So you can read my books

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Odd question, isn't it?

Of course your novel's not real.

But it needs to be if you want it accepted by an agent and loved by readers.

You suspend disbelief when certain things in the book you're reading rings true :

Clothes :

Hamlet doesn't wear gold chains and zoot suits. Samuel McCord is a brooding, reflective man who does most of his fighting at night.

He, like Hamlet, wears black. Mark Twain, Sam's life-long companion, wears his all white suit to stand apart from his brooding friend -- as he does everything in his rebellious life.

{Twain's eventual death sends Sam into a spiral of depression from which it takes him years to recover.}

Maija, Meiliori's contemptuous of society twin sister, wears a skin-tight "Dragon-Lady" scarlet outfit -- even in 1853, when the mere showing of a bare ankle was scandalous.

She, like Twain, is rebellious.

But unlike the humorist, Maija is cruel and sadistic -- which is why whenever she arranges to meet Sam after her sister has left him, Maija wears an exact copy of the retro-Victorian dress Meilori wore on the night she stormed off into the darkness.


Do all your characters sound the same? It might surprise you that they do.

Close your eyes. Have a friend read a rather common sentence from two of your characters from two different parts of your novel. Can you tell who is talking just by their speech patterns? You should.

Reporters and policemen both talk tersely. The reporter tends to go for the dramatic. The policeman keeps objective. In public at least.

Out of public view, the policeman usually is cynical of everyone's motives, having seen too many at their worst. The reporter tends to go for the underdog, having seen big business and big government swallow the little guy much too often.

Not all teens talk the same. The nerds have their own phrases. And jocks their own vocabulary, matching their interests.

The shy mumble. The quarterback smirks. Yet that can be overdone into a cliche. The thinking, reflective quarterback from an abusive home could be the magnet that holds the interest and heartstrings of your readers.


Take physicians.

One of my favorite novels is CAPTAIN NEWMAN M.D. by Leo Rosten

It is a novel of a caring psychiatrist treating mentally bruised soldiers from WWII, told with wit and compassion.

But there are other mindsets among physicians. And it is understandable why they develop that perspective.

They're trained to prioritize, to emotionally detach themselves from their patients' pain and trauma, and to deal with crises as problems to be solved ... the solutions to be broken down into their component steps. Such a mindset works for them professionally.

In their personal lives, that mindset can be destructive. For many to become emotionally detached takes its toll. To step back from the trauma around them, they must cut loose in another phases of their lives.

On the other hand, become emotionally detached long enough, and you find it spreads like a drop of ink in a beaker throughout your whole life. You awaken one day to find yourself a stranger to your friends, your family ... even to yourself.

A few latent sadists are drawn to the profession. They channel their anti-social compulsions into socially approved actions. But like with scratching a mosquito bite, the more they stroke their sadistic natures, the stronger, the more demanding it becomes.

To make a physician real in your novel, you must incorporate all the above into that character and his/her environment. The same is true with every walk of life you have in your story.


Now, this one is a bugger. There's real. And then, there's realistic.

I wrote a historical fantasy. Historical fiction is not a time machine.

Should you and I go back to the world of 1853, we would find the physical hygiene appalling and the moral consensus even worse. We would be walking around with our mouths open and clothes pins clamped on our noses.

Indigenous races were not considered even human. Women were thought of as a second-class, intellectually deficient breed. Slavery was applauded in most corners. The "science" of medicine was part butchery/part unfounded, faulty supposition.

Still, we would understand only 2 out of every 3 words spoken by the aristocracy : their vocabulary was extensive and littered with Latin and ancient Greek proverbs.

The Divine Right of kings was accepted in a third of the civilized world. And democracy was in its infancy.

Speech was more formal even in casual conversation, more elegant even.

For RITES OF PASSAGE, I had to create the illusion of 1853 in such a way as to root my reader in the reality of that age without tuning him out.

I made Samuel McCord a man educated by his Harvard professor father and inhuman Jesuit priests. His travels across the world has made him a more open-minded man. He has the sensibilities of a 21st century man at odds with the 19th century world.

Therefore, the reader can identify with him as he locks horns with the accepted status quo that offends his compassionate reasoning and the reader's modern sensibilities.

There was a TV series which highlights how the mindset and customs we take for granted are just a thing of the moment : LIFE ON MARS :


  1. For me my novel and its entire back story is so real that I view it as history. Therefore I am loathe to change any major detail.

  2. Ted : I know how you feel. I have an entire 205 year history in my head for Samuel McCord that feels as real as a history text.

  3. I have thousands of years of history in my head for my books since I created the world myself. There's so much there that it all feels so real. Add how real my characters feel, how real they are... and you get a world in my head that feels more real to me then the world I can touch (aka the real world).

    It feels so real to me that its hard to tell if it'll be as real to everyone else. I think it's really hard to gauge that.

    Great post. You bring such honesty to the blogosphere in such a straightforward yet poetic way. I love reading these posts. :)

  4. I actually have a whole wardrobe picked out for my MC. But, I hadn't thought about characters sounding the same. I'll have to look at that...thanks!

  5. I read before (somewhere) that your characters shouldn't sound the same, but I never really thought of their clothes that much. Thanks!

  6. It sure involves a lot of research to create a character. Like searching for someone who has never existed, in the belief the person was or still is alive!

  7. There's a site I've used before that checks the writing and determines whether it's male or female. It's not perfect of course, but it's fun. Each of my characters comes across as the correct gender thankfully :)

  8. Of course it's real, lol. At least, while you are writing and creating the piece. And hopefully, while the reader is reading.

  9. Hi Roland .. the English version of Life on Mars was very good .. I didn't every episode .. but nearly .. I guess I relate to that era!

    My novel is in the future .. perhaps as a letter ..

    Have a good week .. Hilary

  10. You make some good points. I stay away from historical fiction because the idea of trying to write dialogue in 19th century patois strikes me as just too much work. (I'm somewhat lazy.) I do get annoyed with novels in which EVERYBODY talks the same way.

  11. Oh, good points. This is so important to think about when constructing a novel.

  12. Interesting that you should mention hygeine and the historical novel. I have a hard time suspending disbelief for historical romances because of that sensibility. I guess realistic is better than the down and dirty details, that although true, would distract. Interesting post. I always learn a lot from your musings. =)

  13. Great point! It's all about believability and making the reader feel like it could happen. Even in sci-fi/fantasy we must achieve the magic that makes the reader think, yeah, this could be real somewhere.

  14. You have so many good points here, it's not even funny. Good idea to use Life On Mars as an example. I found this post so awesome I had to blog about it just so I could easily find it again in future. Very cool.