Posts Tagged literary fiction

Is your main character you? How to tell – and how to widen your character repertoire

Portrait of Oscar Wilde with Cane

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.)

Fast forward.

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.

faint mmIf 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.



nyn2 2014 smlThere 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!

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Find the style that fits the story – Jose Saramago’s Blindness

blindnessI’m reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness, and its style is rather striking. It’s an omniscient narrator hopping between a lot of heads. The dialogue is run into the rest of the prose, with no punctuation to distinguish it from the rest of the prose. Yes, no quote marks. Not even a dash. Sometimes the dialogue has no tags to tell us who’s speaking – or indeed that it is speech. When the characters speak, it’s not even presented in separate sentences, let alone paragraphed.

A typical spread looks like this

blin2 001

Dense, long paragraphs. Rather offputting, isn’t it? It looks like the book will be a horrendous muddle and heavy going. Dave – who will give most styles a fair crack – tossed it down in disgust, muttering about pretentious gimmicks.

It’s certainly risky to mess with the conventions of dialogue. I frequently see novice manuscripts where all the dialogue is reported. This creates a distanced effect, as if no one in the book is really alive. It also creates a dense block of text that – as you can see – looks forbidding to the eye (although not many writers take it to the lengths Saramago has). But Blindness is enhanced by this style. Let’s look at why.

The society is the focus While there are certain characters who are central, Saramago’s interest is an event that breaks the normal structures of civilisation. The omniscient view and the technique of running the dialogue together in long sentences builds on this. It means they are part of a bigger picture. The focus can be on anyone – the person whose actions are the most interesting or urgent to watch at a given moment.

The main characters become more vulnerable There are key characters, and this style creates a sense that they are more fragile. In any story that follows just a few viewpoints, we’re aware that most of them must continue as consciousnesses until the end of the book. In the dangerous world of this story, anyone could vanish and the world will go on being narrated. So the threat to them is more real.

Nothing is confusing Despite the unconventional presentation, you can usually tell who’s talking. Where you can’t, it’s either not important – or the point is to experience confusion.

41L5A0POlkL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU02_It’s set up carefully All stories have to introduce the reader to the rules of the world, and any quirks of the style. Saramago starts as he means to go on, tuning you in so you look carefully at the prose to see if someone’s talking and who it is.

He doesn’t throw us into this many-voiced chorus straight away. The first few chapters follow a limited cast, so we get to know them. This gives us figures who are anchors in the later chapters – if they survive. He assembles a large cast quite quickly, but they are connected with these originals by the establishing scenes so it’s easy to remember who’s who.

There is also a consistency of style, although this may not consciously be noticed by the reader. One paragraph – which may go on for many pages – is a scene.

The story has momentum The style may be unorthodox, but he’s keeping the story moving. Curiosity pulls us along. The stakes keep building, the situation is running further out of control. We keep reading to find where it is going.

I haven’t read very far so I’m looking forward to even more interesting effects, but my final point is this. The run-on presentation with few traditional markers is like hearing a lot of voices and being unable to tell who is who. Isn’t that like being struck blind? It is also panicky, as though things are happening too fast to take proper note of them. It feels out of control (although the writer is tightly in command). You might even say it’s breaking convention as the society of the book is disintegrating. It makes the characters disturbingly into a herd, stripping them of individuality. This clever style choice reflects the experience of the sighted people, who have quarantined the blind people for fear they will catch it. We are at once seeing the story two ways.

This style is creating and amplifying the experience of the world. Wow.

No spoilers, please, as I want to discover the book’s surprises in the proper way… but let’s talk about styles. Have you read a novel with an apparently challenging style that enhances the material?

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots: the words are only the skin

guardThis week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write  and making a character distinct through dialogue. Today I’m tackling a fundamental misconception about self-editing.

Editing is not just tweaking the language

One lady in the masterclass shared a story that illustrates a common misapprehension of novice writers. She said she had come close to a publishing deal, but the imprint folded. Before that, they mentioned the book had some problems and were talking about editing. On her own again, and unable to ask them any more details, she assumed they must be talking about the language, and so she worked to write it in a more suitable way. Still, though, she was unhappy with it and she knew she hadn’t solved the problems.

Editing veterans will be nodding sagely here, knowing that language is only one of our considerations. I’ve leaped into this trap myself. In the early days when I was querying agents, I’d get feedback that mentioned a few rough areas. I made the only possible assumption – that I needed to make the ‘writing’ somehow better. And so I fiddled, line by line, adding and pruning here and there. I probably ended up with an over-bloated muddle and didn’t touch the underlying problems. I had no idea about the mechanisms that work under the words, and that language is really the skin on top of the structure, pacing and character arcs.

Tomorrow: Putting the book away to get distance

How about you? Have you made the same rookie mistake about editing? Or a different one? Let’s discuss!

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‘Thoughts circulating in a lyric or a music line’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Amanya Maloba

for logoMy guest this week admits she is antisocial. She likes to people-watch from behind wide sunglasses, and cocooned inside big headphones. She says her day is characterised by a constant flow of music, which has fed directly into the set of vignettes in the short fiction collection she has just published. I particularly have to thank her for introducing me to one of her special trigger tracks, by Florence + the Machine, as there’s something in it I might need for Ever Rest. And so the muse hops from mind to mind; I hope it will to yours too. She is Amanya Maloba and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

The Self-Editing Masterclass Snapshots will resume tomorrow.

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‘The music of exile’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Kathleen Jones

for logoMy guest this week has written a novel of exiles – artists, sculptors and musicians displaced from their home countries by the border shifts after World War II. The central character is doubly exiled, born between genders at a time when such things were poorly understood. Music helped her create their personalities, guide her research and develop their histories. She drew on a rich heritage of opera, jazz and folk – and even composed her own folk song for the novel. She is Kathleen Jones and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Music of raw power, pulling back from chaos and feedback’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, David Penny

for logoMy guest this week describes his writing as a constant state of striving – to achieve the same visceral punch of great music. His books come to him that way too – protagonist, thread and plot in one hit. In fact I’ve actually seen this thunderbolt descend; I was with him on a course one day when he told me he’d just overheard a conversation that gave him an entire plot and its characters in an instant. After that comes the hard work, of course, and music helps him return to that state of fever. The novel he is talking about this week is the first in a crime series, set in the final years of Moorish rule in Spain, and its soundtrack is full of sweat, guitars, lutes and bass. He is David Penny and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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Studying Ray Bradbury: a beat sheet of Fahrenheit 451

learning from ray bradburyI get a lot of emails about the beat sheet revision exercise I describe in Nail Your Novel. I’ve just prepared an example for my Guardian masterclass using the opening of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 so I thought you guys might find it helpful.

Bradbury is one of my heroes for the way he explored science fiction ideas in a lyrical style – and indeed he described himself as a writer of fables rather than SF. Strong influence there for my own Lifeform Three, in case you were wondering. Anyway, creating the beat sheet made me admire Fahrenheit even more so I thought it would be fun to share my discoveries here. (Discreet cough: spoiler alert…)

First of all, what’s a beat sheet?

It’s my absolute rescue exercise for revision. Think of it as an x-ray of your draft. It lets you check the structure, pacing, mood of scenes, character arcs, keep control of plots and subplots, wrangle your timeline – all the problems you can’t see when you’re lost in a sea of words. And you can learn a lot if you make a beat sheet of a book you admire.

Here’s how it’s done. You summarise the book, writing the scene’s purpose and add its mood in emoticons. Either use an A4 sheet and write small, or a spreadsheet. Be brief as you need to make this an at-a-glance document. Use colours for different plotlines or characters. Later you can draw all over it as you decide what to change. This is the first third of Fahrenheit 451.


  • Intro Montag, startling wrongness, brutality of burning scene :0
  • Meets C, explanation of fireman job + role. Establishes M’s alienation from
    natural world & how people are isolated
  • M ” home. Wife overdosed :0 !
  • Horror/desperation of rescue, texture of deeper sadness :0, concealment of
    true feelings, everyone’s doing this
  • Morning. Wife doesn’t remember. M isolated with the horror. TV gives people substitute for company
  • M meets C again, disturbed by her, fascinated by her curiosity & joy
  • Intro to mechanical hound. Brutal games other firemen play. M hated it & feels threatened by hound. Guilty secret :0
  • Friendship with C deepens. She’s misfit. Explanation of how kids are
  • taught in school. Other kids as brutal as firemen. M increasingly drawn to her outlook
  • M progressively more alienated & uncomfortable :0 Goes with firemen to house. Steals book ! Woman defends her books & sets fire to herself !!
  • Men shaken. Captain B pulls them together
  • M too upset/afraid to go to work. Tries to talk to wife. Wife’s priority is for him to keep his job & buy gadgets. Can’t comprehend or notice M’s distress :0
  • B visits – pep-talk, history lesson. Wife finds concealed book ! Does B know?
  • M confesses :0 ! Is B friend or foe? ? !
  • M confesses to wife ! He has 20 books !! Now she could be in trouble too. Furious. Persuades her to start reading !!!…


So that’s how it’s done.

Now, even more delicious, what can we learn from Mr Bradbury?

learning from fahrenheit 451Introduce the world and keep the pace moving – variety and contrast

Beginnings are tricky – what information do you show? Bradbury gives us a lot, but makes it memorable and entertaining with his use of contrast.

First is the startling close-up of the books being burned and the brutal relish in his description. Next is the conversation with Clarice McLellan, the kooky neighbour who seems to come from a completely different, gentler world. Third scene is Montag’s home life. (We can see this from the colours – blue for work, orange for the conversations with the intriguing girl, yellow for home.)

We’re probably expecting the home scene, so Bradbury keeps us on our toes and breaks the pattern. It’s no regular scene of domesticity. It’s Mildred Montag’s suicide bid. There follows a horrifying scene where technicians pump her out, routine as an oil change. It builds on those two emotions we’ve seen in the earlier scenes – the brutality from scene one (brought by the technicians), and the sensitivity from scene two (Montag’s reaction). In just three scenes, the world is established – and so is the book’s emotional landscape. A brutal, despairing world and a sensitive man.

Connecting us with the character

In the next scene, Mildred is awake, chipper, and has no memory of the previous night. Only Montag knows how dreadful it was and he can’t make her believe it. She is only interested in talking about the new expensive TV gadget she wants. This confirms Montag’s isolation and disquiet. And ours. We are his only confidante. We’re in this with him.


In each of those scenes, something is changing – Montag is being surprised or upset (or both). Although Bradbury is acquainting us with the world and the characters, he is also increasing Montag’s sense of instability. As you’ll see from the beat sheet, the later scenes continue that pattern.

Pressure and relief: reflects the character’s inner life

Look at the emoticons. They show us the mood of each scene and, cumulatively, of the book. But successive scenes of pressure (action, perhaps, or upsetting events) can wear the reader down. That’s one of the reasons why we might have a moment of relief – downtime around the campfire, or a brief flash of humour. These relief scenes often carry enormous impact because of the contrast.

Fahrenheit 451 builds this atmosphere of a brutal world, and we notice it quickly. The only relief is in the conversations with Clarice – so the reader’s need for relief mirrors Montag’s internal state. Reader bonded to the main character by the author’s handling of mood. What perfect, controlled storytelling.

I could go on, but this post is long enough already. And we need time to discuss!

nyn1 2013 ebook j halfreslf3likeThe beat sheet is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More here

And more about Lifeform Three here

Have you made beat sheets of your own novels, or novels you admire? Are there any questions you want to ask about beat sheets? Or let’s carry on the discussion about Fahrenheit 451. Ready, aim, fire

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‘Oceans of silence beneath the words’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Orna Ross

for logoMy guest this week says her first novels were fuelled by nostalgia and the past. She wrote them while living in a small market town in England, and harking back to her former homes in California and Ireland. Her soundtrack connects her back to those places and their people. Traditional emigrant songs that remind her of stoic characters in her family, while the gay anthem of La Cage Aux Folles is symbolic of friends in the LBGTQ community and her themes of loyalty and personal autonomy. There’s also a special place for the BBC shipping forecast, which she used to listen to in bed as a child, finding poetry in its strange names.  She is Orna Ross – and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Break your heart in just three minutes’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, David Gaughran

for logoMy guest this week says music has always been a companion to his writing. He drafted his first book in restaurants, bars and cafes while travelling the world, and now he turns to music to settle into the writing mood. In his fiction he likes to explore the bittersweet, the unresolved, the questions, the dark side of a strength, and draws inspiration from the songwriters and performers who can break your heart in three minutes flat – while fitting the shape of a tune. He is David Gaughran and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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We’re in your headphones… My Memories of a Future Life audiobook goes live

mmaudioheads bigger

Sandy’s nervous. It’s her first book launch. She says she’s keeping away from the internet today.

I’m nervous. Unlike Sandy, I mainline social media and will probably be checking Facebook and Twitter even more frequently than usual to see if anyone else is as excited as I am that…

(deep breath)…

WE’VE JUST LAUNCHED THE AUDIOBOOK of My Memories of a Future Life. Don’t worry, I will calm down soon.

You can find it on Audible in the US and the UK. If you’re thinking of trying out Audible for the first time, you can get the novel free when you sign up. It will also be on iTunes but that takes a little longer to percolate.

If you’re thinking of making an audiobook yourself, either with ACX or by some other means, you might find my posts about the process helpful.

And that’s it! Back tomorrow with a cracking Undercover Soundtrack. R xxx

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