Want to write? You have to be able to inhabit someone else’s mind

No one wants to read fifty books about you

Ultimately, writing fiction is an empathy exercise.

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What are you thinking?

Lesson 1: Prose and Plot Ain’t Enough

The light burnt into the room, in a way it only can in late September. For a few short seconds, the glare was unbearable, before softening in shadow to the usual gloom. He watched the whitewash turn grey at the clouding of the sun. A sun he could never see again.

Yeah, it’s an okay start. But after Chapter 4 of watching him do things, who is he?

Oh God, you forgot that bit. Just quickly blend in your own experiences of light, sound, heat, isolation and pain. He exists as an entity of you, constructed through what you want to happen. Give him a name, prop him up with a title of daddy or husband, and drag him through your story. The character must do as the plot demands. Right?

WRONG. The most unmoving books are those where the characters could be anyone, anywhere. You can have the most exquisite prose, the most breathtaking plot and the most imaginative ideas but if your character is a prop, you’ve missed the whole point of your book. You might as well have written about Princess Sunbeam or Astronaut Zap.

It’s dull to read and you just don’t care after three chapters of emotional vacancy. There is no emotional investment. Don’t tell me he’s a symbol of a generation or a literary device because we both know you are just being lazy. Every time you smash the fourth wall with unbelievability the reader gets taken out of your story. Wait, he left his wife? Why? Not explaining that whopping emotional decision any further? What? Why has she locked him in her attic to stop him divorcing her? What on earth does she like about him? What makes him love Kitty instead, beyond the fact she’s pretty and filled with disgustingly omnipresent joie de vivre? Lazy. 10/20.

Develop your characters, bitches. Change the plot if you have to. But make them real. Worried they won’t be likeable? Trust me, the most boring, dislikeable characters are sweetness and light. Even seen how much people flipping hate Melanie in Gone With The Wind? Yep.

Lesson 2: Stay Away From The Lipstick Paragraph

Sarah smiled through her crassly painted lips, inhabiting a falsity that grazed against his arousal. She was wearing a red satin dress that sat low on her chest, her dyed blonde hair sticking to her neck in the rain. Her eyes were black, Iranian, containing a beauty that had faded long ago-

SHUT UP. Jesus Christ why do we have to read a whole paragraph on how a character looks? This is one of my least favourite cliches. Male authors do this a lot to their female characters, for some reason.

By all means explore appearance and how the character is perceived, but you really don’t need more than three lines at a time on this. It is uncomfortably voyeuristic and doesn’t add much to the plot. She’s an older woman? Say it through dialogue or a setting. He dresses badly? Have someone comment on it. She’s struggling to form a non sexual bond with a man? Do it through body language instead of commenting on how much her nipples show through her top.

LAZY. 2/20.

Lesson 3: Avoiding The Big Bad Wolf With The Full Stomach

“Don’t you understand?”He said softly, running a hand along her jaw. “I’m going to kill you.” She stared at him, unable to speak as his fist coiled around her trembling neck. But her eyes said it all. “Why?” He mimicked her, amused by her distress. “Because I can.”

Really? You couldn’t think of a motive? What a come down.

Villains are scary when you can see yourself in them. When they make bad choices with all the right information. When you couldn’t see it coming. When there is some form of character arc. When you can, to some extent, see where they are coming from. Very few people wake up, pour a bowl full of cereal and go “I’m going to bulldoze an orphanage, because I’m the bad guy.”

Ok, yes, some characters are just anarchist sociopaths with no motive.

But by and large, the really bad guys who stay with you are bad because they lived in the grey area or have some sort of inner turmoil or battle. Frollo? Deeply religious man unable to cope with his sexuality in a society that demonises both women and arousal. Heathcliff? Obsessive, calculating, repressed and driven out of isolation, child abuse and desertion. Humbert Humbert? Handsome intelligent control freak pedophile whose obsession with a child he deems deserving of sexual abuse ultimately destroys him. The Kommandant in The Kommandant’s Girl who falls in love with his Jewish secretary? Torn between his sociopathic personality/antisemitic extremism and his desire to be loved by her and normal again.

None of these villains are likeable. They are all terrifying and do awful things. But watching that emotional battle and arc is part of the story and character development. Watching them make bad decisions and develop motives that you can understand- although not morally agree with- is far more interesting. Get into your jackboots or axe wielding gloves and explore the worst of yourself. Ask yourself ‘Why would anyone do this?’ If the answer is idk, you shouldn’t be a writer.

It’s not enough to have them leering in a corner saying ‘mwahahahaha’.

But at least you tried to have a complex character. 10/20.

Written by

24 year old with an awful lot to say about everything. Opinions entirely my own. Usually. madelaine@madelainehanson.co.uk

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