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#145 How to Create Characters That Resonate With Your Readers, with Angela Ackerman

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker and co-author of six best-selling books with the latest one the updated Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression.

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.

She’s also one half of the team over at Writers Helping Writers, alongside Becca Puglisi. You can find out more here.

In this episode we chat about the following:

  • getting inside our characters’ heads
  • creating strong experiences for our readers
  • the relationship between setting and character
  • the mistakes new writers make
  • internal and external balance
  • show and tell
  • how to include backstory
  • sensor detail – making details earn their keep
  • emotional wounds
  • authenticity and the human experience
  • emotional layers
  • and much more

In fact, our podcast this week is more of a free writing workshop delivered by one of the best in the writing business. Thanks, Angela.

You can find out more about Angela and The Emotion Thesaurus here.

Read Full Transcript

Mel: Welcome to another episode of road around the road. It’s not very often that we get to travel to Canada in the middle of winter so I’m pretty excited about that as we sweat through an Australian summer. I’d like to welcome Angela Akerman. Good morning Angela.

Angela: Good morning and thank you.

Mel: Angela a writing coach, international speaker and co-author of six best-selling books with the latest one the updated Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression.

Angela: That was our very first book that we wrote, The Emotion Thesaurus, and it’s kind of spread like wildfire. I think because it really tackled a topic that a lot of writers struggle with and there’s not a lot written about there’s not a lot of help in the emotion space. And I think the way we approached our book making it a really practical brainstorming tool that you can use as your writing or as you’re revising it just really appealed to a lot of writers but being our very first book you know we were kind of feeling our way around it was we published it in 2012 when self publishing was really getting going and we were kind of nervous. You know will people like this or not. And so we’ve always wanted to go back over the years and kind of update it simply because we’ve learned so much in that space in that time we’ve grown as writers and as writing coaches and there’s so many more aspects of writing that writing an emotion that we wanted to cover and there’s so many other motions that we could cover in the emotional thesaurus so seeing that all of our books are a lot bigger. We’ve kind of gotten more verbose as we go along. We have as many motions as we can or as many settings as we can or whatever our topic is. So we have room to develop this book and so we finally decided that we were going to do it and we were going to go back and add fifty five new emotions to it.

Mel: There were about 75 emotions to start with weren’t they?

Angela: Yes. Seventy five to start with and now this one has one hundred and thirty.

Mel: It’s an online resource as well as a beautiful physical book it’s coming out?

Angela: I think emotion can be kind of a taboo topic if you’ve got male characters you know in the sense that. Some people some males are not comfortable thinking about the deeper emotions that we have as people. But the reality is is we all have these emotions whether or not we show them or not and what we’re trying to do through our fiction is connect to readers connect with them in a very realistic way which means you know. Pulling on some of those deeper things that are within us even if we don’t tend to show them if we are masculine or masculine in nature. I know a lot of women that you know kind of hold back and they don’t emotions don’t always feel safe to express. So it’s not always a sex issue or not but it’s really important for us to make sure that we’re writing characters who come across as authentic even if you don’t necessarily show a lot of cues of what something looks like you’re still going to feel it inside you’re still going to have thoughts that are going to run on an emotional vein depending on what your what what you’re experiencing at any given time. So we need our characters to behave the same way we need that authenticity to come through. So emotion is definitely an important topic no matter what type of book you write and you know not every book really goes in deep to the emotional experience but we start to touch on it because it’s such a big issue in real life. You know that’s why we’re here. That’s why we connect so deeply to everything around us is emotion. So if we don’t you know have that mirror of real life in our fiction then it’s really going to read as hollow.

Mel: What are some of the biggest mistakes that you see that new writers make?

Angela: All of our books are about show don’t tell and it’s not so much show don’t tell as knowing when to show and when to tell. Both are used in fiction but I would say that a lot of newer writers they tend to tell too much or they will show and then because they’re not sure if they showed strongly enough they’ll also tell as well. And so in emotion with emotions are really easy way to do that is when you name the emotion you know shivered in fear. Your description of the moment the mood that you’re building in you’re seeing the character’s behaviors their thoughts all of those things should indicate fear and that should come through to the readers you should never actually have to say in fear because it’s just should not be needed. And so that’s something that I see quite frequently as is kind of that that tendency to tell. I would say another one that I see often is sometimes the characters can either get too much in their own head where there’s a lot of thoughts that sort of slow everything down. A lot of back story that comes out early on or there’s very little fox very little internal ization at all. And it’s it’s. Most of the showing especially emotion is shown through body language body cues which it’ll show behavior is always a very important component to showing emotion but it’s only one component you really need the internal and the external working together so that readers really understand what the character is going through and it kind of pulls them into their point of view better. So I would say yeah. Back story telling more than showing over relying on thoughts or underline on thoughts. Those are probably the biggest issues I see.

Mel: When it comes to the editing process I’m guessing this is where your book comes into its own because it makes us think more deeply about what our character motivations are.

Angela: I’ve heard from writers that use the emotion thesaurus more in editing when they’re kind of drafting there in the moment they don’t want to stop and think so they’ll just sort of shove a cue and they’re like you know that she smile or frowned or you know or even telling telling is OK in the first draft. You know if you’re in the flow don’t ruin the flow by trying to think of the perfect description you know go ahead and use that word fear or worried or whatever and just make a mental note to run a search for those things when you’re done your draft so that you can come back to those places and think about how the character would express this emotion in a way that is true to them their backstory who they are their personality how they feel in the moment their comfort zone all those kind of things are going to come into play and that is going to dictate how they’re going to behave in this moment by Yeah and the moment you don’t necessarily when you’re drafting you don’t want to think too hard about emotion. But I have had other people do that. You know they get stumped they get blocked and they are unable to move on when they’re drafting. And so when they need ideas just reading through the lists can really trigger something. You know we’ve purposely. Created a guide where every emotion that we tackle whether it’s the body language that’s tied to it or the thought process of the go along with it or the visceral sensations they’re all somewhat generic on purpose because we want writers to adapt those to whatever they’re whatever kind of character they have. And hopefully by reading through the list they’ll spot something where they can imagine their character doing that exact thing and then they can put it on the page in a way that’s really fresh. So that’s kind of we see that too. But mostly I would say people use it as an editing tool.

Mel: It’s one hundred and thirty different emotions that you just don’t think of yourself do you? I can see why this would be a Bible..

Angela: As soon as you start attaching your characters names to those scenes your brain automatically starts to think about your character in those tunes don’t they said.

Angela: Until we really think about emotion deeply we will stick to sort of the same classic emotions and we have to remember that part of our job is to be authentic to the character and part of our job is to create a really strong experience for the reader. And I think that those strong experiences really come through when we give them emotions that are a little bit off the beaten path or once that we don’t know. Our brain doesn’t immediately jump to there’s a lot of gap in between different Cardinal emotions that we can explore that can be a lot of fun to see how the characters are going to respond in certain situations and they ring true. You know also the other thing that I find is that in real life we’re often conflicted we feel a lot of different emotions at once or we’ll feel emotions that are completely different opposite of each other and we can write about that on the page we can show how a character might be really excited that they bought a brand new car but then they’re also worried you know am I gonna be able to make these payments and what if I park somewhere and somebody scratch my door and just all these thoughts that come in our heads. That’s that’s exactly the human experience and that’s what we always want to communicate on the page. A range of emotions not just the same you know 10 emotions that we tend to. Sometimes we can get caught up in in describing so this kind of also prompts that range for us to really reach a little bit deeper and think about you know what kind of new emotions we can bring out that are that work naturally with the scene.

Angela: We’re we’re really all about the show don’t tell. And we stretch out across every aspect of writing. Where we come from it as. Is that any description that you put in your story. It should work really hard to be there. It shouldn’t just paint a picture for readers. It should characterize it should push the story forward it should set the mood. It should reveal emotion there should be something that it does. And so every topic that we tackle with description we try to do that. So we have. Two books on setting because it was such a massive topic we had to break it into two books and together they look at two hundred and fifty different fictional settings that you might find in your character’s world. Anything in the natural environments around the home in urban environments and they look at all the things a character might see smell taste touch we’re here and this encourages us to think a little bit more deeper with our sensory description as we tend to write what the character is seeing and we don’t add enough of that sensory detail but it also looks at different things that can happen in those settings like the different type of conflict that could happen potentially in those settings and the different people who will be there in those settings that you can think about is this person going to block my character’s process or how could this type of person you know create a situation where my character has to think on their feet and work through a problem. So it kind of inspires a lot of different ideas.

Angela: We have two books on personality one is the positive trait the source and the other is the negative trait the source and these look at the two halves of character personality. So they look at a lot of the different. Behaviors and actions and thoughts that a person would. Naturally feel and do based on different personality types. A character who is loyal is going to behave a lot differently than someone who’s corrupt a character who is moody or. Controlling they’re going to behave a certain way you can get a you can get an idea of how that behavior is going to look on the page and how they’re going to interact with other people what the relationships are going to be like. So we really want to encourage people to think deeply about what traits they give their characters and not just assign something but think about why those traits appeared in their personality. You know who did the character in their past backstory. Who did they know who were their influencers in their life you know who taught them things encouraged them cause them to grow find out who they were but also who held them who tried to take their power what. Bad experiences were in their pasts created emotional wounds things like that. All of these things just like you and I.

Angela: We have a different personality based on our background how we were raised who we were raised around and the type of environment we were in characters of the same. And so if we can think on these deep levels about why our characters are the way they are and what appears in their personality we’re going to build really well-rounded memorable characters that are just going to light up the page and then finally the last book that we have is the emotional word thesaurus. And that’s the one that we wrote our last book before this one. And it was definitely the most difficult book Beck and I have ever written and it looks at. I think there’s a hundred and sixteen different types of real world psychological trauma known as emotional wounds and these are events that have happened in a character’s past that have changed them often in a very negative way something that is unresolved that in the scope of the story they’re going to need to work through sort of dig up from deep where they’ve buried it. Look at it and learn how to move past it in a way that’s more healthier than they’ve been doing up to now because this really ties into character arc.

Angela: Most stories are based on a change arc where a character starts the story one way and they end the story in a different place some something that are maybe at the start of the story you know there is something feels like it’s missing from their life or they feel like they’re being held back or they’re unhappy and throughout the course the story is going to grow and they’re gonna change and they’re gonna evolve and become someone stronger who can meet the challenges ahead in the story to achieve whatever goal it is that they have and the things that they need to face are things within them things that are holding them back. Things that are keeping them from living their life in full. And those are often tied to emotional wounds these things that are within them that you know some something terrible happened and they never quite moved past it in a in a healthy way. So we really dig into what each emotional wound is the different types of behaviors that will typically present in someone who has that particular wound especially when it’s unresolved. And look at different triggers that might trigger that you know as we all know like different experiences that we have. They remind us of our past sometimes in good ways sometimes in bad ways. So in storytelling we can think about what kind of triggers can we weave into the story that’s going to help bring this emotion this emotional wound to the surface so that our character can process it and they can start going through it. So in some ways it sounds a little bit sadistic that we’re actually causing them pain bringing up these bad memories that they have but it really is a necessary process if we want to see that internal growth and work through that internal conflict so that they become someone stronger and you know where to have hope and look to the future you know and see what’s possible instead of what isn’t possible. So yeah that’s that’s the emotional and thesaurus. So that was quite a roller coaster because like I said it’s everything that we pull is deeply a lot of psychology in it and emotional wounds more so than anything. So it involved a lot of really going through real world pain. So. Hopefully writers will find it helpful and hopefully because we did some of that research then they will have to do a little less so.

Mel: This is a workshop in motion and we can all put our manuscripts I think through the test and make sure that we include some of these things.

Angela: Setting is actually one of the most powerful tools that we have in our writing tool kit and it’s interesting because I think a lot of writers sort of overlook it. They think I do pretty good setting description you know I’ve got my sounds and my smells and they sort of that’s as far as they go with it. But setting is it. There’s this beautiful relationship between setting and character and when you put the two together you create emotion in real life. You know there’s always places where we go all the time. We frequent them. We have our favorite coffee shops. We have our favorite places that we vacation. We have our favorite room in our house. And it’s because all of these settings mean something to us. They make us feel good. And so we like to be in them and their settings that we avoid. There’s places that we don’t want to go there. They we associate them with danger or something bad happened there. And so we avoid those places. And in storytelling we can do the same thing to bring out some great conflict in the story. We can use setting in a way that you know it was going to the way we describe it is going to create a mood. It’s going to make the character feel like Allen so it’s gonna make them feel at ease. Whatever it is that we decide what to do. You can foreshadow with your setting and you can make your setting have a really strong emotional value. And that’s where you specifically choose a setting in a scene that’s going to have a deeper meaning to one of the characters. Usually the protagonist but sometimes other characters as well. And it’s it’s going to have a stronger meaning for them. Something good or something bad. It’s up to you what you’re kind of going for in the story.

Angela: I have an example of a character who. You know he’s interviewing for a job and it all goes well over the phone and the CEO tells them you know like you seem like the exact person that we want instead of bringing you into the office. Why don’t we meet for lunch and we’ll just you know we’ll just get to know each other and that sort of thing. And so you know this guy he’s the character he’s really excited. It’s his dream job. He knows he’s got it nailed. And you know the guy says OK well we’ll meet at. I don’t know. I need a name of a restaurant you know on our list a cat. Let’s meet at the stakeout and immediately the character has a sense of dread because the last time he was at the steak Hutch was when he was there with his his girlfriend and he proposed to her and she said no. So immediately you could have that. You could have that moment. That interview happened in any restaurant it could be a triple play it could be McDonald’s it could be anything but why not choose a place a restaurant that has specific meaning to one of the characters. When that character enters that restaurant everything is going to remind him of that terrible moment because that was the moment where he feels he failed it was his you know biggest disappointment in life that she said no. And so now he’s got to go and he’s got to do an interview in this same restaurant. You know there’s the same waiter bringing the menus over and maybe the guy sitting across the table CEO orders the same meal that he ordered that night or chooses the same wine. Maybe he keeps being distracted looking over at the table that he sat out with his girlfriend where there’s no loving couple in there. You know they’ve got wedding bands on and they’re holding hands across the table like there’s so many things you can do when you choose the right setting. That’s going to alter the character’s emotional state. That’s going to create more friction more conflict or you know put them in a place where they’re going to make mistakes or it’s gonna be their greatest triumph. Maybe your character has kind of moved through a lot of the problems and the things that have held him back since that moment. And despite being in this situation again where he could fail again he instead rallies. And he’s like No I got this like this is a different situation and I’m going to nail this interview and he does. So it’s really up to us what we want to do with these powerful settings. But by choosing something specific rather than just picking something generic Oh well I guess this conversation can take place you know in the car. Or you know at school like think about a specific place that has meaning to that scene that you can just enhance things a little bit more.

Mel: I can see why you’re such an inspirational speaker and you get called to give these writing workshops a lot.

Angela: I have to limit my travel. You know I love to travel first of all. Travel is wonderful and it’s a wonderful side effect of being invited different places to speak but I have a lot on the go and so I can’t speak as much as I would love to but it is always such an honor to be able to come in and talk to people in person because you just can’t beat the energy that you get in a workshop. Working with people face to face and answering questions that they have and helping them with their manuscripts. I love it.

Angela: Yeah I know this is I think why writers retreats are becoming more and more popular. And no amount of preparation this morning would have prepared me for actually meeting you in person and listening to the energy in your voice.

Mel: It’s something everybody when you when you’re looking at your own writing to be able to I guess tapping to the expertise of of people like yourself Angela. Which brings me to something that I am really keen to delve more deeply into, your One Stop For Writers subscription website.

Angela: It’s sort of like Angela and Becca on steroids because we love helping writers and we love helping writers through our guides. It’s fantastic that people really are finding them good tools to help them write. That’s great. But you know with any format there’s going to be limitations and with a book you have you’re limited by page count every time we create a new book and they’re big and they’re heavy. We think about oh my gosh these poor writers that are hauling these around to coffee shops and you know different radio retreats and it’s just we thought you know I wonder if there’s a better way where we can put all of these things together in one place. And so that’s what we did is we created one stop for writers with Lee Powell who is the creator of Scribner for Windows and Linux and we put Oliver at the sources online which is just one aspect of the site. We actually have 14 different sources. Most people don’t necessarily realize that they just see the books but not all of the sources have been turned into books. We just don’t have enough clones. If we had more clones then everything would be great. But we can. These books are labor intensive so we really choose carefully about what next topic we’re going to turn into a book and not all topics would make a very good book. Just because the subject matter is too it’s too narrow to niche maybe it could be turned into a booklet or something like that. So anyway we have all these different sources on different topics like weather and symbolism. All of our books are there character motivation there’s at the source just on character motivation different common things that drive people to do different things. And they all are packed with description to help people strengthen their storytelling and build stronger characters.

Angela: But the other thing the other big thing that we do at One Stop For Writers which is so much fun for Becca and I is that we really enjoy building tools. Sometimes our tools are books but sometimes there are other things. And as writers ourselves we know what tools we really wish existed because they would make our lives easier. And if they don’t exist now because we have access to Lee who’s a really talented developer and we have a second developer at one stop at a check we can make these things a reality. We can create these tools that we know are gonna help us and help other writers. So we’ve done that we’ve created a bunch of different structure tools that really kind of break down the components of story structure in a really easy way and creates a nice little map that you can use to write your story. We’ve done the same thing at the scene level create scene maps where people you know often wonder like are all the moving parts of the scene. Are they all in place you know have I done a good job of making sure that the story is there it’s not just you know random things happening in a bubble. And so we’ve kind of earmarked certain things that you want to see in a specific scene in a way that’s really easy to understand for writers. We have an idea generator that looks at all different kinds of topics that you wouldn’t normally find in an idea generator that just kind of spark your brain when you need that sort of help. And we have worksheets and so many different things. I would say the thing that we’re most excited about is a tool that we’re building right now that is almost complete. It’s in beta testing and it’s called the character building tool. And the reason why this tool is so exciting is because it for the very first time.

Angela: We are creating a tool that pulls data from all our different sources based on character so character personality character ruins character motivation and you can actually build a character making choices about different aspects of your character’s backstory personality behavior. And depending on what you choose it will pull elements out of these sections and put them into a character arc blueprint. So it will actually show you what your character our blueprint is based on the information that you’ve given about your particular character sourcing the information that we have in our sources. So it’s something very unusual and new that I. I’ve never heard someone trying to do something like this before. So we’re very excited to see how that’s going to roll out.

Mel: I leave very large gaps in my character arcs and I think it’s natural for all of us. And as we see today the important thing to remember is not to get overwhelmed by these wonderful things but to use them as tools.

Angela: We’ve worked really hard to try to make our tools. Break it down these kind of deeper components of character building and story building into manageable understandable components because that’s the big thing is is you never start learning with writing like there’s never you we always when we start writing we always have this idea that I just want to get good enough that. Fill in the blank that I publish a book or that this that the other thing. But what you quickly realize is that there is no I just need to get good enough. Like there’s always more to learn and the successful writers I find are ones that really embrace that learning process and they decide OK you know what. I’m not going to focus so much on the end result I’m going to focus more on the journey and learning and growing as I go. And so there is a huge learning curve and the more you learn about writing the more you realize that there’s even more to learn beyond that. So we really wanted to create a way that sort of takes. A lot of these things that might intimidate newer writers and break it down in a way that makes it easier. So hopefully with this tool even though it sounds complex and there’s a lot of moving pieces hopefully we’ve done a good job of providing enough instruction and making it really easy and obvious what it is that someone needs to do.

Mel: Remember when Scrivener first hit the market and we all died of fright, and now it is just the go to tool that makes our lives so very much easier. And I’m guessing that your character building tool will do something similar.

Angela: One Stop for Writers is almost where it was. I’m going to have a look at it and I’ll put some more stuff up about what I find which is really exciting. But I’ve also found on Angela’s website here it’s podcasts and interviews that you might like to listen to and I’m always on the lookout for writing podcasts and there’s a wonderful terrific podcast for writers and you should pop over and have a look. Because the more that we listen the more that we look around what tools are available to us the more inspired we are.

Mel: What is your overriding piece of advice when we come to emotion about characters and we’ve got your book in front of us and we go, Oh my God what am I going to do.

Angela: Well if you’re struggling with trying to figure out what it is that your character’s feeling I would try to dig down to the root emotion because as I said it’s very common for characters to feel more than one thing at one time so it can you can be a bit conflicted you know should I show this or should I show them doing that you know and what you don’t want to do is try to describe so many different emotions that suddenly readers are confused they’re not understanding if you know actions that they’re taking or behaviors are because of this or because of that. So sometimes digging down to like what is the primary emotion that they feel and centering on that can kind of provide a guidepost to help you figure out where to start your description. The other thing that I would say too is if you’re struggling with trying to figure out how your character would express something in a particular moment just take a moment yourself to sort of sit down and think back to a time where you yourself felt that same emotion. It doesn’t have to be the same situation the same scenario that the character that you were in that the characters and now it can be something completely different. But. Think of a time where you felt that same emotion if you felt guilt you know. Think about what you were thinking when you felt guilty. You know where you kind of obsessing about something that happened. Do you get a little bit nervous every time you’re around a specific person that’s tied to that secret that thing that you feel guilty about what happens inside your body what’s going on you know is your heart. Speeding up you know is your muscles in your stomach tighter. Are you moving more or are you touching yourself more. Think about the things that you might do and allow yourself to experience that moment if it’s in your comfort zone I realize some emotions that our characters might be experiencing may be difficult for us to process ourselves. But if it’s an emotion that you feel comfortable sort of exploring that can be a really good thing it’s just to think about a moment where you felt that same thing and let yourself read experience it and think about those thoughts and then pay attention you know. Think about what it is that your body is doing and then ask yourself if that if those are things that you think fit your character as well.

Mel: Now the writing the thesaurus on character has writing tips in it. Everyone so there’s lots and lots of advice from these ladies in that that will come in really really handy.

Angela: A very simple little running tips that you can access and pick up one a day and read if you want to. I can’t wait to get my hands on a coffee of this thing and I’ll put it up there for you. But creating subtext for your writers thinking more deeply living with you living with your characters doing all those kinds of things allows for a greater experience for your reader and that’s what it’s all about isn’t it.

Mel: We can we find your book I know it’s coming out in February.

Angela: It is. You can preorder it now. This is the first time we’ve ever offered a preorder so it’s kind of exciting. And. You can do that if you go to writers helping writers you’ll you’ll find a million signposts to show you how to do that. And we have a preorder bonus on right now where if you do preorder the book we’ll send you some of the cutting room floor emotion entries that never made it into the book because there’s quite a bit of a battle with Becca and I deciding you know which motions to include which ones not to include. And so we kind of all we have our favorites we come to the table with our favorites and we kind of pitch them and some emotions we need to explore we need to write them out and we discover you know what they’re too close to something else that we already have or this isn’t really an emotion that’s more of a character trait. And so those things they’re complete you know the entries are written but they just didn’t make it into the book. So we’ve got a little collection of a couple of those that that will send you if you preorder it you can find them at writers helping writers but the preorders also have a Kindle and Prince Amazon Barnes Noble indie indie bound and Kobo I think are where are they all right now. I think Apple Books is coming if it’s not up quite yet but it should be up soon.

Mel: Don’t forget these five other books in the series are definitely sitting one. I love the emotional wounds one a lot of this he Angela romance wrote is and everything that you’ve talked about today just fits straight into what a good romance should should be all about.

Angela: Thanks for having me. It was so much fun.

About the author, Melinda

I'm an authorpreneur, English teacher and podcaster who dreams of a life on the road full of adventures and handsome heroes, whilst making squizillions of dollars in book sales to pay for my chocolate fix. In the real world, I write novels and non-fiction, and offer my expert advice via online courses (as soon as I make them) and writing retreats (as soon as I organise them).

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