Skip navigation

I am a near-constant critic of novels. I can find faults with almost every book I read, as though it’s a strange compulsion I have. It’s no fault of the novelists themselves that I criticise their work; it’s merely that my view of the purpose of a novel clearly differs to theirs. To me, the purpose of a novel is to tell a story. When I read a novel, I want to read about people, actions and emotions. I want flawed characters, human characters, whom I can identify with and feel empathy for. I want them to do things, and I want things to be done to them. I want them to interact with each other, and I want the plot to stem from the characters’ personalities. This is, to my mind, what makes a beautiful novel.

Tragically, I’ve read very few novels satisfy my criteria for “beautiful” ((Disclaimer: I don’t read many novels at all, so this statement doesn’t count for a lot.)). The novelists whose work I’ve had to suffer through rarely care for their characters. In some novels, the characters become noisy, humorous caricatures; in others, they are almost invisible and take a back seat to the author’s epic descriptions of trees. In both cases, the poor characterisation is not helped at all by horrible writing. Even if the characters weren’t bad, how could I become absorbed in a novel when the writing is so self-conscious? Novels are about communicating stories, not communicating words. Here are some pointers on how to keep me absorbed in your story, without being distracted by these distinctly un-beautiful annoyances.

Avoid unnecessary exposition

While a certain amount of exposition may be unavoidable, I can’t stand reading novels where the writer will abruptly snap out of the story to tell me a lot of information which I do not want to know. This information may or may not be relevant to the plot, but at any rate, it should be slipped in more subtly than that. There is a term for the abrupt unloading of a lot of of unwanted information, and this term is “infodumping”. Infodumping is a menace, and must be stamped out. It can take many forms, but here are some:

  • Characters having a conversation on something they already know about, or should already know about, “for the audience’s benefit”
  • Narrators who, upon arriving at a new destination, automatically “remember” the entire history and/or social structure of the place and think about it for at least two pages
  • Narrators who think about the entire life stories of their friends, enemies and acquaintances just because they happened to appear in the story for the first time
  • Narrators who, with no apparent provocation or cause, remember their own entire life stories and think about those for at least two pages
  • Characters who have “psychic dreams” which tell them the direction the plot will take
  • Characters who appear solely to tell the narrator some important information, then disappear again
  • Characters who “just have a feeling” about things
  • Books or journals which just happen to be conveniently lying around, and which just happen to have the information the protagonists need at that moment
  • Antagonists who boast about their evil plans, apparently unaware that this will lead to the protagonists foiling the evil plans

Writers who infodump prove that they do not plot their tales very well. A well-plotted tale doesn’t need to rely on any of these devices to move forward; it will move forward because all the necessary parts of the plot have been completed. Furthermore, using any of these devices is highly distracting, and not at all conducive to good characterisation (because after all, who really has psychic dreams?).

Let the characters come first

Novels should be about characters, not a location in which the presence of characters is incidental. Let the characters take centre stage. I don’t care if your book is “really” meant to convey the values of sixteenth-century France (or any other setting); if that’s your intention, WRITE A HISTORY BOOK. Lovers of sixteenth-century society will lap it up, and people who actually want a story can steer clear.

Remove impediments to the flow of your story. Cut long, unnecessary descriptions. Excise tangents and irrelevant ramblings. Stop repeating yourself — if a character’s thought of something once, they don’t need to think about it twice or three times. We’ve got it. Some description is necessary, of course, and some repetition probably is as well, but that’s no excuse to go overboard. All things in moderation, as they say.

Let your characters do things, without being interrupted by poetic descriptions of, say, a nearby creeks rushing by. Let them do different things — if they do the same thing repeatedly, it’s going to get old fairly quickly. Basically, don’t deliberately halt your plot in its tracks — there are no good excuses for it.

Characters are people, too

Characters in novels are often horribly uncomplicated. Are people really so simple? If I can’t tell your characters apart, you are Doing It Wrong. Real people are different in their mannerisms, patterns of speech, ways of viewing the world, and so on; characters should be too. If your characters spend every waking hour obsessing over one thing (e.g. stereotypical evil villains), you are Doing It Wrong. Real people have multiple pressing concerns, desires and interests; so should your characters.

When your characters are emotional about something, you need to show their emotion, not just tell us the emotion you’ve decided they’re feeling. Never say, “Bob felt upset that all his friends just got killed by Mr Evil.” It provokes a “no duh, really??” kind of reaction. The following is much better:

Bob wandered away from that place of death, scuffing his shoes along the gravel as he walked. Dead, he thought, all dead. Mary, Sally, Billy, George. His mind floated back to the moments before it had happened, and the grotesque look of triumph on Mr Evil’s face. He recalled his friends’ pleading, Mr Evil’s maniacal laughter. And then… no. With a jerk, Bob brought his mind back to the present; he couldn’t bear to think of that right now. His eyes welled with tears and furiously he kicked a rock along the deserted street.

It’s not very good, but at least you can see Bob’s emotions rather than just being told that’s how Bob feels. Use emotive words, such as “grotesque” or “maniacal”. Describe their thoughts. Ensure that any emotions felt by your character are emotions that a reader can empathise with, even if it is a villain. Which brings me to my next point…

People are not black and white

You cannot split people into groups of “good” and “bad”. You can’t even split them into groups of “good”, “bad” and “neutral”. People don’t work that way. I’m sure that everyone sees themselves as essentially a “good” person, regardless of how badly they’ve acted. Even the poster boy for evil, Adolf Hitler, thought he was doing Germany a favour by ensuring (his definition of) its people remained superior to everyone else. Stories do not have to be “the good guys” v. “the bad guys”. In fact, they are vastly more interesting if they’re not.

If you’re not sure where to start with this, then here’s a starting point: make all your protagonists and antagonists ordinary people. Protagonists and antagonists do similar things, so this works well. Antagonists try to harm the protagonists, but vice versa is also true. So what possesses people to kill or harm someone else? There are many things, and they’re not the exclusive realm of “bad people”. Here are a few:

  • Everyone else does. Regardless of your character’s personal reservations, if the character’s friends, superiors, peers and everyone else they know think it’s OK to attack so-and-so, why would the character disagree?
  • They feel they have to. For instance, your character may have been ordered to, or it may have been part of the job description, or they may risk death if they refuse.
  • They genuinely don’t see the problem. People all over the world have prejudices, and while this seems wrong to us, it won’t seem wrong to the character who has the prejudice. Perhaps they truly believe all women are less intelligent than men. Perhaps they think that X racial group caused their poverty by stealing all the jobs. Characters can be “good people” despite holding these prejudices.

In my opinion, the best stories are those where the actions and arguments of both sides make a certain amount of sense. It throws up all sorts of moral conflicts, and makes it impossible to say definitively that one character is in the right. Not everyone likes this in a novel, but I love it. I really do.

Watch your language

This is the last item on this list, but one of the most important. Demonstrate your mastery of the English language (or whichever language you write in). I don’t mean writing lengthy, poetic paragraphs; I mean structuring each sentence in a way that aids readability. Know what you’re doing with your words. Repeat words only to emphasise; find synonyms if you just need the same kind of word again. Don’t use adverbs too often. Often (but not always), using an adverb simply means you didn’t choose the right verb. For instance, characters don’t need to “whisper angrily”; they could “hiss” or “growl” instead.

Be careful with the words you choose, as well. Words like “was”, “and” and “got” are overused; they all have legitimate uses, but don’t need to be used as often as some people use them! Punctuation is your friend; “and” can be omitted. For instance, if you’ve written a paragraph describing a series of actions a character undertakes… well, why would you use the word “and”? What’s wrong with a comma?

“Was” might seem like one of those words that can’t be left out, but its overuse often stems from writers who’ve “told” a character’s feelings rather than shown them. If you look at my description of Bob’s anger above, you’ll see that I didn’t use the word “was” once. I didn’t need to!

There are a few other uses of “was” which are, in my view, acceptable. “Was” is used to indicate the passive voice — “I was kicked” as opposed to “(s)he kicked me”. Some people are opposed to the passive voice, but it has its uses. It might make the narrator seem helpless, or hide the identity of her/him, and these are things a writer might want to do. Another use is to denote an action which was interrupted, like “I was walking down the street when…”. This could be rephrased, but I don’t have issues with people who don’t.

These points are all nitpicking, though. There is one main point I wish aspiring novelists would get into their heads, and as such, it deserves to be caps-locked.

KNOW HOW TO USE PUNCTUATION AND CAPITALISATION IN YOUR OWN LANGUAGE!!

I started writing this entry because I was trying to read a novel in which the author clearly didn’t know these things. If you can’t capitalise or punctuate, you really have no business writing a novel. Either you learn, or you give up on your dream now. I’m sorry, but not even the best story in the world will make me ignore that shortfall.

Advertisements

2 Comments

  1. I can think of many novels that fall in the crappy book catagory. I agree with you on most of what you said in this entry.

    😀

  2. I didn’t use (specific) examples, because not everyone has read the same books I have, but yes, there are so many! Perhaps one day I’ll compile a list of the books that fulfil at least some of my “beautiful” criteria…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: