Want to write novels which sell? You can, when you remember that when you’re selling fiction, you’re selling emotional experiences.
Your readers live your characters’ emotional journeys. They need to care about your characters, and then your characters will sell your books.
Over the past month, I’ve been working with two authors whose books, judging by the blurbs, should sell hundreds of copies a week. They don’t, because the authors haven’t taken the time to make their characters seem real.
Making your characters seem real is vital, because your characters sell your books. Please notice that we said “seem” real; you’re tricking readers into using their imagination. When you ignite a reader’s imagination, he’ll believe that your characters are real, and will accompany them on their emotional journey.
Selling fiction: your characters sell your books
When you’re writing fiction, your characters sell. NO ONE cares about your plot, until they care about your characters.
I’ve noticed that whenever an author says that his novel isn’t selling, his novel’s blurb focuses on the story. The characters are simply names. So, of course readers aren’t buying the novel.
Here are three ways you can make characters real for your readers.
1. Take readers on your character’s emotional journey
Fiction isn’t real life. During the course of your novel, your characters will change as a result of their experiences.
The changes will only feel authentic to readers when your characters change gradually.
Consider Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. In that novel, Scrooge changes completely. He transforms from a miser who hates Christmas, and won’t help the poor, to someone who loves Christmas. He spends Christmas Day with his nephew’s family, sends the Cratchits a large turkey, and increases Bob Cratchit’s pay.
It’s worth reading A Christmas Carol to see how Dickens achieves this, because Scrooge seems so real — he’s lived in readers’ imaginations for almost 200 years.
Check out the Plot section of the novel’s Wikipedia entry — it will give you a sense of Scrooge’s gradual transformation, via the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet To Come.
2. Remember to set up your characters in the first quarter of your novel
Scrooge transforms from a miserable miser to the soul of kindness and generosity. How will your characters change? Do your characters change at all?
It’s worth noting that in some genres, your main character won’t change much, if at all. Generally speaking, a series character like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, or Ian Fleming’s James Bond, doesn’t transform. However, those characters do change the people around them.
Either way, whether your main character transforms utterly, or little because he’s a series character and can’t, you need to set up your character in the first quarter of your novel.
Notice how Dickens starts setting up Scrooge in the first few paragraphs. From Gutenberg’s full text:
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.
As you can see, Dickens gives a hint of Scrooge’s eventual transformation with the word “generous.”
Do this with your main character too.
Let’s say that your main character is as timid as the proverbial mouse. If you’re transforming him into someone with the soul of a lion, set up his timidity in the first 25%. But give a subtle hint of the transformation to come, too.
If you’re a pantser, you may cringe at the idea of creating changes for your characters. Does this mean that you need to outline your novel?! Horrors… Relax. You can pants away with confidence, IF you know a character’s initial attribute, and where you want him to finish — that’s truly all you need to know.
3. Allow readers to live your characters’ experiences via their senses
We’ve discussed that readers experience your fiction via their senses.
Where are you?
Look around for a moment. Perhaps you’re in a coffee shop. What can you see, smell, hear, touch?
Practice grounding yourself in this way several times a day, so that you can do the same in your fiction. You make your fiction real by putting the reader into your novel, right into the action, via his senses.
Let’s look at how Dickens does it:
Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already—it had not been light all day—and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air.
Selling fiction is easy, if readers love your characters
Your plot is what your characters DO.
So, rather than focusing on plotting, focusing on developing your characters. Give them:
- Attributes (traits) and quirks;
- A path to transformation (scene by scene);
- Powerful goals and reasons to change. Remember that change is hard, and most people avoid change if they can.
Most importantly — please have fun with this.
Here’s a way of deciding whether your characters are “real” enough: when they seem real to you, they’ll seem real to readers.
When a character makes you laugh, and even sniffle a little when you’re forced to torture him for the plot, you’ll know that you’re writing selling fiction.
Why write serial fiction?
Everyone's busy today. A serial is by its nature, faster to write, and publish, than a novel.
It's a quicker read too, and many readers appreciate this. While a reader may hesitate before committing hours to a novel, he can read an episode of your serial in minutes.More info →
All authors do; no one sets out to write a boring novel.
Your readers want to enter your novel's world. They want to experience your book -- they want to live your book with your main characters.More info →
I developed the tactics and strategies in this book to help myself. My students have found them essential to producing both fiction and nonfiction almost effortlessly.More info →
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