When we invite readers into the worlds of our creation, we want them to become so engaged that they want nothing more but to keep turning page after page to see what happens next.
For that to happen, the main characters in our stories need to be realistic and relatable.
How can we achieve that?
There are many ways to accomplish this, but today we'll focus on two.
Write a backstory that's for your eyes only
One great way to create an engaging and realistic main character is to first of all, get to know them really well. I usually do this by creating a document that's separate from my manuscript and outline and is simply devoted to the main character's background. It involves details regarding:
And as a side note, I don't usually do this until after I've completed the first draft of my manuscript. I choose to do this because if I interrupt the writing of my first draft to do this, I'll become hyper-focused on the character's backstory and the manuscript will be left, untouched.
So, I prefer to get the first draft done, and then create the MC's backstory before jumping into edits of that manuscript. The fleshed out backstory will help me to edit the MC's reactions and behavior appropriately as I comb through the manuscript for aspects that need to be refined, completely rewritten, deleted, or added.
There may be temptation to add a lot of the backstory to the manuscript itself, but I'd advise against that as it can become a bit too much and weigh your book down with TMI. That's why I create a separate document for the MC's background and just keep it for myself as a reference guide.
Clarify and highlight the main character's motivation
The second step to ensuring that a main character is realistic and relatable is to highlight what they want.
When readers know exactly what a main character wants, this increases the reader's desire to stay with the story and find out whether or not the main character eventually gets what they want.
And, when it comes to highlighting the MC's motivation, sometimes we think we're highlighting it or that it's obvious to readers when in reality, their utmost goal is hidden behind lots of twists and turns within the plot. There's nothing wrong with twists and turns in a plot- in fact that's a very good thing!
But we writers need to make sure that the MC's motivation doesn't get lost amid the adventure.
How do we do this?
Well-known screenwriter, Shonda Rhimes, has a great trick at doing this.
In the thick of action, she always, always, always adds a scene in which one character approaches the MC and demands, "What do you want? Why are you doing this? What is it that you want?"
And then, there is a beautiful moment where the MC flat out says what their motivation is.
Sometimes they scream it in frustration, sometimes they say it while crying, or sometimes they whisper it.
But it's always a dramatic moment that pulls the viewer in and reminds them who this MC is at their very core and what it is that they ultimately want.
We fiction writers would do well to imitate this excellent writing habit of Ms. Rhimes' as we craft our own novels.
I hope those two writing tips come in handy and if you have any other suggestions on creating realistic and relatable main characters, please feel free to share in the comments section below!
When an author's self-publishing journey begins, they typically realize that they will face challenges.
But the thrill of sharing their imagination with the world far surpasses any trepidation they feel.
That's how I felt as I embarked on the self-publishing journey back in 2011.
Ten books later, there are two tips I would've given my younger writerly self back in 2011.
So, I'll share them here and hopefully some new writers will find them a bit helpful!
The Details Really Do Matter
If I'm writing a fantasy novel with an incredible plot that all my friends love, I might start to think, "I need to get this written and published SUPER fast so I can get it into the hands of readers! They're going to love it!"
While it's true that many readers love a great plot, it's also true that readers may get so annoyed by missteps in the details of the book's publication that they might refuse to even read it.
What are those overlooked details that might irritate would-be fans?
They may include:
1. Grammar and spelling mistakes in the book
2. Poorly designed cover art
3. Small plot holes that the author overlooked
As an easily distracted and highly impatient person, my first self-published book had a couple of the problems listed above, and I admit that even now I still struggle with the issues above because I get in too much of a rush to publish.
But rushing through a creative project is silly.
It's much more important to slow down, work with Critique Partners and/or Editors to comb through the book for spelling/grammar mistakes and plot holes, and to work with a talented graphic designer to create the book's cover art.
This takes time, meaning your book may take nine months or more to publish. But it'll be well worth the wait if it's in tip-top shape!
As previously mentioned, my first self-published book was a tragedy of a mess called, Finding Stories in The Rain (the book trailer is below).
Part of the problem with the book was that I was in such a rush to get it in print that I put the production of the book trailer ahead of actually sitting down and really combing through the manuscript for plot holes and grammar mistakes.
So, unfortunately, not only is Finding Stories in The Rain full of ridiculous storylines, but its spelling mistakes and grammar errors are absolutely horrific.
While I don't regret writing the book and working with a great crew to make the book trailer, I do regret my impatience throughout the process.
My impatience led to a shoddy final product.
That should NOT happen to you.
So, please don't make the same mistake I did. Instead, carefully edit your book and take your time in selecting cover art with an experienced graphic designer!
You Should Start Advertising Both Online & IRL Before Your Book Is Completed
Advertising doesn't have to cost money and it doesn't have to wait until a product is available.
In fact, because the market is saturated with authors hoping to get readers to purchase their books, one way to stand out is to begin making some noise online while you're in the thick of the writing process and as you're taking steps to edit, and then publish your book.
When I say that it's difficult to find readers, I'm not exaggerating. It's almost impossible.
But it doesn't have to be, if you leverage your Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to find readers even before your book is published.
By providing weekly or even daily posts/video updates on how your writing/publishing process is coming along.
People who are on social media enjoy seeing what other real people are doing with their lives and how these projects make them feel.
So, take advantage of this and become a friend to the online community by inviting them into your writing process. Before you know it, you may have 1,000 YouTube subscribers and half of them may be eager to purchase your book on the very day that you publish it!
So, go ahead and use your online platforms to tell people all about the book you're in the process of writing!
In addition to becoming a writerly friend to the online community, it's also helpful to tell people in real life about your writing plans. This can be accomplished by joining a local writing group and sharing your progress with fellow writers. You may also want to attend and even volunteer to speak at local writing conferences.
Use these platforms to share your experiences as a new writer and what you're learning along the way, and to meet other writers who may be able to give you suggestions/tips, and who may want to purchase your book when it's completed.
And of course, telling friends and selected family members about your writing plans can also be beneficial when it comes to building readers and getting feedback on your ideas as you write.
So, as an author who has made far too many writing and publishing mistakes (and who will likely continue to make many more), I hope that sharing my stumbles with you will help you to avoid the same pitfalls!
We love to read novels that feature realistic and heartfelt conversations.
So, as writers, how do we make sure those conversations are genuine and interesting enough to keep readers invested?
Listed below are three tips that may help!
Each character should have a unique voice
Make sure each character’s word choice and perspective represent their specific background and culture. Someone who grew up poor in Louisiana is going to speak differently from someone who grew up in wealthy in Manhattan, New York. Each character's voice should be so strong that readers can tell who is speaking, without even seeing the tag.
Avoid dumping backstory into conversations
Dialogue is not a great time to tell the audience all about the novel's backstory. While it’s okay to pepper a little bit of backstory into conversation here and there, the majority of the dialogue should be future-focused. This helps to keep the story moving forward. That said, there are occasions when moving forward requires taking a deep dive into the past. These can be approached creativly. Perhaps a section of the book can be entitled "Twenty Years Ago" and take the reader back in time by literally putting them in the setting that occurred years ago. It's just that we have to be careful with trying to attempt this via dialogue. We don’t want characters to spout endless monologues about events that happened in the past. When that happens, it can be very boring and even confusing to the reader.
Add some action to your dialogue
People aren’t always just sitting or standing directly across from each other and speaking. We’re sometimes at work, in the middle of answering ringing phones, eating, cleaning, or taking care of a hyperactive pet. So, spice up the dialogue by directing the characters into a setting where they’re actively doing things!
I hope those three suggestions come in handy as you're crafting/editing your novel!
Is there anyone in your life who you consider a vicious enemy?
If so, you understand what it feels like to be consistently attacked by a villain who has made your systematic destruction their sole focus.
At first glance, this situation may sound more like the plot of a poorly-directed Lifetime movie than a page out of your life or the lives of anyone you know.
But according to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, nearly half of all Americans are victimized by such an enemy.
In this case, the enemy isn’t a person, it’s a condition that physically assaults victims by bombarding them with intense pain and related mental/emotional anguish. This enemy also steals the victim’s money, negatively affects their job performance, and distances them from the individuals they love most.
The enemy referred to here is Chronic Illness, which is defined as a disease that requires ongoing medical attention for at least one year and often limits activities of daily living.
Success in any sort of career becomes problematic when you find yourself battling an illness such as Crohn's disease, Lupus, Diabetes, Celiac, heart disease, or cancer.
And if you are an artist whose career is dependent upon their creativity, there may be moments when you find yourself wondering if you have any hope of success.
There is hope. Many have been able to reach their artistic/career goals while suffering from a debilitating illness.
For example, Venus Williams, arguably one of the greatest tennis players of all time, is battling Sjögren’s syndrome, and award-winning actor/director Halle Berry suffers from Type 1 Diabetes.
So, what about writers? How can someone with a chronic illness still write and publish work with consistency?
While everyone’s situation is different, I can share three things that have helped me to write and publish nine novels while dealing with the unpleasant effects of Hashi-Graves Disease, Celiac Disease, and Type 1 Diabetes.
GIVE YOURSELF DAYS OFF
Every day is a new chapter in the book that is your life. And that book is far more important than the one you're creating on your laptop. After all, we can't write anything if our personal story comes to an end.
So, it's best to approach each real-life chapter with patience and focus, which means patiently focusing on taking life one day at a time.
This approach acknowledges the fact that there will be 24-hour, 48-hour, or even 72-hour windows of time during which pain will not allow you to write a single word of your novel.
And, that’s okay.
The novel will get done later. But what’s most important during a flare up is that you give your body what it needs, which may include medication, vitamins, rest, and even forgiveness.
Why forgiveness? Sometimes, we have this urge to punish ourselves for things that aren't really in our control.
But we have to remember that chronic illness is not our fault.
It might feel like it is, and it might feel like we've done something horribly wrong to make our body turn on us.
That’s not what’s happening.
With autoimmune disorders especially, what's happening is that our body is incredibly confused, and in this bewildered state, it's resorted to attacking itself.
That’s why we might want to try and forgive our bodies for being so "lost." And when we do this, we're actually forgiving ourselves. That kind of forgiveness can be tantamount to removing a huge weight from our subconscious.
Alright. So, the point? Here it is: When those debilitating flare ups occur, take your meds/vitamins and focus on resting.
The work that you love will be right there waiting for you once you’re good and ready to return to it.
USE YOUR EXPERIENCES WITH PAIN AS FODDER FOR YOUR WORK
Doing this would allow me to sit with my pain, explore it, and stop being afraid of it.
That said, writing about my emotions in this way also helps to protect me from becoming too self-involved. How? Well, I’m not just focusing on me. Instead, I'm exercising my empathy by writing from the perspective of a person who is seemingly incredibly different from me.
So, how does that example apply to being a writer who has a chronic illness?
It boils down to the fact that being irreversibly sick upends your entire life, which can make you angry- and I mean very angry- because it’s as if an enemy has purposely stomped on your hopes, dreams and life-goals, ripping away the very aspects of existence that you love most.
It’s cruel, and you have a right to be angry about your situation.
But sitting with that kind of anger for too long can make a person bitter. And that's just no fun. Trust me, I've been there.
So, what's the alternative to becoming bitter and hopeless?
Release the anger, and let it go.
And how do we do that? Well, first we have to accept and understand it. That requires the form of analysis that's known as therapy. And, as mentioned earlier, writing is one of the best and least expensive forms of therapy available.
So, instead of keeping anger or deep emotions bottled up, write them away.
DEPEND ON LOVED ONES
Probably not. A better option may be to reach out to people who have your best interests at heart, and ask for help.
I know. Asking for help can be humiliating.
Honestly, it’s one of the most difficult things in the world for me. But after you’ve shelled out every last cent of your savings to pay for medicine and to cover the cost of that one huge hospital bill, you may find yourself in a financial bind.
When that happens, the stress of trying to figure out how to pay for the minimal essentials of modern life (food, rent, electricity) coupled with the fact that you’re too sick to get a second job can completely zap your creativity.
I get it, I’ve been in that situation too many times to count. And when it's happened I’ve stressed, cursed the heavens, and been saddled with an excruciating case of writer’s block (which is bad when you literally write for a living).
But here's something to think about: While I was all alone having a fit, people who cared about me were waiting in the wings, eager to help. They just needed to know that I was ready to accept their help.
I had to learn (and I'm still learning) to stop letting my pride get in the way.
The people who truly love you (and they’re out there! Trust me, they exist!) won’t look down on you when you ask for a few groceries or for someone to come help you with the household chores that you can’t handle due to a flare up. The reason they won’t mind doing these things for you is because love means wanting to support and assist the object of one’s affection, and until this person has helped their loved one, they feel incomplete.
So, letting family and trusted friends help you get back on your feet is a way of showing appreciation to them for their willingness to assist.
Have you ever given someone a gift and watched their eyes light up with happiness as they opened it? How did that make you feel? It's likely that the pleasant emotions you felt are similar to how our loved ones feel when we allow them to give us the support that we obviously need. It's not a handout or an act of pity- it's just how love works. But we have to let it work.
Besides, once the flare up has passed and we're feeling a little better, we can do something super nice for the family/friends who came to our aid.
Along those lines, it's also helpful to inform members of your writing team about your condition and some of the symptoms it can cause. For example, if you have a literary agent, s/he definitely needs to know that your schedule may be impacted by flare ups or difficult days. The same goes for editors, illustrators, and even long-term Critique Partners.
Once these trusted writing partners understand your situation, they'll be able to support you as you work to complete your novel.
I hope the three suggestions above were helpful, and if you have additional tips please feel free to share them in the comments section!
The opening words of a novel are a potential reader’s introduction to a world they can choose to enter or exit.
Their decision usually depends on how connected they feel to the person they’re reading about, and the situation this person is facing.
As writers, how do we make these elements of our story interesting enough to convince potential readers to enter the world we’ve imagined and hang in there for the duration of the novel?
One key element is: theme.
It’s easy to brush theme off as an aspect of storytelling that comes along later in a book.
But some of the most memorable novels begin with action, descriptions, and dialogue that highlight the entire book’s theme.
For example, Pride and Prejudice’s famous first line is, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
This opening sentence is witty and intriguing, and it highlights several main themes within Pride & Prejudice- themes that center around how social class, wealth, and gender relate to the business of marriage and to the magic of finding true love.
The first line of the novel hints at all of this, and then guides the reader through a love story that expounds on the aforementioned themes.
This is part of what makes Pride & Prejudice great, the book's major themes are consistently highlighted- from the opening sentence, to the final chapter.
One of the reasons why this form of writing is so palatable to readers is because it establishes continuity and creates a pattern. Just as most of the songs that we find ourselves drawn to have melodies or refrains that, though played with various instruments and tweaked at pivotal moments, are essentially repeated throughout the song, most of the books that we're drawn to have a theme that's woven into every major plot point from beginning to end.
Essentially, humans like patterns, because they're easy to understand. They just make sense.
So, as writers, how do we apply all of this information about "themes" and "patterns" when we're constructing our opening chapters?
Well, we take a moment to consider what’s at the heart of our manuscript - is the action centered around a battle of good and evil? Or, is centered around a thematic perspective like, 'No one is truly trustworthy,' or 'most people are good at heart'?
We have to find the theme, or the heart of our story, and then allude to this theme in the opening chapter.
All that said, if you’re on your first draft of your novel, it may be a good idea to avoid worrying about wording the opening chapter perfectly.
This is because, when you’re on your first draft, your main concern is to enjoy writing the novel to completion; don’t worry about editing anything until the story is done.
Once you’ve written the last word of the last chapter, then you can go back to Chapter One and begin editing.
I mentioned Pride & Prejudice as an example of a novel with a great opening line. But, what about your favorite opening lines? Are there any novels you’ve recently read that have amazing first chapters? Or, have you written a book with a first chapter that you’re proud of?
Please feel free to let me know in the comment section below, I’m always up for reading a new book!