Sunday, January 30, 2011

It's Your Novel, So Take The Wheel, Already!

I frequently get emails from writers who are completely stuck mid-draft in their novel. Whether it's their first attempt or a third revision, their characters, who don't know why they're there in the first place, stubbornly refuse to budge (some have wandered off) while their plot is off in the corner chasing it's tail. Drama left weeks ago to check out The Real Housewives. And Resolution? Umm. He'll show himself...eventually...right?

Oh, dear.

Writers, you are in control of your novel. You control your character's every motion, you control their motives, their challenges, their successes, their drama. You control the nuances of their subplots. You control your plot and the pace in which it moves. You control the rise in action, the climax and the resolution. You are the driver, here, my dears, so take the wheel. It's yours!

Let's start with your baby, your main character. How many of you really know your main protagonist? Do you like them? A common problem I'm seeing with first time fiction writers is not enough in-depth knowledge and appreciation of their main character. They have a general idea of who he/she is and an idea of where they'll find them at the end of the novel, but that's about it. The details are fuzzy. And some of you have larger than life sub-characters that are stealing the spotlight.

Writers, getting your fiction noticed by an agent and/or editor is DIFFICULT. In order to keep your foot in the door of consideration, your main characters must jump off the page, grab the reader by the collar and get nose to nose. And the only way to build a strong character is to know them. You've got to know what your character loves and loathes. What do they fear? What makes them laugh? How do they dress, speak, walk? What do they desire? What turns them on? What do they eat and how? What about their DNA makes them special, unique? Why will your readers want to spend money and a couple of days with them?

For those of you who have strong sub-characters but find your main kind of a snore, consider why you've placed more attention on your sub's attributes. Why are you more intrigued by him/her? Maybe that's your main character instead? Maybe the story starts with them? What does your gut tell you?

I know of a few writers who got so into their characters, they lived like them for a few days/weeks, as a character actor would (I don't recommend extremes, taking drugs or breaking the law). Others cut out pictures in a magazine or found photos of what they wanted their character to look like and they wrote a detailed character sketch around that image. Others simply outlined all their protag's traits from the physical to the spiritual and everything in between. They left out nothing. I frequently lead my writers through this exercise with very good results. And it's fun!

Will you use all this detail in your novel? Probably not. Only use the details that are important to your character's arc.

Does it take a lot of work? Yep. Will you have to dump your current character if they are just not working out for you? Maybe. There are no short cuts in writing. Cut and paste editing is not good writing. But if you do the work, if you get nose to nose with your characters, you'll know their motivations. You'll know just how they'll move in and out of conflict, climax and find their resolution. And most of all, you'll build a character you're truly proud of.

Knowing your characters on a cellular level BEFORE you begin their (and your) journey is the first step to knowing your novel. We'll focus on plot later this week.

Your Action: If you're stuck with your novel, consider your main character. If you haven't taken the time to outline them, to live a day in their shoes, to "see" them, take the time to do it. Hang out with them. Get to know them. Invest in them. Be them. And, you might want to give the people you live with a heads up before they find you doing who knows what. Again, no extremes, writers.

Here's to the birth of your new characters! Have a fruitful week, writers!



  1. I've used this site that has a "Character Building Workshop", and it's helped me out a lot in understanding and even inventing things along the way about my characters. You take a long questionnaire and then get a psychological profile on them. Pretty neat!


  2. Sounds like a great tool! Thanks for sharing...I'll check it out.


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