Have you ever wondered how an editor decides not to read your cherished tome past the second paragraph of the first page and has pegged you as a beginning writer? This used to really bug me… Now, as a published author, mentor, and writing coach I read a lot of unpublished manuscripts. I now recognize what these editors do.
So, I’d like to share what I’ve learned over the years (some of the very same comments that have been made of my work, I am now sharing with you). I’ll be providing you my advice in three parts: 1) characters; 2) language; and 3) structure.
Let’s start with characters, since they are in my opinion, the most important part of a novel:
Characters carry the theme of the book. Each character needs to have a role in advancing the plot and/or theme; each character needs a reason to be there. A character therefore needs to be distinctive and usually shows some character development (as story arc) from beginning to end of story. Your characters are the most important part of your book (more so than the plot or premise). Through them your book lives and breathes. Through them your premise, your plot (which is essentially just a way to create problems for your characters to live out their development) and story come alive. Through them you achieve empathy and commitment from the reader and his/her willingness to keep reading to find out what’s going to happen next: if the reader doesn’t invest in the characters, they won’t really care what happens next.
Characters need to be real. They come to life by giving them individual traits and real weaknesses and heroic qualities that are consistent and have qualities readers can recognize and empathize with. You play these against each other to achieve drama. For instance, a man who is afraid of heights but who must climb a mountain to save his love is far more compelling than one who is not; a military man who fears responsibility but must lead his team into battle; a scientist who is afraid of failure; etc.
Characters of beginning writers often suffer from lack of distinction, or purpose, and often simply clutter up a story. For a character to “come alive” their “voice” must be distinct. Give them distinctive body movements, dress, facial features and expressions that reveal character, inner feelings, emotions, fears, motivations, etc. Then keep them consistent. There are several techniques writers use to increase empathy for a character. This includes use of third person POV, keeping the story with focus on fewer rather than many characters, creating character dossiers and keeping them consistent, providing each character a distinctive “voice” (figuratively), as in how they behave, say, react, etc. Another way to make your characters distinct (and works to also tie into plot and theme) is to make your characters not get along. Make them argue, disagree (at least!), have suspicions, betray one another, laugh and ridicule, etc. By doing this you increase tension, conflict (two things every book requires) and you enlighten the reader into each of the characters involved. Make them fight or argue over what they believe in – or not. You need to describe your characters in effective brief but vivid language as the reader encounters them.
Here are some questions you need to ask about your characters:
- if I can remove the character, will the book fall apart? (if not, you don’t need that character; they aren’t fulfilling a role in the book);
- how does the character portray the major or minor theme of the book? (that’s what characters are there for)
- what is the role of the character? (e.g., protagonist, antagonist, mentor, catalyst, etc.)
- what is the story arc of the character? Does he or she develop, change, do they learn something by the end? If not, they will be two-dimensional and less interesting
- what major obstacle(s) must the character overcome?
- who are your major protagonist(s) (the main character who changes the most)?
- who are your major antagonist(s) (those who provide trouble for your protagonists, the source of conflict, tension, the obstacle: one of their own?
- what’s at stake: for the world (plot); for each individual (Theme) and how do these tie together? Every character has a role to fulfill in the plot and to other characters. Don’t be afraid to totally remove characters if they do not fulfill a role.
To summarize, each character is there for a purpose and this needs to be made apparent to the reader (intuitively through characterization, their failings, weaknesses, etc.). Make them bleed, hurt, cry, feel. This needs to be clear to the reader, who wants to empathize with some of them and hate others. How characters interact with their surroundings and each other creates tension, a key element to good storytelling. Tension, of course builds further with the additional conflict of protagonist with antagonists. But, in truth, it’s more fun to read about the tension from WITHIN a group that’s supposed to be together. Think of Harry Potter and what was juicy there… It wasn’t really Voldemort … it was what went on at Hogwarts between Harry and his friends and not-so-friends. That is what makes a story memorable; that is what makes a story something you can’t put down until you’ve finished it.
Part 2 of the Beginning Novelist will focus on language.
This is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire)
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.