Tag Archives: writing tips

How to Write Great Characters – Who’s Your Protagonist?

Which of these fascinating characters is your protagonist? Readers must know!

Howdy folks!

Back on the blog train after a long hiatus during which I was so buried in work there was no time to blog. Today I want to talk about character.

In almost every edit letter I write, I coach the authors I work with on one or more characters. Without great characters, readers won’t care about your book. Even with a great plot, a great setting, and gorgeous prose, people like to read about people. It’s what drives us to tell and listen to stories in the first place.

So one of your tasks as an author is to immediately give the reader a character to care about. That can be a daunting task, especially if you’re new to the craft. I’ve spent my editing career studying bestsellers, trying to figure out how they work, and I’ve noticed that in every bestselling book I read, six things are apparent by the end of the first chapter:

  • Who the main character is
  • What the main character values
  • How the main character reacts when what they value is threatened
  • What the main character wants
  • What’s in their way
  • What they’re doing about it

I call these the six pillars of character, and I’m going to describe them one by one here on the blog over time.

We’ll start with Who the Main Character Is. It’s the most basic of the six, and I see a number of beginning authors, particularly ones writing epic fantasy, struggle with it. So here’s a basic rule:

  • In order to hook your readers, you must tell them who your story is going to be about.

There are many, many ways to do this, and when I edit, my goal is to lead the author toward the way that feels most natural to them. But in most cases, this means using the point of view in your first chapter to signal to your reader who the most important character is. Depending on the point of view you’ve chosen, this can be simple or tricky.

  • In first-person point of view, it’s dead easy. Whoever is “I” is the protagonist, and that’s immediately clear to the reader.
  • In third-person limited point of view, it’s still fairly easy. Whoever’s head we’re in (whoever’s subjective thoughts we’re receiving along with objective description: “The sleet was colder [objective] than her mother’s cursing [subjective].”) is going to be our protagonist. So make sure you stick to one character’s thoughts, and give us plenty of interesting ones. Use your language to establish a distinctive voice for them, and it’ll be clear that they’re our main character.
  • In third-person omniscient point of view, it’s trickiest. Your best bet is to signal who the protagonist is by focusing the chapter on them. We may be introduced to many characters. We may get many characters’ thoughts. But all of them should loop back around to the main character and affect their story in some way. Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings does a great job of this, if you’re looking for an example to study.
  • If you’re writing in second-person point of view, you overachiever you, the protagonist is “you,” whoever that is. This is, I think, the hardest point of view to work in, and best left until after you’ve mastered all the others. But if you’re trying it, you-the-author need to establish who you-the-reader is. Typically this is done by making sure your opening contains at least as much information about character as it does action. “You open the door” tells the reader nothing. “You scream at the kids, with their purple hair and saggy pants and wallet chains and ugly T-shirts, to stop cutting through your lawn” tells them more. “You hate everything you don’t understand, and you understand very little” tells them a lot. Combine the three sentences into a paragraph, and you’ve established a character.

That’s it for now! Like I said, this is the easy one. They’ll get more complex as we work down the list. If you have any questions, ask them in the comments, and as a reminder, you can always contact me at jeff [at] jeffdoesbooks.com to book me to look at your novel or short story.

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Writing the First Page – Character

Each week for as long as it takes, I’m going to discuss an important craft element an author should consider on the first page of every story. As always, I hope the posts will help you take a look at your work and find ways to improve it. You can start the series here.

Like I said last week, the first page has a rotten job. Partly, it can get it done by shunting some of its work onto a character. It’s hard to get a reader to love a page. It’s a lot easier to get them to love a character. People are hard-wired to care about other people.

How do you take advantage of that? By focusing your first page on a character that a.) your readers will be likely to care about immediately and b.) your readers will continue to care about throughout your opening chapters.

Most authors, even when they’re just starting out, seem to know this intuitively. It’s pretty rare to see a first-page attempt that doesn’t feature a character at all. But I often see authors fail in the execution. They start with a minor character involved in a major plot episode, or they try to emulate TV and movies by starting with a minor or throwaway character who sets the stage for the grand dramatic entrance of the major character on page ten. Or they use the first page of their novel for a prologue that introduces an important plot element that creates a mystery (they’re commonly murders or other crimes, a stranger coming to town, or an Important Thing being broken or going missing). All of these approaches to first pages can work on a limited basis for certain types of stories, but you run some serious risks when you attempt them. To wit:

– Your writing may not be good enough. In order to pull off the “mysterious thing” opening, you need to have a flawless command of pacing and a heck of a mystery or high concept to introduce. You need to know exactly how much information to give the reader to get them hooked and then get the hell out of the way so that you can introduce them to a character as quickly as possible. This is not an easy structure to make work, so if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing with it, you’re probably better off going with a simpler opening.

– Your writing may be too good. If, in your “mysterious thing” opening, you introduce a character that the reader cares about too much, only to kill him or her immediately or never show him or her to the reader again, the reader may be very disappointed, possibly to the point of giving up on the book entirely. Even great books can run into this problem; I put off reading A Game of Thrones for years because of its prologue.

– You may create frustrated expectations. Really, this is another flavor of the “your writing may be too good” problem. Another fantasy mainstay, The Eye of the World, falls afoul of this. If you open with a scene that’s so far removed from your main narrative that the reader won’t understand its relevance until they’re a hundred pages into the book, why are you starting your book there at all? Unless the scene’s relevance is shown quickly, many readers will either forget about the scene or become frustrated by it, and either way you’ll be counting on something else to carry them through the first hundred pages. In most cases, you ought to start with whatever that is.

– Your reader can leave too easily. I apply this warning to any attempt to emulate TV or movies. Writers for broadcast television (less so today than they once could, but it still applies) and writers for movies can get away with things that writers of books can’t. They have tricks that we don’t (like actors and soundtracks—my god the things they get away with because of soundtracks) and their media are stickier. When was the last time you walked out of a movie theater partway through a film? When was the last time you flipped the channel away from a broadcast show without at least waiting for the first commercial break? TV and movie viewers have already bought the content when they start it. Readers haven’t. When was the last time you put a book down before getting to the end of the first page? Probably the last time you went browsing for books—reading the first page is part of how readers determine what to buy.

So, deviation over, why should you start your story with a major sympathetic character? Because so many readers read stories for the characters. If you’ve written a great book, you have a great character somewhere inside it. Don’t be coy with that character—give them to the reader immediately so that the reader can fall in love and decide to read your book.

You’ll get readers who care most about your world and you’ll get readers who care most about your plot, but a significant chunk of your readership is likely to come, and stay, for the characters you write. Give them what they want. The longer you wait to offer your reader a character they can care about for the long haul, the greater the risk you run of that reader bouncing off your story.

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Writing the First Page – Voice

Each week for as long as it takes, I’m going to discuss a craft element every author should consider on the first page of every story. As always, I hope the posts will help you take a look at your work and find ways to improve it.

The first page has a rotten job; it must convince a stranger that it’s worth their time, and it must do it in the blink of an eye. Imagine if that was your job, all day, every day. “Love me! Look how compelling I am! Don’t you want to come inside and see what else this book has to offer?”

Pretty rough, right? It’s the literary equivalent of getting into a sandwich suit and dancing at an intersection with a big sign.

Luckily, you can equip your first pages with tools that make their job a lot easier. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to go over a number of those tools, and I’m starting with the most important one today: on your first page, you must establish a voice for the novel.

Voice is one of the hardest aspects of craft to define, but I’ll do my best for you here. When I say voice, I mean which words you use to tell the story and what promises those words make to the reader.

One of my favorite first pages is that of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself. Really, you should read the whole first chapter (hell, the whole book) if you want to study voice, but I’ll pluck out a line to pick apart for you. It’s the third paragraph of the book, the eighth line (moving down vertically), the twelfth and thirteenth sentences. In short, it comes very early.

“There was a spear coming at him. A cruel-looking spear, coming at him fast with a Shanka on the other end of it.”

That line does a great job of establishing voice. It promises the reader a number of things:

  • This will be a stylistically rendered novel (Look at the repetition—not strictly necessary but used to artistic effect).
  • This will be a humorous novel (Look at the way this information is delivered—cleverly and with a hint of sarcasm: “Yep, there’s a spear coming…oh, and it has an effing monster attached to one end.” Abercrombie could have written, “A Shanka threw a cruel-looking spear at him,” but that would be a very different voice).
  • This will be a novel where the language is sometimes plain, sometimes beautiful. (Roll the words “cruel-looking spear” around in your mouth. There’s poetry there; that’s one reason the repetition works. Then look at “There was a spear coming at him.” Much more journalism than poetry there.)
  • This will be a novel in which the characters tell the story in their own words (This is an assumption made by the reader at this point based upon the idiosyncrasy of the language; it won’t be confirmed until we get another point of view and it uses a different voice).
  • This will be a novel in which the author knows what the heck he’s doing (This is the cumulative effect of all of the above, plus the other things happening on the page).

All of those promises are important. They give the reader information necessary to decide whether to keep reading or not, and they offer a vision of the book to come that many readers find compelling.

Voice is the vehicle for many of the promises the first page delivers, and it delivers them at a level that’s often beneath the reader’s consciousness. Most readers don’t pick the technical elements of a page apart. They may not be able to tell you why they kept reading one book and didn’t keep reading another, but you may hear this a lot: “I just like the way he/she writes.” or “I was three pages in before I realized it.” Those are signs that the author’s voice is working.

So when you’re revising your first page, ask yourself the following questions related to voice:

  • What promises am I making to the reader with my language, and do I keep them in the rest of the novel?
  • What stylistic elements (sentence fragments; witty dialogue; long descriptive passages; short, snappy sentences; humor; wordplay; onomatopoeia; cursing; sarcasm; direct address; internal monologue; poetic descriptions; journalistic descriptions; strange typography or formatting; etc., etc., etc.) appear frequently enough in the novel that I should show them to the reader right away so that they can decide whether or not they want more?
  • Does one character have a stronger voice than the others, and if so, am I leading with their point of view?
  • Does the narrator of my first page sound like she’s a good storyteller? If not, why not, and how can I get her there?

If you can answer those questions in a way that satisfies you, chances are you’re well on your way to having strong voice on your first page.

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