Posted On October 30, 2013 by Print This Post

Character Motivation Part One: Using Your Inner Critic to Shape Your Protagonist By Heather Webb

Freelance editor and RU contributor Heather Webb tackles part one of a series on Character Motivation. Mark your calendars – she’ll be back with part two on January 3, 2014.

Heather Webb Smiling

I wrote a post at The Debutante Ball last week about wrestling with our inner critics and it got me to thinking. Those inner critics help shape our goals and motivations. And wouldn’t they, in turn, shape the goals and motivations of our characters? HELL YES!

Let’s look at those types of inner critics and use them to our advantage.

Is yours…

The Ruler-Wielding Schoolmarm:

She believes you can be perfect. She has no qualms about making you redo that shizzle ONE MORE FREAKIN’ TIME. And if you don’t? There will be hell to pay in the form of bloody knuckles. Her standards are so high that only once in a school year can you reach her pinnacle of greatness—a smile and a nod and then BACK ON THE HORSE. Her favorite form of criticism: delivering a long list of “what if” situations as consequences that make you sweat, i.e. what if this book sucks, what if I never get an agent, what if it never sells, what if I don’t have a career in publishing because I’m a big fat poser.

The Ball-Busting Bully:

She thinks you suck at everything. She doesn’t care if you’ve reworked your novel to seeming perfection—you still have fat thighs, I mean fatty prose, in need of trimming. She will suck your positive energy dry until one day, your writing machine grinds to a halt. That’s her ultimate goal. To make sure you know that you aren’t good enough and never will be. Standards don’t matter. There are none. Her favorite form of criticism: to prey upon any weakness, no matter how small, like the flesh-eating undead.

The Ego-Stroking Princess:

She canoodles you. Is that a word? Who cares! You must be on to some amazing break through because she knows deep down you are better than everyone else. So she pushes you to send that manuscript out with the 1812 Overture smashing in your head. Before it’s ready (you find out later). Standards? She sets them for you AND EVERYONE ELSE, because her bar is just…well, hers and it’s the best. Her favorite form of criticism: blaming everyone else when your manuscript doesn’t sell. Your crit partner should have caught that, those eds/agents just don’t get your work, they don’t have good taste. You’ll show them!

The Yogi Zen-Meister:

She makes you take a deep breath. Then relax into a sun salutation and channel that karmic flow into your fingers. She believes you can write whatever you like, as long as you find your center. She is at peace because she knows you can’t control much and her standards are all about trusting yourself. Her favorite form of criticism: you’re too stressed/anxious/self-indulged to find your rhythm.

Each critic arises from different motives for different types of people. Now, think about your protagonist and answer these questions:

• Which of these critics does his/her inner demon resemble?

• How is your protagonist like you? Different from you? Highlight those differences and similarities in gesture, thoughts, the way your protag dresses.

• How does this voice make your character feel about themselves? How can you portray these feelings in the context of the narrative through metaphors, your character’s emotional view of their environment, and directly through dialogue?

• How does this voice shape their actions? Does your protag lash out? Do they hunker down in fear? Do they dash heedlessly into traffic?

I suppose that inner critic isn’t all bad after all, eh? Examining ourselves teaches us how to examine our characters and from there, it’s “only” just writing.

Stay tuned for part two in the Character Motivation series scheduled for January 3rd in which we’ll look at character action and how it reflects motivation.


Do these inner critics ring a bell with you? Which one gives you the most trouble?

On Friday, author ALLY BROADFIELD discusses “That Throwaway First Book.”


Bio:As a freelance editor, Heather spends oodles of time helping writers find their voice and hone their skills–something she adores. She may often be found twittering helpful links, sharing writing advice and author interviews on her blog Between the Sheets, or teaching novel writing in her community. Her favorite haunts are right here at the fabulous Romance and the award-winning where she poses as Twitter mistress. She may also be found at The Debutante Ball, a site about the journey to publication for debut novelists.

Her first women’s historical, BECOMING JOSEPHINE: A NOVEL, has already been featured in The Wall Street Journal and releases as a lead title from Plume/Penguin December 31, 2013.

Visit her blog: or find her on Twitter @msheatherwebb

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15 Responses to “Character Motivation Part One: Using Your Inner Critic to Shape Your Protagonist By Heather Webb”

  1. Morning Heather!

    Awesome thought-provoking post! I think we’ve all had inner critics of each kind at one point or another in our writing careers, so why shouldn’t our characters? =)

    Thanks again for another great post!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | October 30, 2013, 8:45 am
  2. Hi, Heather. Great post! I’d say my inner critic is the deadly combo of the school marm and the ball buster. It’s a little brutal, but I’ve learned to shut the critic out in the early stages of drafting and allow myself the “ugly” first draft.

    Then the critic goes wild. 🙂 I’m working on some character sketches this afternoon and will definitely be giving this method a try.


    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | October 30, 2013, 11:55 am
    • Thanks, Adrienne.

      I’ve struggled with my own critic a lot with my current WIP for some reason–way more than with my first novel and I’m not sure why that is. But I need to do what you do–let that first draft be what it is and shut out the schoolmarm.

      Posted by Heather Webb | October 30, 2013, 12:25 pm
  3. Hi Heather,

    I definitely go Zen. Certain things have to be done and in place before I can write.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | October 30, 2013, 12:33 pm
  4. Hi Heather,

    I’m always struggling with the Schoolmarm critic, and that’s part of the reason why I write so slow. Every sentence, paragraph, and chapter gets rewritten. As far as characters, I think a mishmash of traits, with one being more dominant, makes for an interesting and complex character. A confident, cocky hero may suffer from bouts of self-doubt and depression. I like your point about discovering character through dialogue. The way someone talks is very telling.

    Thanks for joining us and for another terrific post.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | October 30, 2013, 3:41 pm
    • Thanks, Jennifer. I’m in the same boat as you, actually. I have a schoolmarm in my head who doesn’t let me rest. It’s REALLY hard to call a passage D-O-N-E. And I agree 100%–layering our characters makes them interesting.

      Posted by Heather Webb | October 30, 2013, 8:41 pm
  5. Oh, that schoolmarm. One rewrite, two rewrites? Schoolmarm won’t be happy until I’ve rewritten the darn thing a hundred times. And after all the rewrites, the ball-buster moves in.

    Writing isn’t for wimps!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 30, 2013, 10:18 pm
  6. Good to see a talent at work. I can’t match that.

    Posted by | November 19, 2015, 9:25 am
  7. Wow, that’s a really clever way of thinking about it!

    Posted by | December 5, 2015, 8:05 am


  1. […] For more, go HERE […]

  2. […] Webb (Romance University) with Character Motivation Part One: Using Your Inner Critic to Shape Your Protagonist […]

  3. […] Part One, we talked about how analyzing our own voices (our inner critics) can help us layer our characters. Today we’ll look at another major factor that shapes our […]

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