Connective Threads

Many authors, when requested to add interior monologues for a major character, tend to panic. The person giving the advice makes an innocent suggestion like “Pick up a great novel you like. Study how that author does it.” That’s fine until you actually start reading. Then you realize that the reason you like the novel is because the character can ramble on about their private thoughts for pages at a time. How in the world are you supposed to do that?

Luckily, the goal of achieving penetration into a main character can be accomplished on a number of levels. One technique is simple to insert and surprisingly effective. It is the memory of a previous incident inside the book. For illustrative purposes let’s say: Lenny sees a black-and-blue mark on the back of Nathalie’s arm. He asks her about it and she finally admits her husband, Arthur, is sometimes too rough with her. The first thought inserted into Lenny’s head might be: That’s terrible. Arthur must be a cruel man. This immediate reaction then becomes the foundation of later remembered thoughts. 

In order for the method to work, the first memory needs to be separated from the next memory by a span of pages. One good follow-up place is at the beginning of the next chapter. Lenny is driving with Nathalie, and he glances over surreptitiously to check if he can still see the bruise. He remembers when she told him and his initial reaction. Right away you are drawing the reader deeper into the narrative. The reader remembers at the same time Lenny does.

The next bead on this string might occur 20-30 pages later. Lenny meets the husband, maybe during a chance encounter while Nathalie is grocery shopping. No matter what Arthur says, Lenny is thinking: this guy manhandles his wife. As a reader, by now I am wondering if Lenny is going to blow his top, knowing that secret about the guy. I’m involved, because Lenny tells me how he is going to react. Again, further penetration. 

A single memory can cause the reader to anticipate. She is inside Lenny’s head. This entire run of interior thinking stems from a mark on Nathalie’s arm. By continuing to remember it, letting it build each time, you can make it the basis for your protagonist’s ongoing interior reactions.

Exercise: A modification of this technique can be achieved by layering new information on top of the memory. Another 20-30 pages later, Lenny notices that Nathalie is downcast. She admits that because she has been spending so much time with Lenny lately, Arthur flew into a jealous rage. That’s all she says; she’s too ashamed to tell any more. But Lenny, because he remembers, can jump to all sorts of conclusions. He’s ready to confront Arthur. What was inside his head is now ready to play a role in the plot.


Beyond Sociology

In my practice, I have a preliminary phase in which I read a manuscript and then give an author overall comments that form the groundplan for the projected edit. Among the most common of these remarks is advice to add more personal material about the lead character. That’s what publishers (and readers) want: an engaging protagonist. 

What I frequently get back is a series of comments about what socioeconomic forces the character is facing, rather than thoughts and viewpoints coming from within the character. This usually occurs when an author feels his personal experiences cannot inform the inner life of a character. 

Let’s say the heroine is a hard-bitten Detroit detective. Rather than personal experiences within her bleak upbringing, I find descriptions that read like research. I learn more about Detroit in the years leading up to its bankruptcy than I do about Crystal’s sometimes dangerous evening runs home from the corner grocery store.

Many authors do not have harrowing backgrounds. That does not, however, preclude them from imagining what the character that interests them must be like. The secret in creating identity is not magic. It’s the hard work of facing yourself. Anybody can read and copy down research. Yet even diligent researching will only yield a stack of notes. You then have to pick out one person within that milieu and imagine you are him. 

Think about the circumstances. Now insert yourself. Have you ever been on a lonely city street alone, late at night? What did it feel like? Did you find yourself hyper-vigilant? Did you check behind your back every few seconds, just in case? Did you feel prickles dancing on your shoulders? In other words, if you are willing to do the work of identifying with your lead character, you will either remember or you will seek out experiences that can fill him up from the inside. 

Research provides only the surroundings in which action is situated. Your character is not one of hundreds; she is the only one you’re writing about. So she’d better be you, to a very large extent, or the personal details are going to feel distant to the reader. 

Exercise: One large difference between your notes and a book you’re researching may be the examples within the book. Nonfiction books are usually filled with individual examples that illustrate the thematic points. Examine the personal details from those examples. Do the real-life stories give you any good ideas? 


Deadly in Earnest

Bad things happen to the best of us. When enough of them happen to you in real life, you may be motivated to write a novel about them, in order to capture the run of bad luck. The logic behind this impulse is impeccable. We all know that a string of obstacles keeps readers entertained. So far, so good.

As you write down these incidents, filling out the book, you may find yourself adding in occasional embellishments. You decide that the hero needs a sour-tongued older sister, for instance, even though you’re really writing about an older cousin. What really happens to the brother seems, now that you are chronicling it for posterity, not that interesting, so you make up some stuff that makes him sparkle a little more. Yet even these garnishes to the bowl of truth don’t seem like enough. By the time you finish, you may have a nagging sense of unease that the whole affair isn’t as interesting as you thought it was when you started. This doubt is fortified when you start receiving a pile of rejection slips.

What went wrong? You know the story is good: you’ve told it to a number of people and they all were shocked/outraged. Before you start lamenting how unfair life can be, you might want to consider several facts. It helps, for starters, to realize that all novels feature a series of untoward events. Whether they are based on a real story or made up out of thin air doesn’t matter as much as whether the reader can participate vicariously in the incidents. 

Second, “based on a true story” implies a momentous step in the novel-making process. Unless you have the writing chops of Norman Mailer, and an extreme “character” like Gary Gilmour, you need to heighten the drama. That usually means exaggerating the qualities of the main character. He can’t be you. The outrage that you felt at the time will probably not transport readers to the same heights. We all know that lawyers are slimy, that the system of justice in this country can be perverted. Isn’t that what happens in every crime drama we read?

Above all, you need to remember that readers like a main character who is flamboyant, larger than life. The shit hitting the fan only serves to bring out in all their stinking glory the provocative attributes she originally brought into the book. A good character is always trying to outsmart her opponents, or is so disconnected from reality that she does stuff that makes readers want to scream: “Stop! Cease and desist this instant!” In other words, you can have all the right ingredients, but if you don’t think of your character first, you merely have one more story waiting to be told the right way.

Exercise: Identify a true-life character and write down the most interesting incidents that have happened to him. When viewed down on the page, are they that interesting? If not, think of the most outrageous stories you have ever heard. Would any of them work if you slipped the character inside them? Should you change your character so he has more of the moxie shown by the guy in the crazy story?


Stripped Down, Bare Chested

How many times have you read what Character B says about the protagonist and thought, “I didn’t realize that.” You’re accepting her opinion as the truth. In a nutshell, that shows you how powerful connections are. When you use your characters in a way that shines light on others, the reader is the beneficiary. You’ve let us in: we are in the know.

If Malcolm is sullen, for instance, who in the book knows why? Who has been exasperated by it, and what consequences has Malcolm suffered because of it? Already you realize: a parent was likely the starting point—that’s one connection. How has that played out in his romantic involvements—that’s possibly several connections, each different. Regarded by itself, sullen is an unapproachable island. Regarded in terms of connections, Malcolm is being pulled in all sorts of directions—and he may well wish he was less sullen. That is complex, interesting.

An equally important function of connections is creating relationships with staying power during the course of the book. Too often I ask an author to address sullenness, and he responds with a quarter-page back story about an abusive mother. I can almost see the author as he finishes: with a smile, smacking his hands—job done. 

Yet a connection means that the abusive mother would participate in the novel: calling the hero about some persistent issue, getting in his way when he has important stuff to do, disrupting his sullen contemplation, and best of all, forcing the author to reveal how the hero relates to his mother. 

Now we’re getting somewhere. How do you talk to your mother? What secrets does she know that reveal how you tick? What are the most salient memories you have of her? For what did she praise you? About what did she complain bitterly, unceasingly, about you, or maybe your father (and thus you by association, you male lout). 

That connection does not have to be a mother, of course. But you see what I mean. When you are forced to make the hero interact with others, on an ongoing basis, he’s going to reveal scars and warts that make him stand out.

Exercise: Sit back in your chair, close your eyes, and think of the three most important traits your protagonist possesses. Write them down, leaving space below each to fill out. Do you have a supporting character who can help reveal that trait? Could you find 7-10 places during the course of the novel where that trait could be displayed, commented upon by the other character, etc.? 


Practical Character Sketches

If the character who dominates your novel is a cardboard cutout, you are forced to resort to action on every page. Your readers won’t form much emotional connection to him—because the mind we are inhabiting is one-dimensional and we are not. What you end up with is a gang of vigorous children with adult attitudes.

After a first review of a manuscript, I will ask an author with this problem to stop any further writing on the story. Instead I request a 5-10 page character sketch that focuses not on what he does, but who interacts with him. That is the heart of the matter: the connections between characters. 

No person is an island, even though an inexperienced author may write as though this is the case. She has issues with her father, whether he is around or not. You need to think through the different stages of how her feelings toward him evolved. You should be able to capture at least 2-3 significant events that define her growing-up with him. The same goes for her mother.

If the character is a guy, sketch out his partner. What is she (or he) like, and why did he fall in with someone like that? What are the three things she does that really annoy him? Does he have a group of male friends, or does he spend most of his time just with her? What are the 2-3 most significant events in this relationship? I’ll point out, in this instance, that these don’t have to be background stories. They might be placed within the present-day story line. Then they would add to the novel’s mounting tension.

How about a particular sibling? Did she have a profound effect on the heroine as a child? Whether someone is the oldest or second-oldest child can have a profound impact on how she tried to get the attention of her parents—and how she still acts today. Again, try to sketch out 2-3 major events between them. 

What’s happening throughout this process is that you’re touching off sparks from your own past. Angry words that were flung at you by your mother 20 years ago may still smolder in your mind today. An observation by your best friend as to what you’re really like may be a beacon that guides your actions today—even if you haven’t seen him in 10 years. This is how we really act: as social creatures. So, don’t you want to define your characters that way? 

Exercise: Don’t forget to write down striking encounters with strangers. Sometimes in a conversation with someone we have never met, we make profound observations about where we are in our lives or where others are. You didn’t know you were that smart until you confessed to someone you will never meet again.


Find a Friend

The distance between a page of research and a page in your novel can be bridged when you approach the material the right way. That is: from the inside out. If you have two characters that are acting like the statues in their distant town squares, that’s because you haven’t thought through the implications of the information you’re using. 

Let’s say your protagonist visits Nathan Hale the night before he is to be hung, giving the only life he had. You have found out from your research that the two characters went to college together. Yet the story reads like those two inhabit separate planets. Nathan Hale lives in that history book you read, and your protagonist, well, he’s still fuzzy and goggle-eyed, emerging from the shell after you’ve given him life.

During the American Revolution, most people attended college between the ages of 15 and 18. Today’s high school ages, in other words. Nathan Hale was famous for not being able to keep his trap shut. So if your protagonist knew him, you can practice transference. Did you know a guy in high school like that? Could he have been one of your gang in high school? (Note: “she” works just as well.) What stories do you remember about high school that involved that tongue-flapping friend? Write down that story. Could it be retold back in the era when the only pollution we had to worry about was horse dung? Sure, it can. Social progress of the human species, in the sphere where characters live, moves as slow as (sorry) molasses. 

That process of transference works with all sorts of relationships, including your most important ones of all. In this case, you don’t have to worry about being constrained by the real-life models for your characters. Your brother didn’t live 200 years ago. Your mother doesn’t wear one of those fetching bonnets of yore. You’re mining your memory to infuse life in a fictional relationship that exists only as dry bones of research. That’s why you’re having so much trouble making them real friends.

Exercise: Find a character with whom you are dissatisfied. Think to yourself: what role is she playing in the book? What characteristics do you want her to possess? Now start thinking of people you know. Who is the character like? Once you’ve located the model, try to imagine how you (because you’re always the protagonist) relate to that model. What stories do you share? Pretty soon you’ll have a foundation of facts and impressions. Go on and fill ‘er up.


Your Nearest and Dearest

The baring of self causes many authors to shrink back from developing their protagonist fully. That instinctive need to guard against exposure also extends to our nearest and dearest. An author may have a character that is based on his older brother, and yet he dares not set forth identifying details for fear that his sibling will later read the book and condemn him. This fear is not misplaced. I remember more than one discussion with my older brother when he firmly, like a politician, averred that our parents weren’t so damaging to us. I got the hint.

Does that mean you have to wait until your parents are dead and your siblings are so addled they won’t care? I’d like to suggest a way out for the more true-blood members of the writing tribe. What is initially set out as background about a character does not mean that everything the relative did in the past is then recorded in the character’s arc. The character will be carried along in the novel to a place that your sister, for example, would never go. The events of a novel are too exaggerated for that. 

This is where true character penetration takes place. As you are writing a scene, forget about what your sister would say. Your sister would never be out on the limb where you’ve placed that character. For example, in real life the dissolution of a marriage occurs over a period of straitened years. Yet for your purposes, your “sister” in the novel has an affair because of all of the reasons her marriage is falling apart. Her husband’s finding out then causes a crisis. 

Now, your sister never had an affair. It might even be that, in real life, your brother-in-law is the one who cheated. But that doesn’t matter. Your story revolves around the characters you are featuring. If you realize that the sister character needs to have an affair in order for her story to keep developing, then the actual reasons for the breakup are twisted to your purposes. You’re not writing about your sister anymore. She started as your sister, yes, but she has morphed into a character, one who can control her destiny.

Exercise: Review a character that is based on a family member. Are you really capturing what they are like, or is the character fairly bland and unremarkable? Write down in a separate file the features of a sibling, say, that truly stand out. What are the incidents in his life that are most telling? Put in a few of those as back stories. Keep returning to them as you embellish the character. You’ll see the character become more vivid, even if he never did the stuff you’re relating.


Characters Taken from Real Life

Recalling moments from your life will spark some of your most original writing. As in any field, nothing beats hands-on experience for knowing the nuances of how a relationship or a plot event evolved. Yet adhering to real life does not work so well in the larger scheme of a novel. Life has so many nuances that you could write a thousand pages about a single week. 

That means the events of a novel have to be compressed. You need to relate just the interesting stuff. The compressed nature of a novel in turn squeezes its inhabitants into exaggerated creatures. True to life, yes, but within a novel’s inherent distortions of life. 

Trying to write from experience causes a common failing: the writer fails to separate his characters from their real-life models. People you know can be extremely limiting when building a novel. You need the freedom to discover where a character wants to take a plot thread. When the character is your sister, however, she will bend your plot to go in the direction that you know she would demand. That may be fine in some instances, but you can see the problem. The character has placed shackles on your imagination. 

In many cases, an even worse outcome ensues. Your sister, because what she wants is so realistic, makes your novel ordinary. You come back a few days later to a run of dialogue you’ve written and think, “OMG, this is so terrible. Even my sister is more interesting that that!”

You can use both approaches. Before you start the novel, write a character sketch that includes the realistic attributes you want a character to have. But once you start writing, listen to what the character wants. Let your fingers do the walking until you see where the next scene ends up. What frees a good character of his shackles is when he goes where he wants to go—not because that is what the real-life model would do, but because that serves your story best. 

Exercise: Pick a character and track how she is developing in any scene. When she talks, are you thinking of a specific person in your life? If so, dig deeper. What point has the character’s developmental arc reached at that point? What should she be doing for the plot at that point? Immerse yourself in what your fictional situation calls for, and pretty soon you’ll find that she is telling you—like magic—what she wants.


Sympathetic Characters

A standard line in a rejection notice is that the agent or editor didn’t find the lead character compelling enough. That charming piece of boilerplate can be interpreted in many ways. The narrative approach might be too distant with its characters. The protagonist might have too many bouts of internal monologue, clogging up the action. Yet one possible reason stems from the simple fact that they didn’t like the main character. 

Dostoevsky had the right idea: as readers we are more interested in evil than good. From a character standpoint, good is dull. We spend the 800 pages of Brothers Karamazov enjoying Dmitri’s recklessness and Ivan’s coldness, not so much Alexei’s morality. When regarded from a writing standpoint, good leaves a character with no engaging flaws. 

People trying to write a novel are understandably confused by this conundrum. I frequently encounter books in which the hero is the baddest of the bad. The impulse to do this makes sense. Being an outright rebel is distinctive. In terms of a plot arc, someone who starts off bad can then make progress toward becoming good. 

So what’s the problem? In a nutshell, we may not want to spend an entire novel with her. The acts that a heroine commits add up in the reader’s emotional calculus. If we become repulsed enough by too many acts of wickedness, the book goes down on the night table and may never be reopened. 

How do you incorporate both good and evil? The answer lies in another facet of human nature: the hope that things will turn out all right. I’m all for evil, in terms of setting a character apart. That’s the fun part of life (just in novels, mind you). Yet I also want a lead character who has redeeming qualities. Maybe he is abrasive to his parents—but he is kind to a younger sister with ADHD. Your heroine may cast aspersions on her idiotic male work mates—but she looks up to a mentor who is helping her prepare for grad school. 

As readers, we just want someone to root for. If the protagonist already possesses a kernel of goodness, we know that can grow. A character, like a person, isn’t all one way. If a heroine has four defining qualities that are bad, make sure the fifth one is good.

Exercise: Early on in a novel is the best place to plant seeds of hope, and because of that, a two-step strategy can be effective. Start by inserting a short back story that displays the character’s goodness. Even if that encounter soured the character supposedly forever, the reader’s moral faculties are already whirring. Hey, that was a nice thing to do. If you then follow up with a glimmer of that same impulse in the ongoing story, you’ve cemented an article of faith.



Some novelists scorn the use of notes. They want the writing process to be organic. As more pages are written, the vague whorl of a book inside the writer’s mind takes better shape. A protagonist gains his stride. A plot starts to follow a logical sequence. Pretty soon, as the toy maker Geppetto declared of Pinocchio, the author exclaims: “It’s a real boy!” 

While I advocate working organically, I also believe in being economical. Writing a novel can be likened to exploring a medieval city, with many crooked blind alleys that, while interesting along the way, lead to nowhere. For my first novel, I wrote 200 pages before I finally realized who my main character was—and then had to start all over again at the beginning. Do you really have that much time to spare?

You can work from notes and still be organic. Good notes help a character gain definition right away. I have read debut novels in which I vaguely sense where the main character is coming from—but she doesn’t have enough unique qualities to stand out. The author has not put her idiosyncrasies on the page—because she hasn’t stopped to think what they are. You can do this deliberately. 

Write a character sketch that is focused entirely on finding out her little tics. You want to stay away from generalities. Focus on specific attributes. She can’t help stealing little things while shopping, for example. A pack of gum, a cellphone car jack, etc. Not worth much, but she loves that thrill of having it in her pocket as she goes through the checkout line. How long has she been doing this? What was it like the first time? Has she ever been caught? 

You can go deeper than that too. Did she have a special talent early on that her mother suppressed because it was antisocial? All of these questions have specific answers. When you consider this aspect of your heroine before the book starts, your notes will ensure that it frames your writing about her.

Exercise: You can also use these notes as a way to reject what at first seems like a promising idea. Perhaps you decide that your protagonist eats Cheerios for breakfast. He’s done that since childhood, indicating a conservative bent that marks his overall personality. That’s not a bad idea, but then ask yourself: is that really the best way to indicate his conservatism? If you, for instance, had him insist on paying the check when eating out, then you might be able to write a scene in which his girlfriend yells at him in a restaurant.


Back to the Future

Legends have been spun about authors who write hundreds of pages that don’t end up in the actual book. That sounds like a nice ideal, but really, how much extra time do you have in your day? I’d like to suggest a more targeted approach, based on that page of general notes about Len. 

Let’s take getting thrown down the stairs as a child. You can, of course, write out that scene—a five-page flashback that makes your hair stand up. Yet what will help you know Len better comes from the framing circumstances of that incident. In the first place, why Len? The psychological literature shows that usually only one family member is chosen by an abuser. So why Len? Does he have siblings? What are their ages in respect to him? How does the father’s abuse of him affect their feelings for him? Why does his mother allow it to happen? 

You can see how many questions can be generated simply from that one incident. Now we’ll break it down further. Let’s say that you decided Len is the oldest in a family of three. In your experience, what is an oldest child like? Bossy or introspective? Does what you think about an oldest child align with how your protagonist acts? No? Maybe he acts more like the fourth child lost in a brood of six. What is your own personal experience of feeling passed over by your parents in favor of another child? 

Now, you see, Len is no longer an abstract notion. Feeling passed over by your parents hurts. You could write a page just describing what a pair of selfish jerks they are because they always gave Bobby the biggest Christmas present. Can you focus on one incident like that where you really wanted recognition that never came?

A page of general notes can be multiplied into 20 pages of detailed explorations. Are you wasting valuable time? Not to my way of thinking. Just consider this fact: you will wait months for a literary agent to pick you up and then more months for a publishing house to buy the book. If they turn it down for the hoariest of all rejection letter reasons—“I didn’t fall in love with the character”—you may wish you had spent more time exploring at the start.

Exercise: Focus on one note, such as that staircase incident. Don’t write about the action: the pain of the tailbone, the scraped wrist, the broken arm. You’re trying to go deeper into the psychological scar. What led up to that attack? What happened as a consequence? What turning point in Len’s life occurred that night? Isn’t that why you’re bothering to write about it in the first place?


That First Blush

The genesis of a new story is one of the most refreshing interludes in a career of writing. A new idea comes to you. It concerns a topic that stirs your fancy. You know you could write about it with passion, because certain elements—on the broadest of thematic levels—speak to you. You start writing notes, and the idea seems even stronger once you’ve laid down a few basic parameters. At the end of a writing session, or several, you are beaming inside with happiness. This one, you know, is going to be great. 

Before you go too far, however, let’s consider a practical point. A great idea without a great central character isn’t going to take you too far toward the goal of being published. That’s because a publisher wants a unique product above all. If that sounds crass, welcome to the way trade publishing really works. A publisher is thinking in terms of the copy that fills the back cover. Inside a publishing house, the marketing department plays an important role in whether a book is accepted for publication.

Let’s return to the glorious freshness of the new idea. Ask yourself at a very early stage: what characteristics does my main character possess that are unique? That requires you think through their situation in life. Single? Married? With children and how many? What about the parents, perhaps with problems that still plague the main character during the course of the novel? Do you have any back stories about their upbringing that has an impact on how they act during the course of the novel? Try to see if you can write 10 pages on what this person is doing before the novel starts. Above all, what is distinctive about all this stuff? What sets your character apart from all of the hundreds of other main characters that you’ve loved reading about?

The reason to start thinking this way from the beginning is that the peculiarities of the protagonist can have a strong influence on how you shape the novel. For instance, I can’t imagine Into the Woods by Tana French without the haunting back story about the protagonist losing his two best friends as a child. You too can use the three or four prime ingredients that make your character special as a way to give your novel a flavor that no other novel has. 

Exercise: From form comes action. Once you have decided on several defining characteristics, think about the possible outcomes of such a trait. Then exaggerate those outcomes to the very outer edge of believability. If the character likes to  appease others, because her parents fought constantly when she was a child, think of the absolute worst situation in which his appeasement could place her. See if you can design that sequence so that she has to wallow in that position for as long as possible. 

“Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her all day.”  —Ray Bradbury


Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.