective, see what her obstacles are. If you see what she’s trying to overcome, you may be able to get a better picture of what she’s after. Then, look at the stakes as well, what happens if she doesn’t get her goal? That may help you understand what she wants and why.

      It’s almost like those old math problems solving for X, X+5 = 13 or 8+X = 13 or 8+5 = X, as long as you have the other two, you can solve for X.

      I’d love to hear how it goes! You can reach out anytime

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