The Flawed Main Character

Every main character needs to be flawed, at least to an extent. Actually, every character needs to be flawed. No one is perfect, everyone has their own strange quirks and shortcomings. However, what are we as writers supposed to do when our own characters are driving us mad?
My series’ actual main character, a ten-year-old boy, is a total brat. He is bossy, arrogant and lazy, he’s a scaredy cat and he is driven by wanting to be perceived as ‘masculine’, although he really doesn’t have a clue as to what actual manliness entails. One hint, main character: it’s not about being a jerk to everyone around you. If it isn’t clear by now, I really cannot stand the kid. Why I ever picked him to be the lead of my series is a mystery to me. I actually had to quit the third book in the series for a while because I really did not want to have to get into his head again.
On the other hand, I liked the main character’s older sister much better. She’s eleven years old and aspires to become a witch. Although she is totally nuts in the main character’s eyes, she is so much more likeable to me than he is. She isn’t driven by some weird ideal – all she wants is to have fun and to explore the boundaries of the world. It may have been a horrible choice, but she is the reason why I decided to skip straight to the fifth book in the series, where she is the main character. A bad idea, huh? I’m guessing that most boys don’t enjoy reading about girls, especially not about young witches. With regards to my intended audience, it is not the greatest idea. However, as soon as I started writing about her, I immediately found my drive to write back. It may not just have been her, though. Another reason may have been that this is an actual ghost story with a likeable main character, instead of a story about a bratty boy who turns into a mouse.
I am not sure what to do now. I’m definitely going to continue the series. Possibly there will be another book about the girl. That is not the core of the problem, though. The real question is why the original main character turned into such a horrible brat that I couldn’t even stand to write about. I will have to fix that. He will get better over time, that’s for sure. That’s called character development. Until then, I will have to deal with him – and try to iron out his slightly-too-flawed personality. Thankfully, he is just a character in my head. He can change… Reality is, he has already come to life, so it’s going to be hard.
Has anyone else ever had that problem? Some main characters just decide to live their lives on their own… and it feels like there is nothing we can do to stop it. That may be the power of the writer’s mind, but it’s also a curse.

Cover Drama

Covers are like a book’s trailer. Together with the back cover, they form the story’s trailer – that is, if there is no actual trailer available. Even if there is one, most, if not every, potential reader(s) will look at the layout of the printed book itself, as that is supposed to give away at least part of what is to be expected. A great cover gives away its genre and possibly part of its actual subject, created to fit the actual story inside.

However, not all covers fulfill their function. Sadly, my very first own cover was an example of this. If only I had known what it was going to turn out like, I would never have said “yes”. It all started when I decided to send my manuscript to a so-called publishing house, at the age of twelve or thirteen. I was incredibly proud of it – rightly, I’m guessing – and the publishing of my first book all went so fast. That was when I found out I hadn’t submitted it to an actual publishing house, though; it was merely printing-on-demand, and they demanded for me to send them a cover image. There was not much time left. My parents decided to go look for someone to do the job. They knew a lot of artists, mainly because we were not from a big town. Around here, everybody knew everybody. Soon enough, my parents found an artist willing to draw my cover for free. I was a kid without money. There was no way I could refuse that offer. My cover image was finished soon enough. The image itself was not bad… It clearly showed its genre, and the publishing company wrote the title on it in big, orange letters. It was beautiful… Except for what was actually depicted on the cover itself. There were characters on there, who were supposed to be my main characters – a man, a fourteen-year-old boy and a sandy coloured horse. On the cover, they had turned into a man with a young child and a black horse. It may not have been the worst thing in the history of publishing, but I was upset without doubt. It was as if my characters were gone, together with the story they belonged to. This image was going to be stuck to my own book for the upcoming five years. There was nothing I could do about it – the artist had volunteered to create this for me, so I couldn’t complain. I didn’t even know her! My manuscript was turned into a book, and yet, I never felt completely happy about it. Part of it may have had something to do with the story’s actual content, but that does not matter at this point.

All in all, I’ve definitely learned my lesson. Covers are important, both to the reader and probably also to the authors themselves. The images should depict the story in a fitting way – and in my case, I considered it a failure. That’s what you get when you try to get published in the printing-on-demand way. To be honest, I doubt I would ever pick one of those books from the shelves myself. I hate to admit it, but most of the time they just don’t seem right – or professionally made, for that matter.

My Beloved Clichés, Part I: Dream Sequences and Prophecies

From the perspective of originality, writing clichés is a mortal sin. Even the definition of the word already states this, as a cliché is “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought”. They can be proverbs or saying – true clichés -, they can be certain descriptions and they can be entire elements of stories. In this case, I’d like to talk about the clichéd dream sequences and prophecies, as everyone knows they make for terrible writing and yet I still love them. Don’t most children do so, though?

As for dream sequences, it probably is not hard to imagine why a writer would love writing them. They can be strange, they can mysterious, they can be downright terrifying… but they aren’t real. Or are they? That is the thing about dreams. No matter how horrible they are, it is never clear whether or not their content really happened. Personally, I love playing with this. Creating frightening dreams is a fun activity and it is a way of showing a character’s internal world. As Freud believed, dreams are like a language. They are our subconsciousness. Where a story is the writer’s subconscious, the dream inside the story is the character’s true experience. For instance, my main character is a slightly paranoid boy, albeit his paranoia has more than enough reasons. There is an alien in his house. What do people think of when they hear that word? Abductions, dissections, UFOs. He dreams of the alien staring at him all night, and wakes up only to find out that he was right about that. Luckily, in reality he was not abducted… Or was he? Yes, I know it is a cliché, but playing with the borders of reality definitely helps with creating an uneasy atmosphere.

As for prophecies, they may be even worse than dream sequences. I admit to knowing this and yet loving them. Yes, I love prophecies, especially the kind that comes in rhyme. I am a bit of a poet at heart, although my actual poetry is horrible. However, my story contains a crazy fortune teller who is not believed by anybody. They love her, but her crazy rhymes are nothing more but that. In fact, she loves toying with people through prophecies. At first sight, she might seem a nice lady, but her true nature is slightly more mischievous. I have to be honest here, the fortune teller appeared in the first book of my series as someone’s aunt and she will appear again, although not as obviously. She still is a driving force in the tale, if only because she annoys the main characters so much that they decide to find out the truth on their own.

Clichés are bad. However, saying that they are bad is just as much a cliché. In reality, I’m just trying to free myself from guilt. Sometimes, clichés can be fun, as long as they are used in the right way. I am sorry for sinning like this. I just hope there is a child somewhere out in this world who can appreciate my work.

The Masters of Literary Theory

No, I am not a master in anything, nor do I think I am. However, after today, I am supposed to at least be adept in the various theories of literary analysis. To be honest, I do not believe most of them – but the test was not bad.

For example, I could try to analyse my own finished manuscript. I’m most likely prejudiced about it, but here we go!

From a feminist point of view, The Face Stealer is probably deemed slightly sexist or otherwise repressed, since the main cast consists of male characters – the two brothers – and they often get into fights with the girls because they are rude and sometimes just mean.

From a postcolonial point of view, I am going to guess that The Face Stealer is viewed as a racist story. Not because it is meant to be racist, but because of the mainly white cast – honestly, what do they expect from a small English town? My main characters are redheads. To the postcolonial criticists, I am sorry that my English boys are Caucasian. Even worse, the monster they have to fight is snow-white! Maybe my professors went a bit too far, but these strange ideas apparently are everywhere.

From a Freudian/psychoanalytic point of view… Well, if you know Freud, you’ll get the point. Of course it’s not an innocent children’s story, there must be some perverse thoughts hidden in there!

To be honest, I really enjoyed this course. It was interesting to find out about all these possible interpretations of stories, although I’ve got to admit that I think most of them are a load of nonsense. I don’t think I am sexist or racist or perverted. Perhaps these theories should not be applied to children’s stories. That would make the world a much better place.

Meet the MCs

After finishing the series’ first book, I felt that is was time to devote a post to the ones carrying the stories: my main characters. I really do not have that much to say today, mainly because my exams are coming up shortly, so this might be the last post for now (my exams will be over in three weeks).

James “Jamie” Lightheart is my actual main character, as the stories are seen from his point of view. Jamie is ten years old, likes to think of himself as pretty smart, likes bossing around other people, is highly jealous and slightly paranoid – although it is generally warranted. On the other hand, he would save his family if their lives were on the line, although he hates admitting so. He is in Year 5 at the local school which he attends (which is both a primary and secondary school).

Levi Lightheart is Jamie’s younger brother, and is around most of the time. He is six years old – although he turns seven in the second book of the series -, is very impulsive, loves food and adventure an frequently gets into fights with Jamie as he does not like Jamie’s attitude. He is in Year 1.

Susan Lightheart is Jamie’s older sister. I haven’t had much time to write about her yet, as she spend almost all of the first book without a face. She could not talk and wandered around aimlessly. However, I do know something about her. She is eleven years old, a little shy but loves teasing her brothers, is obsessed with decorations and dreams of becoming a witch. She is in Year 6.

Alice Wright is Susan’s classmate and some sort of a friend of Jamie, although he upsets her more often than that he makes her laugh. Alice is the daughter of two paranormal investigators. At the moment, she lives with her uncle and aunt, as her parents have gone on a business trip in search of a mermaid. Alice is highly responsible, much more intelligent than Jamie, very serious and relatively quick to annoy. On the other hand, she is very dedicated to whomever she likes and she would give her life if it were necessary – but this is a children’s book; no one is actually going to die. Jamie has a slight crush on Alice, if only because she is everything he desires to be.

Other characters are the Lighthearts’ spy neighbours, Alice’s fortune-telling aunt and tonnes of paranormal creatures surrounding their little village called Coven’s End (that name is the actual thread of the series).

Let’s hope I can stick to these characters this time.

Writing Tips, Part III: Outlines and Structures

Now that I finished my first manuscript, I figured it would be better to just keep on writing. I cannot look at the text yet as if I’ve never seen it before; therefore, I cannot start the editing process. In fact, editing now would hinder my ability to keep up the pace. Once I’ve written enough, I’ll return to where I once started and polish it. However, that moment is not here yet. For now, I’m simply going to outline my second manuscript. For others struggling with the same – which I personally find rather hard – here are a few tips.

One: start out with brainstorming. This probably seems like a logical step, but you’ll need it. Write down whatever comes to mind. See which ideas you prefer. Some might work well together, while others don’t. Choose with a basic idea and stick with it. Once you’ve done so, do not go back to creating new ideas – no matter how tempting it is. If anything else seems interesting, write it down – then forget about it.

Two: now that you have a basic idea, come up with the ending. This might seem like a strange leap in thought, but knowing the ending definitely helps in the process of fleshing out the story. The more detailed it is, the clearer the path becomes that needs to be taken in order to get there.

Three: which characters, changes in attitude, attributes and scenes do you need to get to the ending? Let the story revolve around – that does not sound like the right word, though – obtaining those essential elements. That way, every step and every action will bring the story closer towards the ending and there will be no unnecessary elements to it.

Four: this is where the actually outlining begins. Write down everything you know so far and try to create a structure for the story in which every single elements fits. You could do this by writing a synopsis or by creating a chapter-by-chapter outline, whatever works better. Make sure not to include anything but short descriptions of the scenes.

Five: by now, you should know your story’s main points and main scenes. This is the time to start writing, to bring your world and its characters alive. Following the steps, it should not be hard to write down the entire story from the beginning to the ending. After all, you know what needs to happen. However, this is definitely the fun part. Outlining a story before writing it does not take the creativity out of the process, because there is more than enough left to be creative with. Make the characters speak. Make the characters act. Although you know what is going to happen, the way in which it is going to happen is not set. Play with that.

This might seem a boring technique, but many beginning writers get stuck because they do not want to create an outline; they just want to start writing. However, if you have no idea where your story line is going to take you, chances are you are lacking a plot. A manuscript without a plot can never be called a book – unless you are a famous, established writer, which I am not.

The Moral Compass

Back in the day when children’s fiction first originated, moral lessons where what counted when it came down to writing for children. In my last blog, I talked about Hans Christian Anders, who is an excellent example in this case. His horrific fairytales were supposed to serve as lessons for children: “If you don’t behave, it won’t end well for you.” Now, I might have a slight problem. My manuscripts do not contain the slightest bit of moral lessons. It itself, that wouldn’t matter, if it weren’t for the fact that my characters steal, swear and basically appear very rude. It’s all for a cause, but here I’m left wondering if I shouldn’t get them punished one way or another.

As for the stealing, it happens twice in my first book. The first time, my main character finds a device in his friend’s shed that he believes may help him solve the mystery. She won’t give it to him because she doesn’t know how it works and is afraid he will break it. The main character steals it, uses it for his cause and then accidentally breaks a part of it. His friend ends up screaming she does not want to be him around him ever again, but ends up sticking around as she wants to help solve the problem that’s affecting everyone in town. In the second instance, the main character needs some bags of salt in order to build a trap. However, he does not realise there is more than enough left at home and breaks into a restaurant, ran by a nice, old lady. In both instances, he definitely feels bad for stealing, but it won’t have any lasting consequences: in the end, it all literally will be forgotten, thanks to the fact that the main character is fighting a magical monster with the ability to erase people’s minds.

As for the swearing, I am not sure how bad it is. My main characters do not go around cursing, but some name calling definitely happens. Most of it is taken from children’s cartoons, to make sure it is acceptable. However, I personally do not have a clue, as I am writing for an audience that I am not part of. What is offensive in The Netherlands is not necessarily offensive in Great Britain, and the other way around – at least, this is what my teachers explained to me. Not to insult anyone, but I’ve heard that the word “shit” is considered very offensive in Great Britain, while around here, people don’t even say it anymore because it is such a weak insult. I would not use the word in a children’s story, but I feel the cultural difference is important to the explanation. I’ve had my characters say “moron” and “crap”, however, mainly because television has taught me those are generally considered alright. Correct me if I’m wrong.

As for the rudeness, the story mostly entails a group of children running around, trying to catch a face-swapping monster before it is too late. They bump into people and often tell them to look in a mirror – not because they are ugly, but because they have become the monster’s victims. Other than that it angers some people, there are no repercussions for it.

My dilemma as a writer is if I should try to be a moral compass. I personally feel it is not necessary – adult intervention would ruin a story driven by children – but sometimes I wonder if the stealing should not be overlooked. I figured that the main character’s guilt would be enough… but is it? Should a writer be clear about morality?

My History of Writing, Part III: One Bridge Too Far

At one point in my life, I dreamt of being a fantasy writer like Tolkien. A tad arrogant, perhaps, seeing as he was the father of the epic fantasy. I knew I would never become as famous, eloquent or imaginative as he was, but I loved his world. That was the part I aspired to recreate.

All of my free time I spent on inventing a world: places, languages, songs, culture, animals, gods and people. I felt strongly attached to the world I had created, but there was one problem: I had gathered so many ideas that I had no idea where to start, what was important to the story and if I really needed so many characters. There were three continents, twelve gods, around fifteen villages and a countless number of characters.

My main character was a seventeen-year-old who had been taking from his home country as a young boy because his sisters decided to flee from their fate as princesses and take their brother with them. The sisters died, my main character ended up in an adoption family at the other side of the world. He also had gotten the task from one of the gods to restore the world’s religion. There was too much information. I knew everything about the character himself, but the story seemed to be lacking a thread. It was meant to be epic fantasy, so I made the boy visit every single village. A story was connected to every single one of them. Most of these had absolutely nothing to do with the plot.

Soon, I was out of inspiration. I could no longer stand writing about the countless fights between my main character and his adoption family. I could not get a hold of all of the family trees. Everything in the story was meant to be connected… But it was not. In fact, it turned out to be nothing but a 110.000 word rigmarole. By that number, I mean the word count at the moment I decided I could no longer do it. It was just half of the story, though. Then I gave up. I spent at least two years of my life trying to figure out every single detail of the story, before coming to the conclusion I did not even enjoy it anymore.

Maybe it was too much for fifteen-year-old me. I did not even like writing for my target audience – teenagers like myself – so I wonder why I ever thought this was a good idea. This is how I ended up wanting to become an author of children’s fiction. Small, compact stories with a lot of fun and action seemed much more interesting than writing down page long arguments that never seemed to end. Now, when my characters fight, it is actually fun. I have learned my lesson: world building may have been amazing, but writing epic fantasy was not meant for me at all. In the end, the choices that we make in life shape the path that lies ahead.