Your Main Character In Fiction – Too Good (Or Too Bad) To Be True…

The difficult part.  Creating a realistic character – or in fact, creating two.  Protagonist and antagonist.

Both are crucial to the story, but in some ways, the antagonist needs greater complexity, as that character drives the story forward – perhaps more so than the protagonist.

Stereotypes (e.g all bad, all good, all tough) don’t help.  Readers find it difficult to identify with a persistently flat character. Yet, in life, personality trends tend to fall into a few basic categories, suggesting that humans are pretty stereotypical at heart.

Until you dig deeper…

I think the secret lies in balancing the character’s strengths and virtues with their weaknesses and conflicts.  No one can be truly good all the time.  The truly good person must have conflicts of their own, regrets, resentments, etc.

Conflict provides a key to the main characters.   For instance, a writer should ask their major character questions: “What’s your problem?”, “What drives you?”,  “What’s the worst thing you’ve done that no one knows about?”,  “What are your secrets?”  Some writing coaches suggest doing exercise like these in the First Person, to get deeper insight into the character.

A further tip…make a note of the questions or character qualities that prompt a strong emotion…later, they may provide you with plenty of story questions to drive the narrative forward.  Plus, you may get a couple of satisfying, three-dimensional characters: protagonist and antagonist



Reading A Novel (un roman) In French…

I’m currently reading a novel in French, having immersed myself in the language for the past six weeks.  During my school days, I studied French grammar and basic vocabulary, but I only recently got the  hang of conversational French, in particular the use of past perfect (passé composé)

The novel – Moka by Tatiana de Rosnay –  tells the story from the first person perspective of Justine, who receives an unexpected phone call informing her that her son has had a road accident.  Although I still have lots more to read, I would imagine that Justine’s search for the truth behind the accident leads to a surprising, maybe shocking, discovery.

Admittedly, I wouldn’t normally read the English version of a novel in that genre, preferring crime thrillers or gritty teen/Young Adult, but I felt the novel would give me a chance to widen my experience of the French language.  

So far, I’ve found the flow of words easy to follow.  I like the immediacy, the sense that a reader can understand complete sentences in a different language, even if they don’t recognise particular words.  Also, I hope to sense and experience the world from the perspective of the principal character, without language being a barrier.

As you can probably imagine, I’m pretty keen on the French language…plus, I love to read, play piano on a serious level, and write my own stuff.  Fiction.  Gritty.  Crime. 

Meanwhile, I’ve put my latest working novel (the third) aside for a bit, having just received a professional critique, but my debut Secrets (adult thriller) and second novel EggHead (teen/Young Adult), are available on Amazon.  Check out the reviews.

Novel Writing: Dealing With Flashbacks and Repressed Memories

Flashbacks and repressed memories make for interesting reading in fiction, but there’s a problem.  So often, the subject can become another cliché, similar to an opening italicised dream.

Clearly, though, some people repress memories of a traumatic event and  triggers such as a smell or a sound can cause those memories to come back, often resulting in distress.  

Since fiction is all about character and since characters reflect people and their problems, I can see no reason for advising against the use of flashbacks in novel writing.   However, I would suggest the following:

  • Imagine that you are the character
  • Introduce fleeting impressions of memory at first, relying on one or more of the five senses
  • Make sure there is an adequate trigger for the first flashback, preferably a sound or a smell. Alternatively, discussing an event can trigger memories that a person wasn’t aware of
  • Avoid using italics
  • Develop the memory over the course of the story, especially the images and the impact on the character
  • If the character is remembering a traumatic event, have some of the details echo
  • Introduce something new each time you deal with the memory scene

I’ve reached the 65,000 word stage in my first novel, a psychological thriller, and am now dealing the above points.  Rewarding and not too difficult.  I’m enjoying it.

Backing Up Fiction And Music: Great Online Tools

I’m a chronic worrier.  One of the things I worry about most is losing all my writing, especially after the work I’ve put in.  Water dripping through the ceiling, a fire, a burglary…and the novels would be lost.  Worse, my printer isn’t working properly at the moment. 

Yet, with the Internet revolution of the last ten years and Web 2.0 sites, no one need ever worry about losing their work.  At the end of each writing session, I send the latest novel draft to several, if not all, of my six email accounts.  This keeps them safe.  Many email accounts can also store digital music files and photographs.  

Every week or so, I upload the novel in progress to, a free online place for storing documents, photos and music.

I also take advantage of Google Docs and Zoho Docs, both free.  Google Docs limits the size of each file, but it’s possible to upload an entire novel by dividing it into smaller sections.

Finally, I create a new page of my WordPress blog, copy/paste the novel to the page and save the page as a draft that only I can see.

Admittedly, I still worry about losing my work at times, but the measures mentioned above should help.

Dreams in Fiction?

When I first started writing a novel, a psychological thriller, I relied heavily on italicized dreams because it seemed the right thing to do. Over the years, however, I’ve cut most of the dreams and concentrated on the central character in real time. As a member of a novelist group once said to me, “if you’re going to use dreams, then at least reveal something new in the dreams.”

Now, I’ve had to ditch that one important opening dream that acts as a kind of prologue to the action. At a recent meeting, an editor told me that opening dreams are clichés. The editor asked whether I would read a prologue in italics in someone else’s book and I replied that I probably wouldn’t. So I’ve had to get rid of the dream.


The rewrite of the novel seems to be going all right. I’m concentrating a lot more on all the senses and atmosphere.

I’m using a fantastic programme, Storybook, that enables users to plan and organize scenes. Storybook is an open source programme and doesn’t cost a penny (or cent).

Writing and Legal Matters

So far…I’ve written two novels, both psychological thrillers.  The first is with a professional editor, the second with a friend who apparently thinks the story is very exciting.

The fiction over for a while, I’ve been working on a sensitive writing project that I may eventually self-publish under a pseudonym – my memories of childhood written in dramatic narrative with careful consideration given to imagery and pace.   The project has brought to mind various legal points.   I’m based in the UK, but I would imagine that similar laws exist in the States:

  • Never quote lines of lyrics or poems without first getting permission from the publisher or copyright owner
  • Don’t write anything that harms a person’s reputation
  • If neccesary, disguise names and places
  • Do not reveal information about a minor
  • Don’t include material that incites others to commit crimes
  • Always exercise caution

A Simpler Plot: The Rewrite

Finally, I’ve reached the final chapters of my novel, a psychological thriller set in the English countryside.   In a previous posts, I mentioned a phrase that some creative writing tutors use rather a lot: “murdering your darlings.”  The logic behind it is this:  a story, particularly a novel or novella, develops  over time and sometimes the original ideas and arguments end  up clashing with the new direction of the story – therefore, the writer should consider cutting these old problematic sections to allow the story plot to develop.  However, most writers don’t want to cut sections of writing they’re particularly proud of.  The sections have become their “darlings”.  Yet, it is these “darling” sections that could be holding the story back.

As I stated in an earlier post, I tended to pump up the fear factor at first.  This, of course, had the opposite effect, removing any traces of subtlety from the story and creating scenes that weren’t frightening at all because most people wouldn’t find those scenes convincing.    In the last two rewrites of the novel, I’ve had to remove all aspects of madness in the viewpoint of the male character and concentrate instead on a simpler, more logical plot structure.

In most crime/thriller fiction, plot is character led.   Two of the best questions to ask about a main character are – 1) what do they fear most? and 2) what do they want most?   These driving forces propel the story forward and determine the various plot possibilities.

50,000 Words

I’ve now reached 50,000 words of the draft I’m currently working on, a psychological thriller told from two viewpoints regarding two characters struggling to cope with the past.  I ran into trouble when I tried  to write out a major character from the story.  

I’ve since reinstated the character and revised the plot on previous lines, developing that particular character. The problem with this particular character has helped me realise that structural difficulties in storytelling are similar to difficulties in real life – the problems are there  to stay.  

Fiction is all about conflict and situations worsening.   Getting rid of material to simplify matters doesn’t always work.  

Fortunately, I’ve managed to escape writer’s block this time round, apart from once.


Further Writing Tips

Struggling with RSI again

It’s back. Discomfort in the elbows and arms coming from the neck area. I suppose I’ll have to dig out the exercises the physio gave me last year.

I’m a classical pianist, and I spend hours at the computer writing fiction most days. Yet, neither is causing the problem. At one point, my sleeping angle was doing it, but now I think it’s the mobile phone. I’m spending too much time in the wrong position.

Story Questions and Fiction

Two weeks ago, I completed the draft of a psychological thriller, word count 91,000.   I read through it, made some changes to the first eighteen chapters and was about to read it again when I decided to put the manuscript away for a while, as I realised I’m too close to the story to evaluate it properly. As I’m driven to write most evenings, I decided to start another novel and have done over 8,000 words since Monday.

In previous posts, I described some of the difficulties people face in novel writing (see  Driving Factors in Fiction, Different Camera Lenses: Viewpoint, Writer’s Block, Creative Writing Headaches ).  Normally, difficulties occur when there is a lack of structure.   Since I’m dealing with entirely fresh material this time rather than editing stuff I’ve already written,  I’m finding it much easier than before.  I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t put into the practice the writing tips I’ve posted on this blog, so here are a few of the things I’ve been doing to help the writing process:

  • Keeping a list of story question
  • Brainstorming
  • Circling in red ink sentences in the story summary that leap out
  • Working out the character driver questions – e.g. what does the character most want and what do they most fear?
  • Working on viewpoint character sources of inner conflicts

Like before, I’m rotating viewpoints, one per chapter.