Bell’s Characters Sparkle


James Scott Bell. 2020. Writing Unforgettable Characters: How to Create Story People Who Jump Off the Page.  Woodland Hills: Compendium Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The complexity of modern fiction assures that every book must survive multiple edits as ideas, emotions, and characters evolve with each retelling. What makes a protagonist credible, likeable, and interesting; how does an antagonist grow beyond stereotype into a villain? How does a sidekick differ from other minor characters? How do the characters and plot feed on each other?


James Scott Bell’s Writing Unforgettable Characters begins with this purpose statement. About a famous book made into a film, Bell writes:

“Every character, even the minor ones, was unique and unforgettable in their own way. They jumped off the page. So began a second major phase in my craft education—finding out how to create jump-off-the-page characters. This book reveals what I found out.” (3)

Bell’s definition of a novel fits right in here: “A novel is the record of how a character, through strength of will, fights against death.” (4) Note how he does not directly mention plot.

Bell sees character and plot as among the seven critical success factors in fiction:

  1. Plot,
  2. Structure,
  3. Characters,
  4. Scenes,
  5. Dialogue,
  6. Voice, and
  7. Theme (126).

Clearly, his definition of a novel places a strong emphasis on character, perhaps because writing has to be personalized to maintain reader interest. We gravitate towards characters that hold our empathy.

For Bell, good characters are complex, unpredictable, resourceful, and passionate and they display grit, moxie, wit, and nobility in the context of the plot. Their drive derives from wounds that motivates them to passionately avoid death, albeit physical, emotional, or professional death.

For background on James Scott Bell, check out one or more of my previous reviews (see below).


Bell sees authors using two methods to develop their characterization, paralleling the two types of writers: plotters and pantsers. A plotter outlines characters in a dossier that answers key questions:

  • What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  • Who is the greatest love of your life?
  • What is your greatest fear?
  • What is your greatest regret?
  • What is your motto? (51).

I found this questionnaire method interesting because other writing instructors have focused on physical characteristics, personal history, or even Myers-Briggs types, attributes less pertinent to the actual problem facing fiction authors.

A pantser more likely uses the discovery method that “starts with just enough info about a character to catch a feeling and then start the writing and see what develops.” (52).

Bell actually uses a hybrid of these two methods employing a “voice journal” of how the character might sound and look, a timeline of key years in the characters life, and a description of their profession (53-57). The idea is to develop an image of the character that is modeled after real people, even if the character is a composite of several.

Arcs and Transformations

An important take-home in this book arose in Bell’s description of character arcs. He prefers the word transformation and offers two types.

The first type is the usual arc: the old person is transformed into a new person. In the movie, Casablanca, Rick Blaine is transformed from a bitter, lonely man, who sticks out his neck for no one, into a man on a mission, who sends his true love off with her husband and joins the war effort himself (94-96). Rick must become a better human being or die emotionally.

The second type is more nuanced where the protagonist remains the same person, only stronger, for having removed a serious moral failing. In the movie, The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble does not change, but he must solve his wife’s murder mystery and clear his name while being pursued vigorously by law enforcement and confronting the actual killers (95-96). Dr. Kimble’s challenge is to survive a boatload of people trying to find and kill him.


James Scott Bell’s Writing Unforgettable Characters is an entertaining and insightful how-to writing book that fiction authors will want to add to their reading list.

Also See:

Bell, James Scott.  2004.  Plot and Structure:  Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish.  Cincinnati:  Writer’s Digest Books. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2008. Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Finished Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (review).

Bell, James Scott. 2009. The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises. Cinninnati: Writers Digest Books (review).

James Scott Bell. 2014. Write Your Novel from the Middle. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press (review).

Bell, James Scott. 2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2015. Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story. Woodland Hills: Compendium Press (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2019. The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review).

Bell’s Characters Sparkle


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