Techniques for novelists | Factsheets
WritersServices Factsheet 13 by Michael Legat
Characterisation is the life-blood of fiction. It is characters who drive the narrative along. If you want to bring your characters to life, the best way of doing so is by getting to know them as well as you know yourself. Work out exactly what they are like, and you will then know how they would react in any given circumstances. It may be helpful to build up a picture for yourself by making a list of facts covering, for instance: age, marital status, parentage, upbringing, profession, likes, dislikes, temperament, colouring, mannerisms, etc, etc.
When describing a character don’t give too many details at any one time, and remember that one of the best ways of letting the reader know that a character is, let us say, a miser, or brave, is by showing that person being miserly, or performing a brave action.
Characters are more believable if your heroes and heroines are not perfect, and your villains not wholly bad (unless, of course, you are writing melodrama). A useful flaw in your protagonist’s character might be that she/he is not averse to the occasional lie. And if you want to demonstrate that a nasty person is not all bad, give him/her something to love.
If you give your characters names which are distinctive, the reader is then less likely to confuse them. Using names with different initial letters is a help.
The cliffhanger is an excellent device for making the reader want to read on, and has similarities to the ‘natural break’ on television. You reach a crisis point for a major character in your novel, and end the chapter at that point, leaving the character metaphorically hanging on a cliff-face with no means of getting up or down, or like a heroine in a silent film, tied to the railway lines with an express train speeding towards her. How will this situation be resolved? The reader will want to know – but you don’t reveal the development in the next chapter. Instead you move to other characters, and do not return to the crisis until the chapter after that. That’s one of the best ways of imparting PTQ to your story. What’s PTQ? Page Turning Quality, and that’s what publishers look for.
Flashbacks are very useful for telling the reader important facts which happened in the past. They can be triggered by some phrase such as ‘She remembered when she had …’ Once into the flashback you don’t need to use the pluperfect all the time, which would result in far too many ‘had’s. After two or three pluperfect verbs, you can lapse into the plain past tense.
Dialogue can be used very effectively to tell your story. Make sure that it sounds natural (read it aloud to hear it) and that it fits the character, but leave out chit-chat (‘Good morning. How are you?’ ‘Very well, thank you. And you?’ ‘Oh, mustn’t grumble.’ – that sort of thing), which the reader will take for granted.
Try to avoid putting the dialogue into dialect, which can often make for difficult reading. If you include a phrase like ‘she said in her West Country burr’ the reader will mentally supply the sound for you.
The attribution ‘said’ (‘she said’, ‘he said’ , ‘Jeremy said’) can be repeated almost ad infinitum without irritating the reader, so there is no need to use awkward alternatives like ‘she grated’, ‘she opined’.
How long should your novel be? The slick answer is that it should be as long as the story demands - no longer and no shorter. In practice, few publishers are interested in a book which consists of less than 50,000 words. At the other end of the scale there is no limit, but publishers may look askance at anything more than, say, 250,000 words from a beginner. It is not necessary nowadays to include the number of words on the title page – publishers are used to working it out for themselves
© Michael Legat 2001
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