Before they begin writing their book, some writers see the setting. They see the place dancing with possibilities in front of their eyes.
Some writers know the plot. They know exactly what will happen at the major narrative turning points and the tension that will add.
And some writers hear the main character. They hear the main character’s voice as if they are a friend talking to them, telling them all about their world and their problems.
I don’t know about you, but I need to hear the voice of the main character in my head before I can begin. I cannot move beyond the opening Act until the voice is almost (nothing’s ever perfect) as clear on paper as it is in my head. Everything else comes later. So I’m a little obsessed with character, and with reading about how other writers transfer their characters to the page.
As with all writing advice, though, this is purely my subjective take on the process. It isn’t meant to be prescriptive at all. We all come to writing in our own way, and with our own processes. And as long as our own way works, what’s the harm in reading about how other people do it?
- What does the character want?
Let’s give our characters a desire line – and from the very first page.
In his eight rules for writing a short story, Kurt Vonnegut talks about the importance of making your character want something – even if it’s only a glass of water.
All of our characters should want something in every single scene. Not just our main character. Of course, we care most about the desire of our main character. So let’s give them a desire so fundamental to their existence that the reader can immediately see why they want it, and conclude that this goal is a good thing for them to want. As we read we begin to find out more about this thing that they want, and we desperately agree with them. They must have it, and we will not stop reading until they get it – they want it and we want them to have it.
- How badly do they want it? What happens if they don’t get it?
Of course, it’s probably best if it isn’t a glass of water – unless they’re trapped in the dessert, as they are in the film 127 Hours where that glass of water takes on a life-saving need. It’s best if what they want is so crucial to their internal happiness that without it we can see that their life will lack meaning and they will be miserable forever.
What are the consequences to your character if they don’t get what they want? Are they purely personal consequences or do they affect many others in the story world? How high your concept, or how ‘hook-y’ your book, is directly related to the character’s wants and needs. If, when the main character gets what they want, it only affects them, the chances are you’ve written a ‘quiet’ book. It’s probably a beautiful story full of empathy and emotion, with a quiet concept. On the other hand, if the consequences to your character getting, or not getting, what they want affect the entire story world, the chances are you’ve written a hook-y book, with a high concept.
- Why can’t they have it?
What obstacles stand in their way? Is their arm trapped between two giant boulders in a canyon? Have they told no one where they were going? Are they going to have to cut off their own arm in order to be free? Obstacles are the crucial turning points that spin the character around, and force them into different modes of action. They force the character out of their comfort zone, and into new ways of being. The obstacles force the character to overcome their fatal flaw.
- What’s their fatal flaw?
Is it that they’re self-centred and never think about other people, ignoring phone calls from their mother and feeling as if everyone’s trying to take away their freedom – 127 Hoursagain. Does their need to be free mean that they don’t tell anyone where they’re going, therefore leaving them truly by themselves when they need other people the most? Is their obstacle a literal manifestation in the form of a giant boulder trapping them and stopping them from moving past their flaw to a real, meaningful connection with the people in their life? If not, how are they going to overcome their fundamental flaw?
Of course, if they don’t overcome their fatal flaw by the end of the book – then you’ve got a series. This is especially true for comedy series. Because part of what we’re laughing at (and with) is the flaw that we recognise in ourselves and the people we know. Any growth in a comedy series can only be incremental, and often we need the character to be almost back to their fundamentally flawed self by the start of book two. Because once they overcome their flaw, we stop laughing. Their story is over. Their character arc is complete.
- Whatever the character’s feeling, we want to feel it too.
Novels are full of vicarious experiences, letting us empathise with people we might never meet in real life. They have the potential to make the world a kinder place because reading lets us experience the world through someone else’s eyes. It enables us to live in their world, to see how that makes them think, and to feel whatever that makes them feel. We walk a mile in someone else’s shoes by reading three hundred or so pages in someone else’s head. When they fall down eight times, so do we. And if they stand up nine, then we cheer and feel like we can do it too.
And so, when we’re writing, we want to create this for the reader, if we can. We want to do more than simply lay out in front of them the main character’s wants, flaws and obstacles, because we’re readers too. So we know what it is to fight back tears when the main character’s sad, to laugh when they’re amused, and to sit on the edge of our seat as they fight for their heart’s desire. Being a writer is an extension of being a reader. When we read, we know what it is to really feel a book. And so, when we write, we want everyone else to feel it too.
Some reading suggestions:
Writing for Emotional Impact – Karl Iglesias
The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler
Julie Marney Leigh writes contemporary novels for teens about fun, friendship and feminism. She grew up in Lancashire, and now lives in Scotland where she gained a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh, and fell in love with the city.
She lectured in English at the university for many years, as well as being a Director of the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School. More recently, she is an alumna of the Curtis Brown Creative Writing for Children Course with Catherine Johnson.
She is represented by Hannah Weatherill at Northbank Talent Management.
Follow @jules_leigh for updates.