Beware: writer at work by Roz Morris
I’ve just released my second Nail Your Novel book. I’ve been promising it for about four years, but finally buckled down, sorted out my scrappy notes and made a plan.
It started as a general book about the craft, drawn from my experiences writing and critiquing. Soon, though, it was so enormous that I had to split it. And then I split it again. Anyway, the first subject that naturally came to mind was characters, and so I’m proud to present Nail Your Novel’s new brother: Bring Characters to Life.
So today I want to talk about characters, but not necessarily the ones in our books. I want to talk about us: the general character of writers. As with all professions, there are predilections and quirks that mean we suit our jobs. But they can also work against us.
Writer instinct #1: Passive characters
Hands up if you’ve been told off for writing passive main characters. It’s an occupational hazard. Passive main characters are people who run into trouble, then do their best to avoid having an adventure. As do writers. We are perceptive, peace-loving pyjama-fond folks who want disruption to go away. We want to observe trouble and document it faithfully. We do not want to invite it.
That instinct is no help at all when we create protagonists. We have to throw the doors open and leap into the skin of someone who gets into trouble and makes it worse.
Writer instinct #2: Being nice
I don’t wish harm on anyone. Perhaps I’m not always kind to spiders who skulk in my skirting-boards, but aside from that I’m safe to know. In stories, though, we need to find an inner sadist. We must pile hearse on worse. When I’m plotting a novel I wake in the night, shivering at the things I am forcing my people to face.
What’s the worst that can happen? Disregard your squirming conscience and make it so.
Writer instinct #3: Being nice, part 2
Depending on what we write, we might have to go to murky places indeed. I’ve found in my editing that, for many writers, the dark side can be a real blind spot. We’re peace-loving, constructive, empathetic. Some of us can’t and won’t understand why some people like to destroy, and why that feels good.
Folks, beware the well-seasoned writer. You think they’re a contemplative creature who dwells in a book-lined burrow, snacks endearingly on Dairy Milk and walks an internal landscape of singing bards.
We are not. We are learning to be very, very bad.
Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life is out on all ebook platforms and will be appearing in print as soon as proofs can cross the Atlantic. If you'd like to know when it becomes available, sign up for Roz's newsletter.
Roz Morris is a bestselling ghostwriter and book doctor. She blogs at Nail Your Novel and has a double life on Twitter; for writing advice follow her as @nailyournovel, for more normal chit-chat try her on @ByRozMorris. Her other books (the ones she can admit to) are Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, available in print and on all ebook platforms. She also has a novel, My Memories of a Future Life. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters right here.
Love it -- I definitely suffer from the "too nice" side of things.
Been working on getting rid of the bad stuff for years -- now it seems it's got a play corner again ;)
Pauline - passive main characters are certainly a huge problem for writers. They create a character, imagine the awful things that might happen and react as themselves - just wanting it to go away. Which they can't be blamed for, because we'd probably all rather that than get further embroiled!
Chris - thanks! Delighted you enjoyed it.
Susan - I somehow got the impression from your Undercover Soundtrack that you'd long ago locked Miss Nice in the desk drawer!
Bill - sometimes it's Green & Black's, but a girl likes variety in her diet. :)
Lydia - Interesting point about passive protagonists. Yes of course there are people who just want a quiet life and stuff happens to them. For every writing rule there will be an anti-rule (and a clever person who puts their hand up and waves it). Thanks!
Dennis - thanks for the compliment about Nail Your Novel. As with Chris and Susan's comments, it means a lot when seasoned writers tell me they find it helpful. Hope your characters enjoy being further disrupted...
Hi Thomas - glad it made sense!
Debbie - having seen your covers I'm not surprised you've overcome those scruples!
I also had an interesting discussion on my own blog about this (on the post I wrote to signpost this one). One writer was talking about an exercise where participants had to roleplay some extreme emotional places - and traumatised their tutor.