CHARACTERS

We want the reader to care what happens to the people in our stories. We want them to care whether they live or die. Our characters may be larger than life but, inside, they are people just like you or me – except that they have everything to lose.

Make the reader care whether they live or die.

What is a story without great characters? How to create memorable characters.

Try this exercise.

Go for a walk and study the first person coming towards you.  How are they walking, looking, reacting to their surroundings? What is their expression? What are they wearing? Are they carrying anything? Do they have make-up on?

Study them in as much detail as you can then get out your notebook and describe them. Sketch them. Make a list of things you noticed about them and use that list to start the process of concocting a story. Think about the details – here’s an example:

The woman wore black nail varnish.

Is the choice of nail varnish a nod to something or someone in her past? How does the colour make her feel? Is it her lucky colour and does she need to be lucky today of all days? Where is she going and what is she going there for? What else about her backs up your observations and ideas?

Now if you are a character led person then here is where your story forms!

Even if you are a plot-led person, you will need to get the details right to create great characters and bring your plot to life.

It’s a visual thing. It is so much easier if you have an image to refer to. Start collecting pictures of people that interest you.  Pull them out of magazines, download them, take them yourself - just start collecting.

Once you have a face in mind  - collect names too and keep a file on them knowing which you’ve used before and in which story. When a name pops into your brain and you think perfect – check it wasn’t perfect last time too (apologies to all those who spotted I had two Mickeys in Dead of Winter and another one in Death Trip!).

Now for traits.  Study people. We touched on it in previous blogs – be a detective, ask people about their lives, their work, their dreams, and disappointments, and note everything about them: the way they walk, habits, ticks, etc. even down to the type of coffee they drink. What animal would they be? What toy? What did they want to be when they were a child?

Write it down. Never stop observing and recording.

The way of creating believable characters is to pull out one or two of their most memorable traits to cement in the reader’s mind. 

 The Main CHARACTER, protagonist, should have a detailed backstory.

A protagonist’s flaws are the same as all of ours but exaggerated and they are not happy people! They are going to have a hell of a journey in your book: grief, dashed hopes, heartaches, and constant worry, not to mention near-death experiences!

They will meet conflict and obstacles all along the way and, in the end, they will have grown, changed, overcome at least some of the odds and maybe have stayed alive!  

When coming up with ideas for your main character jot down all the

stereotypes you can and then cross them out and come up with

something new. Editors like something new and fresh – so forget the divorced

detective who drinks too much, unless you can put your unique spin on them.  

If this is early days for you, don’t give yourself a hard time by writing a protagonist who is a complete opposite to you, at least have him/her share the same music tastes, film tastes, laugh at the same things, tell the same jokes. Johnny Mann was the most like me. I gave him a love of sci-fi and he drinks my favourite vodka plus he listens to the same music as me.

When it isn’t early days, and you’re a few books down the line, try the opposite - get into the head of someone nothing like you and have fun with it. Research is the key to everything but always apply the Iceberg theory.  Just because you have chosen a dentist as your main character, and you’ve spent months researching, we don’t need to know every detail on how to fill a tooth.

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Hope to do a series character? They know what they will be doing in ten years time. Plot their life journey through the next six books as well as stories to get them there. 

Make the reader will feel invested in their life.

But don’t give it all away in one book and don't make the background and so specific you make life too difficult for yourself. Leave some doors open enough for wiggle room.

Don’t self-sabotage - if this is your first book do not attempt more than one protagonist. Stick to one main character until you are a few books in. I was glad to have started with Johnny Mann for four books before writing my Willis / Carter series. It is hard to juggle two sets of lives and write gripping storylines around both.

Give your Antagonist just as much of a backstory as you did your protagonist. Everyone wants layers to a baddy. We want to know what made them turn out like they are.

The other characters: the witnesses, the masters of their own subplots

give each character in your book a point of potential conflict with your main character as well as with the other characters. Look for ways friends can become enemies or betrayers. Don’t have too many characters to confuse the reader and spread your time too thin.

Don’t have characters that do the same job as one another and are actually two parts of the same person. Ask yourself, what is that character’s role in my book and is it being done by someone else?

 Good Luck see you on the next Blog!

PLOTTING

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PLOTTING

I think of plotting a book as a bit like baking a sponge cake. The cake has just a few ingredients:  flour, sugar, eggs, and fat. This recipe is tried and tested, and with care in its execution, it will produce a perfectly edible cake. Once you master the basic recipe you can start adding and substituting ingredients to make it unique, but the base is always the same. Here are the ingredients to make a Thriller.

Beginning –set the scene, then comes the trigger for the start of the quest.

Middle - surprises fill the middle section with lots of twists and turns.

Climax - the turning point in the story that occurs when your main character makes vital choices.

Resolution – the set of events that bring the story to its close.

That’s the basic recipe – let me expand a little on that:

A trigger can be when a child goes missing, a body found, that kind of thing.

Quest is the search for said child or killer at large.

Surprises and twists and turns - here is where your subplots come in and your conflict between characters, (see Character blog). Give a couple of your characters time to shine here.

Choices - when your main character is faced with good or bad roads to take, which one will he choose?

Story close - a series of events that end your story and bring everything together.

Your book will have an overall theme that binds all your ingredients together.

Here is a list of 20 according to Tobias, Ronald B. 20 Master Plots. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993. (ISBN 0-89879-595-8)

1.     Quest

2.     Adventure

3.     Pursuit

4.     Rescue

5.     Escape

6.     Revenge

7.     The Riddle

8.     Rivalry

9.     Underdog

10. Temptation

11. Metamorphosis

12. Transformation

13. Maturation

14. Love

15. Forbidden Love

16. Sacrifice

17. Discovery

18. Wretched Excess

19. Ascension

20. Descension

Here is an exercise to try: walk down the street,  observe the first two people you meet, note their characteristics (see my blog on creating Characters): not the way they walk, their expression, the clothes they are wearing etc. Now make one of these two your protagonist and one your antagonist, and then choose one of the themes listed above to link your characters together and create your story.

NO IDEAS?  Copy the plot of one of your favourite stories or films and ask yourself:

What is the overarching theme?

Break the plot down into its components: setting, characters, and their roles. What was the trigger that kicked off the quest? What were the subplots and how was the climax handled?

Break it down further: how does the writer make me want to turn the page - perhaps writing style will come into this? Why am I drawn to the characters? How does the writer handle dialogue? What’s my favourite scene and how does the writer make it work?

Analyse when, why and where the writer achieves these vital components that have gone into making this a piece of work you love. 

Remember - If you can break down someone else’s work into a plot and outline - you can understand how to create your own.

GET PLOTTING!

 

THE OUTLINE

TO OUTLINE OR NOT TO OUTLINE.

 

An OUTLINE is a skeleton of your book. It can be a simple list of things: this happens, then that happens, or it can be a 50,000 word long document. Some people hate them, some love them, but at some time you will probably have to produce one.

It’s the age-old debate: PLOTTERS VERSUS PANTERS.

Which are you and how does it affect your writing?

PLOTTERS are writers who believe in writing a meticulous outline. PANTERS are people who prefer to do it by the seat of their pants and make it up as they go along.

PANTERS believe that plotting stifles creativity. They prefer to allow their story to grow organically.

PLOTTERS say it doesn’t stifle creativity at all but gives you a strong framework in which to play around.

Both ways start the same with one sentence, one idea. But for PANTERS, it grows organically from there - you can start with one sentence, one idea and let it grow and flesh itself out. You can pause after every scene and ask yourself: “what would a reader expect to happen next?” Create a list of at least three directions the story might take, then discard those three and do something different. See – it can be a lot of fun to allow you mind and your characters free will – or it can be chaos.

PLOTTERS start with that same sentence but spend time forming the plot detail from it.  It means you are never lost, you never stray too far from the path and we all know it’s not the beginning or the end that’s the problem - it's the middle where all the surprises and the twists and turns happen and we get lost and chaos comes. That’s where an outline is helpful and reassuring to know where you are headed. It also has the added bonus of allowing you to jump to any part of your book and write it out of order.

EXAMPLES of PANTERS AND PLOTTERS

Lee Child is a PANTER and proud of it. Child says he thinks of a sentence, a basic idea, and then he starts writing it. His process involves a lot of lying on the sofa, smoking and thinking. He starts each session by reading what he wrote the day before and then he decides what Reacher will be doing next. It’s not even as if Child has all the time in the world: he suffers the same deadline fear as the rest of us, but this method has never let Child down and he manages fine.

Life long PLOTTER, James Patterson, who has based his whole writing career on strong outlines, says you can still listen to your characters as you write and allow them to point to a more exciting passage of play. No one is saying you have to stick to the outline absolutely and Patterson, for all of his massive outlines, says he never knows the ending. So, he still allows for a certain amount of creativity.

I am a PLOTTER but I can see the attraction of being a PANTER, if I had an infinite amount of time.  Because my brain does not work like Lee Child’s and I will go off on a road that will multiply to ten then to a hundred different paths and I will take ten years to write what should have been accomplished in one and been better for it. The difference between Child and Patterson is that Child’s books about Reacher are character led, and for character led plots I can see it is tempting to go the organic route because the character’s journey shapes the plot to a big degree and that applies to Child’s Reacher, it’s all about him. If you are a person who writes multiple characters with multiple sub plots I can see a problem holding all that in your head at one time.

I am a PLOTTER, as I said, but I did try becoming a PANTER for Kiss &Die, my fourth and last Johnny Mann book ( for now!) and in many ways I saw the benefit of allowing characters to develop and dictate the plot but I also missed my deadline by six months and missed my publication date and the book struggled to sell without the backing of the marketing people and that was the last JM book I was asked to write! Editors like a strong outline.

Another word of warning - whether you like outlines or not you will have to get used to doing them if you want to be successful in submitting your work for publication because you are going to be asked for a two-page synopsis, a summary of the next book you have in mind to write. Believe me, every author really hates this part. We all think what? You can’t seriously expect me to write about all the twists and turns, the investigation? The characters development? In advance? But the answer is always yes because, it’s a bit like we’re always told about doing up houses to sell: other people like it to look perfect before they buy it; it has to look like they can move straight in and feel at home; editors like to know exactly how your book is going to turn out and exactly how you are planning to achieve that. But, of course, once you agree on it and the contract is yours, you don’t have to stick to the outline; you can revise it at any time and, when you get famous enough, editors will stop asking you what you intend to give them next, they will just accept it will be marvellous.

How to write a thriller

I am very excited to announce that this is the first of my new thriller blogs, full of tips and advice on how to write a thriller novel.

I am taking it step-by-step and starting with what makes a good thriller and how to achieve it.

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What is a thriller?

The definition of thriller is a work, fiction or drama, that thrills by using a high degree of tensions and adventure, conflict and fear.

Thrillers: crime, chase, psychological, all have one thing in common - there is the threat of death hanging over them and in every line.

Death of what? A person, a job, the love of their life or is it about losing their mind? Death comes in many forms but it has to be something someone doesn’t want to lose and that has to come in from the beginning. It’s all about trouble!

Be a journalist - look and follow news stories and find out everything you can. Get to the heart of a story.

No thriller is right without great characters and great plot, so you may lean one way but you have to learn to do both well. Some people are character led, others plot lead, whichever you are  - a good thriller comes from a strong story idea but characters can determine that idea. Make sure you spend time creating strong, interesting, believable characters that steer away from clichés. Setting is also paramount, choose it to shape, determine or enhance your plot. I will be expanding these subjects in future blogs: Characters and Settings.

Where do you get your inspiration from?  Everyone always asks me that question.

Here’s the answer - imagination and research.

The old adage of: “write what you know.” may still apply if you are writing in another genre but it only barely applies here in Thriller Land. You can choose a setting, a story you’re familiar with and rejig it, or writing what you know can apply to the fact that you know all about thrillers!

We’ve established that you don’t have to murder someone to write from the point of view of a serial killer but you have to do a lot of research and have a good imagination. People are very knowledgeable these days especially in the world of CSI and forensics – do your research.

“The best thrillers stab the heart, throughout. They do it by getting readers to experience the emotions of the scenes.

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How can you do that?

Be a detective, listen, observe, absorb the facts and get to the underlying cause and effect and the timeline of a case. Know who was where when and why.

Be a journalist - look and follow news stories and find out everything you can. Get to the heart of a story.  Keep scrapbooks with torn-out articles, photos of interesting faces, great locations and keep notebooks with any and all thoughts that pop into your head about possible storylines. Draw out the layouts of any place you think you might use later on: cafes, houses, countryside etc.  It will save you so much time later on. Transfer all these ideas to folders on your PC. They will lie dormant on your desktop, under the heading: Possible Locations, Possible Storylines, Characters, Dialogue etc., waiting  to come alive when you need them.

Be a magpie and listen to people and observe and ask them about their lives, their stories.  We have all had that instance when someone will describe something so vividly that you think you are there too. Just write that down and use it.  Become a therapist, develop listening skills and ask:  ‘and how did that make you feel?’ Develop your fears and use the way you feel - anxious, scared, self-doubt - use every feeling you can. Never look away, live the experience. Like an actor, collect feelings and emotions and learn to summon them at will.

Get imagining! Wherever you are, whatever you are doing create scenarios and ask questions:

What if a bomb went off outside?

What if I went to the loo and came out and everyone in this cafe was dead?

What if it turned out I was adopted and my real mother was a serial killer?!

Brainstorm story ideas.  Use diagrams to help with this; try these if you find it easier than on paper. Both are free and very useful but don’t waste too much time playing – get on with it!

Coggle

Freemind

Good luck – see you on the next blog, which will be all about creating an Outline for your story or choosing to go the organic route.