Terrific Tip Thursday: Writing Advice that Doesn’t Suck


April 17, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue

No! Resist the Urge!
Image: cheezburger.com (where else, right?)

“Make your main character unlike you.” – from Novelist’s Boot Camp.

When I first saw this piece of advice, I riled against it. I’m sitting there thinking, “But, but, but… how the heck does that mesh with ‘Write what you know’?”

I read through Todd Stone’s reasoning for making my main character not me several times and still hated it. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to create an interesting character whose head I couldn’t get inside. For my first draft of Murphy’s First Law, I ended up only grudgingly following the bare minimum of his suggestions to make my character unlike me. Now, several months later, I finally understand why Stone is so insistent on this point. He even said it, but I wasn’t listening. Now I am:

“… when you, as the author, sneak in to your protagonist’s skin, there’s the chance that your character will ultimately be torn in two very different directions.”

In other words, you will end up having the character act as you would and not as the story requires.

Books require conflict. In real life, most of us actively avoid it.

If my character responds to things the way I would, it’s gonna be a long boring story because everyone is going to get along too well.

As a writer, I have all the time in the world to think about the scenario I’ve set up for my characters and it’s too easy to have them all work it out in the most logical way possible. Yawn. Even in real life, people don’t react that rationally. There’s emotions, knee-jerk reactions, misunderstandings, and ulterior motives.

When writing, you have to amp those up even further to create conflict and tension that will keep your reader turning pages. I highly recommend checking out Kristen Lamb’s post Great Fiction Goes for the Guts for more discussion on just how important it is to have conflict on every page of your book.

And that is much easier to do if your character is not an extension or some version of you.

I ignored the drill instructor and paid the price. Honestly, 4 zillion push ups would be better than all these rewrites!

I am now much more supportive of Stone’s suggestion to put yourself somewhere in the story other than your main character, because I’ve learned the hard way. Revisions are difficult enough without constant reminders of just how boring you really are while you’re fixing scenes that lack conflict. I’d much rather focus on cleaning up subplots, the overall story arc, and basic proofreading than having to fix as much as I have.

I’m not saying it can’t be done, just providing a cautionary tale so you can avoid the pitfalls that I ran headfirst into while thumbing my nose at the experts.

What do you think? Have you had similar struggles in your own writing? Share with the group!



6 thoughts on “Terrific Tip Thursday: Writing Advice that Doesn’t Suck

  1. Vagrance says:

    This is a very interesting point. I’m glad you brought it up because this very mistake had me delete more than 300 pages of writing.

    Whether we like it or not, we leave a bit of ourselves in every character we conjure. This is perfectly acceptable. The problem arises once we try to project our perception of ourselves into the leads of the story. They’ll start acting…like how we WANT to act, not how we would act as human beings. These people will likely be brave, rational, calm, intelligent and possibly good looking too.

    Of course, I know better than to base main characters on myself. I am NOT interesting (pursuing this topic further may prove more entertaining than reading my hypothetical biography).

    Anyhow, that’s my two cents.

    • Absolutely. It’s not that you aren’t interesting, just that no matter how interesting you are most of your day and decisions won’t have conflict interesting enough for a book. Part of it is amplifying behavior, the other part is learning to cut the boring parts or tweaking to have more conflict 🙂

  2. Also, do not attempt to name blog posts at 2 AM after sitting on a tiny laptop for hours because your desktop PC went to the giant electronics store in the sky. Sigh, it’s only Wednesday…

  3. This is great advice. I wish I had learned it years ago. If my characters are too much like me, they are not very exciting people.

  4. […] Lamb’s post, “Great Fiction Goes for the GUTS” as well as Kira Lyn Blue’s comments on making your character unlike […]

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