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Writing Characters Readers Will Care About, by Ben Marshall

In creating characters readers care about, the reader doesn’t need to like them – at least at first.  In those crucial first pages, the reader is still getting their bearings.  They don’t know or understand the characters yet.  But, if they don’t understand them, how can they empathise with them?  Why would any reader care about a character with whom they can’t empathise, and why would they keep reading?

For a reader to begin a relationship with the person on the page, I suggest they need to see that character caring about someone or something other than themselves.

In the early paragraphs and pages, when we’re still luring our reader in to become hooked on our story, the plot or context is likely to be one of tension – internal, external or both.  Our protagonist will be in the thick of it, or about to be.  At this point, a standard trick in feature film scripts to engender audience empathy for the protagonist is to stage a ‘save the cat’ moment, where the hero or heroine steps out of their comfort zone, perhaps at risk to themselves, to perform an impressive act of kindness.  In novels, however, this could appear too large a moment, unsubtle, and too obvious a technique for winning a reader’s heart.

In the first pages The Hunger Games, author Suzanne Collins has her heroine, Katniss, worried about her younger sister.  Anyone who cares about another person is inherently good and worth caring about in turn.  Readers register this kind of subtext with little or no analysis, but the questions remain – why does the protagonist care?  What is the threat and what is the worst-case scenario?

In that cunning way we writers bind and enchant our readers to our tale, we’ve already indicated ‘here is someone worth caring about’.  If the plot is high stakes, any altruistic thoughts the protagonist has are put into sharp relief – caring becomes an active, risky thing, and therefore admirable.

Even a selfish character or anti-hero has to care about something. Otherwise there would be no dilemma and the reader would struggle to remain interested.

In the first pages of Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, protagonist Charlie, acting against his parents’ strictures and his own fear, exits into the night, summoned to help his dangerous friend, Jasper.  Without knowing anything else, Charlie wins the reader’s sympathy and the author wins their intrigue.  Either way, we’re hooked.

In the opening pages of Haruki Murakami’s IQ84, the female protagonist, Aomame, cares for a piece of music, specifically composer Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta.  Murakami uses stream of consciousness exposition as a curiously adrift Aomame is stuck in traffic, listening to music, letting her mind wander.  She thinks, is thoughtful and therefore cares what she thinks about.  Even if we don’t care, we’re curious about why she does and see that she is a decent person as she considers the cab and its owner.  In the tension of gridlocked traffic, stuck in the confines of a small taxi on one of the upper level freeways that fly high through Japanese cities, when Aomame decides to strike out and leave the taxi to get to an appointment, it’s an oddly daring risk – a flight to freedom and into possible danger.  She doesn’t care about herself, but she’s likeable and intriguing, and we’re worried what’s going to happen to her.

In Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, three teenagers are walking to an interview.  The two in front are James and Julia, young lovers who walk hand-in-hand.  Behind is the Quentin, desiring Julia but loving James, who, in turn, shows his love for the other two by wit aimed at easing the tension.  Julia loves them both, showing it with silly banter.  None of them are talking about the interview, but it hangs like a deep, held organ note throughout the first pages.  Without knowing any more, we know all three care enough to protect the others from worry, despite their own.

In my novel manuscript The Pricking of Thumbs, the protagonist, Rousse, is introduced as he skilfully murders an old man, then pauses on his way out to fill the cat’s bowl.  He returns to the grim circus, a young man whom I hope the reader will care enough about to wonder how kindness and murder can exist in the same mind.

Irrespective of plot, and even with minimal context, observing an act of caring raises questions that are inherently intriguing.  Why is this person behaving selflessly?  Are they wise or foolish to do so?  Is the person or thing they care about worthy?  Would I be as brave and generous in the same situation?

When characters risk something for someone else, perhaps against their own wishes, and even putting themselves in danger, readers perceive bravery, and cannot help but admire that character.  Even a doomed romantic like a Don Quixote wins our affection by dint of his unrelenting love for the appalling Dulcinea.


Ben Marshall’s author website:

Ben Marshall’s bio page


Burning LiesThe Book of LoveThe Indigo SkyHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodThe Fortunes of Ruby White

Writing Novels in Australia


Taking Notes In The Course of Writing A Novel, by Onil Lad

Writing advice from established authors usually begins with write, write and write. There’s no substitute for spending hours at the computer.

When asked where her novels come from, romance novelist Barbara Cartland said that every word was dictated to her by God. It’s not like that for me, as the thoughts have a habit of popping into my mind out of the blue. Sometimes they come gushing out.

During the last year I’ve found that my best ideas have come when I’m not trying to beat it out of myself whilst stuck at my desk. It’s not just one-liners that come to me but plot twists and whole paragraphs as well. When this happens I’ve always got my iPhone handy. I’ve become a continual note-taker.

Taking notes on my iPhone isn’t a complete replacement to sitting at the computer and writing, but spread out over the day, it’s worth several hours at least. I’m at the stage where I ‘m constantly thinking about my novel and once I write one thing down, other thoughts follow.

It means that when I formally sit down to write, I don’t feel stuck because there are numerous pages of notes to work through. It’s saved me hours of frustration and lets me do the things I enjoy, like reading and watching movies, while still having part of my mind on the novel.

I take notes all the time. Sometimes I just have to lie down or take a shower and within a few minutes the thoughts flow.

I can still put in the hard hours at the computer, when required, usually when I’m facing a deadline or I’ve got enough notes to make a chapter. When I do this I’m productive for the whole six hours, instead of trying to force out the ideas.

Note-taking becomes a habit. After watching a movie that has similar themes to my novel, I’m up half the night making notes. It happens when I’m out walking, running and even cycling.

Some authors maintain that no idea is worthwhile unless it sticks in your mind, but I need all the help I can get.

Tom Waits, as a struggling songwriter, was stuck in traffic in LA when he was hit by an inspiring thought for a song. He had no pen, paper or way to record this elusive spark, so he spoke to it and said, “Can you not see that I’m driving? If you are serious about wanting to exist, I spend eight hours a day in the studio. You’re welcome to come and visit me when I am sitting at my piano.” Apparently this dialogue with himself worked and the rest is history. I’ve tried telling myself the same thing but it didn’t work. I’ve got a mobile phone that Tom Waits didn’t have all those years ago, so I can’t complain. I’m just grateful for the inspiration.

Eventually you have to turn your notes into scenes, characters and plots, but the grunt work has been done on the go. Writing on the go gets you away from the internet, but I find that when the time comes to flesh out the notes on my laptop I’d rather do it in short bursts at a café or library and not go back to my desk. There are also numerous note-taking software apps on the market.


Onil Lad’s bio page


Wings of FearHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodA Distant LandThe Fortunes of Ruby WhiteSavage Tide

Writing Novels in Australia

On Editing Fiction, by Onil Lad

I decided to apply to a Manuscript Development Program at the last minute, a couple of days before the deadline.  They required a sample of your work plus a pitch.

I edited as I went along and assumed the chapters were tidy and coherent enough to give the reader a sense of the concept.

My partner has recently started an editing course and I thought that she could practice on my manuscript.

Although it was an incomplete first draft, all that was required was to correct a few grammatical errors such as misplaced commas. Or so I thought.

The deadline was two days away and we only had seventy pages to get through.  It should have been a cinch.

Apart from everything else, I didn’t realise just how long it would take to edit and redo the work. In the end we had to work constantly for those two days until we were both sick of the sight of my words. I must have read through those seventy pages dozens of times.

The process highlighted grammatical areas that I needed to brush up on. We disagreed a lot about commas. In the end I gave in when she showed me the exact line in the editing manual that proved she was right.

There were grammatical rules that I wasn’t aware of regarding hyphens and dashes.  Heck, I didn’t know hyphens and dashes were different and now I find that there are “em” dashes and “en” dashes. I’d never heard of them.

As a speculative fiction writer, I try a lot of things and not all of them work. Sometimes when concepts hit the page, they sound ridiculous and you throw them out. It was embarrassing for me when I realized that some of the “miss” chapters got through. The comments hurt and it was depressing for me that my inferior chapters had been analysed. You want people to only read the final polished product.

We went through everything, even changing those character names that didn’t fit, and every line of dialogue, some of which, according to my editor, didn’t make sense. We agreed that we still have a lot of work to do to get the dialogue right.

We found some structural problems as well. It was clear that I was overcomplicating the plot. It was something else to fix at a later date.

If you need feedback, I think it’s better to show your work to an editor rather than a writing group. You’re more likely to get an honest critique.

Looking at the editor’s manual, I noticed that it was a doorstopper of a book. There’s so much to get to grips with. I think I need to do the editing course myself.

Anyway, we’ve got The Elements of Style now, which I can use as I go along.

The bottom line is that the collaboration, although painful at times, worked for me.

Next time, editing will be easier, and I’ll make sure that I leave enough time to go through my manuscript with a fine tooth comb.


Onil Lad’s bio page


House for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodA Distant LandThe Book of LoveShattered SkyThe Fortunes of Ruby White

Writing Novels in Australia

Writing A Satisfying Story Ending, by Kelly Inglis

Like many other readers, I won’t waste my time reading a story that I’m still trying to get interested in after 75 pages. Sometimes the lack of interest stems from the plot developing at a snail’s pace, sometimes it’s because the characters are two-dimensional and unlikeable, and sometimes it’s because the plot is so ridiculously far-fetched that I spend the whole time thinking about how this would never happen in real life. Whatever, the reason, if I’m still not absorbed in the plot after 75 pages, I pick up a different book and never finish the boring one. As Joy Daniels says, “life’s too short to read bad books (or drink bad wine)”.

However, when I get really upset with a book is when the characters have been engaging, the plot intriguing and well-paced, with several story arcs that are perfectly interwoven… and then the ending sucks. After I’ve invested hours and hours of my life becoming absorbed into the lives of the characters and their struggles, nothing makes me crankier then a bad ending.

Now, I don’t mean a good ending is one that is ‘happily ever after’. Many great stories have left me feeling melancholy, despairing or even angry. What mean by a ‘bad ending’ is a one that leaves the reader feeling cheated, and having a hundred unanswered questions about what happened. A good ending, even if it’s a sad ending, ties up the loose threads of a story into a neat bow. A good ending answers many of the reader’s questions about the plot, or at least hints at the answers, so that the reader themselves can use their imaginations to fill in the blanks.

In other words, a good ending should resolve the conflict. However, the resolution should be related to the actions of the characters themselves, and not be a result of some random external force solving the problem for them. For example, think of a story where a woman has found out that her husband has been cheating on her with his young, sexy secretary, and decides to hire a hit man to teach him a lesson. Throughout the plot we would experience her conflicts – hating him, and yet recalling the love they once shared, her cold-hearted dealings with the hired gun interspersed with the moral dilemma of planning the husband’s murder. If, at the end of the story the husband gets hit by a bus and dies, sure, it solves the main character’s problems, but it feels contrived. Random chance rarely solves a serious problem in real life, and the reader, after having invested so much of their time in the story, wants to see how the conflict is resolved by the characters. Does she go through with the hit? Or does her guilty conscience lead her to throw herself in front of the bullet and save her husband’s life at the expense of her own? The reader wants to see the conflict resolved, but they want the characters to be involved in that resolution.

What about ending a story with a twist? It’s entirely possible to end a story with a twist and still have the ending be completely satisfying and plausible. Again, the trick is to not have the twist be a random surprise and leave the reader completely befuddled. A twist ending for the above story could be that the hit man turns at the penultimate moment and shoots the wife, rather than the husband. However, you need to plant little hints throughout the story so that the reader has an, “Oh, of course!” moment, rather than a, “Huh?” one. There should be indications throughout the plot that hint at an alternative story arc. Perhaps the wife has a fling with the hit man to get back at her straying husband that she cuts off when she gets a better offer. That might make the hit man angry enough to murder her instead of the husband. Or perhaps part of the way through the story, she argues with her husband when she notices a large sum of money missing from their joint bank account, which he brushes off with a lame excuse. As the life leaves her body on the final page, she realises that she and her husband hired the same hit man, but her husband obviously paid the higher price for his services. Whichever twist that you end with, it’s important to leave clues throughout the story so that the reader can pull them all together at the end and be satisfied that it all makes sense.

While there are many ways to write a great ending, it should make your reader satisfied that the conflict has been resolved and their questions answered, but still wishing there were just a few more pages of the story that they could immerse themselves in.


Kelly Inglis’s bio page


     Burning LiesStillwater CreekHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodThe Fragment of DreamsAll This Could End

Writing Novels in Australia

The Ups And Downs Of Writing A Novel, by Onil Lad

My first month of full-time writing has had its ups and downs.

The ups being:

My novel is progressing: the plot has strengthened, the story has been fleshed out and a number of chapters have been completed, in rough draft form.

With the extra time, I’ve started writing book reviews. I’ve read plenty of books but when asked for a critique I struggle to communicate myself succinctly. Book reviewing is fun and helps me to focus on what makes a good story.

Every setback doesn’t have to be a catastrophe because there is time available for re-working.

I’m trying my hand at memoir writing. The words come quickly and I like the results. It helps with the novel and I’d like to try my hand at biography.

For the first time I’ve been able to write every day. It feels good. I didn’t have a set word count this month. I just wanted to get into the groove.

I don’t have to cram my reading into weekends. Now I get a longer run at a book , take in more and have time to focus on the writing. During the month I’ve read a number of books both inside and outside of my genre.

It’s hard to motivate myself to keep fit when I work a job all day. Now I get to exercise in the morning and I find that inspiration comes readily when I’m pursuing outdoor activities. I’m fitter now than when I was in my full-time job.

Some of my best ideas come when I step away from the keyboard and allow the words to percolate. When I have more time to myself and am immersed in reading, the ideas come at a regular clip.

The downs:

When I do pause for breath and realise things haven’t come out as planned, it feels like the end of the world. With too much time on my own, the problems get bigger in my mind. I look at how much work is ahead and think I’ll never make it.

Now that I’ve taken a month off to write, the pressure is on to produce a manuscript.

The internet is hard to get away from. Spending all day reading blogs, articles and book reviews is fun but results in a word count of zero.

All in all it’s been a good month.

If one month off turns into two, it’s no big deal in the grand scheme of things as long as it leads to getting the book written. If I go back to work now, it will take me years.

In October, I’m going to treat it like a job and start word counting.  Two thousand words a day for twenty five days and the novel will be finished.


Onil Lad’s bio page


The Indigo SkySavage TideBurning LiesHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodThe Fortunes of Ruby White

Writing Novels in Australia

Writing A Novel That Gets Readers Thinking, by Onil Lad

In his speech The Clues to a Great Story filmmaker Andrew Stanton stated that the movies that worked best were the ones where the audience “worked it out for themselves” without realising it, before being told what was happening. 

I tried to create the same effect for my novel by dropping hints, leaving clues and trying to reveal the story through successive chapters rather than bogging the story down in long descriptions and explanations.  

Recent feedback for my manuscript has been along the lines of “tell me everything now”. No drip feeding or ambiguity, especially at the start. Tell us what’s going on without mucking about. 

Some of my favourite novels are told in such a way that all the elements combine and you go, “Yes, of course I should have known. How clever was that?” Working it all out is part of the fun for me. 

I remember a grumpy writer who refused to spell anything out for his diminishing reader base. This is all well and good if you are already established and successful, but not everyone wants to toil for their entertainment, especially in these days of short attention spans.  

The difference with Andrew Stanton is that he wasn’t hiding the fact that the reader would have to work. This was the problem I was having with my first chapter. I expected the reader to do too much.

When you feel the need to draw the reader into your story in ways that have drawn you into your personal favourite novels, this can lead to over-indulgence in your own writing, be it long descriptive sentences, cryptic openings or, in my case, too much internal dialogue. 

A friend of mine recently told me how frustrated she became trying to read Moby Dick. She said that I should make my novel easy to read, like Harry Potter. It’s not that straightforward though. Depending on which review you read, Moby Dick is described as the Great American Novel or the Great American Unread Novel. Part of the enjoyment in reading books that require an additional amount of focus is immersing yourself in a text. If you can get into it, then these stories end up being more memorable than an escapist read. 

Still, I’d prefer to be Harry Potter, that’s for sure, so I’m trying get my point across in a more direct way by revealing as much as possible at the start to keep the interest up and the story flowing. Once the reader is engaged, maybe then I can be a bit more adventurous. I can’t remove all the internal dialogue – it’s my favourite part of storytelling – but I can keep it to a minimum so that it doesn’t get in the way of the plot. 

A fast talking work colleague used a long word in conversation and said, “There, that’s a good word for your novel”. It’s not about long words; it’s about enticing the reader into your story in the most efficient way so that they care about what you are trying to say. 

I don’t mind what the next person says when I give them my first chapter for review, I just don’t want them to tell me that they don’t understand what’s going on. 


Onil Lad’s bio page


Savage TideThe Indigo SkyWings of FearHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodThe Fortunes of Ruby White

Writing Novels in Australia

How My Novel Manuscript Has Changed Over Time, by Onil Lad

Stories change over time. So does the message you put forward and the way you say it.

I look back at some of the short stories that I have written and they make me cringe. They were just reflections of phases I went through trying to find my writing voice.

Did I really write a vampire story and a fable based on a throwaway lyric in a song I was obsessing over? Well, yes I did and they got published. In some ways I wish they hadn’t now.

The novel was always the main dish but even that has succumbed to evolution.

I suppose change for the sake of it is another form of procrastination and there’s the danger of going around in circles forever and never getting anywhere.

Still, I think I’ve finally got something. The content that was originally going to take up the whole novel has now been squeezed into the first ten chapters. The plot moves along at a brisker pace. I’ve come up with fresh ideas to keep the story going instead of continuing with stale concepts. I’ve recently thrown out one-time favourite chapters that no longer fit. This hopefully means that what has come since is better.

If anything, I’ve become more adventurous and I’m prepared to say more. I now see that my best shot at getting published is by being different and taking risks. There’s no point in holding anything back.

Can you change so much that you grow out of the genre you’re writing in?

My latest worry is that my taste for Urban Fantasy will change. I’ve read so many books in this field that I think I’m reaching saturation point. At some stage, I would like to move onto something completely different.

I’ve tried my hand at YA, Sci-Fi and Horror, and started this novel wanting to write Dark Fantasy. What came out was a lot lighter than planned. I realised that I wanted to lift the spirits of readers and tell of the triumph of human endeavour. I used to think that my writing was messed up because I read too many books with happy endings when I was young. Now I see that I’ve not read enough of them. I started out wanting to be a doom monger and now find that I’m an optimist. Change can’t all be bad.

You’ve got to be a top-drawer writer to imagine a story, write an outline, split it into chapters, write thousands of words per day and stick to the plan from start to end.

This is my first novel. I’ve never had such a clear vision, just a concept that sounded good. I’ve had to work out the details as I went along. It’s been a slog and most of the pieces of the puzzle got thrown out along the way. The ones that remain seem to fit well, for now.

It may well be an excuse for not getting things done quicker but change is necessary.  I’m sticking with what I’ve got now, though. I’m happy with the plot and where the story’s at. The end is in sight and it’s getting exciting.


Onil Lad’s bio page


The Indigo SkyPromiseThis Green HellWings of FearWild Card (Vanguard Prime)Royal Exile

Writing Novels in Australia

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