Your Novel’s Greatest Danger

Bored catA TV show is about to be cancelled. Not exactly headline worthy, I know. Happens all the time. Only this time it was a series I was trying to get into, mainly because I’ve liked the lead actor in the past.

The ratings were okay for the opener, but have gradually declined. I am one of those decliners. After four episodes I stopped watching.

The show has a unique setting, a cast of beautiful people, and an ongoing criminal investigation. What went wrong?

I’ll tell you what went wrong: I just did not care about any of the characters. 

I didn’t care who was trying to cheat whom. I didn’t care who was hopping into who’s bed. I didn’t care who made money, lost money, was rich or poor or desperate or in love.

On the surface––and this must have impressed the network suits––the show had “everything.” Glam, glitz, beefcake, cheesecake, a star. But after four hour-long episodes there was not a single character I bonded with.

Which, dear writer, is the greatest danger to your own novel.

You simply must connect reader and character, and right out of the gate, too.

How? By knowing that this is all a function of two essential dynamics, which are … wait for it … plot and character.

Wow, earth shattering!

Ah, but so often missed because one is often emphasized at the expense of the other.

Character alone won’t do it. If it did, maybe I’d be able to get through more than twenty pages of A Confederacy of Dunces (I’ve tried three times and never made it).

Plot alone doesn’t do it, because events have to matter to a character who matters to the reader.

Now, there are lots of techniques professional fiction writers utilize to make a character someone we care about. In my 27 Fiction Writing Blunders I have no less than five chapters attacking the problem from different angles.

But today, I want to suggest a single, powerful question you should ask about all your main characters.

You need to set yourself up for this, because it’s a question not to be tossed out lightly.

So find a comfy spot. I like to use a corner table at my local coffee palace.

Have a notepad ready.

Spend ten minutes thinking about anything except your novel. Observe people, read some news or a blog, or watch “Charlie Bit Me” a couple of times.

Next, turn yourself (as much as possible) into a fully objective reader who is considering buying your book.

Here comes the question:

If I were at a party and someone told me about this character, what she’s like and what has happened to her, would I want to spend two hours listening to her tell me her story?  

Be merciless in your answer. Write down the exact reasons you would want to hear more. If you don’t come up with good ones, you’ve got work to do.

If someone described to me a selfish, flirty Southern belle, I wouldn’t want to spend two seconds with her. But when I hear that she is the only one in her family with the grit and guts to save her home during and after the Civil War, I think I’d want to hear more.

If someone tells me about an unsure FBI trainee, who came from poor circumstances, I’m mildly interested. But make her the only person in the entire bureau who can get the most devious, intelligent, and malevolent murderer in the annals of crime to talk, then I’m down for the whole story.

PIs are a dime a dozen. But if it’s Philip Marlowe narrating, I want that two hours just to listen to how he describes all the twists and turns.

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.

She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.

You have your assignment. Would you, as a perfect stranger, feel compelled to listen to the story your main character wants to tell?

If not, make it so.

If so, make it more so!

And then the greatest danger to your novel will be no more.

17 thoughts on “Your Novel’s Greatest Danger

  1. Wonderful examples of premises that grab. Since I’m working on my premise as we speak, I’ll copy and paste them as guides.

    Loved the Chandler quotes. When I read his writing, I feel sorry for the snobs (both writers and readers) who disdain genre fiction.

    As my first writing mentor said, “Good writing is good writing, regardless of genre.”

  2. Very good point and so true. The books I love grab me from the beginning and get me into the character’s head and heart. This is why many TV shows don’t “click.” The characters lack chemistry, and the viewer doesn’t care about them. Or sometimes a character is too unlikable. I watched Elementary for a few seasons before deciding the show is just too depressing and the main character too morose for me to continue.

  3. Not clicking with a show from the start may be bad, but far worse is watching a TV show that is firing on all cylinders beautifully and 4 or 5 years down the road you wonder if the lead has been lobotomized (frankly you wonder if the executive producer, the writers and everybody else has been lobotomized) because the great lead character and the smoothly oiled group of characters on the show are all running around disjointed like chickens with their heads cut off; and the powers that be seem to have forgotten every single character trait that made those characters tic. It’s beyond disappointing.

    That, at least, I don’t see much in printed fiction. Yes, you can definitely write a novel whose opening doesn’t grab readers and they never bother to read the book, but I can’t recall an instance where I read a book where midway through you couldn’t even recognize the lead from who he/she was when you started.

  4. Raymond Chandler’s grocery list would rivet me 🙂

    I don’t watch much TV, but the other night, I tried a few episodes of House. The premise of an obnoxious junkie doctor turned me off…until he looked into the eyes of patient, whom everyone else was ready to pull the plug on, and decided the man was not brain dead after all. Somehow when he connected with the helpless patient, he connected with me.

    During a few more episodes, I also began to care about his long-suffering underlings who tried hard to solve problems despite House’s constant abuse. One of them had come up with a brilliant solution in an earlier show, but gave the credit to his colleague (about to be fired by House) to save the guy’s job. Okay, now I liked this supporting character a lot.

    In the next episode, that young character committed suicide. I cared and wanted to follow his story. When House and the other regulars visit the guy’s grieving parents, House lashed out at the family with incredible cruelty. I waited a few more minutes, hoping someone would punch House’s lights out. When no one did, I got turned off and so did the TV. .

    Indifference is poison, but so is a hero/anti-hero who steps too far over the line.

    Thanks as always, Jim, for another thought-provoking post.

  5. Thanks for the post, Jim.

    “…what she’s like and what has happened to her, would I want to spend two hours listening to her tell me her story.”

    I love the way you can always distill concepts to their essence – then communicate that information to your readers. An analytical chemist for the craft of writing.

    Another part of the foundation as we plan our story.

    Thanks for another great post.

  6. “Character alone won’t do it. If it did, maybe I’d be able to get through more than twenty pages of A Confederacy of Dunces (I’ve tried three times and never made it).”

    Trust me, you did the right thing abandoning this book. I plowed through the whole, pointless thing, convinced “the good part” was just a turn of the page away.

    I was wrong.

  7. I’ve got a whole bunch of books on my Kindle that show about 10% complete. All for the reasons you state here, Jim. I just didn’t care. Someone once said, “Life is too short to drink bad wine.” That goes for books, too. Great post.

    • I know what you mean, Joe. My first experience with the grape was in high school, a a bit too much Boone’s Farm Apple wine. At 17 I did not yet know that life was too short.

  8. I have put myself on notice to buy 27 Fiction Writing Blunders.

    I am electrified by Game of Thrones. I can hardly wait between seasons, and I devour the re-runs when they run.

    My patience with this vibrant and compelling TV series has paid off: Joffrey is dead, suffering horribly as I jumped up and down screaming, “Yay! Give him some more. Do it now.”

    I also rooted for Tyrion Lannister for giving Tywin Lannister the ultimate “Hold this a moment in your chest, won’t you?” scene.

    Cersi taught me that some 40-year-old actors (or their body doubles) should only be shot from the neck up. Oh, please don’t have Olenna Tyrell suffer the same fate. (Please, please, please. Olenna Tyrell is NOT Teresa di Vicenzo.)

    I can see that each character in Game of Thrones had to have gone through the kind of vetting you speak of, in the minds of either George R. R. Martin, or the television producers and writers.

    Thank you for the guidance.

  9. So, so true, Jim and I’ve lost count of how many TV shows I can’t be bothered watching because I don’t care enough about the characters. Same with books. I think that might be why so many adults read YA as those books tend to be very character driven and suck you in as a result.

  10. I’m never sure why my husband abandons television shows — usually he’ll say he’s not interested in all the “outside the premise” plot threads of the characters. It might be because he doesn’t care about them, but I think it’s his focus is narrow. He watched a few episodes of Homeland, but when they showed the home/family side of things, he stopped watching. I like the ‘extra stuff’ and I try to include that in my writing to flesh out the characters beyond the ‘solve the mystery’ side of things.

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