15 Ways to Make Your Characters Suffer (for the Good of Your Novel)

15-ways-characters-suffer

Note: This post was originally published in 2016, and was updated in June 2018.

Do your characters suffer enough?

Even if you’re writing a light and fluffy romance, at some point, someone in your novel is going to need to get hurt.

I’m not suggesting all-out graphic torture here, obviously – unless that suits your genre. Suffering comes in a lot of different forms – and I’m going to go through a bunch of those in a moment.

In general, making characters suffer should do at least one, ideally both, of these:

  • Advance your plot: bad stuff may well need to happen in order for your heroes to get to (and earn) their happy ending. Often, some degree of suffering is what drives the plot: the protagonist is unhappy with their life as-is and wants to change things.
  • Deepen or reveal character: either we see who someone really is when they’re hurt (someone who seemed a bit of a wimp turns out to have hidden strength; someone who was nice on the surface reveals a vindictive side) … or it’s part of their character arc.

Any and all of your characters can get to suffer: heroes, villains, and those with walk-on parts. The main difference is in how the reader will respond.

Our natural reaction to seeing someone hurt or in pain is to feel sympathy towards them. If they’re a particularly nasty character, though, we might well feel they’re getting their just deserts. The more awful they are, the less likely we are to feel sorry for them – even if their suffering is pretty extreme (think Ramsay in Game of Thrones, for instance).

If a minor character suffers, the importance of this may well be how the hero (or villain) responds: do they help? Are they distressed? Amused? Indifferent? Introducing someone who’s in some kind of pain can also be a good way to instantly get the reader’s sympathy.

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Three Things to Do Before You Start Freelance Writing … and Three Things Not to Bother With

Are you thinking about freelancing?

I’ve known a lot of writers who spent quite a while in the “thinking” stage without moving forward.

It’s very understandable. Launching a freelancing career can feel like an enormous step, and you probably want to get everything right before you begin.

I was lucky, in a lot of ways: I fell into freelance writing by accident. Ten years ago, I wrote a guest post for a blog that (unknown to me) happened to be looking for paid writers. The editor asked if I’d like to join the team … and that was the first of many, many freelance blogging gigs.

At that point, I was working a day job in London. In terms of freelancing, I had nothing set up. I had a blog, but it wasn’t writing-related at all. I was still using my old email address (provided by my university’s alumni team). I only had a personal PayPal account that I used for eBay. I definitely hadn’t thought about anything like contracts or a business plan.

And it still all worked out fine!

Even so, I probably would’ve made slightly faster progress as a freelancer if I’d got a few things set up before I began.

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Choosing the Right Viewpoint and Tense for Your Fiction [With Examples]

Note: This post was originally published in 2013, and was updated in June 2018.

Who’s telling your story?

Perhaps the choice is easy and obvious: you’re writing from a particular character’s viewpoint in the first person (“I”) and the whole story is from their perspective.

Or perhaps it’s trickier than that. You’ve got a story to tell involving multiple characters, and you need to make some choices.

The point of view (POV) or viewpoint is the angle the story’s being told from. For instance, in Emma Donaghue’s Room, the point of view character is 5-year-old Jack.

The story might be told in the first person (“I”), second person (“you”), or third person (“s/he”). It can also be told in past tense or present tense, which I’ll come onto in the second part of this post.

What Viewpoint Should You Use for Your Story?

Second person is rare, but first person and third person are both very common, so I’ll tackle those two first.

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Announcing: Blog On – Completely Rewritten for Spring 2018 (Here’s Why)

Blog On is currently open for registration: the first module begins on Monday 28th May. Registration closes at the end of this Thursday (24th May), so if you’re interested, do check it out as soon as you can!

Blog On (Spring 2018) – get all the details here


One of the reasons I closed Writers’ Huddle at the end of April was so that I could run more online courses – and Blog On has been the most frequently requested one.

In fact, when I ran a survey recently, it was the most popular option for “which course shall I run next?” … narrowly beating Launch Your Freelancing Career, as you can see here:

I first ran Blog On way back in 2011 (which feels like a lifetime ago now I have a five year old and a three year old…) and I’ve run it several time since, updating it each time.

For 2018, though, I wanted to overhaul the whole course completely.

Last time we ran through Blog On, I had some great feedback from members who were enjoying the course but who felt that their blogs didn’t quite “fit” with the materials and assignments. They were blogging as a hobby, for writing practice, or to grow a platform for their fiction … and I’d originally designed Blog On with money-making bloggers in mind.

This time round, I’ve recreated Blog On from the ground up – ditching some modules completely and rewriting others pretty much from scratch.

I’ve aimed to keep all the things that Blog On members have enjoyed over the years, with step by step guidance on how to craft posts and pages for your blog … but I’ve also broadened out the remit of the course so that all bloggers can enjoy it.

While I might well raise the price for future iterations of the course, I’ve also kept the current price to just $39.99 (less than $5/week).

Whatever sort of blogging you do (or hope to do!), Blog On could be just what you need to get moving again.

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Everything You Need to Know About Writing Brilliant Blog Posts

Over the last eight years, I’ve written hundreds (probably thousands!) of blog posts for dozens of different blogs.

I’ve also written quite a bit about blogging. Today, I wanted to share five of my favourite pieces about blogging, all published here on Aliventures over the past couple of years:

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Five Easy Ways to Write in a More Conversational Style

If you’re a blogger, you’ve probably been told at some point that you should “write in a conversational style.”

It’s common advice – for some book authors, not just for bloggers. When I wrote Publishing E-Books for Dummies, Wiley wanted a conversational style too.

Real life conversations, though, have a lot of features that don’t seem to support good writing. In a conversation with friends, you might:

  • Jump around between different topics
  • Take a while to get to the point
  • Use in-jokes (where an outsider wouldn’t get the joke)
  • Use ungrammatical constructions – e.g. “Him and me went to the shops…” rather than “He and I went to the shops…”

A disjointed, rambling blog post full of references that no-one will understand and written with non-standard grammar isn’t going to be a great post.

So what do bloggers, editors and publishers mean when they ask for a “conversational style”?

They’re looking for writing that has the flavour of a real conversation without attempting to replicate it. In particular, they’re looking for writing that’s not too formal, that addresses the reader directly, that shows a light sense of humour, and that’s written in a way that’s easy to engage with.

I’m going to take you through some key ways to write in a conversational style … with concrete examples of how you can achieve each one.

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“Show, Don’t Tell” Doesn’t Always Apply: Here’s What You Need to Know

If you’ve been in any writing groups, read any writing books or blogs, or hung out in any writing-related forums online … you’ve probably come across these three words of advice:

“Show, don’t tell.”

It’s a very commonly quoted writing “rule”. There’s enough truth in it that I wouldn’t call it bad advice – for that, check out my posts Four Dangerous Pieces of Advice for Writers and Four More Dangerous Pieces of Advice for (Fiction) Writers.

However … it’s not a rule you need to stick to all of the time.

Plus, even when “show, don’t tell” does apply, it can be tricky to be sure exactly what’s meant by it. Where’s the line between “telling” and “showing”?

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Why You Should Stick to One Name for Each Character in Your Novel

You’re probably known by several different names in your life.

I’m “Alison Luke” when I fill in a form.

I’m “Mrs Luke” to my bank and to cold-callers.

I’m “Mummy” to my kids, occasionally “Mum” (they’re not convinced that I even have another name).

I’m “Ali” to everyone who met me after I turned 18, and “Alison” to some of those who met me before that and never adjusted!

I’m “Kitty’s mum” to a lot of my fellow school mums.

Like real people, your characters will almost certainly have more than one form of their name. They might also have a particular role or profession (e.g. “solicitor”) that you could plausibly “name” them as.

When it comes to your narrative, though, your character needs to have one name that you use consistently.

It’s confusing for readers if you switch between their surname and first name a lot, or if you use descriptions to try to shake things up a bit (“the girl”, “the tall man” “his friend”, “the cop” etc).

Using a character’s name repeatedly is like using the word “said” repeatedly: readers will barely even notice.

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How Do You Divide Your Novel into Chapters?

This post was inspired by an email conversation with Emma from the brilliant blog Science at Your Doorstep.

Pick up the nearest book. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, it’s almost certainly split into chapters.

As readers, we take that for granted. Chapters give us an easy way to discuss where we’ve got to in a new book (“I’m on Chapter 10 now…”) – and provide handy stopping points in the text where we can put the book down.

As writers, though, chapters can be surprisingly tricky.

How many should you have? How long should they be? Do you even need chapters at all?

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Why Having Grit is So Important for Writers … and Three Ways to Improve Yours [Guest Post]

This is a guest post from Tamar Sloan, registered psychologist, and author of Grit for Writers, plus several romance books.

You can find her website at TamarSloan.com and her blog about writing at PyschWriter.com.au


Writing can feel wonderful. There’s the indescribable sense of flow when the words pour out oh-so-effortlessly, there’s that stroke of brilliance when a plot twist strikes out of nowhere, there’s the feeling of creating something that no one else has before. Every one of those feelings is rewarding … and necessary for our long-term writing mojo. They drive us to keep on creating.

But the road to publication is littered with unfinished manuscripts, dejected hearts, and writers wondering if they should turn around and head home. Success in the writing game is more of a marathon than a sprint, and our motivation tends to wax and wane.

Rejection from agents and publishers, slow sales, negative reviews, and that most insidious underminer, self-doubt, are all hurdles every writer will face.

Despite what some of the loudest voices out there are promising, it’s not an easy industry to succeed in. In a flooded, competitive market, how do you live your passion and keep reaching for your dream?

Grit.

Grit is the ability to stick with things that are important to you—through hell and high water, thick and thin, through thousands of words and hundreds of pages.

Luckily for you and me, grit isn’t simply something you’re born with. It’s more like a muscle. With targeted effort, we can build it, grow it, and benefit from it. And you don’t just have to take my word on this; research has shown that to achieve success (across countless contexts), abilities like persistence and determination are more important than innate talent or intelligence in the long run.

As a writing coach I’ve seen it, and as a writer I’ve lived it: grit is what enables writers to succeed in the publishing industry.

The foundation of grit is the right mindset. Our writing success depends on the framework in which we view ourselves and our writing.

A “gritty” mindset reframes and focuses the thinking we need to adopt, the passion we need to tap into, to keep reaching towards our dreams.

I’m going to take you through three key ingredients of grit. Get these right, and you’ve got a foundation of resilience and willingness to work towards your goals of writing success.

Think about which of these you’re already doing well at … and which you might want to work on during the next few weeks.

Ingredient #1: A Sense of Purpose

We feel a sense of purpose when what we do matters to people other than ourselves.

Our short stories, poems,books, scary, moving, funny, touching fiction are all for the reader, not just for ourselves (otherwise we’d be happy for them to remain in our computers). Ultimately, we create them to entertain, to inspire, to provoke what-ifs, to elicit emotions, to broaden horizons, to challenge perspectives.

That drive is about touching others.

Connecting to why we write allows us to be persistent in our goals and resilient when we experience setbacks because we feel inspired by something bigger than ourselves. Ask yourself—how does my writing contribute to others?

Ingredient #2: Optimism

Optimism is the expectation that tomorrow will be better than today. But grit takes the vague ‘here’s hoping tomorrow will be better’ and moves into the sphere of our control.

Hope within the framework of grit is based on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. And the area that we have complete control of is our perception.

As we experience the ups and downs and highs and lows of any writing journey, it’s important to remember that psychology has consistently demonstrated that how we view a situation will make a difference to how we feel, and how we act.

Optimists – those that hold onto hope – see events differently. What’s more, they see failure differently.

I always encourage people to reflect on where they sit on the pessimism-optimism continuum, and how it makes a difference to their writing success. This type of hope targets our perception and locus of control when it comes to our writing success.

Ingredient #3: Growth Mindset

Discovering and implementing a growth mindset was a game-changer for my writing career.

Those with a growth, rather than a fixed, mindset believe that their abilities can grow with effort. They understand that when they are learning or doing something new and challenging, that hard work can help them accomplish their goals.

Growth mindset is empowering and motivating, and the key to many a successful writer (possibly all?). Ask yourself this—when you last experienced a setback, did you think it was a sign that you didn’t have what it takes, or did you see it as an opportunity to learn?

(For more on growth mindsets, try Carol Dweck’s book Mindset.)

 


Ali adds…

I’m with Tamar about the importance of grit. I’ve met lots of writers over the years: some had obvious raw talent, but never got very far because they struggled to ever finish a piece. Others perhaps weren’t naturally gifted writers, but they constantly worked to improve … and they kept on writing, finishing, editing and eventually publishing their work.

Are you missing one of the key ingredients of grit in your writing life? How could you work on it over the next few weeks? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Also, don’t forget to check out Tamar’s blog PsychWriter (“where psychology meets writing”) for lots of great posts covering topics like motivation, grit, and how to develop characters with rich and interesting inner lives.