The amazingly sensitive reader sh*t detector


Silk’s Post #46 — Not one of the 5 writers failed to get dinged for it in our June retreat. “It” is that often hard-to-define whiff of something in a character’s words or actions that made at least one of the critiquers call “foul!”

Often, it was something a character said that seemed … well, out of character. Or out of the story timeframe. Or a regionalism from the wrong region. Or something too young or too old for their age.

A super-modern teen uses an expression from the 1960s, for instance, but doesn’t mean it ironically or seem to coin it as a new, cool, retro term. A normally refined character says something too slangy or crude for the circumstances. A teen suddenly sounds like an adult, or a tween’s talk regresses to that of a third-grader. A minor character becomes an instant caricature by using hammy dialect or saying something hammily smarmy (try saying that fast three times).

Similar sour notes were called out when a character’s inner thought processes didn’t seem to match either the character, or the character’s expected appreciation of the circumstances. For instance, a character we thought of as smart and perceptive seems to have inexplicable difficulty figuring something out. A “dumbout”, you might call it. Sometimes, characters appeared to learn something from experience, then immediately forget it – like a rube falling for the same old parlour trick over and over.

In contrast to the times when previously sharp characters had trouble adding 2+2 and arriving at 4, other situations had characters zooming to conclusions on scanty or complex information like savants, leaving readers still scratching their heads.

Of course, the sh*t detectors clanged the loudest when a character acted in a way contrary to our expectations. A character we’ve come to know as fussy and feisty suddenly goes all laissez faire, for instance, becoming compliant when we’d expect them to kick and scream. Or a highly principled character with a reputation to uphold decides on a whim to break the rules in a particularly risky manner without thought of consequences (or ethics). Or a heroic character sits around moping and feeling sorry for himself.

Of course, we were doing critiques, not just reading for pleasure. Could it be that the 5 writers were just being especially sensitive to such inconsistencies? After all, even the characters in bestselling books occasionally fall “out of character”. We’ve all noticed it, haven’t we?

Yes. My point exactly.

It is amazing how skilled human beings are at “reading” people and developing expectations about them. And how fast they do so. I’m no psychologist, but I believe this is a deeply ingrained survival skill. We all learn to distinguish our friends from our enemies early in life – or suffer the consequences. What was it George Bush once tried (and failed) to say? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. We learn these lessons well, and sometimes painfully.

What’s even more amazing is the subtlety of the cues we learn to judge people by, and anticipate their actions from. Even micro-expressions, incredibly fleeting facial tics that one is unaware of perceiving, give us a “feeling” about someone’s mood. A slight modulation in tone of voice or a tiny hesitation before a word tell us whether we can trust what we hear. Not only that, once we have categorized a person (usually very quickly, whether we mean to or not, notwithstanding the old saw about not judging a book by its cover), we tend to “read” their words and actions as evidence supporting our first impression. When they deviate, we notice.

Why would it be any different when we’re assessing a character in a book? I believe readers very quickly judge the literary characters they are introduced to, and thereafter hold them to strict account for behaving as expected.

This amazingly sensitive reader sh*t detector works both to a writer’s advantage – and disadvantage. It either attracts readers to, or repels them from, a character very quickly. So lesson #1 is: be thoughtful, precise and crafty about how you introduce your characters. You can hook readers very quickly. However, they will not allow you to change your characters except through carefully-constructed character arcs. And they will notice (and will not like it) if you allow your characters to talk, or think, or act out-of-character.

Exceptions? Well, of course. Psychopaths or sociopaths, who are conscience-free and can hide their true (evil) selves, are certainly pathological exceptions. But these are, presumably, limited to villains in your story.

Another exception is the character in disguise – for instance the powerful king who hides his identity behind a commoner’s cloak, or a wizard whose magic is kept secret for tactical reasons so he can save the world later in the story. There was even an interesting real-life “case” in the news this week, triggered by a Facebook post about a supposed pastor named Jeremiah Steepek who disguised himself as a homeless person among the worshippers at his new parish to test their Christian charity (this viral tale has now been debunked, although it appears to have been derived from a real-life, if less dramatic, story). The examples of powerful kings, wizards and urban legends should suggest that characters in disguise are probably most at home in fantasy types of genres.

Writers are smart, though. We understand the sensitivity of character integrity intuitively, don’t we? So why do we sometimes make our characters say, think or do things that are out of character? Do we not know our characters well enough? Are we just being sloppy? Are we carried away by our imaginations? I don’t think so, at least not usually.

The ugly truth: we do it most often to serve the plot.

This is the terrible writer’s sin that is easily discovered by the reader’s sh*t detector. The reader doesn’t even have to try hard to find out our dirty little secret. It sticks out like an especially egregious typo.

But what about those bestsellers I mentioned, the ones where popular writers have a character act inconsistently – and their editors let them get away with it? Yes, I’m sure it does happen. But read the book again. Most times it’s a deliberate clue – a foreshadowing of something that comes later in the plot. Something that the most highly-skilled writers understand will be picked up by alert readers with finely-honed sh*t detectors and will set them to wondering …

Circus promotor P.T. Barnum is often misquoted as saying: “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the public,” but in fact he was not referring to their intelligence. The actual quote was: “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.” (He also said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” and “Opinions are like assholes; everyone’s got one,” which kind of tells you where he was coming from.)

When it comes to readers, however, I believe writers underestimate their intelligence and their sh*t detectors at their peril.

If your plot demands that your characters act out-of-character, change the plot. I will be doing quite a bit of that myself in rewrite.

A delicate truth

Helga’s Post #45 — In a previous post, Karalee raised the question of whether a writer can convincingly write about fear if he/she has never experienced it. Or sorrow, hatred or any of our emotions.

At first I thought the answer should be obvious, because we are all capable of a full range of emotions. Not only capable, but experiencing all these emotions along life’s path.

But the more I thought about it, the less obvious it became. It’s an interesting debate, and a philosophical one as well.

Let’s start with the emotion of fear. We all know what it feels like. It’s part of our DNA, a survival mechanism. Fear is an emotional response to actual danger (as opposed to anxiety – the response to imagined threat) Without the capacity to feel fear we would be dead. Fear warns us of danger and if the brain gives the signal it produces adrenalin to give us sometimes super-human strength and capacity for fight or flight.  It’s probably the one emotion (other than love) that most authors can convincingly put down on paper.

But it’s not that simple. There are many nuances of fear, such as fright, dread, horror, panic, anxiety, acute stress reaction and anger.

This is where talent shows through, where wheat separates from chaff, even if a writer has not experienced the full range. Take Stephen King’s ‘Misery’ as an example. Did he ever feel naked fear in real life the way he made his character Paul Sheldon feel when he was held captive for weeks by Annie Wilkes who eventually chopped off his foot? Not likely. It’s King’s vivid imagination and impeccable research that make him such a great writer. He can put himself in his characters’ mind as if he’s living their life. Without having lived through all these challenging emotions himself.

Kathy Bates in 'Misery'

Kathy Bates in ‘Misery’

Love is another feeling that most people have experienced in one form or another. Not only romantic love. Mother’s love, love for your kids, love for a dog or cat, love for one’s country or a deity. We know what it feels like, so we are able to convey it in our stories. But it won’t guarantee we can do it well. Not by itself. That’s where writing skills and passion are needed.

There are many more emotions, a veritable alphabet soup from A to Z, from affection to apathy to worry and zeal. Some recurring themes in novels, are desire, guilt, grief, joy, regret, and hatred.

Back to the question of whether we have to experience something in order to convincingly write about. I don’t believe so. In certain situations, it definitely helps. Like in describing settings. I have never written about a location that I have never been to, because I want to convey how I experienced the place with all my senses. Not a postcard-like description, but the whole package. The sound of traffic or human voices, the smell of food, people, nature, the feel of humidity, the colour of the sky. All of it.

But for other scenes, research alone can take me a long way. And that includes those emotions my characters feel that I have not experienced myself. I cannot think of a time in my life when I truly felt hatred. Resentment, sure. Loathing, yes. Outrage too. But pure hatred? I am sure most people haven’t in its most passionate form. And yet, hatred is the emotion that often provides the motive as well as the motivation for our protagonists and antagonists. It most often drives the plot and keeps the fire of the story burning. That’s where we writers have to reach deep, use our imagination and passion to make it sound real. To nail the story and have readers remember it long after they finished reading the book.

All to say, good writers can invent a great deal. As Silk said in her last post, ‘Trust your instincts.’ We don’t need to have experienced the full range of emotions we are writing about. I don’t have to suck a lemon to know it tastes sour.

Other emotions however are more difficult to simply invent. Like the feeling of outrage. It’s difficult to write passionately about it if the writer doesn’t know what it feels like, if he/she cares little or none for the issue. Here is an example of a quiet but burning outrage that clearly reflects the writer’s own values:

“Our power knows no limits, yet we cannot find food for a starving child, or a home for a refugee. Our knowledge is without measure and we build the weapons that will destroy us. We live on the edge of ourselves, terrified of the darkness within. We have harmed, corrupted and ruined, we have made mistakes and deceived.”

That is passion. That is outrage. It’s the power of the written word.

Can you guess the writer?

Lost and found


Joe’s Post #45 – What if there was a roadmap for story writing? Would you use it? Would it destroy the creative process? Would it make your story like every other story that used that roadmap?

We already have the basics of a roadmap, the western 3 act structure. Add the odd guide on outlining or The Writer’s Journey and whammo, there’s a few more beacons. But that’s about the limit of the directions. Kinda of like asking a local where the ruins are (or nudie bar or whatever you’re looking for). As often as not, they wave in a general direction. “It’s over there.”

That’s about the best directions we can get for writing. We know the story is over there somewhere. We can see it in the distance like a beautiful, imaginary castle. How we get there, though, can be as different as the stars in the sky. A literary path might include poetic language, memorable descriptions and lots of sunsets. A thriller novel might be very fast paced and include a car chase, a sexy sidekick and at least one gun battle. Stephen King might add a killer clown.

For me, the journey of writing, walking that path to the glorious castle in the distance, is part of the fun. Sure I’ll get lost in the woods. Sure I’ll get stuck in the mud. Sure I’ll even get disheartened sometimes.

But I’ll get there and what I’ll discover along the way can be amazing, things I never thought I’d find. Quirky characters. Odd locations. Nifty twists and turn.

lostSo, at least for me, I don’t want a detailed road map. I love the journey. I even love getting lost now and then. It’s how I make the story better.

Is there a GPS for emotions?

Karalee’s Post #42

I loved Silk’s post about knowing exactly where you are with respect to using GPS. It refers to the physical place on earth, or even in the universe, and the references to where you are can be verified through our senses.

But what about one’s emotions?

There isn’t a GPS system that can (yet) track the path to sorrow, happiness, anger, frustration, love, or any other emotion that we feel through a complex system in our brain that somehow delivers these messages to our awareness (mind and body). Sure, there are predictors such as romantic love that makes one feel euphoric, or the untimely death of a loved one to generate the feeling of anger and sorrow, or the survival of a mass shooting to feel survival guilt and the development of a fear of guns.

But what about creating the more subtle emotions such as disappointment, trust, (or loss of trust), or the reader experiencing like versus love, or discomfort versus fear, etc? To me being able to do this is the magic created by good writing. It is mastery of a writer truly feeling the feelings and being able to recreate them through language.

It’s the magic of being able to make a reader laugh or cry, or to stop and think and remember your story when they have finished reading it.

To me writing on an emotional level is writing what you know. The physical world can be  researched and put to paper as if the writer has experienced it, but can a writer convincingly write about fear if he/she has never experienced it? Or sorrow? Or hatred? Or any of our emotions?

What do you think?

GPS for writers


Silk’s Post #45 – At this moment, I’m on our sailboat lying on the hook in an anchorage in the San Juan Islands called Blind Bay. I know exactly where I am. Not just from looking around at my surroundings, or consulting the chart.

No, I mean I know exactly where I am on the planet through the magic of our boat’s Global Positioning System. A bunch of satellites orbiting the earth are telling me where I am, precisely … within a few feet. Just stop for a moment to think about this man-made miracle. GPS is now so common, it’s even available on your cell phone. Getting lost is actually becoming hard to do.

But it was only yesterday, in the sweep of human history, that people didn’t even realize the world is round, and maps showed the edge of the earth where “there be dragons.”

What I really wish I had was a writer’s GPS to tell me where the hell I am in my story at all times. Maybe, like me, you’ve come to a place occasionally in your first draft where you find yourself looking over the edge of the story world into a void, wondering how you got there and where to go next to avoid the waiting dragons.

If you’re a writer, it often feels like everything you experience turns out somehow to be about writing. So it was for me at 9:30 this morning when we sailed out of the Pacific Northwest’s version of a Victorian seaport village called Port Townsend. Fog and low cloud reduced visibility to 500 feet, and the wind was still. We had a course plotted, and a destination in mind, but everything on the sea is subject to conditions. The skipper may command the helm, but Neptune and Boreas command the elements, and the weather, winds, currents and seas are infinitely more powerful than any mariner in any peapod of a vessel.

As we blindly steamed out into Admiralty Inlet, skirting the notoriously fickle tides off Point Wilson (today showing its gentle side), I quickly lost sight of land. I knew where I was – GPS told me that – but I could see no visual evidence of it.

Nothing but fog. We were moving forward on faith (in technology, the modern god), surrounded by the small, watery world that fell within the limited circle of our vision. There was occasional evidence of a bigger world outside our bubble. A foghorn. Kelp mats that materialized out of the fog just feet ahead in our path. Low, undulating swells from the Pacific that sent the boat rocking like a cradle, throwing gear against bulkheads in slow motion. A deep warning whistle from the shipping lanes. Suddenly visible rafts of small black murres, who dove underwater en masse at our approach. The gong of a channel marker buoy.

Churning along across this blank canvas, I flashed on the analogy between the voyage and my writer’s journey through the book I’m working on.

I know where I started, and where I want to go. I have a sense of the waypoints I must pass to get from Point A to Points B, C, D, and so on. But I can’t yet “see” the whole story. A lot of it is still like a fog bank – insubstantial but impenetrable to the eye. A lot of the story voyage will be dictated by the conditions I find along the way. Currents, obstructions, hazards. And at the end, I very well may find my course has taken me to an unexpected destination.

By 10:30 the visibility was a quarter mile, and I was able to see some of the waypoint buoys on our course as they appeared briefly out of the fog, then melted away again. We made good time with a favourable current, but it felt like we were standing still for hours, with no visible scenery to mark our passage. We were marching in place, still surrounded by the tiny blank canvas world of our limited vision. Then, at 11:30, we saw our first hint of land. Little Smith Island. Just a ghostly smudge off to port at first, a defined shape where no horizon had existed. As the sky became a brighter white, edges sharpened and soon the line between land and sea revealed itself in shades of gray.

By 1:00, we had colour. The blurry gray lumps looming up from the ocean became green-clad slopes and the sky began dissolving to blue, tinting the water itself. My log entry for 1:30 reads “skies clear, sun out”. Not poetic, but to the point.

The effect of this visual transition on the journey was, of course, profound. I knew exactly where I was throughout the passage, but it wasn’t until I could see it with my own eyes that I had a sense of actually moving forward – of getting somewhere.

This is a simple story with no tricks, no clever punch lines, no huge surprises. However, the experience – and the analogy to my writing journey – had a clarifying effect on me. It made me think about the “writer’s GPS” I have in my own head (we all do). It’s also called “instinct”.

Maybe getting through the fog of a first draft requires you to have faith that you’re making progress toward your plotted destination, even when you can’t always see that progress in glorious technicolor. If you start with a course in mind (whether you’re an outliner or a choose your route more organically), eventually the blank canvas will be filled in with rich detail, and your story will come alive. You may not follow your originally plotted course exactly, but the thing is to just keep moving, keep writing, trust your instinct and try not to get lost at sea or hit any rocks.

Maybe when the sky clears and the sun illuminates your storyworld, you’ll find you’ve discovered a new continent.

It Don’t Mean a Thing

Helga’s Post #44:

…If It Ain’t Got That Swing

Sound familiar? Duke Ellington could have written those lyrics just as easily for writers. Maybe especially for writers.

So how to get that swing on those pages, every time we sit down to write?  Mostly, we are familiar if the question is put differently: How to get ‘in the Zone’.

I think the ‘Swing’ and the ‘Zone’ largely mean the same. It often has to do with mood. Have you ever been told when you talk on the phone, ‘hey, what’s wrong? Are you sick?’ Your friends can tell when you’re not the same, when you’re off balance, or bored, depressed heavens forbid, or just having a ‘blah’ kind of day. On days like that, it’s pretty tough to be creative, or even motivated to open your manuscript, let alone get that swing into your writing. What shows up on those new pages is often uninspired, strained and simply boring, surely headed for the cutting floor before too long.

What’s a writer to do?

Much has been taught at workshops, and printed in countless ‘how to’ books and blogs, mostly under the topic of conquering Writers’ Block. But is getting in the zone different from the dreaded WB, and to spin that yarn further, does one cause the other? Which one comes first?

From my own experience, I can tell when I wasn’t in the zone. It shows up clearly on certain pages, scenes or chapters. When my writing is flat and my characters speak like the biggest bores you’ve ever met in your life. When I had to fight writers’ block, and went ahead regardless, producing scenes devoid of ‘swing’.

Luckily, we don’t have to be victims on those days when we’re our own worst enemies. There are ways to avoid these counter-productive dismal occurrences. Let’s look at some of the ingredient for getting the swing back in our manuscripts. Some suggestions that may help, nowhere a complete list:

Writing dialogue is fun, it’s spontaneous, and starts the ball rolling when it’s in danger of slowing down or coming to a stop. Just keep on writing dialogue without analyzing or stop to go back over it again and again. Let it flow, edit later. It’s amazing how it starts to feed on itself and gets you in the zone for more writing.

At the slightest hint of the story starting to drag, create a surprise, or a shock. Bring a character on the scene with a gun or something like that (that’s the old Raymond Chandler trick).

Create a positive workspace that’s strictly your own. “Privacy – like eating and breathing – is one of life’s basic requirements,” according to author Katherine Neville. And Virginia Woolf realized it a lot earlier: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” (fortunately, money may not be quite the deal-breaker today as it was during Ginny’s time; though there is truth in it).

Add some visual motivators to your very own workspace. James Scott Bell for example has posters on the wall that get him out of his funk (yes, even Bell gets those!) when he needs inspiration. They are of authors he admires. One is a casually dressed Stephen King in his home office, dog beneath his feet. Another is of thriller author John D. MacDonald smoking his pipe and typing.

On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Book Cover: On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

“Write hard, write fast, and the fire of creation will be yours.” (from: The Art of War for Writers, by J.S.Bell). Some of the best novels of the past century were written at a rapid clip by authors who wrote each and every day. Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, author/editor of more than seven hundred books, was once asked what he would do if he had only six months to live. “Type faster,” he said.

Next trick on tap: Take risks. It’s amazing how it unlocks your creativity and improves your storytelling if you write what’s burning in your heart. Donald Maass believes this strongly. Hold on to your self-confidence. Believe in yourself. You can do it. Lesser writers did.

There’s always your writers’ group too if you’re lucky enough to belong to one. Lean on them. Don’t hesitate to call them and say, hey, how can I make that scene, that chapter, swing? Remember, it’s tit for tat. They will ask you in return at some point. So don’t be shy.

And put on the CD ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’. It’ll get you in the zone real quick. Especially when Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong belt it out in their incomparable voices and beat.

May their swing spill over to all of our writing.


Image Courtesy: Louis Armstrong House Museum

Second thoughts on secondary characters

Joe’s Post #44

puss and bootsOh, how we all struggle with this one, falling in love with our secondary characters and why they are so much easier to write.

Karalee and Silk both have good observations and I would like to add Charlie Jane Anders, who had some great advice on creating them. But, at least for me, they are easier for one simple reason.

They are fun.

They can do things my main characters could never do, say things they could never do, think things unthinkable. They don’t have to worry about carrying a whole story on their back. They don’t have to be politically correct. They don’t have to fear people hating them. They can live larger lives, outrageous lives, if necessary, and they can have fun.

And they know it.

It’s easy for them. All they have to do is show up, help or hinder the main character, make the reader laugh or cry a few times, perhaps even die if needed.  It’s a dream job. No pressure. No real expectations. It’s all wide open for them.

imagesCA4VT6TJHence, the writer can have fun with them. Sure they can have arcs, sure they can have a backstory, sure they can influence the outcome of the novel, but they are accessories. Like nice boots. Nice black leather, knee high boots that… oops sorry, nearly went off into la-la land there. Where was I? Right. Boots.

So, I ask you, what’s more fun? Writing about boots or writing about complex characters who have to shoulder the load of a whole book? I know my answer.

The real trick, I think, is not that secondary characters are sometimes easier to write, certainly more fun, sometimes even more interesting than our main characters, the trick is to kick up your main character to that level.

I mean, why not have some think something unthinkable? Why not have them say something terrible? Why not risk them doing something that may get them hated? As one of my writer friends once asked me, what if your main character misbehaves?

So, rather than fearing the secondary character, they are, after all, just there for fun, what can we do to enhance our main character, and (by doing so) make the story EVEN better?

Ask your secondary characters.

They know.

Secondary characters want attention too

Karalee’s Post #41

“Stop! Listen to me. Why don’t you calm down?”

Most of us have used these expressions or similar ones. I know I have, and it’s usually in the middle of a heated debate or argument or misunderstanding. It’s the way we try to stay in control of a situation, and of course the person we’re talking to usually doesn’t pay heed. Our brains are too worked up and our bodies tensed and full of adrenalin. We’re in reaction mode not listening mode. 

Feeling this tension reminds me of a documentary I saw about a group of monkeys during the mating season. (Yes, my mind often makes weird associations, just ask my 5Writer friends.)

The dominant monkey was busy keeping the lesser males at bay, probably using monkey talk much like the above, while at the same time taking every opportunity available to impregnate the females in the troop. Then in sneaks a quieter male in the background who has his way with the females around the periphery that haven’t caught the attention of big daddy yet. And voila! A mix of DNA into the troop that adds to the health and character mix of the offspring.

Now the screaming  dominant monkey caught my attention, but the quiet male that got his own way did too.  I found myself smiling and cheering on the underdog (undermonkey?)  and relating to him more than the head honcho.

If I extrapolate this to represent the protagonist (dominant monkey) and a secondary character (quiet monkey getting his bit too), I would definitely find it more interesting to write the secondary character.


  • the secondary character is using his own intelligence to succeed in outsmarting the dominant guy.
  • I find the situation humorous.
  • in his own way the secondary character is adding to the situation and changing the outcome of the story.
  • the protagonist can’t manage complete control, which leaves openings for the secondary character to make a difference, or to challenge the protagonist who will change his behavior in some way.
  • it’s fun for me to think about different ways to challenge the protagonist, and this in turn puts me in a happy mood and I relax and let the creative area of my brain take over.

Therein lies the golden key for me; the last point above, letting the creative area of my brain take over. I agree with Silk in that it often seems easier and more fun creating a second character, and therefore it’s no wonder he/she can push the limelight away from the protagonist.

Take the Wizard of Oz. Why doesn’t the Tin Woodman or the Scarecrow or the Lion take over Dorothy’s story? I’m sure they all have very interesting stories that could captivate readers and as a child I completely related to the Tin Woodman trying to find a heart. The reason the Wizard of Oz stayed on track is that the author L. Frank Baum kept to Dorothy’s quest to find her way home. Although Baum probably had great fun writing all the secondary characters, he didn’t let them override Dorothy’s adventure.

I don’t know if Baum struggled more with writing Dorothy’s story line, but I wonder if I sit back and relax and have more fun with my protagonist, that possibly she (or he) will command full attention without having to shout or bully through the crowd with elbows thrust out? If I stop working so hard to make my protagonist suffer so much or be so strong/wise/flawed that she has no choice but to stand up and tell the world instead of being quieter in the background and showing how she thinks and reacts to the world, would I have a more compelling story? 

Can writing be reduced to merely having fun?

I say yes and no.

Like many things in life, hard work reaps the reward and in writing much of the hard work is in character development as well as in the setting and story line. Knowing your character(s) inside out, knowing where the story takes place in great detail, and knowing the plot line are all imperative in creating a great story.

That’s the necessary background work.  

Once that is done it is time to sit down and let my creative mind loose and have fun. Maybe it’s time I let my protagonist challenge one of my secondary characters and see what happens!

Full retreat


Paula’s Post #44 – The lazy days of summer are indeed upon us, as Helga pointed out in her post of last week. And while Silk muses about the difficulty of making our protagonists as compelling as our secondary characters, some of us are in full retreat from the writing life.

I’ve checked out.

Period. Full stop.

At least until my house-hunting quest comes to an end. Six weeks to go until we move and still no destination in sight. So, while others haul out their manuscripts and start their edits, my days are spent hunched over my laptop, checking out each new listing that hits MLS (Plan A) and trolling through Craigslist in search of a rental house that is both, 1) bigger than a breadbox and 2) not shared with bedbugs and cockroaches (Plan B).

Okay, so maybe it isn’t that bad, but it seems that way as tick, tick tick….every day brings us closer to our late August moving date.

Characters? Plot? Pacing? Forget it, baby. I’m sorry to say these are not the thoughts foremost in my mind.

No, I’m staring in my very own mystery novel. The one entitled: Where are we going to live next!

I do not want to suggest that I have abandoned the writing life entirely. One fascinating thing about house hunting is the almost impossible task of using one’s imagination to project oneself into the future, to imagine oneself actually living in the house one is contemplating purchasing.

Is there a place for an office? Where will I put my big iMac? What about the view? Will it prove distracting or stimulating? Will the office be too hot? Too cold? What about room for chairs for colleagues and collaborative work? And let’s not forget the dog. When I’m writing, my big Standard Poodle likes to pad into the room, hop up into an easy chair and curl up into an impossibly small ball. The office absolutely must have room for a comfy dog chair.


And never mind the dog, – let’s not forget the group! My 5writer colleagues are like my family. Now, when looking at a particular house,  I find my mind turning not just to bunk beds for grandchildren, but to my colleagues, hoping that they will make the trek up the coast for a day meeting or weekend retreat.

I don’t stop there.

Soon my imagination is in full flight and I find myself thinking how nice it would be to host the group at my new house (as soon as I find a new house). Will there be room for everyone to sleep over? I hope so, but maybe I’ll need to purchase my friend’s Airstream trailer, and park it out the back?

When you think of it, buying a house is about the craziest thing we ever do in life. I mean, seriously, you spend more time test driving a car than test driving a house. The decision to purchase is often a courageous leap of faith, interspersed with a healthy dose of instinct and emotion.

Lots of emotion.

I’ve seen some lovely homes during my search. Many, sadly, out of our financial reach. A few have fuelled some idle speculation about the possibility of defraying some of the cost by turning one of these beautiful homes into a seaside writing retreat. A place where creative delinquents, like myself, can submit to ‘self-incarceration’ until discipline is firmly reestablished.

My imagination wanders and soon I’ve got the whole curriculum planned, not to mention the panel of esteemed instructors. Morning classes on the ‘ABC’s of CSI forensics for Authors’ could be followed by a collegial lunch with lazy summer afternoons devoted to individual pursuits, like dreaming up villainous villans while kayaking or paddleboarding or just swinging in a hammock.

I hear the crabbing and prawning is pretty good up the coast. I’m starting to picture dinner now. Lots of crisp white Sauvignon Blanc, the clinking of glasses and hum of conversation, some crusty sourdough, warm drawn butter and Dungeness crab, fresh caught in our trap. I’m a bit squeamish about preparing the poor wee beasties, but I suspect a few members of our group have the experience and fortitude I lack. But I’ll make up for it with my wicked recipe for crab cakes with pear-cranberry chutney, courtesy of local chef John Bishop.

Here in the north, it stays light until almost ten o’clock at this time of year. Plenty of time for another glass of wine and more discussion of a favorite novel or author; a plot pitfall or sagging middle.

But of course I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t found a house yet. Back to work. So I’ll cut this post short and pack another box full of linens, another box of old books. But I can’t help but wondering, whether the boxes are headed for storage, or for my for now still a dream, beach retreat.

I wish I knew.


Why are secondary characters so much easier to write?

Philip Marlowe

Silk’s Post #44 – We asked ourselves this question more than once in our Whistler discussions. It should be no surprise that most of the characters who got a few rotten tomatoes thrown at them in our 5 Writers retreat were protagonists. For some reason, many writers with a bit of experience seem to sail through the test of developing brilliant, interesting secondary characters with ease. But when it comes to the stars of the show – our beleaguered, ever-striving protagonists – well, they don’t always shine quite as brightly as they need to.

This has led, more than once, to suggestions that the writer being critiqued change the protagonist from the current one (who seems to fall short) to a secondary character (who everyone loves to pieces). But I started thinking … how soon after assuming the protagonist role would that fabulous secondary character succumb to the same problems, dilemmas and shortcomings as the current protagonist?

Is it just that we writers are daunted by the pressure of writing a protagonist that readers will immediately bond with? Do we invest too much of our own personalities? Do we try to make them so different and memorable, so “larger than life”, that they come off as phoney baloneys? Do we make them too perfect, then graft on some personal quirks and failings that, instead of humanizing them, feel like bad plastic surgery? Do we attempt to make them all things to all people, thus ensuring that they fail miserably?

Or is the problem really the inherent difficulties any protagonist has to overcome to play the lead role?

Let’s face it: “the buck stops here”, as Harry Truman once famously proclaimed, could easily be the motto for any novel’s protagonist. These characters really have to be up to carrying the load. As discussed in earlier blog posts, we writers make them suffer endlessly. And we require them to make themselves irresistible to readers, bond with them, entertain them, elicit their sympathy while simultaneously earning their respect. If that’s not enough, we also demand that they perform feats – mental, physical and emotional – that most of us could never accomplish ourselves in a million years.

You want to live, Mr. Protagonist? Well then face down this heavily armed evil villain! Hahahaaah! And that’s just a simple feat compared to the things we force our protagonists to do to survive … or to rescue the baby, or stop the horrible event that’s about to happen, or defeat the enemy, or bring the guilty to justice, or save the world from destruction, or just keep body and soul together.

But then, that’s the point, isn’t it? Whether our protagonists succeed or fail in attaining the hugely challenging goals we set for them, it is through their actions when faced with difficulties that they make our stories work.

The very best ones leap right out of the books where they were born and into popular culture to become iconic characters with a life of their own. For example, the mystery-suspense-thriller genres have a particularly rich array of enduring icons – each of them unique – from Nancy Drew to Philip Marlow, George Smiley, V.I. Warshawski, Travis McGee, Sam Spade, Stephanie Plum, Jack Reacher and my personal favourites Dave Robichaux and Harry Bosch.

These characters are not “types”. They soar above types. No matter how often someone tries to create a “Philip Marlowe type” for their protagonist, there is – and always will be – only one Philip Marlowe.

So how do we get there? How do we create the DNA of a memorable protagonist? In our Whistler critiques, our protagonists were subject to potshots from all directions. Most of the criticisms suggested that the protagonist was not quite up to the challenge in some way.

My protagonist sometimes behaved like a nitwit. Helga had two apparent protagonists, and the one everyone related to best was not the primary one. Joe had three main characters, and got dinged for not making it clear which one was the real protagonist. Karalee had two main characters, whose stories didn’t braid together early enough in the plot. Paula had a clear protagonist who was sometimes hard to empathize with. None of us got it perfectly right in the first draft.

The bottom line: being a protagonist is a hard job. (Yes, anti-heroes do seem to follow different rules). You have to be larger than life, but down to earth in some way. You have to be consistent at heart to have character integrity, but you need a character arc that demonstrates change and growth. You have to be likeable, but not goody-goody or bland. You have to be driven, but not uncaring or totally obnoxious. You can be a rule-breaker, but not immoral. You have to be self-directed, but not ego-centric. You have to be deep, but not remote or unreachable. You can be a clever scamp, but not a malevolent scoundrel. I could go on.

I think there should be a Nobel Prize for wildly successful protagonists. They’re like national (or international) treasures. Imagine creating the equivalent of a James Bond. What an achievement. And what a franchise.

No wonder secondary characters are so much easier, and arguably more fun, to create. They have a much easier job to do.

I think it’s the heavy lifters that really challenge us as writers.