Know Your Characters

Characters are probably the most important element of any book as they form the backbone of the story. In fact in some cases, in those stories that are classified as “character driven”, they are the story.   As in a film or stage play, the characters in a book also fall into three main categories; Major Players, Supporting Characters, and Walk On parts.  Know Your Characters

Major Players

As the name suggests, a Major Player is a character that has a major or leading role to play in your story. He/she is someone who has a presence, whether actual or referred to by the other characters, throughout the story. They are a character that helps propel the story forward. If we stick with the theme of the story we began in the previous post, “What is a McGuffin”, where Jack, our hero, finds the murdered body of a young woman in a barn, then he is definitely a Major Player. The story will probably revolve around him, what he has found, (the body and the mysterious note) and the efforts he then goes to find the real murderer and clear his name. Depending on how you construct the story, you may wish to delve into the victim’s past, going back in time to tell her story before the murder, detailing who she was, what she did, and the lifestyle she led. A lifestyle that may well have contributed to her death. If this is the case, then even though she is no longer alive, she is still considered a Major Player. As is the young detective investigating the crime, and the real murderer, whoever they may be.

Supporting Characters

These are characters that don’t have a major part to play, but they are there to support the Major Players, provide the links between the various aspects of the story and help it along, in fact, anybody who helps Jack fulfil his quest. For instance, the lorry driver who gives him a lift to London and without whom he would never get there, but once Jack has arrived in London, it is possible that the lorry driver is never seen or heard of again. Likewise the elderly desk Sergeant, who shares his hard-earned knowledge and experience with the impatient young detective investigating the crime, but like the lorry driver, has no influence over the outcome of the story itself. Then there are the characters that drift in and out of the plot. People that Jack comes into with contact with on a regular basis, like his landlady, who merely turns a blind eye to his comings and goings.

The Walk Ons

These are the characters that have no influence whatsoever on your story or its outcome. They are there because without them the story would be two-dimensional, not true to life, and cease to function properly. For example the waitress who serves him tea in the East End café; and the man he buys a newspaper from outside Liverpool Street tube station.

So, how do we signal the importance of a character to the reader?

Major Players

Numbers are very important. If you think back to when taking on a new employment position, or joining a sports or social club, most of us will struggle to remember any more than six to eight new names at a time. Well, it’s the same for your readers: too many major players and they will struggle to remember who they are and their relevance to the story. The end result being that they could get confused and the story is ruined. In an effort to avoid this, you should try to limit the number of Major Players in your story to no more than eight.

Names

The names of the Major Players should be short and easy to remember. When using foreign names, choose names that are short, easy to pronounce, and in some way fit in with the character’s description. A simple test is that if you can pronounce the name phonetically, for example, Rowinski, an authentic Polish name, Row-in-ski, or Kafka, a Czech name, Kaf-ka, then it will probably also work for the reader, but try and stay away from foreign names with silent letters.

Descriptions

The description of Major Players should be detailed, after all they are a major interest to your reader, as a result, they need to know everything about them. A good description should provide the reader with information that will make the character memorable, and create an atmosphere that follows them through the book. In addition, try to create a subconscious link between the character’s name and their description, something that will instantly give the reader a picture of the character every time they read his/her name.

“Jack spotted a well-muscled man with powerful shoulders heading in his direction. He estimated that he was in his mid-forties and weighed close to two hundred pounds. His face was stripped of fat, which gave it a chiseled appearance, and he had thick black hair brushed straight back off a wrinkled forehead. Below his chin was a powerful neck, trying in vain to escape from the collar of the white shirt, and a dark blue tie that were both doing their best to strangle him. If it hadn’t been for the near straight nose you would have sworn he was a former boxer. Although one built for stamina as opposed to speed. It was Butala”.

The subconscious link, as the character’s appearance would suggest, is that Butala was “brutal”.

Supporting Characters

Supporting Characters are just that. They support the Major Players, but that doesn’t make them any less important to your story.

When it comes to their names, the same rules apply. Like the Major Players, their names should be short and easy to remember. However, their descriptions do not have to be as detailed as that of Major Players, but they should still be memorable. Pick out one or two things that quickly tell the reader what type of person they are.

“Leaning on the counter was the Desk Sergeant. Jack looked down at the silver buttons on the jacket of his freshly pressed uniform, they were straining against the buttonholes. His near white wavy hair gave the appearance of someone who was both knowledgeable and approachable, and Jack relaxed slightly.”

“Jack looked at the man’s hands as they slid around the large steering wheel, they were heavily stained, black with oil and grease, and unlike his meeting with the detective earlier that morning, where the smell of cheap cologne had made him nauseous, the cab of the lorry was filled with the heavy smell of diesel.”

Walk Ons

As already stated, Walk Ons are characters that have no influence whatsoever on your story or its outcome, but are there because without them the story would be two dimensional, the various elements would not be linked properly, and would cease to function as a story. Consequently, Walk Ons do not necessarily need a name or a detailed description, but you do need to attach sufficient information to each one in order for them to fulfil their role.

“The pretty brunette behind the desk lifted her head. `Can I help you sir?`

Jack stared at the maroon piping on the lapels of her jacket. It was the same jacket that had laid beside the body of the woman in the barn, and he immediately knew he was in the right place.”

 

Advertisements

Released Today

Trial TA2My first novel, “The Apprentice” is released on Amazon today. It is a thriller and the first book in the “Alex Keyes” trilogy. Alex Keyes is a man with a secret. Its discovery would destroy him and everyone associated with him. He has spent years training to be a “grey man”: quiet, unassuming, invisible, but now, having been sent behind the Iron Curtain to find someone who doesn’t want to be found, his survival will depend on him becoming a different person entirely.

What is a McGuffin?

If you’re a new thriller writer looking to get published, you will first need to look at what the industry wants, and more importantly what it expects. Writing styles have changed dramatically over the past two to three years, and unlike a few years ago when writing a really good story might be enough to get a publisher interested, invest some time, and help you prepare your work for the marketplace, these days they expect your work to be stunning, top notch, and capable of getting onto the best seller list from the outset. It would also appear that publishers are no longer willing to take what they consider to be a talented new writer under their wing and develop their talent. AH

Over the next two to three weeks, I will endeavour to share with you what I’ve learned from working with one of the largest publishers in the world, and a very talented literary agent. I am aware that some of it may be “old hat” to some of you, but it is not necessarily a bad thing to re-cover old ground.

Each of the articles presented on the site will cover just one of the elements required to build both a successful and sellable story, but it will also be short enough for you to absorb and put into practice at a single sitting, without having to produce reams of notes to continually refer back to. So, with that in mind, here goes…

Obviously, the first thing you have to do is construct a rough framework for your story; where and when it is set, whether the main character is a hero or heroine, and the basic plot – what the story is all about. For instance, let us say that your story is set in southern England just after the end of the Second World War.   Your hero, in this case, is Jack, a farm worker and ex-soldier who has recently returned from the war in Europe. Arriving late for work one morning, he discovers the half-naked body of a young woman in a barn, the victim of a brutal murder. Clutched in the corpse’s right hand is a torn piece of paper with the name of a plush London hotel and a handwritten foreign name.  Jack does the right thing and immediately informs the local police of his discovery, but later that day, unwilling to divulge his whereabouts that morning, he automatically becomes the major suspect. Armed only with the name of the hotel and the mysterious name, Jack sets out alone for London in an attempt to find the murderer and clear his name. It is not until the very end of the book that the reader discovers that the piece of paper and the name written on it are totally irrelevant and that they have nothing at all to do with the crime. This, the piece of paper and the name written on it, is what is known in the trade as a “McGuffin”.

The term “McGuffin” was first coined by Alfred Hitchcock and he explained the term “McGuffin” during a lecture at Columbia University back in 1939:

“In regard to the tune, we have a name for it in the studio, it is what we call the ‘McGuffin’. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in a story. In crook stories, it is always the necklace, and in spy stories it is always the papers. As writers what we must try to do is be a little more original”.

Hitchcock borrowed the term “McGuffin” from a shaggy-dog story where a train passenger is carrying a large odd-shaped package. The passenger calls it a McGuffin and explains to his curious fellow passengers that it’s a device used to catch lions in the Scottish Highlands. When they protest that there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands, he simply replies, “Well then, this can not be a McGuffin.”

Consequently, having a strong McGuffin is extremely important when constructing an excellent story. It’s a device that helps drive the plot forward but is surprisingly of little importance in itself.

A McGuffin can be a person, an object, or an event that the characters of a story are interested in, but that, intrinsically, is of little concern. For example, in Hitchcock’s movie “North by Northwest”, the villains are searching for a character named George Kaplan. In their eagerness to find him, they mistake Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive, for Kaplan, and the chase begins. Eager to extricate himself from this deadly situation, Thornhill himself begins searching for Kaplan, a person who in the end doesn’t even exist.

However, it is essential that your McGuffin be both subtle and intriguing. In the end it can be either totally irrelevant or extremely important to the story, but it should/must not be so contorted and/or elaborate that it throws the novel out of whack, regardless of how successfully it propels the plot forward.

Are you an aspiring thriller writer?

If you answered yes to the above question, then life for you just got a whole lot harder. When my first book, “A Hell for Heroes”, (Heroes) an autobiography, was published in 2012, as you can imagine, I was over the moon, and both my editor and I were looking forward to my long, and hopefully profitable career as a writer. A month later, following a very successful morning spent promoting my book at the BBC, we met for a working lunch where we established the parameters for my first novel, which was to be a Cold War thriller based around actual historical events, and utilising the experiences from my military career.  Free Climber

Six months later, and halfway through the first draft of the new book, I was informed that everything had changed. The reason, apparently, was that men were no longer buying or reading books! How had this situation come about, and why had it happened so quickly?

It was suggested that after nearly twenty-five years of war in the Middle East, and the publication of countless books retelling the exploits and hardships of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, our nation had become somewhat war weary. But it still didn’t explain this sudden change in direction. It was time to do some investigating of my own.

First I spoke to some of the once avid male readers of these so called “boys books”, and I’m not talking about close friends and family who may have felt that they owed me some sort of loyalty. I’m talking about ordinary members of the public, people who were kind enough to share their time with me on the street, at railway stations and in cafés. Without exception, their answer to my question, “why do you think men are no longer buying and reading books?” was always the same. “Because nobody is publishing the type of books we want to read anymore”.

It was time to talk to people in the industry who might be willing to share their views with an outsider. Those that either knew or had their own theories, as to why this sudden turn around had occurred in what, up until quite recently, had been an extremely lucrative market.

Apparently, one of the major underlying factors is that the Boards of the larger publishing houses are becoming increasingly female dominated. Not necessarily a bad thing I hear you say, but as a direct consequence, the acquisitions teams of these publishing houses, including my own publisher, Hodder and Stoughton were now being instructed not to purchase or commission any more military-type thrillers – so called “boys books”.

To quote one editor: “Market research is telling us that the majority of books are now being bought and read by women and that they have no wish to read military-style thrillers. So unless your work can meet the new guide lines, immediately appeal and connect with a female audience, it won’t even make it onto the desk”. It was at this point that a quiet voice inside my head uttered the words I had heard over and over again from male readers during the previous four weeks. “Because nobody is publishing the type of books we want to read anymore”.

To add weight to my findings, a few weeks later I read a piece stating that over eighty percent of children’s writers today are women in their fifties; that in today’s publishing market, the likes of Roald Dahl and his children’s classics such as, Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG and The Enormous Crocodile, would no longer be considered suitable for publication, as Dahl’s work was now seen as being, “far too dark and sinister”.

A publisher will always tell you “you should write about what you know”. But for some of us, especially those, like me, who have come from a military background, given the current state of affairs within the publishing industry, it’s easier said than done. And as usual, just when you think you have it sorted, someone will go and move the goalposts yet again.

However, I am a firm believer in the saying “if we build it they will come”. Although we may have to adapt, design and build it slightly differently, make some allowances, I believe that getting “boys books” published is still possible.

With regards to my own efforts in achieving this, the learning curve over the past few years has been long, and at times cliff-face steep. Reaching the point where I am now, about to publish my first thriller, “The Apprentice”, still highly motivated and extremely enthusiastic, would not have been possible without some serious professional help from my agent, who it must be said has the patience of a saint.

I am also a great believer in the “win-win” philosophy – the one that says you should always leave something on the table for the next person. So, with that in mind, over the next few weeks I will be sharing what I have learned about novel writing for today’s publishers, with anybody who is interested.

The pieces will be published on my blog, www.theodoreknell.com and if you would like to be informed by e-mail whenever a new piece appears, then simply visit the site and click “Follow”, you can always “un-follow” it later.