Thursday, February 13, 2014

How to Write a Novel, Part 4

Building Characters

I have kept up my bargain to blog more often and this gives me a chance to put some of the concepts I use in every class I teach on writing into a written form, and as a bonus I’ve tricked Patty into being my copy editor. I know in my heart it's wrong to take advantage of people as nice as Patty, but it really helps people as lazy as me to have others do my work. This, however, is not what we’re going to talk about today in relation to writing a novel. In week one we talked about preparing to write a novel by reading other novels, studying writing and thinking about our idea.

In week two, we talked about the structure of the novel as relates to a three act play. Always think about the beginning the middle and the end and how you're going to reach each destination. One of my good friends, author Tom Corcoran, used to ask people if they "wrote a novel" or if they "typed a novel." I thought that was one of the greatest sayings of all time. It's so good I can't believe I'm giving proper credit to Tom. Regardless, think about getting your point across in a clear, concise and dramatic way. Don't use filler.

Our last session was just to make sure you're doing all this for the right reasons. Or the wrong reasons. It's your choice.

So today we need to talk about possibly the most important part of your novel: the characters. In fact, characterization is so important that we will break it down into two, separate blogs. This week we’ll talk about heroes or lead characters and next week we can talk about the infinitely more interesting bad guys.

The first thing I like to consider is the physical aspect of the character and I always base it on someone that I know personally. I don't tell that person that they’re the basis for the physical aspects of the character, but it gives me a very clear idea of what that person should look like and how their body type would react to different situations. Being subtle in the description of your character is my personal preference. The old trick of having your hero look in the mirror and assess themselves is a little bit of a cliché akin to the dead guy having written a letter that says, "if you're reading this letter it means I'm already dead." And then the entire novel is summarized and solved in a few paragraphs.  Often having a different point of view is effective in describing a character.

Once, years ago, at a writing conference, I heard a discussion about using a shortcut by saying a character looked like a famous person such as George Clooney. All the writers agreed that this was a lazy way to describe a character. I agree in general, but there are always exceptions to rules.

Next you have to establish your character's demeanor. Are they quiet, boisterous, obsessive, intelligent? These are all big questions to ask yourself before you write a novel. Just avoid the obvious of saying something like, "Jack was a boisterous, intelligent jerk." Instead have Jack walk into a bar and greet people loudly with inappropriate remarks and references to physics. In essence, it's one of the most basic rules of writing: show, don't tell.

If your character is tough, have the opening scene be about him fending off three attackers while digging a bullet out of his chest by himself. Don't just say he is a tough guy. One of the best examples of this I have seen was actually in a film. In the movie LA Confidential, Russell Crowe gets across his anger issues in the most effective means I can remember. I understand he is an actor, but someone wrote that scene. And I don't think it was James Elroy. More likely listed screenwriter Brian Helgeland.
That's Paul on the right, BTW
The hero doesn't necessarily have to be a good guy or girl.  They can have flaws. In fact, they must have flaws. Think of them as real people. Do you know anyone who is perfect?  Aside from Paul Levine, I don't know anyone who has such superior intellectual and physical gifts. Yes, I mean the guy on the right.  Sorry, I just passed out laughing.

Think of the novels that you’ve read and why you root for the character. A good example is James Lee Burke's iconic detective, Dave Robichaux, who questions his own motives in almost every book, but to the reader he is an unquestionably good guy, rescuing orphans from downed planes and adopting them, helping the downtrodden and ultimately dealing ruthlessly with the bad guys. This is a flawed, frail character emotionally who overcomes these obstacles to prevail.

Our own Paul always creates interesting and funny characters with detailed backgrounds. One of my favorites is Jake Lassiter, a former Miami Dolphin who is now a lawyer. His first adventure, in To Speak For the Dead, is great. Below is the cover for Mr. Lassiter's latest adventure.

There are so many different ways to create interesting characters that I would look stupid trying to explain them all here. I would rather look stupid doing something else so I'll leave it up to you to study some of the novels you’ve loved and decide how that author made their characters come alive.

This week’s famous rules for writing (Courtesy of

1. Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very." Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. Mark Twain – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

2. Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. Anton Chekhov – The Three Sisters

3. The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.   Ernest Hemingway – The Sun Also Rises

Next time we'll talk about antagonists.


  1. There you go, spreading those "nice" rumors about me again. If people only knew...

    Look forward to the villain post. After I wrote an early draft of my first novel, an editor told me the book needed a deeper understanding of my protagonist. He felt as if he knew more about the villain than he did about the heroine. As you say, it's sometimes easier to write about the bad guy.

  2. James O. Born2/13/2014 2:46 PM

    Villians are easy. I like them too. You are nice. You took a couple of rednecks out on your boat. That's nice.

  3. Do you have permission from the copyright holder (me) to publish that 30-year-old picture of said copyright holder? Of course not. My barristers will be in touch with your barristers. Or I'll just have Tim Johnson (who I was teaching to windsurf) bash you one. Forget that he's a minister now. He was a first team All American DT at Penn State and has both National Championship and Super Bowl (Redskins) rings. Oh, brother, you're in trouble now. (But thanks for plugging the books). But your writing advice is dead on. You should teach a course. I will audit. So will the IRS.