Show, don’t tell. It’s the golden standard of writing advice. Prospective authors are often criticised, put down or ignored for being too ‘telly’ and not showing enough. But often it might be difficult to pinpoint how to show certain things. The point of this post is to give some tips about how to show and not tell. Emotions are easy enough, as I’ll show below, but what about character? What about back-story? What about setting?
How do you show these things without just telling your reader what is going on? To do this, I’m going to break down the three main things that you can show rather than tell. This won’t cover everything, but hopefully it will help.
An important caveat: just because you should try to show, where possible, that doesn’t mean that telling is always wrong. Remember there are appropriate moments and times for telling, it just shouldn't dominate your approach.
Emotion is arguably the easiest thing to show instead of tell, and as such it should be one that you are getting absolutely right. I’m starting with this one because, for those confused, its an excellent way of demonstrating what show, don’t tell actually means.
It doesn’t mean deliberately obfuscate things for your reader. It means making things more like real life. It means making the reader feel like they are there.
Imagine you are at work one day and a colleague has a furious argument with someone and gets really angry. What would actually happen? Would they walk in the room and a helpful ethereal voice pop up and say ‘Jim is furious!” No. You would see him storm into the room, face twisted in anger and slam his fist on his desk, and your brain would take the necessary subconscious steps to work out ‘ah, he must be angry.’
All you are aiming to do in writing is make it more like the latter than the former. By telling, we actually remove our reader from the world we are creating. Nobody really tells people things regularly in real life, at least not all the time, and so by telling the reader becomes very aware that they are reading. This is not what you want.
So, instead of writing:
“Jim was furious.”
Jim stormed into the room, face twisted in anger, and slammed his fist on the desk.
Okay, it’s not Shakespeare, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The key to emotions is to imagine what someone would do if they felt that way and describe those actions. Think about the following things:
How would they move?
What would they do?
What would they look like?
What would they say?
Describing how they would move is an important first step. We hold ourselves differently when we are in different moods. Verb choice is an easy way to describe this. Look above: Jim didn’t walk into the room, he ‘stormed’ in. If he had ‘slumped’ in, it would have shown a very different thing.
Next is thinking about what they would do. Jim is being a bit cliche by slamming his fist on the desk, but maybe he’s an emotional guy so I’ll let it pass.
Then think about what they would look like - facial expression, body position. Are they staring at the floor? Are their eyes wide open or clenched shut?
Lastly is thinking about what they would say. It’s the only one not covered above, so let me try and include it in a redraft:
Jim stormed into the room, face twisted in anger, and slammed his fist on the desk.
There. That’s better. Jim is clearly very angry. But the most important thing is that at no point have we felt the need to tell the reader, blatantly, “Jim is very angry.” and take them out of the scene. This is the heart of showing and not telling.
Let’s try another one: fear.
See if you can pick out the four areas - how would they move? What would they do? What would they look like? What would they say (if they would say anything at all)?
Sarah fumbled with the touchscreen of her phone, panting hard. “Shit, shit, shit, shit.” Her head flicked up, panicked, as though it had a life of its own. She pressed her body further into the back wall.
Again - easy and straightforward.
This is where showing starts to get a little more difficult. I’ve written in the past about how effective character portraits often move away from physical descriptions, but this is just one element of it.
Let’s look at this description I wrote a while back:
The doors swung open. Detective Inspector James limped into the room, his wide shoulders barely fitting through the doorway. The entire room froze. He looked at the officers and growled. As his dark brown eyes surveyed the scene before him, his lips curled up into a malicious sneer.
“Dobson!” He barked. “Come with me!”
Relief crossed the face of every other cop in the room. As the doors closed behind them, all that could be heard from the corridor was the scared shuffling of young Dobson’s feet and the ominous tapping of DI James’ metal cane.
Essentially we are using the same skills - verb choice, describing how they act, speak, etc. But it goes deeper than surface emotions now. We are told very little about Mr James here, other than the fact that he is a Detective Inspector, but through the words used we can pick up hints.
Consider this: I was workshopping with some writers several months back and I read this description out and asked them a few questions and to construct a backstory for the character based on this quick description. While there were key differences, the main similarities between the four backstories were uncanny:
He used to be in the military (hence ‘veteran’) and worked his way up. It was very much his life and he dedicated himself to it. He was married during his time at the military. He was injured by a piece of shrapnel, or stray bullet, or something else (hence the cane), and was forced to leave. This made him extremely bitter - coupled with his wife leaving him (one wrote that he came back to find his wife cheating on him, one wrote that his wife left him because he was growing bitter and resentful, one wrote that his wife died of an unexpected illness), he now relives his old army days vicariously by terrorising other members of the police force. He lives alone, drinks too much and hates people. He’s staunchly Conservative.
It is amazing how many of these things can be imagined from a brief description that tells very few of them. This is what you should be aiming for with your character descriptions. It’s far more engaging for a reader to work for the implications than to simply be told them. If I had written out the backstory above directly, he would be a much less interesting character.
So how to do this?
You could take the approach with emotions and think about the following things:
This is your quick and easy way to go at it.
Another way is to go at it from the other end. Write down everything you already know about your character’s backstory - make a list of all the things they’ve been through and formative experiences they’ve had. Now fast-forward it to the present day (for your character). For each one, write down the impact (physical or emotional, or both) that this would have.
Put this in a table or list, like so:
Grew up in a Conservative family, but his father was never around.
Has attachment issues ever since he was young, caused him to marry the first woman that ever really showed him love.
Injured in the army
Limps, bitter, kind of hates young people because they are physically able and they remind him of what he once had. Likes to bully them as it makes him feel better.
Wife left him
Avoids women completely. Can barely talk to them. He just barks at them and saunters off. Very lonely. Cuts himself off from the world. Alcoholic.
Made into an Officer in the army at a very young age. Mother was proud.
Still fiddles with the badge when he’s nervous. Keeps it on him at all times. Would be beside himself if he lost it.
Sometimes they will be so small that you’ll just drop them into description now and again (the badge). Sometimes they’ll be big formative parts of your character (the loneliness). The point is that they come from somewhere. The point is also that, as a reader, working out experience from impact is far more compelling an activity than working out impact from experience. Watching him bully younger people and get a sick pleasure out of it is much more engaging than being told "he's jealous of younger people because he doesn't have that physical capability anymore."
For a much more detailed breakdown of how to create character's from experiences, I strongly urge you to check out “Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors” by Brandilyn Collins”. It's an exceptional writing advice book and really breaks down the character creation process well.
This one is often the toughest. Setting seems like something is prime for description, right? How do you show setting without telling your reader what is there?
This is absolutely fair enough, and often the setting (especially in fantasy / sci fi books) will be key to the plot and development of the scene. However, at times descriptions of settings can come across as extremely dull, regardless of how interesting or well-thought out that setting is.
The issue often arises when setting is divorced from plot or character. It is important to make sure that setting is introduced through action and not just described on its own.
A very good example of this is from Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings. The chasm-filled landscape of the Shattered Plains is a wonderful fantasy terrain, but it is described for the first time to us mid-battle.
The first time we here about the drops and gorges is when characters have to cross them to get to the Chasmfiend they are hunting. Bridges to cross the chasms become an integral plot point to Kaladin’s character later on. In fact, the setting itself is as much of an antagonist as any individual. This makes the setting come alive - it shows us the setting through describing something else, i.e. a character’s journey.
I would say this is a pretty hard and fast rule I try to stick by: setting should be shown through the development of character. It should help them, challenge them or be an obstacle for them. It should make them feel at home or completely lost. It should put them at ease or make them anxious. It should push them forward in the story. If it isn’t doing any of these things, try to think about why it is there in the first place and if you really need it.
Apologies to those who look forward to new advice, but due to work constraints and the fact that I'm falling behind on my own writing projects, I will only be posting once every two weeks from now on.
The next post will be about the writing process and where we get our ideas from. See you in two weeks!
This week I offer you a rant, an apology and a request. I hope you enjoy them.
The first thing I want to write about today is about the topic of writing advice itself. All too often do I see writing advice given, in this blog or on other online forums, with the response being:
"Well, that doesn't work in all cases."
"Here's an example of where a writer didn't do that and it's great."
"It should be remembered not to take this advice as universal."
To which the voice in my head responds: "Well, obviously!"
All writing advice, whether written by me, Stephen King, the Pope or Ursula LeGuin, is subjective. None of it is applicable to all situations and none of it should be taken as gospel. They are tools to be used, considered and adapted when the purpose suits them.
If you don't like it, or it doesn't fit your story, ignore it. Or at the very least, consider why it doesn't fit your story and what that says about your type of story.
This isn't groundbreaking news for most people, but it felt like a necessary response to people telling me that my advice doesn't apply to this story or that book. Of course it doesn't. It was never meant to.
Distractions and Deadlines
As you may have noticed, I failed to post anything last week. It has been a completely hectic couple of weeks. Having just got back from working Sri Lanka, I had to go to South Korea a few days later for work as well. On top of this there were a variety of pressing deadlines, both in my writing and in other areas, that I had to meet.
As such, the blog was forced into the backseat and has been sitting there, pouting unhappily, for a good week now. Sorry.
But fear not, I fully intend to return to my regular Thursday scheduling as soon as possible. I've even cancelled a trip to Malaysia this weekend in order to get my head together and focus on some actual writing (and get some sleep!)
Here's what I need from you:
What would you like to read about?
To date, I have written about plot structure, scene structure, protagonists and antagonists, dialogue and description, first person and multiple POVs and pathos and endings. There are many other topics in writing that deserve covering and I'd love to lend my thoughts and ideas to any of them, but I'd appreciate getting a sense of what people want to learn more about.
Attached is a google form - I ask one thing of this week, dear subscribers - tell me what you want me to write about. Fill out the single question form and I shall strive to write about every request that comes in.
Please do keep them focused on something to do with writing, though. As much as I would be willing to give you a long and detailed essay on my opinions on grumpy-looking cats, it doesn't really fit in this blog.
Thanks, and see you next Thursday.
Well, despite having been in the Sri Lankan mountains making concrete and building fences with little but a satellite phone for communication, I've somehow managed to write a blog post too. This one is about scenes.
What goes into a scene? Sometimes you have a large, sprawling plot in mind. It has all the fantastic character development and wonderful narrative twists, turns and resolutions that you need. But somehow, you struggle to get your individual scenes to have the pace and excitement they require. We’ve all been there. Keeping the pace and interest up, consistently, on a scene to scene basis is difficult. It is also one of the biggest reasons for mid-novel slumps or slow beginnings. The ideas are there, but the individual scenes just don’t cut it.
So how do you write a scene?
In this post, I will be giving some tips and tricks to make your individual scenes exciting, impactful and most of all, interesting. When I refer to a scene I refer to a single frame of the story, as it follows a character or group of characters over a single period and in a single place. These might be chapters or bits of chapters, but when you shift time forward or shift to another place, you are shifting scene.
The first thing you need to start doing is to think of your scenes like mini-novels in and of themselves, with hooks, development, climaxes and resolutions. The traditional narrative theory of story-arcs applies well on a much smaller scale and should not be forgotten.
Let’s break down each individual part.
Start with the climax of your scene. Identify what it is.
In other words, write down the specific plot point that you want to get out of this scene. What is this scene here for, in terms of your plot?
It should be able to be reducible to a single line – something as straightforward as:
The protagonist realises that his brother has been lying to him.
The protagonist is forced to kill his prisoner.
I’m going to be using my own example to demonstrate scene mechanics, the climax of the scene being:
The protagonist confronts his lover about her infidelity.
Make sure it is clear. If you can’t identify the point of your scene to the overall narrative, then it probably shouldn’t exist. This is very important. If your scene does not have a clear narrative moment directly relevant to the moving plot, it isn’t a good scene. It’s filler.
There are two ways to deal with filler: cut it or integrate whatever information you need into a scene that isn’t filler, rather than giving it a scene of its own. Both of these options are feasible.
Scene Planning Step 1: Write down what the climax of the scene is.
The old adage remains true:
Good scenes advance either plot or character. Bad scenes do neither. Great scenes do both.
Always aim to write great scenes, then at least if you fail at one you’ll still have a good scene on your hands.
Look at your plot point you have written down and identify how your protagonist and perhaps your secondary characters are impacted by this plot point. Ask yourself the following questions:
Does it change the way they view the world?
Does it affect their relationship with another character?
Does it affect their motivations?
Does it affect their goals?
If the answer to all of the above is no, then my follow-up question is: why is it there?
Remember that plot is character, and your plot points should be there to develop your character. If your character is not being developed by the climactic plot point in your scene, you once again have filler.
What do we do with filler? Cut or integrate.
Scene Planning Step 2: Write down how that plot point develops your protagonist and/or secondary characters.
I like to think of scenes as a clear structure of three basic movements: hook, development and cliff-hanger. While this may seem formulaic, it is by getting used to the formulas that we can really start to be creative. The formulas we use are hugely adaptable, given the context, but this particular formula has really helped me in structuring my scenes.
Let’s go through each one and think about what they mean and what they need.
Like the beginning of your novel or story, the beginning of your scene should start with a hook of some kind. There are a variety of ways to do this, which I will explore in a moment, and you don’t have start each scene in media res with action (that would be repetitive). But don’t count on your reader being on board with your story enough that your scene doesn’t need a hook. Don’t do this at any point in your novel.
Your scene needs to start in such a way that the reader needs to keep reading after the first few sentences to find out where this is leading. It is hard to do, but very important.
Start as close to the climax as narratively possible
The first thing you should be doing is starting as close to the climax as narratively possible. This means that you should cut all the dead weight at the start of the scene that isn’t necessary to the climax that you wrote down.
Let me go back to my example: Joe Protagonist is confronting his girlfriend, Karen, in a coffee shop, about her cheating on him.
Now, let’s imagine the beats of the scene: She’s there waiting for him, he arrives, goes and orders a cup of coffee, pays for it, goes and sits down next to her, drinks a sip, they talk awkwardly for a moment while he builds up the courage, he’s nervous - he doesn’t want it to be true, then he confronts her. She denies it. He calls her a liar. She’s outraged. Cue big argument. She’s very offended, so much so that he questions whether he’s right. He doubts himself. She storms out. He feels ashamed. He begins to question his motives and blame himself.
Okay – we have an obvious plot point: Joe confront Karen and they fight.
We have obvious character development: Joe begins to question his own motives and starts to blame himself for even thinking that she was cheating.
Great. Fine. So where do we start?
Well, let’s be honest: does the reader really need him walking into the shop, buying a cup of coffee and paying for it? No. He’s sitting in a coffee shop. That’s implied. A reader can work out he’s probably bought a cup of coffee. Don’t treat your readers like idiots.
Do we need the awkward talk beforehand? Maybe. That depends on what kind of story you want to tell and how important it is to the character. The question you should be asking is “is the awkward talk beforehand necessary to develop his character?” If it is, keep it. If not, cut.
Maybe we start with the confrontation. That’s very close to the climax and a good hook. The opening line could be the accusation. But can we get closer? Of course we can.
Her denial implies she’s been accused. We don’t need the actual accusation. In fact, him calling her a liar implies she denied something (and if you have written the scenes before correctly, the reader should be able to immediately imply what denial is.)
That’s where I’d start the scene. I’d have the very first line be:
“Don’t lie to me, Karen.”
That’s a good hook. Why? It forces your reader to work. It forces your reader to work out the implications. What’s she lying about? It must be the cheating. After all, we know Joe was going to confront her about it. Why is she lying?
Then, let the reader work out that they’re in a coffee shop as you dive into it. For example:
“Don’t lie to me, Karen.”
Joe shifted in his seat, uncomfortably aware that the customers at the next table could hear them. It didn’t matter - he couldn’t let her get away with this.
Trust your readers and give them some work to do. We don’t need all the explanation beforehand of where they are and why unless it’s really necessary to develop their characters.
Types of Hook
Once you’ve worked out how close to the scene you can be, your hook will probably start to be obvious. But if it isn’t, consider the below three things as being good for hooks:
New Information: offer the reader a glimpse of something they don’t already know so they want to read on.
Confrontation: like above, start with conflict of some kind to draw the reader in. This can be verbal or physical. It could be something as small as a new character walking in the room.
Routine Breaking: something happens that is hugely different to normal. Stories are about breaks in routines and expectations.
Scene Planning Step Three: Write down your hook.
Okay - so we have our hook. What’s next?
This is where the protagonist is forced into the central conflict of the scene and reacts to it. It is the ‘climax’ and the core bit of your scene. In my example above, it is the argument they have in the coffee shop.
To develop this, you need to go back to Step 2. How will this affect your character? You need to get your character from where they are, developmentally, at the start of the scene to where you want them to be at the end.
Let’s look at my example: my key development is that my protagonist feels ashamed for blaming Karen for cheating and then blames himself.
(Spoiler: She did cheat on him. She’s a manipulative bitch.)
Over the course of the conversation, I need to get him there. This is where your skill as a writer comes and you use dialogue, description of feeling and emotion to move your character from one position (blaming Karen) to another (blaming himself).
Scene Planning Step 4: Write down what the development is. If they need to get from A to B - what is A and what is B?
So how do we end our scene? It is not enough to have your scene simply end with the conclusion of the development. I can’t end the scene with Joe blaming himself - that’s a low note. A lull note. I need something to lead my reader into the next scene.
If it ends with Joe sitting in the coffee shop, feeling ashamed and blaming himself, then the reader is fine with putting the book down at the end of the scene and maybe picking it up later to find out where it leads. Not good enough. Something needs to happen to make the reader need to read the next scene.
It doesn’t need to be huge, it just needs to be some kind of call to action, or introduction of conflict.
Brent Weeks does this really well in his novels. Here are some examples of the very last lines of chapters from his great fantasy novel The Blinding Knife. There are probably better ones, but I’d prefer not to give spoilers at this point.
It comes near the end of a fight scene. A small line, but leaves the reader with a… but what will he do now? If he has lost, what is the consequence? Good end to a chapter and leaves you wanting to read more.
Here, it is just an introduction of a character that provides that new conflict. We know that Gavin and his Father basically hate each other and are working against each other. Him entering the room leaves us wondering at the outcome.
I’m going to use a similar approach in my example. I’m going to have the guy that Karen cheated on him with walk into the coffee shop while he’s sitting there. It’s the first time he’s seen him since he found out.
It isn’t huge or ground-breaking, but it leads into another piece of conflict. What will Joe do? Especially know he feels so guilty? Will his anger overcome his guilt? I must read on!
Ideally, all your scenes should lead into the next one with this kind of hook - development – cliff-hanger structure wherever possible.
Scene Planning Step 5: Write down your cliff-hanger.
And there you go - you’ve got a compelling and effectively planned scene. Now all you have to do is write it.
To ensure pace and interest throughout all the scenes of your novel, keep in mind the following.
I'd have given more examples, but Brent Weeks was all I had on hand and no internet. There should be another blog post up next Thursday, but given that I will be in Korea - it might be next Friday.
See you next week.
This post leads on from last week’s on antagonists, but is aimed a slightly more specific type of antagonist - the villain. In this, I’ll be looking at some of the most famous antagonists from fantasy-adventure works - the ones who genuinely strike fear into the hearts of our protagonists and are a real threat; the ones we remember long after the story is finished. Villains like Lord Voldemort, Darth Vader, The Witch-King of Agmar, and even the White Witch from the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
It should be noted that all of the suggestions I give in the post come in tandem with last week’s post. You should not forget as you read that your villains, like all antagonists, need real motivations, arcs and faces to be interesting.
That being said, how can you write a fantasy villain that inspires that deep sense of fear, power and gravitas?
What Not To Do
Tell, rather than show.
Please don’t write: Lord EvilMan, the most powerful and scary man in all of EvilTown, walked in the room. He looks at the people and says: “I’m so powerful. I could kill every single one of you. Don’t cross me!”
Okay, my example is a bit exaggerated, but the point stands. There is nothing less impressive than a villain telling you how powerful he is, or you simply telling the reader that he is very powerful and scary. More than most things, these traits need to be shown to be effective.
So how do you show these things? Well, here are some ways to consider it:
Reactions and Fear
One of the things that make all the above villains so ominous is the way that other characters react to them over the course of the story. When we discover who fears them, we discover a lot about how dangerous the character is.
Sometimes, it will be the way they react to their presence, for example when Darth Vader enters a room, people will cower and look subservient without him really needing to say anything. Film, of course, has the added benefit of being able to throw some great music and sound design onto this as well, but what is important is that you are capturing the tone in your writing. You should be trying to capture this in your prose and one effective way of doing then is describing how people - especially strong and important people - react to them.
This is even more impactful when the villain isn’t there. Consider how we are introduced to the White Witch in CS Lewis’ wonderful The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The beavers are extremely scared when her name is mentioned. Tumnus is so scared that he actually betrays his new friends, just because he is worried what will happen to him if he doesn’t. By making the characters do things that are out of character and against what they would usually do at the mere mention of the villain, without the villain actually being there, tells us a lot about their power.
The most obvious example of this working is Lord Voldemort. The fact that before we even meet him people are too scared to say his name in public has a huge effect on our perception of him as a reader. It’s a very clever narrative trick.
This is amplified by the fact that even after he has been defeated people are still too scared to speak his name. They actually flinch when others do it. This helps paint him with all the danger and gravitas that he deserves and means that when we do actually see him rise again at the end of The Goblet of Fire, it becomes one of the most memorable scenes in modern literature. This is because of how Rowling has set him up using others reactions.
I’m not saying that everyone needs to be scared to say your villain’s name. That would be a bit too on the nose and bit too similar to Rowling, I think. But do consider other ways that you can have common and normal people react to discussing or mentioning the villain. This really helps build up their danger.
While having common folk fear the villain is a good thing, sometimes this is even better demonstrated by someone very powerful fearing the villain. In the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is set up as being an extremely powerful wizard, so when he becomes afraid of the Balrog, we know things are getting serious. This happens again later on where Gandalf is used as a narrative tool to indicate that the Witch-King of Agmar is someone to be really scared of, as he has no desire whatsoever to fight him.
If you can have otherwise powerful and competent heroes suddenly become quite afraid of something or someone in particular, this contrast will really help develop the villain’s sense of strength and danger.
Stories and Mythology
Real worlds and cultures have stories and myths built into everything. Don’t forget about this when you build your world. In The Name of the Wind, the Chandrian appear in fairy tales and songs sung by children. They are very much an old part of the world and that lends them a certain gravitas.
Imagine if your character is walking through a town and their one claim to fame is, “one day Lord EvilMan stopped here to stay the night. Up there is the house he stayed in, they say no one can stay a night in there without going mad.”
This is a demonstration of how your villain becomes part of the cultural tapestry of your world. Name things after them. Have stories, apocryphal or true, told about them. Make people scared.
Real Power and Threat
Your villain needs to pose a real threat to your protagonist. A real threat. There are two things you need for this to be the case.
1. Have them actually do something
Please don’t make your villain all talk and no action. Good examples:
Give your villain some real gravitas and don’t wait until the second half of your story to do it. If you want us to be intimidated and threatened by them, give us reason to be.
2. Imminent Threat
Great villains work well if the protagonist feels like they could be killed at any time. The threat feels very imminent. For all that I love the books, and the villains, my mine gripe with Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles is the fact that the Chandrian appear so violently at the start and then basically disappear for the rest of the books. They stop feeling like a threat and lose all of that great fear that was built up at the start.
There are many ways of creating an imminent threat. The White Witch is a constant and imminent threat because she has Edmund captured and is slowly turning him against his siblings.
3. Have them far more powerful than your protagonist
Nobody wants a villain who is easily defeatable. The best protagonist / villain relationships are ones that are hugely unbalanced. Our villain needs to be a real threat. Our protagonist should be the severe underdog in any conflict.
Consider Lord Voldemort - apart from some other clever narrative tricks like having the same wand, Harry doesn’t stand a chance. If it was a normal magical duel with no extenuating we all know that he would be dead. There’s no question of the matter.
What power does Frodo have to defeat the Witch-King of Agmar or Sauron for that matter? None, except for the possibility of destroying the ring. But in one on one combat they are a clear and impossible threat.
The White Witch even kills Aslan, our great hero and saviour, without much of a fight. (I know, I know, he comes back, but at the time it has a lot of impact).
A great example of this actually comes from Brandon Sanderson’s YA novel, Steelheart. I think Steelheart is great villain precisely because he is so completely unstoppable. When they do stop him, it isn’t because the protagonist is stronger or more powerful, but because of another narrative twist.
If you want a really scary, memorable and intimidating villain, consider doing the following:
Next week I will be in Sri Lanka, so may not be able to update the blog. If I am unable, then the week after I will be writing about how to construct individual scenes and chapters and what goes in them.
See you in two weeks, probably.
Antagonists are one of the most important parts of stories and can often make or break the enjoyment of a story. Sometimes, no matter how well written your protagonist is, if the antagonist is poorly developed or presented then the story comes across as flat.
This post is one of a series of two posts. This week, I will be talking about the role of antagonists in stories generally and what makes them work. Next week, I will look at what makes a really good villain, which is somewhat different thing. The second part will have a particular focus on fantasy/thriller/adventure type stories, though should be applicable to other genres.
It is important to note that not every story requires an antagonist, so don’t feel like you need to shoehorn one in just for the sake of it. All stories need are goals and obstacles to create conflict. An antagonist is an effective way of creating that conflict, but isn’t the only way.
Here’s some ideas to think about when writing an antagonist:
I will start with the most obvious. Please give your antagonist interesting motivations. People often talk about antagonists having non-realistic motivations, but more importantly you should not give your antagonist boring motivations. Give them a compelling reason to be doing what they are doing. Here is a list of boring motivations:
I want to destroy the world because I am angry.
I want to destroy the world because I am evil.
I want to kill people because I like it.
I hate the protagonist because they are so good and I am so evil.
Good and evil are boring concepts. They are overplayed. If you want an interesting antagonist, stop thinking of them as the villain in the story and start thinking of them as the hero of their own story.
This is key. Your antagonist should truly believe that whatever they are doing is justified. Not necessarily that they are doing the right thing, because right and wrong is not as cut and dry as that, but definitely that they are justified in doing the actions they are doing. They can arrive to this through relatively messed up logic, but they need to have that logic.
If you can make it so that your antagonist sees themselves as the hero and even sees your protagonist as the villain, then you have some interesting motivations going on.
Examples of compelling antagonists who believe themselves to be the hero include Magneto from the X-Men canon, John Doe from the movie Se7en, Ozymandias from Watchmen and many others. These characters are for more interesting because their motivations appear real. After all - nobody really sees themselves as the villain. They all think that their path is the best one.
More than just heroes, the antagonists should be the protagonists of their own stories. This means they need to be agents of their own character development arc.
You need to plan out a character arc and a goal for your antagonist just like you do for your protagonist, even if we only catch glimpses of it throughout the story. They should not be static. They should not simply be waiting for your protagonist to show up and defeat them.
Think about Lord Voldemort, who is a very memorable villain. He has a very clear character arc across the seven books and is, from the very beginning, working to regain his lost power. He has detailed, actionable plans and as we grasp glimpses of this through Harry’s eyes during the story we grow to understand what he wants and why. This is very successful.
Make sure your antagonist, just like your protagonist, is active and making active choices to further them towards their goals.
Foils: Two Types of Antagonist
Great antagonists are also foils for the protagonist. A foil is a term to describe a character who contrasts with another character in order to bring out certain traits of theirs. A good foil character usually falls into one of two camps:
1. Diametrically Opposed
One of the best ways of creating protagonist / antagonist conflicts is by giving them very different worldviews.
The reason the Joker is such a compelling antagonist for Batman is that he holds a diametrically opposed worldview. Batman believes in justice, doing good and the sanctity of life. Joker believes in chaos and sees life as ultimately futile and absurd. This opposition creates for a powerful protagonist / antagonist dynamic.
His opposing viewpoint contrasts with Batman’s and causes him to question the value of his beliefs. The Joker specifically pushes Batman to re-evaluate these beliefs by setting up situations like the boat gambit in The Dark Knight. In this situation, he forces Batman to wonder if the faith he puts in people and in the sanctity of life is really worth it.
It is good character development for the protagonist.
If your antagonist is like this - diametrically opposed in their worldview to the protagonist - get them to put the protagonist in similar situations, where they are forced to reevaluate and question their worldview in order to defeat the antagonist.
2. Reflections of Each Other
Another good way of creating a foil for the main character is by presenting an antagonist that is a little too much of a reflection of them. There should still be differences in how they view the world, of course, or there is no conflict. But, if you offer up enough similarities to cause them to pause and wonder, this can be particularly effective.
Two of my favourite examples both come from hit TV shows - Dexter and Breaking Bad. I’m aware that both these examples involve famous anti-heroes. The protagonists are villains themselves. But this is concept can apply just as well to traditional heroes. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock and Moriarty are another excellent example of a protagonist and antagonist being very similar.
The first example I will use is Gus Fring from Breaking Bad. He stands as one of the strongest antagonists in the show, partly because of his similarities to Walt
Up until meeting Fring, all the other drug dealer / cartel enemies he faced were of a similar nature - power-hungry, mercurial and generally mad (like Tuco from the first season). Walt is often seen desperately wishing to deal drugs more like a sensible business, with sensible people that will just give him money for his product and distribute it.
In comes Gus Fring - exactly what he has always wanted. In many ways, Gus is like a reflection of Walt. Intelligent, business-like, but also ruthless when he needs to be. He offers Walt exactly what he has been wanting - lots of money to make his product safely and have no hand in the distribution or any other activities.
The effectiveness of Gus Fring as a villain is that he demonstrates that what Walt said he wanted is not what he actually wants. He doesn’t want to be in the background. He wants to be Fring. He wants to run the operation. Fring is so effective as a villain because he is so similar to Walter and in many ways he is the representation of everything Walt wants - this is where the conflict is derived from.
A second example is the Trinity Killer from Season 4 of Dexter, arguably the best season of an otherwise hit and miss show (certainly later on).
Dexter is presented with an antagonist who is also a serial killer with a family, just when he is struggling to come to terms with that element of himself. In fact, in the very moment when Dexter is determined to kill Trinity, he sees him go home to his family and stops. This isn’t because of any empathy he feels for them, but because he sees himself in Trinity and is intrigued. He wants to know more.
In this story, the antagonist acts as a foil to the hero. He provides conflict - yes - but also an opportunity to really explore the depths of Dexter’s character by holding a mirror up to it. He can see his own reflection in Trinity and, increasingly, he doesn’t like what he sees there.
In both of these situations, just like with Batman and Joker, the antagonists are effective because they force the protagonist to confront their own personal viewpoints and change the way they think about the world. You should be aiming to have your antagonist do this.
Faces and Facelessness
There has been a tendency in literature lately to make antagonists large faceless conglomerates, whether an evil corporation or a group of deadly assassins or something else. Personally, I think this is a dangerous narrative trap to fall into.
Great antagonist are visible. They have character. The reason faceless groups don’t work well as antagonists is that you can’t give them an arc. You can’t give them depth in the same way.
If anyone has watched the hit Netflix Marvel Show Daredevil, I’m sure they would agree that Wilson Fisk is an infinitely more compelling protagonist than the Hand - a faceless group of ninjas.
The Wachowski Brothers (siblings?) (sisters?) knew this when they made the Matrix. They knew they had an antagonist that by its very nature is faceless, so they gave it a face and a character and even an arc in the character of Agent Smith, who is far more compelling than all the other ‘agents.’
Please be careful of making your antagonists too faceless and characterless. Yes, you may want to be making a social commentary on heartless pharmaceutical companies or late stage capitalism or whatever, but give your antagonist a face and a personality, not just a theme.
Successful antagonists are more than just plot devices, they are the protagonists of their own story. They need as honest a motivation, arc and development as your protagonist does, even if a lot of this is not seen directly but happens in bits and pieces.
Next Thursday will be part 2 of this antagonist discussion, focusing more closely of fantasy/adventure villains and how to write them successfully.
See you next week.
Point of view is one of the earliest decisions you will have to make when writing a story and can often be one of the most important. There is a modern trend in literature, especially in the realm of genre fiction, to write in 3rd person limited. This gives you the opportunity to dive into different character’s heads but still retain some of the intimacy that comes from a first person POV.
Part of this is because 3rd person omniscient can be very difficult to get right and often comes across as rather archaic when compared to the modern tropes of writing. Another part of this is because 1st person is often looked down upon unfairly.
Perhaps this is because the initial instinct of a school child writing a story is to go with first person – it is easy and relatable for them, like a diary or journal entry – and as such there has become a stigma where ‘first person’ is perceived as more simplistic or perhaps easier than a wide reaching 3rd person narrative.
This stigma couldn’t be more wrong.
I believe that not only is first person one of the most difficult perspectives to do well, but also (if done well) is one of the most powerful tools in all of literature. It elevates writing to something more complex, deeper and far more human. First person narratives are the writing equivalent to Daniel Day Lewis-esque method acting. To do it effectively, you need to eschew your voice as a writer and become your protagonist, wholly and completely.
My favourite example of an author who can do this is Kazuo Ishiguro, a master of first person. If you read any of his books – Never Let Me Go, A Pale View of Hills, The Remains of the Day, it would be quite easy to be convinced that they are written by different people if his name was not on the cover.
In fact, The Remains of the Day stands as my favourite book of all time, and much of that is down to the mastery of the first person narrative that is employed. I will talk about this later.
In this post, I will try to explain why and give some tips as to how to write first person well.
1. Some Technical Points
Before I get into the more complex ideas, I think it is important to touch upon some key technical mistakes that are often made in first person narratives.
a. Filter Words
In first person, you have to remember that everything that happens is being seen through the eyes (and ears and nose and skin) of the narrator, so words that you might usually use to denote who was experiencing what become redundant. You should aim to remove these filter words where possible.
To give an example, here’s a random bit of description I just wrote:
I stood by the bay and watched the boats roll in and bob against the pier.. I could hear the screeching of gulls and smell the salty sea-air as it brushed across my face. As I stood there, watching, I felt a wave of quiet peace wash over me, just as the waves washed themselves on the sandy banks of the shore.
Now, cutting the filter words:
The boats rolled in, one by one, bobbing against the pier. Gulls screeched overhead and the salty sea-air brushed past me, the ocean wind cooling my face. Just as the waves washed themselves on the sandy banks of the shore, so did a quiet wave of peace wash over me.
By getting rid of the “I watched”, and “I could hear” and “I could smell”, we are brought closer to the narrator and the scene becomes more intimate. We see it through the narrator’s eyes rather than seeing the narrator seeing it, so to speak.
Whereas in 3rd person, the reader requires the words here and there to identify character, even in 3rd person limited, the first person does not and including it only serves to distance us from our narrator.
This isn’t to say you can never use filter words. Sometimes, they can be used effectively to increase tension or highlight the impact of a situation. For example:
Stumbling around the room, I searched for the key. I could see the mark from where it lay on the table, I could see the bowl where it was meant to be, but that was it. The key was gone.
Here filter words are used for emphasis, highlighting that the narrator is searching for something. The key is to use filter words sparsely and only for impact. Don’t just include them in description, know why you are including them, if you do.
b. Limited Knowledge
Your narrator has the very limited knowledge that a single person has. If you want to experience, go outside and people watch and see how much you can really work out about what people are thinking, where they have been, what they are doing. If you aren’t Sherlock Holmes (hint: you aren’t), then this is difficult.
Similarly, your narrator should not know more that they can reasonably work out. They shouldn’t know what other characters are thinking unless they state it. And even if they do, they might interpret it wrong. You need to make sure you think about how much one person could reasonably know.
(Yes, your narrator can speculate, but it should be clear that it is speculation).
c. Being Wrong
As an extension of this, your character should also often be wrong about the conclusions they come to about people, situations and actions. Think about how often you’ve misinterpreted a situation in life. Your character is not some omniscient genius – make sure they misinterpret things. Have them read into other character’s words in a way that makes sense to them, but is clearly incorrect to the reader. Or becomes clearly incorrect later on.
This isn’t a flaw so much as just being human.
One of the most important aspects of first person narration is voice. In an earlier post about dialogue, I talked about the importance of developing an idiolect for your characters. This applies just as much, if not more, to your narrator.
If you want to write a successful first person narrative, the voice needs to be consistent. You need to think about formality, inflection, dialect, phrases that they use and you need to use this throughout – even in you description.
To give an example, in the chapters of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate where first person is being used, it is done so in a very informal and conversational tone. She even starts the second book with the line:
“Hm. No. I’m not telling this right.”
Which is wonderful. This remains consistent throughout. However, in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, his character is a stuffy butler so his language is far more formal and far more reserved.
He includes many similar phrases in the narrative, like: “I think you will understand”, “But you will no doubt agree,” and “you will no doubt appreciate.” This consistency gives him strong voice and reflects the part of his personality where he feels the need to convince others (and himself) of things he is unsure about.
This is hugely important. Agents and publishers go on about the need for the writer to have a good ‘voice’, but in first person it is less about the writer’s voice and more about the character’s voice. You need to become that character. You need to go full Heath Ledger Joker on it and every line of description or action you write should be told from that voice of that character and not of you.
This is very hard to get right. If you want some tips, go find my post on dialogue and read through the bit on idiolect. Create an idiolect sheet for your protagonist and stick to it.
3. Reliability of the Narrator
This is a huge one for first person. A first person narrator is not a reliable narrator, ever. And by this I do not mean that they are necessarily lying (though many do), but that they view the world with their own particular bias and filter their experiences through that.
We all do this. This is what makes us human. Not a single one of us has the ability to be purely objective. The way we respond to people and experiences is defined by the way we look at the world and the bias we see it from.
If you are writing in first person, you cannot tell an objective story. It feels false and simplistic.
This applies just as much to basic description. Remember that when you are describing characters or settings in first person, you are not describing what they look like, you are describing how the narrator sees them. And, as I talked about in my post on character descriptions, our perceptions of how people look are very defined by the way they make us feel.
A good example of this can be found in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. When Victor Frankenstein is at University he has two professors: Waldman and Krempe. He disagrees with Krempe's beliefs and science and ways of teaching. Indeed, Krempe tells Victor that his previous studies were all a waste of time and 'nonsense', and that he must begin his studies again. However, Waldman is much more conducive teacher, who shares a lot of his views, praises him and pushes him to further accomplishment.
The descriptions of the two professors are therefore very different. He paints Krempe as aesthetically very ugly, while Waldman is upright, strong and soft. Specifically, he describes Krempe as being "a squat man, with a gruff voice and repulsive countenance." and says of Waldman that "his person was short but remarkably erect and his voice the sweetest I had ever heard."
Interestingly, the one objective piece of information we can take from their descriptions in that they are both short, but the choice to describe Krempe as 'squat' compared to Waldman 'short, but remarkably erect' is key. This is, after all, how Victor perceives them.
As such, even the most basic actions and descriptions in first person narratives need to be filtered through the mind and the voice of the narrator.
This sounds tough, but this is where first person narratives excel and where they elevate themselves from other types of narratives. If you can successfully write a story where the reader is only being told the story through the bias of the first person narrator, but can also see the objective viewpoint and how the narrator might be wrong, then you are really on to something.
4. Emotional Bias
Think about what kinds of emotional biases your character has – we all have them.
How do they feel about old people, young people, people who are overly gregarious or very shy, their parents or their siblings? Show this bias through the way they react to them, but don’t explain it. Show it through actions – it’s the ultimate show, don’t tell.
If I return to my Frankenstein example, it is clear in the novel that Victor is driven by his ego. The reason he loves Waldman and sees him in such a good light is because he is complimentary and his thoughts fall in line with what Victor already believes. Krempe's only real vice is to tell Victor that all his previous study of alchemy isn't really relevant and he still has a lot of learning to do.
Despite it never being explicitly said, the reader comes away with the sense that Victor is egotistical and sees people more highly if they are willing to stroke that ego. This is a big emotional bias for him and we learn it through the way he sees people and the things he does, without ever being told it outright.
In The Remains of the Day, the narrator is an old English butler who refuses to let himself feel any real feelings and squashes them down. He truly believes that the greatest trait in the world is a sense of restraint and having a stiff upper lip.
Interestingly, one of the ways this is demonstrated to us is through his description of setting. At one point, when he is standing and looking over the English countryside, he says:
"The English landscape at its finest—such as I saw this morning—possesses a quality that the landscapes of other nations, however more superficially dramatic, inevitably fail to possess. It is, I believe, a quality that will mark out the English landscape to any objective observer as the most deeply satisfying in the world, and this quality is probably best summed up by the term 'greatness.' … And yet what precisely is this greatness? … I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it."
This is a nice description of English countryside, yes, but more importantly it reflects his personal emotional bias about the world. Despite never directly relating it to himself, it is clear (given that he is the narrator) that this is implicitly not just about landscape, but about life and ultimately about himself.
Once again, description seen through the subjective eyes of the narrator, rather than just description.
But what is done so masterfully in this book is that through the conversations he has and the actions he does, we can tell these feelings exist. At the end of the day, the story is one of unrequited love and you can tell he is deeply in love with Miss Kenton. But he never once states that he has any feelings for her at any point. It is all implied.
Let’s take the frame narrative of the story, he is travelling all the way down to the South of England just to see her. Now the reason he gives us, as the reader, is that he just wants to go on holiday and he realizes that a job opening has come up and she was a good maid back in the day. He tells us this specifically and gives us no other reason, but it quickly becomes obvious that the real reason is he just wants to see her again. I mean, he could get a maid anywhere. He's travelling halfway across the country just for an opportunity to see her. He never states his feelings; we work it out through his actions. In fact, not only does he not admit this to us, as a reader, what makes it work so well is that he seems unable to admit it to himself.
Why? Because of his obsession with restraint. One does not, after all, shout these feelings from the mountaintop. But he has taken it to such a degree where he can't even whisper these feelings to himself. It's truly heartbreaking.
This leads me to my next point:
5. Contrast as Character
If your narrator's actions are contrasting with the reasons and the justifications they give for things, this creates fascinating character conflict.
As human beings, we aren’t very good and being completely in touch with our feelings and all our decisions. Sometimes we get angry and upset and we don’t know why. Sometimes we do things out of the blue that we can’t explain. Your narrator needs to be like this too, if you want them to be human.
What elevates it to excellent writing is if you can set up the narrative in such a way that the narrator doesn’t know why they are getting angry about something, but the reader does. It’s difficult, but it’s the goal of great first person narrative.
To write well in first person, you need a very strong picture of the character. You need to understand how they view the world in terms of their emotional biases and personal worldview.
Have your character do things, then justify these things to themselves or the reader in ways that aren’t fully objective, in ways that tell you more about the character than they do the situation.
Have your character keep a consistent and steady voice throughout.
Ensure that your descriptions of all things are seen through the lens and bias of your character rather than an objective lens.
Most of all, use contrast to give your character emotional depth.
Lastly, if you do find yourself wanting to write in first person narrative. Please go and read The Remains of the Day. It is an absolute masterpiece of story-telling, a Man-Booker Prize Winner and the best example of first person narrative I have ever read. Ishiguro is a genius and it shines through in this novel. We all have a lot to learn from writing like that.
Next Thursday, I will be writing a blog post on what makes a great villain, in which I'll be exploring the role of the antagonist in different types of stories and what readers look for.
See you next week.
Endings are hard. Or at least, they carry the stigma of being hard to achieve, and I think this is to a large degree because people aren’t entirely sure what they want out of endings.
In this post, I will aim to explore what good endings to stories really do and why they feel conclusive, all the while being to some degree open to interpretation. It will hopefully include some practical tips for thinking about your own endings.
So what makes a good ending? I believe a great ending needs to:
Answering the Dramatic Question
The dramatic question is what drives the drama of your novel. You may have more than one, but more often than not it will centre round a dramatic question.
For crime/detective novels, this will often be some variation of “whodunnit?”.
For romance novels, some variation of “will they, won’t they?”
For epic fantasy and space opera, it might be some variation of “will they save the world and at what cost?”
Yours will hopefully be more specific and concrete than the above, but you should know what it is. If you don’t, go back to your manuscript and identify it. Write it down.
For examples, let’s think about some dramatic questions from famous books:
1984 - Will he manage to resist or even rebel against Big Brother?
The Lord of the Rings - Will Frodo destroy the ring and defeat Sauron?
Mistborn - Will they overthrow the Lord Ruler?
Of Mice and Men - Will they find peace on their farm and make it out of the drudgery?
As you can see, the answer to this question is not always ‘yes’ (i.e. 1984 and Of Mice and Men), but it is always answered. You need to resolve this question for your book to end, otherwise the reader will be left feeling cheated out of a resolution.
But endings are more complicated than this. For a full examination of great endings, I’m going to take lessons from my favourite ending of all time: the ending of Fight Club.
The ending I’m talking about is David Fincher’s movie ending, not Chuck’s book ending. Fight Club is actually one of the few movies I think is better than the book. On top of this, while the ending of the book might be truer to the thematic tone of the novel - darker, grimmer and more hopeless - the end to the film is much more satisfying narratively, and as such is a good example to explore why.
I’m going to presume that you’ve seen it and I’m going to presume that you can clearly picture the final scene: Ed Norton’s character (Tyler or not Tyler?) and Marla Singer standing in front of the collapsing, exploding high-rises, holding hands, while the Pixies plays in the background. It is beautiful and iconic.
It is one of the best endings ever written. But why?
1. Failure before Resolution
One of the most important narrative tricks for a powerful resolution is making sure your character has utterly failed just beforehand. I’ve mentioned this before when discussing plotting, but will go over it again as it is important.
Think Lord of the Rings and Frodo putting on the ring and turning away from Mount Doom.
Think Harry dying at the end of The Deathly Hallows.
Think Tyler Durden, having sent Marla Singer away on a bus, tied up, beaten up (by himself) and about to watch the city be destroyed with no help coming from anywhere.
These are all the just-before-final scenes of the climactic endings. This is an important narrative trick. It gives the ending weight and importance, especially after a whole story has been told. If they didn’t happen, the endings wouldn’t have anywhere near the same impact as they do.
Fight Club does this well.
Task 1: Cook up a scene where your character fails entirely just before your ending. Make sure the reader knows they have failed, unequivocally. Then, find a way to turn it on its head for the resolution.
2. Resolution of Character Arc
The Rolling Stones had it all worked out. Let me tell you why.
The most important thing that Fight Club gives us is a resolution of the protagonist’s arc. This is done by answering the dramatic question - which is derived from the protagonist’s goal.
The important thing to remember is that the stated goal or the apparent goal of the protagonist is not necessarily their actual goal. This is key in making impactful endings.
If you can have your protagonist think they want something, but actually it just be symptomatic of something else, then you’re working with real development. And if in the end you can give your character a resolution on their actual goal, while failing at their apparent goal, then you have a good ending.
In other words: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, you might find you get what you need.”
Let’s think about this in terms of Fight Club.
What is Ed Norton’s goal? Well, initially he just wants to sleep. This is his goal. Then he wants to be a bigger part of Fight Club. Then, when he finds out what Tyler is doing, he wants to stop Tyler from blowing up the city and killing people.
These are all, of course, symptomatic. He doesn’t know what his real goal is, but it is obvious from the start. He is lonely. He needs some kind of human connection.
This is the dramatic question - will he ever find true human connection?
He fulfils this at the beginning with consumerism, buying IKEA furniture, etc. But it doesn’t work. And the result is he can’t sleep. He then fulfils it with the emotional connection he gets from support meetings, but ultimately because this connection is false, it doesn’t work. He finally fulfils it by inventing a friend for himself and then building a cult around himself just to discover some sort of emotional connection, which he still doesn’t get. Meanwhile, there’s Marla, who he slowly, unknowingly, develops a love/hate connection with, but it is the only real one he has.
The ending works so well because he fails his stated or apparent goal at the end - which is to stop the buildings blowing up. He fails it completely. But, he finally achieves his true goal with Marla. It is the juxtaposition of this failed apparent goal and achieved real goal that makes the ending so powerful. The shot at the end literally shows the buildings exploding and them holding hands simultaneously, coupled with the wonderful line: “You met me at a very strange time in my life.”
Task 2: Specifically at the end of your novel, identify what your protagonist’s real goal is (which should be tied closely to the dramatic question). Then, give them an apparent goal which is symptomatic of their real goal, but different from it. Now, end your novel by having them fail at the apparent goal and achieve the real one. Trust me: that’s a great ending.
3. Change and Acceptance
This is one is pretty common knowledge, but is worth being stated again. Your ending needs to demonstrate to the reader either some level of change in the protagonist or some level of acceptance of their fate.
Most clearly, if you can have them make a choice that they would never have made at the start of the story, you are onto a good resolution.
Think Breaking Bad: Walt’s last scene is him telling Jesse to kill him - purely and honestly. He wants to die. This is such a departure from the Walt we have seen previously and this choice gives his character wonderful resolution.
In Fight Club, Ed Norton shoots himself in the head. Does he know it’s all in his mind and he will survive? No. He kills himself in an attempt to stop Tyler. That is what is most important to him. This, again, is a choice he would never have made at the end.
What Fight Club does wonderfully is it merges change (caring enough about something to shoot himself in the head because of it) and acceptance (staring at the exploding buildings and accepting there is nothing he can do about it). This is all summed up in the phrase: “You’ve met me at a very strange time in my life.”
4. Don’t Resolve Too Much
Just because you need resolution, this does not mean that you need to resolve everything. In fact, resolving every single plot point into a neat little bow that has no sense of continuing momentum often feels false. It takes the reader out of the story and reminds them that they are reading a narrative, constructed to end, rather than ending naturally.
As such, a sense of continuation of world, story and character is desired.
Think about this in terms of character. If you character is active and moving throughout the whole plot, you don’t want your reader to be left feeling that there is nothing left for them to do now and they are just going to sit on the sofa and watch TV for the next 50 years. It wouldn’t fit with their personality.
Let’s take two series that I’ve used repeatedly to show good and bad examples of this:
a. The Lord of the Rings
Does the story end with the one ring being destroyed and peace coming back to the world? No, it ends with Frodo leaving on a boat to a new place, new discovery and a new adventure with Bilbo, Gandalf, etc. I know the stated reason is to live out their older years, but the sense of continuing momentum we get from them departing again is both conclusive and satisfying. It is a good ending.
b. Harry Potter
The Harry Potter series has, for me, one of my least favourite endings to a series of books. I understand that she wrote it early on, near the start of her career, before her writing style and characters and plot had developed, but the ‘flash forward’ is an example of what I’m talking about above.
You may disagree with me, but many people I have spoken to have said it feels cheesy, false and somewhat takes you out of the gravity and emotion of the end of the series. I feel this is because Rowling is trying to resolve too much.
She’s trying to bring together every single thing and tie it off neatly, and the result is that Harry’s kids end up being called Albus Severus, James Sirius and Lily Luna. I mean, really? There’s such a complete sense of resolution to it - emotionally, plot-wise, developmentally - that it ends up feeling forced. So be careful about this.
If you can complete the arc for the character, which is more important than the story. The plot doesn’t need to be ‘resolved’ as such.
Again, one of the reasons Fight Club works so well is it leaves us with this final scene of action. We leave the story with questions. What will happen to them now? There is a sense that the story will continue, but because the arc is resolved and he has answered the dramatic question (finding a connection in Marla Singer) we don’t feel cheated that we aren’t there to see it.
We are comfortable with the knowledge that this is where we get off and the story can continue happily without us. This is the sense you should be aiming to achieve.
Endings are hard to get right, and they rely very much on how well you have set up the dramatic question and the motivation of the characters in order to get there. As such, I would always advise writing your story with a planned ending in mind. But some tips to remember are:
1. Resolve your character's true goal, but not necessarily their apparent goals.
2. Have your character fail before they succeed. Give it some drama.
3. Have your character's resolution demonstrate change and / or acceptance.
4. Don't try to resolve everything in the entire story. Decide what really counts and resolve that. Leave your reader with a story with some forward momentum.
Next week, I will write about how to write in 1st person perspective and what that entails, specifically looking at classics like The Remains of the Day.
See you next week.
Getting your reader to root for your protagonist is one of the most desirable goals in all of literature. If you can get a reader to be truly on board with a protagonist or secondary character, to fight for them in their minds and to want them to win, then you have achieved something quite precious. It raises the stakes of your conflicts and it turns the pages of your books.
So how to do this?
The best way to get a reader to root for your character is to engage them in some serious pathos. Pathos is an appeal to emotion, as opposed to ‘logos’, which is the appeal to logic. Pathos works much better in stories and forms the very heart of great story-telling.
There are a number of different ways to create pathos for your characters. Here is a non-exhaustive list:
Have your character lose something close to them emotionally. This is one of the most tried and tested ways of creating pathos for your character and getting readers to sympathise with them.
This can happen before the start of the story, like in Harry Potter. He begins having lost his parents and the people that love him.
This can happen right at the beginning of the story, as well. For anyone that has played The Last of Us - critically lauded for its emotionally powerful story - the opening scene sticks very clearly in your mind. The main character loses his daughter.
Another good example is Altered Carbon, the first Takeshi Kovacs book by Richard K Morgan. In the opening scene he loses the love of his life.
It is possible to overplay this and you need to be careful with it. Too much loss can be tiresome and difficult to read, but think about having your character lose something or have lost something at the start. It is a powerful tool.
Even more powerful than simple loss is the concept of redemption. Indeed, I would go as far as to argue that redemption is the basis for all great drama, but that is probably another post for another time.
The need to act in order to overcome personal guilt is probably the greatest tool for creating pathos that exists in literature. It pervades more than just stories, but cultures and histories. There is a reason that the major religions of the world deal, in some form or another, with redemption. Think about the confessional box of Christianity. The ‘forgive me father for I have sinned.’ Humanity, as a whole, is obsessed with the idea of guilt, redemption and fighting for forgiveness.
If you can instill in your character a sense of guilt about something that they feel the need to redeem themselves of, you can almost guarantee that your reader will root for them doing it.
A good example is Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. He is a fascinating character because we truly hope, as readers, that he has the capacity to be redeemed.
An easy way to do this is to tie it into loss. If someone loses their wife or child and blames themselves for it, this can have heavy impact - regardless if it was their fault or not. Another way is to have them do something that they later regret.
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson - one of the most intelligent and rich fantasy series of all time - begins with the main protagonist committing a horrific act of rape and he spends most of the rest of the books trying to find redemption for that choice. It is awful, but it makes for a highly compelling protagonist.
Regardless of awful things that your protagonist might do, or terrible situations they might be put in, consider making them loyal to something, someone or some idea. Unwavering loyalty is another powerful tool to generate pathos.
The key here is not to make them loyal to everything and everyone, but rather to one specific thing. Give your character one thing - one principle - that they will never shift on. Never.
They can have this unwavering loyalty to anything - a principle, like honour or justice (like Stannis Baratheon), a friend, a family member or a loved one.
The classic example (though often overused in stories) is the whole ‘cannot kill’ principle, like Batman has. It makes it fascinating to see how he will stop the villains while remaining loyal to his own personal code of morals that precludes him killing everyone.
But it doesn’t have to be anything as lofty as this. In fact, I think it’s better when it’s more personal. Make your protagonist completely and utterly loyal to their brother, or their friend or partner.
To quote Breaking Bad, when Hank is speaking to Jesse: “Walt is ruthless. He will do anything to get what he wants, except when it comes to you.” We know that no matter what challenges he faces or what decisions he makes, he will always look out for Jesse. Throughout the show, this offers us just the right amount of pathos to get on board with an otherwise despicable character.
4. Underdogs and Assholes
We naturally root for underdogs in stories, and so putting your character in a situation where the odds are stacked against them immediately gives us a reason to root for them. This is even more effective if you can set them up against other characters who:
Having a character to root against gives us a reason to root for the protagonist, who is competing with them in whatever situation you have. This can apply to almost anything: an office scenario, a police academy, a mage university, etc.
A classic example of this is Ambrose from The Name of the Wind. He is not only rich and entitled, but horrible just for the sake of it. By setting him up as a rival at the University, we root for Kvothe in any situation where they are at odds.
It works particularly well if the competing character has better odds or chances because of things that they have not earned. This brings out a strong sense of injustice in the reader and is a great way to get them to root for your protagonist.
Like redemption, sacrifice is one of the most powerful concepts in humanity. There is a reason that Jesus on the cross is one of the most pervading symbols across the world in the past couple of thousand years. In fact, go into any religion, mythological story or history and there will be a story of someone who sacrificed themselves for others.
This is a great opportunity for pathos. If your character can sacrifice themselves to save someone, your reader will fully support this. It awakens some primal pathos that can’t be denied.
Picture Gandalf dropping down the pit to fight the Balrog, letting go of the ledge and falling to his doom.
“Fly, you fools.”
Cue screaming men and crying hobbits.
That’s what we are talking about here.
Obviously, this isn’t much of an option at the very beginning of your story, but later on it can be a powerful tool.
My favourite example of this is difficult to discuss. It is one of the most powerful endings to a trilogy of books I have ever read and I go back and re-read it time and time again because of the emotional impact it has. If you have read the end of White Gold Wielder - the third book of Stephen Donaldson’s 'Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant' - you will know what I’m talking about. I won’t say more because, frankly, the possibility of spoiling that journey for at least one person is too much of a danger to bear.
Pathos isn’t the only way to get your readers to root for a character. You can also use some tricks that appeal less to a reader’s sense of emotion, but more to their logical brain. This means have them doing things that people we like do: crack jokes, smile, be friendly and altruistic.
One way to do this is to use other characters. If you want your character to be likeable to a reader, they need to actually be liked in the book. At least by someone. The value of friendship in stories cannot be understated.
You may think you want the romantic ideal of the lone ranger who has no friends or connections, but still fights for what is right, but if your character has no one in the novel that likes them as a friend then we as a reader are going to struggle to find them likeable.
Having other character’s show love and respect is a clear and logical way to say to your readers: this character deserves your love and respect.
Think about the introduction of Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo adores him. Bilbo is his good friend. These friendships are focused on before we move on to anything major involving him. They are important. They help establish him as a character that people like and respect - as if by osmosis - the reader likes and respects him too.
While making your reader ‘likeable’ works, the most powerful tool for getting your readers to root for your protagonist is pathos. As a storyteller, your reader’s emotions should be putty in your hands. Play with them. Manipulate them.
A note on tropes and cliches:
Many of the examples above are tropes that can be found all through literature, but that is because they work. People talk about cliches like they are something to avoid and that everything needs to be fresh. This is nonsense.
The above examples work precisely because they are tropes. They aren’t just story tropes, they are human tropes. They are ways we connect with the world emotionally. The key is that it is all in the delivery. Any cliche on the planet can work if it is delivered and written well.
Next week there will be a break in posting as I will not be around and able to write it, but the week after there will be a new post.
See you in two weeks.
A common trope in sci-fi and fantasy is the use of multiple POVs to tell the story. This isn’t exclusive to these genres, but it is certainly more common. Authors often use this to achieve a broad perspective on their world, offering multiple viewpoints so that their world-building can be effectively demonstrated.
Today, I will be writing about what readers look for in multiple POVs, how you can move them around in a meaningful way and how they tie into overarching plot.
What your POV characters should be
POV characters are there to offer a wider perspective, so make sure that they are different. This applies to almost everything about the character: location, status, profession, gender, sexuality, personality, whatever.
If all of your characters happen to be Princes or Kings and are all some member of royalty, I don’t get any sense of what the world is like for the common man. If they are all from the same place, I only get a very small view of your world.
Think about The Lord of the Rings. Two of the main POVs, Aragorn and Frodo, are widely different.
(I’m aware that the story is told as omniscient, rather than limited POVS, but for the purposes of this they are protagonists. The story follows them.)
Frodo - hobbit, village boy, from the Shire, unimportant.
Aragorn - man, future King, very knowledgeable and important, been around Middle-Earth
This gives us perspective of Middle-Earth from both points of view, which is a good thing. It would be even better if we had a female point of view, but Tolkien was very much of his time.
Please vary your POV characters.
How To Fit Them Into Your Plot
I’m referring specifically to the plotting method described in the ‘Finding the Plot’ blog post here. If you haven’t read it yet,go read it. It's here.
You see that 3 act, 9 box structure with your 2 points of no return that I sketched out? Do that for each of your POV characters. They all need a full arc, with growth, conflict and change. If you do not have a full narrative arc for them, they should not be a POV character - they should be a side character. A member of the supporting cast.
Your task is now write their narrative arcs so that they interact with one another. The arcs should be independent, but also lead into each other by the end of the novel (or trilogy, or whatever you are writing). This could be in the third act or even in the second. I wouldn’t do it in the first as you probably want to establish autonomy for your character’s arcs.
How do you do this?
Identify points in the narrative where their stories can cross. The best place to do this are the Points of No Return™. If you remember the post about effective protagonists, I talked about how you need to challenge their worldview. One of the best ways to do this is to have them confront another POV character with a completely different worldview to theirs. This then forces both characters to confront their views of the world and then consequently change.
One of my favourite examples of this can be seen at the end of The Way of Kings - the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s ‘Stormlight Archives’ series.
As it is a series, it can’t really be counted as an end, but simply another Point Of No Return™ for the characters involved. Dalinar Kholin and Kaladin Stormblessed have had very individual arcs and not met each other for the entire book, right up until the moment where Kaladin - who hates light-eyes like Dalinar with a passion - has to decide to save his life.
This is a huge turning point for Kaladin. His worldview challenged, he is forced to do the one thing that he would never want to do. As such, he changes in a way that he cannot come back from.
This is also a huge moment for Dalinar - he has been betrayed by Sadeas and his worldview, that people are generally good, is completely challenged and he must change.
As such, they both hit their challenges and Points of No Return™ simultaneously and in the same place. Dalinar challenges Kaladin’s worldview and Kaladin saves Dalinar from certain death. It is very neat, astounding fun to read and surprisingly easy to pull off narratively if you plan it out right.
How to move your characters to where they need to be
So you’ve got a diversity of POV characters all in different places emotionally, narratively and geographically. How do you get them where they need to be for the above to happen?
Think about your story like a chess board. Your POV characters are your King and Queens, your secondary and supporting characters are your Bishops, Rooks and Knights. Everyone else is a Pawn.
Let’s say you want to move your King or your Queen somewhere - what do you do? You send in the Pawns first, then the Bishops and Knights, then finally you make way for your main piece. You clear the ground and prepare the way for them.
You do the same thing with characters. Have your secondary characters head where they need to be first (physically, narratively or emotionally). Have them confront and converse with the opposing side’s King or Queen (in this analogy, your other POV character). Pave the way.
To use Way of Kings as an example again, before Kaladin and Dalinar meet, Kaladin has seen, met or had some level of confrontation with Adolin, Sadeas (he is one of Sadeas’ bridgemen after all) and other supporting characters in Dalinar’s story. He has interacted with the Pawns, at first, then the Bishops and Rooks.
Once you send in the troops, the protagonist can follow in behind and have their confrontation. This might seem like an odd analogy, but once you start applying it to your plan, you’ll find it can work wonders.
Next Week’s Blog Post: ‘How To Get Your Readers on Board with your Protagonist’
See you next week.
A common difficulty among first time authors (and even published authors) is how extensively to describe your character and when to do it.
After all, we all want the same thing: a vividly painted character that the reader can picture in their head and realistically imagine doing all the things that you want them to do. This goal is straightforward and common.
But how to get there? We all know that overly describing a character can be lengthy, dull and superfluous. There’s nothing worse than a protagonist standing in front of a mirror and commenting on their long, hooked nose, slim and gangly figure offset by deep, mysterious blue eyes that… blah blah blah.
You know the kind of description I mean. If you don’t, have a look here for a completely over the top example: https://imgur.com/4Mvb034
Now - I'm not saying that your description is like the above, but there is often a need amongst writers to overly describe the physical characteristics of their characters. But there’s a reason that agents often give a protagonist ‘describing themselves in a mirror’ as an example of something that will make them immediately put down a manuscript. It’s simply bad writing.
But why is it bad writing?
Surely, if you want your readers to picture your characters vividly, you should describe them in as much detail as possible - right?
The issue is that the information above is superfluous. Nobody (and I really mean nobody) picks up a book for good character description. When we read books, especially at the start of the book, we read for plot. We want questions and mystery and excitement and all the things that skip a plot forward. As the book moves on, we read for character development and tension and resolution. Sometimes we appreciate good prose, but we don’t tend to read specifically for it. We don’t pick up a book just for descriptions. It is additional information and the brain tends to skip over it, ignoring it in favour of plot elements.
I must admit that my advice here might come across as somewhat controversial, and perhaps not applicable to all situations, but keep an open mind. It is something I truly believe.
So why on earth include any of it at all? Well, surely because we need to picture our characters, right?
Consider this extract from Charles Dickens, an author often lauded as having some of the greatest and most memorable characters in history:
‘He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh. A man made out of coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him… A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.’
You can really picture him, can’t you? I know I can. I can see that suit he’s wearing, with the tie tight around his fat neck. I can see his chubby, red face and beady eyes.
Now go read it again and think about how much of that is direct physical description.
One thing: he’s big. He’s a big man. That’s it. There’s no need to describe the colour of his skin, or the shape of his jaw or the thickness of his arms, because our imagination does it all for us. That’s the beauty of reading.
In fact, I will go as far as to say that physical descriptions are not only superfluous, but actively detrimental.
You know that feeling you get when a book is made into a film, and the actor looks nothing like the character you pictured? That’s because you’ve been able to use your imagination to create your own image of the character and, because of that, they are so much more real. They are yours. This other face someone has given you is false by comparison.
Book characters are the same. As a reader, the physical image of a character that your brain creates will always be more vivid than one given to you by an author. Because you wrote it. It’s the ultimate show, don’t tell.
The result is that I have a much clearer and more personal image of Dickens’ character than I do whoever that girl was in that description I linked to above.
So don’t spend your time describing physical characteristics. You are wasting it.
How should you describe character, then? How do you do it in such a way that your reader can picture them without the crutch of physical description?
Well, let’s go back to the Dickens example above.
Character Description Tip 1: Describe The Way They Act
It is often said, in showing and not telling, that describing character’s actions tells you a lot about personality. I think people often forget how much it tells you about their physicality too.
If you describe a character as ‘scowling’ when I first meet them, I’m going to picture their face in a very different way than if they are ‘beaming’. I mean the actual, physical features of their face.
The ‘beaming’ guy, to me, has a round face with a wide mouth and a big, flat nose. The ‘scowling’ guy has a thin face with a pointy nose. Why? Who knows. That’s just my imagination working.
What does Dickens’ character do that makes him so vivid? He has ‘a stare’. I can just picture him leaning over me and staring this very minute. It’s a wonderfully intrusive verb and it implies, for me, a pointy nose and bulging eyes.
As well as this, he was ‘always proclaiming… his old ignorance.’ A wonderful phrase. I can hear the character booming condescendingly to me about his stupid thoughts and ignorant ideals.
Let’s try looking at this in another description. Here’s an extract from Virginia Woolfe’s To The Lighthouse:
‘He was such a miserable specimen, the children said, all humps and hollows. He couldn’t play cricket; he poked; he shuffled. He was a sarcastic brute, Andrew said. They knew what he liked best – to be for ever walking up and down, up and down, with Mr. Ramsay, saying who had won this, who had won that …’
Once again, hardly any physical description. She says ‘all humps and hollows’, but that almost feels more descriptive of his personality than his shape. Despite that, I can really picture the character, can't you?
By saying ‘He poked; he shuffled.’ I can see his long, protruding fingers and shaky legs without having to be told about them. The shuffling of his legs becomes even more pronounced with ‘for ever walking up and down, up and down,’ - I can see the old, Mr Burns-esque, frail gait.
Maybe you can’t - maybe you can see something else - but that’s exactly the point. By describing physical features you remove the ability for your readers to see different things.
Character Description Tip 2: Describe How They Make Others Feel
One of the best ways to view characters is through the eyes of other characters and how they make others feel.
To take the famous Carl W. Buehner quote (often misattributed), “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
Look at the Dicken’s example again:
He ‘was the bully of humility’. A lovely phrase to describe how you would feel around him. That’s what counts - it doesn’t matter what a character looks like, we need to know how they make people feel. The brain fills in the rest.
This is done even more masterfully in Woolfe’s description. Look at it again:
‘He was such a miserable specimen, the children said, all humps and hollows. He couldn’t play cricket; he poked; he shuffled. He was a sarcastic brute, Andrew said. They knew what he liked best – to be for ever walking up and down, up and down, with Mr. Ramsay, saying who had won this, who had won that …’
She spends a lot of time showing us how he makes people feel. We know how the children feel about him - they think he’s a ‘miserable specimen’. We learn that Andrew thinks he is a ‘sarcastic brute’. This is hugely important and plays a larger part in our picturing of a character than physical description does.
You don’t need to be an omniscient narrator, like Dickens is, you just need to consider how others see them.
A Final Example
One of the best examples I have come across in the art of character description, I came across very recently when reading Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. The story is written from the perspective of a foetus, and as such the protagonist can’t actually see the character of his uncle Claude. This restriction allows for one of my favourite descriptions:
‘For Claude is a man who prefers to repeat himself. A man of riffs. On shaking hands with a stranger - I’ve heard this twice - he’ll say “Claude, as in Debussy.” How wrong he is. This is Claude as in property developer who composes nothing, invents nothing. He enjoys a thought, speaks it aloud, then later says it again, and - why not? - says it again. Vibrating the air a second time with this thought is integral to his pleasure. He knows you know he’s repeating himself. What he can’t know is that you don’t enjoy it the way he does.’
Not a hint of physical description, but can’t you just picture him? Doesn’t your brain impose an image onto these annoying characteristics? And isn’t that image so much more vivid than if he had said:
Claude is 5 foot 2 with a medium build and a bald head. He has pinkish cheeks and wears collared shirt…
Eurgh. Leave your clothes and builds to the tailors. Give me habits, traits and personality any day of the week.
As with all things, there is a balance to be had. Some particularly stand out characteristics are powerful - think The Hound’s burnt face in A Song of Ice and Fire or Harry’s scar.
But for the most part, physical description is significantly less impactful than other methods of describing character. It is telling, rather than showing and you should try and keep it to as little as possible. I don’t care if you have an amazing picture of your character in your head you want to get across, cut the descriptions of ‘hazel eyes’ or ‘hooked nose’ or ‘red ponytail’ or ‘thick muscles’.
Our image of their physicality should be derived from the way we feel about the characters and from the things they do.
So stop telling me - show me. Let me come up with my own picture. Trust me: it’ll be better than yours.
Next Week’s Blog Post: ‘Using Different POVs - How To Move Multiple Protagonists Around Your Plot"
See you next week.
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.