In the last part of her series offering advice on how to finally crack on with that novel you’ve been planning, author Julie Mayhew has a question: Who’s with me?
So. You have an idea. You have a plan (or not – see part two). Now to get properly stuck in.
A novel is made up of so many components – voice, tone, setting, pace, dialogue, point of view, plot, sub-plot, symbolism… I could go on. And people have. Whole books, indeed, have been written about how to write books.
But if I was to choose the most important element, the thing you must completely nail to make your novel fly, it would be character. More specifically, your main character – your protagonist.
I run manuscript groups where writers share their work and get feedback from peers. At one recent session we were debating the merits of a student’s fledgling project – Did it have enough to hold a reader’s interest? Was it too dark? – and one astute reply came: “But if you have a great lead character, we will go with you anywhere.”
Bingo. Great character is all.
A great character isn’t always likeable, though we must come to understand their motives, and they are certainly never perfect, as this only makes readers resent them. Your creation should be a person you, and others, might want to spend time with.
I think of it like those big, diva-ish actors that you enjoy watching on stage or on film. You may love them, but you know how awful they would be as a friend – forever turning up late, expecting you to respond to texts all hours of the night, throwing tantrums at dinner parties.
Those people make terrible mates, but are fascinating from a distance, and brilliant fodder for novels. We are unlikely to knowingly befriend murderers and thieves in real life but will quite happily do so on the page, just to see what happens, just to get inside a mind that is not ours.
“Put forward a well-drawn protagonist who really wants something, throw obstacles in their way to getting it, force your character to tackle said obstacles and – ta-da! – there’s your plot.”
Your character, big or shy, good or evil, must be complex and intriguing, flawed like we all are, and they must do and say things.
This last piece of advice may seem patronisingly obvious but I have often looked back on a piece of my own writing, baffled as to why it’s not working, only to realise it’s because the character is completely passive. They are watching the action and not getting involved. They think about saying things but never do.
If you make your character act and react you end up with a story (See, I told you great character was key). Put forward a well-drawn protagonist who really wants something, throw obstacles in their way to getting it, force your character to tackle said obstacles and – ta-da! – there’s your plot.
And for that plot to be truly cracking, your obstacles must be the absolute worst things. Not necessarily a ticking bomb in a gran-filled bus hanging off the edge of a cliff. For a socially-awkward character, having an argument over a parking space at Tesco could be their idea of terror. If I was your character, you could, say, make me go camping.
Sometimes it can be hard to write truly challenging obstacles. One – because we are (most of us) not psychopaths and don’t like inflicting pain or discomfort on sympathetic people, even fictional ones. And, two – if you write your character into a corner you’re the one who has to find an ingenious way to write them out again.
At the end of your story, you decide if your character does or doesn’t get the thing that they wanted at the start. If it’s a literary tragedy they must certainly finish empty-handed, though perhaps with a dash of hope.
The best endings for me are when the character doesn’t get what they wanted but instead gets what they really needed – something entirely different. Then you might like to add ‘wise woman’ to your list of occupations as well as ‘author of a book’.
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Julie Mayhew writes radio dramas about love and novels devoid of romance, most recently Nazi alt-history The Big Lie.