Sep 27 2011

Genre and market categories

As I research agents, I’ve encountered a lot of terminology that is obscure at best: upmarket, mainstream, literary vs. commercial, character-driven vs. plot-driven, high fantasy, steampunk, etc. One agent says she is looking for “upmarket contemporary mainstream” and the “next crossover novel,” while another agent says she does not accept “cross-genre.” What’s the difference between crossover and cross-genre? Can you shed some light on these terms? Chris Karim, New York

A work of fiction can be described and categorized by different sets of terminology. There are genres, sub-genres, market audience definitions, and style or setting descriptions. Sometimes the same term can be used in different ways. Often a style and market term may be added to the genre category to more narrowly define a work.

So yeah, this can be confusing.

Genre includes the standard categories such as science-fiction, fantasy, romance, historical, young adult, horror, thriller/suspense, crime, mystery, erotica, women’s fiction, commercial, and literary. Then there are sub-genres within genres, e.g., sci-fi space opera, paranormal romance, high fantasy, and chick-lit. Steampunk is a sub-genre that combines historical, sci-fi, and fantasy in unique, anachronistic ways, such as a story set in the Victorian age with high-tech gadgets powered by steam engines.

For a more detailed list and description of genres, go here.

The difference between commercial and literary fiction is a longstanding debate, and I’ll save that discussion for another day. In a very broad-brush stereotype, literary fiction may be more focused on the quality and the art of the writing itself. Literary fiction is often more character-driven, while commercial fiction is usually more plot-driven. And yes, there are thousands of exceptions to any attempt to delineate the two. I’ll also tackle the character- vs. plot-driven story in the later post on literary vs. commercial.

As a genre, commercial fiction (sometimes called general or mainstream) might have a wide appeal and sell to a larger audience, and it doesn’t fall into one of the more narrowly defined genres which appeal to a specific group of readers with a particular interest. Think Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) for commercial fiction, although Da Vinci could also be categorized in the thriller/suspense genre. So ‘commercial’ might be the genre description, or it can be used to describe a different genre book that appeals to a wider audience.

Beyond categorizing a book by genre, there are market categories and descriptions. This is where the term ‘upmarket’ has come into play in recent years.

From an audience perspective, upmarket means fiction that will appeal to readers who are educated, highly read, and prefer books with substantive quality writing and stronger stories/themes. Upmarket describes commercial fiction that bumps up against literary fiction, or literary fiction that holds a wider appeal, or a work straddles the two genres.

Upmarket fiction has been described as literary appeal with commercial potential. For examples of upmarket fiction, think John Irving, Jodi Picoult, Amy Tan, Sarah Gruen, Arthur Golden, and Ian McEwan.

Mass market (as opposed to upmarket) usually means those small paperbacks lining the shelves in the grocery store. These might be crime, thriller, romance, detective, or general fiction, but these are the books some readers devour at a rate of one or more a week, or buy a stack to take to the beach on vacation.

Other market categories include Christian, ethnic or multi-cultural, and LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender).

So you can now categorize your book by genre, by sub-genre, and by market audience. On top of that, you can describe it in more detail by the time and place setting.

Contemporary fiction means the story is set in today’s real world, as opposed to historical fiction (e.g., set in England during the Victorian era or in the American Civil War), or the fictional worlds of sci-fi and fantasy (Starship Enterprise or Middle Earth).

‘Crossover’ means a book that, while neatly labeled with one genre or market category (such as women’s fiction), also appeals to other readers (such as men). Or middle-grade/YA (such as Harry Potter) that appeals to adults as well as teens/kids.

‘Cross-genre’ is completely different from crossover. Cross-genre books are a mix of two or more specific genres. When a particular cross-genre gains popularity and has enough books written in that category, it might become its own sub-genre. A romance novel set in the Victorian era falls in the sub-genre/cross-genre of historical romance. A vampire novel aimed at teens might be labeled YA paranormal fantasy, which might be considered a cross-genre, or a sub-genre (paranormal fantasy) aimed at the YA market, or its own sub-genre.

A cross-genre novel can be a difficult sale because, instead of appealing to the two separate audiences, it might disappoint both sets of readers. A sci-fi/romance novel, for example, might not be sci-fi enough for hard-core fans, while the sci-fi aspects turn off romance readers.

The Twilight series is a good example of several of these genre and market descriptions. It’s cross-genre (YA/paranormal fantasy/romance). Its tremendous commercial success is due to the great crossover appeal to adults, primarily women. It would also be described as contemporary because it’s set in today’s real world (other than things like vampires and werewolves, which are the paranormal fantasy part of its genre mix). It probably wouldn’t be described as ‘upmarket’ because it wasn’t written with that intention, and it wasn’t necessarily aimed at an upmarket readership group, even though it appealed to many upmarket readers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe Twilight as literary, but I do know some literary writers who became engrossed in the story even if they groused and quibbled over the quality of the writing.

So Twilight – a YA contemporary paranormal fantasy cross-genre crossover commercial blockbuster success – is the pinnacle of good things that can happen with cross-genre and crossover novels. It appealed to huge audiences – teens, adult women, paranormal fantasy fans, romance readers, etc. That perfect confluence of appeal to various market segments is what causes books like Twilight and Harry Potter to take off into stratospheric sales.

Many more writers have tried blending genres and markets, and wound up with no agent, no publishing contract, or very low sales. Perhaps the story wasn’t strong enough, or the writing wasn’t good enough, or no one knew quite how to market it. Maybe the mishmash of genres appealed to no one. So be careful of trying to straddle or combine genres, and make sure it will appeal to a combined audience rather than alienate both sets of potential readers. Mainly, be sure you have a compelling story, engaging characters, and quality writing.

So what does any of this mean to writers? Everything or nothing at all.

Do you write the book you want to write, the story inside you that has to come out, and deal with the marketing and categorization and ‘shelf-spot’ later? Do you let your agent or someone else deal with that messy stuff? Do you write in a specific genre with a specific target audience in mind? Do you want to expand your potential audience to readers who don’t normally read that genre? Do you intentionally set out to create a story that will appeal to specific market segments so you know how to pitch the novel to agents, editors, publishers, and publicists?

Maybe you’ve decided to write a Christian YA contemporary literary high fantasy detective paranormal romance with crossover appeal to upmarket multi-cultural women and MG boys who love steampunk. Let me know how that works out for you.


Sep 12 2011

Creating complex fiction

I’m wondering if you can give some tips for creating more complex stories? I tend to gravitate toward writing stories with only a handful of characters, with only one or two subplots (the most I’ve done is seven primary characters, only one of whom is a POV character, and three minor subplots). This is fine, and I’m confident in my abilities to write these types of stories, but I’d love to try writing something…grander…than that. I’m just not really sure where to start or what to keep in mind. Any tips or suggestions would be great! Thanks! – Cameron Chapman, Vermont

Great question. One option is to write two completely different novels, print out the manuscripts, then shuffle the pages together like a deck of cards. Voila! Complexity.

Okay, probably not.

First, I’ll point out that there’s a difference between making a story more complex and just making a plot more complicated. Complicated isn’t always good. But if you want to go for more complicated, just keep adding new plot points and sub-plots and characters. Just don’t make it so complicated no one wants to read it. But that’s not what you asked.

There are more ways to develop or structure a more complex novel than any single blog post can address. So I invite any other writers out there to jump in with comments and share your experiences and knowledge.  The group here will be a lot smarter than any individual (like me).

And that segues nicely to one method to structure a more complex novel: ‘The Group.’

Instead of a single protagonist, or several individual protagonists, what if the protagonist is a group of people? Yes, the group is made up of several individuals, but there is a collective ‘group’ as an organism, person, or character as well. Think of the Lawrence Kasdan movie, ‘The Big Chill,’ as one example. There are seven primary characters. These adults, all thirty-something years old, were college classmates together some years before, and now they are gathered in a reunion of sorts because the eighth person in their group has committed suicide. They’ve gathered from around the country to attend his funeral and spend a weekend together. The interconnecting relationships, the memories, the shared grief and guilt over their friend’s death, and the emotions of coming together again after years of going in their own directions creates a tremendously complex plot.

Each individual in the group has his or her own story, his or her own conflicts. But the protagonist isn’t any of the individuals or all of the individuals, but the group as a whole and how the group comes to terms with grief and guilt, not just over their friend’s death, but all of life’s disappointments.

Rebecca Wells’ novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is another example of ‘the group.’ Lord of the Flies by William Golding comes to mind as well.

Another option to make a story more complex is to structure it in two different timeframes – current and past (or recent and more distant past). Back to ‘The Big Chill’ as an example, while there is some reminiscing going on about times past, the entire movie takes place over the course of one weekend. There are no flashbacks. There aren’t two different timeframes.

The novel, The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue, has a single protagonist and narrator, Razi Nolan. The story, however, takes place across two timeframes. Razi is a young woman in 1920s New Orleans. She falls in love, and also has a dream of becoming a doctor – not an easy task or accepted profession for a woman in the early 20th century. Tragically, she dies at an early age. But the story doesn’t end there, of course. She remains ‘between’ this world and the next as a ghost. In today’s world, she hangs out in this old New Orleans house where a young married couple has moved in. Amy and Scott have their own set of relationship problems, and Razi involves her ghost-self in their lives to try to help them achieve the lasting love she was never able to enjoy.

But the story doesn’t start at the beginning in the 1920s, proceed to Razi’s death, then start up again 80 years later with the next plot development. That wouldn’t be complex. The story slips back and forth in time, drawing connections between the young Razi and the modern day Amy as the two story lines and the characters are intertwined with each other, until the resolution reveals an even deeper bond between the two women.

So not only is the story more complex with two timeframes, the overlapping structure of how it is told is also deeper and richer.

To tell a story from two timeframes doesn’t have to involve a ghost, of course. It might be the story of one character as a child or young adult and that same character years later. It might be intergenerational – the story of a man in World War II and his great-grandson in Afghanistan, their families back home, the letters they wrote, and a secret they share.

This is different from an epic novel that may cover several generations over the course of hundreds of years, but starts at the beginning and moves forward in time.

A writer can also go for the ‘grand scale’ novel. My favorite example of this – and one of my favorite novels of all time – is John Irving’s The World According to Garp. It’s a story that covers the entire life of the main character, Garp. It even starts before his birth and tells all the back story of his mother and how Garp came to be born (and named). But it’s more than just a novel about one man’s life from beginning to end. Everything about Garp is larger than life – starting with his mother and his birth. It stretches, but doesn’t break, credibility. It is perfectly grounded in reality, yet everything he does and all the rich characters that come in and out of his life are just slightly bigger, and odder, than reality. It’s much bigger than writing a standard, non-complex novel about one character’s life from beginning to end. Most lives, even of fictional characters, just aren’t interesting enough for 80 years or so to hold a reader’s attention from start to finish. But if that character is Garp, his life holds your attention throughout the novel, and plot threads that start in his childhood wind up in full bloom (for good or bad) later in life.

The character of Garp is a writer, and layered throughout the novel are the stories and novels Garp writes, drawing on the experiences of his ‘real’ life.

Beyond the grand scale of the story, a writer can also go for the grand scale of the story’s theme – a deeper, more complex theme. More complex than boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy kills girl’s parents. Go for the deeper motivations. Not just the conflicts between right and wrong, but between one right and another right, or between two wrongs, such as when a moral person is forced into a situation where she must choose the lesser of two evils knowing whichever she chooses, it will hurt someone she loves. Explore that conflict in depth. How does it affect the character, and how does it affect the rest of the story?

Are there at least two levels to your story? There’s the story level – the plot development, conflict, resolution. And there’s the character level – inner development, inner conflict, and resolution. Just as you may have sub-plots and plot twists, you might also add sub-character conflicts and dilemmas.

In the novel I’ve just finished, ‘Hannah’s Voice,’ I tried to go for something a bit more complex in structure. I’m not claiming I’ve succeeded, but that was my goal. The initial idea was for the main character, who starts the story at age 6, to become mute. After some initial inciting events in the early chapters, she stops talking. What made that more complex to write was that it’s in first person. That’s right, a first-person narrator who doesn’t talk. I had to stop and think about every single scene and how to present it, how to convey the story through her voice when she doesn’t speak, and how she will interact with other characters. On top of that, I had to keep it in the voice of a 6-year-old for the first 100 pages or so before the story skips ahead in time.

I also went for the grand scale, as her silence is misinterpreted by various groups and factions. From a child whose silence tears apart a small, southern U.S. town, she grows into a college student whose silence rips an entire nation apart. We’ll see if I’ve been able to get the words on the page to convey to readers the complexities of the story in my head, but at least that was my goal.

So a few ways to deepen and enrich your fiction:

–          The Group protagonist

–          Two or more timeframes

–          The Grand Scale (of a character’s life or of a plot with higher stakes)

–          The Grand Theme

And that’s only four out of countless ways to add complexity in story, richness in character, and depth in theme to your fiction.

I highly recommend two books that address this topic in much more depth and expertise: Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing by Jessica Page Morrell.

Now, time for everyone else chime in with your advice on what has worked for you as a writer or a reader on how to make a story more complex.


Jul 17 2011

Do you filter your fiction?

I was recently told by an editor that I use too many ‘filters’ in my novel manuscript and I should remove them. What is a filter, and why are they bad? – A question asked by several writers and editing clients of mine.

First, I’ll point out (as I frequently do) that I don’t believe in hard and fast rules that say ‘never do this’ or ‘always do that.’ But there are writing techniques that can help your writing become more engaging to readers.

One of those writing techniques is to eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, the number of filters.

So what is a filter?

The most basic form of a filter is when the writer tells the reader that a characters sees, hears, smells, feels (as in the sense of touch), or tastes something. A related, and slightly more nuanced filter, is when the writer tells the reader that a character notices, realizes, recognizes, or feels (as in an emotion) something.

So what’s wrong with telling readers that a character experiences something through her senses? Isn’t that what good writing is supposed to do? It lets readers know what the character is sensing. It shows the reader the event rather than telling it. It engages the five senses (and emotions) of the reader. It’s one way to use more show than tell, isn’t it?

Yes and no. (How’s that for ambiguous?) Yes, you want the readers to experience the story through the senses of the character. Engaging the five senses plus emotional reactions of the readers helps them engage more closely with the character.

But a filter – or at least an abundance of filters – can have the opposite effect. Filters come between the character and the reader, and instead of showing the experience, the writer tells the reader what the character experiences. The writer tells the reader what the character is sensing rather than letting the reader sense it directly.

If the scene is clearly in the point-of-view of a character, readers don’t need to be told the character sees, hears, or smells something. Show the ‘something,’ and readers will intuitively assume the POV character sees/hears/smells it.

Filters remove the reader from the character’s experience by one step. The important part of the sentence becomes the action of sensing something rather than the thing sensed.

Okay, this will make more sense with some examples.

ORIGINAL: When Joe heard the rattling, shaking sound, he looked down and saw the snake coiled on the path in front of him. He knew it was ready to strike. Joe felt the panic rise in his throat.

This sentence has a several filters in it, some direct, some indirect. ‘Joe heard’ and ‘saw’ are direct filters. ‘Sound,’ ‘he looked,’ and ‘he knew’ are a bit more indirect. ‘Joe felt’ is filtering an emotion rather than one of the physical senses.

In what should be an active and tense scene, the writer steps onto the page to tell the reader that Joe heard something, and describes the sound Joe heard. Then the writer tells readers that Joe looked down and saw something. Next, the writer tells the reader what Joe saw, and continues on to tell the reader what Joe knew. Finally, the writer tells the reader how Joe felt.

Each of these filters, individually, removes the reader from the direct experience by a fraction. Taken together, this live scene has become a narrated scene in which readers are told about the event rather than experience it directly through the POV character.

REVISION: The rattle and shake stopped Joe in his tracks. Coiled in front of him, the snake blocked his path, ready to strike. He stifled the little-girl scream that tried to escape.

Same scene, same sentences, zero filters. It’s more direct. It shows readers the moment at the same time and in the same way that Joe experiences it. Readers hear the rattle, see the snake, sense the danger, and feel the panic as if they are Joe. If the scene is firmly established in Joe’s POV, readers will intuitively know that Joe hears the rattle, sees the snake, and feels a bit panicked.

So, do I need to remove every filter word in my manuscript?

As with most writing techniques, it’s the heavy reliance on a particular usage that creates a noticeable problem. If, in your 100,000-word, 400-page manuscript, you’ve used a dozen filters, or even two dozen, or however many (there’s no formula), and most of your scenes are written without filters, then a few scattered about here and there probably aren’t doing any harm. But are they doing any good? One secret to great writing is that no word is wasted.

As with any writing tip, there are exceptions.

There are times when, due to the nature of the scene, multiple characters interacting, or various other situations, you may need to specify that a character sees or hears something in order for the scene to be clear.

EXAMPLE: Keeping the snake in his peripheral vision, Joe looked at the large boulder beside him, and wondered if he could jump on top of it before the snake lashed out.

In this case, it’s important to make sure readers know that Joe sees the boulder while keeping his eye on the snake. The filters in this example don’t bother me, and more importantly, probably wouldn’t bother a reader.

EXAMPLE: Joe held onto the rough surface of the boulder and peeked around, watching, waiting. He knew the snake was there somewhere. He could feel it.

In this example, I don’t view these as filters. In this case, the ‘senses’ are the important actions. Peeked, watching, knew, feel – all of these words add to the scene, show us what Joe is doing physically and his internal emotions. Note the filter that isn’t there: ‘Joe felt the rough surface of the boulder as he held on.’

Likewise, you may need to state the negative filter when a character does not see or hear something.

EXAMPLE: Joe calmed his breathing, but he couldn’t hear anything over the thumping of his heart.

But I’m writing in first person. Wouldn’t a first-person character say what she sees or hears or feels?

It may be even more important to avoid filters in a first-person story. One of the primary benefits of writing in first person is that it presents the story in a closer perspective and lets readers experience the story from inside the character’s skin and head. Adding filters creates a distance between that first-person character and the reader, and it makes the story more narrated – it’s more ‘told’ to the reader by the narrator rather than experienced by the reader.

Let’s take Joe and the snake and make him a first-person character.

ORIGINAL: When I heard the rattling, shaking sound, I looked down and saw the snake coiled on the path in front of me. I knew it was ready to strike. I felt the panic rise in my throat.

REVISE: The rattle and shake stopped me in my tracks. Coiled in front of me, the snake blocked my path, ready to strike. I stifled the little-girl scream that tried to escape.

If the POV character is clear, if readers are in the POV character’s head, whether first or third person doesn’t matter – filtering the scene creates added distance between the character and the reader.

As always, there’s a wide degree of latitude for personal, subjective taste and writing style. But if you want your readers to experience the scene much more directly, reduce or avoid filters.


Jan 27 2011

Internal vs. external emotion

I know I overdo the smiles and sighing etc. Could you give me an example of showing internal workings rather than expressing something external such as a sigh or blush?Samantha, Australia

There are lots of ways that writers slip into ‘telling’ (external) rather than ‘showing’ (internal), especially when it comes to emotion. There are the obvious phrases such as: Bob was sad.

The writer is stating the fact, telling the reader what emotion Bob is feeling. Usually it is more effective to show Bob’s emotions rather than stating the fact.

Sometimes when a writer wants to show emotion, she will use an external sign of an internal response. Some examples of these external signs include smiles, frowns, sighs, shrugs, blushes, looks (such as stares and glares), and my all-time least favorite, the furrowed brow. I’m not even sure what a furrowed brow looks like or what it means, but I seldom see a manuscript that doesn’t deploy at least two furrowed brows. If I’m editing your work, you can bet I will strike through that phrase or suggest you find a different way to say it. I’ll probably furrow my brow as I hit the delete key.

Bob sighed, furrowed his brow, and began to cry.

This is now describing Bob’s facial expressions, body language, gestures and other external physical responses to illustrate Bob’s sadness. It’s better than saying ‘Bob was sad,’ at least most of the time.

Often this happens when the writer is trying to show rather than tell, but it’s only a halfway step. The writer is ‘telling’ the reader what facial expressions the character is giving, and those facial expressions then ‘show’ the emotion. It’s still a step removed from the readers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, just like there is nothing inherently wrong with ‘telling’ the reader some things. It’s all in when and how something is told or shown that makes the reader engage with the story and character. Sometimes “Bob was sad” is exactly the right sentence. Sometimes “Bob frowned” may be exactly the right sentence. Showing will generally take more words, and maybe it’s not important enough to spend any more than three words on the fact that Bob was sad.

But if Bob’s sadness is an emotional moment in which readers need to empathize with Bob, it’s worth a few more words. Describing facial expressions, sounds or body language alone doesn’t bring the reader into the character’s emotions. Adding physical actions and responses can help show the emotion.

Bob’s hand shook as he stared at the photo of his old friend, and he began to cry.

Better, but it’s still missing something – it’s flat. It describes the physical actions and response. This sentence is part showing and part telling. The writer tells the reader that Bob’s hand shook, that he stared at the photo, and that he started crying, all of which creates a ‘showing’ scene. The reader is seeing the scene, better than “Bob was sad,” but the reader isn’t feeling it first-hand. The reader is seeing the scene from the external, not the internal. 

The photo trembled as Bob remembered his old friend, and the image blurred behind his tears.

Not saying this is Pulitzer Prize stuff, but this last version shows the reader that Bob is sad. It paints a scene in the reader’s mind, and the reader can feel Bob’s reaction – his internal response. The external has almost been completely eliminated. This last version doesn’t tell me if Bob is frowning or sighing. It doesn’t even directly tell me that he is looking at the photo or that his hand is shaking or that he started crying. Those are external actions. Yes, all of those actions are there, but they aren’t ‘told’ or stated as a fact for readers. This version explores the internal response. It puts the reader inside Bob as he holds the photo in his trembling hand, he remembers, and the photo blurs.

If writing in first person, remember the narrator can’t see her own face to describe her smiles, frowns, and furrowed brows. A first-person narrator, like all of us in real life, wouldn’t usually notice when she sighs. You probably don’t stop to think, “I’m smiling now.” But in first person, or in a tight third, the character’s thoughts, feelings, and internal monologue can be used to show emotions much more effectively than describing facial expressions.

Below are a few examples from Samantha’s manuscript draft with the original wording and suggested edits. All suggested edits are merely examples of one way the sentence might be revised. There are many different ways of saying something, and it’s always up to the writer to come up with the best way that fits the writer’s style, voice and story.

ORIGINAL: I shot her daggers and refused to dignify her remark with a response. She knew how important my career was to me.

 REVISE: I refused to dignify her remark with a response. She knew how important my career was to me.

Sometimes the external signs of an emotion can be eliminated completely, as the existing internal thoughts, actions and dialog show the emotion. I deleted the ‘shot her daggers’ phrase (a reference to the character giving a sharp glare). It’s not needed. The rest of this paragraph carries the full weight of the character’s irritation.

ORIGINAL: The security guard looked me up and down. ‘You his mother or something?’

I glanced down at my suit, then back up at the guy. ‘Oh, sod off!’

REVISE: The security guard eyed my business suit. ‘You his mother or something?’

‘Oh, sod off!’

I moved the reference to what she is wearing to the guard’s actions rather than have the character glance down at her clothes. She already knows what she’s wearing. Her words convey her reaction without her reviewing her own attire.

ORIGINAL: I blushed the same way I did every time David quasi flirted with me, then realised how inappropriate it was to be reacting this way with a dead guy just metres away.

REVISE: Every time David quasi-flirted like this, it awakened the giggly, embarrassed 12-year-old who still lived inside me, completely inappropriate with a dead guy metres away.

Eliminates the blush but shows from an internal perspective what she was feeling, perhaps in a way that readers can relate to. It also eliminates the filter that tells readers the character ‘realises’ something rather than just letting the realisation come through naturally.

ORIGINAL: I felt my forehead crease with surprise that the cop appeared to know me, and took a closer look at him. I may have come across him in my work, but nothing stood out.

REVISE: How did this cop know me? I gave him a closer look. Maybe we’d crossed paths before, but nothing stood out.

This revise replaces ‘I felt my forehead crease with surprise’ with the internal thought, ‘How did he know me?’ That shows her surprise from the inside rather than telling readers she was surprised and the character describing the feeling on her face.

ORIGINAL: I sighed, slipped off my heels and trudged into the lounge room.

REVISE: I slipped off my heels and trudged into the lounge room.

A simple elimination of the sigh. Slipping off her heels and ‘trudging’ (a great verb in this sentence) captures her mood. People sigh for a variety of reasons – sad, happy, satisfied, perplexed, fatigued, confused, resigned, etc. Stating that a character sighs doesn’t really say anything without some additional information to show the emotion. And once the additional info is there and the emotion is shown, the sigh becomes unnecessary.

ORIGINAL: I flashed him what I hoped was a beguiling smile.

REVISE: None. This is a very specific action that the character does consciously for a reason. It is her conscious action of flashing a particular type of smile that is the important point of the sentence. There are always exceptions, like this one, where a smile, sigh, or a blush is the important action rather than only serving as an external sign of an internal emotion.

There is nothing wrong with having a character frown or smile or sigh on occasion. The questions to ask yourself each time are: What is the best way to engage the reader in this moment of the story? Am I relying too heavily on external signs of emotion?

Many thanks to Samantha for allowing me to use these examples.


Jan 4 2011

Character development

How do you go about building up a main character, thickening their presence and getting a feel for how they’d react in the situations you drop them into? I noted Jonathon Franzen takes years to get the ‘voice’ of his characters just right. What if you don’t have that long? – Sheila, Australia

There’s a simple, easy, overused, and therefore meaningless answer: Know your character.

Yeah, a bit of cliché. But the truth in this cliché is no one can know your character as well as you do, and readers can’t get to know (or care about) your character unless you know your character as well as you know your spouse, sibling, or best friend.

Peel back the layers

There are four primary layers or dimensions to people (and your character is a ‘people’): physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. These four layers combine to form a living, breathing person who will act and react in certain ways in certain situations at certain times, but are also complex enough to surprise and act outside of expectations.

  1. Physical: This means more than just physical description, but includes mannerisms, gestures, facial expressions, body language. Imagine seeing your character in each scene. How does she stand, act, present herself? Confident, reserved, animated, lighthearted or serious? Use this visual to help readers see your character.
  2. Mental: What is your character thinking in each scene? What is her internal monologue? Use this to help develop your character’s voice.
  3. Emotional: What is your character feeling in each scene? What is her overall emotional state? Is she a stable, rational person? Is she highly strung, swinging from one emotional extreme to another? Is she basically a fearful person (and if so, what is she afraid of)? Is she lonely, afraid to get too close to others? Is she an eternal optimist who always thinks the best of others? Use your scenes to push her emotions to the limits, to force her out of her comfort zone, and to draw readers in to relate more closely to her.
  4. Spiritual:  What are her morals, her principles, her sense of ethics? Does your story put her in situations that challenge her most deeply held beliefs, force her to make tough decisions that create conflict at her very core? Use this layer to create a resonance with readers.

As the writer, you need to know how your character operates on each layer, how these layers affect each other, and how this combination will cause your character to act, think, and feel in any set of circumstances. In the right situation, facing the right conflict, your character may surprise you and act in unexpected ways. This is good. When readers are surprised, but in a way where they can comprehend and appreciate why the character acted that way, that’s when the character is getting inside the reader’s head.

There are probably as many methods to discovering (or creating) these layers as there are writers. Each writer has to develop his or her own way to create fully formed, compelling characters. I’ll toss out some methods I use, as well as some used by other writers.

Listen to your character

Sometimes a character shows up in my head uninvited, so I sit down and start typing as fast as I can while the character tells me her life story. I won’t even know what the novel’s story is until 10,000 words or more, but eventually it starts to come out. By then, I know my character inside and out.

Whether that works for anyone else or not, I have no idea. It’s how it happens for me sometimes. It feels a bit like method acting at times – I’m no longer the writer, but I become the character.

Character notebook

Some writers create a character notebook and write down everything they know about the character. You can keep adding to this notebook as you write your story and the character keeps revealing new things to you.

Write your character’s back story

I like to write the character’s back story and life history, and often veer off into the biographical history of the character’s mother and father. Sometimes this comes out in prose, which also helps to develop the character’s voice. Other times I jot notes, comments, questions, some stream-of-consciousness stuff. What interesting things happened to him as a child? Where did she grow up? What type of family? Lots of brothers and sisters, or an only child? Were they close to extended family such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins? Any early childhood traumas? What were her teenage years like? What did he want to be when he grew up? Why?

The key is to remember you’re writing this for you. It’s not back story, details and flashbacks you’re planning to include in the novel. The more you know about your character’s background, the more informed your writing will be about the character, and all that personality and psyche can naturally come through without dumping the back story on readers. However, you never know when you’re going to stumble onto something in this back story that will become key to your character or to the story conflict and needs to be included in some way.

Interview your character

Some writers may start with a plot or with a basic character type (or archetype) and need to fill out the characters later, whether during the outlining phase or during revisions. If you’ve got the basic character, but are looking for information to round her out to a more fully developed person, you could try interviewing her. There are lots of sample character interviews out there on the web and in books on writing, so search to find one that fits your needs and style. I could put up a couple links here, but this particular method doesn’t work for me, so I don’t have any particular website to recommend. But some writers swear by this, so give it a try.

Let your character speak

This happens naturally if you’re writing in first person because you’re writing THROUGH the character. If you’re writing in third person, you’re writing ABOUT the character rather than through the character, so it can be more distancing. If there’s distance between author and character, the gap between character and reader will be even greater.

To help get to know your character better and close that gap, to let the character’s voice develop, try writing (or rewriting) some scenes in first person. This isn’t to revise your book from third to first, or to include these first person segments in your manuscript, but to help you see the scene through the character’s eyes and hear the story from the character’s voice. You may learn some things about your character you didn’t know. You may discover layers you can include in your story. Your character’s voice, as well as those inner layers, may come into focus more sharply.

Another way to accomplish this is to keep a journal in the character’s first person voice as the story progresses.

Love your character

Make sure you love your character. Fall in love with him. Form an emotional bond with her. If you don’t love your character, neither will your readers.

Once you’ve developed this compelling, engaging, intriguing main character, how do you convey that depth and complexity in the writing? That will be a subject for another day. Probably more than one day. Yeah, definitely more than one day.

Everyone: What methods do you use to get to know your characters, their voices, and help develop deeper, more complex characters?