Want some input on the first line of your book to see how compelling it is? Join myself and fellow author Kira Martin on her blog as she hosts First Sentence Friday. Anyone is welcome to submit! https://kiramartinauthor.tumblr.com/post/181879593791/rachelle-shaw-an
From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing
From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.
There’s something extraordinarily compelling about following the life of an antagonist, one that really drives readers to find out what makes villains tick.
But there’s a trick to writing a character like that, especially if you’re using them as your main character. They may be unlikable, but they still have to be relatable. If they’re not, readers won’t give a darn what happens to them, and they’ll stop reading long before any character development takes place. So how can you ensure relatability without sacrificing their position in the story?
Well, sometimes the answer to that is you don’t. To me, some of the most compelling characters are ones who make questionable choices but aren’t altogether bad people. They may be an antagonist, or they may not. In other cases, their intentions may be evil, but humanity gets the best of them, causing them to slip up. Both approaches share something in common, however: they contain a solid foundation for a dynamic character. And of all the things you need to make an unlikable character relatable, it’s the ability to give them dimension and depth.
Here are some tips for achieving that.
1. Focus on the flaws. Just as there are no perfect protagonists, there are no perfect antagonists either. We all have flaws, for better or worse, but we tend to shed such a negative light on them that it’s hard to see how they can be beneficial. For example, a typical villain might have a trait of dishonesty. Pretty straight forward. They’d likely use that trait to manipulate others into getting what they want, ultimately helping them achieve their goals.
But what if that character instead carries a flaw that doesn’t particularly sway them in one direction or the other, good or bad? A flaw like being timid or shy. Embracing such a flaw as they make their choices could lead to unexpected twists. Perhaps they lose the love of their life because they aren’t brazen enough to go after them. Or, if that flaw becomes such a hindrance to their goal that frustration and pain festers, they could use that flaw to get away with monumental crimes—like murder—for years without being caught. Correctly manipulated, their flaw could become an asset that turns them into incredibly dynamic, and relatable, creatures whose choices shape them into the person they become.
2. Consider a positive character arc for antagonists. Redeemable traits are often the go-to for writers trying to find a way to push the reader toward sympathy for the bad guy. But sometimes that’s not enough, and other times, it’s done in such a way that it comes across as cliché or predictable. One way to give your character that extra growth they need to make their good qualities believable is to push them to a place that’s unexpected. In a previous post, I talked about how blurring the line between good and evil is one way to give your antagonist depth and a more realistic quality. Taking that idea one step further and pushing them into a full-on positive character arc, rather than a negative one, might be the extra punch your character needs. Using that type of arc on a villain results in tremendous growth and a complex character. You have to be careful though, because it can be tricky to pull off in a way that’s genuine. The further in one direction a character is on the scale between good and evil, the tougher it can be to reel them back in and coax them to the other side.
3. Let their backstory drive them. A few months ago, I posted about secondary characters and how their complexity brings realism to their roles in relationship to the main character. The same is true for the antagonist of a story. By weaving in a character’s goals, motivation, flaws, and life experiences into the overall plot, a richness in their relationship with others is developed, leading to a very powerful connection with readers. This same idea can be used to create a compelling character arc, even for unlikable protagonists.
4. Bind their successes and failures to the main character. The dance between a protagonist and antagonist is much like a game of chess—every choice can affect strategy and the overall outcome. One wrong move could land either in checkmate, and both rely on others around them to reach their end goals. Sometimes that even means sacrificing those on their own team. Tethering the characters together in a way that limits their abilities will naturally create conflict and a compelling read.
5. Downfalls can be fascinating. Discovering the outcome of good character who makes a series of bad choices can be magnetizing for readers—much like a horrific car accident that you can’t pull yourself away from. Even small decisions can lead to more turmoil, oftentimes at a cost to a character’s own happiness and success. One of the most popular television shows that uses this approach is Breaking Bad, where every episode leaves Walter White in an even worse situation than the previous ones, with more at stake than ever. He continues to take risks that put himself and others in danger, but his character is created in such a way that leaves you so invested in him that you feel compelled to keep watching.
Unlikable characters can be amazing. They can be dynamic, captivating, and sometimes even more intricate than likable ones. But when it comes to creating an unlikable character, do so with purpose. What role do they play in the story being told? How do their actions affect those around them? Do changes occur within others or within themselves because of their involvement? Characters without purpose are nothing more than annoying wall fixtures made to look pretty. Sure, they might add a nice touch of diversity here and there, but they don’t propel the story forward, and they don’t stimulate growth. And when that happens, readers lose interest, and cutting them becomes the only good option.
- Short stories have unlimited potential and are worth their weight in gold. Not only do they spark ideas for novels, but they’re also great for promoting your other work. They’re a way to keep giving readers new content more quickly, buying you extra time to complete larger projects. During the past two years, I took that approach to a whole new level, and I fell in love with writing short stories so much that I became a dedicated serial writer.
- Rejections can be the start of a new beginning. Over the past year, I’ve become even more grateful for those soft rejections I received before restarting my self-publishing journey in 2015. Those rejections allowed me to accept that, while my stories had been well received by those I’d submitted them to, I’d be hard-pressed to find a traditional publisher for them because they were so unusual in structure and overlapped genres—not to mention, they didn’t follow typical word counts. So after carefully weighing my options, I pursued publication of the shorts (otherwise known as The Porcelain Souls series) on my own, which turned out to be the perfect path for them. Not only could I connect more closely with my readers via self-publishing, but I could also keep the structure of the books as I had originally intended: as a nonchronological series revealing snapshots of an overall arc. While it has taken time to gain traction with the unconventional shorts, as I imagine it does with just about any book in the indie world, I’m quite happy with the results the last few years have brought.
- Being a writer isn’t about having the time to write; it’s about making time. Life is busy. I get it—boy, do I get it. I’m a mother of two kids with special needs, both of whom are under seven and have frequent health issues to boot. So to say our daily schedule is chaotic is a complete understatement. Not only do I spend most of my time carting kids around to therapy, school, doctors, or other activities, but I also work part-time as an editor. However, writing is my passion; it’s part of who I am. So I make time for it, even when it’s near impossible. The guilt of doing that is probably the most challenging thing I face, because as a mother, my instinct is always to put myself last. I’ve learned, though, that sometimes we need to put ourselves first. If you want writing to be your career and not just a hobby, you have to treat it as such. That might mean staying up late or getting up early, or maybe giving up Netflix for a few weeks while you hammer out that first draft. No one said being a writer was easy. But when you make that sort of commitment, carving out time for writing and dedicating a space for it in your life, you’ll see just how rewarding it can be.
- Critique partners can be lifesavers. If you’re stuck in a writing rut or just don’t know how to tease out the issues in your book, consider finding a critique partner. The best critique partners are ones who will share your frustrations with you and brainstorm ways to improve your writing, all while being honest and encouraging at the same time. I also highly recommend joining a writing group, whether it’s local or online. Though it’s easy to go the journey alone, especially considering many of us writers are introverts by nature, there’s something to be said for having the support of a community whose members the same struggles as you, ones who will encourage you no matter which stage in your writing career you’re at. There are several great groups out there, such as the 10 Minute Novelists and the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. I can’t tell you how many awesome friends I’ve met through them, and I’ve learned far more in the past few years since joining than I ever could have done on my own.
- Writing at a consistent time each day can be just as therapeutic as it is productive. This year forced me to reevaluate my relationship with writing. Just a few months ago, I reached my breaking point and was in dire need of a change. My anxiety was worse than ever, and I was so stressed that I was turning into someone I never wanted to be. For me, writing was an outlet, something that helped me balance the stresses of daily life. By picking a consistent time each day to write, I was giving myself structure and something to look forward to, even if only for a half hour. That half hour allowed me to pour my emotions into something I loved, resulting in a tremendously positive impact on my life. My mood improved, my stress levels decreased, and my daily writing numbers went up—way up! That’s not to say I haven’t had bumps along the way or weeks where things didn’t go as planned, nor do I recommend writing as a substitute for medication, therapy, or whatever else you personally might need to manage your anxiety if you have it, but for me, that one minor change proved to be the missing piece of the puzzle. And to me, that makes every second of it worth it.
- Mind maps and vision boards are no joke. This is something else that was admittedly new to me this year. I knew other writers who had raved about mind maps and vision boards, but I had never given it a shot myself. So I rolled up my sleeves and dug in. After organizing my ideas and plotting them out on paper, none of my goals seemed daunting or overwhelming. In fact, I felt like I could tackle anything, which gave me a much-needed boost of self-confidence. As for the vision board, I’m still piecing it together, but I have no doubt that it, too, will be worth the time and energy.
- Even the most organized writers need a good planner. I’m a neat freak by nature. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s an unorganized story and a messy filing system. I regularly squirrel away documents on my laptop, sorting those files into folders within folders, all clearly labeled. But then a funny thing happens. Scraps of paper appear on my desk anyway: Post-Its, torn pages from notebooks, and even random lists that have nothing to do with writing. In the end, it looks like my desk threw up every idea that ever waltzed into my brain. Not exactly useful. The truth is, though I crave organization, my brain rarely cooperates with that. So this past year, I invested in a planner—the Simple Elephant planner, to be exact. I also developed a schedule for my writing and worked that into my daily routine, trying to be as consistent as possible. The result was an influx of productivity, clarity, and beautiful organization, complete with a mind map, a focal point, and individual goals for the year, each month, and each week, all in one place. Now that I’ve found this new method, I don’t think I’ll ever go back.
- I still have a lot to learn about writing. Every year, I’m amazed by how brilliant and talented the writers are that I get to edit for. They come to me with vivid worlds, heartfelt characters, and a fabulous story line. Though I spend hours upon hours reading, listening to podcasts, attending online seminars on writing, and even taking online courses about the craft, it’s never enough when it comes to my own writing. Just the other day, I stumbled upon the post of another editor that left me stunned. Her advice was so simple and effective, offering a completely unique perspective on writing that I couldn’t believe I had missed. But what I think we all sometimes forget as writers is that we’re all still learning—I’ll be the first to say I’m no exception. That’s one of the hardest things to come to terms with as well as one of the most beautiful aspects of the craft. Our work is never done, and neither is our time learning. Personally, that’s something I hope never changes.
- Becoming a parent made me a morning writer. Maybe it’s not actually because I’m a parent and am required to wake up at sunrise each day—perhaps it’s simply because I just hit my early 30s. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been deluding myself all these years into thinking I do my best work at night. Heck, it could even be because our chaotic schedule allows me very little time to write at night. But one thing’s for sure: I’ve morphed into this creature that I never thought I’d become; I’m a morning writer. When my feet hit the floor, my mind is clear and the ideas are flowing. So after kids are off to school or we’re past whatever morning appointments stand in my way, I’m desperate to get typing and creating. That’s not altogether a bad thing though. Not only does it ensure that I get my words in for the day, but it also allows me a sense of accomplishment, making the rest of my day more productive.
- You can’t please everyone, so embrace it. Though that advice is common knowledge within the writing community, learning to accept that others might not always care for your work is much easier said than done. I know I’ve faced my share of disappointments where the self-doubt of a not-so-great review swallowed me up and held me captive for a few days. Heck, I’ve even let a two-star review get to me on the same day I received a glowing five-star review for the very same book. But when that happens, I remind myself that even the most loved authors have their share of negative reviews. In fact, books that spark mixed reactions often end up being the among the most popular. For instance, the book The Catcher in the Rye has been banned and challenged dozens of times since its publication in 1951. Its content has been a source of debate within schools and communities since the early 60s, even sparking protests. Now, nearly 70 years later, that book has sold more than 65 million copies and continues to be a classic assigned to the required reading list in many literature classes. Its controversy has reached more of the world’s population than most of us dream about. And it’s far from the first to do so—the list of previously banned books goes on and on. Each time, those same banned books turn out to be favorites among readers. So I don’t know about you, but I’d take that kind of success any day of the week.
What’s worse than a flat main character? A hoard of underdeveloped supporting characters, for one. In my years as an editor, I’ve seen a great share of new fiction writers fall victim to that flaw, sometimes without even knowing it. In fact, even if you’re a seasoned writer, this fatal shortcoming can still rear its ugly head from time to time.
But why does it happen? What makes supporting characters so difficult to write? I like to place the blame on those needy main characters and their tendency to be “firstborns.” They’re a lot like toddlers—demanding little creatures that crave your attention and insist on getting their way. When main characters aren’t in the spotlight, they throw tantrums and derail you from the plot. While it might be easy to give in and get caught up in their complex backstory, doing so leaves their crew of supporting characters quite pale in comparison.
You may wonder why supporting characters are so important. After all, isn’t the whole point of a story to tell the main character’s journey? Well, yes and no. You need supporting characters to flesh out the main character and to give your story layers of realism. Just as in real life, characters in books have friends. They’re closer to some than others, and each friendship is unique. Supporting characters can and should shape and influence main characters, making development possible for all involved.
Here are a few tips for achieving well-rounded supporting characters who play an active role in the plot:
- Give your supporting characters a rich backstory. Just as you would with your main character, it’s equally important to have fleshed-out secondary characters that you know well. Their past, their motivation, and their likes and dislikes will directly influence their actions. It’s also important to focus on their goals, because chances are, those goals will either help or hinder the goals of the main character, which will directly impact their relationship and encounters with them.
- Share the spotlight. If the main character hogs the spotlight for too long, a reader can become disinterested in the story. They might pull away or lessen their empathy for the main character or what happens to them—and that can lead to disaster. While your supporting characters should give way to the main character when necessary, it’s good to have them toe the line, sometimes even battling it out for the spotlight. Some of the most memorable books I’ve read give glorious moments to supporting characters, making me love them that much more. Those are the books that stick with me long after I’ve read them, their characters infinitely more realistic because of that single moment. Without it, the supporting characters become weak and useless, acting more like a prop than a person, in which case they’d be better off completely cut from the story.
- Balance the areas in which supporting characters are needed. Supporting characters are a lot like accessories—they should bring out the best in an outfit without overpowering the main ensemble. In other words, they should fit well with the rest of the story, but they still need to take a backseat to the main attraction. When you achieve that, you get a character that readers will care about, often even as much or more so than the main character.
- Make supporting characters as complex as your main characters without getting caught up in the details. It may be tempting to chart out every detail about each character you come up with, but don’t get bogged down in the process. As the author of the story, you can certainly venture off into the full life your side character leads, but for the sake of the main story, stick to the basics. You want a backstory that is enriched but still relates to the plot and the main character. This will make your supporting characters realistic while showing readers that they are part of something much bigger.
- Keep secondary characters to a minimum. While it’s true that some books will require more secondary characters than others (Harry Potter is an excellent example), having too many can confuse readers and will often result in an abundance of flat supporting characters rather than a few strong, well-developed ones. If you’ve reworked a character, fleshed out their backstory, and they still don’t add anything to your story, it’s time to give them the boot.
Supporting characters are the glue that holds a story together. Though they aren’t the main attraction, it’s okay—vital, even—to have memorable secondary characters that leave an impact on the reader, even if only for a moment. When done right, they can make the world you’ve created richer and more layered, and that’s something readers simply adore.
What is Trick-Or-Treat Reads?
Authors who signed up for the event unite to celebrate Halloween by offering up their books for free today to anyone who wants to score extra reads at a great price. All readers have to do is hop from blog to blog in search of links to the free books from each participating author!
My Bag of Goodies
I’m doing a two-for-one deal again this year, where you can get The Eyes That Moved, the first book in the YA paranormal horror series The Porcelain Souls, for free, then head over to Smashwords and get the second one for free with a special coupon code.
The Porcelain Souls, Part 1
The Eyes That Moved is permanently free on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, and iBooks. And anyone who signs up for my author newsletter today will get a signed copy of it, as well as a free copy of my latest publication, Sisters. I often send out discount codes, freebies, and exclusive excerpts to subscribers—like I'll be doing later this afternoon, when I'll share the opening scene from my upcoming publication, part 3 in The Porcelain Souls series.
The Porcelain Souls, Part 2
Get Books From Other Participating Authors
After you’ve grabbed your free copy of The Eyes That Moved and The Ballerina’s Gift, head on over to Patricia's Trick-or-Treat Reads page to visit the rest of the blogs giving away goodies. Some authors will only have these deals on the 31st, so be sure to check them all before tomorrow!
Lastly, I'd like to give a HUGE thank-you to Patricia, who put this whole thing together. It's been an honor to participate in it for the past two years!
Happy Halloween, everyone, and I hope you have a lovely time book-or-treating!