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.


Robert Scanlon said…
Permission to be bad please Miss?

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 Fisk said…
Interesting rap on the knuckles for passive main characters. Getting into trouble and doing everything you can to avoid making it worse - that's the story of my life. Is it the story of my writing life though, too? I shall have to go back through my books and check out my main characters. And next time, 'hearse on worse' - I like that. Thanks, Roz.
Chris Longmuir said…
I really enjoyed Nail Your Novel, thought it gave lots of good advice, and I'm sure the new book will be just as good.
Susan Price said…
Loved the post, Roz - thank you! I shall certainly be recommending the new book, as I did 'Nail Your Novel' - though, looking back at my books, I think I'm rather good at being horrid to my characters!
Bill Kirton said…
Yes, I love it, too - ‘pyjama-fond’, ‘snacks endearingly on Dairy Milk and walks an internal landscape of singing bards’ - you know us so well, Roz.
Lydia Bennet said…
interesting post, I'd not thought of us writing characters too like ourselves - excellent point, that's something to watch out for! as a crime novelist I can't really avoid bad stuff though. also sometimes passive characters are really good protagonists, used correctly - thinking of Allan in 'The Hundred year old man who jumped out of a window...'. Or the narrator in 'Travels with my aunt'. Innocents who are thrown about by bizarre events and other people - but you have to have a LOT happening to them.
Dennis Hamley said…
Roz, Nail your Novel is such a SANE book in the sea of weirdness in which we seem to live now. My first reaction on reading this post was, 'Nothing passive about MY main characters.' Then I started thinking about them through others' eyes and resolved to do better next time.
Robert - official permission to do your most dastardly! It's fun... Thanks for leaping over from the NYN blog.

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...

Carol Riggs said…
Excellent and intriguing post! I've never thought about this before, but I believe Roz is right, and we have to guard against writing people who are too much like ourselves (passive introverted writers). In one way it's often difficult to imagine a more extroverted person than myself in my novels--yet in another, it's FREEING because that character can say and do anything I don't have the guts to. Mwuah-haha! ;o)
julia jones said…
Always enjoy your posts Roz
Susan Price said…
Miss Nice long ago locked in the desk drawer? - I laughed, but not sure if I shouldn't be insulted!
Susan Price said…
But I joke, of course!
Unknown said…
So much truth here! I junked the first three chapters of my most recent WIP when I realised the protagonist was basically just walking round witnessing other people doing things... passive character indeed... he's now on his way to adventures and trouble and the novel is flowing again. Great advice in this piece, thank you.
Debbie Bennett said…
Nah. I treat my characters appallingly. I shove them into the deepest, darkest places imaginable and then watch as they come out fighting and I love them to bits for their sheer tenacity. They must really hate me.
Susan - ah, don't worry, I meant it only as a compliment. :)

Hi Thomas - glad it made sense!

Debbie - having seen your covers I'm not surprised you've overcome those scruples!
Dan Holloway said…
Very interesting, especially the last part. Did you read Joanna Penn's recent post on this subject? In particular she talked about not self-censoring the darkness within. I found I related to that completely. I'm not sure I know many writers who don't fantasise about putting the darkest parts of themselves on the page - I think the problem isn't that we're timid deep down, but that we're afraid of what people will think if we let ourselves go :)
Hi Dan! Yes, I did see - and tweeted - Joanna's post. And I was nattering to her last week about the places we go to mine these darker selves, and how we gain confidence in what we'll tell the page.
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.
Dan Holloway said…
very interesting - tutors who are going to be traumatised by such things shouldn't set such exercises!!
Catherine said…
I definitely struggle with this at times. I don't like people to be unhappy but there I am creating mayhem, muddle and pain! I have to restrain myself from solving it all quickly so that they can all go home and watch the tele! This is something to keep in mind at all times so thanks for the reminder Roz. :)
Thanks, Catherine! Solving everything too quickly is another problem all of its own... spin it out and enjoy the pain.

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