Hub articles

Diversity in genre fiction

Diversity in genre fiction

Guest author and blogger Rhoda Baxter studied molecular biology at Oxford, which is why her pen name takes after her favourite bacterium. She writes contemporary romantic comedies in whatever spare time she has. Here are her thoughts on diversity in fiction.

When is a book ‘not Asian enough’?

There’s been a lot of recent discussion about diversity in publishing. A lot of people lament the fact that there aren’t enough diverse characters in fiction. There is diversity in the people who live in the UK and diversity in the subsection of those people who write books, so why the mismatch? As part of this discussion someone brought up the fact that books with BAME protagonists are judged by a different set of criteria – one of which is is this book Asian enough/black enough?

This question winds me up. What is the benchmark for a book being Asian enough? Who sets it? How often is it reviewed? What is the point of it?

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

I write romance, arguably the biggest selling genre in fiction. I’m British/Sri Lankan. Asian is part of who I am. It’s not something I consciously work at. If you asked me to list the things that define me, my Sri Lankan background would not make it into the top five. As a kid, I lived in a regular house, went to a regular school, read the same books, watched the same TV shows and listened to the chart show every week, just like the rest of my classmates. Of course, there was the odd Goodness Gracious Me moment, but mostly, my life wasn’t vastly different to my friends’. It wasn’t as though as soon as I shut the front door I was transported into another world of sari’s and spices. Yet, if you read mainstream fiction featuring Asian characters you’d think that was the case. No wonder everyone was so astounded that Nadiya Hussein chose to flavour her cheesecakes with fizzy pop (or that she even baked in the first place!).

My first book featured middle class Sri Lankan characters. I wrote about people who were, basically, a bit like the Asian people I know. I submitted to agents and small publishers, I had a few notes back, a few requests for the full manuscript. ‘Asian Lit’ was popular at the time; White Teeth and Brick Lane were still riding high. The most useful feedback I got back was “I like it, but I don’t know where I’d place it”. It wasn’t Asian enough for literary fiction and not white enough for genre fiction.

Being the pragmatic sort, I wrote the next book with white main characters. Given that I write about middle-class people, the things that worry white characters would be pretty much the same as the things that bother Asian characters – job security, sexism, bullying, the quest for love. Besides, people are people, regardless of what shade they are, and white characters have the same range of feelings as brown ones. I placed this book with a small publisher relatively easily.

If you want fiction to represent the experiences of a wide range of people, you need accept those experiences as they are presented – even if they don’t fit into your preconceived notions. Rich people face different challenges to poor ones. First generation immigrants face different challenges to their children. No two Asian homes are the same, because no two families could be the same. So perhaps we should stop trying to pretend that they are. How can fiction show the reading public any variety in the Asian experience of life if the publishing industry insists that very variety does not exist (or, more accurately, that the reading public won’t buy it).

‘Diversity’ isn’t about showing Asian characters doing things in an Asian way, or gay characters doing things in a gay way or disabled characters doing things in a disability adapted way. That’s just pandering to stereotype. Diversity is achieved by showing characters of different backgrounds doing things in their own way and telling their unique stories. If it makes minority characters look less different than the majority expect them to be, that might even be a good thing.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I write under a pen name since my real name is difficult to spell, and it helps to keep my writing career distinct from my day job – but I have always submitted my work to publishers and agents under my real name. I think (although I have no data to back this up) that the ‘is it Asian enough’ question arises not from racism as such, but from a skewed assumption of what readers can stomach.

As a point of principle, I always have at least one Sri Lankan secondary character in each book. In my latest book (Please Release Me) the heroine is mixed race. I’m sneaking minority characters into mainstream genre fiction one book at a time. Interestingly, readers don’t seem bothered at all.

Other areas of interest

How to finish a novel and schedule writing time

How to actually finish your damn novel

How to schedule your writiing time, and get your novel finished

One of the hardest things about finishing a novel – before you think about ideas, characters, or plotting – is finding time and confidence with all those words to write.

Maybe writing a novel seems like a mammoth task, a distant dream.

Read on for tips in writing productivity, how to get organised with your writing, and how to finish a novel.

A massive spoiler: you can do it.

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

How to schedule your writing time (by the hour)

How can you be sure to finish a book you start?

Lots of writers prefer spontaneity to planning out writing times. If vagueness hasn’t been helping, though, setting goals could help make a novel seem less imposing.

Goals may adapt as you go on, too (perhaps by the day, if you’ve written something one day that negates what you were planning to do the next day, and so on). This shouldn’t be an inflexible process.

Just decide on your writing days per week, how much time you know you’ll roughly have to dedicate to writing on each day.

Some days, you may have an hour or two. On others, you know you may just have twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes can still count.

If you want your novel written, you’ll need determination – and Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope even paid someone to get him up and bring coffee, so he could write in the few hours before he went to work. Even if your designated writing times aren’t every day, they should still be fixed (as much as you can make them).

Show up for your writing, keep it habitual.

If you’ve been struggling to make time for writing on a more fluid basis, see if actively planning your writing like this makes a difference.

How to set your writing goals (and achieve them)

Let’s explore this idea of hours more, how you’ll make the time productive, once you’ve scheduled it into your day.

Perhaps you’ll allot in your diary (or mobile calendar) an hour of each weekday to writing your novel. List its ideal outcome. Does Chapter 1 need starting? If you’re further on than that, does a scene need revising? Does a ‘filler’ or ‘bridge’ section need getting down on paper, before you go back and figure out how to make it better later?

Maybe there’s a weeknight you know you’ll have limited time, so take out just twenty minutes for research, editing or mind-mapping ideas for a scene. Maybe there’s a weekend you know you’ll have lots more time, so set yourself a bigger task.

Try giving one ideal outcome to each time you write, to help turn your novel into a manageable project (so if you do more than that, wonderful).

Few people can find long stints of time to write as they’d like. The only agreed solution (between the ‘planners’ and the ‘pantsters’) is to carve writing hours into a schedule, then stick to them, making them useful.

You can always break up your writing time with something called the Pomodoro technique, too – 25 minutes of work, then 5 minutes to break – rewarding yourself as you go.

Bring your close family and friends along, too. Your desire to write is a part of you, so having support and understanding from others will help.

How to protect your writing space (and headspace)

Whilst it’s possible to write anywhere, your headspace and surrounding environment can help you keep up a writing discipline.

Surround yourself with writerly comforts. Some need black coffee, others need green tea. Some need quiet, others need jazzy playlists. Some need cushions, others need a wrist support. Some need scattered notes, others need filing systems.

Make your writing spot a place you’ll literally love coming to.

If it’s just not possible to create a makeshift writing space at home, settle yourself where you’ll feel comfortable, even if it’s just in bed with a laptop. (And why not?)

Respecting your physical space, the bustle of a café could be less taxing than the bustle of home in terms of productivity. If you need to remove yourself from home distractions for a bit, why not take yourself to a coffee or lunch? Treat yourself to whatever feeds your writer’s brain. Perhaps during a lunch break at work, you’ll be able to take yourself and your laptop to a café somewhere.

Also, any space (and anyone’s headspace) nowadays is easy to infiltrate with wi-fi. Protect focus by turning off the wi-fi. (You can always ‘reward’ yourself with the Internet later.)

Keep things fun, just keep yourself to task, too.

How to keep going and finish your novel

First, start now.

There’s never going to be a time when you’re readier to write than the present. Start writing, then keep it habitual, even between projects. Carry a notebook and pen with you. Try jotting ideas on the go. If you’re a first time writer, try checking out this page for extra advice and inspiration!

Second, release some pressure.

Allow yourself to be carried along, to enjoy and let loose. Allow your first draft to be imperfect because otherwise it can’t get written. You’ll have time to edit once it’s out on a page, but you can’t edit from nothing (editing, by-the-by, we can help with once you’re ready).

Third, you can do it.

If you’ve set yourself a word count of 10,000 words every month (as an example, aiming for between 2,000-3,000 words per weekend), you could have a first working draft in less than a year before all your structural editing and revisions go in.

Fourth, remind yourself how much you want this.

If you want to be published, you’ll need to be resilient, as well as kind to yourself. Getting a first draft out is hard, and a first draft is allowed to be flawed before you go back and edit.

Oh, and fifth?

Get some damn help! Our editorial services are there for your assistance, as well as an incredible self-editing course that will help you on your way to finishing your novel. Most importantly, hang around in a supportive writing community, crammed with expert resources, that will help you achieve what you want to achieve.

But where is such a wonderful community to be found, you cry?

Well, let’s see. Jericho Writers is a club for writers. And it’s low cost, and cancel-any-time. And it has an eat-all-you-want approach to a gazillion writing resources. And it’s full of people like you. And those people seem to go on to get published. And you can find out more about that club right here, right now. We really hope you sign up with us. We’d love it if you did!

Other areas of interest

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

Second Novel Syndrome (the Disease, the Symptoms, the Cure)

traditional publishing vs self publishing

Second Novel Syndrome – the symptoms and the cure

Sarah Ann Juckes is part of Jericho Writers’ marketing team . . . but like a few of us at JW, she’s also an author. Her debut novel, The Proof of the Outside, is published with Penguin Random House in 2019.

And that’s great news – she’s being published! Yay! – and also terrible news. Because it means she’s in the middle of second novel purgatory. Here’s her take on all of that . . .

I know what you’re thinking. Why do I need to read a blog post about Second Novel Syndrome, when I haven’t even finished the first?

Well, publishing is a funny thing. In January 2017, I wondered if I’d ever get a novel published. By March that same year, I had an agent and my book was in the London Book Fair catalogue.

When it happens, it can happen fast. [Ed’s Note: It kinda helps if you come to one of Jericho Writers’ events. That’s where the magic happened for our Sarah.]

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

What is Second Novel Syndrome?

Second novel syndrome (SNS) isn’t talked about a lot. I spent twelve years writing books and trying to get an agent, and I didn’t think much about what would happen after that. Getting an agent felt like an impossible end goal.

It wasn’t.

Second books are actually notoriously difficult to write. I know – I didn’t think they would be, either. I wrote three ‘practice’ books before I made it with my debut. What’s the big deal about writing one more?

SNS symptom #1 – you have way less time

I started my debut novel in July 2014. In 2015, I completely trashed the draft and started again. In 2016, I wrote my next draft as part of a writing course, and then completely changed it again in the summer of that year, thanks to some feedback from an agent.

All in all, the novel took me two and a half years to write – and then another year editing it with my agent and editors after that.

When I casually asked my agent when publishers expect an author’s second book, she said ‘usually a year after delivery of the first’.

Yep – a year.

Somewhere in that year, I had to come up with an astounding concept that was as good as the first. I had to research, plan and write a terrible first draft (that I could bin and re-write entirely, before no doubt re-writing again). All of this whilst trying to hold down a full-time job and all those other things that go with being a human being.

The cure: make more time

Certainly not an easy feat. For me, I’ve had to cut my working week to four days, so I have at least one day to donate entirely to writing. I work from home as much as I can, so I have more energy to write in the evenings.

This won’t be doable for everyone. Find the pockets of time you can squeeze out of your day, no matter how big or small, knuckle down and make that happen.

SNS symptom #2 – you now have multiple projects on your hands

I’m a bit of a loyal writer. When I have my head in a book, it consumes me.

Over the last year, I’ve learnt that it’s not really possible to write a second book and have it consume you. I’ve had to split my time between writing my new book and editing my old one – occasionally dropping the new project completely to make a deadline.

Some writers are already brilliant at project juggling. For me – it’s been a big learning curve.

The cure: learn how to juggle projects

As your writing career progresses, you’re going to have more and more projects to juggle. When you’re writing your fifth book, you might still be doing events on your debut.

No one talks about it, but it is one of those skills you have to learn if you want to be a professional writer.

I’m still in the process of learning it, but so far, I’ve found that sectioning my working week can help differentiate between projects. In the morning, I could be working on debut edits from home. Then in the afternoon, I take my laptop to a café and I throw some words down for book two.

SNS symptom #3 – you can’t shake off your last book

My debut was written in first person present, from the point of view of a girl with a distinctive voice and a weird way of seeing the world.

I’ve spent three and a half years with her, and I’m still with her now. She’s difficult to shake off.

I’ve written over a hundred first pages of my new novel, and they’re still not quite right. I need a new, equally distinctive, but completely different voice – but everything I write still seems to be about her.

The cure: get out of your comfort zone

If, like me, you’re struggling to find a new voice, try writing your story in a completely different way to your first.

For example, I’ve found writing in verse to be a helpful way in. Writing poetry means I can get to know my new character in a place my previous protagonist doesn’t belong.

Yes – I’ll probably scrap every word. But with first drafts, everything and anything you can write will help you reach the finish line.

SNS symptom #4 – your next book needs to be as good as your first

Nothing I can say here will sum this up better than this tweet by @AdamSilvera:

As a writer, I feel the need to impress. My agent is amazing – she fights in my corner and believes wholeheartedly in my writing. I want to hand her a new novel that is even more amazing than she thought my first one was.

Unfortunately, what I’m actually writing is terrible. I mean – of course it is. She saw my debut after two rewrites and a year of edits. All she’s going to see now is that first draft I’m going to throw away.

Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier.

And, of course, when we’re writing something we don’t think is as good as it could be, it can be difficult to keep going. It becomes easier to stop for a bit, maybe have a tidy up, or obsessively scour Pinterest for home décor ideas…

(Not that I do that.)

The cure: forget about other people

This one I definitely find the hardest, as I have a (somewhat ridiculous) need to please people.

The truth is though – other people don’t matter when it comes to first drafts. Anyone who writes, or who knows writing, will know that first drafts are for the writer to work out what it is they want to write.

First drafts of book two do not need to be as good as your finished debut.

And – all because you have an agent now, doesn’t mean you are suddenly a know-it-all, master writer. All writers need to keep learning and – importantly – keep making mistakes.

The important thing is that we keep writing. That’s the only way horrible first drafts get turned into published novels.

Second Novel Syndrome: a Cure

There is no complete cure for Second Novel Syndrome other than just doing it.

But do remember this:

Jericho Writers is a club for writers like you. Like us, in fact.

It’s low cost. It’s got an easy cancel-any-time structure, which means your upfront risk is minimal. And the basic idea is, we furnish you with all the tools and resources you could possibly want to develop your skills as a writer and as an author. If that sounds even half interesting to you, then pop over here to learn more about our Club. It was built for people like you. We’d love it if you joined us.

Other areas of interest

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

How to write according to Myers-Briggs personality type

How to write according to Myers-Briggs personality type

How to write according to Myers-Briggs personality type

How to write according to Myers-Briggs personality type

Guest author and blogger Lauren Sapala is a writing coach, the author of The INFJ Writer, and writes about writing, creativity, and personality theory on her blog. She currently lives in San Francisco.

It’s often empowering to understand what helps you as a writer, but types only take us so far. First and foremost, you’re you.

What builds your own creativity and what holds you back?

If you’re struggling to make headway on a writing project, think how you best work, how maybe a “weakness” could be a strength, and what’ll most help you finish – will it be a deadline? Or a designated day of the week to write?

For more on the MBTI system, the Myers & Briggs Foundation website is a great place to start. However, I’d urge every writer to experiment with many different methods of writing to find what works best for them. There can be great variation, even among the same type.

Every artist is an individual.

All artists should give themselves the permission to do whatever works best for them.

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

Are you an intuitive writer?

I struggled for years as a writer. I wanted desperately to write a novel, but I couldn’t even write the first page. Then, when I finally worked up the courage to take a creative writing course in college, I failed miserably. I stopped writing altogether for seven years.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t until I discovered my Myers-Briggs personality type that I began to shine as a writer. Finding out that I was an intuitive personality was just the information I needed to finally move forward.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a system of 16 personality types that divides people along a spectrum of traits that determine how an individual interprets and reacts to the world.

The MBTI system focuses on such tendencies as introversion versus extroversion, and intuition versus sensing (i.e. relying primarily on concrete information gleaned from one’s five physical senses). The complexity of the MBTI system is too vast to be addressed fully in this article, so if you don’t already know your type or you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating area of psychology, I recommend you make use of the wealth of helpful resources that can be found online.

If you do already know your type, and you want to know a bit more about how this affects your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, look at my selection of “writers by type” below, to discover how you can start using your type as a creative advantage.

These below are intuitive personalities on the MBTI system – ones I seem to work oftenest with, encouraging their ideas and intuitive talent.

Tips for INFJ writers

I’m an INFJ writer myself, and so I’m intimately acquainted with many of the most common obstacles INFJ writers face. The number one challenge I see INFJ writers struggle with is perfectionism.

INFJs have a rich, all-consuming inner life, and they excel brilliantly at seeing the big picture and imagining the ideal version of how something could take shape in the future. Because INFJs are such amazing abstract thinkers, it’s easy for us to bring together different elements in our mind to form a perfect whole. It’s when we try to make this “perfect whole” a physical reality that we’re confronted with the real world and all the messiness, pitfalls, snags, and less-than-perfect elements it contains.

INFJ writers who are unconscious of their own perfectionistic tendencies will get stuck at this stage, always dreaming and never making any of their dreams a reality. It’s only when INFJ writers realize that the real world is never perfect, and anything they create will necessarily be bound to this real-world truth, that they can begin to accept their writing for what it is, flaws and all.

Tips for INFP writers

INFP writers suffer the most from too many ideas, and a feeling of being overwhelmed by all the choices and different creative paths they could take. I’ve written on my site on the non-linear way I’ve often seen INFP writers work. This can be a strength, though – a means to connect patterns between scenes, images, characters, and ideas.

It’s also not uncommon to see an INFP writer working on several writing projects at once, but the problem is not that INFPs work on too many things at the same time. Instead, the problem is that they tend to judge themselves harshly and resist their natural tendency at every turn.

INFPs need a lot of variety. They also need a sense of flexibility and the freedom to be spontaneous and fluid in their artistic pursuits. Out of all the types, INFPs are most likely to work in circles. This means that the INFP writer usually works on one story, then moves onto painting for a few days, then moves onto writing a poem, and finally circles back to the story. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach and, in fact, it can work quite well for INFPs who have accepted their nature and embrace this circular way of working. INFP writers run into trouble though, when they compare their creative processes to others and try to force themselves to work in a linear manner.

Tips for ENFJ writers

Out of the four intuitive feeling types (INFJ, INFP, ENFJ and ENFP) the ENFJ is the type that is most likely to fall prey to an extremely harsh inner critic.

ENFJs are almost preternaturally aware of the relationship dynamics surrounding them, and that includes a thorough assessment of how others view them and how they measure up in the larger order of any community of which they happen to be a part. This leads many of them to easily play the comparison game, and many times feel like they’re coming out on the losing end.

ENFJs also have a strong need for connection and community. If they feel isolated in their writing pursuits, or like no one understands them or “gets” what they’re attempting to do with their writing, they can quickly shut down and then begin isolating themselves even further. ENFJs must feel emotionally supported by a group of peers they love and respect. This is when they will do their best work.

Tips for ENFP writers

ENFPs are similar to INFPs in that they suffer from the feeling of being overwhelmed by too many ideas, but with ENFPs this includes an outer world component that can contribute to even more overwhelm.

Simply put, ENFPs are unabashed extroverts. They love people and they love getting out and having adventures with people. A healthy ENFP might work two jobs, have a family, and still take up demanding hobbies such as snowboarding or Spanish classes in their spare time. This kind of schedule usually leaves little time for writing.

The number one problem most ENFPs struggle with is finishing things. They begin novels, plays, and short stories full of enthusiasm for the project, but then a sparkly, too-interesting-to-resist person or cause comes along and immediately distracts them. The best method for ENFPs is to devote one day a week to a certain piece of work (maybe the novel they’ve always dreamed of writing) and keep firm boundaries in place around that day so that the project gets a guaranteed slice of their creative energy on a regular basis.

Never feel boxed in, though. Find your best writing habits.

Always do what works for you.

Learn about Lauren’s journey and read more at her site. Learn more about all different MBTI types and writing styles – and check out more free writing advice on us.

Other areas of interest

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

Julia Hamilton

Taking emotional possession of your characters

Taking emotional possession of your characters

Guest author and blogger Julia Hamilton is the author of six novels, most recently Forbidden Fruits and Other People’s Rules, both from HarperCollins. Before those, Julia published with Penguin (A Pillar of Society, The Good Catholic, and After Flora) and Collins / Flamingo (The Idle Hill of Summer).

I’ve recently read a couple of submissions as an editor where the author is writing about someone they knew, in one case a brave, soldier father, in another an interesting aunt. Our biographies are often submerged in our novels: the idea of a roman a clef was precisely this: thinly veiled characters whose identity could be guessed at by the reader. Many authors find this a useful device from Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, to Scott Fitzgerald in Tender is the Night or even Violet Trefusis in Broderie Anglaise.

It’s not so much why authors write about their own families and people they know, it’s how they go about it. Do you stick to facts or do you muck about with them?

My first novel was based on the life of a cousin of my great-grandfather’s, a soldier in the Great War who kept some (rather dull) war diaries that were published after his death in 1918 and are often quoted by military historians because of the pinpoint accuracy of his observations of the landscape and his obsession (very necessary) with the ranging of his guns as an artillery officer.

But what interested me was what he was really thinking on the inside.

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

I’d found draft diaries in one of those tin boxes with his name in white paint on the side and the top that hinted at a much more interesting interior life: he was a Catholic convert and obsessed by his religion, he had a tender but slightly tentative relationship with his wife and was enjoying the war enormously, although he writes about his suffering, too. Even more interesting was the fact that all the (to me) interesting bits had been scored out with blue pencil before they were published.

Here was my subject, I felt.

But this was my first novel, how the hell did I go about taking emotional possession of someone who had really existed? The facts of his life daunted me to start with: they seemed so final and definitive, how could I change them and what would I change them into? And not only that, but the detail of the Great War almost crushed me to death. It’s a huge subject about which I knew not very much.

I mentioned what I was doing to someone (a great mistake, never mention tender subjects like this at a dinner party as you run the risk of exposing yourself to the highly contagious disease of doubt, rife amongst authors), and he said, ‘Oh, but hasn’t the First World War been done to death?’

Well, yes, it had. But not by me, I decided, after a bad day or two. I proceeded with my task.

My hero, Gerard (his middle name, in fact), died in real life in 1918. Did that mean I had to somehow write about four whole years of the most written about war in history? After about a year, I realized that I could do whatever I liked. For fictional purposes, I killed him off sometime in early 1915, but I used the text of the real (and indescribably moving) letter written by the priest who buried him to his wife in the actual novel, a letter that afterwards appeared in The Faber Book of Letters, adding another twist to the whole roman a clef business.

When the book was reviewed in the TLS, the reviewer knew of my character’s real identity and mentioned his quite famous war diaries in the review. So what was true and what wasn’t? By the end I couldn’t remember and quite frequently confused my own fiction with fact, so successful had I become at my task of ‘playing God’. In fact, immersing myself in the First World War changed my life for good. As a result, I took my then young children every Remembrance Sunday to the ravishingly beautiful service in Westminster Abbey, something they remember now with great intensity. We visit the real Gerard’s grave whenever we go that way through the haunted battlefields of the Somme, too – and I always weep.

If you want to take emotional possession of your characters, let them take the same of you.

Other areas of interest

How to write supporting characters in fiction

How to write supporting characters in fiction

Guest author and blogger William Ryan is author of the Captain Korolev Novels, shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, the Ellis Peters and John Creasey Daggers and the Irish Crime Novel of the Year (twice).

He teaches on the Crime Writing Masters at City University in London and shared with us this excerpt, expanded and adapted, from the book he co-wrote with M.R. Hall, Writing Crime Fiction, on writing great supporting characters. Whatever your genre, enjoy these words of wisdom.

When you’re writing a mystery novel, or any novel for that matter, you need a protagonist who works for the novel. That means, in my view anyway, that they have to be intriguing enough that the reader wants to spend time in their company, that they are the character whose eyes this story must be told through and that they are the character who makes all the key decisions that take the story from the beginning to the end. Let’s presume you have just such a character, filled with multiple layers and tempting internal contradictions. Now you need to populate the rest of the novel. So you need some subsidiary characters.

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

Subsidiary characters don’t have the same functions as the detective in a mystery novel – they don’t drive the story in the way that the central character does, although they may be key to how it progresses. In general, they exist for one of the following four purposes:

  • To be the victim of a crime, either directly or indirectly.
  • To prevent or obstruct the detective from solving a crime.
  • To assist the detective in solving a crime.
  • To tell us something about the detective or the setting.

For example, a child may set out to mislead a detective by lying to them but actually end up assisting their investigation by inadvertently revealing a key piece of information. This unintentional assistance might result in the child’s murder, making them a victim, and the discovery of their body may reveal a more sensitive side to the detective’s personality that hasn’t been apparent until then. That character is earning their place on the page. There are always exceptions, of course, but if a secondary character doesn’t fulfil at least one of the four roles outlined above, you probably need to reconsider their inclusion. You may still have a valid reason for keeping them, but it’s probably a good idea to work out what it is. If the reason you come up with isn’t related to pushing the story forward then you may well want to kill them off. It’s seldom the case that a character gets a free ride in a good crime novel – they have to work for you, and for the central character, or they have to go.

Aside from asking what their role in the novel is, it’s always a good initial question to ask of each of your secondary characters: ‘who do you appear to be, and who are you underneath?’ By hiding something about a character at the outset, you will, almost effortlessly, make them interesting and potentially surprising. Also, because you know that you’ll have to reveal the truth about them later on, you’ll begin to foreshadow that truth and, because you’re going to be straight with your reader, except when you’re misleading them, you’ll be circumspect about confirming the appearance the character maintains at the outset – and the reader will pick up on that.

You will also need to understand why each of your subsidiary characters behaves the way they do in the novel. Even an insane serial killer will generally have a reason for their murder spree – no matter how bizarre it might be – and discovering the reason why a murder has been committed is often to discover the killer. Not every character in the novel is a murderer but that doesn’t mean their motivation shouldn’t be explored. If the detective’s spouse leaves them half way through the book then your readers will want to know why. Likewise the senior officer to whom a police detective reports may well have valid reasons for interfering in their investigation and trying to rein them in, and it will help if you, and the reader, understand their concerns.

Often the motivation for the subsidiary character’s behaviour will have something to do with the central character. Conflict is, after all, going to help drive your plot forward. In Ian Rankin’s The Black Book, Rebus is in conflict, of one sort or another, with every one of the major subsidiary characters, and most of the minor ones as well. The more conflicts you can establish, the more challenges and obstacles your detective is likely to have to overcome. Sometimes the conflicts may be subtle – your detective may be attracted to another character that may, at least initially, not feel the same way about them. This relationship may be only a sub-plot in the novel, but it might tell the reader something of the detective’s character and, hopefully, make the reader warm to him or her. All of the central character’s conflicts with other characters will have a trajectory over the course of the novel and will, generally, be resolved by its end even if, with a series, only in an uneasy truce until the confrontation resumes in the next book.

As with the central character, you are going to have to name your subsidiary characters, decide what they look like, where they’ve come from and fill in the details of their personality. With the more minor characters, you may not have to do this – a taxi driver who follows a suspect at the detective’s request isn’t going to have enough time allocated to them in the novel to allow for much more than the briefest of sketches. However, that said, the more time you spend thinking about a character, even if they only make the briefest of appearances, the more vivid they’ll be on the page. It’s a bit like the research you’re going to do for your novel – much of your work won’t make it onto the page. Instead it forms a hidden structure that gives the novel its authenticity. The reader believes in the world you’ve recreated for them, because you’ve done the research and speak with authority on everything you describe. It’s the same with characters – because you know all of this information about them, they acquire a depth on the page.

Although there are no absolute rules about the number of secondary characters in a crime mystery, remember that the reader will struggle to get to know more than a dozen with any degree of intimacy (you can discount minor characters who appear for less than a page in coming to this number). Obviously each novel is different and some, by their very nature, will be more heavily populated than others but it’s generally a good idea to be wary of extended casts, especially when their role in the story might be easily combined into another character’s.

This brief overview of how to write subsidiary characters has been set in the context of crime fiction, specifically the mystery novel, but it equally applies to most other genres and most literary fiction. If you think of the solution of the crime as being the objective of the detective, then the points discussed above relate to any novel where the protagonist has to overcome challenges, whether external or internal, and conflicts to achieve their objective. For example, romantic fiction tends to work exactly the same way – the lover’s objective, which they may not necessarily be aware of, is to find love in the arms of another character. Most of the other characters are going to either be rivals for the affection of one of the two characters, or exist to provide conflict, assistance or obstruction in relation to the final goal, or be in the novel to give insights into the character of the lover or the loved one.

You can certainly include other characters, perhaps for humour or even tragedy, but making sure the characters justify their place in the novel, behave logically, have hidden depths and interact properly with the central character is going to make your novel stronger and, ultimately, better.

Other areas of interest

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

Creating sympathetic characters

Creating sympathetic characters

Guest author and blogger William Kowalski shares his insights into creating sympathetic characters that resonate on the page.

Language is a living, organic thing, and words have a habit of shifting meaning over time. This is precisely what has happened with the word sympathy.

Like ouzo and democracy, sympathy comes to us from the Greeks. It’s derived from pathos, meaning “feeling”, and together with its prefix, which in English becomes “sym”, it once meant to feel along with someone, or to join a community of feeling.

We have not completely lost this sense of it, but our understanding of sympathy has narrowed until it’s come to mean feeling sorry for someone, or commiserating with them. As we writers develop our characters, we would do well to spend some time pondering the original, deeper meaning of the word.

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

Why are sympathetic characters so important? Because unless your readers have some kind of emotional investment in their outcome, they won’t care what happens to them. They will become antipathetic.

As a writing mentor, I must often explain that a sympathetic character isn’t just one we feel sorry for. It’s someone in whose struggle readers have become wrapped up, the more completely the better. We feel the same range of emotion he feels. We have joined her community of feeling.

We do this because we believe this character is a real, flesh-and-blood person, if the author has done his job properly. What happens to her happens to us. It’s a skilled illusion, so how do we pull it off?

The answer lies in the all-important practice of strong character development.

In Poetics, Aristotle tells us that characters must be “good” (she must possess some redeeming quality); “appropriate” (her qualities must make sense, based on her identity); “believable” (we have to believe that such a person could exist); and “consistent” (her character, while mutable, should also follow a pattern throughout the course of a story). I go into more detail on Aristotle’s contributions to our storytelling culture in an article available for free on my website, called “Writing Secrets of the Ancient Greeks.”

But these are not the only considerations. If a character is to be sympathetic, he must be in pursuit of something. In his rules for writing, Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

In fact, the simpler your character’s goal, at least at the outset of the story, the better. As we watch him go off in pursuit of that thing, we will naturally sympathize with his struggle.

All these rules can confound us if we try to follow them to the letter as we write. The best practice for me has been to revisit them periodically, in order to remember the basics. In this way, they become implanted, and eventually become second nature.

Remember that we don’t have to like everything about a character. A flawed and imperfect nature makes him even more sympathetic, because we’re not perfect, either. We have a much easier time relating to a character who screws up from time to time than to someone who always gets it right on the first try.

Other areas of interest

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

Writing your draft: how to write characters (not clichés)

Writing your draft: how to write characters (not clichés)

Characters bring life and drama to plot.

You may have rich, compelling material for a dramatic plot, but if we’re not interested in spending time with your protagonist, and not invested in their journey and character arc, plot action is in danger of becoming redundant and ringing hollow.

It’s critical to a story’s success your characters be captivating enough to linger long after the last page. It’s also critical your story’s plot is ‘character-driven’, and for that to happen, it must contain characters with autonomy and depth.

Before you dismiss a character profiling as a waste of time, or are thinking you just need to get stuck into plotting; start with reading this article. Then, before you get stuck into writing, create a character profile for your protagonist, antagonist, deuteragonists, (characters who are second in importance to the protagonist), and any other significant characters you sense need it.

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

Understanding your characters

In Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters, Michael Tierno has written:

The function of the poet [i.e. the writer] is not to say what has happened, but to say the kind of thing that would happen, i.e. what is possible in accordance with probability or necessity.

Aristotle’s key to logic in plot progression (or how events unfold) lies in knowing your characters very, very well. ‘With probability or necessity’ needn’t equate to predictability, but simply means writing what is sensibly possible to occur.

In terms of logical probability, then, you mustn’t ever let your characters act illogically or the plot will suffer.

Famous authors have spoken of characters taking on a life of their own, wanting to do something their plotlines hadn’t accommodated, because they have taken on life in their imagination (we assume for the better, because it’s typically characters we fall in love with, not events).

How do you start to understand characters as human, though, not as chess pieces?

You’ll need to know them as well as possible. You’ll need to be able to answer as many questions about your character as you can, when you begin to build a character profile. We’ve a few reasons why any conscientious writer shouldn’t skimp on this.

Understand characters as human beings

How do you build characters that are human, avoiding caricature or stereotype?

Writers put themselves at risk if they’re drawing from cliché, i.e. an idea of how certain people should act or be. (Say a geek with glasses, because it shows they’re clever, for instance.)

Thriller author Christopher Rice has shared the female stock characters of police procedurals he’s desperate to avoid, like the nagging wife, the ‘ice-queen bureaucrat’ or the ‘babe-assassin’ (‘on the surface she seems like an attempt at gender equality … [but] if we never get a real explanation for who she is, how she got that way, she just ends up being a cardboard character’).

Fantasy writer Samantha Shannon (who created a criminal heroine with depth, in Paige Mahoney of The Bone Season) has also argued the case for complexity:

Complicated women are still treated like they’re a curiosity. … We don’t keep marvelling at “strong male characters”.

Female writers, too, unwittingly do something similar when creating male characters if they render them romantic caricatures rather than real people.

How can you avoid these things, writing your characters with sensitivity and feeling?

Firstly, by drawing out of your own well of human emotions and experiences.

Russian director Constantin Stanislavski developed training methods still used by actors today. In his book Building a Character, he offers guidance to actors (applicable to writers) who seek to ‘build’ characters out of stereotypical ideas or images, rather than from their own bank of emotional experiences.

Stanislavski shares examples of cliché in Building a Character:

A professional soldier … holds himself stiffly, marches around … speaks in a loud, barking tone out of habit. … A peasant spits … wipes his mouth of the tail of his sheepskin coat. An aristocrat always carries a top hat … his speech is affected. … These are … clichés. They are taken from life. … But they do not contain the essence of [a] character.

Writer Scarlett Thomas, examining Stanislavski’s writing, builds on his musings in Monkeys with Typewriters:

We could equally say that the chav wears a hoody and trainers and carries a can of lager … the geek has pale skin and acne and glasses. … Stanislavski’s work represents a profound rejection of cliché, stereotype and commonplace assumptions. … Stanislavski also teaches us to look for the motivation behind the action. … Begin with the character’s desire and build up from there, otherwise characterisation will be patronising.

Following this, Scarlett Thomas encourages writers to uncover what Stanislavski calls a ‘super-objective’ in characters:

Examples of super-objectives are ‘I wish to be comfortable’, ‘I wish to be perfect’, ‘I wish to be in control’, ‘I wish to be loved’, ‘I wish to be a success’. … With one wish, what would your character want?

During her novel The End of Mr Y, for instance, Scarlett Thomas has protagonist Ariel Manto admit her ‘wish’ to another character. She wants to know everything.

This filters down into Ariel’s less significant actions, too (rendering everything significant, after all). ‘I wish to know everything’ as a super-objective accounts for Ariel buying a rare, cursed book with all the money she has left to live on (not caring that she now won’t be able to eat).

Your own character needn’t be conscious of a ‘super-objective’, an overarching character motivation – and it’s better if they’re not, perhaps. We as human beings typically aren’t aware, either. We may be aware of various major goals and needs, compelling us to act. As a writer, though, you’ll need to be conscious yourself.

Why does your character want something?

Maybe they want money, but is this because they want to be wildly successful, to show off? Or is this because they’re poor and just want to be comfortable?

Your character’s specific longings and actions should feed back into one vague but dominant, all-encompassing wish.

Know the nature of that wish, and why it’s there. It’s your character’s emotional heart and heartbeat.

Consider your character’s background, too, their day-to-day life now and in times past. How does this feed into desire, into their nature?

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for instance, the Mirror of Erised illustrates Stanislavski’s principles when Albus Dumbledore points out to Harry that harried, teased Ron Weasley sees himself distinguished, without his brothers and family, the best of them all. Isolated Harry, who’s lived in a cupboard for ten years, sees himself in the mirror with a loving, but lost, family.

Such longings aren’t viewed in the mirror by accident.

Start with your character’s desire and let this help you map out their inner nature. You’ll then be on the path to creating characters with depth, who are fully human.

How to avoid cliché when designing characters

You’ll probably have encountered ‘stock’ characters or cliché characters before.

Adding in ‘rogue’ elements to subvert clichés like this is one way of initially working against your own subconscious biases in writing characters.

Fiona Griffiths, in Harry Bingham’s thriller Talking to the Dead, is a gifted, morose protagonist recovering from Cotard’s Syndrome, but this isn’t incidental. She puts herself in hazardous situations in her empathy and determination to uncover victims’ stories.

In Robert Galbraith’s crime series, opening with The Cuckoo’s Calling, protagonist Cormoran Strike is an army veteran turned private detective. Strike never ‘marches’, never speaks ‘in a loud, barking tone’, as per Stanislavski’s cliché. Strike is reserved, brusque but often uncertain, and has a prosthetic limb after losing part of his leg in Afghanistan (occasionally affecting his mobility).

Strike’s prosthetic limb isn’t just incidental, either. It is indicative of his past trauma, his identification with sufferers of violence, and motive for the work he does. It’s not illogical to guess past trauma feeds into Strike’s emotional reticence with on- and off-partner Charlotte (who soon marries someone else), later with deuteragonist and new romantic interest Robin, at first.

Just remember to surprise your own thinking but don’t take us too far out of what’s realistic, i.e. probable, for characters in Aristotelian terms.

Whilst adding subversive, original elements in characterisation, remember too that these mustn’t be incidental, either. They should feed into a character’s nature (how it affects them), and subsequently into your plot.

Circles and starts

Should characterisation really come first in novel-plotting? Or is it the plotting itself?

Luna Lovegood’s observation to Harry Potter in J.K. Rowling’s seventh novel, that ‘a circle has no beginning’, and insofar as there are no rules for inspiration, perhaps neither comes first.

Still, characters must ultimately drive a plot, propel it forward.

If your characters don’t act in ways that are plausible (as Aristotle indicated all those years ago), your plot becomes weak, and once your reader questions a character in this sense, your narrative spell is broken.

Things also become less interesting when characters aren’t decidedly at the heart of storytelling.

Let’s take romance as a genre or a device in fiction (i.e. as plot or subplot) to explore that idea.

Writers continue to visit and revisit romance in stories, because it resonates with us all, often transcending genre. It is the characters, though, that elevate romance as formula out of the mechanical, making a story human.

Taking two classics with potential – a spirited heroine challenges her moralising hero, a selfless heroine solaces her heartbroken hero – most readers care if a certain Miss Bennet marries in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, fewer (generally) care if a certain Miss Price marries in Jane Austen’s previous novel, Mansfield Park.

In Pride and Prejudice, a relationship develops in action and conversation, with resulting character growth in the span of the action. Lizzy and Darcy retain strength of character, yet soften and mature as they listen, learn from and fall in love with the other.

In Mansfield Park, nothing much prompts heroine or hero to grow. We’re told, not shown, how love turns from fraternal to romantic in just a couple of passages at the novel’s end. As a result, it’s a bit harder to connect with this story.

It feels more natural to invest emotionally in the characters of Emma, even if Emma Woodhouse is the snobbiest of all Jane Austen’s heroines, still she learns.

As fictional characters, the point is that Jane Austen’s characters were never just in want of a spouse but they underwent an emotional journey, and this is what makes readers connect and care. As such, a story doesn’t necessarily need to be ‘correct’, nor do protagonists need to do ‘good’ things for us to love reading about them.

Your story just needs to resonate with readers – beginning with your characters being human.

The success of novels like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl, with heroines like Lisbeth Salander and Rachel Watson, or anti-heroines like Amy Dunne, is proof that likeability isn’t everything; that ‘bad’ things done in your plot mightn’t matter at all. Anti-heroes like Patrick Bateman from American Psycho or Humbert Humbert from Lolita continue to astound and move us, too.

What’s key to your storytelling is, and always will be, emotional connection.

Where to start

It makes narrative and dramatic sense to create fully rounded human characters who will face story challenges, who will make active choices, and who will reflect and change as readers spend time with them.

Ponder this as you start planning.

If you’re wondering where to start with characters, make a list of questions for them to build a personality profile.

Ideas might be:

  • Where was your character’s childhood spent?
  • What was your character’s favourite place as a child? Where did they feel most joy?
  • What made your character feel safe?
  • What subjects did your character love at school?
  • What books did they love to read? What were their hobbies?
  • What was their worst accident as a child? What lesson did they take from it?
  • What would their Myers-Briggs personality be?
  • What’s their reason to live, their all-encompassing drive?

Let some of these ideas get you started.

Just be sure you’ll know their innermost depths, the life-wish that drives them, too – since these will propel your plot, too.

Enjoy your character-building and happy writing!

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

Other areas of interest

the power of story and discourse

The Power of Story and Discourse by Allie Spencer

the power of story and discourse

Festival of Writing Taster: The Power of Story and Discourse

By Allie Spencer

Hi! I’m Allie Spencer and will be teaching at this year’s Festival of Writing along with many other fantastic writers, agents and publishers. As tutors, our aim is not just to get you thinking about your writing but thinking differently. Sometimes it’s that extra piece of information or a fresh approach that can make all the difference. This year, one of the things I will be talking about is story and discourse and how you can harness it to see your work in a completely new way.

One of the concepts often mentioned in creative writing tutorials is that of ‘showing not telling’. For those of you who have yet to encounter it, ‘show not tell’ means that instead of an author passing information on directly to the reader (‘John felt angry’), that information is instead conveyed indirectly (‘John could not speak; the blood pounded in his head and he felt his fists clench’). This does not mean that one should never ‘tell’ – there are times when that is essential – but it moves the emphasis from what happens in a text, to how the reader can best experience and engage with what is happening. Thinking in terms of story and discourse takes this one step further. It allows an author to separate out action from meaning and therefore focus on creating multi-layered narratives rich in interest and nuance.

To begin with, we need to be clear about the terminology. ‘Story’ is the stuff that happens: it is the pure events, the actions, the ‘she got off her chair and walked to the other side of the room’ part. To look back at our show/tell example: ‘he shouted’ is story; ‘he was angry’ is not. However, the story often forms only a small part of the text. The rest is made up of ‘discourses’: the unspoken conversations we as authors have with our readers in order to create atmosphere, implicitly pass on information or suggest ideas that add to the understanding of the ‘story’. Sometimes the ‘story’ and the ‘discourse’ will be one and the same (for example, when an action or event has symbolic or ironic overtones) but, for the most part, they exist independently of one another.

So, why should we as writers be particularly interested in discourse?  Isn’t it the same as creating atmosphere or description? Well, not exactly. One of the reasons why we need to be aware of it is because, as authors, our job is to create believable imaginary worlds. Now, our lived experience of the world is not purely a series of consciously-perceived events but instead a mishmash of thoughts, perceptions, emotions, connections, ideas and half-realisations. Sometimes these are entirely subconscious. For example, researchers at the University of Colorado have found that people holding a hot drink, even for a few seconds, judge others around them to have ‘warmer’ personalities than when the same person holds a cup containing an iced liquid. These half-conscious or subconscious thoughts are the real-life equivalents of discourses. By being aware of the power of discourses and how they operate within our writing, we can help make our imagined worlds, and our characters’ reactions to them, as real as possible for our readers.

To explore this further, I’d like you to watch the following clip on YouTube. Even though this is a screenplay rather than a piece of prose, the basic divide between story and discourse remains the same. It’s the closing scenes from the pilot episode of ‘Endeavour’, the series about the young Morse set in the1960s:


A little background for those who do not know either the ‘Endeavour’ series or the older ‘Inspector Morse’ programme: the young detective in this clip (Endeavour Morse) does not leave Oxford or resume his degree, as the dialogue suggests. Instead, he stays in the city and progresses up the police ranks until he becomes an inspector.

Watch the clip through a couple of times, just to get an idea of what is happening. Then play it again and try to separate out the ‘story’ (action; factual information given to the viewer through dialogue; physical setting etc.) from ‘discourse’ (atmosphere; allusions; emotion; suggestions). Remember that sometimes the ‘story’ will also be ‘discourse’ – be aware of this and try to spot it when it happens.

the power of story and discourse

What did you notice? One thing which quickly becomes apparent is the lack of actual ‘story’: a young man walks down some stairs carrying two suitcases and exits a house; he is met by another man (DI Fred Thursday, although this is not mentioned in the clip) standing next to a black Jaguar car, who asks him what time his train is. The older man then tells the younger not to worry about a mistake he has made. The younger man asks if he can drive and they make their way through city streets in the car. They have a conversation about the young man’s future and the older man offers to mentor him. The younger man looks in the rear-view mirror and the face of a third, much older, man appears there. Some music plays. The younger man continues to look in the mirror while the traffic lights change to green. To get his attention, the older man says his surname (‘Morse’), followed by his first name (‘Endeavour’). They drive away and the screen fades to black.

It is left to the discourses to transform this sequence of events into a powerful and evocative piece of drama. Right at the start of the clip we are made aware of the emptiness of the house as Endeavour leaves: the fact that no one is there to say farewell indicates the loneliness of the young man’s situation. The ticking clock emphasises the silence in the house and also suggests the theme of passing time which will be key to our understanding of the next few scenes. The subsequent interactions between the two men are laden with symbolism: Endeavour asking to drive and receiving the keys from Thursday suggests he is taking control of his own destiny, for example. Also apparent is the indication that DI Thursday is, in many respects, the man young Endeavour will eventually become: he will reach the same rank in the police force and drive the same make and model of car. The most powerful example of discourse, though, happens at the end, when the face of Morse as a much older man appears in the rear-view mirror: Endeavour is, quite literally, looking at his future. In fact, he appears to see it too because he continues to stare at the mirror and doesn’t pull away when the lights change – the camera shot used to show the green light is from Thursday’s viewpoint, not Endeavour’s. The use of the iconic ‘Inspector Morse’ theme tune at this moment further underlines the connection that has been made between Endeavour’s present and his future: we, the audience, know which road he will take and we have already seen his destination.

Of course, there are many other discourses at work in this clip and you are welcome to try and find as many as possible; it is a great example of how writers can use suggestion, prefiguring, metaphor and irony to enrich and add layers of meaning to a narrative. Good writing (whether prose, screenplay or poetry) should always work on more than one level. Being aware of story, discourse and the difference between them will help you to look objectively at your own writing and, if you need to, add in that little bit extra. Your readers will love you for it!

Allie has a jam-packed weekend at the Festival of Writing 2018. You can catch her on Friday where she will be hosting a mini-course on How to Write a novel in 3 Hours, her Session 2 workshop on Four Act Structure or her Sunday workshop ‘Telling Tales – What Makes a Story Come Alive’ in session 6. We know you won’t want to miss her amazing tips and tricks for writing bestselling novels!

Get your tickets to the Festival of Writing 2018 here. We’ll see you there!

the power of story and discourse

Other areas of interest

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

Using internal and external conflict in genre writing

Using internal and external conflict in genre writing

Guest author and blogger Gary Gibson is the author of science-fiction novels for Pan Macmillan. Gary has worked as a graphic designer and magazine editor, and began writing at the age of fourteen.

What is it that makes a truly exceptional genre novel? What can an author of a horror, science-fiction, fantasy or any kind of genre novel bring to their work that elevates it in some way, so that when reviewers write it up they describe it as ‘transcending its genre’?

That’s a phrase that used to annoy the hell out of me until I realised the essential distinction between ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ fiction.

All fiction deals in conflict of one kind or another. It can be a moral conflict, perhaps the threat of war or the consequences of unreasoning prejudice. It might equally be the need to survive an invasion, or a plague, or the unintended consequences of an earth-shattering new technology.

My concern in this article has to do with the source of that conflict.

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

Broadly speaking, the distinction between literary and commercial fiction is this: literary fiction deals in internalised conflict. That could be fear, jealousy, greed, desire for power or revenge, thwarted love and so on. It’s these internal conflicts, after all, that are the cause of so many of the great tragedies that characterise humanity. Wars of religion, of power, of survival. In Greek myth, the entire Trojan War took place because Paris fell in love with Helen of Troy and stole her away from her husband. A ten-year-long conflict is thereby triggered entirely by one person’s desire for another, regardless of the consequences.

Commercial fiction, on the other hand – and remember, we’re speaking broadly here – deals in externalised conflicts. It creates dramatic stories out of direct conflict with something ‘other’, other races, other religions, other cultures, classes or political orders, and so on.

Fantasy at its most basic, generic level deals with the threat of a ‘dark power’ of some kind – with magic turned to evil purposes. A good deal of science fiction deals with the consequences, intended or otherwise, of sudden technological change or scientific discovery. Those consequences are external – created in a lab, or built in a workshop, rather than formed in a human mind.

Once I realised this distinction between internalised and externalised conflict, the defining quality of the very best sci-fi and fantasy became clear to me. It synthesises both approaches – and most often it does so by externalising what is otherwise an internal conflict.

Some of the best examples are in film as much as in literature. In Star Wars, our internal conflict between what we know is right, and our own, darker capacity for evil, is externalised in ‘the Force’. The Force can be channelled for good, but it has a seductive side – one that can ultimately lead one to commit terrible acts of genocide or injustice, should one fall prey to darker emotions. The Force, then, is our own internal dialogue between what is morally right and wrong, objectified as a physical part of the universe into which we tap.

So why does this work? Because where that internal dialogue between good and bad is in the real world entirely subjective, Lucas, in his screenplay, makes it into a distinct, objective thing that can be tapped into and that can influence us. Externalising what is otherwise an entirely internal dialogue allows the reader – or in this case, the viewer – to see that internal conflict in an entirely different light.

Similarly, The Lord of the Rings revolves around a journey to carry a ring of enormous power back to the mountain where it was forged, in order to destroy it. The ring is our desire for power, objectified and made external, rather than internal. It’s this externalised internal conflict that in part makes this such a strong and overwhelmingly popular story.

It’s very often the case that budding fantasy writers will make the mistake of entirely externalising the conflict in their novels; the source of evil in this case is always a Rising Dark Power of some kind. The hero is always pure and true. And it’s boring.

The best way to write such fiction is instead to introduce internalised conflict, to balance the external.

Frodo in The Lord of the Rings struggles with his own internal desires, and the seductive power of the ring – all he must do is slip it onto his finger, to achieve power he can only dream of – and he struggles with this internal conflict (made flesh by the ring) all the way to Mount Doom. Gollum is a stand-in for the terrible price that the ring can exact on those too weak for its seductive power, and he also represents what can happen to us if we allow the worst parts of ourselves to override our conscience.

This internal conflict on Frodo’s part, then, balances the external conflict with Mordor’s armies, on the march to retrieve that very ring. It also elevates the story above one of simple good and evil by reminding us these conflicts exist within us, as well as outside us.

In Frank Herbert’s Dune, we at first appear to have a simple tale of a messianic figure, born to lead the Fremen to victory against an imperial occupying force. But Herbert quickly elevates the story by focusing the narrative around Paul of Atreides’ struggle with the path his life appears to be predestined to follow. By imbibing the spice of the worm, he can see the future, and his role in it; but as in the best Greek tragedies, it’s a path he rejects utterly, even while his attempts to resist fate cause the very events he foresees to take place with grim inevitability. The external conflict – between the dastardly Harkonnens and the Fremen led by Paul – is balanced by Paul’s own, equally gripping internal conflict.

In Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, a policeman is working undercover, living with people whose lives revolve around a drug called Substance D. He’s so deep cover, even his bosses don’t actually know his identity; he wears a futuristic ‘scramble suit’ when he meets with his superiors, so they cannot find out who he is, thereby assuring him absolute anonymity as he searches for the source of the drug.

One day, he is given a new assignment; to investigate one of the people living in the same house as him. He has, in fact, been asked to investigate himself.

This creates a wonderful internal conflict that balances the external – the search for the source of the drug. Increasingly schizophrenic from his own use of Substance D, Dick’s character finds himself struggling with his own identity, as to whether he is a policeman, or the addict he is investigating.

If your book isn’t coming together – if your characters feel lifeless, or lack motivation, or feel wooden and two-dimensional – provide them with an internal conflict to balance the external. It’s that conflict that, when handled properly, keeps readers glued to the pages.

To sum up: the best sci-fi and fantasy fiction takes internal conflicts, and re-represents them as external conflicts in a way that creates a kind of ‘useful distance’, allowing readers a degree of objectivity on their own fears and desires they might not otherwise have. But even then, that conflict must be mirrored through your protagonists’ own thoughts and actions, and their own internalised moral dialogue.

Other areas of interest

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier