HOW TO FIX UNLIKEABLE CHARACTERS – TUESDAY WRITING TIP

WHY I WROTE THIS POST

I’ve recently been having discussions with a number of writer friends about the dilemma of creating a main character that readers don’t care about.

I feel like I had a breakthrough recently in turning an unlikeable character into one that a reader could love. One of my writer friends suggested I share my discoveries in a blog post – so here it is.

HOW IT ALL STARTED

A few years ago I came up with a YA plot and a main character (MC) I really liked. I wrote her story, but it soon became apparent that I was the only one (apart from her mum and her best friend) who actually liked her.

Particularly when writing YA and we are trying to make our MC’s angst ridden but feisty, it’s too easy to create a character that nobody likes or cares about.

Your main character doesn’t have to be sugar sweet, but they have to be someone you and your readers can empathise with. In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is appalling, but in my mind, it’s really FBI agent, Clarice Starling who is the MC and carries the reader through the story because of  her vulnerability and determination.

In my YA novel with the unlikeable heroine, I  had created plenty of problems for people to sympathise with, but clearly that wasn’t enough.

WHY READERS DIDN’T SYMPATHISE WITH MY CHARACTER

In real life, do we sympathise with the drunk driver who keeps getting in their car and having accidents? Do we sympathise with anyone who keeps making the same mistakes again and doesn’t heed anyone’s advice?

OTHER MISTAKES I MADE

1.    I thought I had made her angst ridden, but I had just made her irritating.

2.    I thought she was feisty but she was just plain aggressive.

3.    I thought she had enough problems to make readers sympathise but they felt she had brought her own hardship on herself.

(You might recognise some of these problems in your own stories:)

When I looked for ways to fix the problems with my story, it came back to character development – not just my MC but her supporting cast too.

HOW TO MAKE YOUR CHARACTER LIKEABLE

1.    They have to have some normality in their life so that readers can relate to them.

2.    They have to have understandable reasons or motivations for what they do.

3.    They have to have character traits that are both qualities and flaws – this makes them believable and strong. For example, in my current work in progress, my character’s determination and tenacity are her strengths, but they’re also her downfall because they are the traits that stop her from letting go of the past, even when it puts her life at risk.

I went back and did some serious work on both my MC and her mother (who was the other ‘accidentally’ unlikeable character in the book).

I discovered that both my MC and her mother’s characters had good motives and reasons for their actions. The problem was that I hadn’t actually conveyed this to the reader. It was clear in my head so I thought they’d understand, but of course they couldn’t make the connection if I hadn’t put the necessary pieces in the story.

As writers, so much of the backstory is in our head and we have to be discerning about what we reveal, but sometimes we have to give our secrets away.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

I recently discovered that there’s a lot more in a name than I thought. Just by changing my MCs name from Tara to Sarah, she emerged as a completely different character in my mind – somebody softer, more gentle, more ethereal. She became the character I always wanted her to be – someone my readers could empathise with. Somebody they would want to see succeed.

I’m not saying that Sarah is a better name than Tara, I’m talking about what the names meant to me as the creator of the story.

So if you have people who need to be more likeable in your story, my tips would be to look at their name, develop their character more, and give the reader enough information so they can make the right connections in your story.

I’d love to hear about your unlikeable character dilemmas.

Feel free to share them in the comments section of this post.

Happy writing and character rebuilding:)

Dee

MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS MOVE – TUESDAY WRITING TIP

I started my scribing life as a playwright creating murder comedies like The Body in the Buggy Room and Up The Creek. It was something I did for fun. I joined an amateur theatre group and I learned all about stage direction, what the audience could see and how much the actors really  needed to know.

But thanks to two writerly friends I recently realised that you need to toss the stage direction out the window when you’re writing a novel – you need to immerse yourself in the scene.

Alison Reynolds, author of the very popular Ranger In Danger series and many other great reads and Bren MacDibble author of numerous compelling books and short stories for children and young adults both had some invaluable advice for me.

Alison said:

I wanted the scene with black roots to be more menacing and I’ve marked other scenes where I’ve wanted more drama.

When I looked back at the scenes Alison was talking about, I could see what she meant. I had put people in places instead of allowing them to go there of their own free will – to find their own way to react to what was happening around them. These scenes were static – they lacked emotion, they lacked realism, they lacked drama and they lacked spark.

Bren said,

Descriptions on the move as the characters interact with the landscapes, rooms, building may need to be focussed on as well as watching that the stage direction doesn’t overwhelm the narrative or become robotic.

They were both right. You need to let your characters make their own moves and inhabit the world you have created for them.

WHAT NOT TO DO – FROM AN EARLIER DRAFT

To show you what I mean, here’s an example of  a static scene – even though the characters are moving, it’s forced and not dynamic enough – not enough emotion and tension for the scene.

Dad looks at me miserably “That’s just what I’m afraid of. You don’t see what he’s doing to you – to all of us. It has to stop somewhere. He has to start taking responsibility for his actions.”

Mum tries to side step past him. “We are responsible for his actions. It’s what we let happen that caused this.”

Dad moves to the side. “Go then. Just go. But if you leave now, don’t bother coming back.”

HOW I REWROTE IT

Dad has just about stirred the bottom out of his coffee cup. He lifts it to his mouth and peers at me through the steam. “That’s what I’m afraid of. You don’t see what he’s doing to you – to all of us.”

The oven timer rings. Mum slams or hand on it and the ringing stops, but the vibrations still echo through the room. Dad stands next to me while I take my pizza out of the oven. It looks cooked but I don’t feel like eating it now.

“Shit!’ I burn my finger on the tray and just about drop the pizza on Dad’s foot.

“Sarah!” Mum jangles the car keys in her hand.

Dad takes the pizza from me and puts it on the sink. I run my finger under the cold tape and Dad turns to Mum. “See what Ed does to this family.”

“This wasn’t Ed’s fault, Dad. I burnt myself.”

Dad takes the pizza cutter from the drawer and starts slicing,  just about cuts a hole in the tray. “This business with Ed has to stop somewhere. He has to take responsibility for his actions.”

Mum slams a plate on the bench next to Dad. “But we’re responsible for this! We’re the ones who let it happen.”

Let what happen? I keep running my finger under the cold tap, try to stop the pain.

Dad slides the sawed pizza onto the plate and slams it down hard on the kitchen table. He points to the door. “Go then, just go,” he yells at Mum. “But if you leave now, don’t bother coming back.”

In this new scene I tried to incorporate more of what you would expect to be going on during the conversation – the background stuff – the sort of detail that helps put the reader into the scene and make it more real.

Thanks Alison and Bren for your help.

I hope that sharing this with my blog readers might have helped you too.

Happy writing:)

Dee

HEROES, VILLAINS AND WRITING BUDDIES

Enjoying a laugh with writerly friends Marie Alfaci, Claire Saxby, Sheryl Gwyther, Elaine Ouston, Julie Nickerson and Kath Battersby

Very few children’s authors become wealthy from their writing, but it is an industry rich with wonderful people and great friendships. I was reminded of this on the weekend when I attended the CYA Conference in Brisbane.

Queensland author, Sheryl Gwyther and her husband, Ross welcomed writers from all over Australia into their home. (Thanks Sheryl and Ross – Chateau Gwyther is always a great place to stay:-)

I spent an amazing weekend, laughing, brainstorming and sharing with other authors; knowing that I am not alone – that others share my love of children’s literature – that others share the ‘ups and downs’ of working in an industry where rejections are plentiful and acceptances are few and far between and must be celebrated with relish.

On Friday night, we attended a function, Four on the Floor at Black Cat Books Paddington featuring Julie Nickerson, Aleesah Darlison, Peter Carnavas and Oliver Phommavanh.

Oliver’s hilarious talk about his new book, Thai-riffic inspired us to dine afterwards at a nearby Thai restaurant.

Illustrator, Jo Thomspon set up a gorgeous display for The Glasshouse launch.

Saturday was full on at CYA Conference where I launched Sheryl Gwyther’s hot new book Charlie and the Red Hot Chilli Pepper and Jo Thompson and Paul Collins stunning new PB, The Glasshouse.

I also attended and was inspired by sessions and workshops with Kate Forsyth, Gabrielle Wang, Prue Mason and Chris Morphew. I love hearing how other authors work and came away from each session feeling as if I had learned something valuable or heard something that would help me decide future direction/revisions to my current WIP.

The hardest part was coming away feeling so inspired and not having the time to write until I got home again.

HATCHLINGS

Sunday at CYA was Hatchlings day. From about 9.00am enthusiastic young writers aged 8-16 started trickling through the door, eyes alight with excitement and perhaps a few nerves.

I was very excited at the prospect of being able to do my Heroes and Villains workshop with a whole new group of young writers. And it was wonderful.

We talked about stereotyped heroes and villains and what makes a well rounded character. The kids had two photos as a starting point and worked on developing a character based on each picture; one hero and one villain or two villains if they preferred.

As well as interviewing each character to find out more about them, they looked at the relationship between the two and how they knew each other.

It was so much fun. It was also interesting to see how quietly and intensely they worked at making each character unique and interesting.

Unfortunately time was limited so they didn’t get a chance to put their characters into conflict, but right at the start of the workshop they got to act out their own Hero vs Villain scenario.

All in all it was another inspirational CYA conference. Thanks to Tina, Ally and crew for all your hard work in bringing together Australian children’s writers and illustrators and other industry professionals in such a fun and inspiring way.

And it was so great that young writers could share the experience this year.

Happy writing:-)

Dee

INSPIRING YOUNG WRITERS

Today I spent time with a group of year 7 students talking about my favourite subject, writing.

They are hard at work writing for the Write across Victoria competition.

I was there to talk about plotting and story and how to UNMASK great characters.

We discussed the fact that every story has to have a strong beginning and hook the readers in and every story starts with something happening for the main character which makes it a day like no other, and changes their life or who they are.

We studied plot arcs and looked at rising tension in stories and the fact that ‘post it’ notes do fall off a page when you hold it up to show the class.

But one of the most important things we discussed was the fact that writers have to ask a lot of questions

  • Who is the story/action happening to?
  • What is happening?
  • Why is it happening?
  • When is it happening?
  • Where is it happening?
  • How is it happening?

We talked about writing and where you get story ideas from and all the fun things about writing. I walked out of their classroom thinking, these are all writers. They have enquiring minds, good ideas and they ask a lot of questions.

I felt truly inspired by them and I hope they gained something from sharing my experiences.

Thanks to M Healy’s class at Braemar College.

Feel free to ask any more questions about writing or your stories in the ‘comments’ section of this post.

Happy writing:-)

Dee

HOW TO THROW OUT YOUR 65,000 WORD STORY – And Use The BEST BITS To Build a Better One

I’m currently working on my next YA novel, Street Racer.

This novel was one of those ones that just came to me. The main character sat on my shoulder and told me his story – and I knew who he was and what he wanted from life.

The problem was, he told me his story in verse.

This wasn’t actually a problem for me, but it was for my publisher. Apparently, verse novels don’t sell.

More important than the publisher’s comment was the feedback from my teenage son. My eldest reads just about anything, but he told me he wouldn’t read a verse novel and neither would any of the boys he knew.

Street Racer was a book that I WANTED teenage boys especially to read. This story was really important to me so I had to try and rework it in prose.

I’m now on the fifth draft and it’s better – but still not working. In the transition from verse to prose I’ve had to add a lot more detail and here’s what’s happened:

  1. I’ve ended up with character ‘devices’ that don’t ring true.
  2. I’ve ended up with too much plot detail that takes the focus away from my main character.
  3. The setting needs to be more clearly established.
  4. Some of the character reactions aren’t authentic.

All these things were pointed out to me by my editor on the weekend – and she is absolutely right about every single one of them.

I read my latest draft over and over, and had it workshopped by a number of writer friends, but none of us picked these things up. Of course we’re not trained editors, but it made me wonder why.

Another author friend, Sandy Fussell and I were talking about this and I think she’s right. She says that workshoppers and the author can get distracted by beautiful writing…and I think it’s true.

If something sounds good when you read it, it can be hard to recognise the fact that it’s not actually relevant to the story or doesn’t move it along…and shouldn’t be there.

After thinking about what my editor had said and my discussions with Sandy, I realised exactly what the problem was with my story. In the transition from verse to prose, I LOST my character’s voice – and to some extent, my character.

So hard as it is,  this means discarding my 65,000 word current draft and starting again. There are lots of parts I can use. I think the plot is sound and I think that most of the other characters in the story are working well. There are some action scenes that I like that will hopefully just need a ‘tweek’ and I don’t think the dialogue needs a whole lot of work. So these are the good bits that I can use in the next draft.

But for the rest of it, I’m going right back to basics. I’ve started by doing another interview with my main character and trying to find his voice again.

I’ve asked him all sorts of questions about

  • where he lives
  • what his relationships with his family and friends are
  • what makes him happy or sad
  • how he spends a typical day
  • how he sees himself
  • how others see him
  • the best thing that could happen to him would be
  • the worst thing that could happen to him would be
  • his biggest problem
  • how he’s going to solve it
  • things/people/situations that are stopping him from getting what he wants

Fortunately, despite the fact that he’s a teenage boy, he has had plenty to say. He has let me inside his head again… and although he’s not quite sitting on my shoulder yet, he’s getting closer.

I’ve also realised there are too many issues in the current draft so I’m taking out one of the main characters to simplify the plot and strengthen the themes that will stay in the manuscript.

And I’m starting my next draft of Street Racer from a different point – from somewhere further into the action.

Have to go now. Ric is calling me. He’s impatient for me to tell his story – and get it right this time.

Happy writing

Dee:-)

MY AMAZING MAY GIBBS ADVENTURE – DAY 6

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing, it’s that there ARE no rules, and that often you can’t predict what’s going to happen next in your story – and there are definitely no certainties as far as the writing process goes.

With my new YA psychological thriller series that I’m working on for my May Gibbs Fellowship, I was determined to meticulously research, and carefully plan the whole thing out before putting pen to paper.

But, my main character, Lia had other ideas. After staying confined in my head for the last few months, she burst out this morning and started telling her story – whether I wanted her to or not – the result is that I now have the start of book one in the series – and Lia is not stopping there. She’s determined to tell me exactly what REALLY happened to her older sister, Mindy.

I did have to politely ask her to step aside this morning so I could clear my head for the last two Heroes and Villains workshops.

All students from the three schools seemed to immerse themselves in the workshop. They came up with some intriguing plots, some great characters and some fascinating questions for me. Also great to see so many teachers enthusiastically supporting their student’s writing endeavours.

A Smile costs you nothing to produce, put one on and you’ll feel priceless (quote from The Over Happy Bus Driver)

I couldn’t resist walking past Glen’s Coffee Barrow again this morning. Today’s quote was a bit twee, but seeing as I’m a big fan of the smile, I thought I’d share it anyway.

So it’s been a big week with 10 Heroes and Villains workshops, but so rewarding to hear kids say, “This is fun” and for the teachers to thank you as they leave and tell you, “The kids got so much out of that.”

Next week it’s fingers to the keyboard – working with Lia and cohorts to get their story out of my head and onto the computer.

Happy writing.

Dee:-)

MY AMAZING MAY GIBBS ADVENTURE – DAY 5

Life is a dodgy takeaway – sweet and sour and full of surprise ingredients.

You never know where inspiration is going to come from, and often it’s the words of someone else.

Today, on my walk to the Queensland State Library, this little gem written on the chalkboard of a coffee cart in Ann Street attracted my attention.

It made me ponder the fact that words of wisdom can come from any source – and that great writing is everywhere!

Contemplating the ‘surprise ingredients’ of life occupied my thoughts for most of the trip, but from somewhere, also came the flash of knowing whose point of view I’m going to be telling my new story from. It always amazes me how one thought can randomly generate another, equally as important, but totally unrelated.

It’s one of the things I was trying to encourage the young writers to do today – explore their randomness, break down the boundaries – get those ideas happening – don’t be restricted by what anyone else thinks you should write.

Today’s groups were brimful of enthusiasm and it was so exciting for me to hear kids who had completed their character profiles and developed their plots utter those eager words, “Can I start my story?” and to see the fervour with which they put pen to paper.

On my wanderings, I also came across The Drovers – a selection from a series 0f 85 figures portraying people in everyday situations, frozen in time, capturing the ‘essence of Australia’.

Seeing The Drovers was kind of serendipitous, and made me think of the debate between Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson over what was the ‘essence of the Australian bush man’, that sparked the inspiration for my book, A Duel of Words.

One of the exciting things that came out of today was a group of kids determined to start their own school magazine so they could get some of their work published…and a teacher who was enthusiastically behind them.

Today I also enjoyed visiting the Queensland State Library’s fascinating Bipotaim: Stories from the Torres Strait exhibition, and I explored portraits at the Art Gallery. Works from both these exhibits are going to feature in my next workshop on 7th April where young writers will learn how to turn Portraits into Prose.

Now it’s off to pay attention to those brand new book characters clamouring for attention.

Happy writing.

Dee:-)

MY AMAZING MAY GIBBS ADVENTURE – DAY 4

In a recent blog post, http://wellreadrabbit.wordpress.com/2010/03/10/inspired writer and illustrator Katherine Battersby described inspiration as “a certain kind of overwhelming feeling – often when looking at something inspiring someone has created. It’s like a bigness within me.”

I know exactly what she means. It’s a feeling I’ve been getting all week when I look at the amazing characters and stories created by kids at my Heroes and Villains workshops.

It’s an indescribable feeling of admiration for their creativity, innovativeness and the enthusiasm for their writing and the stories they are creating. It’s a feeling of privilege that they are letting me into their creative world, and asking me to help them find their way.

Today’s “Heroes” and “Villains” certainly got into character when acting out the scenarios I had created to identify what characteristics make up a hero and what is it that makes someone a villain?


I’m happy to report that my walk to the State Library was inspirational again this morning and I now know how one of my characters is going to meet their ‘sticky’ end.

My MC is also making her presence very strongly felt so I can feel a big writing week coming on once my workshops are finished. Although I’ll be sad for them to be over, my MC won’t be. She is becoming very impatient to have  her story told:-)

Planning on immersing myself in plot and character interviews this afternoon.

Happy writing.

Dee:-)

MY AMAZING MAY GIBBS ADVENTURE – DAY 4

Today’s workshop adventures involved a group of Year 10 students and a group of Year 5s – so different, but both groups were so inspiring.

I love the randomness and creativity of young writers when the boundaries are removed. My favourite villain to date is probably the math’s book villain from yesterday’s session, and the 150 year old granny who has superknitting powers and captures villains in her home knitted nets (created today). But I have to say that there have been so many wonderful, interesting, original heroes and villains created over the last couple of days. There are a lot of talented young writers out there:-)

Early in the workshops, volunteers don a cape and mask and take on the identity of a hero or a villain, performing a script I have created. The performers and spectators seem to really enjoy this part, and it’s a great way to get them thinking about what makes a hero and what makes a villain? It shows them that appearance, accessories, mannerisms, dialogue, names and action all go towards creating a character.

The amazing photos from the Heritage Collection at the State Library of Queensland depict people and scenes so far out of these young writer’s experiences – yet they seem to have no trouble bringing these characters into the modern…or sometimes into a fantasy world.

On the personal writing front, I haven’t had much time yet, but on the way to the State Library of Queensland this morning I had a breakthrough. As I was walking I recalled a newspaper article I had been reading over breakfast – and suddenly, in my head I had the perfect setting and scenario for my characters to meet. A few more things need to fall into place, and then I’ll be ready to put pen to paper.

It’s amazing how walking frees the mind.

Tomorrow is the halfway mark for the Heroes and Villains workshops and I’m looking forward to seeing more wonderful writing from young creators.

Being A May Gibbs ‘fellow’ is so much fun.

Happy writing.

Dee:-)

MY AMAZING MAY GIBBS ADVENTURE – DAY 3

State Library of Queensland

Today was day one, session one of my Heroes and Villains workshops, and there was definitely a villain at work to keep me on my toes.

The first workshop was scheduled to start at 10.00am, but the travel weary year 7’s didn’t actually walk through the door till after 10.20am.

“That’s okay,” I told myself. “You can cut 20 minutes off a 90 minute workshop – a bit less plotting time here – spend a few minutes less on character building (their fictional characters, not me, lol). That sorted, I relaxed.

Everything was going well until 11.10am when the fire alarm sounded and the fire warden burst in and demanded our immediate evacuation via four flights of stairs. We were allowed back in the building in time for the kids to collect their hats, stories, and lunches and hop on the bus for home.

Needless to say the Year 7s were a great group of young writers and they seemed genuinely disappointed that their workshop had been cut short. I was sorry too, and promised to email all the necessary materials to allow them to complete their stories.

The Superhero mask that now has a 'mouth' cut out of it:-)

To be fair, I had to accept responsibility for one of the day’s misadventures. It wasn’t due to chance that the hero selected from the eager group of year 7’s could only emit muffled grunts instead of following my carefully crafted script…that was my fault…I’d forgotten to cut a mouth in his superhero mask.

Workshop 2 went off without a hitch. The group of year 5s giggled at the sight of their colleagues performing hero and villain roles (the mouthless mask had been discarded) and enthusiastically set about building their own characters. The activity was based around some fabulous photos from the State Library of Queensland’s Heritage Collection, and some dastardly and debonair characters emerged from the pages.

I can’t think of anything more exciting than watching a group of young writers comparing notes on the characters and stories they have created. Then they moved onto plotting and creating some great conflicts and obstacles for their heroes to overcome.

Me, Patrick Ness and Judith Russell

All in all, an inspiring day; topped off by an evening visit to Queensland University to hear international author, Patrick Ness talk about his wonderful books and the way he writes.

Now I’m off to prepare for tomorrow’s workshops.

happy writing.

Dee:-)