Posted On February 13, 2012 by Print This Post

Donna MacMeans – Creating Characters for the Keeper Shelf

What makes a book memorable? Is it a character you can relate to? One you can root for? Multi-published author Donna MacMeans takes the podium today to discuss creating memorable characters.

Have you ever noticed how some characters can grab you by the heart in the first couple of pages in a book? Those are the stories that publishers fight for and that ultimately end up on reader’s keeper shelves. These are the stories that we want to write. We know our heroes must be heroic and our heroines sympathetic, but how do we show this in the first couple of pages in a sufficient manner to catch the reader’s interest? 

There’s a screenwriter’s trick to work on the viewer’s subconscious and make them emotionally attach to the film’s characters. I learned about “rooting interests” (as in rah-rah-go-team rooting) a few years before I sold my first manuscript. At the time I dismissed the list as common sense and thus missed the power of employing rooting interests. I’ll explain how I came to realize my mistake later, but first I should tell you what a rooting interest is.

1. We care about characters we feel sorry for. (empathy)

2. We like characters with humanistic traits.

3. We like to admire the character.

Most importantly, we like someone with a mix from all three of these categories.


undeserved mistreatment – undeserved misfortune (bad luck) – physical or mental handicap – frustration or humilation (embarrassment) – a moment of weakness – abandoned – betrayal – telling the truth but not being believed – exclusion and rejection (not one of the group) – loneliness and neglect – feeling guilty when one’s mistake causes pain – repressed pain – life endangerment


lets down his defenses in a private moment (bonus points if someone invades his privacy and humiliates him) – helps less fortunate – relates to children – children like character – patting the dog and dog likes character – change of heart – comes to the aid of a friend – risk life for another – sacrifices themself – cares for a just cause (dies for a just cause) – ethical or moral and responsible – dependable and loyal – loves other people – generous, caring act, compassion, altruistic


power and charisma – self-confident – courage (mental and physical) – passionate – attractive – skilled (competent) – thoughtful and wise – witty and clever – sense of humor – playful – physical and athletic – wounded and continues on – unique way of living – underdog who tries hard – active rather than passive – surrounded by admirers

A listing of rooting interests is also available on Donna’s website. 

You’ll note that the list is broken into three categories:  Humanistic, Empathetic, and Admiration. It’s easy to remember these as the “other HEA.” The idea is to select several of rooting interests and work them into the pages when your character is introduced. Let me give you an example.

I doubt that we’ve all read the same books, but there’s a good chance that we’ve seen some of the same old movies. I’m going to use the movie, THE FIRM, as it was this movie that initially generated my light bulb moment. Do you remember the very first scene in THE FIRM? I’m talking the scenes that ran behind the credits. Most people don’t. They remember the interview with the Mafia’s law firm which launched the plot but that was the fifth scene in the movie. 

The movie begins with some shots to establish setting, Boston in the spring – specifically Harvard University during law firm interviews. Then it cuts to a basketball court and shows Tom Cruise in a muscle shirt with his arms extended like a guard (admiration traits – athletic & attractive). He misses a block and says “Son of a b#@@!” (humanistic) then apologizes “Sorry, your honor, that was a great shot.” Don’t we love a hero who is polite and who is playing with the “the big boys”? A little more humanistic and admiration. 

Then the scene cuts to a high stress interview. Tom is interviewing with a panel of three recruiters.  He’s wearing a cheap suit (empathetic), the recruiter says “Now Mr. so &so, I see that you are graduating in the top five percent of your class. Very impressive.” Tom interrupts and says “Excuse me, I’m one of the top five graduates, not top five percent.” Now we know that he’s competent, and has pride. He keeps looking at his watch. The interviewer says “I’m offering you a position with a starting salary of $68,000 (remember this is an old movie) …do you have somewhere you’d rather be.” Tom explains that he’s on his lunch break and he needs to get back to work. A work ethic! Don’t we love that? 

And what job does he have to go to that is pulling him from this interview – a cushy job as a law clerk? A white collar position at a desk? No. He’s a waiter in a popular restaurant. We see him carrying platters of food with a towel over his shoulder out to wealthy patrons. We love this guy and are rooting for his success. This film sequence took all of three minutes. Note – nothing of this – the basketball, the experience as a waiter, has anything to do with the actual plot of the movie. These scenes are there specifically to grab your interest and make you like this character and want to see him succeed.

Every movie is front-loaded with rooting interests. Now that you have the list, look for them. Do it with an old movie so you can be a little detached – that way you know where the plot is going and so can concentrate on the subtle things inserted to make you love the character.

Now what does this have to do with writing? One year my son gave me a copy of Nora Robert’s MONTANA SKY for my birthday.  We were driving back to the east coast for a wedding and I brought along MONTANA SKY so he could see me reading it. (I try to be a good mom). So I’m reading this story that has three half-sisters that come together for their father’s funeral. The three women have never met before and each is unique with different strengths and vulnerabilities. I’m reading and seeing rooting interest, after rooting interest, after rooting interest. I was so excited, I counted up the number of rooting interests for each sister in the first chapter. (Okay, I suppose I’m a bit OC). 

Then I looked at the first chapters of other author’s books. I kept track of the number and type of rooting interests. I also still had the Golden Heart entries that I had judged a week or two earlier. I’d already turned in my scores so my exercise didn’t affect my immediate reactions to the entries. Here’s what I found:

Bestseller authors used more rooting interests for both heroes and heroines than midlist authors.  Debut authors tended to really pile on the rooting interests for the heroine, less so for the hero. I noted I’d given higher marks to the contest entries with  higher number of rooting interests – I think because subconsciously I liked and identified with those characters more.

As to type of rooting interest, I noted that, while touching on rooting interests from  all three classifications, published authors really pile on the empathetic traits for their heroines and the admiration – especially competency – traits for the heroes.

Now here’s what I suggest you do. Take one of your favorite “keeper shelf” books. Look at the first chapter because that’s where the emotional attachment occurs. Using the list, highlight every time you see a rooting interest. Note how these are worked into the story. Note what type of rooting interests you find. Does the volume surprise you? Tell me what you find.

I review this list every time I write a book, working to slip in these qualities to emotionally grab the reader. Now that you have the list, you can too!


Donna’s latest book, THE CASANOVA CODE, debuts June 2012.   

“A refined gentleman, age 25, of wealth and education, seeks the acquaintance, with a view to matrimony, of a high-minded, kind-hearted lady who prefers an evening of quiet conversation to the lively demands of society.” 

Edwina Hargrove knows that this “gentleman” was, in fact, Ashton Trewelyn, a rake notorious for seducing the young and naive. In fact, five decent women have already been tricked and bundled off to the continent for scandalous purposes. There was a way to thwart his scheme though—by shadowing this devilishly handsome Casanova and warning his prey. If only it were that simple.  

The closer Edwina gets to Ashton, the more she is pulled into a web of intrigues, secret societies and coded messages. Uncovering Ashton’s secrets arouses temptations only Ashton can satisfy. But at what cost? Can she gamble her reputation and secure future on an enigmatic code and a lust for adventure?


Do the characters you’ve created possess some of the traits from Donna’s HEA categories? What character traits are important in your favorite fictional characters? 

Join us tomorrow when RU hosts our first annual Tainted Love Contest! Get your entries in by 11:59 pm PST on February 14th. Click here to enter. On Wednesday, February 15th Author Anne R. Allen presents: Introducing A Protagonist.


Bio: Award winning author Donna MacMeans made a wrong turn many years ago when she majored in Accounting in college.  What was she thinking? Balancing books just can’t compete with crafting plots and inventing memorable characters. She finally broke free of her life as a CPA to write witty and seductive Victorian historicals for Berkley Sensation in what can only be described as her dream job.  

Her books have won numerous awards including the prestigious Golden Heart from Romance Writers of America, and the 2008 Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for Historical Love & Laughter. Her latest release, REDEEMING THE ROGUE received a 4.5 TOP PICK review from Romantic Times Book reviews and is nominated for a 2011 RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for Innovative Historical Romance. Her next release, THE CASANOVA CODE, is scheduled for June 2012.  

When not at her keyboard, Donna enjoys painting, traveling, and creating luscious desserts. An avid reader, she also uses the analytical skills learned as an accountant to analyze novels in an effort to constantly improve her own craft – and then teaches those skills in workshops around the country. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband of thirty-eight years. Please contact her at


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29 Responses to “Donna MacMeans – Creating Characters for the Keeper Shelf”

  1. Hi Donna,

    I like the underdog. Everything piles on and she emerges to take the gold.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | February 13, 2012, 6:37 am
    • Hu Mary Jo

      Hola from Mexico!

      Yes , being an underdog does elicit an emotional response. How often do we cheer on the underdog and wish for his success? (and how often are we the underdog and thus can relate to those feelings of gritting one’s teeth and trying harder). It’s a great rooting device. Thanks for letting me know it’s one of your favorites

      Posted by Anonymous | February 13, 2012, 9:22 am
    • Hi Mary Jo

      I’m borrowing a computer to respond so using an unfamiliar keyboard – grrr.

      Yes being the underdog does elicit an emotional response. How often do we cheer on the underdog and how often do we relate to those underdog characteristics of gritting one’s teeth and trying harder. It’s a great rooting technique. Thanks for letting me know it’s one of your favorites.

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | February 13, 2012, 9:29 am
  2. Hi, Donna and welcome to RU. I am crazy in love with this post! It’s going right into my editing binder.

    I always try to give my characters admirable qualities in the opening pages, but I don’t know that I ever conciously thought about how many I give them. I like the idea of having this list and checking off how many of these qualities I give my characters.

    Light bulb moment! Love when that happens.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | February 13, 2012, 8:49 am
    • Hi Adrienne

      Yes Discovering this was like discovering the key to publishing success for me. Of course, you will look at every movie a bit differently now. I’ve discovered that adding rooting techniques to characters in those opening pages adds depth to my character and a lot of internal conflict as well.
      Hope this works for you as well.

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | February 13, 2012, 9:33 am
  3. *waves madly* Hi Donna! I remember some of these things from a workshop you gave for the Ohio Valley RWA chapter awhile back. I always check these traits now, and I mentally tick them off when I find myself empathizing with or rooting for a character now.

    I just read an ARC of Nora Roberts’ upcoming release, THE WITNESS, and I REALLY noticed in this book. She had me hooked by page one and I was rooting for the very unusual heroine throughout the book.

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | February 13, 2012, 9:29 am
  4. Hi Becke

    Sorry I missed you at the West Chester signing this weekend.

    Yes, Nora was the one that inspired me to look for rooting techniques in writing as well as in the movies. She’s a master at employing this deceivingly simple technique.

    Posted by Donna MacMeans | February 13, 2012, 9:35 am
  5. Donna – I’m sooo bummed that I missed the signing! I love going to those, but something came up at the last minute. I would have loved to see you!

    Will you and Jessica be coming to Lori Foster’s Get Together? I’m bringing “my” Jessica with me again this year!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | February 13, 2012, 9:46 am
    • lOL Becke- I’m in Mexico at the moment (with spotty connect ability, I might add. Keeping fingers crossed that this holds). So I wasn’t at the signing either.

      I’m planning on being at Lori Foster’s June event amid bringing my daughter with me. Casanova Code comes out in June so I’m hoping to be able to sign it there.

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | February 13, 2012, 9:54 am
  6. What fun! Have a great time in Mexico – see you in June, if not sooner.

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | February 13, 2012, 10:01 am
  7. Hi, Donna –

    Welcome to RU!

    Now I’m intrigued to go back to couple of keep books (I don’t have many anymore after several moves) and take a look at these rooting moments.

    I’ll also use the technique on my current WIP. My question is this: how does a writer use enough of these rooting moments without the character seeming melodramatic?

    Thanks a ton!

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | February 13, 2012, 10:35 am
    • Kelsey-

      Great question! The bes,t answer is to be subte. These things work best when it’s just a suggestion- like you’re moving beneath consciousness. I bet you are doing some of this now. I’m suggesting you do more while shifting between the three groups. If all your rooting interests were from admiration, for example. Your character would be beyond belief. They’d need some interests from the other groups to. Flesh them out – make them human, hope that helps. Get one of Nora’s books from the library if you don’t have one handy, and look at the first pages when she introduces her characters and you’ll see what I mean.

      Sorry about the mis-punctuation. Typing on an iPad isn’t a strength.

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | February 13, 2012, 11:21 am
  8. Morning Donna!

    What an excellent post! Of course I’m immediately printing it out and stapling it…somewhere. =) Maybe I should clean off my desk first.

    I’ll ask a stupid question – why, when Tom Cruise looks at his watch during the interview does that make him empathetic rather than obnoxious? I can see where it shows he has a work ethic, but (and I’m sorry, I can’t remember the scene entirely!) is there a setup to it where we know that’s why he’s looking at his watch? And that’s what makes him empathetic? Sorry, just trying to grasp the little nuances…..=)

    Thanks for posting with us today Donna!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | February 13, 2012, 10:40 am
  9. Hi Donna!

    Excellent post! After posting your post, I went bck to chapter one of my current ms and tweaked.

    Some of my characters have what most people would want. Looks, money, and success. While that falls into the admirable trait category, they still have their own demons, which I hope reveal their empathatic and humanistic traits.

    There’s so much at stake in the first few pages. How does one find the right balance in adding these traits in the beginning without overwhelming the reader?

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 13, 2012, 1:49 pm
  10. Hi Carrie

    I see my earlier long response didn’t post. Darn

    Remember a movie is a visual medium, so much of the internal thoughts come out as facial expressions. In this instance, we see that Cruise is concerned, not obnoxious. The interviewer, however, is obnoxious with his superior and demeaning attitude, so we don’t really mind that he checks his watch….actually it’s not that action that is the rooting interest, rather his job as a waiter and his attitude toward it are. The watch just provides a nice seque to show the disparity between the megabuck position he’s being offered and his current minimum wage position. Hope that helps !

    Posted by Donna MacMeans | February 13, 2012, 1:49 pm
  11. Hey guys

    I’ve been so obsessed with finding a spot with good connection – I failed to say thanks for having me today! I’m thrilled to be able to chat about rooting interests as its a concept that really turned on a light bulb for me. Hope it does for your readers as well. Thanks again

    Posted by Donna MacMeans | February 13, 2012, 1:54 pm
  12. Fab post, Donna! I’ll be revisiting your HEA categories often. It’s amazing how many of these I see in my first book.

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | February 13, 2012, 2:02 pm
  13. Hi Jen

    What you want is to introduce a hint about those demons early on – just a hint so that we know they exist. Sometimes this is just a word, sometimes it’s an internal thought. In Redeeming the Rogue, I have a line where a petty thie.f that Rafferty (hero) has caught, turn and say “it’s a sad day when the IRish turn against their own.”. Up to this point I’d been focused on showing Rafferty,s competence, but with this line, I can show Rafferty’s response and his internal conflict about working for the British. It’s a quick thing, a simple thing and just lets you know there’s something going on beneath the surface which is explored more in later chapters.

    Another thought…while you’re presenting your characters as wealthy and successful, you can slip into his head and have him think “at what cost?”. Or show him in an act of charity (rooting interest) and have him reflect that he remembers what it’s like to have nothing.”. That’s it. No more detail needed.

    Hope that helps

    Posted by Donna MacMeans | February 13, 2012, 2:13 pm
  14. Hi Tracey!

    I think most writers get the concept of making their characters heroic. The first couple of times I encountered the list, I just figured it was common sense and dismissed analyzing further. A certain amount is intrinsic .. It wasn’t until I published my second book that I realized what a fool I was for ignoring this concept. I started looking at how respected authors used rooting interests and it really opened my eyes. I guess like any craft element, it gets stronger every time you make a concienous effort to use it..

    Good luck with that next book!

    Posted by Donna MacMeans | February 13, 2012, 2:22 pm
  15. hmmm, some great things to mull over! Am printing this out and trying this exercise…

    Posted by Angela Quarles | February 13, 2012, 5:02 pm
  16. Donna,

    Many thanks for joining us today…all the way from Mexico!I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay. Thanks to everyone for stopping by.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 13, 2012, 10:22 pm
  17. Thanks Jen. It was fun. Umbrella drinks for everyone!

    Posted by Donna MacMeans | February 13, 2012, 11:39 pm
  18. I’m a few days late to the party, but I just wanted to say this post is helping me so much with the opening of my WIP. Thank you, Donna!

    Posted by Melanie Bernard | February 18, 2012, 8:22 pm


  1. […] Donna MacMeans – Creating Characters for the Keeper Shelf – some great stuff here. I immediately marked up my first chapter with tick marks looking for these and found ways to revise it to make my hero more accessible early on. […]

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