How to write a book

Self-editing masterclass snapshots: bland friend and upsetting antagonist

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 and endings. Today it’s two questions about difficulties with characters.


The bland friend

One romance writer had a character who was the supportive friend for the protagonist. She worried that, in all the scenes of tea and sympathy, the friend was bland. I suggested giving her a rough edge that showed the limits of this tolerant soul. I drew inspiration from Dave’s mother, easily the most accommodating person I ever met. But she couldn’t abide spiders, and would not have been bothered if you squashed one while removing it from her presence. Suppose, I said to my romance writer, your nice lady is so mortally afraid of spiders that she always stamps on them?

The antagonist you’re afraid to write

Another lady had an antagonist who made her feel inhibited. She knew he should have more darkness than she had written but she feared to explore it. She also recognised this was cheating the book. What if, I said, she put that worry into another character, let them act out her discomfort? Would that free her to unlock the antagonist? She seemed to feel that would do the trick. I also encouraged her to look for the kernel of good that let him feel positive and justified about himself – and maybe even disturbed him.

nyn2 2014 smlContradictions are a great way to make two-dimensional characters into compelling story-people. I’ve written about it at greater length here. And of course, there’s even more about characters here.

Thanks for the pic, heyjoewhereareyougoingwiththatguninyourhand

Tomorrow: accents in dialogue

I’m really curious about this question of the character who upsets us so much we feel inhibited when we write them. Have you had experience of this? Let’s talk.

12 thoughts on “Self-editing masterclass snapshots: bland friend and upsetting antagonist

  1. What a good question!
    Well, there have been a fair few in my writing that have had me so uncomfortable that in the end, I’ve had to step away, get out of my own way and let them have their head (so to speak) and the results have been disturbing. In The Bet, the two female protagonists (Jenny, the main character, and Judy, her side kick) are so nasty someone in a review commented they’d thought that no-one could top Joffrey for nastiness but these two managed it. I felt at once proud and ever so slightly ashamed of this. Judy gets a couple more outings in the sequels (not out yet) and it’s been hard to let her develop.

    1. Viv, when I wrote this post I had a feeling you’d be first in the comments! It seemed to really fit the kind of characters you write. Outdoing Joffrey? There’s an accolade. You should get that on a T-shirt.
      But it’s interesting that you say you find it hard to let Judy develop. Is that because she came complete already or because of a barrier in yourself? (Getting nosy here, I know… Do decline to comment further!)

      1. Part of it was because I knew her back story and once that starts to come out, she becomes less of a villain and more of a victim.
        Plus, if I follow my own logic in the idea that all characters proceed from our own internalised interpretations of Jungian archetypes, it’s quite hard to write a character who behaves like that knowing that are core, she is me. Bit sobering when you spend your life trying to be a good person and to improve the self/soul.
        I also must confess that as a non G of T reader/watcher at the time of that review, I was unaware of quite who Joffrey is/was. I’ve caught up a little and think the comment a bit excessive.

        1. The character who, at their core, is like you… that’s interesting, because I find I’m delving into characters who are less and less like me at first glance, yet I understand something fundamental about them. There’s one in Ever Rest whose dialogue I find very difficult, and I have to write a lot of half-hearted lines before I suddenly tune into him. Once I do, I find him there, in my liver or somewhere, and then he won’t stop talking. Very strange. He’s not nice at all, BTW.

  2. I’m a bit of a hermit and avoid drama as much as possible in real life, so conflict is one area of fiction writing that I must constantly work at. I routinely have to ask the trigger question, “What is the worst thing that could happen right now?” I don’t always go for the worst thing, but considering the question helps me keep all of my characters on their toes.

    I believe each book I write is better than its predecessor with regard to conflict, but I still have a long way to grow. One of my beta readers frequently reminds me, “Don’t be afraid to let your characters fight.” A reviewer complained that my characters are too well-spoken and polite. (*sigh*)

    However, I believe there’s a difference between conflict and darkness. I have no desire to write dark fantasy. As a reader, I avoid books that are filled with sadness, despair, pain, and violence. I want to get better at conflict, but I also want to leave readers with positive feelings when they finish my stories. That’s a little trickier with high fantasy than it is with romance, but I think I can manage it.

    1. Hi Daniel! The hermit mentality you describe is a problem for most writers. We like spending time alone with a page. We seek it out as a hobby (which then may become something more!) So we’re not good at confrontations or trouble. The quiet life suits us! But it can mean we write passive characters, who only do things when forced to by more dynamic people.

  3. I think that characters in novels need to be redacted very carefully, because if not, then the novel won’t be as good. If they make a movie out of a novel, it needs to be carefully redacted as well. Counting from watching movies based on novels, I see the huge difference of why it didn’t go so well for some.

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