U – “Un” words

Today’s post is courtesy of Dena Netherton, author of High Country Dilemma, coming June 2017.





“Un”s are great words for writers. They’re tools you can use to make your characters relatable, yet complicated and contradictory, like us real-life people.

Your Character’s Mental “Un”s

When you’re creating your protagonist for your next WIP, list his or her attitudes or mental qualities. For example:


Now think of the “un” word that you can use to complicate your character’s situation.

What’s the opposite of educated?


Now create a scene where your educated character is thrust into a situation where all his or her education is useless. …maybe.

For example, how about a college professor thrown in the midst of street-smart young thugs? How would she fare? Is she truly smart, or just book-smart?

It’s extremely fun for readers to see their favorite character thrust into strange place or situation and watch him or her flounder for a while before figuring out how to manage.

Do you remember the old 1990’s sitcom, Northern Exposure? Young Doctor Joel Fleischmann from Manhattan must leave city comforts and work for three years in the tiny town of Cicely, Alaska to pay back his med-school loans. He’s educated, spoiled, impatient, and a bit snooty.

We see his exasperation with the small-town attitudes of his new neighbors.

Watching him learn to adapt to life in Cicely and its extreme weather made for several seasons of wonderful entertainment. Eventually, the people and the environment rub off the doctor’s intellectual pride, and we learn to like the new un-spoiled version of Dr. Fleischmann.


Your Character’s Personality “Un”s

 If someone asks you to try to describe yourself, you’ll probably find it difficult. Because each time you think of a word that describes you, you’ll probably also think of times when you’re the exact opposite. Maybe you’re a pleasant individual…except when you get in city traffic! If I ever met someone who was always patient, or always reasonable, or always forgiving, I think I wouldn’t like him. I like to see a character struggle with a personality quirk or contradiction.

Remember the old mystery show, Monk? We like him, not because he’s brilliant and always solves the case. No, we like him because he’s got an interesting personality, and he struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He knows he’s got a problem. He’s unbalanced.  Monk keeps struggling with his disorder even while he’s solving mysteries.

Lots of new writers know they have to make their protagonists interesting. But they usually add a couple of speech idioms, and maybe a preference for a particular ice cream, and leave it at that.

That’s not enough. Go deeper. Think: unconscious. For example: Did your character grow up with a habitually abusive parent who locked her in the closet and left her? How about making your character fear tight spaces…and have her struggle to pass open, dark doors? Think about how this fear complicates her life. She needs a night light. She leaves her shoes and clothes out on her bed because she can’t go into a closet. She can’t go to the restroom at a restaurant because most of them are down a narrow, dark hall, etc.

These unconscious psychological struggles makes her way more interesting and give you ample situations in which to show the dimensions of her character. It works in romance as much as it does for the suspense genre.

Maybe your new character loves the music of Brahms because her mother always hummed the Brahm’s lullaby when she went to bed. So now, twenty years later your character hums that lullaby to calm herself when she’s stressed. This could be a tender habit. Or it could be strange, in the right (or wrong) environment.

Your Character’s Physical Appearance “Un”s

What if your character is pretty, but ungraceful? Think Bella in the vampire series, Twilight. If Bella had been graceful, she would have been way less interesting.

How about creating a character who’s big and hunky, but he always wears the most ridiculous, un-cool tee shirts?

I know a lady who has a hat for every Sunday and every occasion. Very stylish.

Or maybe it’s unstylish. The hats could make for an annoying character. Maybe the hats are obnoxious. It could be that her constant accessorizing with hats speaks of her insecurity.

Depending on how you work with the hat idea, it could also be endearing. (I think my friend’s hats are charming.)

I think you get the idea. Complicate and flesh out your characters by adding contradictory characteristics.

Of course, your “un” words don’t have to start with un. Any contradictory word can be used.

Character creation and development can be fun when you take the time to imagine all the funny or unusual situations you can create just by giving your protagonist or antagonist a few juicy “un”s.


DenaDena Netherton is the author of both Christian Romance and Christian Suspense fiction. Born and raised in northern California, she was educated at Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, the University of Michigan, and the University of Northern Colorado. Her many musical experiences as both a performer and teacher have provided her with delicious memories from which to draw when developing new characters and writing compelling stories. Look for the first of her new Christian thriller trilogy, Haven’s Flight, ( out of Write Integrity Press) to come out in the the spring of 2017. Also, expect to see her new Romance novel, High Country Dilemma, (out of Anaiah Press) in the summer of 2017. You follow Dena on her website, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter.

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