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What do Andy Weir and Luke Jennings have in common? Not much — at least until self-publishing through Amazon changed their lives. Jennings, with his Booker Prize nomination, already belonged in the writerly mainstream. Weir, on the other hand, wrote code before he ever wrote novels, learning C as a teenager to work with combustion researchers.
Since then, both have released books through Amazon’s self-publishing platform, Kindle Direct Publishing. Jennings’ novella, Codename Villanelle, became the basis for the acclaimed BBC thriller Killing Eve. Weir, meanwhile, saw his first novel, The Martian, turned into a Matt Damon blockbuster by the same name.
Amazon turned a journalist and a programmer into international publishing sensations. Want to succeed on KDP like they did? Let’s take a look at everything you’d need to do to make this powerful sales platform work for you. Before we're done, we'll turn the killer book you wrote into a self-published bestseller.
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How to sell ebooks on Amazon
You’re here because you want to sell as many copies of your book as possible. You might think that’s easier said than done. But truthfully, the formula behind making book sales is simple:
Traffic x Conversion = Sales.
Traffic gets eyeballs on your book, while conversion turns those gawkers into buyers. On its own, traffic does nothing for your bottom line. Every internet-user in California could find your book page in the same afternoon, but their 18 million clicks will only frustrate you if none of those virtual window-shoppers turns into an actual shopper. On the flip side, you might have a book page so bewitching that everyone who finds it compulsively mashes the orange buy button. But if only three people ever stumble on your page, your black-magic conversion rate still only nets you three sales.
Both factors go into making sales. But on Amazon specifically, conversion is more important. You see, Amazon, on top of being a search engine, is also a book recommendation tool. It makes and sends book suggestions to users based on their browsing and shopping history. Most huge Amazon success stories happened because, at some point, Amazon started marketing their book for them. So how can you get them to do the same for your book?
Well, Amazon has the same goal as you: selling books. The more books they sell to its users, the happier they'll be. So when their algorithms have a choice between promoting two books with a similar sales history, Amazon will naturally favor the one with greater on-page conversion. They know the extra traffic they send to that book page will turn into more sales than the other book.
As a result, one of the worst things that can happen to an author on Amazon is to get a lot of traffic with very poor conversion. This will immediately flag the book to Amazon's algorithms as a "loser," and it'll never get recommended.
So in short, on Amazon, conversion is even more important than traffic which is why you must, first and foremost, focus on optimizing your Amazon product pages
Optimizing your KDP book’s Amazon product page
Now, let’s talk about how you get the sky-scraping conversion rate of your dreams. You’ll need an Amazon product page that tempts viewers into hitting “Buy now with 1-Click”. Remember that workplace cliche about dressing for the job you want and not the job you have? While we don’t recommend aping your boss’s favorite suit, this principle does apply to maximizing conversion on your product page.
To be a bestseller, your book should look like a bestseller. That means dressing your words up in the right packaging, so they seem worthy of book club adulation and blogosphere hype. To achieve that, you’ll need to optimize your product page with 3 things:
a polished cover
a punchy description
As a bonus, set up an author page on Amazon Central with a bio that tells your story as engagingly as possible.
1. Create a polished cover
Say I'm a bookworm shopping for my next read. As a huge fan of Ender’s Game, I want something in the same vein, so browse around the Kindle Store. Do you know how many books there are in that Military Science Fiction category? More than 20,000.
A lot of these might be self-published, but a good number of them also come from traditional publishing companies. These industry behemoths have four-figure design budgets and will producing pixel-perfect book covers.
Note the preponderance of cool hues and bold typography — all-caps and sans-serif — in these Military Sci-Fi covers.
Now, say you decide to throw your book into the mix. You’re in a hurry, so you used a homemade cover featuring a stock image of a random spaceship. Be honest — no amount of cropping and filtering can hide the fact that it’s the same spaceship you’re seeing on a dozen of your competitors’ covers. As far as Amazon is concerned, your book may as well get sucked into a black hole — readers are going to zoom right past it at light-speed.
Don’t do that. To succeed, you’ll need to hold your own with the Big 5, including with your cover design. So make sure it’s strong: polished, eye-catching, and in line with genre conventions.
Do not ignore this last point in an attempt to stand out. A memorable design is important, but not as important as connecting with your target market. After all, you’re trying to make sales, not to make it into a neo-cubist art showcase. Every genre has its own visual style and favored motifs. Don’t discount them in favor of being subversive — use them. In the end, they serve to communicate with potential buyers, showing them that they’ve found what they’re looking for in your book.
One final (but crucial) note about your cover: make sure it looks good at thumbnail sizes. On your product page, your full-scale cover image will be reduced to about 500 x 333 px. On other marketplace pages, the thumbnails can go quite a bit smaller. New releases, for instance, are 107 x 160 px, and recommendations go down to a minute 90 x 135 px. All in all, your book is likely to make first contact with potential buyers as a tiny thumbnail image. You’ll want that first peek to intrigue, not confuse.
2. Write a catchy book description
Your book description tells would-be readers what you wrote about and, more importantly, why they should care. Don’t treat it as a bare synopsis of your book, use it as an opportunity to hype it up — think sales copy, not high school book report.
Remember, your book description will be most readers’ first point of contact with your writing. If they don’t like what they see, they’ll have no reason want another several hundred pages of the same. So craft your description with the same care you put into the book itself. We’ve put together a guide to doing just that, but let’s go through the basics right here. For maximum impact, try structuring your description into these 3 sections:
A headline that hooks the reader
Your opening needs to grab attention as efficiently as possible. One foolproof way to do that is with social validation: offer proof that other people already like your work, whether that’s an impressive sales figure or a quote from a glowing review. Don’t have anything like that just yet? Not to worry — just make your headline snappy and exciting.
Amazon supports formatting for your book description, so feel free to make your headline pop with some different visual styles. You’ll want to keep your blurb relatively simple, visually speaking, but this opening is the perfect place to grab attention with one or more of the following:
Bolding: <b>this is the text you want in bold</b>
Italics: <i>this is the text you want in italics</i>
Blockquote: <blockquote>this is the text you want formatted as an indented quote</blockquote>
A blurb that tells them what they get
Here’s where you tell readers what your book is about — without giving away the goods before they’ve paid. Don’t overwhelm them with a blow-by-blow summary. The last thing you want is to sound like you’re trying to prove you’ve actually read your own book.
Instead, focus on high-impact keywords that play to your target market. Terms like “serial killer” for a thriller or “personal development” for a self-help book will signal to readers that they will find exactly what they’re looking for. In the end, your blurb is all about building intrigue and drumming up anticipation for the moment when buyers get to read the book in full.
A wrap up that drives the sale home
Finish strong with a snappy takeaway that explains why readers should pick up your book in particular. What do they stand to get out of it?
Draw connections to bestsellers in your genre — explain why your YA romance will tug at the heartstrings of people who cried at The Fault in Our Stars, or why your self-help book is the Gen Z-friendly update to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. If you’ve already got some strong reviews in your back pocket, this is the perfect place to quote them! If not, highlight the value you bring to readers.
3. Bulk out your product page with reviews
Don’t discount the power of Amazon reviews as a promotional tool. For indie authors, they furnish all-important social proof, the e-commerce equivalent of street cred. Reviews provide evidence that real, live readers liked your book — and liked it so much they went out of their way to sing its praises. Just like positive word-of-mouth can prove a new coffee shop is worth dropping in on, strong reviews will show that a new book is worth picking up.
You might think that, unlike your cover and your book blurb, this one’s out of your hands. But the truth is, you can and should be actively cultivating reviews, even before you’ve launched. Want to know how? Check out our simple, 5-step guide to scoring book reviews both on and off Amazon. It all comes down to pinpointing reviewers who work in your genre and getting them to pay attention to your book.
If you’re concerned that a less-than-perfect review will tank your conversion rate, don’t worry. We’ve found that the number of reviews trumps the average review score when it comes to attracting buyers, provided your average doesn’t go below 3.5. In fact, a small slate of reviews that are all 5-star is more suspicious than anything. It makes it look like the author conscripted their extended family to shower them with artificial praise. So when you’ve done your part, let the honest reviewers you’ve tapped do theirs.
Bonus: Put up an engaging author bio through Amazon Author Central
A strong author bio humanizes you in the eyes of your readers. Write a strong one, and they’ll feel like they’re tapping into a genuine connection every time they peruse your words. The world of online advertising often feels so faceless and cold, so playing up the personal touch can boost your sales. Think of your author bio as a perfect opportunity to do just that: showing off the brain and heart behind your book.
As a KDP user, you’ll set up your bio through Amazon Author Central. This service, available to all authors on the site, gives you access a dashboard for tracking your sales and managing your reviews. Most importantly for our purposes, it also allows you to personalize an Amazon Author Page with a warmly engaging bio. You can learn all about how to set this up on our Amazon Author Central tutorial.
Leveraging Amazon’s algorithms to sell your KDP book
Once you’ve got your product page polished for maximal conversion, it’s time to get as many eyeballs on it as possible. While there are plenty of ways to market your ebook off-platform, this section will focus on how to boost its Amazon discoverability — how to make it easy for relevant readers to find it on-site.
Remember, when it comes to books, Amazon is the world’s leading search engine and recommendation system. There are many ways to send readers to your book page. But what you really want is to reach the point where Amazon does the bulk of the marketing for you. We’ll talk about how to get there in this section.
Demystifying Amazon algorithms: Best Sellers Rank vs Popularity List
Amazon’s algorithms might sound like black magic, but they work according to an elementary principle: they prioritize the books they think people are most likely to buy.
What do they use to figure that out? The #1 factor, by far, is how well your book is already selling. While Amazon won’t tell you how many copies a given book is selling, you can estimate it through a figure called the Amazon Best Sellers Rank (ABSR). You can find this in any book’s product details.
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s fantasy collab, Good Omens, has hit an ABSR of #265.
Just take that ABSR, plug it into a “rank-to-sales” calculator, and you’ll get an idea of how many copies that book sells on a daily basis. To give you an estimation, here’s a chart taken from David Gaughran’s must-read free ebook, Amazon Decoded:
#1 to #5 = 5,000+ books a day (sometimes a lot more)
#5 to #10 = 4,000–5,000
#10 to #20 = 3,000–4,000
#20 to #50 = 2,000–3,000
#100 = 1,000+
#200 = 500
#300 = 250
#500 = 200
#1,000 = 120
#2,000 = 100
#3,000 = 80
#5,000 = 40
#10,000 = 20
#25,000 = 10
#50,000 = 5
#100,000+ = fewer than 1 a day
Does this mean that if you sell 7,000 copies in a day, your book will get to #1? It depends on the competition (e.g. if Stephen King is launching a book that same day…) But it’s likely, yes. However, unless you maintain that level of sales for a few days, your rank will immediately plummet.
More importantly, Amazon’s algorithms are suspicious of books that suddenly get a huge influx of sales before they sputter off into nothing. Instead, they favor books that achieve a high level of sales and manage to hold on to it for at least a few days. Spikes don’t make the algorithms happy — plateaus do. Here’s a visual representation:
Beyond sales rank, there’s another major factor impacting discoverability: the Popularity List.
Most authors completely ignore its existence because it’s somewhat hard to find. You first need to go to the Kindle Store homepage. On the left-hand side, under “Kindle eBooks,” you’ll see a list of genres. Clicking on them will take you to the Popularity List for each one. It starts about halfway down the page, past the rows of large thumbnails for Best Sellers, New Releases, and the like.
Why should you care about this list when it’s so hard for readers to even find? Well, because the Popularity List is the primary driver of Amazon email recommendations, especially to Kindle Unlimited subscribers. Whenever you receive an email from Amazon saying “popular space operas this week,” these recommendations are powered by the popularity list.
Now, the exciting thing about the popularity list is that its ranking algorithm is different from the one that determines ABSR. First, it’s a 30-day rolling average of sales (so it doesn’t focus on last day’s sales like the Best Seller list). Also, while Amazon’s Bestsellers list doesn’t take free downloads into account, the popularity list does. And while a $0.99 sale is worth the same as a $4.99 one for the ABSR, the popularity list is heavily weighted by price. Finally, the ABSR accounts for page-reads from Kindle Unlimited subscribers, while the popularity list only considers sales.
Differences between the ABSR and the popularity list
Counted at approximately 1/100th of a full-price sale.
Two books with different prices but the same amount of sales will have a similar rank.
If two books have the same amount of sales, the one with the higher price will rank much higher.
A full Kindle Unlimited borrow is equal to a sale.
Borrows through Kindle Unlimited are not counted.
You can take advantage of all this to cause a chain effect. If tens of thousands of users download your book when it’s free, it’ll shoot up in the Popularity List. This will boost its discoverability, leading to more sales, resulting in a higher Best Sellers Rank… which further drives up discoverability for even more sales.
The Hot New Releases list
As we’ve mentioned above Amazon gives some extra exposure to new releases — books in the first 30 days of their launches. You might actually have heard of “the Amazon 30-day cliff”: an term authors use to describe how their sales suddenly plummet a month after the release.
What’s responsible for the extra exposure given to new books? Mostly, the “Hot New Releases” list. The list itself isn’t that easy to find while browsing Amazon— it’s hidden in the sidebar. But it is often featured on the main Kindle Store homepage, and it’s also a primary driver of email recommendations. Whenever you receive an email from Amazon promoting “the best new releases in Self-Help,” you know where that email is coming from.
The “Hot New Releases” list functions just like the bestseller list, except it only accounts for books that were released less than a month ago. Just like for the Bestsellers List and the Popularity List, there’s a Hot New Releases list for every Kindle category, which brings us to…
Making Amazon categories work for you
The first thing to know about Amazon categories? There are a lot of them, more than 10,000. Dive into the Kindle store, and you’ll find categories upon sub-categories nested like Russian dolls, from vanilla genre terms (like Nonfiction) to hyper-elaborate niches (like Weights & Measures, several levels deep within Nonfiction).
If you’re reading this post, you’re probably already familiar with Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), Amazon’s self-publishing service for indie authors. But you may be somewhat less familiar with the mechanics of Amazon self-publishing royalties: how much authors get paid, when they receive payments, and of course, how much Amazon takes out of those payments for things like printing/delivery costs.
We’ll answer cover all these topics and more in our pithy primer on Amazon self-publishing costs and royalties! Let’s start with one of the most commonly asked questions, for KDP authors wondering when they can expect their share of profits.
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When does Amazon pay royalties to authors?
Amazon starts paying royalties 60 days after the first sale is made, with further payments coming through every month. Depending on where you do your banking, you can elect to be paid through direct deposit — also known as Electronic Fund Transfer (EFT) — wire transfer, or check. However, no matter which avenue you go down, there’s no way to receive your royalties any sooner than 60 days. So if you have bills to pay, make sure you’re not counting on your royalties coming in right away.
In terms of which payment method is best for you, you should know that there’s no payment threshold for direct deposit. For check and wire payments, you’ll be paid only after you make a certain amount in royalties (for instance, $100 in USD and CAD and £100 in the UK). See the full list of payment thresholds here.
Now let’s talk about the program’s ebook and print royalty plans — which, as you can imagine, are pretty different from one another.
How do ebook royalties work?
Amazon offers two ebook royalty plans: the 70% option and the 35% option. To be eligible for the 70% plan, you’ll need to do all of the following:
Publish something that’s not in the public domain.
Price your ebook between $2.99 and $9.99. This price also needs to be at least 20% lower than the lowest list price for a print version.
Pay for file delivery. This doesn’t require any extra effort on your part — the delivery fees are automatically deducted from your royalty payments.
Keep in mind that only books sold to customers in certain countries are eligible for the 70% plan. Additional copies sold outside those territories will go on the 35%. Don’t worry, the 70%-eligible territories include all the big Anglophone markets — the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — in addition to several others, primarily in the EU. If you enroll in KDP Select, the list expands to include Brazil, India, Japan, and Mexico.
How do print royalties work?
For those thinking about self-publishing a print book, Amazon offers two distribution tiers for self-published paperbacks. Each comes with its own royalty structure, and in both cases, the cost of printing the book is deducted from royalty payments.
If you go through the regular Amazon-only distribution channels, you can expect 60% of the list price for every paperback sold. But if you distribute your book through Amazon’s Expanded Distribution plan to non-Amazon retailers, like Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million, you’ll be looking at 40% instead. (In lieu of opting into this plan, we recommend using IngramSpark for expanded distribution. You can read more about why here.)
The cost of self-publishing on Amazon
Unlike vanity presses, which make authors pay for publication, Amazon won’t charge you any money upfront to self-publish your book. Instead, delivery costs (for ebooks) and printing costs (for paperbacks) are subtracted from your royalties. Let’s break the cost of Amazon self-publishing down below.
What are the ebook delivery costs?
If you’re on the 70% royalty plan, ebook delivery costs will be deducted from your royalty payments. They vary depending on the currency used. For instance, you’re looking at $0.15 per megabyte in USD and CAD, and £0.10 per megabyte in GBP. This cost is waived if you select the 35% royalty plan — which may be a boon if you want to set a high price for your book anyway (as the 70% royalty plan requires it to be lower than $9.99).
What are the paperback printing costs?
As for the printing costs associated with self-published paperbacks, those depend on A) your book’s page count, and B) whether you choose to print in black-and-white or in full color. Don’t worry, you won’t have to figure this out yourself — Amazon calculates your printing cost and displays it for you as you’re uploading your book to the platform. It will also suggest a minimum list price to ensure that your book sells for enough to cover the cost of printing.
Your printing cost is calculated according to the following formula (where fixed cost depends on your page count and ink type):
Fixed cost + (page count x cost per individual page)
You can find fixed costs in USD in the following table:
Additional cost per page
Black ink with 24-108 pages
$2.15 per book
Black ink with 110-828 pages
$0.85 per book
$0.012 per page
Color ink with 24-40 pages
$3.65 per book
Color ink with 42-500 pages
$0.85 per book
$0.07 per page
To give you a sense of how the calculation works, Amazon would charge $4.45 per copy to print a 300-page paperback in black-and-white, because $0.85 + (300 x $0.012) = $4.45. You can read more about Amazon printing costs here.
What about other costs?
Of course, the print and delivery costs that come out of your royalties don’t include all the optional expenses you may incur if you want to put out a high-quality, professional-looking volume. The full suite of services like editing and cover design can set you back a couple thousand dollars. And that doesn’t even factor in marketing costs — which can include Facebook advertising, Amazon’s native ads, and any other external promotions you want to run.
This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to save when self-publishing. For instance, while you may have had to pay for typesetting previously, apps like the Reedsy Book Editor allow you to format your book for free. There are also some book promotion services that will list your book free of charge, though keep in mind their submissions can be competitive. If you really want to cut costs, you can even self-edit and design your own cover, though we wouldn’t recommend this unless you already know a lot about design.
At the end of the day, the best way to save on self-publishing is to stay informed. The more you know about the costs, royalties, and other aspects of various publishing plans, the more cost-effective (and generally effective!) your path will be. To that end, here are a few more resources you might want to check out:
We hope this post helped you understand Amazon self-publishing royalties and costs a little better! However, if you still have questions, leave them in the comments and we’ll answer to the best of our ability.
Most book sales happen on Amazon these days, so there’s something incredibly appealing about having the same company publish your book. Luckily, while Amazon’s algorithms can seem mysterious, the workings of Amazon Publishing (one of the biggest publishers today) are less vague — thanks to feedback from authors who have worked with them.
This post will dive into the workings of Amazon Publishing (or APub), giving you a sneak peek of what it’s like to work with them from Natalie Barelli (whose crime novel Until I Met Her was picked up by APub’s thriller imprint), and Eliot Peper, (whose Analog series was signed by their sci-fi and fantasy imprint).
And on that note, let’s learn a little more about APub and it's various imprints.
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What is Amazon Publishing?
Amazon Publishing is Amazon’s book publishing unit. Established in 2009, it comprises 16 imprints that publish trade fiction, non-fiction, and children’s fiction around the world.
A quick note about: when most people think about "Amazon Publishing," they think about self-publishing on Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) — Amazon’s self-publishing platform. But APub has nothing to do with self-publishing. To the contrary, APub imprints operate under the same principles as traditional publishers (think Penguin Random House, Hachette, etc.). They acquire the rights to the books they publish (sometimes paying an advance), and then pay authors royalties on the sales of their books.
Amazon Publishing Imprints
Each of Amazon Publishing’s imprints specializes in a specific genre or type of book. Let’s take a closer close at them.
In this section, we’ll be getting an insight into the APub experiences of indie authors Natalie Barelli (signed by Thomas and Mercer) and Eliot Pepper (signed by 47North).
But first, let’s start by taking a quick look at the difference between scoring a traditional book deal vs. an Amazon Publishing deal.
Traditional publishing book deals vs. APub book deals
Getting signed by a traditional publisher requires an author to have an original, unpublished manuscript that’s represented by an agent. It’s extremely rare for an indie book that’s already been published to be picked up and republished by a traditional publisher. (The Martian and the Fifty Shades series are examples of the exception, not the rule).
APub does also publish original material sometimes. Most (reputable) agents nowadays will pitch their clients’ books to APub imprints — and APub is generally interested in and open to agented submissions.
That being said, the large majority of books acquired by APub are self-published titles that did well enough in terms of sales to catch the attention of APub’s editorial team.
Getting signed by Amazon Publishing
The secret to scoring an Amazon Publishing deal is ultimately quite simple: publish a quality book + market, market, market that book = sales = APub deal.
But this is simplified equation leaves out one very key detail that complicates matter: luck. Unfortunately, not all authors who publish quality books and invest in marketing get offered a deal by APub. However, you are guaranteed to not pique the interest of APub with a half-decent title that’s not been marketed. That’s because you won’t gather positive reader reviews or sales with just an okay book — and even if you did, it wouldn’t pass the human test of APub’s editorial team.
While an APub imprint will have their production team work on your title if it’s signed (more on that later), they only approach authors whose books have already proven to be at least semi-popular. If APub notices one of yours, they might want to acquire the rights to it and re-release it. Or they might offer you a contract to publish future manuscripts (this is more typical in the case of a series that’s already doing well). But in either scenario, what will lead them your way is an existing, quality title that’s already been able to trend on the Amazon charts. If it spends enough time there, you'll be a perfect candidate for APub’s “we’re interested in your book” email.
What all of this means is you need to invest in your product before you come to market — so working with editors, hiring a designer to create a professional-looking cover, learning the ins and outs of book marketing, and so on. Here are a number of resources to help you get your book to the best level possible:
Now let's take at a look at Natalie Barelli Eliot Peper's experiences.
Natalie worked with two Reedsy editors to ready her manuscript for publishing: Katrina Diaz on a structural edit and Aja Pollock on a copy edit. She also hired a professional cover designer.
She decided to publish her novel exclusively on Amazon and put it on a 30-day price promotion for $0.99. During that time, she read up on Facebook Ads and David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Digital for marketing advice.
After gathering ten positive reader reviews on Amazon (the minimum threshold for many book promoters), Natalie scheduled a Kindle countdown deal ($0.99 for one week) and booked with as many book promoters as she could. At the same time, she created AMS ads which allow authors to advertise their book below the “Also Bought” section of other books. During her Kindle countdown deal, she started seeing significant sales (peaking at 200 sales in one day). Knowing her sales would dwindle when the promotion ended, she ensured she had AMS ads ready to run every day after her Kindle countdown deal, which allowed her to sustain a positive ranking. It was at this point Thomas & Mercer reached out to her about signing her novel.
One day, an editor from 47North sent Eliot an email saying she'd read his self-published novel, "Cumulus," and asked if he was working on anything new. As it happened, he had just finished editing a new manuscript, so he sent it over. She read it over the weekend and made an offer the following week. Three weeks later, they finished the contracting process on a three-book deal and the first novel, "Bandwidth," entered production.
Does Amazon Publishing accept unsolicited manuscripts?
They don’t. They do, however, accept submissions from agents and literary scouts. We know from our contacts there that APub imprints are actively looking to acquire original content as long as it's first vetted and represented by an agent or scout.
In addition, Amazon Crossing and Amazon Crossing Kids do invite authors to submit books written in 14 select foreign languages for English translation. Learn more here.
What happens after you’re signed by Amazon Publishing
Again, APub functions like most other publishers in this respect. Even if you’ve already worked with professional editors on your manuscript and commissioned a great cover from a professional designer, APub will still want their own team of publishing professionals to work on your title. (In fact, Mark Dawon, an author also signed by Thomas & Mercer, has said that APub’s developmental, copy, and line editors are first class — and probably even better than any he had when he was traditionally published!)
As we discussed above, this doesn’t make working with professionals prior to publishing pointless — without their help APub likely wouldn’t have picked up your book in the first place.
Typically, APub will keep the author in the loop throughout this process. Let's turn back to Natalie and Eliot's APub experiences after their book was signed...
Thomas & Mercer gave "Until I Met Her" a new cover and further rounds of editing. This was mostly due to the fact that the story is set in New York and Natalie is Australian, so some of the language didn’t come across as authentically American.
Natalie has said that Thomas & Mercer kept her thoroughly involved throughout the entire process, asking for feedback and approval every step of the way. In her words, “When a small army of professionals wants to improve your novel, you’re hardly going to stop them.”
According to Eliot, his editorial process was also efficient and straightforward. They did three rounds with a developmental editor before moving into copyediting and proofreading. He was deeply involved the entire time and never felt pressured to make changes he didn't want to make.
In addition, Eliot’s input was requested, and his approval required, for the title and cover design. In Eliot’s words: “I have strong opinions on branding and design, and was impressed by how the design team worked to incorporate my creative direction, even when it required significant additional effort.”
All in all, the average length from submission of the rough draft to publication for each of the novels in Eliot’s "Analog" series was ten months.
Pros and Cons of Amazon Publishing
At one point, self-publishing might have presented itself as an opportunity to authors who couldn’t obtain a traditional publishing contract. But now, many authors see the beauty in independently publishing their books — and the total control that comes with that.
Still, a book deal is nothing to brush off lightly. We have a very handy (and free!) course on traditional publishing vs. self-pub, if it’s something you’ve puzzled over. An APub deal isn’t the exact same as a traditional publishing deal, but many of their benefits overlap. In this section, we’ll cover the pros and cons of working Amazon Publishing — as opposed to self-publishing or seeking out a traditional deal.
The real pro when it comes to being signed by an APub imprint is the people you get in your corner. We’ve already mentioned this point a couple of times, but it’s a huge pro, so we’ll repeat it once more here: if APub acquires your book, they want it to sell. To help it earn revenue, they’ll have their production team go to town on it, ensuring the book is thoroughly edited and splashed with an appealing cover. The people who work at APub know what works in publishing. They’ll have the data to back up their creative choices.
Furthermore, APub imprints have special insider knowledge of Amazon marketing, and access to promotions and visibility spots that are otherwise hard (or impossible) for an indie author to land on their own. Mark Dawson has noted that Thomas & Mercer still regularly promotes titles of his that are three or four years old — promotions which continue to lead to significant royalties. As he puts it, “When Amazon promotes, they do it well.”
Fewer royalties than if you self-publish.
It’s tough to find information about the royalties APub authors make because they generally sign non-disclosure agreements. However, a quick search gives the impression that APub authors earn royalties consistent with industry standards. (With traditional publishing, authors typically make 7% of sales for printed books and under 25% of ebook sales — after their advance is paid off.)
In other words, you might see more sales of your title through APub, but the royalties you’ll make off of those sales will be a lot less than if you self-publish. On Amazon, indie authors can make between 35-75% royalties on ebooks and 40-60% on print books.
You likely won’t see your book in bookstores.
This can be a bit of a catch-22 for authors. Self-published books are very, very rarely considered by the buyers who stock the shelves of physical bookstores. But this is also true for books published by Amazon. (The heated feud between physical bookstores and Amazon was sparked by Amazon pushing for exclusivity with publishers, agents, and the authors they represent.) Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. For instance, sometimes big box stores like Wal-Mart are open to APub titles. And, let’s not forget that Amazon is one of the largest digital book retailers in the world. Not to mention the physical Amazon bookstores opening all over the world — stores that naturally provide extra visibility to APub titles. However, if one of your top publishing priorities is seeing your title in brick-and-mortar bookstores (other than the Amazon ones), you will likely want to pursue traditional publishing.
Your book won’t be on the New York Times bestsellers lists.
It’s a stretch to call this a “con” of APub, because snagging a spot on this prestigious list can be something of a pipe dream even for accomplished authors. This fact is more just… “something to be aware of.” The NYT bestsellers list, as well as the USA Today list, don’t count books that only sell in one channel, which is the case for Amazon Publishing’s titles. That being said, if your title sells well it will appear in Amazon’s bestsellers list, which is not a shabby place for it to be!
You won’t have total creative control.
The feedback from Natalie, Eliot, Mark, and many of the other authors who’ve written about their APub experiences suggests that authors’ input is requested throughout the publishing process. But, at the end of the day, when a publisher buys your manuscript, they ultimately have the final say on what happens to it. You can rest assured that they will want what’s best for your manuscript from a sales perspective. But if you’re looking for 100% complete control over your title, perhaps self-publishing is the only route for you.
Another option is hybrid publishing, which is a good possibility for authors who want to experiment and get a taste of both worlds. In a nutshell, hybrid publishers offer a traditional-style publishing option to authors who cannot (or prefer not to) work with a traditional publisher. Learn more about hybrid publishing here!
As the name hints, a hybrid publisher combines elements of traditional publishing and self-publishing. In most aspects, they function just like a traditional publisher, with the key exception that their authors will subsidize the cost of publishing and will not be given an advance on royalties.
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Amazon Publishing seems to be highly regarded by the authors who are signed by their imprints. Scoring a contract with them will not guarantee sales of your book, and some authors do report a flatline in purchases of their titles.
Eliot Peper puts it very well when he says: “No matter what publication path you choose or who you publish with, you are in charge of your career. Always put your readers' interests before anyone else's. Start from first principles and never accept ‘this is just how things are done’ when something doesn't make sense. Build your own audience on your own terms. Be kind. Be generous. Be patient. Every artist is an entrepreneur, so embrace, understand, and grow the business of your creativity.”
Have you been published by an Amazon Publishing imprint? Share your experiences with us! Or feel free to leave any questions, thoughts, or remarks in the comments below.
A common piece of criticism you'll hear in fiction is that characters are "too static." Modern audiences can tell when a character isn’t interesting or realistic, based on their own lack of emotional investment in that character’s journey. As a result, authors feel compelled to ensure that their protagonist is a dynamic character — and that many of their other characters are, too.
And we want to help them out! Which is why in this article, we'll take a look at the different types of dynamic characters and how authors can write them into their books. We'll also examine static characters and why authors should avoid them most (but not all) of the time.
As a fun bonus, we've created an exciting new infographic that illustrates three common narratives associated with these characters. To jump straight to the infographic, click on Infographic: "The Book Deal" in the table of contents to your left! You can also watch our video on how to create dynamic characters below. Otherwise, let's dive in.
What is a dynamic character?
A dynamic character is a character who undergoes substantial internal change — in personality, attitude, or worldview — over the course of the narrative. This change usually happens gradually, though sometimes a character will have a revelation that changes everything about them very suddenly.
Most well-developed characters are naturally dynamic. After all, characters who don't change at all typically don't have book-worthy adventures. And no matter what the story, readers almost always prefer reading about dynamic characters over static ones. That's why some of the most classic tales of all time feature distinctively dynamic protagonists: Ebenezer Scrooge, Elizabeth Bennet, Don Quixote, the list goes on and on.
Keep in mind that protagonists, antagonists, and minor characters can all be dynamic. For the sake of focus, this article deals with main characters. However, everything we cover re: how to write a dynamic protagonist can also apply to supporting characters.
Ebenezer Scrooge — one of the most famous dynamic protagonists ever. (Image: Walt Disney Studios)
The difference between "dynamic" and "well-rounded"
Many people mistakenly believe that a dynamic character is exactly the same as a well-rounded character. But "dynamic" simply means that the character changes, while "well-rounded" means that they're fleshed out with a backstory, motivations, strengths, weaknesses, etc.
There's a great deal of overlap, and most well-written protagonists are both dynamic and well-rounded. However, it's possible to have a character that changes throughout the story, but otherwise lacks substantial development (though this is a pretty unusual occurrence).
You'll more commonly see well-rounded characters who change very little (if at all) in a story — usually to serve as a constant for another character. For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is clearly well-rounded. But that doesn't mean he's dynamic; indeed, his attitude and views remain the same through the story. His steadfast morality serves to teach his daughter, Scout, about right and wrong. Consequently, she is the dynamic protagonist, while he facilitates that change.
Dynamic character = well-rounded character: true or false? Find out here! Click To Tweet
What is a static character?
As you might expect, a static character does not develop or change throughout a narrative. Their beliefs do not evolve, their personalities remain the same, and their worldview does not expand or adapt whatsoever.
So why do static characters even exist? The answer is twofold. Firstly, static characters exist because not all authors know how to write a good character arc. Particularly in shorter pieces of fiction, you'll often see a character who seems like they should undergo some kind of development or change, but ultimately doesn't.
But secondly, sometimes static characters are written that way intentionally, to make a point or poke fun at a certain type of person. For example, Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice is a static character. However, he acts as an example of a silly society man, and his foolishness and pomposity contrast humorously with Lizzy's perceptive wit.
Static characters may be used as foils or even enemies to the dynamic protagonist, such as the Dursleys in Harry Potter, or just about every Disney villain ever. Finally, static characters can sometimes be positively symbolic or instructive, as in the TKAM example above. But this is relatively rare compared to the other types of static characters, who tend to be stupid and/or malevolent.
The important thing to remember about static characters is that they should almost always be accompanied by dynamic characters. Dynamic characters give static characters purpose; without them, our static friends would just be languishing in a plotless wasteland. The sole exception to this rule is satire — if the entire story functions as a critique, all the characters may be unchanging in order to demonstrate their unintelligence or weakness.
The wicked stepsisters are static character "foils" to the sweet, kind Cinderella. (Image: RKO Radio Pictures)
How to write a dynamic character
In a creative writing course, you could spend weeks learning different approaches for writing dynamic characters. This guide won't provide you with "the key" to creating a dynamic protagonist, but it will offer questions and considerations to guide you toward that goal.
We also won't talk about how to write static characters, as you want to avoid them most of the time. However, if you're hoping to create a static character to serve some significant purpose in your story, know that most of the steps are basically the same — you'll just stop short of actually setting them on a journey.
The first step to writing any character, but especially a dynamic one, is to get their essentials down first. For this, many authors find it useful to create a character sheet. This is a little dossier that answers some basic questions about each individual in your story, both physically and personality-wise.
So let's say your protagonist is a doctor. Her character sheet might answer these questions:
What kind of medical school did she go to, and what kind of student was she?
How is her relationship with her family? Does she currently have a partner?
What is her religious faith and how does it affect her work (if at all)?
And so on. The answers to these questions might not always make it onto the page, but knowing even seemingly inconsequential details about your characters can have a big impact on your story. These kinds of character development exercises really help build believable people to populate your book — characters who readers want to follow, even before they begin to change.
Another critical component of dynamic character creation is motivation. In order for a protagonist to go on a journey of self-discovery, they have to pursue something that they want, need, or are otherwise compelled toward.
For instance, your main character might be a jet-setting career man who wants romance and a family; an army medic who wants to survive the war; or a retired gunslinger who wants to be left alone. This desire don’t have to be grand and philosophical! There have been great stories told about no more than a young boy who wants a new pair of shoes.
There's that retired gunslinger. (Image: Warner Bros)
A protagonist’s desires will become a driving force in the story. How close or far a character comes to achieving a goal creates tension and moves their journey along. Typically, in order to change, a character must either A) reach their goal, or B) fail to do so, but realize something greater in the process.
Here are a few questions to help you determine your characters' motivations and trajectories:
Will the character get what they want, but at a dear cost?
What personal obstacle(s) must they overcome before the desire is reached/obtained?
How will securing this goal — or failing to do so — alter them as a character?
What if your protagonist’s greatest desire is simply impossible?
Internal character conflict
While conflict is often interpreted as "protagonist vs. antagonist," it’s far more important to consider a character’s internal conflict. When telling the story of your character’s personal journey, it's important for them to encounter conflict, as they themselves hinder their own success. Here are a few examples of dynamic characters' inner conflicts to show you what we mean:
Dumbo is a story about fighting fears and self-doubt. Dumbo’s buddy, Timothy Mouse, gives him a "magic feather" to help him fly. He loses this feather in the final scene, and must overcome his internal fear and self-doubt to save the circus.
In Great Expectations, it is only when Pip realizes his worldview has been wrong — that Miss Havisham is not his benefactor, that Estella has not been promised to him, and that he has treated his closest friends and family terribly in order to "become a gentleman" — that he can start to make things right.
Elizabeth Bennet has feelings for Darcy, but before she can find happiness, she must overcome her own wounded pride. Likewise, Darcy must grapple with his class-bred prejudices before he can successfully woo Ms. Bennet. These internal conflicts are the essence of Pride and Prejudice.
Before you write your first draft, consider how your protagonist’s flaws or specific worldview will work as an obstacle between them and their goal. Likewise, consider how the resolution of these issues will bring your protagonist closer to their desires — and ultimately to a different state of being.
Use external conflict to show internal struggles
Most novels can’t unfold in an entirely internal, psychic landscape. Authors need to find ways to move their protagonists through time and space as they undergo internal changes. In other words, you have to show character development via external conflict, instead of just letting characters sit around thinking about self-improvement 24/7.
Jay Gatsby’s extravagant parties and upper-class affectations show his desire to rewrite his history and transcend the American class system. If Gatsby’s fatal flaw is his refusal to accept that the past is past, the external conflict that reflects plays out in his pursuit of and affair with Daisy, and the fatal repercussions it has.
Fitzgerald more extensively shows this conflict by putting Gatsby at odds with Tom Buchanan. A cruel, unlikable figure, Tom is nonetheless everything Gatsby aspires to: an old-money WASP married to Daisy, Gatsby’s childhood crush. But because Gatsby cannot turn this desire into a change he can actually make — i.e., he can't go back in time and change the circumstances of his birth — he becomes increasingly desperate, careless, and ultimately meets his karmic maker.
Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan, and Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby (Image: Warner Bros)
Can they change for the worse?
Growth is subjective, as is morality. Characters sometimes fall to the "dark side" over the course of a story, like Walter White in TV’s Breaking Bad. Walter White is a family man and high school chemistry teacher with terminal cancer. To make money before his death, he starts manufacturing drugs and becomes involved with the criminal underworld.
Over the course of the series, Walter White's morality is put to the test in ever more extreme ways. Each external conflict Walter faces has an internal result, and throughout the series we watch him toe the line between good and evil. His original intentions — to protect his family even after his death — are noble, but his means to this end are nefarious. As a result, Walter must “break bad” in what has become a modern exemplar of character evolution.
But what if the protagonist doesn’t really change?
If the mark of an interesting lead character is their personal growth, then their story will chart a journey from the person they were in chapter one to the person they are on the final page. But surely there are plenty of compelling characters who encounter conflict, yet do not change all that much over the course of a narrative?
As we've discussed previously, it's definitely possible for a character to be well-rounded without changing very much. But what about a main character? Let's look at a few examples here.
From the outside, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games wouldn’t be your first example of a dynamic character. She starts out courageous, resourceful, and principled, and stays that way throughout the story. Even after the Games put her ideals to the ultimate test, it's only through her selflessness and resourcefulness can she beat the system and leave with them intact.
In Andy Weir’s The Martian, supremely chill botanist Mark Watney is trapped on Mars. He quickly realizes that only his ingenuity and knowledge of science can save him. He encounters a chain of disasters that threaten to break his resolve. Instead of finding some internal flaw that needs resolving, it’s only by maintaining his trademark cool and returning time and again to science, that Watney is able to escape the Red Planet.
Matt Damon as Mark Watney in The Martian (20th Century Fox)
Don't worry: they're still dynamic
Both Katniss and Mark Watney find the strength to survive by sticking to their guns and having faith in their beliefs. But this doesn't mean they haven't changed at all — it's just that the primary change they've undergone is a strengthening of their core beliefs, rather than a fundamental alteration. They also experience smaller, more subtle changes, such as becoming more hardened to their surroundings and wary of danger.
In other words, Katniss and Watney aren't what you'd call "exemplary" dynamic characters, but they're not static characters either. And clearly their journeys were compelling enough to engage readers, since both The Hunger Games and The Martian became mega-hit bestsellers and blockbuster movies!
Speaking of which, let's take a look at this awesome infographic (featuring some of your favorite characters) to really nail down the arc of a dynamic character.
Infographic: "The Book Deal"
Infographic: What does a dynamic character's arc look like? Click To Tweet
To see how a protagonist's wants, strengths, and flaws will influence how a story plays out, we took three familiar characters and placed them in an unfamiliar setting. Let's see how they develop over the course of a narrative:
Failure to change results in tragedy
When your protagonist grapples with inner and outer conflict, but fails to adapt, they are almost always punished — by themselves, another person, or the universe. This is what we call tragedy.
In Cyrano de Bergerac, the titular character is in love with Roxane. However, his self-doubt prevents him from revealing that he has written the words that have won her heart. Cyrano does not overcome this doubt in time, and becomes mortally injured before Roxane realizes that she loves him.
And in an example we've already covered, Jay Gatsby learns too late that “there are no second acts in American lives.” He wants to force his way into the upper classes, but he’s unable to see that this world will not allow him in. He refuses to divert his course so, in the end, we find him bleeding out, alone, in his swimming pool.
Both of these characters encounter conflict and grapple with their flaws in a fascinating way. But in the end, their failure to change themselves results in their tragic deaths.
How much change is too much?
Assuming you want your book to remain within the realm of believability, your character’s change should be relatively small. Human beings are capable of great change, but only a bit a time.
Again, Ebenezer Scrooge is perhaps the most classic example of a dynamic protagonist. But if we’re being honest, the man at the end who buys 300-pound turkeys for the poor does not remotely resemble the penny-pinching miser in the first scene. However, nobody questions the psychological truth of Scrooge’s overnight transformation because A Christmas Carol is a moralist fable. It's not meant to be realistic, only to instruct.
That said, if you’re writing a modern series, you should also be conscious of changing your characters too quickly or drastically. Let’s say that your breakout character is an irreverent, womanizing highwayman. You can have him confronted by a victim of his crime or philandering — something that forces him to reassess his lifestyle choices.
Yet you don’t want him to learn too much. Otherwise you run the risk of turning your series into the ongoing narrative of a former highwayman, who now very much respects property rights and does not flirt with women quite so aggressively. The key is balance: don't stray too far from your character's original personality, but allow them to change in an organic way, at a reasonable pace.
Remember: there's no formula for great characters
Should your story not follow one of these common patterns, you may find it’s harder to nail down exactly how internal flaws and external conflicts play out over the course of your book. But even in unconventional narratives, always remember to think of the basics: What does your character want? What’s stopping them from getting it? And will they find the strength to change? These questions will help you — and your characters — find the right way.
If you have any questions, thoughts or observations, please share them in the comments below.
“The pen is mightier than the sword.” Writer Edgar Bulwer-Lytton made this keen observation nearly 200 years ago, but it remains just as true today. Writing is one of the most powerful mediums in existence, and a seemingly simple story can change countless lives — which is why so many of us choose to be writers in the first place.
But sometimes it can be difficult to find the right words, to tell the story the way you want, or to start writing in the first place. That’s why we’ve compiled these 20 essential writing tips for writers like you: artists who want to hone their craft to perfection, so they can tell their stories as effectively as possible.
Some of these tips are directly narrative-related, while others are more about the mentality and setting you need to cultivate in order to write. But all have one crucial thing in common: if you take them to heart, they’ll help you become a much better writer — and maybe even pen the book of your dreams. We’ll start with the story tips, then move into more technique-related advice to help you on your writing journey.
If you prefer your tips in watchable form, check out this video on great writing tips that no one else will tell you.
If you’ve never heard these terms before, allow us to explain. Pantsers are writers who “fly by the seat of their pants,” i.e. start writing without preparing too much and simply trust that everything will work out. At the other end of the spectrum are plotters, who plan and outline their story extensively before they begin to write.
Which is the better way forward? Well, it’s different for everyone — what works for you may not necessarily work for another writer you know.
That said, experience has taught us that a little bit of planning goes a long way. That’s why we always advise some form of preparation, even if it’s just a few nuggets of your plot, before you dive into writing. Pantsers, we know it’ll be hard, but you can do it!
2. Keep your outline in mind
Once you’ve prepared an outline, it’s important to actually use it. This may seem obvious, but it's seemingly one of the hardest-to-remember writing tips out there — which is why we've put it so high on our list!
Many writers find themselves led astray by subplots and secondary characters, wandering into lengthy supplementary chapters that don’t really go anywhere. Then when they try to get back to the main plot, they find they’re already too far gone.
Keeping your outline in mind at all times will help you avoid these disastrous detours. Even if you stray a little, you should be able to look at your outline and articulate exactly how you’ll get back to what you planned. This is especially crucial late in the writing process, when it can be hard to remember your original vision — so if you have doubts about your ability to remember your outline, definitely write it down.
3. Introduce conflict early
Of all the core elements in your story, conflict is perhaps the most important to emphasize. Conflict lies at the heart of every good narrative, creating tension that prompts people to read until the very end. So make sure readers know what your conflict is within the first few chapters!
The best way to do this is through an early inciting incident, wherein the main character has a revelation and/or becomes involved in something big. For example, in The Hunger Games, the inciting incident is Katniss volunteering for the Games. Though our heroine has always held anti-Capitol views, this incident forces her to take direct action against them, launching the conflict (Katniss vs. Capitol) that will drive the next three books.
Finally, remember that there are many different types of conflict. So if you have no idea what your conflict is, don’t worry; it’s probably just unconventional. For instance, your main conflict might be one that unfolds within your narrator (character vs. self), or against some large, nebulous force (like character vs. technology). But whatever it is, try to be conscious of when you introduce it and how.
4. Control the pacing
Nothing ruins a good story like poor pacing. Even if you’ve got the most well-rounded characters, interesting plot, and sizzling conflict in literary history, sluggish pacing can still make all of it moot. So make sure you control the pacing in your story, lest readers lose interest and put down your book in frustration!
A) Cutting down lengthy sentences and descriptions, and B) Increasing action and dialogue.
The former strategy works for one simple reason: it gets rid of filler and fluff. In extreme cases, you may have to cut a great deal of exposition in order to get to the beating heart of your story. This may be painful, but trust us — your readers will appreciate not having to trudge through 50 pages of buildup before your inciting incident.
As for the latter, it might seem like adding more content is counterintuitive to a quicker pace. But because action and dialogue move the story forward in a concrete manner, you can always rely on them to improve slow pacing.
5. Fine-tune your dialogue
Speaking of dialogue, it's pretty critical to most stories, especially in terms of drawing in readers. Indeed, a conversation between characters is usually much more intriguing and impactful than a narrator relaying similar information.
But dialogue loses its impact if the conversation goes on for too long — so for better, sharper dialogue, be concise. Say you’re writing a story in which two characters have an argument. You want to be clear what they’re fighting about and connect it to other events and themes in your story, so you write something like this:
“I can’t believe you were late coming home again! This is so typical. Just like when you forgot to pick up the groceries last week. Sometimes I don’t think you listen to me at all. You say you care about my feelings, but you don’t.”
“Well, maybe I don’t listen because you’re always yelling at me. No matter what I do, it always seems to be the wrong thing. I had a very important meeting tonight, for the record. You know I’m trying to get that promotion at work. I’m really trying my hardest here.”
But this exchange is full of unnecessary details. After all, the reader should already be familiar with your characters, their relationship, and past events of the story — you don’t have to spoon-feed them the meaning of the conversation. So keep your dialogue short and pithy:
“Nice of you to show up. What were you doing, if not getting groceries?”
“Thanks for the warm reception. I had a meeting. Kind of an important one.”
Sharp dialogue = great story. (Image: Rawpixel on Unsplash)
6. Show, don’t tell
In a similar vein, while you may have already heard this advice, it bears repeating: show, don’t tell as often as possible. For those who aren’t really sure what that means, it’s easiest for us to, well, show you! Here’s a passage from Sally Rooney’s Normal People that exemplifies this rule:
He wakes up just after eight. It’s bright outside the window and the carriage is warming up, a heavy warmth of breath and sweat. Minor train stations with unreadable names flash past… Connell rubs his left eye with his knuckles and sits up. Elaine is reading the one novel she has brought with her on the journey, a novel with a glossy cover and the words "Now a Major Motion Picture" along the top. The actress on the front has been their constant companion for weeks.
As you can see, it’s pretty hard to completely eliminate telling from your prose — in fact, the very first sentence in this passage could qualify as “telling.” But the rest is “showing,” as it paints an evocative picture of the scene: the bright, warm carriage in the train that's rushing past other stations, the girl reading the glossy novel in the opposite seat.
Basically, you want to use sensory, detailed descriptions as much as possible in your prose. If you can use all five senses to convey the scene, all the better. Tell us not just what the central character sees, but also what they hear, smell, taste, and feel in order to truly immerse the reader in the scene.
7. But don’t reveal TOO much
While you want your scene-by-scene descriptions to be as “showy” as possible, you don’t want to reveal everything to readers. This is the idea behind Ernest Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory,” which posits that you should only provide readers with “the tip of the iceberg” — i.e. the most essential part of the story. (Shoutout to Hemingway for always having great writing tips.)
The logic here is that many writers create elaborate histories for their characters and/or have plans for them that stretch far beyond the story they’re currently writing. But readers only need to know the “here and now,” so to speak. Giving them too much information will overwhelm them, and very likely cause them to put your book down in favor of something simpler.
So while you might include a bit of backstory or foreshadowing every so often, it’s best to keep most of this info to yourself. This also works on another level, in that you can reveal tantalizing drips of information as the story progresses, which will pique readers’ interest rather than lose it.
8. Consider your themes
On a related note, the underwater part of the “Hemingway iceberg” not only consists of character backstories, but also important themes. This is another aspect to think about both before and during the writing process: what are you trying to say about society and/or the human condition? Moreover, how can you convey those themes in a subtle yet effective way?
Common literary themes include love, loss, and the importance of doing the right thing. Your themes will depend somewhat on your genre and subject material, but you may also find that it relates closely to your personal beliefs and experiences. Try to embrace this, as writing what you know is a great way to infuse your story with genuine emotion.
As with conflict, if you’re not sure exactly what your themes are, don’t worry about it too much. Having a theme or two in mind from the beginning can help guide your writing — but sometimes, you can’t be sure of your themes until you’ve written a good portion of your draft. Both paths are perfectly valid as a writer; follow whichever works for you.
9. Be careful with narration
Your narrator is your reader’s gateway into the story, so be careful with narration. Don’t make your narrator’s voice too specific, even if they’re from a particular background or experience. They need to speak in an accessible and relatable way for readers — and a non-stereotypical way if they happen to speak in a certain dialect. (For help with this, you might consider getting a sensitivity reader.)
On the other hand, while using an omniscient narrator is the most flexible way to tell your story, it also requires the most discipline as an author. An omniscient narrator can easily get lost in tangents or move too rapidly among storylines, causing mental whiplash for readers. To avoid this, remember our previous tip about having your outline in mind at all times. That way, even if you are using an omniscient narrator, they shouldn’t get too far off track.
10. Write as often as you can
Now we’re getting into the more process-based writing tips. Write as much as possible is one of those tips you’re surely tired of hearing, but the reason it’s so common is because it works! No matter how much time you spend outlining and strategizing, the only way you’re ever going to finish writing a book is by sitting down and writing it.
That’s why it’s good to try and write whenever and wherever you can. Attempt to work in different places, especially where you have a bit of downtime — on the bus, in a long line at the grocery store, waiting for your laundry, etc. It might feel unnatural at first to write on your phone rather than on a laptop at your desk, but you’ll get accustomed if you do it often enough.
Of course, it’s also important that you don’t get burned out and lose passion for the story you’re telling. So when we say “write whenever and wherever you can,” we don’t mean every spare moment; that would be exhausting. However, if you can get into a habit of writing pretty frequently, and in slightly unusual settings, you’ll be a lot closer to making your WIP a reality.
If you have no idea what to write, here are a few bonus writing tips: check out these FREE writing prompts or do some exercises to stimulate your creative side and un-stick your writing!
11. Ask yourself questions
One way to ensure you’re doing your best, most creative work is to question yourself constantly. It’s easy to get complacent with your writing, even if you’re technically meeting your word count goals — and we won’t deny that writing is hard enough without questioning if it could be better! But if you’re always challenging yourself, you’ll see every bit of potential in your story and, hopefully, fulfill it as you progress.
Is there a big reveal, and if so, am I building toward it sufficiently?
Does the POV/narration style feel true to the story I’m telling?
Always question yourself while writing, even if it's hard. (Image: Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash)
12. Write now, edit later
That said, don’t challenge yourself so much you become too paralyzed to write. When in doubt — i.e. when you’ve puzzled over a particular aspect of your story for ages and still don’t have the answer — just skip over it, or write a crappy version of it for now. Write now, edit later is the approach of many a professional author, and if it works for them, it can work for you too!
Many of the best writers' and editors' writing tips include reading aloud what you write in order to check it for inconsistencies and awkward phrasing. This tactic particularly helps weed out long, unwieldy sentences and fake-sounding dialogue. After all, you can always tell bad TV writing from the awkward dialogue! Use this same instinct to eradicate it in your own work.
For bonus points, you might even stage a reading with a group of friends (or fellow writers) wherein each person reads the dialogue of a different character. This will give your writing more “distance” than if you just read it aloud yourself, and help you see its flaws more easily. If you do stage a reading, remember to take notes, so you can remember what to fix afterwards!
14. Make it short and sweet
A surprising number of writers seem to believe that long, complex, and difficult-to-decipher sentences constitute better writing than short sentences and fairly basic diction.
But this could not be further from the truth! As Polonius said, brevity is the soul of wit, so keep your writing as short and sweet as you can. This will both naturally entice readers and help you avoid purple prose, which tends to be a dealbreaker for readers and agents alike.
Of course, if you’re writing literary fiction, you do want your writing to sound intelligent. How can you do this without going on for paragraphs at a time? The answer is by making strong word choices, especially when it comes to verbs. Don’t dilute your story with long, adverb-y sentences — get right down to business and tell us what the characters are doing. (This should also help improve the pace of your story, as discussed.)
15. Get rid of distractions
All writing gets done more efficiently and at a higher quality when you’re completely focused. Yes, this is probably one of the hardest writing tips to follow — especially for those of us who enjoy working from noisy coffee shops and taking frequent Netflix breaks. But the more you eliminate distractions, the better a writer you’ll become. Here are some quick ideas on how to enter deep focus mode:
Write on a computer with no WiFi
Set your phone to airplane mode or put it in a different room
Work in a quiet space, like your local library
Avoid working alongside friends, unless they really do increase your accountability (but be honest with yourself about this!)
Use the Pomodoro technique, which Jane Harkness explains in this article
16. Work through crises of confidence
In every writer’s life (and indeed with just about every project), there comes a point where they second-guess their entire endeavor. This will no doubt happen to you, too — maybe you’ll notice a major plot hole halfway through, a theme you have no idea how to incorporate, or you'll simply hit a creative wall.
Fear not: every writer who’s ever completed a book has gotten through this. But how can you work through such writerly crises without bashing your head against the wall?
If you ask us, the best solution is to return to your early notes and original outline. Look back to see if there’s anything there that can help you — you may have forgotten about some critical component, or it may help you see things in a new light. This trip down memory lane can also help you recall the enthusiasm and clear vision you had at the start of your project, giving you the creative boost you need to power through.
And if that doesn’t work, you might just need some time away from this particular project; take a break for a day or two, then come back to it with fresh eyes. But whatever you do, don’t give up! Remember, every writer’s been through this same thing. Think of it as your initiation, and refuse to let it break you.
You'll be back to writing in no time. (Image: Lonely Planet on Unsplash)
17. Listen to feedback
Now for another one of those writing tips that we all have trouble with. Throughout the process of writing, and definitely after you’re finished, you should share your work with other people: your friends, family, writers’ groups, and your editor(s).
Accepting and actioning critical feedback is, of course, one of the most difficult parts of being a writer. Yet it’s also one of the most important skills to have. Because the feedback you receive from friends and beta readers is the only window you have into other people’s views — until you publish and the reviews start flooding in, but by then it’s too late to change anything. So try not to view criticism as harsh, but as helpful. It might just save you from literary infamy later!
On that note…
18. Kill your darlings
Sometimes you’ll pen a passage that’s so beautiful, so nuanced, so masterfully constructed that you want to frame it — but it doesn’t really contribute anything to the larger composition. It’s a tangential distraction, and you know in your heart that your work would be better off without it.
What to do now? You probably know the answer, even if you don’t want to admit it: you have to kill your darlings. This most often refers to removing an irrelevant or otherwise distracting passage, but it may also be your title, an element of your narration, or even an entire character.
In any case, if it doesn’t add to the narrative, consider dropping it. Of all our writing tips, this one is perhaps the most important..
Let's just admit it: “What is a motif and how do you use it?” is a much less sexy question to ask than, “What’s your book about?”
But it’s just as necessary. If the theme of a book is its heartbeat, then motifs in literature are the vessels that keep the blood coursing through the narrative. Among other things, motifs add depth to your writing and steer readers toward your book’s central message (assisted by other strong literary devices).
In this post, we’ll look at what a motif is (and what it is not), examine motif examples in action, and explore how you can incorporate motifs into your own writing.
What is a motif?
A motif is a recurring narrative element with symbolic significance. If you spot a symbol, concept, or plot structure that surfaces repeatedly in the text, you’re probably dealing with a motif. Motifs must be related to the central idea of the work and they always end up reinforcing the author’s overall message.
But how can you tell which ones are motifs? Remember that you must be able to connect a motif to the "big ideas" in a book. Just because the narrator mentions a particular pair of shoes a few times, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a motif — unless the author makes a point of tying it to a bigger question of, let’s say, escape and freedom. (Don’t worry — we’ll provide more concrete motif examples in a bit!)
Since they’re repeated throughout a text, motifs are also very traceable. As you're trying to figure out the motifs of a given work, it might be useful to think of them as having a trail of purposeful clues. The author plants these breadcrumbs so that the reader can better work out the ideas behind the work — and its overarching point.
That brings up our next question: how do motifs relate to themes? Luckily, we've got the answer for you right here!
The theme of a book is generally considered to be the core meaning behind a story — the “soul” behind the text, in other words. Themes are almost always universal and they usually illuminate something about society, human nature, and the world.
In contrast, a motif reinforces the theme through the repetition of a certain narrative element. As you may have already guessed, themes and motifs in literature are devoted partners in crime.
To give you an easily digestible example, let’s take Shakespeare’s Sonnet 24. The theme of this sonnet is arguably that “love is skin-deep.” And one of its main motifs is sight, which is made clear through the recurring imagery of eyes. It’s not a coincidence that the motif and the theme of a text are closely related: the former props up and strengthens the other, as you can see in this sonnet.
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Symbols represent motifs
A symbol in a book is just like a symbol on a street sign: something recognizable that represents something abstract. In the US, for instance, eagles are a symbol of freedom. In The Hunger Games, the mockingjay is a symbol of revolution.
That said, when you see a symbol surface over and over again, chances are that it signifies a motif.
Let’s cut to The Great Gatsby, a classic vessel of symbolism, to illustrate this. F. Scott Fitzgerald uses the Valley of Ashes — a barren wasteland between East and West Egg — as a symbol to represent the waste and moral decay of the elite. This is a part of the book’s bigger motif of wealth and finance, which recurs through a number of ideas — among them, Gatsby’s parties, the extravagance of the both West and East Eggs, and Daisy’s voice that is described as “full of money.” That, in turn, reinforces one of the book’s major themes about the corruption of the American Dream.
To sum it up, here’s a quick chart for you:
Now that you have a better sense of what is a motif (and what it's not), let’s see some more of them in action!
10 motif examples in literature
We've defined a motif and talked about many interpretations of its definition. So what are some motif examples in books that you might have read before? Let's take a look at 10 of them right now.
1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Story: An orphaned girl grows up and becomes embroiled in a complicated relationship with her employer, a broodingly mysterious man named Mr. Rochester. Motifs: Food (nourishment and generosity), portraits (unconscious and suppressed feelings), eyes (insight)
2. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Story: A young boy goes to wizarding school, makes friends, and tries to defeat an evil wizard. Motifs: Scar (destiny and the power of love), "muggle-borns" vs. "purebloods" (racism and tolerance)
4. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Story: A fellowship must destroy an all-powerful ring and the Dark Lord seeking to rule Middle-Earth. Motifs: Light and dark (the battle of good versus evil), song and singing (friendship and unity)
5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Story: A rich man tries extravagantly to win the girl of his dreams in the summer of 1922. Motifs: Wealth and finance (the corruption of the American Dream), time and clocks (our relationship with the past and future)
6. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Story: A teenage boy seeks to find himself in New York City while coming to terms with his past. Motifs: Ducks (the necessity of change), death (mortality)
7. The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum
Story: After a girl and her dog are swept into the magical land of Oz, she must go on a journey to find her way home. Motifs: The Yellow Brick Road (the journey of life), Oz (misleading appearances and the corruption of power)
8. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Story: Wracked by grief, a young man hunts for the truth to avenge his dead father. Motifs: Ears (the unreliability of truth), birth and death (ephemerality of existence)
9. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Story: Two men find themselves falling in love with the same woman amidst the French Revolution. Motifs: Doubles (nature of duality), digging (uncovering the hidden)
10. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Story: After a plane crashes, a band of boys must survive on a deserted island. Motifs: Fire (connection to technology and civilization), religious allegory (moral truth)
As you can tell, most books have more than one motif. Authors spend a lot of time perfecting their central messages and want to make sure that you know exactly what they are, which is why they turn to multiple motifs.
Fortunately, this makes it easier for you to analyze a text. Ask yourself:
Are there any patterns that repeat in this book — whether it’s an idea, symbol, or plot structure?
Do these patterns have anything to do with a central theme or message of the book?
If so, how do they illuminate and relate to the theme?
Not too difficult, right? Of course, now that you know what a motif is, you might be wondering how to write motifs into your story — which brings us to the next section.
How to use motifs in your story
Well, this is all easier said than done, you might say! While not exactly a piece of cake, writing motifs in literature is far from impossible. Here are four ways to help you apply them in your manuscript or short story.
Planning your motifs is simply a matter of planning your themes — and then taking it one step further. Motifs generally revolve around “big picture” concepts, so you need to first examine your central ideas and characters.
Ask yourself: What do you want readers to associate with them? How can you represent them through symbols? If one of your themes has to do with death, for instance, think about all the ways that you can impress it in your reader’s minds (by, say, having one of your characters encounter a dead animal and feel great sorrow for it).
The next step is to incorporate it into your book. Even if you know what your motifs are going to be, you now need to tackle the other part of the definition: you need to make them recur.
If you create a detailed outline before writing your first draft, you can probably spot the key events in your novel that are relevant to your theme. One of the most famous motifs is the mockingbird in To Kill a Mockingbird, which is so important that it's right there in the title of the book.
Comparatively speaking, the mockingbird itself doesn’t appear too often in the book. But it becomes a powerful representation of innocence and goodness because it was woven into the narrative at the right moments. Likewise, your goal should be to tie your motif into your story in a natural yet compelling manner. Avoid heavy-handed symbolism at all costs — your readers are smarter than that!
Option 2: See if any develop naturally
It’s not always necessary to plan out your entire novel down to the last motif. Sometimes you just need to write a draft and trust that your writer’s brain will supply the right substance.
For instance, you might be writing a story about a character who’s working through grief and notice yourself going back repeatedly to the character’s flute. Many motifs in literature are born organically this way: the writer realizes that they need to represent a major theme and their subconscious finds a way to deliver it. In this case, perhaps it might be because playing the flute helps your character forget their pain and focus on joy, or because it reminds them of the person they've lost.
It’s always useful to connect the dots and figure out why your subconscious wanted to bring up this idea or symbol in relation to this character or theme. Once you determine the purpose, the motif will serve the bigger picture, and you can see it through to the end of your draft in a satisfying way.
If you’re itching to nail down your motifs before you start writing, but aren’t feeling inspired, consider freewriting. This is the practice of writing down all of your thoughts without stopping for a certain period of time — usually between 10-20 minutes.
To tease out your motif, try to start off by freewriting about your theme. When you’re done, go back and see what ideas or symbols surface repeatedly in the exercises. You might be surprised at what your mind produces when the block of self-editing is removed!
4. Know that motifs are here to help, not hinder
Like themes, motifs are there to help you write your book (and help readers understand them)! If you let them, motifs will add a valuable layer of depth to your story. So don't be afraid of them — let the motifs come to you naturally as you're writing or planning. You'll find that your themes will thank you for it.
How do you approach motifs in your stories? Do you have any more questions or thoughts on the subject? Leave them in the comments below!
A conversation is raging in the writing world and it’s not about the latest Harry Potter “backstory” that J.K. Rowling revealed on Twitter. Sensitivity readers lie at the heart of the debate — and the controversy has hit such heights that it has drawn attention from media outlets ranging from Literary Hub to the New York Times.
For an author, the argument over the correct use of sensitivity readers might be smothering what they actually do. This post will clear the fog and uncover exactly what this kind of reader is — and what you can expect when you work with one. Hopefully, by the end, you’ll have a better idea of whether you need one.
What are sensitivity readers?
Sensitivity readers are a subset of beta readers who review unpublished manuscripts with the express purpose of spotting cultural inaccuracies, representation issues, bias, stereotypes, or problematic language.
While these readers are not new to the publishing landscape, they have recently risen to prominence. Thanks to encouragement from organizations like We Need Diverse Books, there has been an earnest push to include more diverse characters in published literature, though some of these good-faith efforts have met with mixed reception.
Such readers particularly became a hot topic in 2016, when the pre-release of the young adult novel The Continent was quickly met with online reviews pointing out problematic portrayals of people of color. The book’s release date was pushed back and galley copies were sent off to sensitivity readers, which resulted in numerous changes. Which brings us to both the case for them — and against them.
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The case for sensitivity readers
Publishing has a diversity problem: not only is the industry predominantly white and middle-class, but the stories overwhelmingly feature white characters. In recent years, the tide has shown signs of turning as inclusion and equity have become increasingly sought-after in an effort to represent the variety of cultures and diverse backgrounds that make up the world.
However, the reality is that while more diverse books are being published now, many of them are written by white authors. Writers, like all human beings, are the products of their upbringing and often have little real-world context for writing about a culture outside their own — hence where the skills of such specialized readers come into play. Feedback from such readers can:
Ensure better representation on the page. As diversity in literature becomes increasingly in-demand, it’s important that characters are represented accurately, without perpetuating stereotypes. This kind of reader helps by pointing out unintentionally insensitive or incorrect portrayals of race, sexuality, religion, and physical disabilities.
Improve the quality of the book. All books benefit hugely from a multidimensional, rich, and nuanced cast of characters — something that the use of sensitivity readers will encourage, as the feedback can steer characters away from being one-note cardboard cutouts.
Moreover, in today’s real-time and divisive online environment — spurred on by such sites as Twitter — this kind of reader helps prevent the worst-case scenario: backlash which results in a book being withdrawn from publication. For publishers, these readers can avert the embarrassing predicament of canceling a book launch on the back of a public apology. The Continent was far from the only book that sunk because of a turbulent online reaction to its representation of diversity: Amélie Wen Zhao initially called off the summer 2019 publication of Blood Heir due to criticism of the way that her novel dealt with indentured labor and slavery.
Zhao only recently announced that Blood Heir is back on schedule for publication — after editing the novel and “taking the time to make sure the hallmarks of human trafficking were being incisively drawn.”
The case against sensitivity readers
Censorship is generally at the heart of every argument against these readers. Their detractors are concerned that these readers police expression of thought, resulting in homogenous stories that are afraid to touch complex topics — and a sterilized world of books in which controversial language can’t be used.
Though one of the most common pieces of advice you’ll hear for an author is to “write what you know,” some also argue that the increasingly looming need for such readers discourages authors from experimenting and writing outside of their own perspectives. As Francine Prose wrote in an article for the NY Books: “Should we dismiss Madame Bovary because Flaubert lacked “lived experience” of what it meant to be a restless provincial housewife? Can we no longer read Othello because Shakespeare wasn’t black?”
From this point of view, sensitivity readers monitor freedom of thought, which is antithetical to what creative writing should be all about.
What can you expect from a sensitivity reader?
With all of the debate around the topic, what actually goes into a reader’s work can easily get overlooked. So what exactly does it entail? Well, the entire process depends on the individual — but generally, the collaboration between reader and author plays out in four stages.
1. Finding the right reader for the book
To add value to a text, the reader must match the needs of the book. For instance, if you’re a white author writing a book with a black protagonist, your reader would ideally come from such a background and understand the nuances of 1. writing from such a perspective, and 2. depicting the culture. Likewise, make sure that the reader is experienced in the genre. A reader that specializes in reading children’s books wouldn’t be a good fit for an adult genre novel, and vice versa.
Here are some more best practices to keep in mind for the search:
Expect to pay for a reader’s services. Prices will vary, but generally fixed prices start from $250 for a novel. Some sensitivity readers charge by the hour — make sure that you get it all down in a contract so that both of you are on the same page before starting the collaboration.
Find a reader who understands publishing. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they must be writers themselves — merely that they ought to understand the nuances of the writing process and be up-to-date on publishing debates. It shouldn’t just be any random person off the street — these readers are professionals in their own right and should know the ins and outs of the industry, as well as the contexts that require their knowledge.
Set a firm deadline with the reader. Generally, the turnaround time is 2 to 5 weeks. Hash it out with the reader beforehand to avoid any confusion.
As for where you can find these readers in the first place, the Writing in the Margins database is a good place to start. Ask around on Twitter and various writing communities — fellow writers will be happy to offer recommendations or share insight from past collaborations with sensitivity readers.
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2. Allow time for the reader to, well, read
Once the contract is ironed out and all of the details of the collaboration are fixed, the author will give the reader the entire manuscript to read. As we mentioned earlier, this stage usually takes between 2 to 5 weeks, depending on the length of the manuscript — the reader won’t be speedreading, but carefully evaluating characterizations, noting down sentences that are off, and appraising the tone of the book.
3. Listen to the feedback
When the reader is done with the manuscript, it’s time for the reaction. It depends on the reader, but most of the time, feedback takes the form of comments in the margins of the manuscript and a detailed letter. Usually, a follow-up consultation, such as a phone call, can be taken up to resolve any lingering questions.
Much of the time, the feedback will pinpoint things that an author might not have ever considered. As sensitivity reader Dhonielle Clayton revealed in an interview with Vulture: “I read a middle-grade book about a little black girl who loves to go to national parks, and I told the author that the first thing she needed to reconcile was, how did this black girl get into national parks? Historically, black people weren’t allowed to visit national parks, so going to national parks is not a thing we do, as a group. I wrote to her that if this little girl loves to camp, you need to figure out how that happened, how that passion was stoked, how her parents and grandparents felt about it. Or you have to make her white. Because otherwise it’s a paint by numbers diversity piece and it rings false.”
Keep an open mind when you receive the feedback. The reader will point out blind spots — things that wouldn’t have occurred to an author who is writing about a different culture — and may raise delicate tonal questions. Like a developmental editor does for a manuscript, the criticism is ultimately meant to raise the quality of the book.
4. Revise the manuscript accordingly
When the dust settles and all is said and done, it’s up to the author to make the final decision on whether or not to make the reader’s suggested edits. Nobody is stopping you from doing anything — on the contrary, a sensitivity read simply provides you with choices and information.
What a sensitivity read offers is advice: it’s not compulsory to change the story according to their counsel, though it’s certainly recommended once you’ve reached this stage.
Do you need a sensitivity reader?
So do you as an author need a sensitivity reader?
It depends on a number of variables: the subject on which you’re writing, your characters, and where you fall in the debate of censorship. Some writers may think, “Better safe than sorry,” while others believe that such readers are unnecessary. We’re not here to tell you what you should or should not do, but it’s important to be informed and to know exactly what you’ll get out of the process if you do decide to hire a reader’s services.
If it would be helpful to hear from authors who have previously worked with such readers, here are a few personal accounts that you can peruse before you go:
There’s something comforting about a protagonist who always does the right thing for the right reasons, like Superman. But there’s something compelling about a morally ambivalent protagonist who sometimes does the right thing, and only sometimes for the right reasons — like Tyrion Lannister.
While Superman is a traditional take on a heroic protagonist, Tyrion is a decidedly skewed version. In other words, he’s an anti-hero.
Let’s dig a little deeper into exactly what an anti-hero is, and why they’ve become so prevalent in stories.
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An anti-hero is a protagonist who lacks some of the conventional attributes of a traditional hero — like courage or morality. While their actions are ultimately noble, they don’t always act for the right reasons.
For instance, they might save someone from a dangerous situation because it furthers their interests, not because they actually care about helping others.
How is an anti-hero different from an anti-villain?
While the two types of characters can be easily confused, the difference boils down to this:
The anti-hero (or AH) does the right thing, but maybe not for the right reasons — and they lack a lot of the characteristics we’ve come to expect of tradition heroes.
The anti-villain (or AV) does the wrong thing, but their motives are often noble — or, at least, sympathetic. Anti-villains typically have some characteristics we don’t commonly associate with“bad guys.”
At the end of the day, if you’re not quite sure whether a character is an anti-hero or an anti-villain, ask yourself this: who does the story ask readers to root for? If that character is morally grey, they’re likely the anti-hero. The morally grey character who opposes them is probably the anti-villain.
How is an anti-hero different from a villain-protagonist?
Few books have been successfully written from the perspective of a completely irredeemable, morally reprehensible character. Readers want to be able to root for the protagonist at least a little bit. Exceptions include Humbert Humbert from Lolita, Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, and Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr. Ripley. By the end of these books, you’re likely waiting on tenterhooks for the protagonist to be brought to justice.
These characters are classified as “Villain Protagonists.” They’re different from anti-heroes because the author purposefully avoids giving readers a reason to cheer for them. An anti-hero is a morally grey character we’re still encouraged to root for. But a villain protagonist is a “bad guy”— who happens to be the main character in the story.
Typical qualities of a fictional hero include confidence, bravery, stoicism, intelligence, handsome looks, and superb fighting capabilities. The Classic Anti-Hero is the inverse of these things: self-doubting, fearful, anxious, and lacking in combat skills. In general, the character arc of this AH follows them overcoming their “weaknesses” in order to vanquish the enemy.
This type of AH is not necessarily on the grey scale of morality, they simply defy readers’ preconceived notions of heroism.
Bilbo eyeing up Smaug in The Hobbit (image: Warner Bros. Pictures)
EXAMPLE: Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit
“Anti” — Bilbo is almost fifty years old, hates adventures, love his hole in the ground full of creature comfort; he’s really just an “average Joe.” When he is offered the job of “burglar” by a party of dwarves on a mission to reclaim their stolen treasure from the dragon Smaug, he politely declines, thinking they couldn’t have approached a more ill-suited person.
“Hero” — We all know how this infamous hero’s journey turns out. Bilbo joins the dwarves and, while he gets off to a bumpy start (he forgets his HANDKERCHIEF!), the arduous journey allows him to discover his inner courage. From taking down trolls to stealing precious stones from dragons, the hobbit leaves the story more self-assured than he entered it.
2. The Knight in Sour Armour
In terms of morality, this hero is pretty good. They know right from wrong, but are typically very cynical and don’t feel that their actions can make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. Otherwise known as a “reluctant hero,” they don’t feel any urgency to join the fight against the bad guy and are really more concerned with doing their own thing.
The Knight in Sour Armour will eventually join the fight, but only when they feel they personally have something at stake in the outcome.
Han Solo doesn't care about your problems (image: 20th Century Fox)
EXAMPLE: Han Solo in A New Hope
“Anti” — At the start of the Star Wars franchise, Han is a mercenary primarily motivated by personal wealth. He only agrees to help free the captive Princess Leia because Luke Skywalker promises him a huge reward. Thinking the Rebel Alliance is doomed, Han refuses to stay and help in the fight against the Death Star.
“Hero” — After leaving, Han has a change of heart and returns during the climactic Battle of Yavin, just in time to make Darth Vader say “could you not?” His return ultimately allows Luke to safely destroy the Death Star.
3. The Pragmatic Anti-Hero
Now we’re starting to wade a little deeper into the grey area. In a nutshell, the Pragmatic Anti-Hero is a slightly darker version of the Knight in Sour Armour. They’re both self-centered to a degree and reluctant to accept the role of hero. But while the Knight in Sour Armour is typically slow to step into battle, the Pragmatic Anti-Hero is more ready to spring into action if they observe wrongdoings. The key difference is that the Pragmatic AH is also willing to do some not-so-good things in order to achieve their goals.
Edmund pondering if he would trade his siblings for Turkish Delights (image: Buena Vista Pictures)
EXAMPLE: Edmund Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia
“Anti” — Each of the Pevensie children receives a name in Narnia, and Edmund’s is “Edmund the Just.” This is fitting, as Edmund is extremely pragmatic and believes people get what they deserve. In this way, he can be unsympathetic and unwilling to show mercy. For instance, when his older brother “Peter the Great” battles the antagonist Miraz, Peter aims to disarm Miraz but not to harm him. Edmund, on the other hand, encourages Peter to kill Miraz and be done with it. Edmund also displays a need to prove himself and to come out from under his brother’s shadow — qualities that stray from a traditional hero.
“Hero” — Edmund behaves selfishly and even betrays his siblings. But, he is young and still maturing. When push comes to shove and he realizes his siblings are under threat, he ultimately steps up to the plate and helps defeat the White Witch — and commits further heroic acts throughout the series.
4. The Unscrupulous Anti-Hero
Intentions and motives are still good here, but we’ve waded into some seriously murky waters in terms of actions. The Unscrupulous AH is extremely cynical, and their drive to do good is often skewed by past traumas and a thirst for vengeance. They generally take down a despicable villain — someone who “had it coming.” But, instead of bringing this person to justice with as little blood on their hands as possible, the Unscrupulous AH can become vicious, sometimes even enjoying the acts of violence they’ve deemed “necessary.”
Conan the Unscrupulous (image: Western International Syndication)
EXAMPLE: Conan the Barbarian
“Anti” — Conan has no qualms about resorting to violence or petty crime: theft, assassination, mercenary work, piracy — it’s all in a day’s work. A fun day’s work, that is.
“Hero” — Conan often partakes in the above activities in his quest for power, riches, or just survival. However, his questionable actions often lead to him achieving a number of heroic feats. If he feels someone has been treated poorly (especially if societal conventions as unfairly weighted against them), he will seek out justice without question or pay.
5. The Hero in Name Only
While this AH fights on the good side, their motives and values are definitely not good. They might be amoral or downright sinister, only redeemable by the fact that they’re not as bad as the villain. Just like the “Villain in Name Only” could be classified as the hero if only the story in question was told from their point of view, the Hero in Name Only could be considered the villain if the story was not told from their point of view.
Walter White from Breaking Bad is not the typical portrait of a hero (Sony Pictures Television)
EXAMPLE: Walter White from Breaking Bad
“Anti” — For most of the series, Walter tells himself is that his criminal activity is only to provide for his family after he discovers he has advanced lung cancer. While this may be true at the start, the bigger motivation behind Walter’s decidedly wrong actions is his need to rebel against his own mortality. With death looming, his moral boundaries shatter as the lines increasingly blur between “Walter” and “Heisenberg” — his secret, meth-dealing identity. He murders people, chokes a child, and simply watches as his business partner’s girlfriend chokes to death. If Breaking Bad had been told from the viewpoint of Hank or Skylar, you could certainly see Walter as the antagonist of the series.
“Hero” — While viewers watch Walter’s moral compass go totally off course, he does start off the show as a good person: a kindly, if unfulfilled, father. His path towards anti-heroism starts with the introduction of his first nemesis: cancer. Cancer is the big bad of Walter’s life — and viewers can certainly sympathize with him as he goes to great lengths to fend off his disease. Walter goes on to fight a number of other evil antagonists, such as the kingpin Gus Fring.
The above five types of characters present the sliding scale of the anti-hero, and the chances that the anti-hero will reform into a regular, morally good hero diminish significantly as you go up the scale
We’ll wrap up this post with a couple more examples of questionably scrupulous protagonists.
Example #1: Annalise Keating from How to Get Away with Murder
"Speak of the devil and she shall appear."
“Anti” — Annalise Keating is a law professor at a prestigious Philadelphia university who drips seductiveness and arrogance, with just the right amount of like-ability thrown in. These attributes make her similar to fellow anti-hero Don Draper. Annalise has no problem manipulating others to get her way and commits cruel, self-serving actions without a second thought.
“Hero” — Annalise is the type of morally grey character that many viewers love to watch, but sometimes struggle to like. While she does a lot of things viewers fundamentally oppose, she has also lived through a number of traumas that inform her crooked actions (hello, Unscrupulous Anti-Hero!). Ultimately, she fights on behalf of the innocent and bounces around the top 4 positions of the anti-hero sliding scale.
Example #2: Sherlock Holmes
"Heroes don't exist and if they did I wouldn't be one of them."
“Anti” — Sherlock is a genius — or “high-functioning sociopath,” as he’s presented in the BBC modernization — and he gets bored easily. Solving crimes gives him something to do with his superior intellect. While Holmes might appreciate the fact that his work allows justice to be served, he’s largely motivated by the novelty and challenge of cracking cases.
“Hero” — At the end of the day, Sherlock helps fight crime. Whether or not he’s doing it for selfless reasons, he has still dedicated his life to stopping criminals, and he does this using noble means. Different depictions of Sherlock also portray his sympathetic side to varying degrees — some allowing audiences to glimpse emotional connections between Sherlock and the crime he solves.
Example #3: Michael Scott from The Office
"No, I'm not going to tell them about the downsizing. If a patient has cancer, you don't tell them.
“Anti” — Michael makes the lives of his employees at Dunder-Mifflin paper company very hard sometimes. He’s constantly distracting them with his need for attention and validation, and he ends up making some very bad decisions that can harm others in his need to come across as a hero. Oh, and let’s not forget about the way he treats poor Toby.
“Hero” — While Michael can be incredibly selfish, unaware of how his actions negatively affect his coworkers, and downright rude, he has a good heart and loves (most of) the people who work for him. In the face of major downsizing, he fights for his branch and the job security of the people who work there. Michael has shining moments of kindness (such as the bird funeral), and viewers root for him — and pray for his continuing self-improvement.
Example #4: Veronica Sawyer from Heathers
"Heather, my love, there's a new sheriff in town."
“Anti” — While the rebellious new kid, J.D., might be the person who starts Veronica down the path of killing her classmates, she doth not protest enough to avoid eventually pulling the trigger herself.
“Hero” — While Veronica does murder a student, she’s portrayed for the most part as an impressionable and bullied teenage girl who gets carried along by the sinister actions of J.D. Still, for much of the movie, she can definitely be considered a Hero in Name Only, as she’s absolutely complicit in the homicides. At the end, we see a glimmer of humanity when Veronica stops J.D. from bombing his school and reunites with her social outcast friend, Martha.
Example #5: Tony Soprano from The Sopranos
“A wrong decision is better than indecision.”
“Anti” — A number of things put the “anti” in Tony’s label as “anti-hero”: murderer, thief, con artist, extortionist, to name a few. He is the capo di tutti capi (the “boss of all bosses”) in the crime world.
“Hero” — Apart from being the protagonist of the TV series, things like his unshakeable love for his family, his kindness to his friends, and the occasional pang of guilt or moment of vulnerability let viewers glimpse Tony’s human side. What solidifies his status as an anti-hero, however, is the fact that his enemies are portrayed as being far more evil and sinister than he is.
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Olivia Pope from Scandal, V from V for Vendetta, Deadpool, Dexter, Nancy Botwin from Weeds, Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Selina Meyer from Veep — once you know what an anti-hero is, there is no shortage of opportunities to spot them.
If you’re looking to write your own controvertible protagonist, check out the following in-depth blog posts aimed at helping authors develop compelling characters.