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.

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?

5 Things That Make Me Stop Reading

Let me start out by saying that this is an entirely subjective post. If anyone looks up their favorite book on Amazon or Goodreads, they’ll probably find a few one and two-star reviews, because everyone’s taste is different. So as a reader, I don’t claim that my opinions are at all universal.

That said, I’m a voracious reader, and a fairly forgiving one, I think. If your book has strong characters and moves along at a nice pace, I’ll probably ignore all kinds of things that might turn off other readers. But I do have some lines in the sand.

1. “I’m leaving you for your own good.”

This is a twisty way for the writer to say, “I don’t know how to create story tension after these characters to get together, but I don’t want one of them to look like a jerk.” But the thing is, there are really only two interpretations for this unfortunately common trope. The first interpretation is that one of the partners is taking agency away from the other and infantalizing them by saying they can’t be trusted to make good decisions for their own well-being (in which case, they’re a jerk). The second interpretation is that one of the partners is afraid and wants out of the relationship, and justifies it by lying to both themselves and their partner to appear more noble than they are (in which case, they’re a jerk). There is no real way to pull this trope off without someone being a jerk, and at that point, I stop rooting for the relationship altogether.

2. Token in Trouble

This is a fairly difficult one for some writers to navigate, because we don’t really receive any kind of education on social power dynamics if we don’t seek it out or experience it personally. But the basic premise is that you have a single minority character in your story (racial minority, LGBTQ, person with disability, etc., a.k.a. the “token”), and that character’s role seems is to die, be traumatized, or be placed in danger in order to motivate the non-minority main character. (This includes the main character defending the minority character from bigots as a shortcut to show they’re a “good guy”). It reduces the minority character to a prop, and is a form of objectification.

In comics, this became known as the “girl in the refrigerator” trope, where a girlfriend’s tragic death or trauma serves as the backstory for a male superhero. For LGBTQ characters in film, this trope is known as “bury your gays,” because LGBTQ characters in film and fiction are so often killed to forward the plot or motivate the cisgender, straight character.

The reason this is problematic is that there is so little representation of some groups in fiction, that even a single negative depiction has an outsized impact on how we think about those groups, and how readers in those groups think about themselves. Writers, please let your minority characters live, have a life and motivations outside of their identity (or the main character’s life). Maybe they can even have a happy ending or heroic moment. And if your only minority character turns out to be the bad guy, you need to seriously re-think your book and the message it sends to the world.

3. Mary Sue and Gary Stu

Generally, a main character is a main character because something interesting is happening to them. Otherwise, there’s no story, right?  In that respect, they’re special. But make me believe your character is a real person, and not just an embodiment of specialness. A real person isn’t perfect or good at everything they try to do. A real person doesn’t have every single person they interact with fall in love or lust with them. If your character’s only flaw is that they’re a little physically clumsy, they’re not relatable as a real person. Give them some real flaws, with room to grow as the story develops. Give them some platonic, or even indifferent relationships. Allow other characters to dislike them for reasons other than jealousy or romantic rejection.

On the flip side, let your bad guy have some positive traits other than killer abs and a pretty face, or attraction to the main character. Let them be people, too. Your story will be better for it.

4. Deus ex Machina

The general rule is that “convenient” things that hurt the character increase tension, and those that help the character decrease it. If the gods in your high fantasy novel swoop down and intervene in every life-or-death conflict in your book, we’re going to stop being concerned that your character is actually going to die. If the evidence just falls into your detective’s lap, we’ll think the case was too easy to solve, and not worth telling about.

This can go too far the other way, of course. If your character is nearly killed twice a book over ten books, it gets a little exhausting and we start to wonder about whether they really care if they live or not. Let them learn from their adventures, and one of the things they should be learning is caution and use of resources.

5. Cheap Stereotypes

The first bad review I ever left for a book involved a mumu-wearing fat character who was lazy, stupid, clumsy, and obsessed with food. Her love interest was played up for laughs, because the idea of a fat person having actual feelings was hilarious.

The second bad review had a single person of color in the entire book. It was an Asian woman who played the loyal family servant, was sneaky and untrustworthy, and turned out to be the villain.

These were books written in the last ten years, but the stereotypes belong very far in the past. The problem is that these kind of stereotypes are harmful to readers. Minority representation in fiction is already sparse, so stereotypical, negative portrayals that reinforce prejudice have an outsized impact. They affect how people think about these groups, and how these groups think about themselves.

While not everyone can afford a sensitivity reader, the Internet is a rich and easily accessible resource on stereotypes. Many marginalized people have put in time and effort into articles, blogs, and discussion forums on stereotypes, harmful language, and how they would like to be depicted. A quick google search for “how to write about XX characters” will give you at least enough to avoid putting your foot in your mouth. If you are writing a marginalized character whose identity you don’t share, however, put in the extra time to really get it right.

Why Should You Care?

In a phenomenal book, I might cringe at some of these and keep reading for a little while, with considerably reduced enjoyment. In a less than phenomenal book, I’ll just put it down. If it’s egregious enough, I’ll cross the unspoken line of mutual support for writers and leave a bad review. Is this fair? Maybe not. But every minute I take for reading is a minute I take from writing or other things I enjoy. So I choose to not waste that time.  And trust me, so do many other readers.

What’s your line in the sand? What makes you put a book down?

The Many Right Ways to Fall in Love

As a writer, I love me some slow-burn, will they/won’t they, long sighs and significant glances romance. But as a reader, I don’t understand the pushback against what many call “instalove.” Love at first sight. Soulmates. The characters lay eyes on each other and just know. People deride it as unbelievable, and even lazy writing. One reviewer said she threw a book across the room in disgust when “I love you” happened on the third date.

And that’s confusing to me, because I’ve lived it.

When I laid eyes on my now-husband, I knew. It had nothing to do with a riot of hormones (although they were involved). It was like I had a best friend my whole life that I hadn’t met until just that moment. We moved in together after three months, and we’re still married ten years later (not that the validity of a relationship can be measured by its duration.)

But  I still see the rants against “instalove” sprinkled through book reviews with almost hipster levels of derision. For this Valentine’s Day, I want to break down some of the possible interpretations of what a reviewer means when they say that a character’s love at first sight is “unbelievable.”

1. “The author didn’t sell me on it.”

This is perhaps the most charitable interpretation of the complaints about “instalove.” If this is what the reviewer is saying, I’m right there with them. Sometimes, love at first sight is lazy writing. As a reader, if a character falls desperately and immediately in love with someone who treats them like dirt, or has few positive personal features other than killer abs, I’m usually going to be unhappy with the book. Chemistry is chemistry, but a willfully shallow and self-destructive MC isn’t going to be sympathetic for me, and the author will need to find a way to sell it masterfully for me to believe it.

2. “That’s not real love…”

Usually this discussion involves moving goalposts, with phrases like, “that’s lust, not love,” and “how can you say you love someone you don’t even know that well?”

It’s fine to have a specific definition of love that you apply to your own relationships. It’s not fine to assume that those definitions are universal, or yours to enforce on others. Because strong attraction and emotional connection are not only based on intangibles, but they are also absolutely a valid form of love. It may have a different “flavor” than your ideal or current relationship, but then, every relationship does. There are no human universals when it comes to feelings or behavior, and the person experiencing the emotion is the only one in a real position to judge its validity.

3. “I’ve never experienced it, so it can’t be true.”

The least charitable reading of the pushback against love at first sight, and one that is almost never stated so directly. As subtext, the argument suggests extremely poor personal boundaries as a best-case scenario.

Any time you suggest that your own experience is universal, the burden of proof is squarely on your head. How could love, a thing that is so strongly influenced by cultural norms, personal identity, psychological makeup, personality, and emotional state, possibly be monolithic? How could it possibly be completely understood by a single individual? Heck, researchers and philosophers can’t even agree on what love is, much less whether it is a verb or an adjective.

4. “It’ll never last.”

This falls directly into the trap of our cultural assumption that a relationship can be judged by its end. Under this assumption, the only valid relationships end in the death of both partners. That’s it. All or nothing. Anything less is a “failed” relationship, no matter how much happiness or personal growth it provided the people in it.

But get a little distance from the heteronormative, monogamy-centric areas of our culture, and you’ll see that there’s a lot more to the story than HEA. If you’re open to expanding your worldview, read blogs and books by queer and/or polyamorous authors.  You’ll find a rich and dizzying array of relationship arrangements and perspectives that are more galaxy than spectrum. You’ll find lifetime partners with no interest in getting married, short-term partners that move easily into fast friendships deeper than many marriages, asexual relationships that defy hormonal assumptions about attraction, and the concept that souls can have as many mates as fit a person’s journey through the world.

But the diversity of love is not a dilution. At the root of the arguments against HEA, I think, is the idea that love at first sight somehow invalidates the investment of time and emotional energy into sustaining a long-term relationship. Saying that there is only one way to be in love is like insisting that there is only one kind of flower. The existence of roses in no way diminishes the validity of lilies.

Your love is valid, even if it doesn’t look like a fairy tale. It’s also valid if it does.

And when elves and dragons are filling the bookshelves, love at first sight is hardly the dealbreaker when we talk about realistic writing.