Guest Liz Milliron on Character

Edith writing from north of Boston, not sure if winter is coming or going.

Either way, I’m always happy to welcome Liz Milliron back to the blog, especially when she has a new Betty Ahearn Homefront historical mystery out! I love this series, and I know you will, too.

March 1943. As the Buffalo winter ends, the father of Betty Ahern’s friend, Lee Tillotson, disappears. At first his absence is a relief, providing Lee, his mother and sisters refuge from the man’s frequent drunken rages. But when Mr. Tillotson is discovered drowned in the Buffalo River and the police charge Lee with the murder, the family’s newfound peace shatters.

Worse, Lee becomes secretive and unwilling to cooperate with Betty or the police. Betty is certain of Lee’s innocence, but there she has very little time to investigate before he must enter his plea in court. To prove Lee’s innocence, Betty digs into Mr. Tillotson’s life, discovering a seamy and dangerous underside to Mr. Tillotson, and to Buffalo itself. With time running out, Betty soon learns who her friends really are, how much Lee loves his family and friends and is loved in return, and just how far the corruption leaking from Buffalo’s City Hall has reached. But can she prove Lee’s innocence before it’s too late?

As Maddie Day, I’m also delighted to be sharing a virtual launch event with Liz next week at Mystery Lovers Bookshop.

Register here. Now, take it away, Liz!

Thanks for having me back, Edith. It’s always great to visit the Wickeds.

As a reader, one of the things that brings me back to a beloved series is character. Once you spend three hundred pages, give or take, with a group of people (even if they are fictional), you can’t help having some opinions about them. It doesn’t matter if they are characters you love – or just love to hate.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying I want my characters to have some growth, too. Even the not-so-nice ones (well, usually). This is especially true of protagonists. I want to see her learn from her mistakes, take new roads, and do new things. Real people do this, at least ideally. Why not fictional ones?

At the same time, a character has to stay true to who she is. If one of her deeply held beliefs is in fairness, she can’t take a left turn and suddenly start thinking or doing things that violate that belief. It’s a change all right, but not a particularly good one.

I feel I know Betty Ahern pretty well. She’s still capable of surprising me, but they are generally good surprises. She and I have very firmly held beliefs. And we aren’t shy about expressing them, either.

You will not be surprised, therefore, when this comment came back from A Trusted Reader I was a bit taken aback: “Betty is being too disrespectful. I don’t like her here.”

(Okay, a “bit taken aback” is an understatement. I was actually quite upset.)

To me, Betty wasn’t being disrespectful at all. She was asserting herself. Standing her ground and not shying away from what was a potentially uncomfortable situation. How can you not like that? Too much has been written about the necessity of “likable” female characters, and I’m not going there in this post, but would the same comment have been made of Lee?

I fussed. I grumbled. I gnashed my teeth. How dare this person say that? Doesn’t she get it? Why does every woman have to be likable every moment? I wanted Betty to have her moment of brashness. After all, she’s not quite nineteen. How many young people are perfectly polished at that age?

I sure wasn’t.

But then I calmed down. Trusted Reader had my best interests at heart, after all. I’d be foolish to disregard the feedback just because I didn’t like it. After all, I’d rather hear it now than, heaven forbid, after publication in a reader review when it was too late to do anything.

I reworked the passage. Betty kept her boldness, but she chose a few different words. Used a different tone of voice, different body language. I adjusted the subtext.

If all of this sounds like hard work, it was. But the truth is, there are always at least two visions of a character: mine and the reader’s. It doesn’t do any good for me to insist that my vision is the only right one because readers own the story as much as I do. I may have written it, but it only really lives once someone picks up the book.

It’s a balancing act, really. How do I stay true to the character (because she is my creation and no one knows her better) and honor my contract with the reader? After all, after three books, readers feel they know Betty pretty well, too. They have expectations. Betty needs to make mistakes and grow – but not in such a way that her fans are disappointed.

Hopefully, Betty and I can meet them – and not lose what makes her a special person in her own right.

Readers, has a much-loved character ever let you down? Writers, how do you keep your characters “true to form” and still give them room for mistakes and change?

Liz Milliron is the author of The Laurel Highlands Mysteries series, set in the scenic Laurel Highlands of Southwestern Pennsylvania, and The Homefront Mysteries, set in Buffalo, NY during the early years of World War II. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Pennwriters, and International Thriller Writers. A recent empty-nester, Liz lives outside Pittsburgh with her husband and a retired-racer greyhound. Find Liz at her web site,

23 Thoughts

  1. As a reader, a much loved character let me down when the person deviated from an established “code of conduct,” exhibiting uncharacteristic thoughts, choices, actions, and speech. It was so bad, I no longer read anything written by that best-selling author.

    As a writer, I use the enneagram of personality to create realistic ranges of character behaviors. The enneagram offers nine arch-types of progressive behaviors that range from the best to the worst. When individuals feel secure, they exhibit a range of progressive traits, but when they feel stress, they display another. I created a matrix of the nine types and their progressions. Using Scrivener, it’s easy for me to track. I know where my essential protagonists and antagonists are in their respective character arcs using the enneagram types.

    BTW: For key cast members, the use of enneagram types is especially useful in a series because the chief character can have one set of growth in book one, another in book two, etc. Likewise, the primary antagonist can have growth and decline, starting as the hero in their own story and morphing into the nemesis of the chief protagonist.

    1. Grant, yes, I can see that. If a much-loved character started doing completely uncharacteristic things (including thoughts) I’d put the book aside, too.

      I did an enneagram for Betty once. If I remember correctly, she came down as a Reformer. Always looking to do the right thing and make things better.

      1. If used for developing primary characters, enneagrams are fun and lead to creative opportunities. For the other characters, diminishing returns.

        “Evidence boards” offer more tools to keep track of all characters.

  2. LIZ: Congratulations on your newest Homefront mystery!

    Yes, as a reader, I would like to see a character grow as the series progresses. And I have certainly been surprised a number of times when a (beloved) protagonist acts abnormally. Sometimes it’s just a minor headshaker kind of scene and I keep reading. But I must admit that I have stopped reading some series because I was so shocked by the protagonist’s strange actions. I am a loyal reader (of series) but sometimes I need to stop. So many other books to read, so little time!

  3. Congratulations on your latest Homefront! It’s a fabulous series. It’s lovely (and the highest compliment) when readers are invested enough in a character to have behavioral expectations. Well done!

  4. “The Lessons We Learn”. sounds amazing and I can’t wait to dive in reading it.

    Think the only way a character has disappointed me is when a series ends and I can’t read more about them and the rest of the characters we have grown to love or shake our heads at.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  5. Congrats on the new release, Liz! I recently started reading the first book in this series and am really enjoying it.
    This post is so timely for me, as my editor just called me out for writing a sequence that was out of character for my protagonist. At first, I thought no way, but after sleeping on it, I saw my editor’s point and dug into rewriting three chapters. Not fun, but I think the story is better now. Cheers to that valuable feedback!

    1. Thanks, JC. Glad you are enjoying the story. Yes, I felt exactly the same way. Sometimes you really need that outside perspective, don’t you?

  6. Trusted readers are one thing, but reviews, especially on sites like Amazon and Goodreads are another. Those I would ignore. Plenty of people think a woman expressing a firm belief about anything in any sort of way is “disrespectful.”

  7. Glad you found a way to balance your trusted reader’s feedback and your take on things. As someone being called out more and more for behaving rudely, maybe I need to take a lesson from how Betty handles this situation.

    Placed a pre-order for the book. Looking forward to reading it.

    1. Mark, I am there with you. I’ve often been called out for being “rude” when in my mind, I’m simply being firm. Guess I could take a lesson from Betty as well.

      Hope you like the book!

  8. Liz, I’ve found that a beloved character only lets me down when someone else starts writing the series. I have moments when I’m not happy with actions, but usually I trust the writer. However, when someone else takes over a series I’ve noted a few “she would never do/say/think” that moments that take me out. Congratulations on the new book!

    1. Thanks, Julie! Yes, this is exactly what keeps me away from much-loved series where another author has taken over. The fear that it won’t be quite right!

  9. I can’t think of any beloved characters letting me down that I can think of. I just don’t like when a series ends and the book doesn’t seem “finished” I want to know more of their life later on!

  10. I am not sure if let me down is the right terminology. There have been times that I did not agree with the choices they made. In the long run, it added to additional stories with the decision. I have to say that the characters in books are fashioned after people. The people in real life make decisions that we may not agree with so the characters will make their own decisions too. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Debbie, yes, just like real people (including people I love), characters make decisions I don’t agree with. Usually I’m okay with that if it leads to positive growth. But if it’s just the same bad decision over and over again, I tend to stop reading.

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