HOW TO WRITE THE BREAKOUT NOVEL: Part 2 – Larger-than-life characters

May 4, 2010

Last week was monumentally insane for a variety of agently reasons, so sorry it’s taken longer than I hoped to write the second chapter of our masterclass series on Writing the Breakout Novel.
Part 1, last week, was on AN INSPIRED CONCEPT. This second episode focuses on CHARACTER and is aptly portrayed by today’s image of a pile of Dachsunds. Dachsunds are wee beasties of immense character, and as I write the Wee Man is snoozing on my feet and Auntie Lucy (a fastidious and highly elegant former showdog) is snoring on the office couch.

Without great characters your fiction is going to be pretty much dead, so how do you create characters who will – as we editors like to put it – LEAP OFF THE PAGE? Because your goal is to take your characters out of the black-and-white of two-dimensionality and into the vibrant 3D of your readers’ imaginations. Simple, huh? Well, maybe not so much.

A major tip is to get to know your principle characters and their backstories so well BEFORE YOU START TO WRITE that you don’t need to explain them, or invent them, as you go along. Rather, you are so well acquainted with these people from the getgo that you can let them reveal themselves as you drip forth in measured and varied ways their personalities and their pasts.

What were the journeys your characters made up to the point where your story opens? If you know them this well, you will be better able to ‘show and not tell’. And telling rather than showing is one of the major issues for new writers in particular. What is the biggest problem we see in our submissions inbox? Probably it is TELLING rather than SHOWING.

What do I mean by TELLING? I mean paragraphs, even pages, of exposition, in which your authorial voice (even if thinly disguised as your protagonist) gives an information dump about themselves, your other characters, and their world. Telling may get the info down fast, but it sure is dull to read!

Logan Pearsall Smith said: ‘What I like in a good author is not what he says, but what he whispers.’ And there are lots of ways to whisper as you let your characters REVEAL themselves.

Take Greenhouse author Valerie Patterson’s debut, THE OTHER SIDE OF BLUE (Clarion, Fall 2009). A beautifully crafted, beautifully voiced story set on the island of Curacao in the Dutch Antilles, BLUE tells the story of Cyan who returns to the island one year after the mysterious death of her father at sea. ‘Mother painted me blue,’ Cyan says. ‘But as I look out over the sea, I think about Dad and wonder what color I really am. What is the color for lost?’

See how Valerie uses color (‘colour’ for British readers!) to whisper about her protagonist?

Throughout the story, we can’t help but compare the rich, colorful sensuality of island food with the frozen repression of Cyan’s heart. We’re not TOLD to relate the two, we are just gently, subliminally invited to do so. Sea glass provides another powerful conduit: ‘Hope. I think that’s what we have left, Mother and me. I give it to both of us, cupping it in my hands like a piece of tumbled sea glass, holding it up to the light.’

Valerie Patterson is very, very good at whispering!

The same techniques also work, in different ways, in other genres. See how Sarwat Chadda builds the personality of Billi in his powerful, dark, debut novel DEVIL’S KISS (Hyperion – B & N Top 20 YA Novels of 2009). He doesn’t have to TELL us constantly what Billi is like – he reveals her in multitudinous ways as she responds to danger, fear or anger.

The sole purpose of description is really to reveal character – it has little value in and of itself. British author Malorie Blackman doesn’t even like to tell you whether her characters are black or white – that’s left up to you, the reader, and in what ways does it matter? Worth thinking about perhaps.

What does it tell you that a character’s jeans are ripped or that they wear scarlet lipgloss or that they push back their hair in a certain way? It’s all about character. Have you explored using description in that way?

And now the big one:
Character is revealed pre-eminently by conflict and dilemma – all of which must move us towards your big moment of revelation as the story reaches its climax.

Every scene you include should have a purpose in the greater scheme of your novel. Every scene you include should reveal more about your characters – and conflict is the anvil on which your characters are beaten into shape.

And then there’s dialogue – crucial to building character.

A bestselling author I met at a conference last year told me that he used to receive many rejections, all saying that his dialogue was flat. Being a determined sort of chap he took two weeks off work and secretly recorded conversations at bus stops, in stores, and typed them out. Apart from nearly going mad, he said it was revelation.

What he learned was that people don’t address each other in long, carefully constructed sentences. Rather, 90% of human conversation is extremely self-interested. He learned that what was UNSAID was at least as important as what was SAID.

So, another big one:
The external of conversation needs absolutely to reflect the internal agenda of your character.

Wow, interesting! Do you know the difference between your characters’ internal and external agendas? What they are thinking/feeling inside versus the message they are wanting to convey and portray?

So, that’s it for tonight. Not exhaustive, but hopefully some ideas to be pondering as you craft your story and take it to the next level.


Take care, enjoy your writing – and watch out for the Dachsunds . . . . .