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The Right Way To Write A Novel, by Robyn Bavati

Are you protesting this title yet? You should be, because there is no such thing as one right way to write a novel. Novel-writing is a process and that process varies, depending on the writer. In general, there are four main types of writers:

The word builder – has done no written preparation before she begins, but when she does start writing, she works and reworks each sentence until it’s perfect. She won’t proceed to the second sentence until she’s happy with the first, won’t precede to the third sentence until she’s happy with the second, etc. (This kind of writer is rare, but a former writing teacher of mine knew of a successful novelist who wrote this way. Not surprisingly, each novel took her several years to write, but this was the method that worked for her.)

The intuitive writer – doesn’t know where she’s headed but fully trusts her intuition. She has such a strong, innate sense of storytelling that no planning is required. She begins her novel with no idea of the twists and turns it might take or where it will end. She constantly surprises herself and allows her characters to surprise her too. (Ursula Dubosarsky, a highly original, multi-award-winning children’s and YA writer, works this way.)

The detailed planner – knows exactly where she’s headed for she has planned out every chapter before she begins. This writer will rarely deviate from her well thought-out plan – she knows before she starts that this story works. There are no surprises. (Writers who work this way usually finish their novels quickly. This is the method used by the popular, critically acclaimed and prolific children’s writer Morris Gleitzman.)

The relaxed yet focused traveller – has a strong idea of where she’s headed, but doesn’t know precisely what she’ll encounter on the journey. Somewhere between the intuitive writer and the detailed planner, this writer may know how the story ends, but often discovers twists and turns along the way. (Most writers, myself included, fall into this category.)

When aspiring writers ask, “How should I go about writing a novel? Where should I start?” they usually mean:

Should I start with an idea, a character, an image, a setting, a conflict, a plot or a theme?

or

b) How much do I need to know about my story before I begin?

The truth is, while a novel must contain six basic elements (plot, setting, character, structure, voice and theme), it doesn’t much matter where you start, as long as you’ve incorporated and integrated all these elements into your novel by the time you’ve finished.

As for how much you need to know about your story before you begin, that depends on whether you are a word-builder, an intuitive writer, a detailed planner or a relaxed yet focused traveller.

While I can’t tell you what you need to know before you begin, I can tell you what I need to know – and this will be true for the majority of writers.

Before I begin writing my novel, I need a concept. A concept is more than a mere idea. Let me explain.

I could write about dance. That’s an idea; it’s not a concept.

I could write about religion. That too is an idea; it’s not a concept.

I could write a book about both dance and religion. That’s still an idea; it’s not yet a concept.

I could write about a girl from an orthodox Jewish family who longs to take ballet lessons but, for religious reasons, her parents don’t let her. We’re getting closer, but it’s still not a concept because I can’t see a story here yet. I need to know how she reacts to her parents’ refusal. If she accepts their refusal there is no story.

I could write about a girl from an orthodox Jewish family who longs to take ballet lessons and, when her parents refuse their permission, begins to dance in secret, and is soon caught up in a web of deception. That’s a concept, because I can see the story. I can see the girl sneaking out to class, lying to her parents and wrestling with her conscience. I can see how this will become a novel (and, in fact, did become my debut novel Dancing in the Dark).

A strong concept suggests a story. It suggests character, plot, setting and theme, but that’s not all I need before starting my story. I need to know who is telling the story. The protagonist? A third person narrator? Somebody else? I also need a sense of my story’s structure. Sometimes I have to experiment a little with voice and structure to find what works. Finally, I need names for my main characters. The sooner I name them the sooner I can get to know them.

I don’t need to know my sub-plots before I begin. Nor do I need to know the names of all my minor characters, the roles they’ll play or even how many minor characters there will be.

I jot down ideas for scenes, characters, conversations or internal monologue pop into my head.

When I have several pages of written snippets, a strong idea of where my major plot is headed and a clear idea of what needs to go into the first few chapters, I’m  ready to begin with Chapter One. Although, what starts as Chapter One might end up as Chapter Three, as was the case with my second novel, Pirouette, or be deleted later on, as was the case with Dancing in the Dark, where too much backstory was cut in favour of a snappier beginning that would plunge the reader straight into the story.

If you’re the kind of writer I am then you too will need, at the very least, a strong concept and a voice before you begin, but only you can know whether you’re a word builder, an intuitive writer, a detailed planner or a relaxed yet focused traveller.

Trust yourself and let your story emerge.

***

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Do Stories Need To Be Connected To Morals Or Societal Issues? by Simon Higgins

For several years I’ve had the privilege of studying screenwriting for animation and working, on and off, as a screenwriter in China. One of my tasks was to find an English name for the successful animated series my host company creates, broadcasted by China’s CCTV network to around one fifth of the human population. The series is hosted by two manga-style toddler characters, twins, a boy and girl. Each instalment has a moral point to it, usually a Confucian idea about the orderly and fair treatment of others in family and society. So I suggested, ‘Gemini Fables’, implying a Chinese Aesop, to define the series outside Asia. My colleagues agreed enthusiastically.

Do all stories, even the entertaining, also need to teach, warn or touch some moral or societal ‘issue’? Some say writing must be issue connected and morally driven to win awards and get published in school-age reading markets.  

But we can all cite books that simply set out to tell a story that taps into the human condition and helps us to understand it.

Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is a powerful story tackling big issues: racism, justice, the nature of courage, heroic pacifism versus cowardly aggression. It’s an immortal novel packing lots of moral punch.

James Joyce’s Ulysses is also a powerful, long-surviving and challenging novel, though for very different reasons. This tale is a ‘stream of consciousness’ window into man’s mad, busy mind. The novel is a mirror, but doesn’t attach to a specific issue beyond the human condition. People, in Joyce’s vision, wander the universe trying to think their way to clarity but instead just run endless mental loops. Given when Ulysses was written,  this hefty experimental tome was stunningly ahead of its time. I thanked the great man for it two years ago as I sat at his piano in the Dublin Writer’s Museum. If you ever get to Ireland, the Bram Stoker and James Joyce displays in the DWM are really worth visiting.

Both To Kill A Mockingbird and Ulysses, though so different, are surprisingly important in the canon of literature. I often say there would have been no Barack Obama in the White House, had Harper Lee not written that book. Ulysses helped inspire an entire genre of stories and novels, plus decades of philosophical and anthropological books, papers, and discussions about existence.

I think our focus should be craft quality and the underpinning passion driving our work, not which pigeon-holes the book may later be slotted into by others, including publishers. Just tell your fabulous tale and let posterity decide the nature of its contribution.

Sometimes writers name something haphazardly, only to strike a chord with others. In my novel Thunderfish, young orphaned rich girl Kira Beaumont flees the heartless paparazzi after her father’s funeral on a privately owned hi-tech ship, the Ithaca. Following an attack at sea and a deep personal crisis, Kira winds up captaining her own Russian Kilo Class attack sub bought on the black market, as does the reader.

I named Kira’s first ship simply after the first Greek island that came to mind. In my backstory, the Beaumont family owned a shipping empire, ala the Onassis Clan, so I envisioned a fleet of tankers plus luxury ‘retreat’ yachts and hydrofoils, each named after a different Greek island.

Years later, I stumbled on a very generous, positive review of the novel. It said I’d named the ship Ithaca because that destination was the home-kingdom of Odysseus (a.k.a. Ulysses) as he ‘crossed the wine-dark sea’ in Homer’s epic. I was apparently signalling a hero’s journey structure to the reader, tastefully invoking classical lore, yet delivering what remained ‘a thoroughly modern, accessible adventure’.

Wow! Thanks! I’ll take all that (far too kind and undeserved as it is – just don’t tell anyone, heh?). But my point is this; work with a strong, structured idea, let passion drive the writing, and you’ll tend to find ideas flow easily and drop into place in your overall vision. Don’t get caught up with the morality tale factor. That will take care of itself, or won’t need to.

So, is Thunderfish in the end an issue book? After all, it did get a Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Book listing, enjoyed an audio edition with Bolinda Audio, generated two sequels, Under No Flag and In the Jaws of the Sea, and was looked at by two Hollywood studios (though, alas, no film project went ahead).

Hell, yes. Kira’s crew defend refugees on the high seas, fighting modern pirates. There are plenty of human rights, justice and crime issues, all right there. I hope that Thunderfish also does contain that universal hero’s journey, told with modernity yet relatable to the old classical style. In her way, Kira steals fire from heaven to take on monsters – and purge her own demons  – and we get to see inside her head a lot. I guess Thunderfish does tie in with Ulysses after all.

If we are delivering an engrossing story, perhaps we don’t need to hunt too hard for meaning as we draft it? If we concentrate on the quality, we can rest secure in the fact that almost every tale raises some strong point in the end, simply because humans – we who live in conflict and uncertainty, desperate for signs of meaning in our universe – are the players in it.

***

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How Realistic Should Realistic Fiction Be? by Robyn Bavati

There’s an interesting paradox at play when it comes to fiction vs non-fiction. Writers of non-fiction are told that they should ‘find the story’ within the biography, memoir or autobiography they are writing so that the book becomes as exciting and satisfying as any novel. Writers of fiction, on the other hand, are told to make their stories seem true. In other words, the value of a novel (fantasy and certain other genres aside) is measured by how closely it appears to resemble factual truth, while the value of memoir is determined by how closely it resembles a work of fiction.

Accordingly, some critical readers hold fiction to an almost impossibly high standard of plausibility. By categorising your work as fiction, you’re placing yourself in the position of having to defend the ‘truth’ of your story, though no such standards of plausibility apply to non-fiction, which by definition must be true.

As a reader of realistic fiction, though I draw the line at what is clearly impossible, I am quite happy to go along with the author’s version of events and rarely question it. I want to read stories that are more exciting and inspiring than the mundane, ordinary occurrences I come across daily. I relish the improbable and delight in stories of the path less travelled. So perhaps it’s natural that these are the stories I want to write. I want my stories to do more than just reflect reality. I want to inspire my readers and spin a good yarn.

Unfortunately, not all readers are quite so willing to suspend disbelief and I have been questioned on issues of plausibility. My first novel, Dancing in the Dark, is about a girl who dances without her parents’ knowledge for nearly five years. The entire story hinges on the believability of this basic premise. One of the challenges for me in writing it was making this plausible. How would she get away with it? Where would her parents think she was when she was dancing?

I went to great lengths to ensure plausibility. I gave my protagonist alibis and friends who covered for her. I gave her a couple of narrow escapes, had her caught out in a less heinous transgression, etc.

Even so, a few reviewers and readers (though, interestingly, none within the target readership) said they didn’t believe a girl could deceive her parents for so many years. I asked a couple of them if there was anything I, as a writer, could have done to convince them otherwise. They said that there wasn’t.

Similarly, my second novel, Pirouette, raised issues of believability, as it’s a story about identical twins who change places. A plausible concept? I believe it is, especially given that the twins were adopted at birth by two different families, neither of whom knew they’d adopted a twin. Nevertheless, one of my beta readers questioned it, saying that no parent could be taken in by such a swap, since parents know their children so well. In other words, although I’d accounted for how and why the swap could work within the framework of the story, this reader wasn’t buying it. Like those who refused to believe a girl could keep a secret from her family for nearly five years, this beta reader’s objection was based on her personal belief system rather than on my failure to address the issue.

I’ve learned something from these non-believers: just as you can’t make someone like your novel, you can’t force readers to suspend disbelief.

Still, I’d like to remind them that every day, the media reports events that seem unbelievable. Example 1: A man kidnaps a young girl and keeps her locked up in the garden shed of his suburban home, where he repeatedly abuses her for many years until at last she escapes. Example 2: A bigamist has two different families in different parts of the same city, and neither family is aware of the other’s existence until after his death.

Though both these notorious scenarios defy credibility, both are true. Yet despite the abundance of improbable real-life stories, some readers will always demand a higher standard of plausibility from their fiction, wanting fictional stories to reflect their own particular beliefs, and some of these readers will review your books.

That’s a risk I’ll take, because I like exploring how far my characters will go. I don’t want to limit myself to the likely and the probable. I enjoy pushing the boundaries of plausibility and I know that however far-fetched my plots may seem they are not nearly as improbable as many events that have actually happened.

Most importantly, plausibility does not mean probability. If you’re writing realistic fiction, your stories don’t need to be likely or probable – they just have to be possible. If you’ve addressed the plausibility issues in your novel, you’ve done your job.

***

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The Idea That Inspired My Moonshadow Series Of Ninja Novels, by Simon Higgins

I believe that imagination is like a muscle group in the body. With the application of even a casual amount of motivation, regular exercise and persistence against natural resistance, that imagination – or muscle group – will be flexed, nourished and steadily grow both in strength and endurance.

We can work our imagination simply through the way we observe daily life. Watch items of news, events great and trivial, people famous and obscure, and regularly pose an imaginative hypothesis about each person or situation. Try this in any environment you find yourself in. So many exciting thrillers and mass media novels have surely begun with a writer sitting on a hard bench under a flashing ‘Flight Delayed’ sign and musing to themselves, ‘What would I do next if I heard gunfire and the airport suddenly went into lockdown?’ So life, and its chance happenings, is all grist for the imagination’s mill.

When you read history, let your roaming mind look instinctively for the ‘What-ifs’ lurking in the wings. History is full of untold stories and untaught lessons. Whenever you  stumble on an intriguing historical clue, ferret out more, and keep thinking  ‘…so, therefore…’

While training in Japan for the Iaido World Titles in Kyoto in 2007, I broke off from the Australian team to stay with some Japanese friends in Kyoto. They kindly took me to a ninja museum in Iga-Ueno, hometown of Basho, the great Haiku poet, and also of the Iga shinobi clan. There, in an underground gallery of a 470 year old preserved ninja safe house, I read a number of translated scrolls about the early years of the reign of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the role the Iga clan played in his survival.

It seems that the ninja’s own historical records detail an ambush launched against the new Shogun in the mountains of Honshu and thwarted by very young  – teenage, in fact – ninja from Iga village, who were effectively part of the Shogun’s Secret Service – his eyes, ears and protectors, lurking in every glade and shadow. Fascination gripped me. So many of the real ninja of history were children! Among them, teenage spies who actually saved the ruler of the country. And more than once, as it turned out. Their amazing story deserved to be told to a young modern audience… but in a legendary, epic way, blending elements of folklore – such as the ninja’s alleged power to influence animals, and the dreaded Kunoichi (girl ninja) hypnosis weapon – with detailed, accurate spy craft. For the ninja of medieval Japan were arguably the most advanced spies in the world of their time. They used dyed rice grains to leave coded messages for each other in shrines. They reared their own children as the next generation of operatives, teaching them disguises, acting, explosives, poisons, trap-building and martial arts. The secrets of exactly how and just why they did this, I reasoned, would really engage readers, as long as the story was also fast moving and rich in twists and surprises.

In terms of overall plot, I should show a young ninja on his first real mission: his skills, doubts, inner conflicts, mistakes, duels, triumphs, hard lessons and his first major moral dilemma! Perhaps involving a powerful Kunoichi – a girl who is the opposite of himself. A competitor? So the idea grew.

From that short cascade of ideas, Moonshadow: Eye of the Beast was born.

Random House Australia published it in 2008, and it went bestseller and straight into reprint, plus a US print run with Little, Brown in New York (the publishers of the Twilight saga) and foreign language versions in German, Bahasa Indonesian and Turkish. It was short listed for an Aurealis Fantasy Award and has spawned three sequels so far. I was even invited to go on Saturday Disney to talk about the book and demonstrate Iaido sword fighting in full samurai costume.

All this came from one simple but little-known historical fact that really fired my imagination. Is there one waiting just for you?

***

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On Character In Novels: Part 3, by Robyn Bavati

I’ll begin this month’s post by once again recapping the five principles that are useful in creating characters:

1. There is a difference between character and characterisation; both are required.

2. Character is best revealed through action.

3. You don’t need to know everything about your character, but only those details that provide insight, advance the plot or in some way enhance your story.

4. Character does not exist in a vacuum but is inextricably linked to plot – character motivation drives the story.

5. In a novel (as opposed to, say, TV sitcom), characters must be allowed to change over time.

In this post I’ll address the fourth and fifth principles, beginning with the integration of plot and character, and the idea that character motivation drives the story.

While you don’t need to know everything about your character, there is one thing you must know: your character’s motivation. Knowing what your character wants is the single most important thing you need to know. Without that, you won’t have a story.

When asked for story writing tips, Ray Bradbury said: “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!”

Is it really that simple? Not quite. Once you know what he wants, you must also ask yourself what is preventing him from getting it and how far he will he go to achieve it. When you are able to answer these questions, you’ll have the backbone for your story.

The obstacles preventing your main character from achieving her greatest desires should be internal as well as external, and the flip side of what she wants is what she fears. It is only through confronting and overcoming her greatest fear that she is able to gain her deepest desire.

Aristotle famously said that character is revealed in the way a person acts when under pressure. In order to put your hero under pressure, thwart her desires (by placing obstacles, both internal and external, in her path) and place her in a situation where she is forced to confront her greatest fears.

Allow your main character to change over time. Change is the essence of character development and is what distinguishes novels from other art forms such as TV sitcoms. In a typical sitcom, the main character never changes. He might appear to change, but the change is short-lived and he invariably reverts to type. In fact, the sitcom depends on this. If the main character truly changed, the series would end. The sitcom relies on a long-standing dilemma that is never resolved. It is the very lack of resolution that allows it to continue episode after episode, year after year.

The novel, however, demands resolution. Unless it is part of a series (in which case the main character wins the battle but not the war), it is complete in itself, not just one in a series of ongoing episodes.

Aspiring novelists often confuse character consistency for character development. In the interests of consistency, they show the same character trait over and over, in different ways, so that the story becomes repetitive and the character is denied a chance to grow. They mistake repetition for development.

Heroes may (indeed should) be flawed but they must be inspiring. They must be allowed to rise to the challenge, to develop the courage they need to defeat the (preferably both internal and external) antagonists.

Of course, your story might demand a minor character who doesn’t change. The unchanging nature of a minor character might even make your hero seem all the more heroic by contrast. Also, you might decide to write about an anti-hero rather than a hero. However, if you make this choice, you might find yourself with a story that not many people want to read. Most readers want uplifting stories about a character who is finally able to overcome his demons. They want to identify with the hero to experience the struggle, the fear and the ultimate triumph.

In a satisfying story, the main character usually gains a deeper understanding of his own psyche. This generally manifests in a deeper understanding of what, exactly, it is that he wants. At the start of the novel, the main character (and sometimes the writer) is aware only of his external goal. He knows what he wants – but only on the surface – and might or might not be aware of his deep-seated fears.

For example, in Dancing in the Dark, the main character, Ditty, knows early on that she wants to dance, while Simone in Pirouette knows that she doesn’t. In both cases, it takes them some time to realise that what they really want is personal freedom. In other words, they begin with a surface goal or desire, and grow to understand something more about themselves and their deeper desire.

Stories that don’t look beyond the surface desire generally won’t get published, and if they do, they’ll fail to satisfy. It’s the deeper desire that will provide your themes and give your story substance and meaning.

Often, it is only when the deeper desire is understood by the character that the surface desire can be realised (though in some cases the surface goal becomes unimportant and is therefore abandoned).

As you write your novel, you’ll need to develop an understanding of the inner workings of your main character’s psyche. Only then will you have a character that readers can relate to.

Here’s an exercise you might like to try: Think of one of your favourite novels and ask yourself: What is the main character’s surface desire? What is the main character’s deeper desire? What must the main character learn or achieve in order to grow? Now think of the novel you are writing and ask yourself the same three questions.

***

There is an opportunity to attend a novel writing retreat in Tasmania with Robyn in October. For details, see https://www.facebook.com/NovelWritingRetreatsAustralia/posts/489199181237686. Applications are due by midnight on Friday, June 12th.

***

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Finding Inspiration To Write A Novel, by Sandi Wallace

Finding inspiration can be daunting to the point of debilitating. This applies to creators of novels, short stories or both. It frequently afflicts aspiring writers but can strike established ones too.

It also fascinates readers, who frequently say things like:
“Where do your stories come from?”
“It must be hard to think up new ideas.”
“I’ve got a story that you need to write.”

So, let’s think about that. Do we need to take ideas from well-meaning friends, family and readers, or do we have access to plenty of our own? Are these story ideas empowering? Do they make us believe we have something worth writing and ultimately worth publishing?

Clearly, there is much riding on inspiration. It’s the crux of creation and dictates result. Should finding inspiration be scary? Or should dreaming up and writing a story only be exciting?

I believe that whenever we create there should be a pinch of fear behind it. If there is no fear we aren’t striving for the best we’re capable of and we’re not putting enough of ourselves into the project. On the flipside, too much anxiety blunts creativity. So, seeking inspiration should be thrilling: exciting, pleasurable and accompanied by a little nervous tremor.

How/where do we find inspiration?

As I am a contemporary crime writer, my suggestions might resonate more strongly with genre writers than literary ones, but these work for me:

Observation

Things seen or overheard can act as a springboard to imagination, especially when combined with “what if?” or “and then…” Writers are often introverts and natural observers, frequently happiest sitting back, blending in, watching and asking questions. Therefore, we are sponges and muses are all around us.

Personal experience

Our personal accumulation of life skills and experiences add fodder for developing characters and stories. Stand out examples may become central storylines. These might include deaths of loved ones, career changes, house moves, renovations, love of all types, relationship up and downs, health problems, travel, wins and losses, assaults or accidents.

True crime and other actual events, reported via newspapers, magazines, television, specialist journals, police media and/or discussed by the public

These can trigger a series of brain jumps to the point where the actual story written bears little or no resemblance to the initial event. For fiction writers, that’s probably a lot safer than taking true crime and aiming to fictionalise it, which could lead to a lawsuit or stalker situation.

Headlines, titles of stories, pictures

A fun exercise is to gather newspapers, books with evocative covers, or perhaps a series of photos or other pictures, and scroll through them until something grabs you. Every innocuous thing has the potential for greatness. Even obituaries and classifieds can be goldmines.

Imagine a photo of a bloke in overalls with the headline “Pig Farm Crisis”. What does it say to you? If that man and his farm were your protagonist and setting, what would his crisis be? For crime writers, what offence and scenario might fit and is he as innocent as he first appears? For rural romance writers, who is his heroine, what is their personal conflict, as well as the farm crisis?

What themes do you want to explore in your story?

What do you want to say about the world, solve or resolve? What do you want to write that will clutch readers by the throat and keep them hooked?

Try listing five to ten things that make you angry, five to ten things that make you sad and five to ten things that make you happy. What stands out?

You have an established protagonist

What is their worst fear? Do it to them!

Writer’s journal

Fill a notebook or electronic journal with all your random thoughts, ideas, photographs, postcards, whatever could trigger a great story, character or setting. Use it to practise first lines, dialogue and other narrative devices too.

Ideas for my next book (or short story) come to me while I’m writing or editing the current one, maybe because at that time there is no pressure on me to think of a new storyline and I’m in a highly creative place. I recommend jotting down those ideas under something like “Book five plot/theme”, to avoid interference with the current project or forgetting the new concepts.

An amalgam of ideas

Try combining things from all (or some) of the above categories.

If you’ve just discovered your new plot idea, congratulations. Now the real fun begins!

***

Sandi Wallace’s author website: www.sandiwallace.com

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On Character In Novels: Part 2, by Robyn Bavati

As outlined in last month’s post, when developing your characters there are five principles worth bearing in mind:

1. There is a difference between character and characterisation and both are required.

2. Character is best revealed through action.

3. You don’t need to know everything about your character, but only those details that provide insight, advance the plot or in some way enhance your story.

4. Character does not exist in a vacuum but is inextricably linked to plot – character motivation drives the story.

5. In a novel (as opposed to, say, TV sitcom), characters must be allowed to change over time.

In my last post I wrote primarily about the first of these principles, and explained that characterisation deals with outward characteristics and physical attributes, while character expresses personality and the inner workings of the heart and mind.

Once you have established who your character is (eg. a mischievous eight-year old girl, a blind ten year-old boy, a middle aged woman with a limp), you’ll probably want to convey a few significant details about your character’s personality. It’s at this point you’ll want to make use of the second principle – that character is best revealed through action. But what does this mean? Here are some examples:

1. Gerald is an extremely frugal old man, but instead of “Gerald was frugal”, try “Gerald searched the attic for his box of used matches – there was no point throwing them out when he could use them again”, or “Gerald folded the piece of toilet paper over again and again; it would be a waste to flush it away after just one wipe.”

2. Ten-year-old Beth has a big heart, but instead of “Beth was kind”, try “Ignoring the rumble in her stomach, Beth gave her only sandwich to the beggar. He did look hungry.”

By describing Gerald as frugal or Beth as generous, you’re telling your readers what to think about these characters. By showing them in action and allowing the reader insight into the inner workings of their minds, you’re allowing readers to reach their own conclusions, which is much more satisfying.

Of course, if your characters are ruminating on their own frugality or kindness, that too can be a way of allowing the reader into their minds, and is not the same as the author telling the reader what to think. Likewise, other characters in the story may share their opinions about the main character, which is also acceptable, as it will then be up to readers to form their own opinions based on the way a character acts.

How much information do readers actually need in order to form their own opinions? And how much do you, the writer, need to know?

Writers are often told they must know everything about their characters. In some writing courses, students are encouraged to write extensive character profiles, several pages long. Such lengthy profiles are not only time-consuming, they are often unhelpful. Do you really need to know what school your character went to, what childhood diseases he had, whether he prefers chocolate or vanilla ice cream, how many first cousins he has and whether he broke his leg at the age of three?

This brings us to the third principle: You don’t need to know everything about your character, but only those details that provide insight, advance the plot or in some way enhance your story.

You probably don’t need to know what your character ate for breakfast, unless she is suffering from an eating disorder, in which case it might be highly relevant. Likewise, you may not need to know that she has researched the properties of the plants in her garden, unless one of them is toxic and she uses it to poison someone later in the story.

You do need to know what she is doing in a particular scene, and it can be helpful to know what she was doing just before the scene began and what she is planning to do next.

Always remember that you are telling a story. The information you reveal about your character is relevant only insofar as it serves the story. It is this idea of serving the story that is the backbone of character development, to be continued in next month’s post…

In the meantime, here are a couple of exercises you might like to try:

  1. Choose a couple of character descriptors from the following list (or come up with your own): mean, shy, extroverted, happy, miserable, frustrated, guilty, grumpy, ecstatic, loving, rude. Now write a sentence or two for each that reveals that attribute through action (as in the Gerald and Beth examples, above).
  2. Write a list of 5-10 things you need to know about your main character, and another list of 5-10 things that are irrelevant to the story you want to tell.

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*There is an opportunity to attend a novel writing retreat in Tasmania with Robyn in October. For details, see https://www.facebook.com/NovelWritingRetreatsAustralia/posts/489199181237686.

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Robyn Bavati - Pirouette book cover     Moonshadow - Eye of the Beast by Simon Higgins - coverThe Lavender Keeper

Writing Novels in Australia
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