Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Novelist: Common Pitfalls of the Beginning Writer—Part 1 (Characters)

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… Well, as a published author and occasional mentor, I do from time to time read manuscripts (please don’t send me any unsolicited ones! This isn’t an invite). Well, I now recognize what these editors do. Most beginning writers commonly do some things that unfortunately identify him/her as a novice; these can work against you when a busy editor (who wants nothing better than an excuse to stop reading) reads your precious work.

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 sharing back 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 distinctive, unique. 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 and distinctiveness. 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. I’ll talk about these further down. 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:
1. 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);
2. how does the character portray the major or minor theme of the book? (that’s what characters are there for)
3. what is the role of the character? (e.g., protagonist, antagonist, mentor, catalyst, etc.)
4. 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
5. what major obstacle(s) must the character overcome?
6. who are your major protagonist(s) (the main character who changes the most)?
7. who are your major antagonist(s) (those who provide trouble for your protagonists, the source of conflict, tension, the obstacle: one of their own?
8. 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.

Hope this was useful to you. My next post on the beginning writer will be on language.

This article is an excerpt of my writing guide, The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire World Syndicate), coming out in 2009 (on Amazon, Chapters and Barnes & Noble).

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

Excellent tips for the budding writer, Nina. I agree that characters are so important. If the reader does not like the characters, they will not see the point of reading the story any more.

Nina Munteanu said...

I know you read a lot, Jean-luc, and I'm glad that you agree. It may depend a little on the genre... a mystery, for instance may get away with less characterization than a fantasy, for instance... But I still think that same mystery is a better story if its characters are fleshed out. Some people have the misconception that you have to devote pages of description to achieve this (at the expense of action). But it isn't so much in the volume of description but in HOW you do it, even if sparingly. Which brings me to "language" the subject of my next post in this series...

Jennifer Rahn said...

I would add that it helps for the author to be in love with each and every character. With that element, it not only makes the characters' stories much easier to write, but it also carries through to your target audience. I phrased it that way because some characters will remain inaccessible to certain readers, no matter how you build them.

Nina Munteanu said...

I sort of agree with you, Jennifer...I wouldn't go so far as to say "in love" with EACH fact, there are some characters of mine that I positively am NOT in love with--fascinated with, frustrated with, emotionally tied to, certainly. Hmmm... I must ponder this more. You bring up something worth discussing... :) Care to come aboard Vinny for a Traglet wine?... and we can hash out "characters", good and bad... (I see a possible follow-up blog post arising from this...depending on how much Traglet wine we have...)

racer said...

Great tips. I love your blog. I have a new writing blog, My Writing Life, where I share all the tips and lessons I've learned over the years. I didn't see a blog roll on your page, but I added your blog to mine as a resource and I'd love to trade links with you.

Let me know,


My Writing Life

Greg said...

Good points. It's difficult as the story progresses to hold on to those little idiosyncrasies that distinguish one character from another, and your post is a timely reminder for me.

Looking forward to the next.

Nina Munteanu said...

Cool, Todd! I like your blog too. Your writing tips are well thought out with good examples. Will link to you for sure!

Thanks, Blackburn. Yes, it's a lot to keep in one's mind all at once... Something that works for me (and I may do a post on this...) is to keep a scrapbook of things about my book that help keep things straight. Like I said, consistency is key (that's what the movies have a script girl for and we have an editor for). I keep facts and pictures about my characters, setting, history, backstory, timelines, etc. in there. It ends up being a neat little visual summary of the book, which I enjoy poring over during moments of mind-clutter or blankness...

racer said...

Great post. Great advice. I'll keep re-reading it until it all sinks in.

My Writing Life

Nina Munteanu said...

You're welcome, Todd. You might be interested in my up-coming book, "The Alien Guide to Cool Writing" (which will be sold online as well as in bookstores). It will have lots of practical tips from a writer who had to learn it all "heuristically" by doing it... I'll keep you posted.