- The reluctant hero. They achieve much more than they anticipate and I always sympathise with those who have their lives turned upside down, even fictional lives! Frodo Baggins is a great example of this, Harry Potter another.
- The heroine who is every bit as "worthy" as her male counterpart and frankly is often better. I've never liked female characters who were there to look pretty and scream. I always (and still do) want my heroines (whether I write them or read about them) to do whatever they can to get out of danger, trouble etc or to rectify a problem and to contribute positively. Hermoine Granger springs to mind here. As does Velma from Scooby Doo. As does Elizabeth Bennett.
- The seemingly insignificant character who proves to be the lynchpin eventually. Because they add so much to the story. Because it is nice to be taken by surprise by a character. Because it makes you look back again at what the author has written and you realise the clues were there. This one is particularly valid for crime fiction of course but fairytales also use them widely. After all The Ugly Duckling was widely despised...
- The funny character. Humorous characters cheer up everyone else, including those reading about them!
- The narrator, reliable or otherwise. They contribute significantly to the story and the really good ones put plenty of red herrings in your way. After all you have to make yourself remember you are reading the story from their viewpoint. A great example of a narrator led story is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. Highly recommend it, though there were complaints about how she wrote this. Personally, I think it is a great book.
Do your characters find it easy to make decisions or are they in anguish over them? What kind of decisions are they making and which are the ones "pushing them to the edge"?
One character's decision will lead to the clash that sets the story going as all actions come from that one decision. For example, Frodo decides he will go to the Council of Elrond to decide what to do with the Ring of Power in The Lord of the Rings. That one decision triggers the whole novel. It leads to other decisions - Sam joining Frodo on the quest and so on.
So the decisions your characters make should be pivotal ones and drive the story forward. Your characters will need to face the consequences of their actions or inactions as well.
Getting feedback should be one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself as a writer. (A lot depends on the quality of those giving the feedback but more on this shortly).
I enter various writing competitions (including those run by festivals) and, where there is an opportunity to have feedback, I usually opt for this. It involves an extra fee (to pay for the judge's time). My criteria for whether I go ahead or not depends on who the judge is, and the fee.
I judge if the fee is worth it by, again, who the judge is (I'd expect to pay more for a "name") and most competitions will give you an idea of what you can expect in the way of feedback.
For example, a novel judging competition I would expect to pay a significant fee (in the UK, at least £25), given the amount of time involved in reading and assessing a book. I would also expect a good sized report for that money.
For a short story, I would expect to pay a lot less and would expect to have comments on a sheet of A4, maybe two, depending on the length of the short story.
It pays to keep an eye out on what different competitions and festivals charge here so you can get a gauge for what's going on "in the market". If in any doubt about a competition, check it out with a reputable writing body such as, in the UK, the Society of Authors. I enter competitions I know about through publications like Writing Magazine, recommendations from fellow authors via FB etc, and those that have a long history (easy to check out on websites etc).
One of the nicest things about writing is when someone reads a story of yours and comes up with a comment proving they really did take in the point of the tale and/or recognised the characters for what they really are (rather than how they try to "portray themselves" to be).
Stories, of all genres and lengths, should make an impact on people, whether it is "just" for entertainment, to get a message across or what have you. I don't see anything wrong in "just" writing to entertain people. Life can be horrible enough at times so writing for entertainment does have a value of its own. (Is it just me here or is this kind of thing looked down on? Would P.G. Wodehouse have been taken more seriously, for example, if he hadn't been a humorous writer?).
So when reviewing your stories, ask yourself what kind of impact are they having on you? Put the stories aside for a while, read them again and ask yourself if they are still having that impact? Could you envisage them having a different impact from what you intended?
Beta readers are brilliant here if you are lucky enough to have people willing to do this. Nobody is ever going to please everybody (and I don't think you should try either, you write what you feel you must write and get it to as high a standard as possible), but if the impact you wanted to make is the one being picked up on by other readers, then you know that story is going to have a real chance out there.
I sometimes find it useful to review my writing and remind myself why I write at all. (It acts as a great encouragement to keep going, which can be useful in itself if you've hit a hard time writing anything. I don't believe in writer's block as such. I do believe though there are days where it is more difficult to write than others and it is simply a case we are human, none of us can write perfect prose all the time etc. Accepting these difficult days happen and they'll go away again is what I've found helps me. I've also found writing anything but my main project at any time also helpful. It is interesting if you get stuck, you usually get stuck on one thing, not everything).
So my reasons for writing then include:-
Following on from my post about The Working Day, I wondered about working methods in fiction. I always outline any short story, novel or even flash fiction piece. (I once outlined a story that took up two paragraphs! In fairness, the outline did clarify my thoughts as the theme meant the story could have gone in several directions - funny, serious etc and I wanted to work out what would be best ). I also have at least three edits per item too.
As for character working methods, I always start with the main trait and then worry about the physical appearance of my "people". I need to know what makes my characters tick before I can visualise them and fill in the remaining details. The main trait leads to what drives my characters and shows up, for me, more clearly than anything else what kind of people they are.
As for inside the world of your story, what working methods do your people use? Is it all manual labour, magic, machinery or any combination of these? Who are the employers and what are the jobs? Where magic is used, are there any limitations on this (to prevent exploitation, say)?
What is the average working day for the characters in your stories? What work do they do? Is the working day the same for those of a particular group of employees or are there inequalities here? Those with connections can get their hours reduced with no loss of pay and so on. Does anyone challenge this (and what are the consequences)?
How do your characters organise their working day? My Fairy Queen character starts the day with paperwork and ends it with paperwork and has set routines for visiting her realm, meeting her Council and so on in between those "bookends". Eileen, my rebellious fairy godmother, when still in the Fairy Kingdom created her own roster of jobs, though if a dragon or other foul creature (foul, that is, from the point of view of those unfortunate villagers it was terrorizing) turned up, all work would drop and Eileen would deal with the beast in question.
How is work in itself seen in your fictional world? Does it drive the economy (or is that dealt with by other means)? Could your world be one where manual work was cherished and machines and/or magic hated and despised (for making work "too easy" or for taking jobs away)?
And, finally, just what do your characters do to earn income so they can meet their own needs?
Rejection is something all writers can expect and what I found helped me in dealing with it (and still does) is realising the rejection is never personal. There are all sorts of reasons for turning a story down, some of which are:-
Along with most writers, I have lots of writing books on my shelves. Some of the most useful I’ve read include:-
Scrivener for Dummies by Gwen Hernandez. Backs up Scrivener’s online tutorials and is specifically aimed for writers to get the most out of the program. I’ve found this invaluable.
On Writing by Stephen King. This is unusual in that it is an autobiography as well as a writing tips book but it is brilliant on both counts. Often refer back to it.
How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark. Hilarious inversion of the way how-to-write books are usually written but full of sound advice. Brilliant.
Wannabe a Writer? and Wannabe a Writer We’ve Heard of? By Jane Wenham-Jones. Down to earth, funny and full of practical tips. Easy to read and again books you will refer back to as and when you need them. I can’t say that for every how-to-write book I’ve read.
What I’m looking for in this kind of book is down to earth advice which helps me move on with my writing. And all of these do that. Would welcome further suggestions in the comments box. One of the great things about writing is you never stop learning to improve (well you shouldn’t stop learning anyway) as it does not matter how brilliant your prose is at any one time, the challenge is to always go on and do better.
Missing information will lead to your characters making misjudgements and so on but, of course, this often is a deliberate ploy on the part of your character's opponents. What matters is that the missing information really does have to be crucial (and not easily looked up separately by your character to get themselves out of trouble). Why are the opponents willing your character to fail? Motivation is everything for a character and it does have to be strong enough to convince your reader.
What does your character do when he/she realises they're missing crucial information to help them reach their goal or what have you? Do they panic or keep calm? How do they try to get the missing data? What can they do to fight back against their opponents? Does anyone else try to slip them the information they need?
Some good potential stories here!
How do your characters react and relate to one another? In life, we alll get on well with some people, others we have less time for (there doesn't have to be a specific reason why) and still others we loathe. (There usually is a specific reason why there!). So your characters should reflect this and all kinds of emotional attitude in between.
Have your characters been brought up to hate others (think Romeo and Juliet here)? Do they accept this or query it? What happens to those who don't toe the line? How would prejudices against a group change when your character has experience of being with that group and discovers all is not as he/she had been informed? One of my favourite things from The Lord of the Rings is the way the elf, Legolas, and the dwarf, Gimli, learn to actually like each other from being totally prejudiced against each other (the elf and dwarf hostilities go back a very long way in fiction) at the start.
Do you have characters who find it difficult to relate to others? Are they psychopatic or just selfish or just not used to having to get along with others? Do they change and, especially if not, how to the other characters handle them?
What do I mean by character spotting? Firstly it is literally spotting those characters who will be strong enough to carry the story. Secondly it is spotting those attributes the characters will need to be able to carry that story. So what would I look for that would make me think this character is going to be good enough?
The title is one of my late mum's favourite phrases and the virtues of persistence and not giving up are invaluable for any writer.
Not only do we need to keep on keeping on (it is the way to cope with rejection after rejection), so do our characters. So what really motivates them? What brings out the best in them? What will make them persist when everything seems to be against them?
What is the trigger point that makes them realise they are on a pathway which they will need to follow? And when they realise everything will have to change (as Frodo in Lord of the Rings realised), how do they handle that?
From a writer's viewpoint, keep on keeping on is vital. You learn by your mistakes and rejections. So must yoru characters.
There have been reports and essays written on this topic so how can I focus on it for a mere blog post? Simply by looking at it from the viewpoint of your characters.
In your stories, do your characters read? If so, are they just reading things like old legends, myths, maps and other documents that will help them complete their task? Or do they read for pleasure too? And what would the fiction in their world be about? Would they have things like crime novels, say, or would it all be epic sagas featuring the renowned ancestors of their world?
What would non-fiction cover? The history of their world, geography etc? Would say people living in one part of your world be encouraged to read about other parts of that world or do they just stick to reading what is favoured by their culture?
It is true you can tell a lot about a society by its attitude to literature, especially if it is the type to ban books that don't meet with its approval! So what is your society like here? Do your characters fit in with it or are they keen to read books they're not meant to?
Following on from yesterday's post where I talk about graphic novels being a way into literature for the more reluctant reader, my theme tonight looks at reading again.
How literate is your fictional world? What is done to encourage the reluctant reader or is reading something that is reserved for the political classes and "peasants" aren't allowed to read at all because it might give them ideas? (Reading almost certainly does give ideas! Ideas for other stories for one thing!).
Are there libraries and, if so, can anyone access them? How easy would it be for your main character to get to a library to say access important, ancient documents to help them in their quest? Do your characters read to relax or research or both? If a book they need is banned, how do they get around that ban to access the volume?
Is reading encouraged in the villages and small towns of your fictional world or is it viewed with suspicion? (Character X is getting above their station with all their book ideas etc etc). The better a picture you can give of your fictional world, the more real it will seem to your reader and the longer lasting the impression it will have. Details like these points can help make that world seem more real.
Tonight's Chandler's Ford Today post is Introducing Guy Stauber - Marvel at Sir Bevis Comic. This is another in my Road to Agincourt Project series as Sir Bevis of Hampton (Southampton's "mascot" figure) was a medieval character whose adventures and tales of derring do were told on tapestries. Henry V was known to have read Sir Bevis's stories this way, hence the link with Agincourt.
A very modern project, Blood and Valour, written by Matt Beames and illustrated by Marcus Pullen has pulled off a wonderful coup in that Guy Stauber, who has worked with Marvel, Disney and DC Comics, is also illustrating cover and other art work for this project. A must check it out for fans of graphic novels, adventure tales and historical fiction, I would have thought.
I was only too glad to put the word out about this project as I am a huge fan of any form of literature that would encourage reluctant readers especially. I think graphic novels and comic books have a huge role to play here and to be able to combine entertainment with history is a fantastic thing to do. And the stories of Sir Bevis are pretty fantastic in themselves!
I can't draw for the proverbial toffee (the UK has such strange sayings!) but admire those who can. But of course all writers will seek to "draw" pictures with our prose and/or poetry. So when we write, are the images we are conjuring up in our readers strong enough to carry them through to the end of the story? That is the writer's challenge, each and every time. That is the fun of writing too!
I think it's true for all of us that we don't really know what we're made of until we face a crisis of some sort. The same goes for our characters. Indeed if I really want to test out a character before I write about them more fully, I will think of situations where I could drop them right in it and work out what their immediate reaction is likely to be. If it is the kind of reaction I like, I go ahead with that character.
Asking yourself how your characters would react/what would they do or say when push comes to shove is something I would highly recommend. It's a good test for yourself as to how well you do know your characters (or not as the case might be!).
My favourite example of an honourable character under duress is probably Sam from Lord of the Rings. He has everything thrown at him and yet is still the basic and decent guy he was at the start of the story. I love his absolute loyalty to Frodo. And that loyalty is tested.
So do your characters pass the test of being strong enough to be in your story? Ultimately I think that is the question you should be able to answer positively for all your characters. (Even weak characters can have a useful role to play but have got to add to the story in some way). All characters do have to justify their existence.
Grumpy was, of course, a great character himself in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves but here I'm looking at reasons why your characters (or at least some of them) might have cause to be on the cantankerous side.
Good journalists are renowned for asking the awkward questions, the ones that make politicians and the like squirm, and long may they continue to do so. As writers, we should ask awkward questions but of ourselves. My suggestions would include:-
It is vital, of course, a reader can spot the difference between your characters, especially when you have periods of dialogue in the story.
You don't want to put Character A said, Character B replied all the time as it will be clunky and slow your pace down. You should do this at the start of the dialogue and, if it is a lengthy conversation, perhaps one other time during it, but there are other ways you can help your readers tell who is speaking. These include:-
What anniversaries do your characters celebrate? As well as the obvious personal ones, which events would their world want them to commemorate? (What happens to those who refuse to do so?). How are anniversaries celebrated? Are there particular rites that must be observed and how did these come to be accepted as "what we do"?
Are there anniversaries that are suppressed because they are politically/socially/religiously "inconvenient"? Do those who want to commemorate these go underground to do so (literally maybe?) or are they watched by the authorities to make sure they can't do that?
If an anniversary is important to Character A but not to Character B, how does that affect the relationship between them? Where there are state approved anniversaries, who carries out the celebrations officially?
Lots of story ideas there!
I'm Allison Symes and write fairytales with bite, especially novels and short stories.