I was reading and scribbling away in Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook as I wrestled with a shiny women’s fiction new idea. Although some of the exercises require you to reference what for me is a non-existent manuscript, some of the beginning exercises are akin to brainstorming. Perfect.
As you can tell, I’m not usually a fan of writing books…
But, this workbook is working for me. The only writing book I’ve read cover-to-cover is Stephen King’s On Writing. With writing books I keep, skip around, read some more and then usually — GASP — go and actually write something. I’m sure there are some missing from the stack, as these are the books I carry around – to the kitchen, the living room and they are books that make for mighty nice tub reading, if you’re not the dropping kind.
I revealed much to myself about my newest characters — and thought about the characters in THE GLASS WIVES as well. Particularly I was thinking about one of the MC’s best friends, Laney. She says what we wish we could say. She says what she thinks – no matter what it is – and although that’s not always the best quality, it’s one that endears this character to me. It’s also something Donald Maass says we look for when we read — someone who is doing or thinking what we would never do — but wish we would; someone who’s saying something we’ve stopped ourselves from saying. He calls these characters larger than life — and I agree — although I’m not sure Laney, my character, would appreciate the “larger” moniker. But I digress.
What this also made me think of was that of all the characters I’ve written in long and short form, Laney is one of my favorites. She’s not my main characters, but she’s critical because she makes the other characters gasp and shake their heads. She makes them laugh. She’s the devil on the MC’s shoulder, while the other BFF is the apparent angel. Both of these characters are extreme — in my opinion. Not unbelievable, not caricatures — but far from ordinary.
When writing women’s fiction the problem arises because it’s about real people dealing with real life, BUT if you write it as ordinary — you’re letting the publishing train pass by without stopping. I know probably all good writing books impart this wisdom in one way or another, but this workbook is what made it jump off the page for me. I realized that it must be deliberate that characters and situations and reactions and emotions are way down low or way up top. Readers can relate to either — but it’s better if there are both.
One of the exercises in the workbook is to name your hero. I tweaked this to just name some regular people and then what is extraordinary about them. Then I transferred it to the new characters I’m writing. Then I thought about the characters I’ve written before. What makes them work? I’ve published short stories. Why do those characters capture an editor’s attention? I know short fiction is different from long fiction, but when thinking specifically about characters, it’s a good place for me to start.
So this is what I know. Something must be extraordinary for the writing to work. If the character is humdrum — the situation or setting or problem must be remarkable. The way the character handles it must defy the odds. This will also defy the humdrum-ness. The disparity will create conflict for the character and tension for the reader. This DOES NOT lessen the impact of writing women’s fiction and making it realistic – it takes the reader’s best and worst thoughts and rolls them into your story. Can characters have a mundane moment? Yes, but moments don’t last long and it must be the calm before the storm, the appetizer before the dessert. Sometimes that even gives your reader a second to breathe. A literary respite.
I’ve made the mistake in the past of wanting my women’s fiction — or any fiction — to be so realistic that its pulse was weak. I was wrong. Adding BIGNESS takes nothing away from the reality based fiction most of us are aiming for in women’s fiction. It’s just the opposite — the way the moth flies to a flame is the way readers flock to books that resonate with the best and worst of themselves and people they know; situations they worry about or dream about, things they abhor and things that they love and even what that they know nothing about and are learning through your writing.
And none of that, my friends, is ordinary or boring.
Share something about one of your women’s fiction characters that’s extraordinary. Something that makes her (or him) stand out, be larger than life. If you don’t have something like that – tell us how you can change one of your characters to embody an extraordinary — but real life — characteristic.