Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I hope all of my writer friends and everyone out there who is thinking about writing has been enjoying all of the guests that I have been bringing for you. I know I can always use writing tips and the people that I have brought are some of my favorites! Martha Engber is another one of my very favorites!!! Her book GROWING GREAT CHARACTERS FROM THE GROUND UP is awesome! She is here to talk to us about it today. So please read through and if you don't already have a copy of this book, run and get it! You won't be sorry.

This excellent book is our topic of discussion for today.

Q: So tell us Martha, how do you grow great characters from the ground up?

A: The idea behind my book is that a great story — because who’s interested in writing just an okay story? — should stem from within a great main character. Despite her outward appearance of beauty, wealth, confidence or other public persona, the character should be deeply afraid of something, whether it’s of being abandoned or being alone or being unlovable. Then throughout the book, the character must confront obstacles of ever-increasing size and intensity that push her closer and closer to that fear until she has to face the monster.

GROWING GREAT CHARACTERS takes authors by the hand and shows them how to develop such great characters from inception to maturation in a process that once learned, writers can then apply to all of their characters so that stories become peopled with vibrant, deep, interesting characters.

Every chapter of my book involves both fiction and nonfiction writing examples to demonstrate concepts, along with writing exercises, which if followed, will help writers develop a character from start to finish.

Q: What made you decide to write a book about writing great characters?

A: The seed of the idea — if you’ll pardon the pun — stemmed from a rejection letter from an agent who wrote, “I just couldn’t connect with your main character.”

I puzzled over that very frustrating remark until I realized that while I knew a lot about my character, I didn’t know her.

Writers tend to develop characters by throwing a lot of details onto one big heap. Hair color, where they live, their profession, their favorite colors, what they like to read, etc. Yet these details are often pulled at random, so that when the reader sees all of these facts put together, the picture doesn’t make sense. We tell readers characters as supposed to be shy, yet their actions and dialogue strike readers as pushy to the point of snooty. Or those who are supposed to be organized instead seem to rush around in a very disorganized, inefficient way. Still other characters are supposed to be smart, but then act dumb.

I realized that maybe instead of throwing together random pieces of information, I should instead choose one very specific detail that would serve as a key for readers, allowing them to understand the simple internal rule by which my character lives.

I wrote about the concept for a magazine for writers. A man who subscribed to the magazine, Harvey Stanbrough, contacted me, saying he’d written two books for Central Avenue Press’s Thorough Primer for Writers series and that the publisher was looking for a book about character development. I wrote a proposal and sent it in. The process of actually writing the book then made me think through every stage of the character development process to a breathtaking degree.

Q: Being a writer of fiction yourself, what is your favorite part of the process of creating a character?

A: It’s the moment when the character takes on life. In that moment, the story is no longer in my hands, but in hers. Now I have to follow where she leads. In that moment, she’s usually off like a shot, so that I’ve got to race along behind her in a journey that’s startling and unbelievably exhilarating.

Q: What would you say the hardest part of creating a character thoroughly is?

A: The hardest part for most characters is what I’ve just described above, allowing their characters to take off and be their own people, acting as they must according to the natures they’re born with.

Writers are usually extremely hesitant to let characters out of their hands, which I address in my chapter titled Freedom to Grow. The reason writers are typically unwilling to unleash their characters is because the writers don’t really know their characters, which is usually not what writers want to hear!

That’s why I take pains in my book to show readers the means by which they can truly come to know who their characters are and what makes them tick. Once writers understand that, they realize they can relinquish control, because they’ll be able to follow no matter where their characters go or what they do.

Q: What do you do or what should we do as writers when a character just won’t cooperate with us?

A: Usually I find that when a character is not behaving as I want, I’m attempting to force the character to do something that’s against her nature because I’ve already determined where the story is supposed to go. This is why so many writers find that they love all their side characters, whereas their main characters are flat. The reason is they don’t expect anything from those side characters, who are then free to act according to their natures, whereas our main characters are lumbering under all of our expectations.

Therefore it’s crucial for writers to unload those main characters and allow them to take the lead.

Q: What steps as writers can we take to get to know our characters better to make our readers connect with them 100%?

A: Read my book! Read many books! The bottom line is that creating a great character is not a simple task. We writers have to hunker down and keep burrowing until we find our characters’ greatest fears, which will in turn show us what’s most important to them and how they’re motivated to act.

Typically we writers can be impatient to an incredible degree. We steamroll over countless nagging clues that indicate we don’t yet know our characters and then wind up frustrated when our readers complain they can’t really connect with the characters, when really, neither can we.

Therefore, pay attention to what I call the nags!

In my book, I counsel writers to use a variety of methods to check their thinking at every point in the process to discover and take care of weak spots at the time their occur, rather than attempting to deal with them once they’re embedded within the manuscript.

Q: Besides writing books on craft, Martha you also teach workshops. What kind of workshops do you offer and where or how can one participate?

A: I teach a variety of workshops, all of which are described on the For Event Planners page of my website. I teach 8-lesson, month-long online classes through such organizations as and Women Writing the West and in-person workshops at conferences and bookstores. If you’re interested in having me teach at your next conference or online via an RWA chapter, please contact me at Also feel free to join Growing Great Writers From the Ground Up, my Q & A blog for writers, or contact me/connect via any of the following methods:

Martha’s website

Martha’s blog



Facebook fan page



Amazon Author Central

workshop testimonials

Martha, I always love having you here on my blog. Thank you for returning, and for sharing your books with us. You and your books are truly inspirational.

A: Thanks for having me! I love talking to fellow writers.

Thanks to all of my readers. I hope you enjoyed this learning experience. make sure to drop in on Thursday when I will have Acquiring Editor, from Crescent Moon Press here with us. See you then.



Sheri Humphreys said...

I love the nags! That little voice that for some reason we all too often struggle to ignore, even though it invariably turns out to be a direct connection to the enlightened part of ourselves.

Your book sounds fabulous. I'm a firm believer in "it's all about the characters." Sheri

Micole Black said...

Hi Sheri,

Thanks for stopping by. You would love Martha's book. It is GREAT!!!!!



Joylene Butler said...

I have Martha's books and they're wonderful. Growing Great Characters was a big help during a recent revision. Thank you, Martha for all you do. And thanks, Nicole!