Fiction Q&A: Concealing a character’s identity

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Q: I saw what you wrote about not hiding the POV character’s identity. Isn’t there some way I can hide the villain’s identity, so the reader won’t figure out who it is until late in the story, when the hero does? Like, if he’s an evil mastermind, can I just call him “the mastermind” in the scenes where he’s the point of view character, instead of using his name?

A: No.

No one thinks of himself in the third person that way. Unless he has some kind of dissociative disorder—yikes, that’s a whole other post. Continue reading

Is your infodump backstory, or is it research?

Last week we talked about the kind of infodump in which the character’s full history is dropped in one big block. Often this information—or pieces of it, anyway—does belong in the story. It just needs to be winnowed down to the minimum, and it needs to be woven organically into the story.

One of the best ways to incorporate this kind of history is through dialog. Notice how Joss Whedon slips the Hulk’s backstory into just a few lines in The Avengers: Continue reading

Your character needs backstory, but don’t dump it

I want to take some extra time to go into one point on the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist in detail:

Personal histories are brought into the story organically

Backstory is usually a bad word among writers. But the truth is, it’s necessary—to you. Knowing your character’s history is good. What’s bad is dumping all that history in one big lump at the beginning of your novel.

This is a common new-writer error. Continue reading

Character development: continuity and story arcs

We’ve been looking at the points in the Character element of the checklist. Here are a couple more:

Continuity is maintained in characters’ appearance, habits, and vocabulary.

This is where your style sheet will come in handy. Some call it a character bible, but copyeditors usually call it a style sheet or style guide. For more on this, see How to prevent continuity errors in your book.

In addition to keeping track of physical traits, note where your characters are from and incorporate regional or intellectual differences. Continue reading

Finer points of character development

Last time we looked at the importance of great characters in fiction. Now, let’s break down the points in the Character segment of the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist.

Principal characters are well-rounded and realistic.

The goal here is to avoid one-note characters. Remember that people have multiple interests. Sherlock Holmes, for example, plays the violin. What do your characters do when they’re not saving the world? Continue reading

Why Character is the most important fiction element

The editing checklist I presented last time is written in order of importance according to me. Other editors will disagree about what is the most important aspect of a novel. I put Character at the top of the list because the characters, especially the viewpoint characters, are how the reader experiences the story. Readers become attached to them and will root for them to achieve their goals.

But only if the characters are sympathetic.

Continue reading

Before editing, develop a plan

Many writers get to the end of a rough draft and then start revising without a clear plan. We’re taught how to write, but often we’re not taught how to edit. Professional editors know that editing requires a clear plan. Working without one can lead to months, if not years, of frustration. Don’t ask how I know that. Suffice it to say that how to develop an editing plan or checklist is one of the first things one learns when training as an editor. It’s something I wish I’d been taught as a writer. Continue reading

Don’t hide the POV character’s identity

One of the most common point of view errors we see in amateur novels is what I call Hidden Identity Syndrome.

This seems to be an attempt on the part of fiction writers to replicate something we see in movies: A nondescript figure walks into a darkened room, rifles the desk or cracks the safe or plants a bomb. Because of the lighting and camera angles you can’t tell who it is. So when the perpetrator is exposed later in the film, it’s a surprise.

We get a lot of manuscripts that start with characters called only he or she, or by some epithet—the Hungarian or the masked man or the accountant. He did something, she went somewhere, the accountant heard something…

But a novel isn’t a movie, so in most cases this is a POV violation. Continue reading

The difference between your voice and the character’s voice

Voice, like art, is one of those things that, being hard to define, often falls into the category of “I’ll know it when I see it.” It’s a quality that writers strive for and editors look for, precisely because it’s so hard to accomplish.

There are two kinds of voice; authorial voice, which is what writers bring to their overall body of work, and character voice, which is how each individual character sounds to the reader.

One of the great advantages of Deep POV is that, if your characters are well developed, their voices will pervade the narrative. In Deep POV, the main voices one notices are those of the characters. Continue reading

Fiction Q&A: The importance of a likeable protagonist

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Q: How important is it that the main character be likable at the beginning of the book?

A: It is very difficult to engage readers if your protagonist is unlikable. Difficult, but not impossible, as Scarlett O’Hara demonstrates. Continue reading