When Minor Characters Hijack Your Story

Minor characters can be a lot of fun. They can add color, humor, or some other element that you can’t include in your major characters because of the story you’re trying to tell. But you have to watch those vivid, minor characters. Let your attention stray, or pay too much attention to a minor character, and the next thing you know, she’s mounted a coup. When minor characters hijack you story, you need to ask yourself a few questions.

Do I Have the Correct Main Character?

If a minor character is attracting all your interest, maybe you need to upgrade him to the main character. Write a few scenes from his POV and see how the story plays. If you feel your main character is the right one to carry the story, audition your attention-getting minor character as a major one.

Am I Bored with My Story?

Your minor character may be taking over because the story you planned to write just isn’t working. Stop writing and see if you can build a main character out of this minor one. Then brainstorm for a story that could feature your new main character

Could I Write a Spin Off Story?

Maybe your minor character still needs to be minor in your current story but could be the main or a major character in the next one.

Your minor character may be a lot more fun to write as a minor character. And also a lot more fun to read as one. She can be funnier, meaner, or more outrageous than your carefully crafted major characters. Sometimes, a minor character works so well because the reader isn’t in his head. There’s a bit of a mystery about his attitudes or goals or quirks. If he becomes a major character, he’d would lose that.

It’s similar to the saying about sausage. If you love it, then knowing the process for making it could kill your love. If readers love a minor character, then knowing exactly what makes her tick could dampen her appeal.

While writing my first novel, A Shadow on the Snow, I had a character attempt to take over. My main character nineteen-year-old Rae Riley, who has just discovered who her father is and is getting to know his sprawling, extended family, has an eighty-year-old great-grandfather, Walter. As I introduced Walter to the story, he took command. As I wrote dialogue, I felt more like I was taking dictation than imagining the conversation. (Yes, we writers hear voices in our heads, but we know they’re not real. Most of the time.) His physical appearance morphed in my mind without conscious thought on my part. I was having so much fun with him that I had to watch that I didn’t let him assume an importance that didn’t serve the story.

Walter works well as minor character with big impact. I used him in my mystery short story, “Bovine”. He’s only in one scene, but his presence influences the rest of the story.

For more tips on writing characters, click here

Who are some minor characters that you love?

Writing the Amateur Sleuth

So exciting to introduce a new author to you! The best thing about having guest bloggers is learning from them. I love how Sally Carpenter breaks down writing the amateur sleuth in cozy mysteries. So glad you’re here, Sally!

By nature, cozy mysteries involve an amateur sleuth, not a trained professional such as a private eye or police office. Why do cozy readers love such a sleuth? Perhaps they can readily identity with the protagonist and feel more involved in solving the crime with someone like themselves. Perhaps it’s because cozies place a strong emphasis on family, and it’s enjoyable to see the sleuth’s home life.

In my Sandy Fairfax cozy series, Sandy is a 39-year-old (he aged up in the latest book) former ‘70s teen idol restarting his career and reconnecting with his estranged family. Along the way he stumbles (sometimes literally) across bodies. What are the qualities that help him solve the crime?

Intelligence. Despite the way the press portrays teen idols as “cute faces,” they’re no dummies. During his career in the 1970s, on weekdays, Sandy learned lines and acted on a TV show. In the evenings he recorded albums. On weekends he traveled across the country to perform in live concerts. During the week he gave endless interviews, posed for photo shoots, took part in charity events, and tried to have a private life. A guy needed smarts and stamina for a schedule like that.

Some cozies have bumbling sleuths who solve a case through blind luck rather than detection. While such characters may be funny and likeable, it’s a cheat to the reader, and the constant fumbling gets stale over several books if the sleuth never wises up.  

Curiosity. Sandy wants answers to questions. He isn’t willing to let things drop. In my latest book, The Highland Havoc Caper, he and his son find a body inside a castle. But when they fetch help and return, the corpse is gone. Sandy’s told to go away and forget about it, but he’d determined to find out what happened.

Charisma. Teen idols have an appeal that pulls in the fans. Sandy turns on the charm when he’s interviewing a suspect. Since he has no police authority, he must reply on his personality to reach people. Some suspects will speak to Sandy simply because he’s a celebrity. 

Creativity. Since Sandy has no law enforcement powers, he must find clever—and legal—means to talk to people and search buildings. Any evidence he finds may not be admissible in court, so he must go the extra mile to build a case against the culprit.

Free time. Sandy isn’t tied down to a nine-to-five job. He has down time between gigs and rehearsals to snoop around. Many cozy sleuths are shop owners. Not only does this give them the opportunity to get the news through their customers, but they can have an employee mind the shop while they go tend to a case.

Access. Most of Sandy’s cases take place in the entertainment business. As a performer himself, he’s in close contact with his suspects, more so than the police. He knows how to connect with his fellow singers/actors. 

Attention to detail. At the end of each book, Sandy manages to take the bits and pieces and fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s a throwaway clue or a chance remark or a physical object found at the scene of the crime that unmasks the killer. Sandy’s good at paying attention and remembering facts.

A sense of justice. Sandy wants to see right prevail and the wicked punished. In the book The Quirky Quiz Show Caper, Sandy’s brother, Warren, is framed for murder. Even though the brothers are not on speaking terms, Sandy is determined to see that his brother’s name is cleared. 

All good amateur sleuths—as well as professionals—have these characteristics. And readers love characters with brains, guts and a sense of fair play.

For more information about me and my cozies, as well the opportunity to download two free stories, go to my website http://sandyfairfaxauthor.com.

For more advice on creating characters, click here.


Former pop star Sandy Fairfax engages in a dangerous hobby—amateur sleuthing. At the Seaside Highland Games in California, he and his teenage son, Chip, discover more than their heritage. In a castle transported from Scotland, they find a body bludgeoned with a curling stone. But when they go for help, the corpse vanishes. Without a body or even a name, how will Sandy find the killer? As he and Cinnamon plan their wedding, more bodies pile up. A piper plummets from the castle tower and into the ocean. Another body is found behind a Scottish pub in L.A. And when Sandy takes a guest role on the Spook Spotters TV show, the worried dad must keep Chip safe from an amorous young actress. Whether you take the high road or the low road, can you solve the case before Sandy does? Buy the Kindle or the paperback.


Sally Carpenter is a native Hoosier now living in Ventura County, California. She writes adult retro-cozy mysteries: The Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol series (six books) and the Psychedelic Spy series (two books). The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caperwas a 2012 Eureka! Award finalist for Best First Mystery Book. She has a M.A. in theater, a M.Div., and a black belt in tae kwon do. She’s currently working on a new science fiction/mystery series. Download free stories from her website.

When to Eliminate a Character

I wrote this blog four years ago and I’m reprinting it because I now have an epilogue to it. I also think it’s important for a writer to know when to eliminate a character. The YA crime novel I refer to has never been published. Shortly after I knew “A Rose from the Ashes” was going to be published, I abandoned the novel for my Rae Riley mysteries.

I thought I was ready.

When an agent said I could send her the proposal for my YA crime novel, she also said I could send two-paragraph blurbs describing the other books in the series. When I got home, I was so excited and settled down to the job, eager to introduce into the second novel one of my favorite characters, a mysterious stranger who helps my main character and his family and whose motivations and history are revealed over the series.

Only I couldn’t summarize the book. No matter how I approached the blurb, I kept stumbling over my mysterious stranger. He wouldn’t fit easily into the narrative. He clashed and grated on other characters. His motivations never felt right. A few days before November 11, 2018, I hit on the reason: I didn’t need him any more.

In my head, I’d been developing this series for years, adding characters, changing personalities, explored motivations. I now had other characters who could do the job of the mysterious stranger more easily and believably.

So on November 11, 2018, I killed my character. It didn’t bother me like I thought it would. I love my characters, feeling an almost maternal protectiveness (don’t tell my kids) as I nurture and polish them. But once I killed the stranger, I felt at ease. When a story isn’t working, I obsess over how to fix it because I can’t stand the feeling that something is wrong. After I made the the final decision to axe the stranger, the relief I felt signaled I’d made the right decision.

It also signaled I’d changed as a writer. I was more concerned with serving the story than myself. I found myself wanting to write the best story possible, no matter how painful the path to get there.

So, sorry, mysterious stranger. I may resurrect you for another story, change you a bit, cast you in a somewhat different role.

But for now — rest in peace.


I have resurrected the mysterious stranger.

He’s changed a lot. He’s younger and now works as a deputy in Marlin County for the father of my main character, Rae Riley. His appearance has also changed, but what hasn’t is his air of mystery. This results from his silence about certain parts of his life and also the wide range of unusual skills he has. Over the course of the series, I hope to reveal his mysterious past.

So be encouraged–if you’ve worked years on a book that you can’t sell, try writing something else. Then you will very likely draw on settings or characters or plots from the old book and transform them into something better for the new one. I believe no writing experience is a waste if it’s a building block to something better.

For more tips on creating characters, click here.

Have you put a hit out on a character? Why?

Characters You Meet Along the Way

YA author M. Liz Boyle is back with “Characters You Meet Along the Way” as we dive into the fascinating process of creating characters for our stories. You can read her other guest blogs here. Thanks for coming back, Liz!

“It’s not where you go. It’s who you meet along the way.” Dorothy is credited with this saying in The Wizard of Oz. It’s a sweet quote to share with your family and friends.

I think sentiment also applies to authors. Think of your favorite books. Do you reread your favorite scenes because of what happens or where it happens, or because of who it happens to? Just like relationships are essential to life, characters are what make stories come to life. (I am not discounting the importance of setting or plot, but for this article, I’m focusing on characters.)

Here are some tips to make your fictional characters as interesting and varied as the people you know in real life:

Describe more than what you see.

When you meet someone, are hair and eye color the only things you notice? The tone of voice he uses and whether he maintains eye contact might make more of an impression. Does her body language put you at ease or make you wonder if she’s running from the cops? Before he answers your pointed question, does he check his watch or give you full attention? Is she only halfway listening to you as she periodically scrolls through her phone, or does she make you feel like she has all afternoon to listen? Qualities like these (and more!) are worth describing so your readers get a full sense of who your characters are. 

Give your characters sayings or mannerisms that are unique to each character.

Maybe you have a mentor who often starts conversations with, “Listen, I was thinking….” Meanwhile your sister commonly skips up the porch steps and says, “Guess what!” Assign phrases to different characters to help distinguish their personalities. 

Choose your character’s interests.

If you want readers to know certain details, let the character who is most likely to recognize those details describe them. 

A character who describes her own clothing in detail will probably describe other people’s wardrobes, too. She’s interested in clothing, so she notices that in other characters. This fashionista character probably will not describe vehicles with the detail of a car collector. She might recognize a car as old enough to be in a car show, but she probably wouldn’t say, “Look at that 1960s Shelby Mustang with the racing stripes.” 

My husband is a tree worker, and he can tell me all about the health and species of trees in a yard and their proximity to power lines and propane tanks, but he can’t ballpark what century the house was built in because it doesn’t interest him. 

Here’s a snippet of a recent conversation with my dad that illustrates this. 

Dad [about the first time he went water skiing, which was many decades ago]: The boat had a 30 horsepower outboard motor. It was a Mercury with a four cylinder.

Me: What color was the boat?

Dad: I don’t remember that. 

Me: [wondering how he can remember the motor but not the boat color]

It’s unrealistic if characters are all-knowing, so give them interests like real people.

I hope these three tips help you design your characters. What other ideas do you have? Thank you so much, JPC Allen, for hosting me today!


Adventurous teenager Marlee Stanley has a knack for finding herself in natural disasters with her sisters and the Miles boys. When their adventures take a turn for the worse, will Marlee cave under pressure, or will her faith in God be strong enough to guide her to safety? 

Check out the books on Amazon!


M. Liz Boyle

Liz is the author of the Off the Itinerary series, the wife of a professional tree climber, and the homeschooling mom of three energetic and laundry-producing children. Liz once spent a summer in Colorado teaching rock climbing, which she believes was a fantastic way to make money and memories. She resides with her family in Wisconsin, where they enjoy hiking and rock climbing. Liz and her husband have also backpacked in Colorado and the Grand Canyon, which have provided inspiration for her writing. She makes adventurous stories to encourage others to find adventures and expand their comfort zones (though admittedly, she still needs lots of practice expanding her own comfort zone). Follow Liz on her website, Facebook, Instagram, GoodReads, and BookBub.

How to Describe Characters in Show Don’t Tell, Part 1

One of my favorite novels is The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. And one of the reasons I like it so well is that the main character Ponyboy describes his older brothers and the members of his gang in great detail. In fact, a good chunk of chapter one is devoted to their descriptions. I’ve always liked getting vivid pictures of the characters in the first few pages. It makes the story come alive to me.

But The Outsiders was written over fifty years ago. Today, those kinds of lengthy descriptions would be considered poor writing. I’ve read that one current trend in writing descriptions for characters is to provide only hair color, eye color, or some other distinctive trait and let the reader fill in the details.

Because of this practice, I have a serious problem getting caught up in currently published stories. The characters never seem real to me. I’m rarely given enough details to “see” them. I also think writers aren’t helping readers by scrimping on characters descriptions.

When I wrote my YA mystery short story “A Rose from the Ashes”, I was faced with the problem of how to describe characters in “show don’t tell” without slowing down the story. I also had to describe them from the deep point of view of my main character (MC), nineteen-year-old Rae Riley. Those descriptions would not only tell readers how characters looked but something about how my MC saw them.

I hit on a combination of mentioning a few key traits and then a “handle”, a description to sum up that character. As the story progressed, I’d dribble in reminder descriptions to help readers “see” the characters.

Descriptions for major characters

In “A Rose from the Ashes”, Rae is trying to figure out who her father is and if he was the attacker who tried to murder her pregnant mother twenty years before. Her late mother said only three men could be her father. I had to make those three men distinct individuals. Perhaps more than other MC’s, Rae notices the physical traits of the men because she’s looking for connections to her own characteristics.

I introduce one that is a professor this way:

Terence O’Neil was my idea of a professor. Over sixty, balding with a closely cut black and white beard covering cheeks that shook when he talked. He even smoked a pipe.

The “handle” is Terence O’Neil looks likes Rae’s idea of a professor, which invites the reader to think of their idea of a professor. Then I add some specific traits.

Another candidate for Rae’s father is the sheriff, Walter R. Malinowski IV:

He was one of the few people I’d met who made me feel short. Close to six-six, with biceps bulging like pumpkins under a rumpled button-down shirt, he could easily become the next Thor if he grew out his blond crewcut and added a beard.

The “handle” is that he looks like Thor. Blonde crewcut and his height and bulging biceps are the specific traits. Readers are reminded that Rae is tall–maybe inheriting that feature from the sheriff if he’s her father?–and that she likes superhero movies.

The last candidate is Jason Carlisle, a businessman and a member of the wealthiest family in the county.

Besides being fashionable enough for a runway, Jason had dark brown hair, gel sculpting every strand in place, and soft brown eyes that held a warmth I wanted to wrap myself in. If he was a few inches taller and more muscular, he’d make a perfect Superman.

The “handle” is Superman. Specific traits are hair color, eye color, and being fashionable. Rae has brown eyes, so she notices that trait. Her description also shows that she likes the man.

Throughout the story, I dribble in reminders of the characters appearance. When Terence O’Neil is nervous, he rubs his beard. When the sheriff appears suddenly at an abandoned house, “his massive frame” fills the doorway.

This post is running long, so I will tackle how to describe your main characters and the problem of showing, not telling, ages in my post for next week.

Do you like characters describe in detail or not? What are some memorable descriptions you’ve read?

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