“Everyone is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.”
Mark Twain has touched on the very essence of what it is to be human. Yes, we do all have a ‘dark side’ – that part of our nature that rarely, if ever, sees the light of day. We may well be acutely aware of this flaw but most of us are clever actors able to hide this face from public view. Jesus, in his criticism of the religious leaders of his day, called them hypocrites because they appeared as white-washed tombs which look okay on outside, but are actually full of dead men’s bones on the inside.
As writers we can tap into this deep well of darkness. We can let the protagonist have a flaw which other characters know nothing about. This dark side can be either a motivator stirring his resolve, or it can be a burden, an obstacle preventing success.
This character flaw can be shown in various ways: through actions, through internal thoughts, through uncharacteristic responses to other characters, through subtle hints which other characters do not understand and so on.
Possibly one of the best known example is that of Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars stories. All the way through the last three movies he battles his fear. On many occasions he is urged to give in to the dark side, to allow his fears to breed hatred.
It is certainly worth digging deep within this rich vein of conflict within the nature of your main character, exploring it and then exploiting it for all its worth.
Quite often I get readers of this blog leaving questions in the comments section. That is great and I appreciate the feedback and try to help people with their writing problems.
Occasionally I also get readers leaving ideas from which I can benefit too. This is also great. Louise was one such reader today. Here is what she wrote:
You’ve just solved my problem! I have lots of short stories written – but with no ending! I get ideas for stories but then they sort of fizzle out.
Just for fun, I am going to create my own ‘final sentences’ and maybe something will click and maybe, they’ll trigger more ideas for short stories!
It must be a little discouraging to have lots of unfinished stories. Please, please, please don’t throw them away. They could well be the seeds of longer works later.
Another suggestion is to leave an unfinished story filed away for a few weeks or even months, then come back to it with almost “fresh” eyes and ears. You read that correctly – EARS. Read the unfinished story out loud – better yet – get someone you trust to read it to you. That story will have been ticking away in your subconscious for ages and might well be ready to mature into a complete story. The creative mind can be quite amazing at times.
Another suggestion: a commonly used technique is to ask the simple question: “What happens next?” or even “What if…?”
And how about “interviewing” your main character? You might be surprised what that character will say, or come up with.
You could also ask yourself the question: “What does the main character really want? What motivates her? How will he get what he wants? And what or who is hindering fulfilling those wants or desires? These could be triggers to get you writing again.
Hope this all helps.
Related article: Short story endings
It takes character
To write a short story or novel it takes character. The character of the writer, that is. If the writer has the characteristics of discipline, persistence, patience and a good idea, the story will happen.
But the story also has to have characters. Novels have plenty of them; short stories can get away with one or two, maybe three and not many more.
There are stories where the novel is heavily plot driven. Adventure and stories high in action are like this. In other stories we observe that they are firmly character driven. What motivates the characters? What is their problem?
Australian writer Garry Disher writes: ‘I believe that character is the central element of fiction writing. Characters help fiction writers enter, tell and shape their novels and stories, express ideas and drive and develop plots.’
Over the last few days I’ve been doing some intensive work on the characters in the novel I am writing for my Master of Arts thesis paper. This is even before I have written a single word of my novel. I am getting to know my characters before they appear in the story, even before I start some major plotting work.
Who are the characters in this novel?
Here is a summary of what I have done so far:
- I have decided on who is going to be the main character. This changed early in the planning stages because my secondary character took over my thinking. At first I was focussed on an Australian boy living in rural Nepal. But Adarsh, the Nepali boy, started taking over my thinking. He was demanding to be the focus.
- Who are the secondary characters? These need to be sketched in detail, but not as detailed as my main character. These include the Australian boy Joshua, and the older brother of Adarsh. Two secondary characters is probably enough at this stage, but others may emerge in the writing.
- Then we come to the minor characters, people like the parents of the boys, other siblings and people living in the village.
The next stage in my planning was to ask some key questions. These questions will focus my thinking on various aspects of the people in the story.
- What are the goals and desires of the main character Adarsh?
- What motivates and excites him?
- What does he like and dislike?
- What frightens him?
- What worries does he have?
- What are his dreams?
Then I came across some further ideas in Garry Disher’s book which will head me in the direction of plotting.
- Which characters help Adarsh?
- Which characters hinder Adarsh?
- Which characters influence Adarsh?
It’s all starting to develop nicely in my mind. Even thinking about the characters has thrown up a few plot ideas which might make it into the novel.
I’ll keep you posted in a day or so.
Reference: Disher, G. 2001: Writing Fiction: an introduction to the craft. Allen and Unwin, Sydney.
Go to the contents page to read more articles in this series.
I am writing a novel.
I need to clarify that statement: I have been thinking about writing a novel. The time for thinking is over. I urgently need to start some serious planning and writing. The pressure is really on, because I have to present the first chapter – or a part of a chapter – at a seminar next week.
Let me back-track a little. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am half way through my Master of Arts in Creative Writing course. So far I’ve been very successful, completing all the assignments and gaining distinctions (or higher) for every one of them. It was hard work, but the writing has been very satisfying. My skills have developed way beyond what I had hoped for, and I’ve produced many pleasing pieces of writing.
I have one unit of study to complete. It’s called Editing and Publishing for Writers, a very practical course aimed at both editing one’s writing and preparing work for publication. The balance of my studies this year will focus on my thesis paper. This will be a 40,000 word novel.
What should I write about?
This is a question that has plagued writers ever since the first stylus was picked up to scratch on a clay tablet in ancient Sumaria. I wasn’t there at the time, so I’m not sure what they wrote about. In varying degrees of perplexity, many writers have always struggled to come up story ideas.
It makes it so much easier if you know the plot line before you start writing. You know – beginning, middle and ending – that sort of thing. Not to forget twists and turns, problems to overcome, births, deaths, marriages, murders and the inevitable taxes.
It also helps to know your characters. Boy or girl, adults, animals, creatures, monsters or aliens: they’ve all been used before and will presumably be used many times more for many years to come.
Finally, it is essential that you are quite clear in your head where and when the story is set. Will it be in a city or a rural setting? Will it be a place near you or far away, perhaps in another country or even another world? Will the story be set in the present time, the distant past or even the future?
Decisions, decisions, decisions
The writer has to make so many decisions when starting to write a short story or novel. These choices are essential in the planning stages and they need to be reviewed constantly while the work is in progress. That is what I will be doing during the coming months.
I will get by with little help from my readers:
This blog will become a journey through the writing of my novel. I plan to write frequently about the process and the decisions I make. I invite reader’s comments as we go; in fact, you can all help me in the process. I will need all the help I can get.
“Fiction writing is great. You can make up almost anything.”
Ivana Trump, upon finishing her first novel.
Say that again, please?
Yes, well … I think that’s what fiction is, something made up in the writer’s imagination.
That is what I love about writing fiction; you can make up interesting characters, imagine beautiful (or dangerous or horrible) settings, create compelling plots and generally let your creative juices loose, flowing in interesting directions.
I love it when characters take over the story and you have no idea where they will take the reader – and you as the writer.
I love it when the plot I have in mind or on my outline page suddenly twists away, taking unexpected lane ways, leading me on a merry – or dangerous – chase through a land unknown.
I am delighted when unplanned, unexpected and delicious endings pop out on to the page.
The foundation of fiction
Despite the imagination being the driving force behind all fiction, I believe it is important to realise that all fiction also has one foot in reality. Every story, even wild, out-of-this-world fantasy and SF, has to have an internal logic based on reality. If something is too illogical, the reader will switch off or stop reading.
Sure, some stories need a certain suspension of belief (eg a talking animal, and ogre who falls in love or an alien who speaks English), but once that is achieved successfully, the writer can blaze ahead.
The characters must also ring true to themselves, the setting must be based on places the readers can imagine and the plot must be feasible. I find more and more that I draw on real places, real people and real events for writing fiction. Many of my stories are based on true events; my imagination draws on those events and asks, “What if..” Using this technique my imagination can run off in all kinds of directions.
An example: some time ago my brother told me of a skeleton he found on a sandhill on his farm. All we know from the investigating detective is that the man was shot in the head twice and that he was not an Aborigine. I used the discovery of this unfortunate man and came up with a 4000 word crime and murder mystery story. My lecturer gave me a high distinction and she is a hard but fair assessor.
Let your imagination soar, and good writing.