Monday, December 13, 2010

Five Ways to Use On-Line Lists

I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for on-line quizzes. Love to take them! But even more fun are the lists. You know the ones. “10 ways to Tell He’s Lying” “8 Reasons Your BFF Isn’t” “5 Things to Ask Before Taking It to the Next Level”

Just yesterday, I saved to my electronic file, “What is Your Body Language Saying” from the Dec. 7th issue of Real Simple Magazine. How to read faces, bodies, hands, and even, get this, how to read feet! You gotta love it!

I have a huge file of them I collected. Why, you might ask. No, I am not searching for love or trying to detect infidelity in my spouse. I am an author. These lists are all about human relationships. When I write my novels, I am trying really hard to develop characters my readers can relate to and know on some level.

Other than a weird sort of interest in these lists, what value can they have to an author? Let me share how I use material from some of my collected lists.

1) I have a character, a nervous type. So I say that. Big whoop! If I go to my lists, I find that I can have the character doing things to show nervousness. Like this:

Rita was nervous.


Rita nibbled on her lower lip. Her body rocked forward and back, fingers picking at her broken cuticles.

Okay, so maybe you don’t want Rita to be quite so obvious in her nervous signs, but I think you can see the benefit of showing the nervousness over telling she’s nervous. As a place holder I can write “Rita was nervous” and put it in bold font to stand out. During revisions, I can find the bolded spots and describe her (and other characters) better.

2) Another way to use on-line lists of character traits and behaviors is to give them distinctive actions so you distinguish one character from another for your reader. Perhaps you want one character to be a fidgeter, so you describe how his toe is always tapping when he sits and that he must get up often to walk around, then sits back down and taps his right toe again. Or another character might be excitable, so you have her flailing her arms and blinking a lot.

3) One article I pasted in from Sheer Balance last January is “6 Personality Traits to Admire and Acquire.” When you are working on the beginning stages of your book, you make choices about the protagonist, supporting characters, and the antagonist. Knowing that you will create tension with opposites, if you want your protagonist to be selfless, then the antagonist might become selfish. So you read what selfless people do (give time to others, listen, demonstrate patience, give love, generous, make others feel loved and appreciated), and those are the behaviors you give your protagonist. As a foil, you make your antagonist: emotionally unavailable to others, impatient while listening, impatient in general, ignore others’ needs, brusque and self-absorbed.

4) On-line lists give suggestions for how to keep the romance going. For example, dating coach David Wygant posted “Dating Advice: 7 Ways to Keep the Fire in your Relationship Burning.” You have a couple of characters romantically involved. Have one of your characters leave surprise notes in her husband’s lunch bag. (And just imagine what could happen if her husband’s mistress found it!). Or do as Wygant suggests and show how the characters respond by carrying their kiss deeper and longer.’s article, “Master This Habit to Keep Your Relationship Healthy”, focuses on a single behavior: being supportive during good times may be more important than during the bad ones. You can have a character demonstrate aspects of supportive behavior by celebrating the good performance review, getting a new job, handling a touchy situation well and that recognition and support will strengthen the relationship.

5) Read the extras. Almost all of these on-line lists are linked to other lists. In the article on being supportive of good news happenings is a link to “5 Surprising Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Relationship.” Now that can be fun. Collect even more to expand your repertoire of traits and behaviors.

Keep collecting these lists, and pretty soon, you could set up an illegal counseling practice, you’ll know so much. Or not. Maybe instead you could demonstrate research-based behaviors in your novels so your characters ring true.


  1. I didn't know other authors did this, too.

  2. I think of reading these lists as a mini-course of study in Psychology. Human nature is an amazing thing to observe. Sharon