Of MICE and Murder

Listeners of the Writing Excuses podcast are probably familiar with Orsen Scott Card’s MICE quotient, which categorizes elements of your story as Milieu, Inquiry, Character, or Event.

But I want to talk about a different MICE—one that’s uniquely relevant to the murder mystery writer, and borrowed from counter-espionage strategies developed during World War II.

MICE describes the four primary motives driving someone to commit espionage: Money, Ideology, Coercion, and Ego. These are still the central focus of security clearance investigations in the U.S. They also happen to be, on a higher level, the same primary motives driving someone to commit murder.


Murder for money means more than just paid assassins. Your murderer could want their inheritance a little earlier than expected. They could want to protect their assets in a divorce. They could want the contents of their victim’s wall-safe or a particularly valuable piece of jewelry. While this is probably one of the most common motives for murder in the real world, it can also be too simplistic on its own, and unsatisfying for your reader without layering more complex motives, such as Ego or Ideology.


Ideology is a complex motive for murder that lets you, as author, explore broader societal conflicts and dig deeply into darker premises. Is there a deep schism in your murderer’s religious community and they must kill their opponent “for the greater good?” Did the victim betray their community and way of life? Are they an interloper who threaten the community’s traditions? Is your murder a hate crime?* You can see how this motive is strong enough to hold it’s own, but it also layers well with other motives, particularly Ego.


This is the motive that I find writers using when they want their murderer to be sympathetic. Usually, the murderer is being blackmailed, exploited, or abused, and the only way out is by killing the person who controls their fate. Another common twist on this motive is for the murderer to be a pawn for someone else, coerced into murdering someone to protect their own life or (more sympathetically) their family or loved ones. This allows the murderer to remain a decent person in the eyes of the reader/viewer, because the decision to kill arose from sheer desperation or self-preservation.


While this motive stands alone, it also works as a second layer for any of the other motives. Ego involves the preservation of a person’s self-image, rather than physical self-preservation. Perceived disrespect drives these murderers, because their own self-image is fragile enough that if they allow the disrespect, it makes them question their worth, attractiveness, competence, or status. It allows you as a writer to play with social status, societal hierarchies, and even toxic gender, class, and relationship roles.

Ego is what drives your murderer to kill their cheating spouse (or their lover), or the person who rejected their intimacy. Some motive models list these crimes as “love” or “passion,” but it’s important to understand that what’s really driving the murder is the person’s bruised ego and self-image. They are angry over the hurt and feel diminished. They need to assert dominance and control. That has nothing to do with love.

How to use MICE

Murders are personal. They’re visceral, and the stakes should be high. But once you determine your murder motive, understanding the underlying MICE drivers will help you make that motive realistic, consistent, and clear. Murders are often executed with baroque complexity, but the psychological drive behind the decision to kill is what makes your murderer interesting.

*If you are using an ideology motive that affects a real-world marginalized group, please make sure you consult with an expert from within that group to ensure you are not falling into a lazy writing role of exploitation or stereotype.

Double-Duty Description

I struggle with description. I’m not a visual person. In fact, sometimes I have to pull up a bunch of images or videos online to serve as a guide when trying to really evoke a person or place. So when I encounter description in a book, the question of “how much” description to use is one that I’m invested in.

Unfortunately, the standard answer of “just enough and no more” is….less than helpful.

Let’s start with Chris.

He’s 32 years old, 6’1, about 140 pounds, red hair, hazel eyes, pale, freckled, and thin. He’s wearing a medium-blue button-down shirt and light gray cotton slacks that fit him well. He has brown loafers on with no socks, a brown men’s dress belt, and a Smartwatch. He’s wearing no other jewelry or accessories.

That’s what we call the “police sketch” description of the person. It has the kind of detail that would let the cops put out a BOLO on a suspect and identify them clearly. It probably gives someone with a visual imagination a great picture of Chris.

There’s two problems with it. First, it does NOTHING for those of us without a visual imagination. I have no idea what 140 pounds looks like on a man. By the time I reach the end of the description, the earlier details are already sliding out of my head. Despite the excruciating detail, Chris is vague to me. I’ve got nothing.

The other problem is that it’s boring.

So how much of that description is really necessary? We all know that human minds fill in blanks. One of my many past careers was a post-bac research position in a psychology lab studying biases in eyewitness testimony. Turns out, eyewitness testimony is super unreliable. It more often reflects the witness’s expectations of what happened than what actually happened. Much of the detail comes from our own imagination instead of our eyes.

So if we just say Chris is a tall, thin redhead, what’s the picture of him in your mind? You’ll probably still picture a person. But is it the person the author had in mind?

Let’s re-frame it.

What is your description trying to accomplish? If it’s just to paint a visual picture, it’s not doing enough work for the real-estate it takes up in your story. Instead, think about how much else you could do with the same words.

  1. Characterization of the person or place described
  2. Deep POV characterization of the observer
  3. Promises to the reader
  4. Atmosphere

None of these should take the place of creating an image of the person or place, but they could be served equally.

What if I described Chris like this:

He was a tall, leanly-muscled man with laughing green-brown eyes and a crisply tailored blue Oxford shirt. His hair shone the color of the sun and freckles were tossed across his creamy skin like constellations.

What does this description tell you that the police sketch version, in all its detail, does not?

  1. It tells us things about Chris, like he’s a happy, confident guy who takes pains with his appearance.
  2. It tells us things about the POV character, like they might be attracted to Chris.
  3. It promises the reader some kind of future romantic or platonic relationship arc between Chris and the POV character.
  4. It sets or adds to the tone of the book in the writing style and use of imagery.

I could pack the same amount of work into a negative portrayal:

He was a gaunt, gangly man. His pale, pinched face was mottled with freckles. Every strand of his wiry orange hair sat rigidly in place. His shirt collar stood at attention, as if the fabric didn’t dare show a wrinkle for fear of the man’s disapproval.

This also tells us things about Chris and how the POV character perceives him (controlling, austere, grim). It promises the reader some kind of enemy or antagonist relationship between the POV character and Chris. It sets or adds to the tone of the book with the writing style and use of imagery.

In both descriptions, we have a tall, thin, red-haired man who takes pains with his appearance. Choosing words with positive or negative emotional content to describe the same man makes for a very different description. If I don’t have a clear image of Chris, I at least have a very clear impression of him, from the POV character’s perspective.

When writing description of people or places, look for neutral description words. “Blue eyes” is neutral. It isn’t doing any additional work for you beyond telling us the color of someone’s eyes. Don’t go overboard with the thesaurus, but look for simple words that carry a little emotional weight to them.

“Icy” or “steel” blue implies a person is cold and heartless, intensely self-controlled, and determined.

“Watery” might give the impression of a person who is soft and emotional, uncertain, unconfident, or prone to tears.

“Ocean” may imply someone who is deep, philosophical, and meditative.

“Sky” could imply an open-hearted, confident dreamer.

Don’t waste flowery metaphors beyond a simple adjective, on secondary characters. You’re showing your POV character’s thoughts lingering on the person’s appearance, committing it to memory. That makes promises to the reader about that character’s significance in the POV character’s life.

What about all those other details, like his age, his shoes, his smartwatch? Once you’ve conveyed an impression of the character, only add details that are significant to the story. The sockless loafers and smartwatch could be part of the initial impression if the POV character thinks he’s a hipster and judges him for it. Is he wearing a wedding ring? That could be important for a romance, but doesn’t need to be part of the initial description. The POV character could do a subtle ring-check in their next action beat. The watch could be significant if it turns out he’s a time-traveler and it’s his communicator or device controller, so drop that gun on the mantel. First impressions don’t have to be a complete picture, though; they’re simply a sketch to be filled in as we go.

Roll for Initiative: Keeping Your Characters in Scene

As a reader and beta reader, one of the things that stands out to me is when a secondary character does or says something halfway through a scene and my reaction is, “Huh. I forgot they were even there.”

We forget sometimes as writers that our readers don’t have the benefit of watching a scene as it plays out in our own heads. We know the butler’s still there because in our mental image of the scene, he’s visually present. When it plays out in our head, we can focus on the more interesting banter between the hero and villain. But our readers aren’t in our head, and need us to keep the scene alive by the words on the page alone.

Taken to an extreme, this is a kind of “floating heads” problem. There, the issue is that the entire scene disappears and we only have the back-and-forth dialogue with no action beats or interaction with the setting, as if the two characters were heads floating on a blank screen. In this particular case, it’s only the secondary characters that disappear, instead of the entire setting. But disappearing and reappearing secondary characters makes your scene flatter and less real. It steals your verisimilitude, and is more distracting than having them present throughout.

Every Character Has Initiative

In tabletop role-playing games, a common game structure for important scenes is for each character to roll a die to randomly determine the order in which they may act during each round of action. This is known as “initiative order.” When it comes to their turn, they may take a certain number of actions, or forego some or all of them, but every character has a chance to act in every round.

For your own scenes, make a list of the characters present in the room, including secondary and background characters. If they’re present, they get an initiative order, right down to the dog at the MC’s feet.

As you step through the scene, ask yourself, “How would this character be thinking, feeling, acting, and reacting in this moment?”

Obviously your main characters will have center-stage. You’re not going to go into the same kind of detail with the butler as you would the villain. The butler needs to be present, though. They need to be a real person reacting to events as they unfold.

Keep your Initiative Order

This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s easier to keep track of your characters’ responses if they happen in the same order each round. For example: Your hero speaks, your villain responds, your butler reacts. It may feel formulaic to you as the writer, but it will allow your reader to make better sense of what’s happening in the scene and improve your flow.

Every Action has a Reaction

The villain throws his drink in the hero’s face. How would every character in the room react to this? It can be as slight as the butler’s hiss of indrawn breath or as significant as the hero throwing a punch, but your characters are real people and part of the scene. They will react as real people.  That doesn’t mean they have to act in every round, but they should respond to what’s going on in the scene.

Ridiculous Example:

In this over-the-top cliche villain scene, I have established an “initiative order” of villain –> butler–> hero. Sometimes their turns overlap, but everyone is present throughout the scene. The scene is from the hero’s POV.


Baddy McBadGuy smirked and leaned back in his chair. “And how do you expect to stop me?” [villain action]

On cue, Jeeves placed a slim manilla folder in his employer’s hand. [butler reaction] Hero von Goodie tossed the folder on the table to the left of his plate without breaking eye contact with the man across the table. “With this.” [hero reaction + action]

Baddy’s smirk didn’t falter, but his eyes shifted briefly to the unassuming folder before snapping back to Hero’s. “Paper? Paper is so fallible, so easy to buy, so easy to destroy.” [villain reaction + action]

Hero held his glass out for Jeeves to fill with more of the ten-year-old Médoc, [butler reaction + hero reaction overlap] letting silence draw out the tension. It was a dangerous game, but only someone with the power and influence of the von Goodie name stood a chance of bringing down this empire of evil. “Enough paper, McBadGuy, and even you can be buried under it. All it needs to do is create doubt in the minds of the right people.” [hero action]

McBadGuy took the stem of his own wine glass and began to spin it on the tablecloth, the light of the chandelier setting the dark wine aglow. [villain reaction] He’d done that before, at the fundraiser dinner when he found out his warehouse was about to be raided. So then, even McBadGuy had a tell. “People are so fallible,” Baddy said in the same deceptively casual tone of voice, “so easy to buy, so easy to destroy.” [villain action]

Jeeves stiffened beside Hero. [butler reaction] There was the threat Hero had expected. They must be as reflexive a response for this man as breathing. The trouble with reflexes, of course, is that they lacked control. Hero studied McBadGuy’s face and raised his glass to the man before taking a sip. I’ve got you. [hero reaction]


Cheesiness aside, note that the butler doesn’t intrude on the scene with any dialogue or major action, but he doesn’t disappear from it, either. As a background character he becomes part of the setting that responds to the actions of the main characters without affecting them.  They keep initiative order so that I’m sure every character has an opportunity for a reaction and action, whether or not they use both on their turn.  This is particularly important when there are multiple background characters in play, as it is easy to lose one in the shuffle.

Note that if you have am anonymous crowd (e.g. an audience at a concert or mass of people in a train station), they can react en masse, or through representatives. For the crowd’s turn in the initiative order, a guy in a Yankee’s hat can whistle at the MC, a woman with tightly restrained hair and a business suit can sigh at a declaration of love, or a child can start to cry at someone’s raised voice. The crowd is a character, even if you give us glimpses into its individual aspects.

POV Problems

One of the issues I come across often both in my beta reads and my own first drafts is violation of limited POV.

Most contemporary books are written in limited POV. This means we really get into the head of the main character and experience the world through their eyes. The narrative voice is the MC’s voice, and reflects their perception and frame of the world. For first person, this is more intuitive for us as writers. We’re really putting ourselves in the shoes of our character with the use of “I.” In third person, it’s less so, which is why these three POV errors pop up regularly.


1. The character knows things they shouldn’t.

Key Question: What does my character know and when did they know it? 

This refers to events and information about the world and other characters, including the MC’s personal knowledge gaps. My main character doesn’t know about that fight her best friend had with her husband, unless the best friend tells her. If she’s lived in a major city her whole life, she probably doesn’t know what goats eat or whether crops are looking sickly due to drought.


  • Your character references something that happened when they weren’t around
  • Your character knows what another character is thinking or feeling
  • Your character knows something outside of their expertise or experience


2. The Narrator knows things they shouldn’t.

Key Question: Would the main character in the current POV know this?

  • Remember the narrative voice IS the MC’s voice. Your narration shouldn’t give us the internal musings of another character because the MC wouldn’t be privy to this information.


  • The narration describes action taking place while the character is asleep, not present, or their back is turned
  • The narration describes the internal thoughts, feelings, perspective, or physical sensory information of a character other than your MC.
  • The narration references information outside the MC’s expertise or experience.


3. Loss of Deep POV

Key Question: How would the main character feel and react right now?

Deep POV is a post all of its own, but it’s primarily about being deep in the character’s head for an immersive story experience. The most frequent issues are with distancing language like “felt,” “heard,” and “saw.” The narration is the main character’s voice, and so everything described should be the character’s experience. We don’t need to know the character “felt” something; we just need to describe the sensation and we assign it to the MC.

The other big deep POV violation is when we only see their external behavior (dialogue and some physical movements) and not their internal thoughts, feelings, and reactions to events. I see this most often when the author is trying to hold back a twist from the reader that the character is aware of. I also see it when a writer is uncomfortable being in their MC’s head (usually during either a sex scene or emotional trauma).


  • We’re told the main character is seeing and feeling things instead of showing us the experience.
  • We see the main character’s physical movements and dialogue but no internal thoughts or feelings
  • The main character fails to react to events in a scene, either internally or externally.


POV Solutions

There’s no way around the need to have a strong sense of who your character is and how they would think, feel, and react in certain situations. If your character isn’t a real person you can get into, consider some of the character interviews or questionnaires out there as a starting point to round them out with nuance.  Write a few shorts from their POV, capturing some earlier major event in their life to get a feel for them as a person. (These make great bonus material for your website once the book is published).

Read up on deep POV and eliminate telling/distancing words like “felt,” “saw,” “heard,” and “thought” (in all their tenses.) If you describe a sound, we assume your main character is hearing it; we don’t need to be told that they are. If your main character can’t hear it, it shouldn’t be in there at all because it’s a POV violation.

If you really need something in the story, there are many ways around it, but we need to SEE the explanation as a reader and have it make sense to us. This can be “signposting” (as in, “this is where we are and where we’re going next”) or “lampshading” (as in, “I know this is unbelievable so I’m specifically calling it out as such.”).  For example: Your character spent their whole life in a major city BUT had a best friend/aunt/mother into urban farming collectives and therefore knows all too well what a goat eats and how tall corn should be in July.  Your main character’s oblivious but their friend can foreshadow someone in the house by asking, “Did you hear that? It sounded like a door closing.”  Your MC could actually be psychic, although that comes with its own host of plotting issues.

If you find yourself hopping into another character’s head and really wanting to focus on that other character’s thoughts and reactions, consider whether you’ve chosen the right main character. Sometimes alternating POV every chapter becomes too restrictive a pattern and it’s okay to shake it up. Tell the story from the POV that has the highest stakes or strongest internal response to events in that scene. The greater impact of the writing will more than compensate for disrupting the pattern. You could also move the scene to a chapter with that character’s POV.

As with most writing issues, there’s no secret formula and no one right way to do it. The best solution will be one that fits your style and vision for the story.

3 Writing Lessons from Dungeons and Dragons

Tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) have a lot to teach you about writing. You create characters and tell a collaborative story in real time, so of course it’s good practice for your novel! Taking away the setting elements (fantasy, sci-fi, horror), you find lessons that apply to any writer in any genre. Here are the first three that come to mind.

1. Think in Combat Rounds

Whenever an important scene is happening in an RPG (Combat, traps, or any other dangerous encounter) game play is broken down into “rounds.” In each round, every player has an opportunity to take an action. Maybe that action is to hold back and wait, or maybe they’ve been badly injured and their action is “be unconscious,” but everyone has a chance to chime in or check-in every round.

When something important is happening in your story, where are the characters and what are they doing? Too often, the action or conversation narrows down to a couple of characters, and everybody else “disappears” from the scene for several pages. That can be somewhat effective for a romantic dramatic first meeting, where everyone metaphorically disappears from the character’s world for a moment. In most cases, however, every character present will be present and taking some sliver of the narrative awareness. Like in games, they can pass on acting for a round or two, but if three things happen (conversational lines, actions, events) with no reaction from a character in a scene, consider whether they need to be present at all.

Not everybody needs to have a starring role in every scene, mind you. We’re talking about a cough here, a quip there, a brief facial expression a la mode. When you’re having a conversation with other people present, you’re at least somewhat aware of who’s around you and what they’re doing. Your main character should have the same situational awareness. It helps us readers really immerse ourselves in a complete, detailed scene. It makes the scene real.

2. Actions Take Time

In Dungeons and Dragons, a “round” is considered to be about six seconds long. This limits how much you can get done in a single round. Generally, you can move about five to ten feet and then interact once with something or someone (e.g. cast a spell, swing a sword). Things that take very little time or can be done at the same time as moving or interacting, such as dropping an item or a short line of dialogue, are “free actions.” These can be taken in moderation alongside your movement and interaction.

This limitation is a valuable guide for scenes in your book. If Bob fires a gun at Jane, he does not have time to recite a five page monologue and run across a football field before Jane takes some action of her own. Maybe Bob has a killer monologue (pun intended) and you really want to work it in. That’s fine, but not uninterrupted. If he’s holed up in a hiding spot and shouting his fine speech, Jane should be responding, strategizing how to get to him or flush him out, addressing her wounds if she’s bleeding, and maybe taking the occasional pot shot of her own. She shouldn’t disappear from the scene, or stand frozen to give him time to monologue. Would you give him that time if it were you? Bob might not manage to kill Jane, but taking Jane out of the scene for several pages certainly kills the tension.

3. Nobody Enjoys a Railroad

I’m not talking about actual trains, which are pretty fun. I’m talking about a moment in an RPG where the characters are forced to a certain location or action, against their will, because it’s convenient to the overall plot. It’s called “railroading” in game terms, because the plot becomes a fixed path the characters must follow (like the rails for a train). This takes away their agency and ability to create the story collaboratively on their own terms.

“But,” Paladin Jane protests, “there’s no reason for my character to take a job guarding this slaver caravan. It goes against everything she believes.”

“Well, the next encounter in the module happens while you’re guarding the caravan. So if you don’t do it willingly I’m going to have your character arrested on a trumped-up charge and sentenced to guard the caravan. And you can’t free the slaves, because we need them for the last scene in the game.”

At this point, the player isn’t enjoying the game, the DM isn’t enjoying the game, and the reader of this story is side-eyeing the whole operation. This is a particular pitfall for plotters, who set out major events in the story ahead of time, then write to fill in the outline. Yes you need to get the characters to Point 15 in the outline. But make sure Point 15 is someplace your character would naturally want to go. Nothing makes me want to put a book down faster than a character acting contrary to their nature for the convenience of the plot. That kind of deviation needs some selling. It needs consistency. You need to set up their motivation for this decision several chapters in advance, so that it seems like a natural step to take. It needs to make sense, not according to the writer’s perspective, but the character’s. If you can’t do that, you might need a different character, or a different plot.

What character or storytelling lessons do you take from RPGs?

Character Development: Asking, “Why?”

When I read a novel, I can sometimes tell when the author really struggled to get into their antagonist’s head. The antagonist is either a vague puppet moving to the convenience of the author, or a flat caricature of a human being. One of the most common questions I ask while reading these books is, “Why?” WHY does the villain want to kill/ruin/rule/cheat/thwart?

The problem with “why” is that it’s a question that’s almost never really answered. Humans are phenomenally good at making up stories in our heads about why we do things. These stories don’t always fit reality, because they’re based on incomplete information and unconscious motives. The most dramatic example of this comes from Neuropsychologist Michael Gazzaniga’s experiments with people whose brains had been divided in half. We normally process things we see and do on the left side of the body with the right side of the brain, and vice-versa. The brain then communicates across a bridge between the two sides (the corpus callosum). When the bridge is cut, the two sides stop communicating. If a person in a split-brain experiment sees the words “stand up” on their left side, it is only seen by the right hemisphere of the brain. They may stand up, but if asked why they stood up, they won’t know. That’s where a part of the left hemisphere steps in. It’s job is to serve as an “interpreter,” by coming up with explanations from insufficient information. The person may tell you they stood because they were cold, or because their legs ached. They’re not consciously lying; their brains are just filling in details.

We do this all the time. If you are asked why you like a particular book, you will probably be able to come up with an immediate answer, like, “I really liked the main character.”  But is that the whole truth, or just the interpreter talking? If you follow up with, “Why?” then you may get a little deeper.

“I liked that she was really tough.”


“Because it seems like women don’t always get to be tough in literature and I like that this book subverts that.”


“Because I like the idea of being tough and wish I was more like her, so it’s validating.”

…And so on…

Yes, it’s like having a conversation with a curious two-year-old in your head. But notice how the answer gets more specific and more personal as you dig? If there’s anything I like in my fictional character development, it’s specific and personal motives. So we can turn this idea on both your protagonists and antagonists. When you do, remember a few things:

  1.  Everyone thinks they’re the protagonist. They believe that what they’re doing is justified (regrettably or not). They think someone they hurt deserves it. They think they’re in the right. The more wrong the act, the harder they’ll work to justify it to themselves and maintain their self-image.
  2. Everyone cares about something or someone. Even if that someone is themselves and the something is their ego.  If a person really didn’t care, they’d curl up in a corner and not bathe or eat for weeks at a time. That’s how a lot of severe depression manifests. They wouldn’t go out of their way to sabotage their ex’s relationship or build a super-robot to destroy New York. That takes effort, and to put out effort, a person must first care about the results.
  3. Bad guys can have good motivations. Your villain might actually believe that, in the long run, his giant city-destroying robot will make the world a better place. Good guys can have bad motivations. It’s okay if, in addition to saving the city, your heroine is also driven just a little bit by petty revenge because the robot stepped on her car and she had just splurged on a custom sound system.

So why is your antagonist working to destroy their ex’s new relationship?

“Because she deserves it.”


“Because she hurt me, so I want to hurt her back.”


“Because being hurt makes me feel out of control and vulnerable.”


“Because I wasn’t the one leaving, so I was helpless to stop it. Being able to hurt her back gives me back my feelings of control and makes me feel strong/able to defend myself.”

At the core of most of these questions you’ll find emotions. Sure your bank robbers are after money, but does that money represent safety? Freedom? Validation? A lot of the reasons we come up for why we do things seem to be intended mostly for covering up the emotions we’re feeling, so keep going until you reach something really visceral and basic. That’s your character’s goal. They want to feel strong and in control. They want to feel safe.

Then ask yourself, “Do my character’s actions make sense as a way to achieve these goals?” Keep in mind that it can be a completely dysfunctional attempt to achieve those goals. But they do have to make sense according to the internal frame the character is operating under, however broken it might be. A person can be irrational, immature, self-destructive, and petty. But with a very few exceptions, they need to be internally consistent.


All the World’s a Stage…And your Characters Should Act Like it!

Technically a lot of things make up a really good book.  But as a reader, I will forgive an author many plot and style problems.  The one thing I can’t get past is the characters.  Good characters can make an atrociously bad premise readable.  Bad characters can render the most meticulous world-building pointless.

The thing is, as writer, you are the director.  You move all of the pieces of the script, scenery and players around to make sure everyone’s in the right place at the right time for the right effect.  But to really get into your characters’ heads and bring them alive on the page, you can’t think like a director.  You have to think like an actor.  Specifically, an improvisational theater actor.

Any actor, but especially an improv actor, has to have a highly refined sense of timing, place, position, and body language.  They understand the effect of every movement and word they speak.  They know that the position of the shoulders can change a character’s entire message.  That’s something you, as a writer, need to know.

Luckily for those of us with intense stage fright, there’s no need to run out and join an improv acting class.  Instructional books and videos abound.  But my favorite of all time is a classic on which many other books and classes are built.  Impro, by Keith Johnstone, and the sequel, Impro for Storytellers, may be edging on forty years old (as reflected in the sometimes problematic language), but they could give an extraordinary boost to your character craft.


There’s more packed into the books than can possibly be summarized, but here are three examples I use to inform my own characterizations:


Impro focuses a lot on status, because a lot of our understanding of interactions comes from the status games we’re observing.  There are two relevant features in any interaction between people in your writing.  The first is the person’s actual social status.  Are they a king? An outcast?  A woman in a patriarchal society?  The second is the status the person is playing.  We often consider characters or dialogue more interesting when these two don’t match.  A king who acts as a servant and a servant who acts like a king are more interesting than the inverse.


Impro for Storytellers devotes a lot of time to things people do that slow or stop the progression of the story.  One of those things is called “blocking.”  It can be dialogue, action, or even body language that rejects or kills a start made by another character.  For example, a character invites their friend swimming, and the friend says they don’t feel like it.  You may have used the moment to create tension (i.e. to show they’re angry in refusing the invitation) but the action, the progress of the story has stopped, and the second character has attempted to gain control of the conversation.  This can be used constructively, but only if done deliberately, with awareness of the underlying dynamics of control.


In both books, Johnstone is quick to condemn attempts at “originality.”  A person who is trying to be original and clever will end up responding slowly and unnaturally.  In reality the first thought that comes to mind, even if it seems boring, is probably the correct response.  An example from Impro is of an actor being asked, “What’s for supper?”

“…a bad improviser will desperately try to think up something original. Whatever he says he’ll be too slow.  He’ll finally drag up some idea like ‘fried mermaid’. If he’d just said ‘fish’ the audience would have been delighted. No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears.”

Your characters are the same way, and will show themselves better and more naturally in unforced interactions than in any attempt to be clever and original.

(Note that I am not adding an ordering link to the books, because they are only available in limited print. It’s worth a bit of hunting to find a cheap used copy of both, rather than pay the collector prices for new copies on Amazon).