One Simple Writer’s Trick by Sophy Burnham
New York Times bestselling author Sophy Burnham’s latest, Love, Alba, contains three intertwining and entertaining love stories narrated by the wise and witty Alba, who happens to be a little car. In honor of its publication, Sophy rants about the one thing writers really need to do for their main characters.
This rant is about how to write a story with a hero or heroine. It makes me mad that people don’t know one simple writerly trick, and that beginning writers (especially) waste hours working, pouring out their hearts, then wonder why people don’t respond to their books. And I write this as the author of 14 books, and a reader gulping three novels a week.
Recently, a friend gave me his novel to read. I was shocked, disgusted, so repulsed that afterwards I could hardly meet his eyes. Yet he’s the most generous of men. It’s not his fault I hated his book. He’d never learnt one simple rule.
In his novel, the middle aged hero meets a foul-mouthed, fourteen-year-old girl. (She’s supposed to be a prostitute, but the author neglected to show her asking for money.) When she crawls in bed to seduce the hero, he is thrilled to find that he comes twice (an achievement unattainable before).
And then the novel moves off to other scenes.
My friend is surprised that no one likes his hero.
Now, listen, all you writers and aspiring writers. Here’s the deal. This is important.
If you want to create a heroine (or hero), you first show the character doing something estimable, admirable, even noble. You show her caring for another character, even putting herself out for someone, or for an idea or an ideal. (Antigone, for example.) Second you show others loving and caring about her. If other characters like your character, the readers will too.
Where my friend made his mistake was not in having his character meet a child prostitute (alas! There are such unfortunates!), but that when he did, he displayed no horror: as if he had no moral or ethical code, no inner integrity. Neither did he try to help her. Instead he took what she offered and passed on.
Your heroine may stumble, even behave foolishly, but if she laughs, recognizes her failing and tries to do better, (Becky Bloomwood in Sophie Kinsella’s Shopping Addict series) we forgive, identify and delight in her.
The hero may be a coward or a weakling, but if he attempts to redeem himself we admire him (Lord Jim).
The heroine may hold others to such high standards that she becomes judgmental (Elizabeth Bennet), but if she becomes aware and corrects her prejudice and pride, we adore her.
So, give your characters failings—we all love characters who flounder—but give them also a sense of virtue, some higher calling, some ideal beyond the gross desire for power or wealth. We want to love them.
Sophy Burnham, awarded “Daughter of Mark Twain,” is the author of fourteen books, both nonfiction and novels; award-winning plays, radio plays, children’s books, investigative reporting, essays and short stories. She is best known for her spiritual writing, including A Book of Angels and The Treasure of Montségur. Three of her books appeared on the New York Times (and many other) bestseller lists. Her works are translated into twenty-six languages. A brilliant speaker, she has given talks and workshops internationally, and appeared on scores of radio and TV shows including Oprah (twice), Larry King Live, CBS Morning News, and others. Learn more by visiting her website: www.sophyburnham.com.
You can order your copy of Love, Alba here.
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