Techie Tuesday: The Business of Character Engagement

Tuesdays are devoted to the nitty-gritty here at More Cowbell.

It might be the down-and-dirty technical details of getting 25 lines per page in your manuscript. Perhaps it will be writing-focused like the Deep Editing Analysis from Margie Lawson last week. But every Tuesday, I try to pass some fun new bit of knowledge on to my More Cowbell peeps.

Yesterday, I was tweeting for the accounting firm I work for 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”

Hmmm…I’m a writer. I’m interested in “engagement”…particularly as it relates to my characters and potential readers.

Let’s be clear: my BOSS cares about engagement in terms of business, teaming and customers. (And well he should as it helps keep us all employed.)

Me? I care about those things…when I’m at work. The rest of the time, it’s all about my characters and the movie reel that plays in my head. 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 post, 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.” Here 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 you 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.

Several posts ago, we talked about various brainstorming techniques to help you with plotting your story. My favorite technique in that post 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.

Note: It’s best to do this in a group so the ideas can fly in from multiple points of craziness.

While brainstorming and plotting are important and enormously fun, 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, they 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. We’re focusing on character development. What would you find out if you stepped into your fictional world and asked your characters the following questions?

  • What are they focused on?
  • What does this mean to them?
  • How are they measuring success?
  • What values are they expressing?
  • What emotions do you hear in their voice?
  • What values or beliefs are behind their words?
  • How is this impacting them?
  • What strengths have they articulated that could be acknowledged?
  • 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? Enquiring minds always want to know at More Cowbell!

You know I love hearing from you! I love it so much, I created the Let’s Meet Up (for Training) Contest where your comments put your name into a hat to be drawn for a one hour training webinar with yours truly.

This is supposed to be the last month of this contest but I’m not sure I want it to be…I have soooo much fun on our webinars. The July Winners will be announced next Tuesday on July 26th (even though we’re just getting around to our June Webinar this Friday – I swear I don’t know where the time flies…).

Anyway, please let me know if the Let’s Meet Up Contest needs to continue for another few months. I’m willing if you are!


About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm ( Write on!
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32 Responses to Techie Tuesday: The Business of Character Engagement

  1. Linda Burke says:

    You have such interesting, thought-provoking articles. Thank you.


  2. Gaaah! My protag (Molly O’Malley) in COLOR MY WORLD is a con and an emotional mess. She’s perky and clever and chipper on the outside. On the inside, she has repressed memories of a painful childhood. The character arc deals with the grey blob she holds inside and her desire to feel the way she acts. When I have trouble with a scene it’s because I’m being writerly “me” instead of channeling Molly O’Malley or the POV character.

    I have to stop, get Molly back in my head, and think what would Molly think/feel PLUS how would Molly react.

    PLUS, I have to let Molly pick when Rhett Devlisht gets to play. (Rhett Devlisht, is an imaginary character Sherry and I created for Margie’s RHETorical DEVise LIShT. Long story on our propensity to use SH in place of plain-old-S.)

    I love to play with my words so I LOVED all the nifty rhetorical devices Margie teaches. During edits, I can often tell which device I learned at what point in my ms. I use it with free abandon. “OOh! A new toy!”

    Surprise! I love snarky characters and need to modify (not lose) my voice so it fits each character. I had a list at one time that assigned certain rhetorical devices to different characters. Molly would use polysyndeton and anophora and simploce. (EEE! Love knowing the names of those guys!)

    Hero Jake? Not so much. He’s more of a zeugma* kind of guy. * repeat parenthetical above.

    Jennifer Crusie is one of my fave romance writers–at least the voice in her books through BET ME were. FAKING IT has awesome world-building and characters. When I decided to write romance, I sat down to see if I could write a steamy scene like Jenny. I can. I am a slut. 😉

    Off to torture myself at the gym now — and get in voice b/c I’ve got to finish and become rich and famous. Okay. Finish first.

    Tried to post late yesterday, Jenny. But your blog flipped out on me when I hit POST and I couldn’t get back in. WILL be hopping back to that blog post after I get to MY table at SBUX.


    • Jenny Hansen says:


      I love Jenny Crusie! She’s one of my all time faves. And you’re one up on me because I can’t write steamy scenes worth a damn. (You slut, you!)

      Please do tell me more about this freaking out blog business. It sounds like your browser needs to be updated but I’d love to hear more. And kudos to you for going to the gym. THAT is going onto my goals list as I’m having a hard time getting back into my pre-pregs pants.


      • First, apologizes for my long-winded, totally off-topic post. Sherry is en route to Ste. St. Marie today some I’m bereft and chat deprived.

        (WARNING: Off topic test to see if emoticons convert when symbols are entered. 😀 .Yes. I could have asked, but where’s the adventure in that?)

        As for my issue last night, I hit post comment. Got the spinning loop-de-doop symbol. Bet you didn’t know I was so savvy on technical terms, did you? Then, the screen bounced to a “cannot access” page. I think it said the program was not responding. I knew my post was gone and tried to come back to your blog, but got the same error message. It was the first and only time I’ve had an issue. Should have written down the error code.


  3. Laura Drake says:

    Wow – taking a business article and applying it to writing – SO well!
    But. Now you’re going to pay for all your good advice (buahhhaaahhaa) I want to try the 20 questions for my new book in crit group!
    That’ll teach ya!


  4. Stacy Green says:

    Wow, this was one of the best articles I’ve read. I wouldn’t have stopped to think about how all of that can apply to writing, but you’re absolutely right.

    I think this is one of the hardest parts about writing third person with multiple POVS. My book, Light and Dark, has three: hero, heroine, and the bad guy. Each one has a different voice, and I’ve learned to back off and let them tell the story. I can always edit their craziness out later if it doesn’t work.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks, Stacy! I wasn’t sure how it would go over, pushing business on my writing pals. But listening is SUCH a fine art kind of skill. My husband rocks at it. I’m a work in progress. 🙂

      I love the title of your book!


  5. Yes, I need to listen to what my characters want to say to me so I can write it down in “their” book. I get it.


  6. Every writer needs to take this lesson to heart. Listening to our characters makes for a great book. We can’t write what we don’t know. Thank you for bringing this from the business end to us.


  7. Karen Cote says:

    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.

    I LOVE THIS!! I’m such a control freak but I do know these people talk to me and they are loudest when I’m drifting off to sleep and they wake me up and won’t let me go back to sleep. I guess that’s the time I let them fully express themselves by shutting up.

    Thank you for this. An amazing post with loads of information to learn.

    Thank you Linda Burke for telling us about this. This is gold..


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Wow, Karen! I LOVE your first comment on More Cowbell. Come back any time. 🙂

      Seriously, these questions and pitfalls stood out to me when I read them because I know I can always be a better listener. Sometimes I just need to zip it and let the work flow through my fingers. I’m a control freak too, but I think all writers have to be to a certain extent. We’ve got people to draw and world to build.

      Glad you liked the post! And thanks to Linda for sending you *waving to Linda*


  8. 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 man, this is so me. Great post and link–thanks for sharing them. 🙂

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse


  9. Sherry Isaac says:

    “Fools can be quiet but they can’t listen.”
    Oo. It’s like Dan Rockwell was at the dinner table with me and my hubby tonight. Creepy!

    I don’t assume it’s my book, my characters made it clear long long ago, and they come through with that message at those non-continual-life-chatter times. My best writing happens when I’m in the bathtub or driving on the highway – neither the greatest for writing things down. Note to self: Invest in tape recorder. Second note to self. Carry it with you. Third note: keep batteries charged. Fourth note: Use the damn recorder.

    Speaking of continual chatter, I see my good friend Gloria left book one in a seven-part series. I mean, I see Gloria left a comment.


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  11. jamila says:

    I love seeing how you’ve taken a business article and applied it to writing, but all of these points are so true! I’m juggling a couple of WIPs, and I think it’s funny how different they are right now. With “Strange Bedfellows,” the characters are constantly clamoring to be noticed. They are like three year-old children — “Me, me, look at me! I want to tell you this time what I think about this scene!” They have these personalities that I can’t restrain, and so the words just spill onto the page. I’m not guiding them; they’re telling me where to go (and they’re pretty snotty about it, too).

    The MC for “Path to the Peacock Throne,” on the other hand, is so much quieter that I have to really, really listen, and it’s been getting a little frustrating. I’ve been wondering if I just haven’t spent enough time trying to sketch her out, but every time I do I come back to the same conclusion: she’s a young woman who’s aloof and a little shy, who would rather be in the background taking care of everyone else, instead of standing in the spotlight. I want her to be just as brassy and bold and outspoken as my other MCs, but she is steadfastly resisting this, and I think I need to just let her be and write. Her voice, hopefully, will start to emerge as I go along.


    • Jenny Hansen says:


      I don’t know why I JUST saw this comment but I’m glad you’re letting your shy, quiet girl be who she is. I’ll bet you that she will be the character to really stand out in that book because of her difference.

      Good for you for getting out of her way. 🙂


  12. Donna Coe-Velleman says:

    Nice post, Jenny. Glad I stopped by.


  13. When it comes to writing, these things take time. When it comes to business, these also would take time. Basically, you’ll get better with practice.

    I like how he asks about people’s reactions. Often, we get so busy doing what we’re doing that we ignore what’s right in front of our faces. When someone says he or she is happy but had an exasperated tone in his or her voice, and their eyes are showing otherwise, we’ll know that they’re putting on a mask that tells us how they really feel. We communicate more nonverbally than we are verbally.


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