Category Archives: characters

Writing strong characters

Many years ago, I was working with my very talented client, A.J. Hartley, and he sent me pages for a new thriller with a female protagonist, the first female protagonist he’d ever attempted. I read the opening section and tried to be diplomatic in my feedback, but I basically told him that the lead character was not likeable or sympathetic enough and that she came across as very defensive. He took the criticism graciously, went back to the drawing board, and delivered a revision that nailed the character so well that when the book was later published, Publisher’s Weekly had this to say about her: “Hartley has created an enduring heroine in Deborah, who’s courageous, loyal and smart enough to learn from her mistakes.” He has since gone on to write many wonderful books with both male and female protagonists, but that first one paved the way. See first edition cover image below.

I recently came upon a piece on Tor.com’s blog about strong female characters that I wanted to share. The author, a writer named Ilana C. Myer, brings up an important point about writing characters in general, regardless of gender. What is most important is that they have empathy. Focus less on whether they are a man or a woman and more on the character’s feelings, their pasts, their sense of humor and a fully realized character will emerge.

What are your tips for writing strong characters? Any pitfalls you try to avoid? The stereotypes are easier to fall back on, but when you get past that and create really memorable, enduring protagonists, gender can be the least important factor of all.

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You like me! You really like me!

“That the question of likability even exists in literary conversations is odd…Certainly we can find kinship in fiction, but literary merit shouldn’t be dictated by whether we want to be friends or lovers with those about whom we read.” – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

In reading Bad Feminist recently, I nodded my head so vigorously on so many occasions that I’m lucky I didn’t sprain my neck.  Among the calls to arms and insights and gems was the above quote, perfectly summing up my distaste for the prevailing wisdom on “likable” protagonists.  I mean, sure, there are books I don’t like and that I don’t recommend because of it.  But to reject a book because you don’t like the main character?

It’s an absurd objection to literature—often shorthand, I suppose, for “this book didn’t resonate with me and I need a thing to pin that on”—and totally irrelevant to whether or not one even likes a book.  If the book isn’t working, the unlikeable protagonist is going to stick out like a sore thumb to be sure, but I find it pretty hard to believe that anyone has never loved a book where they didn’t like the protagonist.  Gone Girl isn’t a massive bestseller because we all think Amy seems swell and Nick like the husband of our dreams.

I like my friends.  I like my family.  I like my colleagues.  Perfect to have brunch with, certainly, but you want to know a secret?  You couldn’t pay me to read a book about nearly any of them.

Likewise, I’m happy to read about a serial killer, but I’m not going to buy any BFF heart necklaces for us to wear.

So I’m with Ms. Gay–let’s stop talking about the likability of protagonists as if that’s what really matters.

Girl power!

Having four daughters and working in book publishing presents both opportunities and challenges as far as finding appropriate books for the girls to read. They are all at different levels, and they all have different interests so it’s not as simple as passing on a sweater or pair of pants from one to the next. What I find happens is that if a kid isn’t interested in the book that’s up for discussion, it sits on a shelf or next to the bed or worse!

I recently came up on this really great website, amightygirl.com, that aims to empower girls by offering a range of resources that relate to books for girls. Its tagline is “The world’s largest collection of books, toys and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls”. It’s fun to play around and see what they’ve come up with, like a list of best female book characters, which includes the likes of Madeline, Hermione Granger, Nancy Drew and Ladybug Girl (impressive to find a way to fit all of those lovely girls into one sentence). I was also pleased to see a book listed on the same subject as an upcoming book on my own list about the inspiring Irena Sendler who saved 2,500 Jewish children in Poland during WWII, which means they must have great taste!

I wonder if any of you have thoughts on wonderful book ideas for girls? There was this book I read over and over as a kid that so resonated with me called Somebody Else’s Kids by Torey L. Hayden, a psychologist who writes nonfiction accounts of her work with children. It’s about four kids of varying ages with serious and very different issues and how their remarkable teacher goes to great lengths to help them. I suppose my love of narrative nonfiction started when I was young. I just ordered it for my oldest to read and look forward to finding many more books with strong, female protagonists that will empower my girls and help them reach their highest potential.

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What I’m looking for in 2015

Happy New Year everyone! I’m a bit swamped catching up on work that accumulated over the holidays, so I’ll keep my blog post today short and sweet.

I’m looking to acquire character driven fiction.

I’m currently reading David Mitchell’s THE BONE CLOCKS, and the first thought I had was: wow, this is a character (referring to Holly Sykes—one of the many characters in THE BONE CLOCKS). Holly Sykes is vividly drawn; she has her own slang and mannerisms, has hopes, dreams, desires—in short, she comes across as real person. She has a voice. Of course, Mitchell has a voice too, an exceptional one, and it’s the way he writes his characters, it’s his voice that gives Holly a voice.

All great books have a great voice. Some are plot-driven. Some are character-driven. I’m looking for the latter. Is anyone currently working on a project that fits this description? If so, please query me and reference this blog post in the subject line. I’d love to read what you’ve got.

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Life (or writing) lessons from Stephen King

Who doesn’t like to take advice from a master? I’d say Stephen King falls into that category. Despite a terrible accident which almost caused him to retire from writing in 2002, King has produced a staggering number of books, including classics like Carrie, The Shining, Misery, and the list goes on. No one does it better, and there have been few that have managed to compete with his mastery of prose and plot. His category of fiction should just bear his namesake!

He’s offered much advice to many over the years, and his 2000 memoir/writing guide called On Writing is widely admired. This recent piece from openculture.com shines a light on King’s top 20 pieces of advice for writers, and it’s worth taking a fresh look at how to implement them in your writing process today.

His advice is so straightforward, and some of it is really simple. One wouldn’t necessarily think that turning off the tv would be a tip that Stephen King would consider in his top 20, but it speaks to the larger issue of a distracted culture and the need to pay attention to the task at hand. It reminds me of my parents always telling me to turn off the tv when I was doing homework as a kid. They had a point, even if I didn’t want to hear it at the time.

The suggestion to finish a draft within 3 months is also interesting. It’s like he’s in your ear screaming “Stop procrastinating!”.

And there are inspiring tips for writing here that are entirely applicable to life in general, so this list does not solely apply to writers and writing. A few to ponder: Don’t worry about making people happy (a ubiquitous but smart piece of advice that my client Amy Morin talks about in her piece “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do”), The magic is in you, Stick to your own style, and Take a break. Good thoughts for writing and life. Enjoy!

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Last-minute Halloween costume ideas

October 31st is two days away. That means some of you have two days to put together a costume—I know can’t be the only one who consistently improvises with his costume at the last second. (By the way, I was a pirate clown this past weekend. My character had a very intricate back-story, but maybe that’s a story for another time.)

Be a character from one of your favorite books. The written word has inspired many a Halloween costume, and this year is no different. I mean, it may even be trendy—in some circles. Check out this “How to Pick Your Literary Halloween Costume” guide if you need some help preparing for this Hallow’s Eve:

http://www.bookish.com/articles/the-best-halloween-costumes-from-books

 

If you’re in relationship and want to be obnoxious about it, here’s your cosume:

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss

 

If you want to be spooky and don’t want to mess with the classics:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

 

For the rambunctious, wild child out there—who also happens to be into classic lit: