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Do you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Have you cut your writing teeth on the wisdom of the hallowed screenwriting gurus (McKee, Field and Goldman)? Are you a screenwriter who’s making the switch to novels?
If so, you’ll certainly know some great storytelling tricks, but the two disciplines are different. Some movie techniques simply don’t translate to the page.
Indeed, if you’re writing your novel as though it’s a movie in your head, your ideas might not work as powerfully as they should.
I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view. There are other crucial differences between screen and page, so over the next few posts I’m going to look at them in detail.
Film is a visual medium. If we’re watching a scene in a movie where two characters were talking, the words they say are not as noticeable as the characters’ expressions, their actions and the way they do things – whether it’s picking a lock, walking home late at night, sharpening a sword or getting progressively and endearingly sozzled. And so the actors’ moves, the camera angles and the emphasis of the lighting are telling the story just as much as any words the characters are uttering. Indeed, you could probably watch a well-made dialogue scene with the sound off and still understand the thrust of it. An argument, a reconciliation, etc.
On the page, however, the prose does everything. But what I often find with writers who are tuned to the screen is that they don’t realise how much more work a dialogue scene in prose has to do. They haven’t got actors, or a lighting crew, or a set designer, or a composer who will add the other pieces to take the story forward.
They’re good at getting their characters talking, and sounding natural, but their dialogue scenes lack half the information they need to move the story on. They’re imagining it on a screen, and they’re writing what the characters would say and do, but they miss out the impact of the scene’s actions, realisations, changes in mood and plot revelations. All this is part of the story – and it has to come through the characters’ lines and your narration.
If you’ve learned your writing from movies, add these tips to your arsenal for good prose dialogue scenes:
Banter and quips In a movie, atmospheric natter and irrelevant quips are a great way to create a sense of a mood or character. On the page, this quickly looks aimless. Also in a movie, you can have them breaking into a bank vault while bantering – the story is happening at the same time as the visuals. On the page, we can only see one thing at a time. When using inconsequential chat, social niceties and companionable remarks, keep it concise, or find a way to make it purposeful.
Internal reactions The screenplay-tuned writer often doesn’t use internal dialogue, because an actor would add the expressions. Also, most films show a story from a third-person point of view. But in prose you can show what a character thinks and feels. Either you can do this with a close third-person point of view, or a first-person point of view, or by showing reactions through a physical act like clenching a fist. If a character is keeping their reactions hidden from the other characters in the scene, make sure we see they are seething – or celebrating – under the surface.
Silence, pauses and non-verbals Remember we see dialogue as well as hear it – don’t forget to include the characters’ reactions and non-verbal responses in your scene. Use your narration to create pauses. Make them sigh, look out of the window. Let them change their expression.
Prose is your background music Take charge of the scene’s environment. Create atmosphere through your description of the setting. A dripping tap in a moment of silence might increase a sense of tension. Rain might echo a character’s sadness or make a happy moment seem deliriously unreal.
There’s a lot more about writing good dialogue scenes in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2. And Nail Your Novel 3 will concentrate on plot – so if that sounds like your cup of tea, sign up for my newsletter to get word as soon as it’s available.
Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good dialogue scenes? Do you have any tips that helped you?
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My guest this week describes his novel’s main character as a folk-punk protest singer in a collapsing American economy in the near future. We all know how books can transform us into the characters we are creating, and my guest temporarily became a songwriter as this book was forming, despite being (as he says) completely unmusical in real life. Alongside the prose, he built a portfolio of the main character’s songs that marked the story’s adventures and friendships. Some were inspired by musically accomplished friends; others by playing Tom Waits, Deer Tick and Bob Dylan to keep the vibe. When his publisher, Montag Press, came on board, the editor suggested more musicians for the creative mix – thus proving his views of the novel were in harmony with those of the writer. Trevor Richardson is on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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Why? Because they looked like they had the potential to be significant.
I’m not going to tell you the true details, of course, so this is a paraphrase. Broadly speaking, the characters have formed a new business venture. If it succeeds, it gives the narrator a new start in life. Also there’s a romance that will be threatened, because the girlfriend wants to settle somewhere else. The business makes this more tricky. Yet the writer summarised this period of preparation and change.
It’s fair enough to fast forward if there was nothing interesting to show. But during those hours, the characters are playing unfamiliar roles, and getting closer to their hopes and dreams. Relationships will change because of the responsibilities. Tensions will be growing. I said to my client: are you sure there is nothing interesting in these scenes? Do you really want to leave them out? To me, they’re gaps in the narrative.
I’ve often been guilty of this myself. I’ll be working through my outline and I’ll find a section where I’ve glossed over a set of events, not imagining they might hold important developments. I hadn’t given them a moment’s thought, but as I write, I detect this is leaving an unacceptable hole, disconnecting the reader from the characters’ arcs.
However, I don’t know what to write in these scenes. I certainly don’t know what might make the scene interesting. So what do I do? Apply backside to seat, start the fingers and let the characters guide me.
Some of my most satisfying scenes were born this way. It might be a good campfire moment, a small-hours conversation that turns surprisingly confidential. It might be a time to have an argument, confess some back story or blurt out something unwise because a character is ratty and tired. There might be a switch in a character’s attitude, a hardening of resolve, a feeling that this venture is committing my people to a disastrous path.
I start by writing any old nonsense and look for the point where the significance begins to grow. I might cut 90% of it later, but some part of this new material is usually valuable. And if I’d let myself summarise, I’d never have found it.
Gaps in research
Another reason I might dodge writing a scene like this is because, well, I didn’t do the homework. I have no idea what the practicalities of the situation would be. You’ll probably agree that’s a lame reason to leave a scene out, and might shortchange the reader. Writer, get thyself to Wikipedia.
Not all summary is bad!
Summary can be good, of course. You have to condense sometimes. But if you’re summarising scenes only because you find it too difficult to jump into them, or you hadn’t thought what they might contain, or you don’t have the knowledge to write them, don’t assume the story doesn’t need them. Get in and start exploring. You might be surprised.
Thanks for the pic Alistair Sutton
Have you surprised yourself with a scene you summarised and then wrote out at greater length? Let’s share examples! (I’d share some from my own work but, having a direly inefficient memory, I can’t remember what they are. So it’s over to you.)
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My guest this week represents something of a milestone. When I was new to Twitter I remember stumbling across his tweets and his blog, where he was taking his first steps in building a presence as a science fiction writer. Meanwhile, he was working on his debut novel, and over the months and years I would catch tweets and Facebook updates about rewrites, and his search for an agent and a publisher. That persistence paid off; he found representation and then a deal with Three Hares Press. Hosting him here feels like the satisfying end of a long journey. He is Nick Cook, the novel is the first in the Cloud Riders series, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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This seems to be ‘back to basics’ week on this blog. On Thursday I scrambled out a fresher’s guide to ebooks in response to questions at a speaking engagement. And this podcast, recorded the previous week, seems to be the perfect complement. It’s with Nick Thacker, who has a regular show called Self-Publishing Answers, where he endeavours to discover the secrets to writing, publishing and selling successfully.
I’ve answered many of these questions before, but I found it interesting how my perspective on some of them has changed with experience. Especially book marketing. Normally when I’m asked about selling books, I find I run out of useful advice very quickly. I don’t buy advertising, I don’t game the charts and I don’t price strategically – all things that most indies do to get the best marketing advantage. The marketing I do is guesswork, whim and finger-crossing, mainly. Even so, I’ve noticed certain patterns that work – which I didn’t realise until I started discussing them with Nick.
We also chatted about the long-term mindset when it comes to writing – how it’s more important than ever to learn your craft and be patient before you publish. Nick confessed he’d learned a few lessons in that direction too. Anyway, if you’re looking for a bit of advice on writing, publishing and marketing, head this way and listen immediately or download. And he asked about ghostwriting too :)
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Today I gave a speech at The Oldie literary lunch (which was very exciting!) and they asked me to explain about making ebooks. I promised a post to distil the important details, and save them from squinting at their notes and wondering if that scrawl really does say ‘Smashwords’, and indeed what that alien name might mean.
If you already know how to publish ebooks you can probably skip most of this. However, you might find some of the links and reading list useful, or pass them on to a friend. And if you’re here from The Oldie – hello again. Nice to have you visit.
How to do it
It’s easy. Really easy. If you can format a Word file, you can make an ebook.
It’s more complicated if you have footnotes or multiple headings that might need to be visually distinguished, or you want graphics (which might not be advisable) but it’s generally easy. Have I said that often enough?
Here’s my post on how to format for Kindle, in which you’ll see how I had to be dragged into the ebook revolution. But by all the atoms in the heavens, I’m glad I was. You’ll also see the original, grey cover of the book that now looks like this.
That post includes the notes about stripping out the formatting codes and rethinking the book as a long-continuous roll of text, not fixed pages. The Smashwords style guide is also explained. (You knew you wrote that silly word down for a reason.)
If you don’t have the Word file
If you’re publishing a book that previously appeared in print, you might not have the polished Word file with all the copy editing and proofreading adjustments. Often, the author sees the later proofing stages on paper only, and any adjustments are done at the publisher. If you can get the final Word file, that’s simplest.
If not, try to get a PDF, which will have been used to make the book’s interior. You can copy the text off a PDF and paste it into a Word document. You’ll have to do quite a lot of clean-up as this will also copy all the page numbers and headers, and there will be invisible characters such as carriage returns. You’ll need to edit all of these out by hand.
Sometimes PDFs are locked. You can’t copy the text off by normal methods, but you can find a way round it with free online apps. Dig around Google and see what you find.
Another option is to scan a print copy. Depending on the clarity of the printing and whether the pages have yellowed, you may end up with errors and gobbledygook words, so again you’re in for a clean-up job. You’ll need a thorough proof-read as some scanners will misread letter combinations – eg ‘cl’ may be transformed into ‘d’ and your spellcheck won’t know that you meant to say ‘dose’ instead of ‘close’. But it’s quicker than retyping the entire book.
There are two main ebook formats. Mobi (used on Amazon’s Kindle device) and epub (used on many other devices). They are both made in much the same way, and the instructions in my basic how-to-format post are good for both. PDFs are also sold on some sites.
You need to get a cover. Cover design is a science as well as an art. A cover is not just to make your book look pretty, it’s a marketing tool. If you’re republishing a print book, check if you have the rights to use the artwork. If not, you’ll have to get another cover made. Use a professional cover designer (see later). Here are posts to clue you in:
Where I nearly made a disastrous mistake with a cover
Where do you get a good cover designer? See the books list below.
Hiring editors and proof-readers
In traditional publishing, a manuscript goes through a number of stages – developmental editing, copy editing and proof reading. If you’ve done this, go straight to formatting your manuscript. Otherwise, the following posts will help you understand what you need to do.
Daunted by the thought of an editor with an evil sneer and a red pen? Fear not, we respect you more than you know.
Getting your book on sale
The main DIY platforms to sell your ebooks are Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, Kobo Writing Life and Smashwords (you’re getting used to that name now). Publishing on them is free and they’re simple to use. You can publish direct to ibooks, but that’s not easy unless you have a PhD in Mac. And a Mac. Besides, Smashwords (ta-daaah) will publish to ibooks for you. There are other platforms that act as intermediaries, for a greater or lesser fee, and greater or lesser advantage.
Beware of sharks. If you get what appears to be a publishing offer, read this.
Books to get you started
Written from an author’s perspective – The Triskele Trail
David Gaughran – Let’s get Digital
Alliance of Independent Authors – Choosing a Self-Publishing Service
Catherine Ryan Howard – Self-Printed (also covers print as well as ebooks)
And some other useful resources
And, er, that’s it. Any questions?
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On The Undercover Soundtrack, we’re used to writers using music to summon the muse. My guest this week goes one better. One of his main characters is a computer hacker, who limbers up by listening to Vangelis’s music for the film 1492: Conquest of Paradise. In real life, the author has a lifetime’s experience in the IT industry and seems adept at opening files in people’s pasts – Dave and I used to play 1492 incessantly as background for our own writings. My guest did it again when his editor revealed she had trained as a musician, like another of his characters. He is Ian Sutherland and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack – when he’s finished hacking the pasts of his production crew and blog hosts.
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Some writers say they don’t look at their reviews. I don’t know how they find such sangfroid. If I know there’s a new review I have to pounce, and immediately. Inevitably, we’ll sometimes wish we hadn’t – like one of my regular readers this week, who sent me the anguished message you see in the title of this post.
After sympathy, we had a discussion that went in interesting directions, and I thought it might be useful here too.
My main question to him was this. Are you afraid the reviewer might be right? Have you got a good enough groundswell of opinions from people with sound judgement?
My correspondent replied that he knew he’d taken a risk, but wanted the final note to pack a punch. ‘That apparently has worked,’ he said, ‘and my book is being remembered – for better or worse. I have around twenty 5-star reviews and this is my first bad one.’
Twenty to one doesn’t sound like a bad ratio to me. And we’re all going to get bad reviews.
I got off to an early start with My Memories of a Future Life. Just as I was gathering launch reviews, someone who’d read an advance copy sent me a furious, offended email. I’d passed muster with my trusted inner circle, but this was the first true outsider and it hurt madly. It doesn’t help that with self-publishing, there’s hardly any time for the writer to surface out of the book, so early reviews might hit us with no defences. So I was extremely relieved when the other advance readers were happy.
What did you promise the reader? Marketing
Not everyone will like your book, especially if you’re aiming for something unusual as my friend is here. Part of good marketing is targeting – as much as possible – the right readers. So check these.
- Is your blurb misleading?
- Ditto your title?
- Does your cover send the right messages?
- Does the beginning of your book promise something very different from what the reader gets (allowing for arty misdirection…. )
Nurse the bruise, then look at the averages. Note any consistent concerns and decide if your marketing apparatus could be better tuned.
Should you fight back?
No. Not unless there are libels or factual inaccuracies – which are usually hard to argue in fiction anyway. I’ve commented on Amazon reviews that said the proof-reading in Nail Your Novel was poor and hadn’t realised it was UK English. I intend merely to set the record straight, but often it’s made the reader withdraw the review.
What to do about the reader who’s genuinely offended or upset?
Probably you shouldn’t do what I did. I wrote back. A writer friend told me off for it, saying ‘never apologise for your work’. But his fury was flaming my inbox and I couldn’t ignore it. Actually, it turned out well. He admitted he had mistaken the genre in spite of everything I said – and even sent me a gift as apology. I resolved to be even more extremely careful never to mislead a reader.
What if there’s a problem with the book?
Be honest now. Pride and sensitivity aside, has the bad review touched an important nerve? If so, why?
Did you skimp – either on revising, or getting quality, useful feedback?
Some people self-publish for the sake of fulfilment and completeness or to make a book for family or close friends. They’ll probably not be found by the general reading public. These remarks don’t apply to them.
But everyone else, listen up. I see a lot of writers rush to the market too soon. If you put the book up for the public, you won’t get a free pass. Get the book evaluated by someone who will tell you how to get to publishable standard. Although you might have learned a lot since you started writing, you need a professional to point out the flaws you simply cannot diagnose for yourself. (See my post about editors and how much they can surprise you with what they find. ) You don’t necessarily have to spend a fortune – here’s a post about cheaper options than a bespoke development report. But all writers have blind spots, and if you haven’t had critique partners who have opened your eyes to them and changed you for the better, you’ve missed an important step.
Think to the long term. You will write more books and carry on learning. Make sure whatever you publish is something you’ll continue to be proud of.
Some experienced authors I know recommend novice writers use a pseudonym for their earliest work so they don’t pollute their real name. Get something out, satisfy your curiosity, test the water, learn the ropes. (Unmix your metaphors too.) Your early books may indeed be brilliant, or they may, with the benefit of a few years, be embarrassing. You can’t know how you’ll develop.
Could you withdraw a book that was a mistake?
That’s not as easy as you might think. With ebooks you can update the files but it’s difficult to make them vanish entirely. On Smashwords they’ll stay available to the people who bought them – although in direst straits you could overwrite with a blank file or a note of explanation. If you’ve gathered bad reviews, those will remain.
With print books, it’s even harder to hide. I changed the title of the characters book because I felt it didn’t zing enough. I asked CreateSpace if they could remove the original listing in case of confusion, but they said it wasn’t possible. It had to stay up, even if it was unavailable. And second-hand copies might still be sold on Marketplace. This made little difference to me (and some people still want the old one!) but imagine if this was your book that you wanted to bury. You can’t remove it, or its association with your name.
The good, the bad and the ugly
Sometimes we have to accept that a pie in the face is part of the job. If you look on Amazon I’ve got one or two stinker reviews for my fiction. I’ve had some that were malicious, and there’s little to do about them except make a cup of tea. If I get a remark that cuts seriously, I run it past my critiquing crew. I know they’ll tell me if it’s fair. Then I get on with the next book.
What do you do about bad reviews? Have you ever replied to one, or had a malicious one? Have you ever regretted putting a book out too early? Any advice to give? Let’s discuss!
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I find it so interesting how one novel’s soundtrack can absorb so many styles. My guest this week has written a supernatural mystery wrapped up in a 1920s comedy of manners and her soundtrack is a glorious tour of classical, folk and madcap jazz. Even more interesting, she uses Thomas Tallis – as my guest did last week – but with such a different outcome. We all operate in our own key of creativity, which is one of the wonders of this series for me. Anyway, this week you can enter the classical, folky and knock-bones skelly-shaking jazzy world of Alice Degan – with her Undercover Soundtrack on the Red Blog.
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As Oscar Wilde didn’t say: ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken’. (No really, he didn’t.)
In our early novels, we’re more likely to see our main characters as proxies for ourselves. But there comes a stage where we learn more versatility, and to create new hearts, souls and minds to carry our stories. This was one of the interesting findings of a project organised by a team of researchers at Durham University and reported here in The Guardian.
Authors who took part in the survey were asked how they experience their main characters while writing. Those with many books reported that in their early work they saw the main character as a proxy for themselves. Sometimes it was simply wish fulfilment. Sometimes it was a deeper working, perhaps of a problem they couldn’t express in the real world, or an issue they had left undone. It was only in later books that they were aware they were creating individuals who had their own distinct hopes, dreams, values and reactions.
Does it matter?
Interesting though this is, does it matter? It depends. When editing, I’ve certainly seen where it goes wrong. There might be a sense that the main character’s viewpoint is never challenged, or nobody else in the book is as vivid, or all the other characters victimise, worship or pander to the narrator. It can look like the book lacks any perspective that would engage an outsider.
If you’re writing from your own trauma or sense of injustice, no matter how wronged you feel you still have to win the reader round. Indeed Anne R Allen has written hilariously about protagonists who turn readers off - usually because the writer has put themselves too literally into the story.
Here are some of the problems I’ve noticed.
Passive main characters
In a writer’s early books, the main character is often passive. They do very little on their own initiative; they merely react to what is going on. In real life, writing often appeals to people who are observers and analysers. And even if we aren’t, most of us would prefer trouble to go away. But readers find it exasperating if characters don’t at some point take charge or counter-attack. The passive default is generally one of the first reactions a novice writer must unlearn.
Unwillingness to alter events
Sometimes our emotional investment in the book can cloud our critical faculties. At the writing group I used to go to, I remember one lady who read from her novel, which was about a divorce. When we started to question events that seemed far-fetched, she snapped angrily: ‘but that’s what really happened’. Discussions went downhill from there.
Events need to matter more
Drawing on our own experience might produce tunnel vision. It might also stop us taking an idea as far as it could go.
I remember a very early attempt I made to write a story about my experiences with repetitive strain injury when I was a journalist. It was strangely flat. Although I managed to entertain with the strange medical tests, mystery and uncertainty, it was at best lightweight because the stakes weren’t significant. The worst that could happen was that the proxy me might have to get a different job, but that wasn’t a major challenge to my soul that would hook a reader with its urgency. This made me unhappy, because I wanted to write the crisis of somebody’s life…
Then ghostwriting taught me how real life is just material – and material that needs a snappy tailor. (Lots more here about ghostwriting if you’re curious.)
I had a use for my RSI scenario. It was time to adjust real life and amplify. The major amplification was the main character. Now, after writing a lot of fiction as other people, my first novel was the chance to write as me. But my narrator couldn’t be me, the real me muddling through with average demons and crises. She needed desperation. What’s more, her desperation, although it had to be particular to her, had to speak for a more fundamental essence of the human condition – in this case, a search for meaning and love. Perhaps that potential was in my mind all along in that early story, but it didn’t become fully potent until I invented the character who needed it.
If you’ve read My Memories of a Future Life you’ll be recognising her. Carol has elements of my personality and I certainly felt I was her when I wrote her. She comes from things I understand. But she isn’t me. She is herself, created as the person who needs the journey and healing process of that story.
Paftoo of Lifeform Three isn’t me either, though he started with my love of horses and the things we have lost from the past. I then put that in a situation and personality that would cause the utmost trouble, a fight for his very soul. And for Ever Rest I have four, perhaps five viewpoint characters, all with their own consciousnesses, issues and inclinations. I am not those five people.
How to write a character who isn’t like you
Start with something you relate to – what if you lost something that makes you feel alive? Then mine the deeper level and remove yourself. Every time your character reacts, question it. Ask if that’s your own setting, and if it could be bigger, better or different. Find a key for that new character to sing in. Examine their approach to life, betes noires, responses to stress, desires.
In fact, we all have many characters we could create because we already know how to be different. What are you like with your parents? Is it the same as the way you are with your boss? How about the person you are when talking to a person you want to impress, or the head teacher at your child’s school? You already know how to be different at an instinctive level.
So, to mangle the legacy of Oscar even more (because he still didn’t say ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken): don’t be yourself. Use yourself to invent the people your story needs.
Pic of Oscar by Napoleon Sarony, Wikimedia Commons.
There are a lot more tips about writing a character who’s not like you in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated
What stage are you at? Who are your main characters? If you’ve created people who are proxies for you, was that intentional? Unavoidable? Brilliantly effective? Has that caused problems or interesting feedback from readers and editors? Have you created characters who aren’t like you? If you’ve written many books, have you noticed a shift? Let’s share thoughts!
Anne R Allen, authors, Be yourself, beginners, books, Character, deepen your story, developing a character, Durham University, entertainment, everyone else is taken, fiction, find your writing voice, Fix and Finish With Confidence, getting into character, having ideas, Hearing the Voice project, how to find your writing voice, how to write a book, how to write a novel, literary characters, literary fiction, literature, main character, main characters, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, novels, Oscar Wilde, Oscar Wilde sayings, publishing, Roz Morris, The Guardian, Writers' Inner Voices, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel
I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- ‘Five characters, five musical identities’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jessica Bell October 29, 2014
- Novels aren’t movies – how to handle passage of time in prose October 26, 2014
- ‘My word-hand is singing’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Marcus Sedgwick October 22, 2014
- Science fiction – have we forgotten what it should be? October 19, 2014
- ‘Is there life after death?’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Christina Banach October 15, 2014
- Novels aren’t movies – how to write great description in prose October 12, 2014
- ‘A hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anjali Mitter Duval October 8, 2014
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