Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 11, 2012

The Business of Character Engagement

by Jenny Hansen

A while back, I was doing social media for the accounting firm I work for part-time and I came across the following tweet:

Leadershipfreak Dan Rockwell - A no string attached book giveaway on today's post: 9 Questions that enhance engagement" http://bit.ly/rtNRQO

Hmmm…I’m a writer. I’m interested in "engagement"...particularly as it relates to my characters and potential readers. So I forwarded the blog to my personal email to share with all of you.

Here’s the full article, if you wish to read it – Dan Rockwell writes really  good posts. In this particular article, Rockwell examines the principle of open listening from the book, "Coaching for Engagement: Achieving Results through Powerful Conversations," by Hancox, Hunter, and Boudreau.

According to Dan, "open listening is rigorous work not passive silence. Fools can be quiet but they can’t listen." Below is the line that made me decide to write about this post:

Listen and you’ll know what to ask.

I’ll confess that I’m not half the listener I’d like to be. I come from a family of boisterous people that love to tell stories, finish each others’ sentences and talk all over each other. Two-way communication can get a little daunting in a family like mine. (I'm sure those of you that know me well find that shocking.)

Plus, I’m impatient. Far too often, I think I’ve got the gist of something my husband says only to have him stop and tilt his head (looking very aggrieved) and say, "I wasn’t finished yet."

Oh. Whoops. Um, go ahead…Sorry!

Yeah, it's embarrassing. Especially because I want to be a great listener all the time.

Our group of founding writers meets every Thursday night to go over chapters or plot out books. Over the time that we've been doing this, I've learned to watch my fellow writers' faces as we go over their book. If they get that deer-in-headlights look when I start throwing out suggestions, I've learned to back off and start asking them questions.

My favorite brainstorming technique is an "oldie but goodie" called The List of 20 that requires you to list twenty things (no matter how crazy) that could happen in your book. Doing this as a group is particularly awesome because the ideas fly in from multiple points of craziness.

While brainstorming and plotting are fun and enormously important, I believe the real magic happens when you take a moment to STOP and listen to what your characters have to say. When I shut my pie-hole and get out of the way, my characters tell me the damnedest things!


Listen and you’ll know what to ask.

This is what all the meditation, writing practice, walks, and showers are about for creative people.

They’re about shutting off the faucet of continual life-chatter long enough to listen to your characters.

When you listen hard enough, your characters will let you climb right down into the heart of them and discover what makes them tick.

In his blog, Mr. Rockwell shared the "9 questions open listeners ask that create engagement." He was focusing on business and leadership.

Today, I'm going to use his 9 questions to focus on character development. What would you find out if you stepped into your fictional world and asked your characters the following questions?

  1. What are they focused on?
  2. What does this mean to them?
  3. How are they measuring success?
  4. What values are they expressing?
  5. What emotions do you hear in their voice?
  6. What values or beliefs are behind their words?
  7. How is this impacting them?
  8. What strengths have they articulated that could be acknowledged?
  9. What are they really asking for?

I’ve never had this particular list of questions before, and I like it. My characters really like it. When I pondered the Big 9 above, my fictional peeps started shouting out their answers. (I know all you writers know what I'm talking about! Don't try to act like this schizo-sounding stuff doesn't happen to you...)

Rockwell also discusses some pitfalls to open listening, which nicely enough also apply to writing:

  • Jumping for quick solutions – you’ll solve the wrong problem.
    This ties back to the List of 20. ALWAYS list all twenty!
  • Discomfort with other’s frustration while they find their own answers. Let others struggle.
    Writer translation: Quit saving your characters from the crap pile. They’ve got lessons to learn, you helicopter creator, you.
  • Assumptions, beliefs, and judgments.
    Writer translation: Don’t start thinking this is your book. It’s only partly yours. The rest belongs to your fictional people and they don’t need you butting in with things that don’t apply to them.
  • Getting caught up in the details of the story. Keep the big picture in mind.
    Writer translation: "Whoa, Sparky. Watch that backstory!"
  • Discomfort with silence. Shhhh!
    Writer translation: There are pages for fast-paced riveting action and there are pages where some introspection would not be out of line. If you convey those quiet moments well, they’re far from boring.

So, what techniques do you use to get those characters to open up and tell you their secrets? Do you have questions of your own you like to ask? What are they?


Jenny fills her nights with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, short stories (and chasing after her wildly teething Baby Girl). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s digging this sit down and write thing. In addition to being a founding member here at WITS, Jenny also hangs out on Twitter at jhansenwrites and at her other blog, More Cowbell.

0 comments on “The Business of Character Engagement”

  1. Hi. I've chosen you for the Versatile Blogger Award. I was chosen (http://writeorrevisedaily.wordpress.com/2012/01/11/versatile-blogger-award/) and, in turn, you are one of my chosen 15. Congratulations and keep up the great work on your blog!
    The rules of this nomination are as follows:
    1. Thank the award-giver and link back to them in your post.
    2. Share 7 things about yourself.
    3. Pass this award along to 15 others.
    4. Contact your chosen bloggers to let them know about the award.

  2. This post is right on target for me. I am revising a manuscript I first conceived and wrote years ago. It is the book of my heart. It has come alive for me, but I have a villian in it. I am going to be asking this particular character those questions today to see what is really in his villianous heart. ;o) Thank you Jenny.

  3. Jenny, this post is a keeper! Often I'll go in one direction with a story, only to find myself painted into a corner. Okay stupid, now what? By the way I am a true compulsive OT ... over-talker, and I must attend weekly meetings with myself. Good day, my name if Florence and I'm an over-talker.

    So in order to listen, I ask my characters what's wrong. What, you don't like the story? What do you mean, you would never say that? "I" say it all the time. Yeah, well I wouldn't. So cut it out!

    Part of my twelve step program is to ask them a question and then promise to listen to the answer. It might sound silly as you pointed out, even a little neurotic, but for me it works 🙂

  4. Jenn, perfect timing for this post as I'm working on my characters. The nine steps work really well with a list I have from Story Structure by Larry Brooks. Thanks

  5. This post reminds me of breakout prompts Donald Maas will have on Twitter. He'll throw out questions like these that get you to think about your character in ways you might not have thought before. It's always interesting to see where the characters want to go, what they have to say, or what they are feeling. Sometimes we forget that they are real (in our imagined world) and therefore need real thoughts, feelings, emotions. They can't be perfect paper cut-outs or they'll be boring.

  6. Thanks for this post. For me, there's a balance between plotting and letting your characters flesh the book out their way. That's why I don't work out each scene ahead of time. I know the goal of each one, but I let them dictate the direct. At least most of the time, lol.

    And thanks to Laura for the #Maass hashtag. Didn't know that!

  7. Woot! #Maass, I'm on my way!

    You made all my points. I knew something was wrong with a scene with my hero. I stopped, I thought. I pretended he was sitting next to me. I closed my eyes, pictured him in the scene. ARGH! He sounded like a freakin' girl on the page and we was NOT happy!

    "Are you nuts? On what planet would I say that?"

    I'm reworking THE HARDEST right now. The antagonist. I was tripping right along under the impression the hero serves as the antagonist in a romance, since he is the one who influences most change in the protag (in my ms, anyway).

    NOT SO, I learned at the WWBC meet on Saturday. The villain was there, he/it wasn't BIG enough. And, according to Maass, I have to give him a heart. Oh! Oh! Twenty things! I could list twenty things! Bye...

    1. Gloria, I love the way the WWBC makes you go after the antagonist first. I'm going to do that with my fiction the minute I get back to it - it ends up making everything SO much easier.

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