Posted On January 2, 2017 by Print This Post

Donna MacMeans – Creating Characters for the Keeper Shelf

 Good morning and Happy 2017! The RU staff is still on hiatus, but we thought Donna MacMean’s post from 2012 would be a perfect topic to start off the New Year. 

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!


Bio: Award-winning author Donna MacMeans made a wrong turn many years ago when she majored in Accounting. Balancing books just can’t compete with crafting plots and inventing memorable characters. A licensed CPA, she manages to write seductively witty Victorian historicals in what can only be described as her dream job. The Whisky Laird’s Bed, the story of a firebrand Temperance advocate and a Scotch distiller, was digitally released by Berkley Intermix in July 2014.

She has won numerous awards including the prestigious Golden Heart from Romance Writers of America, a Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for Historical Love & Laughter, the Aspen Gold, the Write Touch and numerous regional contests. She’s the recipient of both the 2013 Service award from RWA and the 2014 Pro Mentor of the Year award and is the current Treasurer of RWA.

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

  1. Fantastic article, Donna. Thank you for the light-bulb moment.

    This past week I’ve struggled with making my main character more compelling. She is not and I knew, deep down, readers would not connect to her. This is exactly the kick in the head I needed.

    Posted by Christopher di Armani | January 3, 2017, 12:57 pm


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