So you can read my books

Friday, December 3, 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,

bought by a money-tight publisher,

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. Thank you! This came at the perfect time for me to use while going through a revision of my novel. I will watch for the things you are discussing here, ESPECIALLY the speech. I am pretty sure my characters probably do sound a lot more alike than I would want them too. This has been very helpful.

  2. I think this why I am drawn to fantasy. I can make everything up, event my own worlds and customs. I would be terrified to write a novel with its setting in our past history.

    Great post.

  3. These are the kinds of little things that can make or break a story. Anything that jars the reader out of the created world is BAD!! Great post Roland!

  4. Haha, speech. Last summer, when rewriting a novel I'd written 10 years ago, I found I could swap the characters' names around in the dialogue tags and it didn't make much diff. Obviously, I had work to do.

    Now, I try to be more careful. Characters who would say "gonna" and "I've got" (the latter being my personal peeve; unfortunately, it's becoming standard English) are diff from the ones who'd say "going to" and "I have."

    I write YA. Some teens say "dude" a lot, some use shorter sentences, some use more sophisticated vocab words. I've heard it's helpful to read through the entire manuscript, reading one character's lines at a time, to help keep things consistent.

    Good info here! I agree with Wendy--I'd rather make up my own world than risk doing an embarrassing faux pas with a historical setting. (What? you mean they didn't have velcro in the 1600s?)

  5. Great post. Makes me wonder if I need to increase the difference in my characters' speech. The differences are there, but are they defined enough? Hmmm...

  6. Hi Roland .. really good explanations - thank you .. & I loved seeing the American version of Life on Mars .. funny seeing it after the BBC original.

    Your recent posts have been so interesting about writing in general, and the examples you give us .. so helpful to us all.

    Enjoy the weekend .. Hilary

  7. Great things to keep in mind during the revision process. Thanks for this post :-)