Larry Kahaner

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

Archive for the tag “how to write characters”

How to Screw Up Your Novel: The Drop-In Character

How to Screw Up Your Novel: The Drop-In Character

By Larry Kahaner

I just finished a terrific book that had one major flaw. It’s a shame, too, because the book’s author is up there with Baldacci, Child and Crais. He’s not nearly as well known as these guys but he’s that good.

Beware the drop-in character.

Beware the drop-in character.

I won’t tell you the book or author so as not to embarrass him but my reason for telling you this is so you won’t make the same mistake. This goes for fiction and non-fiction writers.  Both can be prone to the same error.

The book is a business thriller that starts off with a bang (literally, if you know what I mean) and proceeds to bring in genius characters with their foibles, oddities and random proclivities that make you smile and keep reading. The plot concerns financial shenanigans. There’s a lot of computer type stuff, which I normally don’t like, but it’s done so well that it kept my interest.

Now here’s what happened.

A few chapters in, the most eccentric, fresh and compelling character I’ve read in years enters the picture but then you don’t see him (ok, maybe a few tiny times) until the end where he persuades the main characters to start a consulting team because they’re the best in the world at what they do. It appears to me that when he was done writing the book the author decided to turn it into a series. That’s cool, but he shouldn’t have introduced that great character unless he was going to use him the whole way through.

It’s wrong to parachute a character in – a unique one at that – and then not see him fully operate until the end of the book where he springs to life.

I get what the author was trying to do – and agree that it would make a great ‘book one’ of a series – but this was not the way to do it.

There were several choices the author could have made. First, rewrite the book to get the eccentric character intertwined from the start so he does not drop in unceremoniously at the end.

The second was to put him in the end of the book but do it so cleverly that the reader accepts it. How? Several ways come to mind. He could have been pulling the strings all along; he could have been the unknown person who dropped helpful hints to the main characters… a few more will come to me later.

So, did I enjoy the book? Yes, it was terrific and except for this one screw-up, it was nearly flawless. I even bought the second in the series, because, like I said, the author’s writing, plotting and storytelling is top notch. If he pulls this kind of stunt again, though, I’m getting a Kindle refund.

The Trouble With Flashbacks and Backstories

By Larry Kahaner

One of the best things about writing this blog is that it forces me to confront my own writing issues. Currently, I’m wrestling with a particular flashback in my current novel. You probably know that flashbacks and backstories are different although they are similar. Both devices occur in the past and writers use them to give readers a better understanding of a character or situation through past history and behavior.320px-Flashback

Backstories usually are standalone narratives whereas flashbacks are a character’s recollection. (I know that some will argue these definitions but I’m going to move on anyway as you consult your dictionaries.) Both suffer from the same malady, however. They interrupt the forward movement of your story.

In my particular case, the flashback is way cool. I’ve written it well and in real time. It moves like the wind and gives a great insight into my main character. On the minus side, it stops the main story dead in its tracks. The forward motion that I’ve worked so hard to achieve is halted, and I will have to work even harder to build up acceleration again.

The questions I have to ask myself is: Is it worth it? Cut out or leave in?

Actually, there’s a third choice. I could make the flashback shorter in hopes that the reader will speed over it. Nah. I either want to tell the whole flashback story or not at all.

Because I come from a journalism/non-fiction writer background I opted to brutally cut the flashback. Here’s the section under discussion:

“As the minister spoke, Mike remembered the funerals in Iraq. They were not ceremonies like today’s but what they called ‘ramp funerals’ where caskets containing service personnel were wheeled onto military transports for burial back in the States. Their buddies stood and watched as the caskets disappeared into the belly of a cargo plane. That’s what passed for funerals during the war.

He had his fill of death in Iraq. Mike saw too many pals die, too many ramp funerals, and the memories made him sick to his stomach.”

[Right here I had the rather long but again, very exciting flashback incident that occurred during the First Iraq War. It’s too lengthy to show. So, assume that you did read it and continue with the current day’s scene.]

“Now, here he was once more, watching the burial of one more comrade who died in the line of duty. Comrade? She was more than a comrade.

Did you miss reading the flashback? If I didn’t say anything, you wouldn’t have noticed anything was missing. I added “Comrade? She was more than a comrade.” to highlight my main character’s emotional state and offer a bit of backstory, as it were, about their relationship.

In summary, I cut several pages of flashback and replaced it with seven words.

My word count took a hit, but I have a better book.

How do you handle flashbacks and backstories? Any advice for others facing the keep-or-cut dilemma?

Can You Model Successful Novelists?

By Larry Kahaner

Modeling successful people works, but in their desire to do what novelists do, many new writers often ask the wrong questions: Do you write in the morning? Do you use a pen? Does whiskey help? Which notebook is the best? These are superficial queries that don’t get to the essence of becoming a successful author.

Ask any professional writer and he or she will say the same exact thing:

anatomical-studies

Successful writers, like artists, do sketches for practice.

Sit in your chair and write.

 Many people don’t want to hear this because it means hard work. It’s much easier to buy the exact pen that your writer hero uses or purchase that ‘special’ notebook.

 Writing is hard, but the more you write, the easier it gets. Big surprise. Even the best baseball players still take batting practice every day because the more they do it, the easier it becomes to hit the fastball. This goes for everything in life.

So, how can a new writer practice if he or she doesn’t have a book in the works (or even if he does)? Here’s something that I’ve used and it might work for you. Watch people around you. Coffee shops provide a good venue. So does your workplace. Sitting in public transit offers opportunities. Eavesdrop on people. You don’t have to catch everything they say. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. Notice their mannerisms, their clothing, how they move their hands, how they express themselves…

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Fictional Villains Must Still Kick the Dog

By Larry Kahaner
One of the challenges of using your non-fiction skills and experience to write fiction is the issue of characters. Much of work-related prose doesn’t feature people. There are exceptions of courses – you may have written a profile – but even then, you only touch on the person’s personality because the story is usually more about his or her work.
Alfred-Hitchcock

“In the old days villains had mustaches and kicked the dog.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Novel writing is different. It’s all about characters. It’s all about how they feel, how they act, how they relate to others, their demons and on and on. Readers want to know these people in great detail. If you, as a writer, don’t make the reader understand and care about the characters (and that holds for the bad guys, too) then no amount of clever plotting is going to make your novel a success.

How to do this? Simple.

In books, as in life, we judge people by their thoughts and actions, but mainly by their actions. If you want the reader to emotionally connect with your characters have them do something that elicits an emotional response. For example, Shakespeare had an easy and immediate way of telling the audience who were the evildoers. They would walk on stage and kick a dog. They would do it in a way as if the dog were a contemptuous creature. What could be a more heinous act but to hurt an innocent dog? On the other hand, as movie director Alfred Hitchcock noted:

In the old days villains had mustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don’t want their villain to be thrown at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings.

 

I partly disagree with Hitch. Although audiences are indeed more sophisticated than those before them, the old villain tropes still work – and they work well – because they register an emotional click of disgust from readers.

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