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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.

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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!

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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

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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.

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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.

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How to fix your plot problems

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.

You’ve been there. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there: the one-third slump, when a manuscript runs out of steam maybe thirty-thousand words in. Something about the story simply isn’t working.

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So what’s gone wrong?

When I first started out as a writer, I read up on the different approaches used by novelists I admired. I found that many of them, particularly Stephen King, didn’t like to plan things out. They were seat-of-the-pants writers, who liked to come up with a situation, then watch where their characters took them. For such writers, part of the pleasure of writing was the sheer unpredictability involved.

All well and good, but it took me a long time to work out that this wasn’t the right approach for me. Over the next several years, I started and failed to finish a ridiculous number of stories and novels. I knew the characters, the basic story, and the conflicts. What I didn’t have was a clear enough idea where the story went after a certain point.

This continued to be a concern even when I got my first book contract. Although my first two novels, Angel Stations and Against Gravity, were well-received, I was never quite satisfied with the plot in either. I became highly stressed while trying to find the direction of the story in each. And so, when it came to writing my third novel, I took a radically different approach.

Whenever I pitch a book to my publishers, I’m required to provide a rough outline of the story. This time, I determined to write a much more detailed synopsis than before, but for my benefit rather than that of my publishers. I wanted to be absolutely sure not only how the book started, but exactly how it would end. I broke the story down on a chapter-by-chapter basis until I had approximately six thousand words of text.

Then I started writing what later became my third novel, Stealing Light. I hit a one-third slump anyway, despite all my planning. I found what had sounded good in the synopsis wasn’t necessarily panning out in the actual manuscript. I suspect this happens even for those of you who do plan your novels.

So I stopped writing and, for the next four or five weeks, did nothing but revise that synopsis. I made a point of not worrying about my deadline. By the time I finished those revisions, the synopsis had ballooned to a little over twenty-four thousand words — one quarter the length of an average novel. I had every little detail absolutely nailed down, as well as having made major revisions to some of the principal characters.

It occurred to me during this that all those seats-of-the-pants writers were being a touch disingenuous about their writing process. Either they did plan out their stories, but kept it all in their head, or their offices were filled with a vast number of unfinished stories and manuscripts.

Both, I think, are true.

When I write editorial reports on writers’ manuscripts, time and again I find that a novel hasn’t been planned in sufficient depth, and I sometimes wonder if it’s because the author read the same interviews I did when I was young — interviews with writers like Stephen King, who can produce hundreds of thousands of words of text every year, without fail, even if much of that effort winds up in the bin.

Writers like King are the exception, I believe, rather than the rule. The rest of us, in order to write a saleable story, must instead plan everything out in as much detail as possible before we start writing a novel. Think of it as building a roadmap; without the map, you become lost in the woods, but with the map, you can see not only where you came from, but where you’re going. Without the map, you might be able to find your way out of the woods eventually, but it might take you far, far longer, and the journey might be considerably more frustrating and much less fun.

And what about if, like me, you find even with that map — that outline — your story still isn’t coming together in those early stages?

Do what I did: stop writing the book, and rework the synopsis instead.

Treat those first thirty-thousand words as a kind of testbed for your ideas. Use it to figure out what does work, and what doesn’t. Give yourself permission to play around, to develop alternate paths for the story to develop. Treat the synopsis as an end in itself, and take satisfaction in developing its twists and turns. Allow yourself as much time as necessary to do this, and don’t even think about starting work on a book unless you know how it ends.

Don’t believe writers who tell you doing this can ‘kill’ the story for you: just because it’s true for them doesn’t mean it is for you, and you could save yourself weeks or months of frustration.

That third novel of mine, Stealing Light, was an enormous success, and my ‘breakout’ novel. It was also my first book to be issued in hardback, and was soon followed by two sequels. I attribute this almost entirely to the care and attention I took in plotting every twist and turn. Ever since then I still stop at roughly the one-third mark in a manuscript to revise and alter the synopsis, based on what is and isn’t working.

Instead of an object of frustration, let that one-third slump become an opportunity for inspiration.

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Character and characterisation in novels: techniques, examples and exercises

Character Development, the Ultimate Worksheet

Character Development – and the Ultimate Character Bio

How to write great characters in your novel.
How to make them lifelike.
How to make them dazzle.

What makes a reader glued to a book? What makes that person come back to it again and again?

As a rough guide, people turn the pages because of plot, but they remember a book because of character.

Don’t believe us?

Then answer this. Can you recall, in detail, the plots of:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird?
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles?
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

We’re going to bet not. But do you remember Scout and Atticus? Holmes and Watson? And the badass Lisbeth Salander?

Of course you do. And that’s the aim of this post: helping you achieve the same level of vibrating life that these characters achieved. In effect, we’re going to tell you how to develop a character that can be used for both the protagonist (hero) and the antagonist (bad guy). How to write the kind of characters that will elevate your novel to a whole different plane.

And it’s not magic. It’s just the logical application of tried-and-trusted writing techniques.

But let’s start by figuring out what character development is, and how it works for you.

Don’t want to wait for the blah?
Just download our 200+ question Character Bio Template. It’s free
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What is character development?

    Character development is (A) the creation of a character’s emotional/psychic journey though the course of your story, and (B) the process of building a fully-rounded and lifelike character. A character profile template is a tool used to nudge authors into thinking about all aspects of their protagonist’s bio, personality, look, and backstory.

Understand what character development is

Character development is two things:

  1. Character development is the the process by which an author develops a detailed character profile. This activity is usually done in conjunction with plot development and takes place as part of the planning process, before the writer actually starts to write.
  2. Character development also refers to the way a character changes through the course of the novel, generally in response to the experiences and events gathered through the course of the story itself. This is known as the Character Arc. (Need more? Get plot structure advice here.)

Those twin definitions are immediately helpful.

Yes: you have to develop a character profile before starting to write, but you also have to knit your character so closely to the story you’re going to tell that the two things seemed joined at the hip. Ideally, the reader won’t be able to imagine any other character occupying your story – just like you couldn’t imagine Girl with a Dragon Tattoo without the inflammatory, exciting presence of Lisbeth Salander.

So: the first question is, how do we choose the right character for the story we’re about to tell? That’s up next.

Plan your character arcs

The two basic character types in fiction – and how to choose the one who’s right for your novel.

There are two basic types of main character (or protagonist) in fiction:

  1. The first type is an ordinary character plunged into the extraordinary. And, by this process, they become a little more extraordinary themselves.
  2. The second character type start out extraordinary – they could make things happen in an empty room.

You need to be careful about identifying which character is which.

You might think that Harry Potter can’t be ordinary, because he’s a wizard. But think about it. He seemed like quite an ordinary boy. And when he gets to wizard school he seems quite ordinary there too (daunted by the school, a bit scared of Hermione, and so on.) He’s an ordinary wizard who finds his inner extraordinary self over the course of seven books.

Lisbeth Salander, however, never strikes the reader as ordinary. She’s a rule-breaking, computer genius with anti-social traits and a scary capacity for violence. You just know she’s going to cause waves, no matter where she goes.

Here’s a quick way to figure out what kind of character yours is:

Ordinary characters

  • Will typically refuse adventure, or accept it only reluctantly
  • Will typically have something of the boy next door / girl next door quality to them. That doesn’t mean they have to be boring (we’re all different after all), but it does mean that they can act as a kind of placeholder for the reader. “That person could be me. That adventure could have been mine.
  • Will typically find something heroic or extraordinary in themselves as a result of the adventure. Something that was buried becomes visible.
  • The adventure has to echo or vibrate with whatever is distinctive about the character. So at the very start of the Harry Potter series, Harry seems like an ordinary boy, except that he’s an orphan. No wonder then that the entire series revolves around Harry completing the battles of his lost parents.

Extraordinary characters

  • Will often leap into adventure. May even create it.
  • Will typically seem nothing whatsoever like the nice kid next door
  • Will have something astonishing in them all the time. Something that probably makes them look awkwardly ill-at-ease in the ordinary world.
  • But, as with ordinary characters, the adventure will resonate with who they are. Sherlock Holmes is a detective – so let him solve crimes! Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a CIA guy, so drop him into a thriller, not a schmalzy love story!

What a character arc looks like

You can already see how these three things need to intertwine:

  1. Your character’s profile at the start of the book
  2. The story your character plunges into
  3. The way your character develops through the course of that story

So for one hyper-simple example, you might have:

  1. Harry Potter starts out as an ordinary boy, albeit one with natural wizarding ability
  2. He is plunged into a life or death battle against Voldemort
  3. He discovers previously unseen reserves of courage and resourcefulness – he finds his inner extraordinary.

Here’s another example of the same thing, this time from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

  1. Lizzy Bennet is an ordinary young woman, but somewhat prone to impulsive and immature judgements
  2. She is plunged into a tumultuous love story, and …
  3. Discovers new wisdom and maturity.

These things are beautifully simple when you see them – but needless to say, designing something beautifully simple ain’t so easy. (Just ask Steve Jobs!)

Build your character development arc

Your first task? Simple. Just do the same thing as we’ve just done for Harry Potter and Lizzy Bennet.

Take a sheet of paper and write out – in a few words only – the following:

  1. Your character’s broad start position
  2. The nature of the story
  3. The way your character develops as a result of the story you are telling.

Do that exercise. Make sure you’re happy with it. And when you are – congratulations.

You’ve just taken your first big step in developing your character.

How to write characters in a novel

Try Our Ultimate Character Profile Template

Also called a “Character Bio Template”

Figuring out who you want to lead your story is the first essential of success.

But the next part – the fun one – is every bit as important. And the rule here is simple:

You have to know your main character better than you know your best friend.

That’s it.

The simple fact is that strong characterisation is based on knowledge. The only way to write a really convincing, lifelike, vibrant protagonist is to know them inside out. If you have this knowledge, you will find yourself using it. If you don’t have it, you can’t.

So the problem of writing character comes down to this: you have to know protagonist. And we’ve got a brilliant technique to help with just that.

If you haven’t yet started your book, then work on the character creator exercise below before you start.

Or cheat! It’s faster
Why not download our 200+ question Character Bio Template? It’s free
Get the Ultimate Character Profile Template

If you have started, but think that maybe you started prematurely, then back up. Do the exercise and then read back through your work, looking for places where your characters seem a little blank.

So. Let’s start.

Use a Character Profile / Bio to develop stunning characters

Begin with a blank sheet (or screen). And begin to write down everything you know about your central character. Don’t be too concerned to edit yourself at this stage. Just let rip: this will be your character profile. It helps to group your comments a bit under certain themes, but if that inhibits your flow then just write. Group your notes up later.

You should cover all kinds of topics, including:


  • Where did your protagonist come from?
  • What was their childhood like? Happy or sad?
  • What were relations like with their parents? Or brothers or sisters?
  • If their father was (say) extravagant, what impact did this have? If their mother was (say) easily tearful, how did this affect them?
  • And what about now, where relations with others are concerned?
  • Were there key incidents in childhood that shaped this person in a way relevant to your book’s story?
  • What about more recent backstory? Their move to Arkansas, joining the army, their first girl/boyfriend? Sketch those things out too.

Write how your protagonist’s backstory has shaped their drives, their character arc, and will shape your plot. It helps if examples are concrete, showing your protagonist via actions and choices in specific situations. (And yes: showing matters. If you need a show vs tell refresher, we’ve got it for you.)

Looks and physical attributes

Get to know how your character looks, how they inhabit their body and how they interact with the world:

  • Is your character tall or short? What hair colour, face & body shape, what eye colour?
  • Are they physically graceful? Or clumsy? Or what?
  • What animal do they most remind you of?
  • If you had to choose one image to represent this person, what would it be? [Hint: the best answers to that question often float between the physical and something a bit more spiritual. There’s often something mobile in the image, not just static. examples: “She was like a deer grazing in snow.” or “He was like an iron sword of the old type. Unbending. Strong. Prone to a sudden, flashing anger.”]
  • How does your character sleep?
  • How do they fiddle?
  • Are they impatient?
  • How do they eat? What foods do they love and hate?
  • What do they look like from a distance? Or close up, when seen by a stranger?
  • What is their voice like? Or their laugh?

Think of an actor or actress who could play your character. If you need a visual image to work from, then look through magazines until you’ve got something you can use. Pin it up close to where you work, and work from that. Or create an inspiration board, either a real one or using a site like Pinterest, to pin images of your characters, of story aesthetic, etc

Your character’s personality

  • Is your character sunny and carefree, like Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice?
  • Or hardened, unforgiving, like Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?
  • What impression would they make on a casual observer?
  • Are they screwed up in any way?
  • Are they conflict-avoiders or conflict-seekers?
  • Are they sensitive or selfish lovers?
  • How emotionally involved would they get?
  • How does all of this feed into their character arc (ie: the way they develop through the story)?
  • If you answered a Myers-Briggs personality test in character, what would your character’s results be?


  • Why has your character chosen this partner?
  • Is he or she like the partners your character normally goes for?
  • Do they go in for cutesy baby-talk? Or hard-edged flippancy? Or reflectiveness?
  • What are their pet names for each other?
  • Do they encourage maturity in the other or bring out the less mature side?
  • What are their disagreements about? Do they row, and if so, how? How do they mend rows?
  • What does one love most about the other? What do they most dislike?
  • What is your predicted future for the relationship beyond the end of the novel?

Goals, Fears, Ambitions

Be sure, most essentially, you know your characters’ deeper goals and motivations.

  • What’s their deepest wish?
  • What are they most afraid of?
  • What would failure mean for them? What voices would they have in their head commenting on that failure? (eg: a critical parent, or a disappointed friend.)
  • What’s the goal, the thing they most desire?
  • Does it change? And why?
  • What’s their motivation for wanting it. What does it say about their nature?

The Ultimate Character Profile Template

The very best way to get to know your characters is to do this:

  1. Write a list of 200+ questions about your character
  2. Then answer them

Do that, and before too long, you’ll know your character with utter intimacy. You’ll move beyond some mechanical character development exercise into deep, fluent, easy knowledge.

Do note that you have to write the questions before you start answering them, otherwise you end up just asking questions that you already know answers to.

Oh, and it’s incredibly hard to come up with a really long list of questions that really probe everything about your character – so we’ve done it for you. We’ve created the Ultimate Character Builder, and it’s yours for free.

Get the Ultimate Character Bio Template.

Give yourself an hour or two on that exercise and, quite honestly, your character development journey is mostly complete. Nice to know, right?

Character Development Sheet, Detail

Build empathy with your characters

Why your character’s motivation matters so much

You know that thing that literary agents do?

While we liked your book a lot, we didn’t quite love it. We didn’t quite feel empathy with your main character, but wish you the best of luck in finding representation elsewhere.

Makes you want to scream, doesn’t it?

And the issue is NOT that your character isn’t nice enough. It’s not that she needs to do more home-baking, or go to more church meetings, or smile more sweetly.

The equation is simply this:

Empathy = Character’s motivations + reader understanding.

That’s it. The whole deal.

If a character really wants something, and the reader really gets why that thing matters so much to that character, then the reader is committed. They’ll feel intensely involved. They will, if they’re a literary agent, want to represent your novel.

In terms of your character development challenge, that means you need to:

  1. Understand your character’s motivations deeply
  2. Make sure your character really cares (because if they don’t, the reader won’t.)
  3. Make sure your character’s motivations come through in your writing.

And that’s it. Simple, right?

Dialogue: Characters in Relationship

While we’re on the topic of building empathy, it’s also worth remembering that your character doesn’t exist in isolation – they’re at the centre of a particular web of relationships that will be tugging at them with complex and often contradictory forces. That’s quite likely tough for the character – but great for the reader.

And dialogue is where you’ll feel those emotional pulls and pushes most forcefully and in their most alive possible way. Making sure that your dialogue is sinuous and mobile will give a real kick to your character – and add whole new layers to the process of acquiring and retaining the reader’s empathy. More dialogue help right here.

That’s it: Character development – done!

If you’ve done the work on developing your character arc, and you’ve explored your character in detail via our Ultimate Character Development Sheet, then you know what?

You’ve completed your character development work. Yay!

Truthfully, you’ll be ahead of at least 95% of the other writers out there. Well done you.

If your plot is roughly in shape, then you’re good to start writing, and your first draft (though it won’t be perfect) should be a pretty damn good platform for your final, finished book.

That said, once you have written (say) 10,000 words of your first draft – STOP.

Just stop writing and review what you’ve written so far.

Does your character feel like a fully rounded human? Or a cliche? Do you make plenty of reference (where appropriate) to your character’s thoughts, memories, feelings and physical sensations? Does the character feel fresh or stale? Individual, or just a standard character type?

If your answers are yes, this character feels fresh and individual, then your work has paid off. You’ve created a great character – and your novel is well on its way to being a damn good one.

About the author

Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).

As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)

More about character development

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How to Plot a Novel (Using our Easy Plot Template Technique)


Outline your Novel Fast, Easily and Well with this Simple Story Template

All stories share a simple common structure, right? So the simplest way to outline your novel (or any type of story) is to use that universal template by way of scaffolding.

And you do need to use some kind of novel outline before you start writing. Plotting a novel from scratch? Imagining the whole thing in your head before you start? That’s hard.

Or, scratch that, it’s pretty much impossible.

So don’t do it. Cheat. Use a simple, dependable template to build an outline of your novel, then slowly fill out the detail.

Yes, filling in the detail can be a slow and tricky process. But you don’t care. Because if your basic outline is strong (and the idea that lies behind it is strong), you can’t really go wrong.

And figuring out that template and how best to use it is exactly what we’re going to do in this post. (Or – full disclosure – it’s what you’re going to do. We’ll just help a little on the way . . .)

Novel outline template in a nutshell

You just need to figure out:

  • Main character (who leads the story)
  • Status Quo (situation at the start)
  • Motivation (what your character wants)
  • Initiating incident (what disturbs the status quo)
  • Developments (what happens next)
  • Crisis (how things come to a head)
  • Resolution (how things resolve)

What a story template looks like

Use a simple plot outline to get your ideas straight

Let’s start simple.

And that means, yep, that YOU need to start simple. Get a sheet of paper or notebook and have it by you as you work your way through this post.

Ready? Pencil sharp and ready to go?

So do this: Write down the following headings:

Main characters

Status Quo


Initiating Incident




Simple right?

And now sketch in your answers in as few words as possible. That means a maximum of 1-2 sentence for each heading there. If that seems a little harsh, then I’ll allow you 3 sentences for the “Developments” section: that’s where the bulk of your book is going to lie.

But that’s all. At this stage, we don’t want complex. Complex is our enemy.

We’ll get there soon enough, but for now just think, Structure-structure-structure. Too much complexity – all that intricate plot detail – just gets in the way of finding the actual bones of your novel.

(Oh, and I don’t want to digress too much, but that same basic template works if you want to build a scene, or write a synopsis, or structure a key piece of dialogue. In fact, it’s just like this universal unlocking device for pretty much any structural challenge in fiction. Good to know, huh?)

The novel template: an example

You probably want an example of what your outline should look like, right? OK. So let’s say your name was Jane Austen and you had a great idea for a story about a prideful guy and a charming but somewhat prejudiced girl. Your story outline might look something like this:

Elizabeth (Lizzy) Bennet, one of five daughters in Regency England.

Status Quo
Lizzy and her sisters will be plunged into poverty if her father dies, so they need to marry (and marry well)

Lizzy wants to marry for love.

Initiating Incident
Two wealthy gentlemen, Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy, arrive.

Lizzy meets proud Mr Darcy and dashing stranger Mr Wickham. She despises Mr Darcy and likes Mr Wickham. She discovers Darcy loves her and that Wickham isn’t all he seems.

Lizzy’s sister elopes, threatening the social ruin of her family. It now looks like Lizzy can’t marry anyone.

Mr Darcy helps Lizzy’s sister. Lizzy agrees to marry him, deciding now that she loves him, after all.

Now that’s easy, right? That’s the whole of Pride and Prejudice in a nutshell, and it was easy.

You just need to do the same with your book or your idea, and keep it really simple. In fact, if you struggle to know everything that goes in the ‘developments’ section, you can even drop in some placeholder type comments. If you were Jane Austen you might, for example, start out by saying something like “Lizzy breaks with Wickham, because it turns out he’s a bad guy. He killed someone? Stole money? Something else? Something to think about.”

And that’s fine. Don’t worry about any blanks. It’s like you’re building a tower and you’re missing one of the girders. But by getting everything else in place and putting a “girder needs to go here” sign up, the structure is still brilliantly clear. That’s all you need (for now.)

Oh, and don’t bother separating those down into chapters just yet, you can worry about that later – but when you do, read this, it’s really useful!

Finally, don’t complicate things if you don’t want to, but if you find it helpful to add a “character development” heading, then you should do that as well. Effectively, you’re extending your novel outline template to cover not just plot movements, but character development too – a brilliant all-in-one tool.

Plot outline - advanced methods

Developing Your Story Outline

Taking your template on to the next level

Now, OK, you might feel that our template so far is just a little too basic.

Which it is.

So let’s develop the structure another notch, and what we’re going to do now is to add in anything we know about subplots – or basically any story action that you DO know about, which doesn’t fit neatly into the above plot structure.

So if you were Jane Austen, and had a good handle on your story, you might put together something like this. (Oh, and we’ve called them sub-plots, but you can call them story strands, or story elements, or anything that feels right to you.)

Subplot 1
Jane Bennet (Lizzy’s caring sister) and Mr Bingley fall in love, but Bingley moves away, then comes back. Jane and Bingley marry.

Subplot 2
Lydia Bennet (Lizzy’s reckless sister) elopes with Wickham. She is later found and helped by Darcy.

Subplot 3
Odious Mr Collins proposes marriage to Lizzy. She says no. Her more pragmatic friend, Charlotte Lucas, says yes.

Notice that we’re not yet trying to mesh those things together. In fact, the way we’ve done it here Subplot 3 (which happens in the middle of the book) comes after Subplot 2 (which comes at the end).

But again: don’t worry.

Sketch your additional story material down as swiftly as neatly as Miss Austen has just done it. The meshing together – the whole business of getting things in the right order, getting the character motivations perfectly aligned and all that – that’ll do your brain in.

Yes, you have to get to it at some stage. But not now. Keep it simple, and build up.

And that actually brings us to another point.

How to use subplots

If you’re a fan of Pride and Prejudice, you’ll know perfectly well that our outline so far still misses out masses of stuff.

There’s nothing on where the novel is set. Or why or how events unfurl. It doesn’t say a thing about character relations, why each feels as they do. There’s nothing to say on character development, subtleties, supporting cast, and so on.

And that’s fine to start with. It’s actually good.

What does matter, however is your character’s motivation.

Taking one subplot above as example, Charlotte wants security through marriage to Mr Collins. Lizzy, however, rejects her friend’s rationale. Charlotte’s marriage reaffirms Lizzy’s romantic values and, crucially, also throws her in Mr Darcy’s way again later in the book.

Now that’s interesting stuff, but if a subplot doesn’t bear on a protagonist’s ability to achieve their goal or goals, that subplot must be deleted or revised. Luckily, though, our story structure template helps you avoid that pitfall in the first place.

In fact, here are two rules that you should obey religiously:

  1. If you’re outlining a plot for the first time. Pin down your basics, then build up subplots and so on.
  2. If you have already started your manuscript and you think you’re uncertain of your plot structure, stop – and follow the exercises in this post, exactly as you would if you hadn’t yet written a word.

And do actually do this. As in pen-and-paper do it, not just “think about it for a minute or two then go on Twitter.” The act of writing things out will be helpful just in itself.

The act of writing always is.

How to write a synopsis for a novel

Plotting your novel: the template

Remember as well that every subplot (or story strand, or whatever you want to call them) has its own little journey. Maybe a very simple one, but it’ll have its own beginning, middle and end. Its own structure of Initiating Incident / Developments / Crisis / Resolution.

So you may as well drop everything you have into the grid below.

(If you want to adapt that grid a little, then do, but don’t mess around with it toooo much. The basic idea there is golden.)

Main plotSubplot 1Subplot 2Subplot 3
Initiating incident
Main plot

If you’ve got more complexity to accommodate than this allows, take care. No matter how sprawling an epic you’re writing, you need to be able to identify the essence or heart of the story you’re writing, so try paring your novel down – you can always add more details and columns after.

What would your story look like, if you did this?

How to further develop your plot outline

Advanced techniques for writing ninjas

What happens if your plot doesn’t fit into that grid? If you give that exercise your very best go and just draw a blank?

Well, no worries. The basic problems here are twofold:

  1. You don’t yet understand your plot well enough, or
  2. You just don’t have enough plot to sustain a full-length novel.

Two different problems. Two different solutions.

If you don’t yet understand your own plot in enough detail, you want to use …

Plot-Building Tool: The Snowflake Method

Seeing your own plot in detail, before you write the book, is really hard, because it’s like you’re standing on the seashore trying to jump onto Mount Everest. In one bound.

Not gonna work.

So get there in stages, Base Camp. Camp 1, and so on up.

What that means for you, is that you use our basic template in sketch form to start with – a sentence or two per section. Then you go at it again, and give each section its own paragraph. Then you go at it again, expanding to 2-3 paragraphs, or whole pages if you want to.

The same basic exercise, but getting into deeper levels of detail each time.

If you want more about the “snowflake” approach you can find it right here.


But what if your plot outline just feels a little bit thin once you sketch it out?

Answer you fix it – and you fix it NOW before you start hurtling into the task of actually writing.

Here are the techniques you’ll need to do just that:

Method 1: Mirroring

This doesn’t mean tack on needless bits and pieces – characters shouting at each other for effect, etc. – but add depth and subplots, developing the complexity of your protagonist’s story. (Remember: if it’s not contributing to your protagonist’s journey, it doesn’t matter and you need to delete it.)

To take another novel – supposing your name is Harper Lee, and your story is the tale of a girl named Scout – let’s say Scout’s spooked by an odd but harmless man living on her street. It’s fine, though there’s not yet enough complexity yet to carry a novel, so complicate it.

One thought is giving her a father figure, say a lawyer, named Atticus. (Harper Lee herself was daughter of a small-town lawyer.) He’s fighting to defend a man accused of something he obviously didn’t do. Targeted for who he is, rather than anything he’s done.

A black guy accused for looking different? An odd-but-harmless guy who spooks Scout?

It’s straightforward, tragic mirroring. Atticus’ fight is lost, the stories interweave, and Scout learns compassion in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Introducing that second, reverberating plot strand meant that Harper Lee’s novel had the heft to become a classic of world literature.

Method 2: Ram your genre into something different

Another way to complicate your plot is to throw action into a different genre – such as sci-fi, fantasy or crime.

So take The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger.

Looked at one way, that’s a pretty much standard issue romantic story, which, yes, could have sold, but could never have made the huge sales it actually racked up. But then ram that into a story of time-travel, and you have something shimmeringly new and exciting.

What you had was still a romantic story at its heart – it certainly wouldn’t appeal to hardcore fans of SF/fantasy – but the novel element gave it a totally new birth.

Or take Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters.

A picaresque Victorian historical novel . . . that kind of thing always had its audience – but that audience had never encountered a frankly told lesbian coming-of-age story in that context, and the result of that shock collision was to produce a literary sensation.

Method 3: Take your character and max her out

Why was it that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo went on to get such gigantic sales across the globe?

It wasn’t the quality of Stieg Larsson’s writing, which was never more than competent and which was quite baggy, to say the least. And the actual plot? Well, on the face of it, he delivered a fairly standard issue crime story. Nothing so unusual there in terms of actual narrative.

But Stieg Larsson rammed that basic story with an exotic character: Lisbeth Salander. That woman had Aspergers, she was a bisexual computer hacker and rape survivor . . .and boom – vast worldwide sales resulted.

Method 4: Add edge – a glint of steel

A few years back, I was struggling with one of my books, This Thing of Darkness. (here)

The basic plot was strong. The mystery element was good. There was at least one quite unusual element. The climax was rip-roaring (set on a trawler at sea in a force 10 gale.) But . . .

The book wasn’t quite working.

It was long. And it was just a long, long way from the set-up phase of the book to the denouement.

My solution?

A glint of steel.

I took an incident from the middle of the book – a break-in, and a theft, but no violence, no real time action – and I turned that into a long sequence involving the abduction of my protagonist.

That addition made a long book even longer . . . but it made the book.

It’s not just that the sequence itself was exciting, it’s that its shadow extended over everything else too. Whereas before the book had felt a bit like, “yep, gotta solve the mystery, because that’s what these books have to do.”

Now it was: “We HAVE TO solve that mystery, because these bastards abducted our protagonist.”

Steel. Edge. Sex or violence.

Those things work in crime novels , but they work in totally literary works too. Can you imagine Ian McEwan’s Atonement without that glint of sex? Would The Great Gatsby have worked if no one had died?

PLotting a novel, multiple views

How to write a plot from multiple perspectives

If you’re eager to write about multiple protagonists, you need a plot outline, along the lines of the template above, for each one.

George R.R. Martin took this to new levels in A Song of Ice and Fire, each protagonist having his or her own richly developed plot and character arc.

John Fowles’ The Collector, for example, is narrated by a kidnapper and the girl he’s kidnapped. Sullen, menacing Fred justifies all he does. Miranda chronicles her fear and pity. The result is taut, terrifying. We’re engrossed in their shared experience to the end.

Multiple protagonists can work in romance novels, too, even ones told in third-person narration, such as The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett, or Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.

This said, managing multiple points of view, even from minor characters, can work well for thrillers, often driven by the drip-drip-drip of information release (though these things depend on story, as much as genre).

The key thing to bear in mind here is that you need a mini version of your novel outline template for each of your main characters. Each one of those guys needs a complete little story of their own – and those little stories need to interweave to create one great and compelling one.

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