Fiction Writing Tips 51–60
Welcome to the sixth page of Fiction Writing Tips. Here you will find tips 51 through 60.
To return to the tips index, click here.
Tip #51: Create a Likeable Protagonist
Why do you pick up a novel to read? Maybe you like this author or you're in the mood for something in this genre. Maybe you've heard of this book or this writer and you want to see what all the fuss is about. Maybe you're looking for some pure escapism or an easy summer read. Maybe you just like the cover art.
Underlying your reason for picking up any given novel, whatever that reason may be, is a set of expectations. You may not even realize you have them.
You expect to not be bored. You expect it to start a certain way and to have certain kinds of characters and situations, according to whatever genre the book is in. You expect the book to be comprehensible.
You also expect it to have a likeable hero.
"Nay," you say, "I don't have to like the hero. What about...?" and you name off some story with a protagonist who was a terrorist or a serial killer or an anti-hero.
All true. You don't have to actually want to be like the protagonist, but I contend that in some way you must at least be able to sympathize or empathize with him or her. Or else you won't keep reading.
Jack Sparrow is not a particularly nice person. But there's something about him that we like. We understand him. We want to see how he's going to get out of any scrape.
Ellen Ripley, Sigourney Weaver's character in the Alien series, is not very pleasant to be around. Kind of a jerk, actually. But in the first movie she has a cat she's willing to risk her life for. That's something we can understand and like. In the second movie she's still pretty hard, but she becomes incredibly heroic to save a little girl.
Even our beloved Neo in Matrix is not your typical hero. He's a junior slacker at a megacompany, he has authority issues, and he's a drug dealer on the side. Nice guy. But he's got that befuddled look on his face and the girls think he's cute and, of course, he helps his landlady carry out her garbage.
Whether we realize it or not, we expect (perhaps even need) our protagonists to be likeable in some way.
Because who wants to read about a total jerk?
And yet I regularly see unpublished fiction manuscripts with unlikable heroes. I think the author is trying to show how awful the person is so that the transition that happens during the story is more dramatic.
Good instincts, but you have to give us some hope even early on that there is something good and redeemable in this character, or we'll look elsewhere for entertainment.
This is especially true for stories that have lots of other characters who are unlikeable. If your unlikeable protagonist is surrounded by awful people doing awful things to each other, and your "hero" is just as awful but for some reason gets a starring role, you're going to lose readers in droves.
What a nasty situation. It would be like finding yourself in a party with a bunch of backbiting scumbags—and the person who invited you turns out to be the worst of the bunch. You'd excuse yourself from there as quickly as you could.
Works the same in fiction.
You have to intrigue your reader with your story but also with your protagonist. You have to give your reader some fairly prominent indication that this main character is heroic, likeable, understandable, or at least sympathetic in some way. Or your reader will put your book down. Simple as that. It's an expectation we have about fiction that we don't consciously realize.
Please hear me: a novel without a likeable hero will be a flop even if it has everything else going right.
On the other hand, a likeable protagonist covers a multitude of fiction sins. A novel can do a lot of things wrong—and take a lot of chances with the story—and get away with it if readers love the hero.
Want to tell a bizarre far-future story about a world in which beings communicate with one another by flapping their appendages in intricate patterns? Give us a likeable hero and we'll stick with your story through any weirdness. Want to tell a dark story that plumbs the depths of man's inhumanity to man? Let us care about your protagonist and we'll plumb any depth with you.
But give us an irredeemable ogre (with apologies to Shrek) who turns our stomach to be with and we'll drop your book like troll scat and move on to something else.
So what about the hero in your novel? Will readers like this person? Or are you trying so hard to be sure your protagonist looks distasteful—to show how far he or she will come in the course of the novel—that there's only black and no hint of white evident to readers?
You've got to give at least a glimpse of something that will help your readers consider your protagonist likeable. Do it early and do it clearly and you'll be able to take us on just about any ride you want.
Tip #52: Create Chapters of Appropriate Length
This tip is more on the functional, formatting side of things than some of the theoretical tips. But practical tips are part of craftsmanship, too.
I never realized chapter length would be a problem for novelists. I mean, I knew how I found my chapter breaks and I assumed everyone else did them the same way. But when I started working with unpublished manuscripts I began to see the wide array of lengths authors considered okay for chapters.
Before I go on, let me hasten to say that there are no real rules about chapter length. If you want to have 75-page chapters (and believe me, I've seen plenty of unpublished mss. with chapters this long), that's fine. If you want to have 1-page chapters, that's cool, too. And if you want to have some chapters that are 1 page long and others that are 75 pages, that's your prerogative.
However, allow me to offer some suggested guidelines that may make your book more user-friendly and feel "about right" when it comes to chapter length.
First, what if you go with really long chapters? Chapters with more than, say, 22 double-spaced pages. These begin to feel like a real burden to readers. Imagine a reader reading a chapter as a swimmer holding his breath underwater—if you make the poor guy wait too long to get a breath he's going to give up.
Long chapters feel burdensome. They feel like a lecture in which the guy just won't shut up about some topic. They feel like you're enduring and enduring as long as you can, but if there's no chapter break on this next page I'm going to quit. They feel like a long road trip when you're really hungry but every hill crested reveals another stretch without the Golden Arches.
Readers need "rest areas," reasonably spaced stopping points where they can place their bookmarks and be done reading for now. Overlong chapters don't allow these breaks.
Now, you can give little scene breaks within a chapter, and the reader can stop at any one of those. And of course you don't want your reader to stop reading. But the point remains.
Sometimes I think authors confuse chapters with, say, acts or parts, like in books with a Part 1, Part 2, etc., or when you're trying to identify your 3-act structure. Chapters are more regular stopping places than those. There can be multiple chapters within a part or act.
By and large, longer chapters cause a rising frustration and anxiety, kind of like needing a bathroom more and more every second but not finding one anywhere.
So don't let your chapters go too long.
Neither should you let your chapters be too short. Anything under, say, 8 double-spaced manuscript pages is probably too short. Why do you need a chapter break there? Why not use just a scene break?
If you have very short chapters and, when published, your book has an elaborate chapter head at the beginning of every chapter, you're going to end up with lots of white space, lots of fancy script, very little text, an annoying look, and probably an annoyed typesetter, to boot. Don't let your chapters be too short.
So far I've given loose parameters for what I think constitutes a reasonable average chapter length: nothing under 8 pages and nothing over 22 pages. (I'm referring to double-spaced manuscript pages here, not pages in the finished and typeset book.)
Within that 8-22-page range you have lots of room to find your rhythm.
How I Find Chapters in My Own Fiction
Personally, I shoot for 15-17-page chapters. A chapter of that length feels about right for me, both as a writer and a reader. (You may not be aware that I'm also a published Christian novelist. See my author site here.)
But here's the key: I don't worry about chapter length as I'm writing. Except for a few spots where I know for sure I want a chapter to end or a chapter to begin, I don't even include chapter heads in my rough draft. I use asterisks to serve as a dingbat signifying where a scene ends. I mark scene endings only, not chapter endings and beginnings.
After I've completed the rough draft, gone back and written all the scenes I later realized I needed, and moved everything around to where I think it should be, only then do I begin thinking about chapter divisions.
Waiting until I've finished the draft and all known edits before looking for chapter breaks saves me from having to reorder chapter breaks if I later decide to take the 12-page scene from chapter 9 and put it in chapter 4, which now makes chapter 4 go 28 pages or whatever. Waiting until things are more or less finalized before making chapter divisions saves me from tedious reformatting later.
Of course then my editor will come along and help me see how I need new scenes or ought to delete or reorder existing scenes, which sometimes creates the need to reformat chapters anyway, but that's just part of the game.
So I'll start at the beginning and go through the manuscript counting to 15. Seriously, that's how I look for chapter divisions. Granted, some scenes (like a prologue) are their own chapters no matter what their length, and in other places I've designated where I want to have a for-sure chapter break. But for the rest, I just count to about 13 from the last chapter head and then start looking for a scene break somewhere between the 13th and 18th page, with the 15-17 spot being my preference.
Because I tend to write scenes that are between 3 and 9 pages, I can almost always find a logical break spot somewhere in the 15-17-page range. Sometimes I have to settle for a 10-page or a 21-page chapter, but usually I can avoid that.
Of course I'll take a look at those proposed break points to be sure they would serve well as chapter breaks. Sometimes the break I've chosen does not work well at all and I have to keep looking, but most of the time it works.
If I've designated in the ms. that I really want a chapter to end at a certain spot, sometimes I have to be a little creative with my 15-page chapter length model. I'll usually work backward and forward from for-sure chapter breaks to find reasonable chapter breaks on either side of it. Eventually those will merge with the other chapter breaks I created in the usual way. (Does that make sense?)
So if I've marked a for-sure chapter break on page 128, I'll go around 13-18 pages backward from there to see where that chapter should begin. I'll probably work backward like that for one more chapter, but then I'll stop. Somewhere in there I will find the spot where the backward chapters match up with the 13-18-page chapters I've been finding as I worked forward from the beginning.
Is it okay to have one or two really long chapters or one or two really short chapters for effect? Like maybe you have one 1-page chapter with just one sentence in it. Just because you really want it to stand out. Sure. Do it. But don't do it much. Let these be the exception.
As for really long chapters, I don't think that's as good an idea. As we've established, really long chapters—like really long paragraphs (see Tip #9)—are irritating and wearisome to the reader. You can always find a place to break up a long chapter into smaller chunks.
Give your reader regular resting places, but don't let them follow too quickly upon themselves.
For most of your chapters, strive to find your rhythm with typical chapter length being somewhere between 8 and 22 double-spaced pages.
Tip #53: Understand the Publishing Process