This is part 2 of last week’s post – the agent’s side of the workshop. The agent in question was Nelle Andrew from Peters Fraser Dunlop, and she had some very strong opinions about what makes her take on a book.
Basically, it’s all about memorable characters. Characters who transcend their own narrative – characters you recognize even if you haven’t read the book, such as Lizzie Bennett, Gandalf, Voldemort. Characters who are people, not vehicles for plot.
HOW TO BUILD A MEMORABLE CHARACTER
The first tip Andrew gave was to visualise the character. Good characters have a very strong visual, which should be described early. To not describe it at all, Andrew said, is lazy writing. Because humans work the way we do, visual images are the easiest and quickest form of communication. Convey the personality and characteristics through appearance, as much as possible. If the character is OCD, reflect it in how the pens are lined up in their top pocket, for example. Don’t stop at the aesthetic – use walking and talking, nervous tics, the whole physicality of the character to create a visual.
Secondly, leverage dialogue and inner monologue as much as possible. The reader inhabits the character – the act of reading is an act of empathy. Dia/monologue is vital to making that happen. Remember, too, that the reader should feel like they are in a privileged position with inner monologue – they are getting information that the other characters don’t have about the narrator. It also allows you to contrast how the character appears with how they actually feel. This provides internal conflict, which can drive plot.
Thirdly, how does the character affect their environment? How do other people react to them, how do they make other people feel? And how do they react to what other people do? This shows a lot about their personality without telling.
WHY DID YOU DO THAT?
People do things for a reason. Choices and consequences make the plot, not the other way around. Beware of the red thread! You must make the reader believe your characters would naturally make the choices that you have them make on the page. There are a couple of things to consider which will help you achieve this.
1) Freedom vs determination: does the character have control, or does the environment enforce choices? Are they free to decide or are there constraints? Did the character need to do that or were there other options? If they make an extreme choice, it must be because there were no other options, or the reader will not find it credible.
2) Heredity vs environment: how much is in their nature and how much was formed by environment?
3) Active vs reactive: do they react or take the initiative? This can really drive plot. Active generally is more compelling, with more leadership qualities, but being unable to react (e.g. in prison, paralysed) can also be very powerful. See the Bone Collector for a superb example of this. Reactive doesn’t mean weak, and active doesn’t mean good! Also, remember that most people are a mix – active in some aspects of life and reactive in others. As a general rule, 1POV characters are more reactive – happy to watch what’s going on and narrate it. 3POV are more active.
4) Level of risk: the emotional journey only happens if the character is threatened or in peril. Risk makes us care about what happens to them and whether they’ll make it through. Risk is what keeps readers reading.
You need to decide what kind of author you want to be. Do you want to have critical success or do you want to sell books? Do you want to be Proust or EL James? According to Andrew, 60% of all book sales are from supermarkets, not bookstores or online, and they will stock the kinds of things their customers are likely to buy. That ain’t Proust.
You also need to ensure that you don’t jolt your reader. They should forget there’s an author involved in the story at all. That means thinking VERY carefully about changing POVs or tenses between chapters. Each time you do, there’s a jolt as the reader has to change mental gear. Probably best not to.
And Andrew’s final words of wisdom:
Talent is great but what authors really need is emotional resilience.
You will have agents take your story apart. Then editors. Then critics. Then the public. And almost every time, you need to roll with the punches and adapt. If you can’t do that, you aren’t going to make it as a writer. To be honest, I found that the most daunting piece of advice in the entire workshop and I’m pretty confident Andrew intended it that way. Fortunately I met up with Dr. Nick just after the workshop ended, and he gave me a look that said ‘you doubt your emotional resilience? Seriously?’. And then I felt better.
So MY final words of wisdom are these: you don’t just need talent and emotional resilience. You also need faith in yourself, and support from others when that faith has a wobble. And surprise. And fear. And ruthless efficiency. And an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope…