Ensemble Voices

A novel told through a wide assortment of characters allows the author greater scope to explore where the novel’s plot lines take him. Yet invariably I as a reader end up feeling less involved with the proceedings. I just can’t put my emotional stock in so many characters. To clarify, I am discussing a continuous narrative, not broken into Roshomon-like parts wherein each character discusses the same events from different points of view. 

I will point out several basic problems with the ensemble approach. First and foremost, it virtually guarantees that the story will be slighter in impact. How could it not? As a reader, rather than immersing yourself in one point of view, allowing that person to take over your own thought processes, you are jumping from one person’s head to another. I can make that switch with maybe one or two other characters, but even then I’m hoping that the protagonist will govern most of the scenes. Like any reader, I form a loyalty to the person who dominates the proceedings.

Second, an ensemble cast demands strong plotting. If character and plot are regarded as two ends on a balance scale, the more you feed into one, the less will be allotted for the other. If you are using a variety of characters to tell a story, that means that you are paying more attention to plot. The reader won’t delve as deeply into the characters, so the concomitant result is that more plot events are needed to entertain us. 

Third, setting up an ensemble cast will likely confuse readers during the opening segment of the book. We are looking for a story thread to follow, and if we keep on meeting new people, that thread is obscured by all the bustling about. Once a reader feels her emotions are being pulled in too many directions, she may put the book down.

The inherent emotional slightness of a tale told by an ensemble cast needs to be factored into your calculations when devising the initial outline. You need compelling plot events that consume your multiple characters. Further, you should avoid assigning really good material to a character the reader doesn't know well enough to care about. Otherwise, the book may be relegated to the label: busy but not good.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with a single character’s name in your global search window. Find which scenes he inhabits and write down what he does in a list of single-sentence entries. If he governs any scenes early on, the reader is given a signal to regard him as more important. Yet what happens to him later? If he is crowded aside by later developments to other characters, haven’t you left the reader hanging? Why did they spend so much time with that guy if he’s just going to drop out of the book?


Challenged from Without

The first-person observer voice seems like a wonderful choice for many writers first starting off. Writing in the I-voice allows instant access inside the narrator’s mind. The position of observer is a natural one for souls more given to reflection than argument. It seems like an ideal marriage of strengths.

Of the three main narrative voices (also first-person active and omniscient), this one is the most difficult to master. The implication is that the author need only find an interesting story, populated with colorful characters, to observe. The author adds in a heady brew of personal opinions, giving the narrative an individual flavor, and out comes a distinctive goulash.

Along the way, though, the narrator’s comfort in his armchair may become readily apparent. The font of witty opinions, expressing such a pointed view of the world, may be reduced to repetition after a while. Worse, the constant barrage may start to resemble nattering about a world that has become depressingly familiar. The parade of events and characters continues to be entertaining. So why do I feel the onset of ennui?

An impeccable novel, The Door by Hungarian writer Magda Szab√≥, provides an illuminating answer. Briefly, the story features Emerence, a cantankerous old maid, hired by a younger woman writer. The maid rips into the writer’s comfortable bourgeois lifestyle, continually levying pronouncements on what is just. You would think that the relationship of a woman and her maid is not exactly riveting material, but in fact it is the very relationship that makes all the difference.

That’s because the world being observed is relentlessly impinging on the comfort of the observer. The positions of mistress and maid are turned upside down. The observer is outraged, humiliated, baffled by turns. That armchair? The dog has already gnawed off one of its lion feet, and the seat is leaning precariously. There is no question who is driving the tension of the novel: it’s Emerence. Yet the observer remains interesting to the reader because her opinions have become deeply colored by the action.

Even better, the observer continues to not only probe the secrets of Emerence, but to evolve herself. This master-servant clash pits two people, with their panoply of emotions, on a collision course. Of course I want to keep reading. I want to stay inside the lives of these two women as they become inextricably bound. 

Exercise: When you are selecting the characters who will be observed, see if at least one of them can develop an intimate hold over the narrator. The more that character challenges the narrator, the more likely that the witty opinions will achieve a satisfying depth over the course of the book. As in any character arc, familiarity can breed knowledge of the human condition.


I Am Ordinary

Coupled with the need for interesting events in a first-person narration is the never-changing imperative of inhabiting an interesting protagonist. The reason the first-person narrative voice is so hard to do well is because the main character is not you. You can go ahead and tell us about your partners in your office suite, and what time each gets into work in the morning, but you should be prepared for the unsettling reality that your book may grow lonely on Amazon. Nobody cares about ordinary life. That’s why we pick up books, to escape our boring lives.

The same imperatives that govern the other narrative voices go double for the first-person. You need to exaggerate your characters, the situations they find themselves in, their reactions to plot turns. The extreme draws our interest, because we want to put ourselves in circumstances we would never dare navigate in real life.

As the first-person narrator, that means you have to write hyper from the inside out. The casual remark dropped to the reader might very well be deranged. You need to explain how you entered the apartment of a virtual stranger and found yourself smoking weed at eleven o’clock in the morning, as in Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. Your main character may be notable precisely because she never seems to show up at her job. She’s too busy telling you about all the peculiar things that are happening to her. She doesn’t talk about gay people: she meets one dolled up in studs who is beating the crap out of a street preacher.

That’s the type of person you need to inhabit, and that’s hard work. You have to really stretch yourself to fill out, by way of analogy, your Macy’s parade balloon-sized character. Not just an underdog, but Underdog. Go all the way outside yourself. That way you can bring to us a tale that seems so familiar, it’s written in the first-person.

Exercise: Review your manuscript and be honest with yourself. Have you read this sort of material before? Do you find yourself yawning a little at that political commentary because you’ve heard it before on a TV news station? Instead, why don’t you let your character spike up his hair, add some blue? Now, take that guy out for a stroll.


Wandering Astray

Writing in the first-person voice is a seductive prospect for an author. The tone is so immediate, and spilling out the character’s thoughts comes so much more easily. What is less apparent is how hard it is for an inexperienced writer to control that narrative voice. Vibrancy of tone does not ensure a riveting read.

This caution applies especially to the writer who wishes to write organically. When you have only a vague idea of where the story is going, you can go too far afield in the thoughts the character has, at the expense of moving the story forward. The reasoning goes: Unlike a short story, a novel permits the space to expand on what interests the main character. As long as he is delivering insightful commentary on where he is, that’s good enough, right?

Delight in the ease of writing in the first person should be your first warning signal. Writing is hard, laborious, fretful work. A narrative point of view is only a way of telling a story. It does not replace the imperative to tell an interesting story. 

Your character may wander to Israel, say, but that does not mean that her observations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will engross the reader. The power of Julius Caesar’s veni, vidi, vici depends on that third verb: conquer. Caesar came and saw, but he also did something about it. If your protagonist goes to Israel, she’d better get in up to her neck in trouble if you expect the reader to care less about her ruminations about ethnic relations.

An excuse I have heard on this topic reflects further confusion about this type of narration. Oh, but it is the first-person observer voice. I want the narrator to observe and comment. I won’t get into the extreme difficulty of mastering this variation of first-person narration. I’ll only point out that the other characters being observed have to be doing something interesting. And how, in the example above, is an American going to insinuate himself deeply enough into the intrigues of a foreign land to observe much of anything?

Let’s return to the starting point. The protagonist’s thoughts are a vital asset in putting the reader in her shoes. Yet unless you have the writing chops of Alain Robbe-Grillet, you’d better have a plot. You’d better have vivid characters around the protagonist that are causing her a lot of trouble. Sure, the reader wants to be along for the ride, but where are you going? 

Exercise: How can you tell how interesting your first-person narrative is? Take a scene and convert it into the omniscient voice. How does it work when told in the third-person? Forget about the loss of immediacy. Focus on the subject matter. Is what is happening grab you by the lapels, refusing to let go?


Stuck on a Flashpoint

Zeroing in on a significant detail deepens your prose. That principle makes intuitive sense, because a more exact verbal picture is more illustrative than a passing sketch.  Let’s take that idea one step further. How do you apply it in a way that will have the most emotional impact on the reader? Describing the pebbly corrosion on a rusty nail head is all well and good, but the reader isn’t going to be moved by it.

You can try lingering on an important detail. First consider a physical act, since that is closer to a description than a mental state. Let’s say Ted, in trying to find out why his law partner has been acting so strange lately, ends up in a back hallway of a bar. Out of the dark appears Bruno, who wants to warn Ted off by delivering a methodical beat-down.

You could give us a litany of all the dreadful blows Bruno deals out, but that’s not really going to move us. You have to expend so many words on describing actions that we likely know from many other books. Instead, bring the reader in fully by describing one source of excruciating pain. That dominates Ted’s thoughts above all other blows.

Maybe a shot to Ted’s stomach is so painful that he feels like the end of one of his ribs has been pulled out of its capsule. It feels like it is sticking right through his skin. Linger on that. What damage could the end of a bone do to Ted’s body in that region? Maybe he briefly recalls a childhood injury playing football, only this pain is much more agonizing. That gives the reader a reference point by which to gauge how much pain Ted is experiencing. The other punches can be described in passing, but remember, most people experience amnesia during an assault, so past a certain point those blows aren’t registering anyway.

This technique can be expanded beyond physical description. Let’s take the example of a conversation. While two women are exchanging gossip, your lead character, Madeline, can be struck by one thing her friend says. Sally is getting a divorce? As the conversation keeps running—because the friend has the dirt on absolutely everyone—Madeline is stuck on that one revelation. Maybe she just talked to Sally last week, and Sally didn’t say a thing to her about any trouble with Frank. Madeline might recall a picnic in which Sally was so happy with Frank, and the reason Madeline remembers is because that night she had unexpectedly great sex with her own husband. You can take advantage of the fact that Madeline doesn’t care about most of the people being discussed; the names pass in a blur. But you zero in on Sally because that divorce is going to impact Madeline later in the book. By focusing on the one, you can find a way to burrow inside your character.

Exercise: Review a scene that features a lot of information and/or action. What items have the most bearing on the novel as a whole? You can single that out with an eye for setting up events in the story’s future. You can also make up related stories that influence the character’s past. Out of the many emerges the one point you really want to make.


Singular Complaints

A good way to animate your lead characters from the inside is to explore a common mental loop that plays in all our heads.  As long as humankind has been in existence, we have always found things to complain about. So, if you want your characters to be realistic, wouldn’t they complain?

When you think of topics to kvetch about, a faceless behemoth will likely first come to mind: phone, cable, or insurance company. Yet that will hardly help your novel (unless it concerns a hurricane). The way a novel works, one character focuses on how he is affecting or is affected by another character. If you are writing about the human condition, a complaint is most successfully registered against another human being. 

You might start with the sentence: “She is always doing this to me.” If you identify a she, you’re already at the entrance of a rich mine. A mother is a common target of grievances, but it could be a sister, cousin, boss, anyone whose power over your character is strong enough to stir a deep emotional response. If you’re merely providing background information for a character, the target is only incidental in the novel. Yet what if she was one of the major characters? That means a lead character is complaining about someone the reader has gotten to know well. Now we’re all ears: come on, what are the things she does?

That is the next step. What is the reason for grumbling? The choice of topic is also strategic. If your character complains about his father’s preference for talking with perfect strangers rather than members of his family, we’re not only learning something about the father but the son as well. What does he do to capture his father’s attention? Or, has he given up on the problem and just stews about it? 

As in other fields of interior monologue, you can use other characters to focus the character’s mental peregrinations. When you choose a specific person and a specific topic, you can create a train of thought that mirrors how you complain about things. Start with “He drives me crazy,” and then list the reasons why. Pick the source and the subject of the complaint with an eye for what shines the most interesting light on the character complaining. You know how to bitch and moan. You do it every day. So employ it on your character’s behalf.

Exercise: If it helps, think about sitting down with a cocktail after work and complaining to your partner about what has happened that day or about who called today (about possibly an age-old complaint). If you’re really paying attention, turn on Siri when either you or your spouse go off on a rant. The cadence of that transcript may well be inserted into your manuscript.


The Value of Gossip

Writing is serious business. Sitting down at a desk entails a degree of solemnity akin to the grace achieved by monks. Gossip, on the other hand, is frivolous. So isn’t the title of this post a contradiction in terms? 

I’ll start with the example of Homer, the exemplar of oral storytelling. Where did he get all the tales that fill up The Iliad? Particular attention should be paid to the passages where Achilles is sulking in his tent, complaining to Patroclus. Can’t you imagine Homer standing at the tent flap, eavesdropping on that noble warrior?

That’s because gossip has existed since time immemorial. When you consider that people used to live in small villages, with so little access to entertainment, the arguments of a husband and wife next door provided a welcome break from banality. The affairs between secret partners required a special Commandment condemning them. On the flip side, most of us even today try to maintain placid exteriors to avoid prying eyes. A cellphone game is amusing, but come on, click out of that. Tell me what you think is going on with Harriet.

Everyone has dirty linen they want to hide, and as an author you have a duty to bring it out for the reader to view. The inside info on people is something we all enjoy, even guys. Why do you think the salacious discoveries of Alex Rodriguez’s steroid use blazoned headlines for months? Don’t try to tell me that had anything to do with playing baseball. 

Thinking in terms of gossip can be very helpful when you are trying to illuminate the personal side of your characters. What’s the juicy stuff that we, as readers, need to know? Try to think this way at all times: how are you toying with the reader’s desire to hear good gossip? You could make a case that the entire mystery genre is driven by this primal urge. Who was in whose bedroom when—and who was watching?

When this imperative is adopted, it forces an author to ask herself a question: what is so interesting about my main characters that they are worthy of gossip? Nobody passes along dull news. Your protagonist needs to have provocative qualities; she needs problems that a reader can pry her fingers into. Is her background worthy of gossip? That seems like such a strange question. But in fact it goes straight to the heart of the matter. Readers want entertainment, so what dirt do you got? 

Exercise: Review the manuscript for background passages. Are they sounding rather earnest, like the character is St. Joan of Arc about to mount her horse? Instead, ask yourself a simple question. Does the past information you’re providing pass the gossip standard? Would you tell this, behind a raised hand, to your best friend? If not, that character needs more dirt thrown on her. Give her enough so that she can wallow down in the mire with the rest of us. 


We Want Your Opinions

To a large extent, a good heroine has an opinion about everything. Depending on how outrageous they are or how many are unleashed, the character’s opinions may be the main draw of the book, especially in a mystery series. We want to find out what comment Terry is going to make next.

Contrast that with thoughts. You try to insert thoughts for a character who is in earnest pursuit of his goals, and what happens? Yawn. Readers assume, as a given, that a lead character wants to accomplish something during the course of the book. The real question is: are we are going to have fun along the way? If your hero makes swashbuckling remarks as he cleaves a path through his obstacles, we can vicariously enjoy them. If your heroine gives us the low-down on the people she has to deal with, we feel included, like we’re part of her set.

When you add opinions into your mix, a much larger goal can be attained as well. In order for your character to make opinions that are consistent with his personality, you have to think through them first: who is this person? Opinions add up to an attitude, and that is a prism through which your character can view everything that is taking place. So, you’re not just trying to come up with bon mots and witty repartee. You must create that entire attitude.

That only happens, however, when you reach beyond yourself. Think about it: would I want to read about a person who has ordinary opinions? Of course not. I get enough of those at the office. I’m drawn to someone who is larger than life. The opinions she sloughs off are not just scattered along the way. In order to be shocking, you have to inhabit the mind of the person who could come up with a remark like that in the first place. You must become the person making the comments. When the opinions are crackling, you’re in thrall—to the character brave enough to make them.

Exercise: Closely examine any scene you’ve written. Do you find that your character is merely an observer, telling us what other people are doing? The accurate camera lens? Forget that idea. Put a filter on that camera: try to make everything shocking pink, or true blue, or bilious yellow. What does your character have to say about what is happening?


The Power of the Boast

In your ongoing struggle to merge with a point-of-view character, you may want to try a hammer. Its name is: the boast. Why is it so powerful?

We all are delighted when a character in a book makes some outrageous claim about what he will do next. “He was going to fool all of them, every single last one.” Or, better, “I’m going to make their heads spin, just wait and see.” Such a claim can be made to another character or told directly to the reader. 

I should point out that the boast has to be direct in order for it to break through the barrier you’re experiencing. A statement like “He was going to devise a stratagem that would fool all of them” is still commentary by the author about the character. The claim has to come from inside: simple, blunt, irrefutable, even if the reader knows the character is dead wrong.

Narrative work like this accomplishes several important aims. First, readers love to participate in such claims. If Kim announces that she is going to break through the glass ceiling, we’re now curious to see how she will do it. Even more important, a boast puts you as the author on the firing line. You’re not commenting any longer; now you have to carry out the character’s claim. 

A boast can be a way that allows you to draw more exaggerated features for the character. He gains a swagger. He’s that outrageous guy, not the well-meaning pawn you chose originally. That kind of character can kick some ass. You can have fun writing about a character like that.

You can decide to insert a boast once every chapter, for starters. In how many chapters does that character appear? Take that number as your guide: you have to devise that many boasts. What are they going to be? Draw up a list of them, being scandalous every time. Fight the inner voice that says, “I’d never do something like that,” or “Nobody will believe that.” Go on, start writing the scene knowing you’re going to make that boast—and then make your character live up to it. In the process, you’ll have to live up to it too.

Exercise: A boast extends a natural personality trait of a character. When you are drawing up your list, think about what qualities you’d like to exaggerate. What kind of person would say that? Better yet, what would it take for you to say that? You’re not writing about the character any longer. You have to step forward with a run of your own thoughts that supports the boast. So, go on, be somebody else: be the character.


Scattershot Thoughts

Every writer has a rhythm to her prose, a cadence that she follows as the words flow out. Although the general trend over the past century has moved toward greater simplification, authors still employ great variety in sentence structure. Changes occur even with the same writer, such as Alice Munro, whose wonderfully layered prose of 30 years ago has eased into her crisp prose of today—without any loss of her unerring eye for the perfect detail. 

You can use this trend toward simplification to break through the outside-in approach to your characters. You can deliberately break apart your usual prose cadence. Whatever mode you’re comfortable with, you’re going to write not like that.

How do people think? They think in fragments. You may remind yourself: oh, I have to pick up . . . You never get to “the dry-cleaning” because you already know that. Thought left unfinished. You grab your keys and out the door you go. You can take advantage of this incompletion as a way to drive beyond the layer of superficial observations about the action happening at that time. You move beyond descriptions to sentence fragments. 

Here is an example of how you can use fragments to dig deeper and deeper, so that you feel you’re thinking just like the heroine: ‘The end of the last school year, it mattered to her that she break free of him. So she had done it.  Semi-done it, really.  And done it friendly-like. Friendly, so now she could ask this of him.  Get dirt on Don.”

There is nothing fancy about this prose, but we do know exactly what she’s thinking, because the sentence fragments provide comments on what she just thought, and then a comment on the comment. That’s the way we think, constantly refining thoughts until they suit our self-image. 

One terrific side effect of this deliberate practice is that the character’s thoughts will stand out more from the rest of the narrative. We’re following that nice prose cadence until we reach a segment of thoughts. The discontinuity stands out in contrast. A reader can more readily participate, because your character is saying: I’m not smooth and unapproachable. Come on in!

Exercise: Review the manuscript for thoughts of your main character. Pick out those that are an immediate comment on a piece of plot action. Try to break that single sentence into several sentence fragments. Don’t just deliver a pronouncement on the character’s mood. Give us the first burst, then a consideration of that thought, then a further interpretation of that thought, getting it just right.


All the World’s a Stage

I came across a quote the other day that stopped me short: “He was less of an actor than any man I ever saw.” I focused on the word “actor,” struck by how it applies so well to a novel’s characters. The truth is, we all have multiple facets in our makeup that we turn off and on at will. I’m not talking about Sybil and her 16 personalities. This observation applies to the way that we adopt a persona to fit the circumstances. If you’re in a job interview, you’re going to be earnest and likable. If you’re leaving a tedious dinner engagement, you’re going to be cutting and irreverent. Same person but different prompt and different listener.

So why can’t you do that with your characters? You want them to be multilayered. The principal way that Sam, say, operates might be: he’s an enthusiastic extrovert. He likes to champion causes, to mingle with people, to persuade them of his convictions. Yet who is Sam when he is alone on a Sunday morning? How does he cope with the slings and arrows we all endure? 

When you ask yourself those questions, a different dynamic starts to unfold. Sam might have some deep, dark reasons why he is so affable. If you (1) investigate what they might be for your own knowledge and (2) tell the reader a background story or two, now his confident perch could be much more unsteady. He has to fight to be confident. That deep, dark nature could threaten to overthrow the good in him—and then where would the novel be? 

In other words, you create tension within the character, and that makes the reader nervous. We all fear being exposed for the embarrassing things we’ve done. Better yet, the secret things we’re doing right now, the illicit longings that we have, ones even our partner doesn’t know about. The reader can come to worry that the dark side will usurp the confident side. To create a rising character arc, you can show a series of incidents where the dark side is progressively winning. You know how to do that, of course, because you have identified what that other personality is. 

Example: Try an experiment. Go to an airport and watch all of the confident types that strut through the terminal. Better yet, sit down in a food court and watch them while they’re eating and checking out other people. What are they afraid of betraying? When you see a furtive look, jot it down and imagine what the back story behind that look is. Better yet, write down a list of possible reasons and then play out the string on each one. Everyone appears to be so confident—because they’re acting. 


So Serious

Except for those authors wishing to be satiric, characters in a novel pursue their aims purposefully. A writer wants to mount tension in a romantic scene, or aims for discouragement after an untoward plot event. Yet what happens if, while you are reviewing the manuscript, the lead character feels dull? I know that while I’m editing, I can find myself thinking: “This character is so earnest.” 

If you experience that, you need to ask: how you would react in real life? Except in the most dire circumstances, don’t you find yourself thinking, or commenting sotto voce to a friend, some humorous remark that you know is totally inappropriate? You can cry or you can laugh. Life is a beach. A sardonic observation or two will not undercut a serious subject to the extent that it is damaging.

You can consciously employ this attitude while exploring what your main character(s) is thinking. Instead of a dutiful recitation of how verbally abusive your father was when you were sixteen, write the passage from an ironic point of view. Poke fun at your memory. Try to insert a few wry observations, as though you were retelling the story to a close friend. Your friend isn’t going to put up with you taking yourself so seriously. Plus, you want to be entertaining, even if the memory is truly painful. 

So you make light of it. After all, everybody knows that the more grueling an experience is, the better the story it makes later. Why aren’t you doing that when you write? Aren’t you trying to entertain the reader? 

Better yet, use multiple points of view during the telling. We do it all the time. I can’t tell you how often I catch myself thinking: “You’d better not . . .” when the “you” refers to myself. I have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Why can’t you employ that from inside a character’s head? Tell us what you fired back at your father, but then insert a wry comment of how you’d feel if your daughter fired that back at you. 

You see, the problem with earnest is that it’s a barrier between you and your character. You’re trying to depict what George down there on the paper is doing, and that’s serious business. But don’t you think George knows that? Does George sit around all day quoting Kant to himself? Lighten up. And watch your character sparkle with all the contradictory stuff bubbling inside you.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for interior monologues that are at least a paragraph long. Read the material through a first time, not allowing yourself to write anything. Then go back through, looking for places to inject commentary, just the way you would if you were bantering with your best friend. Don’t overdo it; a little goes a long way. Then the next day, see if you feel you’re connecting better with the character.


Where I Shouldn’t Be

Shame can be a compelling way to ensure a reader’s rapt attention. When a character is engaged in activities that provoke embarrassment, or even only potential humiliation, the reader can’t bear to look away from the page. All you need is a situation in which you know the character is being outrageous or combative or prowling about in places he ought not to be.

For example, Andre Dubus III’s novella Listen Carefully features a husband who is trying to understand why his wife of many years would leave him for another man. As part of his off-kilter responses, he wanders through the home they used to share—and that the reader knows is forbidden to him. As a reader you almost want to shout, “Get out of there before she comes home!” But the character is going to do no such thing, because the author knows he has us right where he wants us.

How do you make this premise work? Part of the technique consists in setting up a social situation in which the character can be shamed. That context can be as slight as a teenage girl walking into a party filled with classmates that she knows look down on her, determined to confront a boy who has done her wrong. No matter what the circumstances, you stir interest simply by creating countering forces that make us cringe.

Another key factor in making such a sequence work is the character’s motivation. Why is that girl so determined to tell the boy off? What did he do to her? What type of person is she that she would brave the lions’ den? Does she normally flip people off, or has she been driven to extremes by what he did? You can see from just these possible variables how gripping the scene would be. 

If she regularly chews people out, then the embarrassment factor is lessened. She obviously has a thick skin. If she is shy, on the other hand, and she feels she must make her views known, now we’re starting to feel squeamish. Even better, the power of her motivation is driving not only the character but the entire plot forward. We are carried along by her desire. 

Finally, it is important to rub the reader’s face in the shame. That entails providing minutely observed details and interior monologues that overtake the reader thoroughly. You want to linger as long as possible. Drag it out, don’t let the reader escape. You may well find that the emotional tide you’ve created carries you to a higher plane throughout the rest of the story.

Exercise: Check your manuscript for scenes featuring confrontation. Is your protagonist confident, strident, sure of the rightness of his cause? If so, ask yourself if the circumstances might be altered so that his standing with the other person(s) is more tenuous. Could he be humiliated? Even if he is confident, is it possible to alter the other character’s response in an unexpected fashion that leaves the protagonist humiliated?


All the Little Decisions

One practical step toward character immersion is: slow down. This might be likened to the progress of a turtle (no, not Steinbeck’s). Turtles move slowly, but they have plenty of opportunity to take in all they see.

The first step is: don’t automatically link characters’ thoughts to plot events. That is a major reason you’re not connecting mentally with the character. Instead, you need to imagine the plot event you’re about to write—and then ask yourself: what is my character thinking at each step of the way, second by second? This is difficult because, by and large, the character is doing stuff you’d never do. So how are you going to work up an interior monologue about issues you know nothing about? 

First, focus on little decisions we all make every day. Pick an issue related to a character that is close to Molly. Let’s say her husband has always had an insider track, guy with guy, with her middle son, Phil. They have an instinctive connection that makes Molly feel left out in the cold, even though Phil needs her so much in other ways. If that sort of notion appeals to you, you can write out Molly’s gripes and/or acceptance in a paragraph. What do Phil and his father talk about? Why does Phil need her? That might lead to her thoughts on their other children, or with her brother- and/or sister-in-law. If they are models for characters in your book, Molly’s thoughts would serve at the very least as a good opening description of them. 

By writing about what you know, you’re wedding the mental loops you think about every day to your story. Your training to capture the neurotic chain of stuff you know very well can, in time, lead to spinning out thoughts related to material you don’t know a thing about. That’s because by that time you’re used to writing down what skips around in your mind.

Exercise: As you walk around the house, or shower, or lie awake in bed at night, have a pocket notepad or phone handy to take down a chain of nattering thoughts. You’ll probably only be able to capture the first sentence or two before the wellspring runs dry. But you can save that start for your next writing session. Then see if you can unspool out its natural coil to a paragraph or two.



Live in the Moment

The distance between an author and their lead character(s) is revealed most clearly during scenes containing heightened action. Possible sources of the drama have a wide range, from bullets flying to a family member caught in a lie. No matter what your choice is, an action scene is often a missed opportunity. Told from a distance, it can be a hurried account in which the exciting events seem to fly by. Yep, they happened, but they didn’t grab the reader, because the author didn’t put enough details down on the page where a reader can experience it.

Let’s take an example, featuring a female PI in a graveyard. When the villains show up, they are summarily dispatched: “She swung out from the side of her headstone and felled the boss ape with a double tap to the heart. His partner took aim at her and blew a large chunk of marble from the stone she’d ducked behind again. She rolled to the other side and took him out with two headshots.” 

Now, as a reader, how am I able to participate in that? I have no idea what the woman is feeling as she peeks her head out from behind the gravestone the first time. I don’t sense that she fired her gun twice—don’t guns recoil, for instance? Although I was told previously that the villains shined their pickup’s headlights in her direction, I don’t sense that she sees the villains in silhouette. Plus, what’s her reaction to the chunk of stone flying off the headstone? Doesn’t any of it hit her? And how does she know to appear on the other side of the stone? Do they teach that in PI training camp? In other words, I’m left out of the proceedings because the author is imagining That Person Out There rather than inhabiting her lead character.

When you have heightened action, you want to dwell in it. You want to record every second that passes. I mean that literally. Among all the options, think of what she is hearing—because she can’t look to see very often. She knows she has to fire her gun. How does it feel in her hands? How many clips does she have, and could she take the time to reload? In other words, focus down on the moment. 

In the same fashion, record all those fleeting thoughts of the lead character that bring us inside his head. How did these guys know how to find him in a cemetery? Where did he screw up? Who was he talking to recently? Plus, research fight and flight reactions. Or, step back and think about what such a crisis could reveal to the character about himself. 

That paragraph in the cemetery? I would expand it to 3-4 times its present length. Think about all the details that could have been included. The longer the reader lives within the tension, the more emotional impact it will have. So, take your time once your knives are sharpened.

Exercise: Using all five senses can help in fully creating an action scene. Too much emphasis is usually placed on sight, and that might be considered last. I mentioned sounds before, but smells can also provide telling details. The intimate details of touch and taste, such as dry mouth, can bring the reader right inside the character. Write down a list of four types of sensations other than sight. 


Inward, Not Onward

As the old adage goes, a person’s true character is revealed in a crisis. That’s a boon for a writer, because a novel is a highly compressed period of crises in a character’s life. The plot events are designed to demonstrate the person’s qualities (showing, not telling). All of these statements are uncontroversial matters of fact. Yet you have to ask yourself: are you getting the maximum impact from the crises you devise?

I’ll focus on the most common crisis in fiction, a death. A hole in the novel’s universe is ripped open and it must be repaired. Many beginning writers are industrious about weaving plot threads that spin off that event, trying to create red herrings and the like that keep the game of reading delightful. What they neglect to their peril, however, is how the crisis affects their lead character.

Why do you think so many of the murders in fiction happen to close relatives of the protagonist? The death opens a portal into a hero’s emotions. Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one knows that grief strikes in inexplicable waves of sorrow. The bereft one feels the black hole as an almost tangible entity, the gap of nothingness that will never be filled. He remembers times he shared with the deceased person, how good they were.  

So, before you trundle off on your merry schemes that could just as easily unfold if sorrow didn’t occur, you might want to ask yourself: how am I going to get the reader to identify with my heroine in her time of crisis? After all, identification with a lead character is a huge part of what sells books. You might want to write a few background stories that involve her and the dead person, filtered through the glass of grief-stricken reflection. You might want some spots of deep funk when she really doesn’t want to get out of bed. We are not Energizer bunnies, so why should your protagonist be?

When a lead character is not related to the dearly beloved, how is a crisis constructed for him? Usually what you find is that he has a personal issue of another sort, one that plagues him throughout the novel, such as a terrible past deed. Again, that conundrum opens a window into his feelings. We can crawl through that opening and nestle inside. Rather than a bunny, he is a lumbering bear prone to bouts of melancholy. In other words, just like us. 

Exercise: Take advantage of what you know about times of sorrow in your own life. One reason Tolstoy’s novels are so great is that both of his parents were dead by the time he was nine years old. You too have suffered losses, and you can likely transfer your personal experiences to create character depth.


Answering the Why

As a writer starts a story, objective facts tend to emerge first. A passage can describe how a teenager gets from here to there: say, hurrying from the front door to the family car and out the driveway. While the details may be precise, such as the slate front steps, the facts don’t evoke how the character experiences what he is doing. Instead, you need to focus on the why.

Start by examining what facts are being told. Rather than describing how the teenager walks, opens the car door, etc., focus on the situation. A teenager hurrying to a car is not operating in a void, but within a context of his relationships with other characters. Why is he hurrying—in personal terms? Is he afraid that his mother will appear at the front door and countermand her permission to let him use the car? If so, what does that say about the mother? Is she overly strict? Do his friends always laugh at him because she is so strict? And what about the dad? Why does he allow the mother to browbeat her son? You could, of course, turn the question on its head. What has the teenager done in the past with the car that makes her afraid of his driving it that night?

All of this information can be imparted by using this seemingly trivial scene as a way to show what the character is like. The walking, opening the car door, etc., is flat. The need to get the hell out of the house is involving. 

If the boy is afraid of his mother’s changing moods, you can anchor what type of relationship they have by describing her. Is she wearing a business suit or a housecoat? Is she drinking gin or herbal tea? What about a sentence to describe the father, standing in the background of the mother-son interchange? You can move on, once the young man is settled in the car, to describe his get-up for his night out. Is he wearing an alligator shirt or a badge of Megadeath? What, since appearances are so important to teenagers, does he feel about his clothes? How much has his mother allowed him to get away with?

You are taking objective facts and imbuing them with subjective value. Clothes do make the man, so you can take advantage of that. Transform a pedestrian description of getting from here to there to charge the narrative with interpersonal dynamics. And, by the way, skip all the words describing the here-to-there. You’ve entered a new realm entirely, the one where novelists live.

Exercise: Begin by finding long paragraphs in your manuscript. Those are the ones ripe for converting from outward to inner. Do you see a lot of physical descriptions? Pick out one or two and ask: why is the character doing this? What meaning can I derive from the way the two major characters react to each other in the passage? Can I draw out meaning that has lasted for a long time? Stop for a short paragraph to tell us why they have never gotten along.



As a writer, the question of how to go deeper used to bedevil me. I would try to get into a flow. I would blank out every single thought in my head so that I could concentrate. The string that came out wouldn’t last for long, though, maybe a paragraph, and when I edited the piece later, half of it would come out because the stuff was so ordinary. 

Yet after I began editing, the answer came to me. The problem was that I hadn’t fully inhabited the space that I could have brought to life. If you want to create a thought string, you should compile all of the relevant data that informs that string. Let’s say you’re a teenager on the docks of New York City in 1850 and you see a magnificent clipper ship approaching from the tip of Manhattan. What, pray tell, does a clipper ship look like? Get those facts in hand first. You should know the different parts of the boat, at least as much as that teenager knows. Now let’s consider the time of day. Have you ever watched a yacht on a sparkling summer afternoon? How did that make you feel? How about on a day with gathering storm clouds? Were you worried for the skipper? Did you think he was reckless being out there, especially with that towheaded boy by his side? 

Now let’s go deeper. In that era, what did a clipper ship represent? It was a magnificent boat that traveled to all different ports in the world. What ports would that teenager like to visit? What does she know about those ports, and how does she imagine she would fit in to those places? Does she want to be set free? 

You see, the problem isn’t concentrating as much as you’re not amassing the facts in which to be immersed. You can do that. What got the character started on the train of thought? What could possibly be related to that idea? Write down a list and then connect the pieces. Pretty soon you will become fluent in running off your own wonderful skein.

Exercise: Review your manuscript and look for interesting spots where you could elaborate. Write down your initial impressions of the object. Now dig deeper. Research that object; find out the facts beyond your first impressions. Try to list 10 different facts. Now write down different tangents that could develop from these facts, related to your chosen character. Even if you end up editing it by half, you still have a strong thought skein.


The Example Proves the Rule

This principle is an important aspect of the effort an author must make to concentrate. Picking one example is often the best way to illuminate the spirit of the whole. That’s because a reader can recognize nuances of the individual instance, whereas a reference to a trend can remain too general to grasp. 

Let’s start with a train of thought, one of the most difficult tasks a novelist must accomplish. Consider the sentence: “Irene was so sick of her job.” That statement, in itself, is not bad. We all can identify with that. Yet it’s also undefined, a widely made claim that doesn’t really move us. Does that mean she’s a chronic complainer? That’s a lot different from a woman browbeaten by a boss who “inadvertently” touches her. 

Stop and step down to the next lower level. What is her single biggest problem with her job? Now expand on that idea: who is implicated in that issue? What are the particular circumstances that bring it about? In other words, use the one specific idea as a wedge to open the entire subject. Let your mind go and enumerate all the details that make her sick of that one aspect of her job. Let’s say her commuter bus is frequently crowded by the time it reaches her corner, and she often has to stand. Now I, as the reader, can identify with that. I know how much I’d hate to stand.

This same method of couching general statements around a specific incident applies to character development. Let’s say, to stay with the job motif, you’re writing a novel about Wall Street greed. The hero, Allen, has joined a hedge fund run by Jared. Rather than saying, “Jared was legendary for making brilliant trades,” could you focus on one trade in particular? Take your time to bring the example to life—with Jared’s overconfidence in the outcome, as opposed to Allen’s doubt about how money could possibly be made. Who did Jared talk to just before he made the trade? What has that person gloatingly said to Allen? 

Now you can expand to that string of Jared’s strange triumphs. What, in passing, were the circumstances of those trades? If one person keeps showing up during the process, could Allen wonder if he’s behind the trades? In other words, the example proves the rule because you can define Allen in terms of the characters grouped around that one deal. Even though Wall Street usually bores me, I’m interested because I want to know how Allen fits in that menagerie. 

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye for general statements and change them to specifics. You only want to pick the most illuminating. We don’t need a full run-down on what Casey buys at the grocery store for her family of four. In other words, don’t expand on mundane material. Just pick out the most telling points you want to make. Then group your thoughts around those nuggets.


Dig Down with One

In order to penetrate into the mind of your creation, you need to appoint targets you want to hit. One of the more frequent choices is the relationship of the protagonist to a supporting character. You have friends, right? You know quite a lot about your best friend. You could sit down and write easily about him.

Once you have identified the who, the next question is when to insert such work. One obvious place would be prior to meeting that character the first time. Let’s say Lisa has learned from a third party that Barbara is having a passionate affair. Lisa is cautious by nature, and she wants to warn Barbara about what she’s doing. Now put your best friend in that spot. What do you know about “Barbara” that would make you inclined to believe that she would pursue an affair? What do you know about her husband or partner? What was Barbara like before she got married? When you start writing down all of this information, you can feel the gears clicking. You know this stuff. You have merely appropriated it for your novel—the way writers steal from real life all the time.

A second placement of thoughts is after their meeting. Whatever convictions Lisa reached beforehand, they were likely thwarted by Barbara during their actual talk. People never perform the way you had schemed they would. So how does Lisa react to Barbara’s devious variations from her plan? Consider each point that Barbara so dexterously danced around. What does Lisa feel about that? How does that dancing around match with Barbara’s past history with Lisa? 

Of possible interest is how Barbara’s reactions start Lisa to thinking about her own partner. Does she affirm loyalty, or has a new light been cast on gripes she’s had for a long time but conveniently suppressed? 

This character interaction needs to progress from one stage to another. If Lisa keeps thinking about Barbara in the same way throughout the book, her feelings will start to annoy the reader, because they never move off first base. So for the next interior monologue about Barbara, consider what has happened to both characters since the last time. 

Let’s say Lisa’s boyfriend has pompously announced that he’s not into her anymore, and he leaves. Now that affair Barbara’s having appears in a different light. Will Lisa have to admit that what she told Barbara last time didn’t work out so well for her? By this time you may be able to forget your best friend. You’ve created enough thoughts, spurring enough conversations, that you have merged with your character instead.

Exercise: Whatever issue you decide to explore, break it into two components: past and present. If Tom is about to meet Henry, who has recently returned from bumming around the world, how does Tom gauge that feat in terms of what Henry was like when they were friends? Did Henry always have a footloose side? Now turn to the present: what does Tom fear will be said about himself because he went ahead and sensibly got his MBA?



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.